“Because one has only one head, and things that exist and that will come into being are very many, far greater and different, one has perforce to increase one’s head, to the total.” This phrase by Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967) in Grande sertão: veredas [published in English under the title The Devil to Pay in the Backlands] perfectly describes the rare type of intellectual that is Walnice Nogueira Galvão, a literary critic and head professor of literary theory at the University of São Paulo (USP), and a mandatory reference when it comes to the works of Rosa or those of Euclides da Cunha (1866-1909), on whom she has written a large number of books. After all, Walnice also writes most appropriately about the cinema, politics, the theatre, music, the cultural industry and, among many other subjects, Carnival, which one can read about in Ao som do samba: uma leitura do Carnaval carioca [To the sound of samba: a reading about Carnival in the city of Rio de Janeiro], her most recent book, along with Mínima mímica: ensaios sobre Guimarães Rosa [Minimum mimic: essays on Guimarães Rosa] (released at the end of last year by the Companhia das Letras publishing house). The new book is due to be launched in July by the Editora da Fundação Perseu Abramo publishing house. Wisely, during her interview, she preferred to define herself with another phrase from Rosa’s epic work: “I know almost nothing, but I suspect a lot of things.” Rather than mere humility, this reference reveals the key driver behind the generation that shaped her: curiosity about the world. This is the material from which the intellectuals with a capital “I” that influenced her came : Antonio Candido (whose assistant she was), Gilda de Mello e Souza, and Décio de Almeida Prado. She is no different from them.
This is how our conversation began: “Of what interest might there be in anything I say? I’d prefer an interview in which I talked about Guimarães Rosa, about Euclides da Cunha, rather than about myself. I prefer to keep a low profile and feel odd when I, rather than the notable figures that I study, am the subject of a discussion.” Regarding this point, we must do her justice: she spent 20 years studying Os sertões [Rebellion in the backlands] and a similar amount of time poring over The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, having been responsible for the definitive edition of these works. There seems to be nothing about these authors that she is not aware of. But we must also disagree with Walnice: few Brazilian thinkers are still interested in studying the present while also analyzing the social and political dimensions of culture. Hence the fact that the “things” that she mentions are, truly, of great interest, as are the ideals of true intellectuals, contrary to those that, as she notes in her book As formas do falso [The forms of falseness] “are attached to their privileges and that exist and are produced here, while keeping an eye out for the latest fashion in the central agencies of culture.” Walnice, moving in the opposite direction, manages, for instance, to bring together the literary Canudos with the totally up-to-dated US policy in Iraq. “As was the case in Canudos, this camouflages economic and political interests, as if it were a struggle between good and evil, between patriotism and subversion.” In the 1960’s, she showed the escapist workings of protest songs; at the height Jorge Amado’s popularity, she wrote an article in which she called this author a sadist, a pedophile and an exhibitionist; recently, she raised doubts about the literary quality of writer Rubem Fonseca, regarded as “untouchable”. Daring is part of the life of this “warrior maiden” the title of one of her books, incidentally.
What is at stake is not gratuitous controversy, but priorities. “What doesn’t remain is what is superficial, weak, poor. The Houaiss dictionary has 400 thousand words. But today’s radio, TV and literature use less than 20 thousand. We’re discarding 380 thousand words,” she states. This is a weighty assertion from the mouth of one who depicted the greatness of Rosa, because “it was through his pen that our literary language reached the highest level: never before and, above all, never after was the language developed in all of its virtualities.” Nevertheless, Walnice is optimistic about youth, literature, the world and Brazil, though in a self-contained tone, that echoes Guimarães Rosa: “Any love is a snippet of health, a rest from madness.”
Events such as the centennial of Guimarães Rosa’s birth or of Euclides da Cunha’s death give rise to reflection, even more than to celebration: so much was created then, and of such greatness. Today, we are content to reproduce what they did. Do you agree?
I don’t know whether we’re increasingly poor intellectually and whether when something fails to progress this means permanent decadence. I have the feeling that perhaps this quagmire is a phase we’re going through. But I agree that we’re in a phase in which intertextuality predominates, this constant need to establish a parameter that goes back to the classics, rather than to actually move ahead and create something new. There really is a certain lack of creativity in this: we’re talking about literature, but this applies to art in general, to the cinema, to history, etc. It is striking in literature, because, in the last few years, everything is intertextuality, everything refers to some “other work” or to some “other author.” People like Guimarães didn’t need this reference. A practical example: I was called by a publishing company to give my opinion on a current French novel. The author wrote an entire novel based on another, nineteenth century English novel and wants us to believe that his life rather mirrors that story. The entire novel is that! Well, this is mindless. People like Guimarães didn’t need such a referential and wouldn’t dream of such a thing. Personally, I’m very anxious to see when this will be overcome; I think it will. We’re experiencing a phase in which paradigms are being numbed, in which there is a need to review them, and also an era of a lot of interference from new technology. I get the feeling that something will arise out of this mix.
In general, people are pessimistic about new technology. Do you think that this technology can help?
I’m sure of it. Look how children and teenagers deal with new technology: it’s absolutely astonishing. For me, the way out lies in this direction, as we’re witnessing the birth of a new way of writing that isn’t traditional and therefore subject to “more of the same.” We’re very unused to this here in Brazil: for instance, what still strikes us strongly here is Modernism, still that Week of Modern Art, even though all this took place almost one hundred years ago. However, we’re brought up to study that impact, the fruit of a long phase of transgression, rupture and wild creativity. Therefore, we look for this in everything, but that’s not the way it works. I insist that we’re going through a phase, although it has been going on for quite some time, in which there is neither this rupture nor these transgressions, this boundless creativity. People have been doing things more sedately; everything that one does must refer to the past, to that intertextuality, when one person conducts a dialogue with another. And this is not only the case in Brazil: it’s global. We’re also in a slower phase of production of thought and everything that varies the pace of such things. But I mentioned my optimism regarding new technology. When I think that there is a movement announcing the end of literature, I look at my grandchildren, I think about the Harry Potter series and find myself obliged to disagree with this, because writing has emerged that children can follow. Children, of all people, children who have an attention deficit and are incapable of reading a page because they are so addicted to visuals, who are unable to follow complete thought processes as in literature! I’m happy to see that literature and big fat books aren’t dying. A seven-year old boy will read a Harry Potter volume in one weekend and you almost have to drag him by the ear to make him stop reading and do other things. This is a very interesting phenomenon. We haven’t seen these installment novels in over 200 years, what I call torrential novels, which take forever to come to an end. I mean, like those Die Hard or Lethal Weapon films, which are ongoing: numbers two, three, four… It’s an astounding phenomenon in terms of its content, but it does seem that children are rediscovering reading, now that they are in a visual world, doesn’t it? I think we don’t know that much about things. And there they are on their computers, talking in their language, a new language rich with the possibility of creating something new.
It is curious and pleasurable to hear an intellectual talking about children’s books and Hollywood movies…
To my mind, image and writing are not two universes, but two languages. Everything is language. I also like the fine arts and go to a lot of exhibitions; and I enjoy music too, and always listen to opera; and I like popular music and the theater. I’m very curious and all arts interest me: I see no incompatibility, but only different languages of artistic communication. For instance, at present, a book I wrote about the Rio de Janeiro Carnival is about to be published; I got to this thanks to my enjoyment of popular music. It’s not a history of Carnival, an attempt to interpret Rio’s Carnival through its history, its current development, about this interest of mine such as it is today. I went to Venice, to New Orleans, to Nice and to Munich, but the Brazilian Carnival was the only one that impressed me. Some people say it’s the greatest spectacle on earth, but its monumental nature serves certain purposes, despite the fact that it is explored and marketed: it is the representation, every year, of the myth of racial democracy. The words of the themes are sung to show we’re a racial democracy. Which is evidently a lie, but this myth continues to be represented. This is the true story of Carnival, beyond its samba theme songs: this is the deep story. The entire country extolling the blacks and mestizos for three days while, for the rest of the year, they continue to be oppressed and exploited.
You always have political and social concerns in your works. Do you think that is part of being an intellectual?
I don’t know whether it’s mandatory. I know of a lot of art created by people who are totally alienated, who live on cloud nine, but have done wonderful work. It’s not mandatory, but reciprocal. It would be very good if everyone were concerned about the world they live in and about other people as well. I recall a nice saying of Sartre’s. When he was asked whether he felt any remorse for not having done anything in life, he said: “I would have liked to have paid more attention to my neighbors.” Today’s world desperately needs thinking heads that don’t close their eyes, but I’m not here to stir up a rally, for Christ’s sake [laughter]. I learnt how to be like this from Antonio Candido. I paid attention to his militancy, because he was always concerned and was active. On a different level, Guimarães Rosa was divided between the hinterland and the world. He was a cosmopolitan soul and a polyglot, but he spent all his time writing about the hinterland, rescuing their language and fables. He was certainly a man with one foot in each, who was unable to stay in the same spot, an international man who didn’t give up his hinterland soul.
Your personal path somewhat mirrors this movement. You left Mackenzie [a private school in São Paulo] to attend the School of Philosophy at the University of São Paulo on Maria Antonia street, a center of political thinking?
Crossing that road was something that changed my destiny. I had been studying at Mackenzie and took a university entrance exams crammer course at Gremio; my head changed forever, a very important moment in my life, with all the responsibility that it brought in its wake and all the problems that came along with this decision. I was studying at Maria Antonia Street in 1968, when it was impossible not to join the radical militancy. I even worked as a member of the security staff at the Oficina Theatre, protecting the Roda Viva actors from the extreme-right terrorists. Raise your hands to heaven, because there is no possibility of a dictatorship in this country any longer. So what, if things are calmer and youth more apathetic? Not all youngsters are so, but there isn’t as much motivation to fight. That too I understand. A dictatorship destroys people; thank goodness things are better and some youngsters can afford to be apathetic. But I don’t think all of them are so. Lately, I think that the domestic and international outlook is very interesting. The right wing wants men not to think, to have no interest in politics. They were successful in the United States and caused youths to abstain from voting up until Obama’s election. That is why I say: we shouldn’t lament that we’re decadent and that things were good in the past. Look at this turnaround! Bad things accumulate until one day all this bursts, as was the case in Obama’s election. I never thought I’d live to see anything like this; I thought it could only happen in 200 years time. This election is a breath of hope, indicating that not all is lost. If this happened thanks to young people, what we are actually experiencing is a very interesting time in the history of Brazil and the world; it’s encouraging. However, we’re running behind the rest of Latin America, where there are already two female presidents. We haven’t had a black or a woman as president yet.
Also, there are relatively few women creators…
Few blacks too. Point out the blacks that wrote a major literary work or a painted a major canvas. Where are they? If you don’t educate, and don’t do so for several generations, you’ll never get them, because this is a slow process. Today we don’t put much thought into education.
What is the current major trend?
Religious fundamentalism. Capitalism is rationalistic and logical by definition. And how does one explain this? We used to think that after the French Revolution all that had come to an end and that society would be entirely lay and rational, but it isn’t. Do you think that it’s just in Brazil that there are things like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God? People are turning to religion all over the world. I have the impression that there is a feeling derived from consumerism at play. If we set up a global society and it states that its aim in life is to acquire material goods, that having things is important, there comes a time when you need God, because everything becomes dry and devoid of value. In this consumerism, we have to consume non-stop; we buy a car today but there’s another, better one already; we must drop ours and buy another, then another… This generates dissatisfaction and the principle underlying capitalism is dissatisfaction; so there’s a lack of values, of spirituality; we are lacking a sphere that is less dry, less material. The religious turn-around, for which I have no empathy whatsoever, is evidently linked to capitalism; it is an indispensable complement for the materialization of capitalism. I used to think, but I don’t know whether I still do, that this is something that art might provide. I regard art as a substitute for religion, in a lay, rationalistic and atheist society. But it seems this isn’t enough; one must have religion as a natural thing to fill the void that consumerism generates. Well, there are two ways to think about this global disenchantment phenomenon. The folks from the Frankfurt School think that the rationalization was imperfect, as a result of which there are a lot of mythological and religious vestiges surfacing. We can also lean in another direction, if we think about the excess of reason, as Freud said. This generates precisely such dissatisfactions. To live within society, we must give up our instincts, because otherwise people would be at each other’s throats, especially where two very strong instincts are concerned: sexuality and aggression. So what happens? We become unhappy; it’s what he calls the malaise of civilization. Perhaps this disenchantment of the world has something to do with this, with this exaggerated repression of our behavior. This being the case, I don’t believe Islamic fundamentalism is worse, for instance, than American fundamentalism, or the Brazilian sort. Any form of fundamentalism is not correct. I believe that it’s just US propaganda to invent that fundamentalism is only bad when it’s Islamic. To the contrary. I feel one should support Iraq more, because the time was not right for them to form an alliance with all that is the worst on our side. I’m not saying that it’s good over there, but one must acknowledge that we are not getting to the end of fundamentalism.
Can the current economic crisis also be seen as a form of “disenchantment” forced upon the world?
We have to stop this, this incentive for increasing consumption. Otherwise, what we’ll have is what we’ve got; it’s impossible for an economy to survive like this, it goes into crisis. It would be great if people were encouraged to think about this more. If the crisis were to shake them up, this would be a good outcome. Why am I going into debt? To get another material asset? I always think about why very wealthy people need so much money: do you really need two yachts? Isn’t one enough? I don’t understand very well this business of always wanting more and not seeing what this means for people and for our planet as well. Consumption and capitalism, they’re destroying the planet. This is the first time in history when there is a possibility of destroying the planet. So we’re slowing down? We’re doing it so slowly that it’s frightening, isn’t it? Do you think that when we finally do slow down, there’ll be a forest left, or any water? I think everything’s gone rather apocalyptic, but I do believe we’re improving, don’t you think so?
Is this the case here as well? What do you think of the Lula administration?
I never imagined that a northeastern blue-collar worker would be in office. Brazil is enjoying a very good reputation worldwide, because he is solving a lot of social problems, he is solving poverty, he is managing natural resources very well, he isn’t making stupid mistakes, he’s trying for international independence, he’s doing business with China, with African countries and other nations. I see that in the last few years, optimism and hope have increased. There is greater concern about social issues. There’s a new class in Brazil, class C, that no longer answers to the opinion leaders, because it has its own opinion. Consider Lula’s election for his second term. All of the media was saying he was a lost case, but he only lost here in São Paulo, which is the bastion of the right-wingers in Brazil. It shouldn’t be, because we’re Brazil’s modernizing center and São Paulo’s capitalism is the most advanced. This state is a modernizer when it comes to the economy, but not when it comes to politics.
It would be interesting if once again we had regional literature in Brazil, to deal with this…
This goes hand in hand with globalization, to some extent, because globalization makes everything the same, right? It makes everything alike little by little; it hasn’t completely achieved this, though, and I hope it never will, but things tend to become the same. In Brazil, we also have economic forces. Look, the only intellectual I’m acquainted with that hasn’t yet moved is Benedito Nunes, who continues to live in the state of Pará. Even artists have moved. Where do Caetano [Veloso, famous singer/songwriter from the Northeast] or João Ubaldo Ribeiro [famous writer from the state of Bahia] live? In Rio de Janeiro. Perhaps diversity is not being modernized, but merely changing its focus. What is said about axé music, this pasteurization of the culture of Bahia: it seems there’s a particular focus on things that are labeled as typically Bahian, such as axé, the trio elétrico [a band mounted on a truck] and Ivete Sangalo [popular singer]. Perhaps this will happen, as a natural order of social forces, but perhaps there’s something moving under the surface that we haven’t noticed. I don’t think diversity is shrinking, but rather that we’re getting more exposure to artists that are being more heavily promoted in order to make money. They are what is worst, the least interesting, but perhaps we get to see them more because they are promoted the most.
Along with this type of impoverishment, isn’t there also the impoverishment of reading and of readers? Will there be readers of Euclides da Cunha or Guimarães Rosa in the future?
I don’t think there is an impoverishment of readers. This is an idea that comes to us via universities, where there are lots of students making this observation, but I don’t believe it. For instance, Homer still talks to us. When we read Homer we’re reading what we call “great literature”; as for Guimarães Rosa, given him another 2,500 years and there will always be people to read him and like him.
So you believe that novels are here to stay?
The novel is a creation of bourgeois society; literary forms are also historical creations. There used to be no narrative in prose; it was a bourgeois invention; therefore, for as along as there is a bourgeois society, there will be novels. Indeed, the novel is the form of our times, rather than poetry or theatre. Suffice it to look in any bookstore catalog: the most common form is the novel. At present, and over the last few years, novels have been functioning (especially bestsellers), as a tool for thinking about multiculturalism. The novels that sell the most worldwide are those that deal with multiculturalism, such as The Kite Runner and others, the sort of thing that takes place in the Arab colonies of France and the Indian colonies in England. Novels have been dealing with this lately; “exotic” writers are found all over the place. Go into any bookstore and see who won Nobel prizes: one year it’s a Turk, then an Israeli. They are the people winning the prizes. I think people are looking for a camouflaged exoticism – exoticism for consumption by European and American society – and Brazilian society as well… It’s exoticism for the white man, to my mind, because it always talks about people of other colors. I have a wild notion about this: I have the impression that it has to do with the concern of white people (USA and Europe) about the fact that they are losing their hegemony. If they feel “invaded by foreigners”, they read these novels to have their supremacy assured, because the books show that these people are “worse”. Even this Indian movie that won the Oscar. A disgrace. It’s the height of exoticism “the underdog” that you can offer the viewer, so that he leaves the cinema feeling great because he doesn’t come from such a place. But I exaggerate.
Liking a novel a lot can say a great deal about a person. Which book says a lot about who Walnice Nogueira Galvão is?
Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Because it’s beautifully written. You can relax while reading it and it will always remain a wonderful guide in which you can trust. That is great literature as far as I, who study literature so much, am concerned.