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The Mouth that Hell does not want to shut

A biography and a new edition revive the argument concerning the libertarian Gregório de Mattos

On Christmas eve of 1969, the then governor of the state of Bahia,  Luis Viana Filho received an official correspondence, written in an indignant tone, from general Abdon Sena, the commander of the 6th Military region, headquartered in Salvador. The military commander wanted the ultimate authority of the Executive branch to order the apprehension of all of the edition in seven volumes, of the complete poetic works of the gentleman from Bahia, Gregório de Mattos Guerra (1636-1695) – organized by James Amado starting from the codex of the grammarian Celso Cunha and the National Library and published by the small publishing house editora Janaína, of Salvador.

In the same communication general Sena reprimanded the governor for having helped with the publication of an author that the Army considered “subversive, anticlerical and pornographic”. A member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, a biographer of Rui Barbosa and afterwards of president Castello Branco, Viana Filho had been chosen by the military regime to govern the state of Bahia. He had ordered the purchase of part of the print run of the book of poems by Mattos for distribution to schools in the state education network, libraries and cultural entities of Bahia.

The content of the letter leaked and shortly afterwards the information circulated in the literary and academic circles that the edition had been confiscated and burned, as in the times of the Inquisition. As he was not from the State of Bahia, perhaps general Sena had not known that Gregório de Mattos had been dead and buried for more than two centuries. More than this, he had been transformed over the previous one hundred years into a myth by a Bahia State that he supposedly defended as a corrosive and libertarian critic of poetry. Nevertheless, the episode showed, in part, why the name of the baroque poet had become taboo for such a long time: the little that is known about his life and his work, which persists until today.

For having upset the whole of society in Bahia, the jurist poet was sent into limbo. Nevertheless, time made him into a hero. The author of satirical poems, filled with pornography, did not leave a single manuscript. His verses survived in popular imagery or were complied by admirers. And as, whoever tells a tale adds to the tale, there is not unanimity as to the authorship that is attributed to him. There is no way of trying to understand the poet without considering his complex personality and the time setting. Although various editions of his verses were launched throughout the 20th century, it was with the publication of the compendium of James Amado that there was the start of the recovery of the production by the cursed poet. To this end, over the last three decade the historian from Bahia, Fernando da Rocha Peres, has been outstanding.

After Gregório de Mattos Guerra: uma re-visão biográfica [Gregorio de Mattos Guerra: a biographical re-view] and Um códice setecentista inédito de Gregório de Mattos  [An unprecedented 17th century codex of Gregorio de Mattos] (in partnership with the Italian researcher Silvia La Regina), in 2000 he organized the seminar entitled, “Gregorio de Mattos, the poet is reborn each year”, which became a collection of articles from seven Bahia intellectuals and of the poet Haroldo de Campos (1929-2003). Now Rocha Peres is launching Gregório de Mattos, o poeta devorador [Gregorio de Mattos, the devouring poet], the third volume of the Bahia collection with Haroldo de Campos, published in Rio de Janeiro by editora Manatti.

A rigorous investigator, Rocha Peres took upon himself the mission of reconstructing, in the most precise form possible, the chronological life of the poet as well as salvaging unknown fragments of his poetry. In the new book, the author makes a synthesis of all that he has found out and builds a rich framework of the cultural, social and political life of Bahia and of colonial Brazil and its relationship with Portugal. The author looked mainly to review what had gone wrong in the life of Gregório de Mattos and adds in new documented facts.

To this end, he has traveled to the main Portuguese cities over the last twenty years in search of letters, documents and texts from that era when the poet had spoken. “I found documentary sources that allowed me to exactly date and to raise important facts up until then poorly reported”, he said in an interview. For example, he was given access to the Torre do Tombo to view the marriage certificate of the poet with the Spanish lady Micaela de Andrade, which up until that moment nobody had known about. The volume also brings a precise mapping of the public positions that Mattos held and the existence of a daughter whom he fathered when he lived in Portugal.

At this moment, historian Peres and Silvia La Regina are preparing for the publication of an unprecedented levy of poems of the poet from Bahia, which should come out shortly.

The growing interest of the academic world throughout the country and even abroad to better understand Gregório de Mattos has led to the appearance of antagonistic currents. The effort divides opinion as to the critical readings and interpretations, the authenticity of codices with compilations of his poems and writings, as well as the option of analysis that helps to trace a more complete and honest profile from the historical and literary points of view.

Starting from writings in archaic 17th century baroque Portuguese, Gregório de Mattos made verses that mixed up the sacred with the profane, and used sexual language as a resource for dealing with values and political and religious attitudes or those of behavior. For the romantic critics of the 19th century, he built up a work that transformed him into the major satirical poet of the Portuguese language during the baroque period and a man ahead of his time, a fervent defender of change.

In spite of the irreverent satirical side having made his fame, Mattos also wrote venerable and amorous poetry. Even today, for many, he continues to be seen as a solitary gentleman who verbally confronted the elite, the Church, and central power. Could it have happened exactly like that? New readings defend the idea that he left in his legacy the profile of a racist and conservative person, marked by the origin of a well-to-do family and a profound disrespect for Brazilian colonial society. For example, in retribution to the nickname of “Mouthpiece of Hell”, he called Salvador and its citizens “Hellish Mob”.

Venerated in Bahia as a romantic hero, Gregório de Mattos may be better understood, starting from the counterbalancing point of view established by the São Paulo professor João Adolfo Hansen in the 1980s, when he published the indispensable A sátira e o engenho (1989) through the publisher Companhia das Letras. The book has recently had a new edition published by Editora Unicamp. His polemic thesis is in opposition to the current that redeemed Mattos more than a century ago and that had as his principal defenders academics from Bahia. In his doctorate thesis, professor Hansen reconstituted the “first normative legibility of satire” attributed to the 17th century poet from Bahia. Starting from primary sources, he investigated his satirical poems, the rhetoric treaties and the historical documents – as accusations of sins and heresies by the Holy Office of the Inquisition and acts by the City Council of Salvador. In  order to do it, he consulted documents produced throughout one hundred years and that dealt with the time of the poet.

On breaking with the critical biography and moving away from the romantic clichés about the supposed life of the poet, habitually sketched out as a drunk, bohemian, obscene and a libertarian, professor Hansen made some enemies. In order to arrive at this vision of Brazilian baroque poetry, he analyzed the humor of Mattos by way of the traditional rhetoric of the 17th, in which obscenity and defamation were laid out within precise rules. “I never thought about making a critical review, my proposal was a historical reading, but the liberalism, romanticism, and nationalism of those who thought they were the owners of Gregório de Mattos was so strong that many people felt themselves offended, assaulted”, he says.

Hansen principally contested the anachronism of the romantic critic of the 19th century, until today taught in schools and which had completely distorted the life and work of the baroque poet from Bahia. Thus, the satire was intended for his detractors like human psychology. Or that is to say, by way of criticizing and using obscene terms, Mattos would be a sick person, a degenerate. The researcher shows that there was, in truth, a literary movement based on satire in Europe that had taken up the models of medieval humor as the instrument of attack and criticism.

For others, Hansen says, Mattos has been looked upon as a liberal, a libertarian and even as a “beatnik hippie” of the 17th century. “In truth, he was a typical Catholic aristocrat, a nobleman who fought for the correction of behavior, who defended good monarchist customs.” Nevertheless, the best term to use to define him is “traditionalist”, since he did not know the concept of conservative. “One can’t maintain the romantic criticism when you have tools that provide evidence that one is dealing with an interpretation, but it’s not the only one possible.”

The author believes that this romantic imposition has distorted the mythical vision that Bahia has today of Gregório de Mattos as an anarchistic popular hero. “They’re proud that he was born in Salvador, but I don’t know where this comes from because his people were really from Portugal”. An argument in this direction was that he had demolished Bahia in his verses not because he had been in search of reforms, but was preaching libertarian or anarchistic ideas. It was not by chance that he showed at various opportunities an undisguised hatred for Jews, Blacks, Indians and the poor.

For the poems attributed to him, according to Hansen, poet Mattos fell back on an aggressive and obscene language in order to defend a moralistic posture. It is presumed that he took the role unto himself of the reformer of customs of depravity, of vices and deceptions, as if he himself were unassailable. The verses show that he had not accepted, to a large degree, the changes occurring in the province.

For  Hansen, even having been a man of his times and often having reflected the interests of the class of his family in the presence of the Crown, Gregório de Mattos was  singular and genial because, among all of the men and satirical poets of his epoch, he showed a critical and clairvoyant vision of local society. The same thing that made him the most feared, combative and censured poet in Brazilian literary history.