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The prostitute as poetic figure

Study explores the significance of this character in Brazilian modernism

Lasar Segall, 1891 (Vilnius, Lithuania) - 1957 (São Paulo, Brazil), Grupo do Mangue na escada (Group from Mangue on stairs), 1928, drypoint on paper, 24 x 18 cm

Lasar Segall Museum-IBRAM Collection/Ministry of CultureLasar Segall, 1891 (Vilnius, Lithuania) – 1957 (São Paulo, Brazil), Grupo do Mangue na escada (Group from Mangue on stairs), 1928, drypoint on paper, 24 x 18 cmLasar Segall Museum-IBRAM Collection/Ministry of Culture

One of the hallmarks of Brazilian modernism was its quest to discover the nature of national identity, a topic that guided an extensive line of academic studies in literature. But when Eliane Robert Moraes researched the role of the prostitute in Brazil’s modernist literary production, she endeavored to focus less on national questions and more on universal elements. As a professor of Brazilian literature with the Department of Classical and Vernacular Languages at the University of São Paulo’s School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences, Moraes conducted the project Literary figurations of the prostitute in Brazilian modernism from 2012 to 2015. The researcher found that this character is not only present in the work of almost all authors from the era but also serves as a structural element in their texts. In Brazilian and European modernism alike, this protagonist emerges as the locus of sex par excellence and as a void that can be filled with all kinds of fantasies, odd or unlikely as they might be.

Brazil has a strong tradition of literary criticism that interprets a work from the perspective of the country’s social reality. According to Moraes, this approach is not always helpful for scholars of erotic writing because they work with what is imagined and not what is real. Over the course of her research, Moraes observed that representations of the prostitute are not “social documents” but interpretations of reality traversed by the fantasies of their creators. This means that the represented figure distances itself from women of “flesh and blood” to occupy a symbolic position as a receptacle of fictitious stories that cannot always come true in the real world. “The figure of the harlot represents not herself but desire,” contends Moraes. A good example of this lies in the poem “A puta(The whore), by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which begins: “I want to know the whore./ The city’s whore. The only one./ The supplier./ On the street below/ Where no one is allowed to go./ Where the air is glass afire/ And flames scorch the tongue/ Of whoever says: I want/ The whore/ I want the whore I want the whore.”

Moraes explains that this poem interweaves a geographical theme with a sexual one, forging a space specific to the emergence of desire – a dynamic she also noticed in other verses from the era. But access to these domains “below” – like “the street below where no one is allowed to go” – only happens with the intermediation of the prostitute. She is the “guardian of the threshold,” says Moraes, citing the expression used by German philosopher Walter Benjamin to describe the prostitute, as she is a figure at once sacred and profane. “She is the one who keeps watch over the passage from the city of day to the city of night, from above to below,” the researcher reiterates. She points out that this same notion of threshold shows up in the work of Lasar Segall, a Lithuanian-Brazilian artist whose engraved plates of Mangue – Rio de Janeiro’s port area and red-light district – always depict women on the edges of brothel doors and windows, offering themselves to sailors passing through town.

The impracticable
During her project, which received the support of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), Moraes established that the topic of prostitution is recurrent in Brazil’s modernist poetry, as she had already observed when doing research for her Antologia da poesia erótica brasileira (Anthology of Brazilian erotic poetry), released in 2015. Manuel Bandeira wrote one of the most well-known verses, “Vou-me embora pra Pasárgada” (I’m off to Pasárgada), where “there are pretty whores for you to hold.”  Oswald de Andrade, Mário de Andrade, and Vinicius de Moraes also dedicated poems to sex workers.

Lasar Segall, Casa do Mangue (House in Mangue), 1929, wood engraving on paper, 31.5 x 42 cm

Lasar Segall Museum-IBRAM Collection/Ministry of CultureLasar Segall, Casa do Mangue (House in Mangue), 1929, wood engraving on paper, 31.5 x 42 cmLasar Segall Museum-IBRAM Collection/Ministry of Culture

Moraes says that despite the recurrence of the topic, literary criticism has paid little attention to it, something she attributes to various factors. One is the censorship (or self-censorship) of authors and editors, which has often resulted in the posthumous publication of books of an erotic bent, like O amor natural (Natural love -1992), by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, or poems like “A morte da puta” (Death of the whore), by Murilo Mendes, recently discovered by researcher Leandro Garcia among correspondence between the Catholic poet and the critic Alceu Amoroso Lima, likewise Catholic. “Eroticism is a field that instills fear, perhaps because it takes us back to our origin and to the very ‘origin of the world’,” asserts Moraes, in a reference to French painter Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866), which portrays a woman’s vulva.

In Moraes’s opinion, literature can work with the inconfessable, with “our dark depths,” without denoting writer approval of illegal practices. “Conceiving the inconceivable is not practicing the impracticable,” she says. Moraes feels that ethical discussion is vital and necessary to guiding behavior but not the imagination. In her view, ethical values should not (as they did not) trample novelist and poet Hilda Hilst’s right to compose O caderno rosa de Lori Lamby (Lori Lamby’s pink notebook -1990) and recount in it the sexual memories of an 8-year-old girl who prostitutes herself – and likes it. But at no point does this endorse the crime of pedophilia. “We can not impose this kind of judgment on literature, as occurred with Hilda Hilst’s book in the 1990s,” she argues. “Literature should be thought of as a space of freedom, where we can explore our fantasies and the prohibitions that constrain us in the real world.”

Moraes emphasizes that authors were already relying on the figure of the prostitute in constructing their narratives before the modernist era. She cites Lucíola (1862), a novel by José de Alencar, which can be read through the lens of power relations during the Empire. Alencar’s Brazilian courtesan is incontrovertibly singular because, unlike the French Lady of the Camellias, Lucíola lives in a society with slaveholder values. Still, the historical perspective should intersect with the interpretation of the sexual fantasies played out in the book. “And these interpretations should be blended, since neither one nor the other can exhaust the subject,” the professor maintains.

Although Literary figurations of the prostitute was a solo project, Moraes had unofficial associates, including Alcir Pécora, professor of literary theory at the University of Campinas (Unicamp). “Until recently, research at universities in São Paulo centered on authors from the modernist canon. Work with literary eroticism brought to light later authors, like poet Roberto Piva and Hilda Hilst, who have no direct ties to this movement’s tendencies and who deal openly with sexuality,” he says. Because the original heart of Moraes’s interest lies in French libertine literature, Pécora feels that her reflections are novel and thus breathe fresh air into literary studies in Brazil.

Mulher do Mangue sentada (Woman from Mangue seated), 1942, wood engraving on paper, 20.5 x 10.5 cm

Lasar Segall Museum-IBRAM Collection/Ministry of CultureMulher do Mangue sentada (Woman from Mangue seated), 1942, wood engraving on paper, 20.5 x 10.5 cmLasar Segall Museum-IBRAM Collection/Ministry of Culture

In the opinion of Camille Dumoulié, professor of comparative literature at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre and one of Moraes’s main collaborators on a number of work fronts, the most valuable contribution of this study is that it shows how Brazilian literature, in its evocation of the prostitute, has deep ties with French literature. Another important consideration is how it reveals little-known specificities of the representation of the prostitute in Brazil, encouraging a new look at French sources.

In connection with her project on figurations of the prostitute, Moraes lectured in Europe and the United States and, in 2014, was a visiting professor at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre. Her research also led to another project, now underway, entitled Mangue: poetry and erotica, which investigates the relations between this theme in art and literature down through the 20th century. The study focuses on tracing the particularities of the imagination about low-level prostitution in the context of Brazil. According to Moraes, prostitutes and artists inhabited shared spaces in the French Belle Époque of painter Toulouse-Lautrec, just as they did in the Mangue district in the 1920s and 1930s.

Yet there is a fundamental difference between the iconographies of these places and their characters. While the French prostitute is always very pale, with bags under her eyes – a lady of the night, shut away in cabarets, never seeing the light of day – the prostitutes depicted in the images of Mangue are black or mulatto, and their relationship with the streets is different. “It’s a challenging project, which will put me face to face with Brazil’s inequalities. This time, I’d like to get to know the relations between the physical ‘below’ and the social world ‘below’,” she says.