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The roots of Sérgio Buarque

Centenary of the historian takes his dissertation for a master's degree out of limbo

The reflections about the legacy of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902-1982), prompted by the centenary of his birth last year, had the gift of redeeming a forgotten chapter of the work of the historian who dedicated his academic career to understanding the national soul. It is a dissertation for a master’s degree, defended by Sérgio Buarque in 1958 at the São Paulo Free School of Sociology and Politics, which was never transformed into a book and remained submerged in a sort of academic limbo. Very few people indeed know the 145 page work entitled Elementos Formadores da Sociedade Portuguesa na Época dos Descobrimentos [Formative Elements of Portuguese Society in the Age of the Discoveries]. Recently, a copy of the dissertation was found by historian and professor from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) Edgar de Decca, a scholar in Buarque’s work. The text slumbered in the historian’s collection, entrusted to Unicamp after his death.De Decca was surprised and intrigued with what he found. “There is an impressive line of continuity between this dissertation and the classic Raízes do Brasil [Roots of Brazil], published in 1936”, explains De Decca. “Some things changed in Sérgio Buarque’s perception. Something that loses force in the work for a master’s degree was what was transformed into the most marking trait of the Raízes do Brasil, which is a historical essay about what was missing and what was denied in the constitution of our identity.”

In Raízes, the historical analysis sets off from the criterion of absence: our culture lacked a work ethic, the rational state absented itself before the predomination of patriarchism and paternalism. And, by virtue of this, the Brazilian’s cordial character flourished – to give priority to personal relationships and seek intimacy in social intercourse, a concept coined by Buarque wrongly mistaken for benevolence. “In Raízes, our culture is a synonym of absence, and for this reason the most famous phrase from this work continues to be: ‘we are still a few exiles in our own land'”, recalls De Decca. In the dissertation, though, the author settles on the metropolis in the age of the discoveries, shows Portugal’s strangeness inside Europe itself, and encounters in this singular scenario several embryonic aspects of the future colony. “What is delineated in the work is a complex cultural horizon made up of multiple ethnic influences and one that mapped out a singular path in the scenario of the discoveries”, explains De Decca, who has just taken up in Lisbon the Brazil-Portugal chair in Social Sciences, created by the agreement between Unicamp and Portugal’s Higher Institute of the Sciences of Labor and of the Company.

Italian archives
The researcher will take advantage of his stay there to reconstitute the documentary field of the research carried out by Sérgio Buarque to draw up his dissertation. “I am going to visit the archives of the Torre do Tombo, the archives and the library of the city of Lisbon, and the National Library. But I am not setting out to find any great novelty, other than that which is already known to Portuguese and Brazilian historians, not least because many documents for this thesis are not to be found in Lisbon, but probably in Italian archives. They must have been discovered by Sérgio Buarque in the period in which he lived in Italy.”

Sérgio Buarque’s dissertation and his book that was born a classic share one and the same starting point: the upbringing of the Portuguese as “a human type that knows no frontiers” and molds the exploration of the New World to a particular ethic, an ethic of adventure, in which wealth is sought with audacity, sometimes with a want of foresight, not with the Calvinist work ethic. There are assumptions that repeat themselves in the two works, like the Lusitanian strategy of exploiting the colony’s seaboard and leaving its interior empty – which reproduces the occupation of the Portuguese territory itself – in contrast to the action of the Spanish colonizers, who settled on the high plateaus. Or the part that compares the importance of slave labor in 19th century Brazil and 16th century Lisbon.

They can be seen as complementary works, but they are an ocean apart. Raízes explains Brazil, while the dissertation dives into Portugal and pores over the primordial days of the colonizing adventure. It shows the essential influences of the Moors and the Jews, both repressed by the monarchic and Roman Catholic power of the epoch, in the construction of a national type, distinct from the Europeans, with loose habits, but an extraordinary mercantile vocation, which conceives social ascension overseas and, for this reason, is leaving or has already left and yearns for home. It is true that Buarque never loses Brazil from sight.

He recalls that the origin of samba may not be African, but Islamic (the Moorish dance called zembra). “In greater numbers, they crossed the ocean, brought by the first settlers, and, implanting themselves amongst us, left here reminiscences that still persist, as is the case of the zambra, which reached Spanish America and Brazil, perhaps turning into the remote ancestor of our present-day samba. The latter, albeit even today there is no lack of those who strive to discern in it its origin – origin in name, at least -, or in that Bantu radical, there are many probabilities that, in the name as much as in some choreographic characteristics, such as those that manifest themselves in rural surroundings in São Paulo or in several places of Spanish America, it comes, not from Angola or the Congo, but rather from so-called white Africa”, wrote Buarque.The extreme reserve of the wives who would not appear in front of visitors, except in the presence of their husbands, both in the metropolis and in the colony, is bound up, Buarque reminds us, with the condition of the Muslim woman. “(…) particularly in the colonial period, they would not appear, in their own houses, before visitors, nor would they eat, unless with their husbands, and even so when there were no guests (save for father or brother)”, records the historian in his dissertation.

Sérgio Buarque de Holanda also cites the Canudos rebellion to dissect the thesis that the religious fervor of the Jews, forced into conversion by the Inquisition, lies at the base of the messianic movement of Sebastianism – the redeeming return of the young King Sebastian, who died without leaving a successor at the famous battle of Alcacer Quibir in 1578. The myth was to be invoked by Antônio Conselheiro the devout, in the interior of Bahia, at the end of the19th century.

The dissertation does not have the essayistic and interpretative tone of Raízes do Brasil. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda wrote it, not because he planned to, but because of an academic need. He needed a master’s degree to compete for the chair of the History of Brazilian Civilization at the University of São Paulo (USP) – which he was to abandon in 1969, retiring voluntarily in solidarity with his colleagues persecuted by Institutional Act number 5, the AI-5. To conquer the chair, he was to defend his doctoral thesis, in which he analyzes the “quest for Eden” in imagery of the discoverers. He defended it in front of a multitude gathered in the Noble Hall of the Faculty of Philosophy, when it was still in the building on Maria Antônia Street.

Samba steps
Approved with distinction by the board of examiners, the legend goes that the historian commemorated by rehearsing some samba steps with his pupils. Well, this work with its original content was to be converted, in 1959, into the book Visão do Paraíso ( Vision of Paradise) . In a comparison of the works defended almost simultaneously, Buarque opted for launching the doctorate and keeping the work for his master’s degree in the drawer. “He] regarded the work as a bit scholastic, and for that reason didn’t want to publish it”, says the Professor of Literary Theory, Antonio Candido, a friend and collaborator of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, who had never read the dissertation.

“It is neither a disclaimed nor a forgotten work, it has always been available at Unicamp”, says singer Ana de Holanda, 55 years old, a daughter of Sérgio Buarque (the historian had seven children, several of them with a talent for music, as it is known).For Edgar de Decca, the thesis fills a gap in Sérgio Buarque’s work. Besides a line of continuity with Raízes do Brasil, the historian from Unicamp identifies elements that help to understand Visão do Paraíso. “The dissertation for his master’s degree offers us historical bases for understanding the staging of the imagery of the Iberian conquest that makes up Visão do Paraíso, a work without a doubt more complex and better finished , which is aligned with the historical literary tradition of study of the epic and mythical visions that commanded the Iberian conquests”, says De Decca.

The primordial days the colonizing adventure

“At the dawn of modern times, the colonial establishments of the Portuguese comprised only isolated markets, located almost invariably by the beach, although from afar they might recall an immense empire and, as such, they are administered. (…). Very significant are the words by which Alviano, one of the interlocutors of the Diálogos das Grandezas do Brasil [Dialogs of the Splendors of Brazil], lamented that here the Portuguese people made the conquest so short, when they could have made it broader, and admitted that his fellow-countrymen deserved the name of bad colonizers, since in such a long time that they have been inhabiting this Brazil, they did not spread out to the backlands to have to populate ten leagues of it, and they contented themselves, on the seaboard, by keeping themselves busy just by making sugar (…) In a letter from Gôa, of November 1585, addressed to his fellow countryman Bernardo Davanzati, Florentine Filippo Sassetti pondered about these colonizers. Who he wrote did not deserve a better name than beach pounders, given by a “Negro” native to those parts, as they would not enter so much as a palm inland.” (Excerpt from the dissertation)