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Tradition without an impasse

Brazil loses a true intellectual, in the old style: João Alexandre Barbosa


Calling a university professor, whoever he or she may be, an intellectual, has become a commonplace. The word has lost its impact, and, in many cases, been reduced to its lexical literality: someone with intellect, someone who thinks about a subject. Perhaps, for the lack of true intellectuals, the preference has been to rebaptize academics with the title, previously a privilege for few, and, today, extremely few. Well, we have just lost one of these “animals in extinction”: Professor João Alexandre Barbosa, who died last month, 68 years old, in São Paulo, a victim of a series of kidney complications that followed a stroke he suffered at the beginning of this year. “João Alexandre was an intellectual of a species that today is very rare. A scholar of literature, he never allowed himself to be dazzled by the latest theories in fashion. In his lessons and lectures, we would watch the transformation of knowledge and erudition into a possibility for learning and for appreciating writers”, wrote the professor in literary theory, Regina Zilberman, from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul.

This magic is something for few magicians. Such as Antonio Candido, for example, his supervisor and responsible for his coming to São Paulo, leaving Recife (where he was born in 1937), to be an assistant at the University of São Paulo (USP), soon after the 1964 coup. There are the intellectuals for you, the true ones, capable of rereading and rediscovering, without much ado and fads, what hides itself behind the great literary works. Capable of thinking out the country and understanding its subtleties. Capable of thinking big, albeit writing in a humble, accessible, gentle manner. João Alexandre began as a lawyer, educated at Recife’s Faculty of Law, but he did not practice the profession. He preferred to venture into literary journalism, writing in the Jornal do Commercio de Pernambuco [Journal of Trade of Pernambuco]. His passion for text led him to be part of the team of teaching staff that founded the Journalism course at the Catholic University of Pernambuco. There, invited by Luiz Beltrão, he developed one more of the virtues of a true intellectual: the capacity for teaching and for loving what he did.

Years later, as he later recounted in a text for the Folha de S.Paulo [São Paulo Newssheet], now retired, he was sought out by a former pupil who offered him a position in a private university and a salary that was double the pension he was receiving from USP. He rejected it. “I didn’t want to be hooked on a salary that wasn’t a result of the work that, for over 30 years, had consumed my physical, intellectual, affective and emotional life, since I hadn’t retired to earn more, but rather to be able to enjoy what would by chance be left to me of a useful intellectual life, accomplishing some things that the agitation of a professor’s life would make it difficult or even impossible to fulfill.” Oh, yes. Greatness is another attribute of the real intellectuals.

He did not stop lecturing for three decades. He started the career in 1963, in Recife, and in 1965 he was in the group that formed the University of Brasilia. That didn’t last long. In the same year, along with 200 colleagues, he was expelled from the faculty by the military regime. Hence the goodwill with which he accepted Candido’s invitation to USP, where he arrived in 1966. “But I wasn’t an ordinary assistant to be supervised, I was quite mature and knew my way around”, he joked, when recalling his doctorate, concluded in 1970 (with a scholarship from a FAPESP, which was also to give him the opportunity of doing postdoctoral studies at Yale University, in the United States). His rereadings on José Veríssimo, resumed in 1975 in The Tradition of the Impasse, were fundamental for him to rethink the vision of the history of Brazilian literature. One year before, he took up the chair of literary theory. He liked to say that the scholarship from FAPESP had helped him to sustain not only his intellect, but also a family of four. In 1980, he was chair professor of literary theory and compared literature at USP, when he occupied several positions.

The most noteworthy of them was the presidency of the University of São Paulo’s publishing house (Edusp), from 1988 until his retirement, in 1993, at the age of 56. He made Edusp a benchmark in publishing. “When I took it on, Edusp was a co-publisher and limited itself to lending the seal and prestige of USP, for private publishing houses to earn money”, he said in an interview. A dyed-in-the-wool democrat, he only accepted being director of the Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH) of the University in São Paulo when elected by three academic bodies. Hence his refusal to be a candidate for the Rectorate unless by a direct election, even though the surveys indicated him as the favorite. “I don’t have the patience for this kind of thing”, he would say. He preferred concrete actions to the office politics, and he left FFLCH to take on the prorectorate for Culture and University Extension, where he created benchmark projects, such as Nascente [Nascent], the Open University for the Third Age and Cinusp, as well as the reorganization of USP’s Cultural Heritage Commission. The most noteworthy of these, Nascente was born of his personal wish.

Sought out by Juca Kfouri, of Editora Abril, which was looking for a project to sponsor, Barbosa brought supply together with demand. A few days before meeting with Kfouri, a pupil had complained about the difficulty of finding spaces for presenting his artistic talents. What he stitched together resulted in Nascente. When he retired, Abril wanted to wind up the partnership, but Barbosa’s insistence kept the project working and revealing people like Fernando Bonassi or José Roberto Torero. The first edition of the award drew a strong declaration from Chico Buarque: “If there were projects like that when I was at FAU, I would never have left the faculty”.

After leaving USP, he wrote another four books: Biblioteca Imaginária [Imaginary Library], Entrelivros [Inter Books], Alguma crítica [Some Criticism] and João Cabral de Melo Neto, from the Folha Explica [Newssheet Explains] series. The poet, incidentally, João Alexandre’s great discovery and passion, from boyhood, when everyone preferred the exuberant wealth of the text by Gilberto Freyre to the dryness of João Cabral, who had in Barbosa one of his greatest interpreters. He left an unpublished work on another of his passions, the Frenchman Paul Valéry, which should be published by Editora Iluminuras. “He will be missed by Brazilian literature and culture”, says Davi Arrigucci Jr., a professor of literary theory at USP. “He was an exemplary researcher in the theory and the history of Brazil’s literary criticism, just as in modern and contemporary poetry: he dedicated high quality studies to the modernist poets, to João Cabral, to the concretists, to Sebastião Uchoa Leite and to many others more. He was an excellent teacher of literature, the study of which would motivate people with his ardent voice and enthusiasm; his critical essays give the measure of his readings. He took care of the book as a cultural and esthetic object; his management at Edusp proves that. Above all, though, I lament the absence of a friend, who I miss personally.” With his gentle, good humored manner, always with a pipe in his mouth, teaching the most difficult literature in an easy way. João Alexandre was an intellectual. There are few left.