History and Myth

Nikolau Sevcenko, in memoriam

This excerpt is published in memory of Nico-lau Sevcenko, a Harvard professor and international expert on Brazilian cultural history, who passed away on August 13, 2013.  Focused in São Paulo avant garde, seduced by the most daring cultural practices of native people, such as ritual cannibalism—shared by different ethnic groups of the zone, tupi, guarani, ecc—this excerpt treats a creative way in which this pre-Columbian past is incorporated into a regional or national “identity”—Nicolau Sevcenko, Orfeu extático na metrópole. São Paulo, sociedade e cultura nos frementes anos 20, São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1992. Fragments from Chapter 4 “Da história ao mito e vice-versa duas vezes.”


It’s well known that Blaise Cendrars inadvertently set off the “rediscovery of Brazil.” Following his example and seeking to make Río de Janeiro and the historical cities of Minas Gerais better known, Olívia Penteado had formed a group made up of Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade, Tarsila do Amaral, René Thiollier and Godofredo da Silva Telles. In Río, Cendrars often visited the favela’s hill on his own and became friendly with Donga, Manuel Bandeira and a bunch of young people from “Cinema Poeira,” “a club for select black folk,” In the public jail in Tiradentes, Minas Gerais, he met a prisoner accused of murder and cannibalism, whose story, which included reflections on the meaning of ritual cannibalism in tribal communities, he would relate in his 1926 book Elogio de la vida peligrosa [Eulogy for a Dangerous Life]. For the poets on the trip and for Tarsila, the itinerary would reveal the historic, ethnic and cultural roots that they eagerly sought to give substance to their modernist perspective. From these trips they would derive the impressions, stimulations and images that would seek a fusion between modern languages and the national theme, which Oswald de Andrade dubbed the Movimiento Pau-brasil (Aracy Amaral, Blaise Cendrars no Brasil e os modernistas, São Paulo, Martins Fontes, 1968, pp. 39-77).  The way this entire process started has been summed up clearly by Paulo Prado, who followed it closely and thoroughly. In the preface of a poetry collection, Pau-brasil by Oswald de Andrade, he notes its specific dedication “to Blaise Cendrars, on the occasion of the discovery of Brazil”: 

The poetry “pau-brasil” is Columbus’ egg, this egg [...] in which no one believed and ended up making the man from Genoa rich. Oswald de Andrade, in a trip to Paris, from the height of an artist’s workshop in the Place de Clichy—the center of the universe—discovered, amazed (deslumbrado), his own land. The return to his homeland confirmed, in the enchantment of his manuelinos, the surprising revelation that Brazil existed. This fact, which some had already suspected, opened his eyes to a radiant vision of a new world, unexplored and mysteriosu. The “pau-brasil” poetry had been created. (Paulo Prado, “Poesia pau-brasil”, in Oswald de Andrade, preface to Pau-brasil, São Paulo, Globo, 1990, p. 57.)

The publishing house Au Sans Pareil, headed by Cendrars, issued the book in Paris in 1925 (Aracy Amaral, Blaise Cendrars no Brasil e os modernistas, op. cit., p. 73). But the previous year Oswald de Andrade had already elaborated a “Manifesto of the Pau-brasil Poetry,” published by the Correio da Manhã, shortly after the “discovery” trips. The tone was grandiose and axiomatic, as was usual with the “manifesto” genre. The idea was to forge a synthesis composed of  historical, modern, ethnic, tropical, national symbols that would produce the joint final effect of “Brazilianness.” Isolated elements were juxtaposed with others, and emphasis placed on demonstrations of strong elements that brought these qualities together: music, dance, fiestas, food delicacies, sex and religion; instinct, emotion and myth. 

Poetry exists in the facts. The slums of saffron and ochre in the greens of the favela under the cobalt blue sky are aesthetic facts.

The Rio Carnaval is a religious fact for the race. Pau-brasil. Wagner succumbs in the face of the Botafogo samba schools. Barbaric and our very own. The rich ethnic formation. The richness of the vegetation. The rich ethnic formation. The vegetable richness. Minerals. Cooking.  Vatapá. The gold and the dance.

The missiles of elevators, cubes of skyscrapers and the redeeming solar laziness. Praying. Carnaval. The intimate energy. He knew. Hospitality a bit sensual, loving. The nostalgia of the herb brews and the military aviation fields. Pau-brasil.

Naive barbarians picturesque and tender. Newspaper readers. Pau-brasil. The jungle and the school. The National Museum. The cuisine, minerals, dance. The vegetation. Pau-brasil. (Gilberto Teles, Vanguarda européia e modernismo brasileiro, apresentação e critica dos principais movimentos vanguardistas, Petrópolis, Vozes, 1972, pp. 203-208.)  

Mário de Andrade in Clã do jabuti, published in 1927 with a compilation of poetry written in 1924, brings together in an even more blatant way symbols and national representations, which are seen as strengthened by the attractive rhythmic sense and vernacular musicality of the verses. In the long and complex poem “Noturno de Belo Horizonte,” written just after the excursions of “discovery,” the poet constructs a mythic image of Minas Gerais, conceived as a symbolic epitome of the nation. Explored and populated by people from São Paulo, the cosmogonico of the historic space of the legendary explorers, of the struggle against the greed of the foreign invaders, as seen in O contratador, this region is far from the coast and incrusted in the wilderness, solidly associated with the rocks, the minerals, the mountains, the elevations, the churches and the towers, which represent at the same time a São Paulo from the perspective of long-ago purity and something more that is no longer São Paulo, but its incorporation and association with the nucleus of the body of the nationality, in the center of interior  wilderness, radiating a pure authentic spirit and filtering out interferences and alien contamination. Particularly strong is the culmination of the poem with the liturgical symbol of water falling from the high rocks with its endless mythic reverberation. 
Mas não há nada como histórias para reunir na mesma casa...
Na Arábia por saber contar histórias
U’a mulher se salvou...
A Espanha estilhaçou-se numa poeira de nações americanas
Mas sobre o tronco sonoro da língua do ão
Portugal reuniu 22 orquídeas desiguais.
Nós somos na Terra o grande milagre do amor.

Nós somos na Terra o grande milagre do amor!
E embora tão diversa a nossa vida
Dançamos juntos no carnaval das gentes,
Bloco pachola do “Custa mas vai!”
E abre alas que Eu quero passar!
Nós somos os brasileiros auriverdes!
As esmeraldas das araras
Os rubis dos colibris
Os abacaxis as mangas os cajus
Atravessam amorosamente
A fremente celebração do Universal!

O bloco fantasiado de histórias mineiras
Move-se na avenida de seis renques de árvores...
É o delírio noturno de Belo Horizonte

Dorme Belo Horizonte
Seu corpo respira de leve [...]
O ar da terra elevada
Ar arejado batido nas pedras dos morros
Varado através da água trançada das cachoeiras,
Ar que brota nas fontes com as águas
Por toda parte de Minas Gerais.
(Mário de Andrade, Poesias completas, São Paulo, Circulo do Livro, 1976, pp. 162-165.)

The year after Mário de Andrade published Clã do jabuti, Oswald de Andrade returned to action with a text that radicalized previous positions, “Manifiesto antropófago” (Cannibal’s Manifesto). The subjects and style are similar to those of the first manifesto: what one perceives now, however, is an intensification of a militant attitude, which goes from an axiomatic tone with a decisive attitude to an uncompromising one. Nationalism acquires overtones of xenophobia. “Tupi or not tupi, that is the question.” “But those who came were not crossbred. They were fugitives from a civilization we are eating, because we are strong and vindictive like the tortoise.” Moreover, calls for the celebration of instinct, euphoric sensuality and a mythic identity were heightened. “A participative consciousness, a rhythmic religiosity.” “Against all importers of canned consciousness. The palpable existence of life. And the prelogic mentality so Mr. Lévy-Bruhl can study it.” “But we never admit the birth of logic among ourselves.” “We can only attend the prophetic world.” “Caribbean instinct.” “We were never catechized. What we did was Carnaval.” “The magic and life.” “Before the Portuguese discovered Brazil, Brazil had already discovered happiness.” “Happiness is proof of the nines.” “In the matriarchy of Pindorama.” 

The tone is so obviously and so worrisomely Jacobin for it evoked xenophobic campaigns of political destabilization at the critical beginning of the Republican period, in that delicate moment when the crisis in the coffee economy had just been perceived, prompting the authorities to counterattack by mobilizing writers affiliated with the PRT, a move that touched off an authentic battle of manifestos. At this point, nationalist agitation was so strong, mobilized and inflamed by both sides, that it was no longer a matter of confronting nationalism with cosmopolitanism, as in the period of consolidation of the regime, but of setting off a struggle between a nationalism with an assimilationist bent and another that was uncompromising. The text that most clearly assumes the official current was the manifesto of “verde-amarelismo” or of “Escola da anta” (Tapir School), titled “Nhengaçu verde-amarelo” (1929), behind which were Cassiano Ricardo, Guilherme de Almeida, Menotti del Picchia and Plínio Salgado. The manifesto makes clear the black-or-white views that the nationalist debate had taken by identifying “intolerant” adversaries with the negative model of the tapuia Indian who could never be assimilated and representing themselves in the form a friendly figure, open to the crossbreeding and influence of the Tupi. In response, this “tapir” group established the myth of mestizaje—the interbreeding that integrates, and whose ideological basis would be found in the works of José Vasconcelos, who had articulated the movement of Mexican muralism and in his vision of a “fifth race” or a “cosmic race” as a fulfillment of the manifest destiny of Latin America. It is only now, strangely, that this race would be exclusively Brazilian, that it would have developed between the basins of the Amazons and the River Plate and that it would achieve universal harmony “through the centripetral force of the Tupi element.” (Teles, Vanguarda européia e modernismo brasileiro, op. cit., pp. 233-239.)

The Brazilian poetry has been left in the original as a reminder of the language that our friend Nicolau Sevcenko taught and appreciated so much. Rest in peace. 

See also: Brazil