“Forgetful at times of that native land”: An initial, mostly speculative response to A History of Ideas in Brazil

A temple to positivism in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Image found here.

In the interest of getting through a bunch of books I’ve obtained through interlibrary loan, I’ve had to put aside my recent obsession with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Not to worry, though: in a few days I hope to have something of a summary post that picks up where this one and this one before it leave off.

At present, I’m reading up on Brazilian positivism as treated in João Cruz Costa’s A History of Ideas in Brazil: The Development of Philosophy in Brazil and the Evolution of National History (California, 1964). To be quite honest, up to the discussion of positivism, it’s been an intellectual snooze-fest: There are only so many ways Costa can say, over the course of the 80 or so pages devoted to chronicling the three centuries before the constitutional monarchy established in 1822 that gained Brazil its independence from Portugal, “Brazil had no history of ideas, and it’s mostly the Jesuits’ fault.” (Costa is no neutral chronicler of this history: he openly mocks some of his subjects, and either he personally is no fan of the Jesuits, or he just happens to have selected sources to cite that see the Jesuits more as a bane than a blessing on the colony’s early years; a little more about that later on. I’ll just say, regarding the allegedly pernicious effects of the Jesuits, that I don’t know enough to form an independent judgment about this issue.) Part of the problem, I think, is also due to a combination of Costa’s rather haphazard organization (which compels him to repeat himself) and a less-than-smooth translation. Now that I’m (finally) up to the section on positivism, it’s doing a better job of holding my interest, if only because it was the institutionalizing of positivist principles in education and governance that marks official Brazil’s first adoption of a coherent set of ideals on which to begin building itself as a nation.

[Just as a quick aside: Brazil is one of the few Latin American countries who gained its independence relatively peacefully rather than via a violent overthrow of the metropole. Good old Wikipedia has a quickie summary of these events. Anyway, as I read all this I found myself thinking about the U.S.’s experience during the last quarter of the 18th century and wondering if that transition to independence was as smooth as it was because it was, after all, a war based clearly on a set of principles regarding good governance. Brazil, by contrast, simply wanted to remain a sovereign nation once it had been declared as such–so far as I can tell, there was no grand philosophical ideal at stake. Indeed, as noted above, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a school of thought that was identifiably Brazilian.]

But I’m not writing this because Costa’s book is tedious going. Rather, it has some rather odd moments in it that I want to talk my way through and that perhaps someone out there might find interesting, or maybe even comment-worthy.

In the middle of his fairly brutal take on the Brazilian Romantic man of letters Domingo José Gonçalves de Magalhães and his “philosophy” (our author’s quotes), Costa quotes the following passage, from Os Fatos do Espírito Humano (1865):

It is not with eyes glued to the exterior world and with senses open and attentive to perceptual phenomena that the human soul will learn to understand its true nature, its attributes, and its destiny; it is only by withdrawing to the sanctuary of its conscience, by reflecting on its actions, that it will come to penetrate the metaphysics of the spiritual world, of which it is but one of the inhabitants who travel through this external world, forgetful at times of that native land (!) from whence it comes. (in Costa, 65; I cannot determine whether the exclamation point is Magalhães’ or Costa’s)

Costa holds this passage up to ridicule as pretty weak philosophical tea, but it also happens to strike me as analogous to Costa’s book’s stance thus far with regard to the relationship between Brazilian thought and Brazil itself. In Costa’s introduction, we’re told again and again that a country’s philosophy and its history and culture are inseparable, as here:

The interest which Brazilian intellectuals today show in reëxamination of our historic experience clearly indicates that a profound change in our way of considering national problems is taking place.

But where should we start in the attempt to reach an understanding of these problems? Naturally, from the rich fabric of our Portuguese background. It is there that we find some of the threads of the colorful design we have been embroidering during four centuries. But from there we must follow other, newer trails, because the meaning of our ideas is complex and not limited to its Portuguese ancestry, which, although of incomparable importance, is not the only influence on the vicissitudes of national thought.

* * *

In spite of the fact, however, that we are “a melting pot for conflicting elements,” a “mixture,” we can and should sound the depths of our nature, to coin a nautical phrase. To do this without attempting any synthesis which could be interpreted as a formula (a formula which, given the nature of things Brazilian, would in any event be imperfect and oversimplified), we must consider the facts provided by our past, the historic facts of a destiny covering four centuries. A consideration of these facts would have no value other than that of a simple enumeration. (6-7)

To be honest, I’m not really sure what Costa wants us to consider here. Intellectually, Brazilians are more than transplanted Portuguese; we need to acknowledge that in an intellectual history. So far, so good. But we need to ignore those other “threads of the colorful design” in order to discover an unalloyed Brazilian self? That, indeed, is exactly what we should do, according to a passage quoted by Costa from Mario de Andrade’s Aspectos da Literatura Brasileira, published in 1943, “In this disorder which is Brazil, [we are] forced to make a link between unrelated creative personalities and works, in the mistaken need to establish a unity which does not yet exist. . . . The time has not yet come when the Brazilian soul can be understood by any attempt at a synthetic vision” (in Costa 6). So, at least to the point that I’ve read, Costa has hewn very closely to European ideas (along with Portuguese resistance to them, especially those of the French Encyclopedists) and to the tension between Jesuit and secular (or, at least, less dogmatically-oriented) systems of education. He mentions the indigenous and African presences but says almost nothing about their possible shaping influences on Brazilian thought. In his chapter taking up the early years of Brazilian independence, he quotes a writer of the time who said that the Jesuits’ missions among the Indians were detrimental to more fully integrating Indians into the larger society–the Jesuits sought to reduce contact between their parishioners as much as possible by, among other things, not teaching them Portuguese. (That desire to isolate the Indians might possibly have to do with the colonists’ history of rounding up the Indians to sell them or have them work as slaves, a practice the Jesuits fiercely resisted–but I digress.) Elsewhere, Costa states quite directly in a couple of places that the presence of the Negro is the single most important historical fact about Brazil but so far has said nothing more. In fairness to Costa, I am presently stopped in my reading where Costa has just begun to discuss the Positivists’ plan, published in 1880, to abolish slavery and integrate former slaves into Brazilian society; it may be that in a little bit Costa will speak to this larger issue. We’ll see. But it’s pretty clear that the Positivists didn’t consult any slaves when developing this plan, and that fact gets at this book’s strangeness.

It is as though these three groups’ living near each other for three hundred years had no effect on Brazilian writers and thinkers, except in the literature of the 19th century–except that they did, and we acknowledge that, but we can’t say anything definitive about that/those effect(s), so we’re not going to say anything about it/them at all. Or something like that. After all, Brazil was only, at the time of the writing of A History of Ideas in Brazil, a mere 142 years old as an independent nation. It is as though Costa, at least, is in denial about that mixed-culture past’s bearing on Brazilian intellectual life, even as he notes in the introduction that said past matters and must be acknowledged . . . just not right now.

As of this point in my reading of this book, Brazil as a place remains as blank as ever, what with all the looking back at Europe its intellectuals are engaged in. What, after all, is there to see when one looks inland?

This all reminds me of an overarching theme in Darlene J. Sadlier’s Brazil Imagined: 1500 to the Present, a recently-published comprehensive cultural history that I read much of about a month ago. That theme is that, from the arrival of the first Europeans to the present, Brazil has served as something like a jungle-green screen against which fantasies and nightmares, not just those of Europeans but even those of native Brazilians (the vast majority of whom know almost nothing about their country beyond their immediate region), are projected. Just as one example from her book of how this works, Sadlier discusses the rise (and popularity) of Brazilian regionalist literature in the late-19th century as “[p]erhaps . . . a way for writers to circumvent the vastness and variety that made knowing or representing Brazil as a whole implausible” (315, n. 39). In Costa’s work, then, what is projected on that green screen is recycled European intellectual life, intact and unamalgamated. The fantasy is French philosophy, its apotheosis being the (literal) church of Positivism; the nightmare is Jesuit scholasticism.

Costa so far makes clear that Positivism’s emphasis on science and the rational was seen as a proper antidote to the Church’s celebration of the mystical (though Positivism’s worship of these things itself would become mystical in nature, something its adherents seemed not to recognize). Also, it was very French, which had the chief advantage of not being Portuguese. I find myself wondering if the Brazilian intelligentsia so fervently latched on to Positivism at least in part as a subconscious recognition that Brazil’s three distinct racial types, two of whom had been deliberately shoved to the periphery of the nation’s cultural and social life, would have to be integrated in some way into white society in order to form a genuinely healthy nation and, there no established philosophy articulating the relationship between citizen and government, Positivism seemed more likely to provide sound guidance in this than did other systems of thought.

There’s more to read.


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