Mark Dery: Brazil is synonymous, in the American imagination, with carnivalesque libidinousness. It’s poles apart from our sanctimonious hypocrisy surrounding sex, a dyspeptic mix of Puritanism and commercialized sexuality (sex as sales tool, used to pimp everything in the mass marketplace). What do Brazilian intellectuals make of Brazil’s role as Hottentot Venus in American fantasies (racist, colonial connotations very much implied)?
Gunter Axt: In the past, Brazilians used to take into greater consideration what Americans and Europeans thought of them. Identifying oneself with the look of the Other is typical of young countries, specifically former European colonies. In Brazil, this tendency became more pronounced when the Portuguese Crown came to Rio de Janeiro in 1808, in flight from Napoleon’s troops.
For the sociologist Gilberto Freyre [Gilberto de Mello Freyre (1900-1987)—ed.], the most distinguished interpreter of Brazilianness, the arrival of the Portuguese monarchy meant a re-Europeanization of the tropics, whose development had until then been Baroque, meaning: more endogenous, more racially intermixed. In Brazil, the Baroque—which flourished between the late 16th century and the mid-18th century—was flamboyant, dramatic, tortuous, sensual but highly spiritual.
Almost a century later, in 1902, the great novelist Euclydes da Cunha published Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), whose theme was the bloody war of Canudos, a conflict that occurred within the State of Bahia, in northeastern Brazil. It involved a popular religious movement on one side, against the army, the Republicans, the church, and local landowners on the other. The outcome was a bloody massacre. It revealed the schizophrenia of a coastal-urban elite that aped the latest fashions of Paris while turning its back on the vast provincial areas, by which I mean not only the rural interior of the country, but also the lower classes and the popular culture.
However, like every continental nation with few neighbors or remote borders, Brazil has a strong endogenous component. In this sense, the average Brazilian is not that different from the average U.S. citizen! Most Brazilians, like most U.S. citizens, don’t know that much about the rest of the world. Thus, any concern with the image that others may have of us is far from being the hegemonic lever of our becoming.
M.D.: All that said, I can’t imagine that Hollywood portrayals of the Mythic Brazil don’t have some cultural fallout.
G.A.: Well, in 2006, John Stockwell’s terrible movie Turistas caused some controversy in Brazil for its fantastic succession of stereotypes and stupidities. A governmental organization expressed its concern with the damage caused to the tourism industry, and actor Josh Duhamel, who plays one of the characters, offered his pathetic apologies. But despite the boycott campaign advocated by communities on the social-networking website Orkut, Turistas was more an object of ridicule than a cause of national outrage.
Just before that, a 2002 Simpsons episode, “Blame it on Lisa,” which among other oddities depicted a bizarre monkey attack in the middle of Copacabana, inspired stronger objections in Brazil. At that time, the government had been discredited by economic uncertainty and political controversies, so the self-esteem of Brazilians was not in its best shape. However, I believe Brazilians weren’t as embarrassed by the monkeys, widely interpreted here as a snide allusion to the endemic violence of cities like Rio de Janeiro, as they were by the fact that the macarena and conga were considered Brazilian rhythms! (In truth, they’re as exotic, here, as jazz and blues.) Even so, “Blame it on Lisa” ended up being one of the most downloaded episodes in the history of the series, in Brazil; it was a great success, ironically.
The Incredible Hulk (2008), on the other hand, which depicted special U.S. Army troops secretly invading Rocinha, the largest shantytown in Rio, a slum dominated by drug-trafficking gangs—something the highly trained elite squad of the local police is barely able to do—was merely considered to be a stupid movie for stupid teenagers.
M.D.: As most of the media narratives you’ve cited suggest, Brazil, in the minds of many Americans who know it only through movies and cruise-ship commercials, is equal parts colonialist carnival of X-rated racial fantasies and one big favela—a Third-World megaslum overrun by drug traffickers, organ thieves, monkeys gone wild, and butt-crazy mulatta freaks, pulsing to a mash-up of vaguely “ethnic” conga and macarena rhythms.
G.A.: U.S. citizens tend to perceive Brazil as part of a Latin-American unity. To be sure, Brazilians are more connected with their South American neighbors today than they were 50 years ago. But Brazil is still primarily, profoundly, specifically Brazilian.
In the United States, when Portuguese is taught in the universities, it is in the Department of Spanish. Courses about Brazilian history and culture are rare. Nevertheless, after the U.S., Brazil is the continent’s largest economy and the U.S.’s most stable ally, in addition to being a cultural melting pot easily on par with the States.
Take the example of Brazilian music, so rich and diverse, yet there is not one specific cable channel dedicated to it in the United States, while there are dozens dedicated to Mexican and Caribbean music, for instance. The same can be said about our literature. The novelist, poet, and playwright Machado de Assis, a towering figure in Brazilian letters, was belatedly published in the United States, and the influential journalist and novelist Clarice Lispector is known only in restricted circles, outside Brazil.
In 1941, Stefan Zweig called Brazil “the country of the future.” In 2008, the French economist Guy Sorman said that the future was already in Brazil. The world’s curiosity about our economy is turning Brazil into a new frontier when it comes to the consumption of symbolic goods. A symptom of this is the growing appreciation, in NYC galleries, of Brazilian visual artists. U.S. music and theater artists such as Michael Jackson, David Byrne, Phillip Glass, and Robert Wilson realized this early on. Jackson, Glass, and Byrne, each in his own way, connected themselves with Brazilian culture. Wilson, by the way, now visits Brazil every year with plays, art exhibitions, and conferences.
But to return to your question, in a hedonistic culture like ours, most Brazilians do not mind their association with carnival, throbbing sexuality, and beautiful tropical landscapes. Brazil is undeniably all these things. Since the country had never really been under the influence of Puritanism, celebration and heightened sexuality became, to a great extent, a source of pride when the dominant ideology of Catholic conservatism caved in.
M.D.: Speaking of throbbing sexuality, there’s a cringe-inducing infomercial, made in the late ‘70s by Playboy magazine, that puts a self-parodic face on American fantasies about Brazil. Called “Carnival in Rio with Arnold Schwarzenegger,” it features Der Grope-inator in his younger, helmet-haired days, offering trenchant cultural critiques such as, “To Brazilians, especially men, the mulatta is the symbol of everything sexy… During carnival, gorgeous mulatta bodies begin to move in ways that even a fitness instructor like myself can’t believe… After watching the mulattas shake it, I can understand why Brazil is totally devoted to my favorite body part, the ass, especially during carnival…”Conan the Barbarian’s idea of Black Orpheus. In the dream life of America, Brazil is one big erogenous zone, a polyracially perverse petting zoo for sex tourists. My mind needs a bikini wax, Gunter. Help me fit Schwarzenegger’s mulattas into your historical and cultural narrative.
G.A.: When the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century and found beautiful naked indigenous women, they associated them with the mythical moura encantada, or “Enchanted Moor,” of Portuguese fairy tales and folklore—an irresistible dark-skinned young lady, vain and beautiful and exuding a sensual mysticism, who guards hidden treasures. In his theory that merges cultural hybridism and biological mixing, Freyre attributed to mulattos the great creative and transforming power that, ironically, characterized the patriarchal and proslavery society of the 19th century. It was in the 19th century that the cult of mulatto woman began, catalyzing ideals of freedom and sensuality. But it was not without tension:a painting by Pedro Américoin, an allegorical work that portrayed Rio de Janeiro as a naked, seductive mulatta, was refused by the steward of Dom Pedro II Imperial House for being licentious.
The derriere has not always been the national preference. In the 19th century, when women were covered in many layers of skirts and petticoats, constrained by corsets and largely secluded in the domestic sphere, feet were men’s greatest fetish. The derriere gained status with the success of new rhythms such as the maxixe and then samba (which originated in 1917 from the fusion of European, African, and local rhythms); their funky, hip-swinging syncopations were better performed by mulatto and black bodies. In a way, one could say that Brazil’s buttocks fetish represents the triumph of popular taste over the bourgeois taste of La Belle Époque and also over the Hollywood icons of the 20th century.
Carnival has become a stage for this aesthetic. It is a popular festival of ancient pagan origins, but one that has been deeply absorbed into the Christian tradition, marking the celebration before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season. In the 1970s, Ash Wednesday would be celebrated with a powerful mass. The anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, when describing the logic of ritual and symbolic inversion, shows in his 1979 Carnavais, Malandros, e Heróis (Carnivals, Rogues, and Heroes: An Interpretation of the Brazilian Dilemma) the importance of carnival as an escape valve for social pressure in rigidly hierarchical societies such as Brazil.
At the same time, there were some who despised carnival as a manifestation of poor, black, and idle people. Initially only tolerated by the elites, it ended up being partly regulated by the government, partly constantly reinvented by the people, and partly appropriated by different economic forces to become the largest celebration of the Brazilian identity, not to mention the greatest showbiz spectacle on earth. Today a national symbol, it moves millions of dollars and has become an export product, gaining visibility through hedonistic postmodernism and turbo-capitalism.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s video is quite funny: in it, The Terminator, whose most recent role was that of California’s sex scandal-plagued ex-governor, plays an incredibly dull role. Precisely because of that, this video became a kind of joke cult movie in Brazil, very popular on the Internet some years ago. In March of this year, Schwarzenegger came to Brazil with James Cameron to do some environmental proselytizing. Some people on the Internet then brought up this video again. There is a revealing passage: when Arnold attempts some samba steps and lustfully runs his eager hands over the mulattas’ buttocks, she immediately moves his hands back above waist level. The message is clear: ass off-limits! Here, Arnold embodies an automatic reaction, typical of those who live in a world with a puritanical mindset and are therefore unable to differentiate eroticism from sexual indecency. The Brazilian body is a more eroticized body, but that isn’t synonymous with libertinism and an open invitation to sex. There’s a lot of middle ground between puritanical repression and bacchanal.
M.D.: Talk, if you would, about that binary opposition in Brazilian culture. How does it differ from the tension, in American society, between the Puritanical attitudes toward sex and the body that pervade our fair republic and the guilt-free, drive-through hedonism that greases the gears of consumer capitalism?
G.A.: Brazil didn’t have Victorian moralists such as Anthony Comstock, but there were some conservative Catholics. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the country was visited by the Court of the Holy Office—the Inquisition, by any other name. It didn’t have the same impact as in Portugal, but there were arrests, torture, and deaths. The 19th century had preachers on moral crusades, but there was also a lot of hypocrisy due to the power relations inherent in a proslavery, patriarchal society. While elite women were kept in an almost Islamic-fundamentalist seclusion, with fewer privileges than women living under shariya law, senators, judges, businessmen, and even Catholic priests would often keep courtesans without much effort to hide it. There were limits, though: when Emperor Dom Pedro I forced the Court to admit into the Imperial Chapel his most famous courtesan, the Marchioness of Santos (whose home was located in the back of the Palace of São Cristóvão), he aroused the indignation that would ultimately lead to his abdication on April 7, 1831.
The Second Reign (1840-1889), when Pedro II ruled, embraced a stricter morality. The police were very active in the repression of “immoral” customs such as capoeira (a dance form created by slaves and ex-slaves), African religious rituals, and, of course, prostitution. Eça de Queiroz’s 1878 novel “O Primo Basílio” (Cousin Basilio), a pre-modernist Portuguese classic, was considered pornographic; the idea of a bourgeois woman having an affair to escape the tedium of marriage, all of her escapades described with sensual realism, was intolerable. To make matters worse, the lovers were cousins and there was even a suggestion of female homosexuality!
In the 20th century, the gentrification of society led to a broader penetration, throughout Brazilian culture, of what you, in the States, would call social conservatism. In the 1950s, theater and cinema actresses were execrated as prostitutes, not divas, as in the U.S. In 1960, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were prohibited from lecturing in Porto Alegre, the capital city of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, by Catholics and conservative academics, since their unconventional union offended the principle of holy matrimony. In 1964, thousands of people gathered in many Brazilian cities for the Family March, with God and for Freedom, demonstrations that mobilized half a million people in various Brazilian cities. Organized by conservatives in response to the rally held in Rio de Janeiro on March 13, 1964, during which the then-President João Goulart announced a program with socialist tendencies, the Family March shored up civilian support for the coup d’état that had initiated the military regime, which lasted until the mid-1980s. In late 1970s, a man could easily be sentenced to three years in prison if he had sex with a woman before marriage; it was the crime of seduction. In contrast, in many regions of the country, juries rarely convicted a man accused of killing his unfaithful wife: wounded honor was washed with blood!
Even today there are moral crusaders. Any serious consideration of the decriminalization of abortion continues to be taboo for politicians. The acknowledgment of civil rights for same-sex couples runs into fierce resistance in the National Congress. Recently, the Ministry of Women, influenced by the sort of puritanical feminism associated in the U.S. with the Andrea Dworkin wing of the women’s movement, wanted to prohibit the broadcasting of a TV commercial for Devassa (dissolute) beer, starring Paris Hilton in a typically lascivious role, because they considered it demeaning to blondes. When Hilton was informed of the controversy, she thought it was a prank. Yet, even though today’s moralists on the left and the right occasionally win a battle, they’ve definitely been losing ground.
M.D.: You mentioned the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, whose reading of Brazil as a mash-up society that draws its vitality from racial intermingling and cultural hybridity has been widely influential in Brazil. Can you talk in greater depth about Freyre—the cultural politics of his ideas, the uses to which Brazilian intellectuals have put him, the critiques of his thought that have sparked controversy?
GA: We could spend hours discussing Freyre! Freyre (1900-1987) was born to an elite patriarchal family from the state of Pernambuco, northeast of Brazil, a region of traditional Portuguese colonization and sugarcane production. In 1922, he published his M.A. dissertation in the Hispanic American Historical Review. At Columbia University, he studied under Franz Boas, his most obvious intellectual mentor.
Freyre’s first book, “Casa Grande e Senzala” (The Masters and the Slaves), published in 1933, is to Brazilian intellectuals what de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is to intellectuals in the States. He proposed intuitive formulations about the way to do science, shortening the distance between it and literature, and bridging the gulf between the scholar and folk knowledge. His narrative pulses around daily rituals—music, dance, social habits—and is flavored by the libido, the spices, the conversation of Brazil. I enjoy, for example, the manner in which nature arises in his theoretical system; the profusion of sexuality that permeates his writing; the palpitating, uneasy connections that are proposed at every instant, such as his perception of the sensuality contained in a small candy; the identification of the sadomasochistic nature of the relationship between master and slave (and from there an understanding of the patriarchal political system); or, even, the correlations between a life in the woods, the uprising against the Dutch invaders in the 17th century, and soccer considered as an art form, incarnated by Garrincha and Pelé. In Freyre’s thought, knowledge arriving from libraries and archives is on the same level as the knowledge tasted in recipes or heard during interviews with ordinary people. Freyre had an interdisciplinary approach. He was a sponge, absorbing everything that looked relevant to him, without establishing hierarchies.
Of course, he owed a debt to thinkers who had preceded him. The Bavarian ethnologist Carlos Frederico Felippe von Martius, in his seminal article “De como se deve escrever a história do Brasil” (How the History of Brazil Should Be Written, 1845), had already pointed to the importance of the cultural contributions of Africans and the Natives, along with Europeans, in the formation of that unique synthesis, Brazilianness. In 1902, João Capistrano de Abreu valued the concept of culture over the concept of race, inviting the ordinary man into the role of social subject and object of research. The “Manifesto Antropofágico” (Cannibal Manifesto), from 1928, by the poets Oswald and Mário de Andrade, became a kind of birth certificate of Brazilian modernity. And certainly we can’t forget the magnificent Padre António Vieira, a Jesuit priest from the 17th century who denounced repressive agendas in defense of tolerance, raising his erudite voice in favor of the native peoples and Jews of Brazil.
Freyre has traced the roots of Brazilian identity in our popular culture. But he emphasizes the central role of regional variations, presenting the Northeast as the soul of the nation; his understanding of the reality of the South is somewhat limited.
Writing in a colloquial manner and avoiding academic jargon, he went as far as proposing a new discipline, Tropicology, which would be dedicated to the study of the tropical civilizations. Much of his analysis is subjective and sentimental, and not always empirically verifiable. His methods are intuitive and sensual, unfolding in poetic and grandiloquent metaphors, such as the “vegetable reaction of the Natives to the White Man.” Even before Ferdinand Braudel, Freyre operated with multiple temporalities: he differentiated between the rhythms of transformations in politics, mentalities, habits, and geography. In general, he emphasized cultural factors over political and economical forces, basing the concept of identity on psychosocial elements.
The concept of race is ancillary to his theories, ironically because he embraced the virtues of miscegenation. Freyre argued that Brazil was in an advantageous position, since it was a pioneer in the development of a meta-race (here he amplifies von Martius). He proposed a history of society, with an emphasis on the destiny of the patriarchal family, whose inexorable decadence lends to his work a kind of melancholic tune. The state doesn’t interest him; it’s absent from his entire analysis.
Freyre has been harshly criticized for his right-wing political positions, such as his support of the military coup in 1964 and his defense of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, and more generally for contributing to the myth of a Brazilian racial democracy and for idealizing a national unity. He promoted miscegenation and Portuguese colonization and the patriarchy. In his books, the national identity and modernity were in conflict, but, even so, he devises a sort of reconciliation between the universal and the local folk culture—the basis, for him, of a modernity founded on differences and capable of dealing with multiplicity. In that sense, he claims to be an advocate of adaptability and tolerance, which certainly does not make him a conservative.
MD: Are there any philosophical or historical threads that tie Freyre to the Mexican philosopher and politician José Vasconcelos, best known for his notion, in La Raza Cósmica (1925), of a “cosmic race” in which all races converge, evolutionarily—a kind of Teilhard de Chardinian apotheosis of the species in a transcendent race destined to build a kind of heterotopia, Universópolis? Certainly, there’s some shared philosophical DNA, isn’t there, between the Mexican notion of mestizaje (the emergence of national identity through the racial and cultural synthesis of indigenous peoples, European colonists, and black slaves) and Freyre’s argument that the Brazilian mestiço is, if I understand you correctly, the Quintessential Brazilian, embodying the nation’s storied history of racial diversity?
GA: José Vasconcelos Calderón’s work is tremendously important. Unfortunately, it is also very little known in Brazil, a country he visited and admired, as he testifies his memoirs, Ulisses Crioulo. The “Raça Cósmica” is one of the most peculiar books I know of. Sometimes it seems like a metaphysical hallucination, as if it were written over the Andes, under the hypnotic and psychedelic influence of an enormous joint! However, beyond Calderón’s unexpected assertion that Native Americans are descendants of the inhabitants of the mythical Lemuria, there are precious insights there.
Although I don’t recall an explicit quotation of Vasconcelos in the vast work of Freyre, there is much of the first in the latter, nonetheless. In 1921, also, when Freyre was living in the U.S., he took part in a student congress at the Mexico National University; the opening speech was made by José Vasconcelos, who was rector at the time.
Vasconcelos did not conceive of revolution and politics as dissociable from culture. He was a great advocate of the union between Latin America peoples, in the face of what he perceived as a threatening imperialism by the U.S. Although he was very attached to the concept of race, impregnated by a Spenglerian positivism, he valued miscegenation, viewing it as the password to creativity. As in Freyre, Vasconcelos mixed racial miscegenation with cultural hybridism. What was genetic decay for European eugenicists was, for Vasconcelos, the future. He believed that Europe and the U.S. were rushing toward a kind of cultural and genetic exhaustion; thus, he argued, the forward momentum of creativity belonged to the mestizos. And he dared to make intriguing predictions, suggesting that this evolutionary horizon would emerge when human ingenuity becomes capable of artificially acclimatizing environments, for example relieving the excess heat of the tropics.
Vasconcelos assigned Brazil a strategic centrality in his vision. His Universopolis, a kind of planned city, hypothetically to be raised at the heart of Brazil (as would Brasília in the second half of the 1950’s), would function as a global capital toward which all races and all cultures would converge and interact.
Vasconcelos managed to leave his mark on Mexican history as the great cultural entrepreneur he was, serving as head of Mexico’s Ministry of Education and lending his decisive support to muralist art, as well as for his rich memoirs, which constitute a vivid portrait of the Mexico of his times. But his philosophical aspirations ended up mocked and diluted as occasional pamphlets. He died in frustration. Freyre, on the other hand, died in love with life and, although controversial in Brazilian universities, was covered in glory around the world. If Vasconcelos believed in the promise of a close collaboration between Mexico and Brazil that never happened, Freyre worked more towards the integration of the Lusophonic world. In both cases, these authors need to be analyzed with their backgrounds always in mind. There’s much in them that should be criticized, but their essays still provide us with anchors of meaning and illuminating perspectives.