A bracingly original thinker about the Brazilian cultural psyche, Gunter Axt—university professor, cultural historian, public intellectual—is the sort of Big Thinker who accessorizes his blazer-and-blue jeans costume with an ’80s-ironic necktie studded with Swarovski crystals; who thrills to the sharp-elbowed debates inspired by his appearances on Brazilian TV and his columns for magazines such as Cult and Voto; who exults in conversational hyperlinking, segueing from masculinity and homophobia in Brazil to the role of Afro-Brazilian syncretic religions in the Brazilian cultural unconscious to the myth of Brazil as a post-racial heterotopia versus the racial realities of Brazilian society, with detours—pass the cachaça, will you?—down discursive byways leading to District 9, The Hurt Locker, and Avatar.
At the same time, Axt thrives in his roles as visiting professor at the Université Denis Diderot in Paris; consultant on cultural heritage to the Legislative Assembly of Rio Grande do Sul, to that state’s public prosecutor, and to the Brazilian supreme court; and as curator of the international lecture series Boundaries of Contemporary Thought in Porto Alegre (where—full disclosure—he hosted me as a featured speaker).
Yet he’s no less in his element as a carnival reveler, shaking it to the boombastic sounds of a live band and earthquaking sound system on a float several stories high, as he did at the 2009 mega-party in Salvador da Bahia alongside Camille Paglia, improbably enough. (That was Axt on Daniela Mercury’s trio elétrico, a kind of motorized bandstand, gyrating as the Brazilian pop star sang “Oyá Tê Tê,” a frenzied paean to Iansä, the goddess of wind and storm sacred to the Afro-Brazilian religion of candomblé.)
Axt is the sort of thinker who tosses off aperçus like “any concern with the image that others may have of us [as Brazilians] is far from being the hegemonic lever of our becoming” and, a few paragraphs later, compares the Mexican social theorist José Vasconcelos Calderón’s unclassifiable book Raça Cósmica to “a metaphysical hallucination, as if it were written over the Andes, under the hypnotic and psychedelic influence of an enormous joint!”
In the epic interview that follows, Axt walks U.S. readers through Brazil’s storied history and foundational myths—mash-ups of sacred and secular, high and low culture, European and African and indigenous elements.
Ever wondered about Calderón’s “unexpected assertion that Native Americans are descendants of the inhabitants of the mythical Lemuria”? So has Axt. Curious to know about the racial roots of the straight male obsession, in Brazil, with the female booty, and its relation to the mythical moura encantada, or “Enchanted Moor,” of Portuguese fairy tales and folklore? Axt has it down cold. Given much thought to “carnival as an escape valve for social pressure in rigidly hierarchical societies,” and its special relevance to our age of anti-terrorist paranoia, when surveillance is ubiquitous, public space is militarized, and crowds, no matter how law-abiding, are kettled and maced? Axt has, and he’s got the Bakhtinian op cits and ibids to prove it.
In the pages that follow, Axt interprets the historical narratives and contemporary dreams of a country whose economic and geopolitical shadow stretches longer and longer across global affairs; a country that, to America’s snooze-alarm surprise, sees the 21st century, increasingly, as the Brazilian Century, at least in the context of the Americas.
Brazilian intellectuals are fond of quoting Stefan Zweig, who in 1941 called Brazil “the country of the future.” Axt likes to quote the French economist Guy Sorman, who said that the future was already in Brazil.
That was in 2008.