By Eduardo Coltre Ferraciolli
Together with the rest of South America, Brazil indeed has some interesting lessons to teach the world, and here I will mention, following my own point of view, some important facts and respective contrasts. Once Europe and America had done their weird industrial thing, these were the countries that tried their hand – and mostly failed, at the third world wave of modernization.
They are the corners of the West. In a sense, Brazil provides a unique case study into modern life under contradictory conditions: it is the West, but it isn’t; it is rich and prosperous, but it isn’t; it has universal healthcare and education, and famine and ignorance in equal measures; it’s an industrial powerhouse, but it uses primary exports as a lifeline and can’t grow for three years in a row without generalized financial collapse. It’s a tropical paradise with a desert the size of France; the largest catholic country, with the largest gay pride parade; and, crucially, by almost any measure it’s the world’s 8th largest economy, as well as the most unequal.
Most of the lessons to be learned from Brazil, then, have to do with loss, ambiguity and contradiction. Brazil is, in fact, one of the darker sides of European History; a large, diverse and strange society formed under the shadows of the emergent world economic system and showing how far this system can go before it breaks. More than 40% of all African slaves were sent to Brazil. Imagine a Louisiana as large as China.
This being on the margins of a nascent world, or between two worlds at once, was our unique, tragic historical distinction. It fed some of the most profound thought on History and Sociology (Gilberto Freire, Caio Prado Junior, Florestan Fernandes). Liberation theology, a favourite of Terry Eagleton and Noam Chomsky, also has many roots in Brazilian academia. This uniqueness of the Brazilian historical condition also allowed for the development of a great body of work on kickstarting economic development in an environment of basic social solidarity (Cleso Furtado and CEPAL – United Nations Economic Commission for Latino America and the Caribbean), and then blurred the waters completely by following massive bursts of development with a military dictatorship.
Brazil is, truly, a lesson for the world – as a model, it could lead the way for democratic third-world development; or it could be the eternal cautionary tale of the pitfalls of modernization. Since power was always so entrenched in Brazil, so submissive to external forces, and so conservative, we never managed to rise to the challenge and make a New Thing out of our contradictions, to find a Brazilian Way Out – we’ve mostly resigned to playing a distorted imitation of either Europe or America. We’ve been trapped for centuries in exploitation and inequality; any avenues out were dismissed in favour of adapting examples from places with very different structures, and in the end we became just another society at odds with itself.
With all that tension, however, comes a pretty unique perspective. Take music as an example. Building on the haunting tunes of Portuguese Fado (don’t forget that Portugal was the first country to ever lose a transatlantic empire), under the poetic resonances of Fernando Pessoa and of the many imported cultures of uprooted slaves and migrant workers, impoverished peasants and renegade mestiço singers, the Brazilian 50’s and 60’s saw the development of a musical style that no amount of recognition of bias can convince me isn’t one of the great accomplishments of the human race.
Between Bossa Nova and Chorinho, Brazilian music has managed to harness the power of utter sadness and make it into a faint, shimmering sparkle of beauty, meant to be the last thing you hang on to before you fall. It’s supposed to be cheerful and life-affirming, but at its best, for me, it’s only as happy as was the sadness that brought it out was deep. It’s made of a sort of decisive, life-affirming desperation. Imagine, again, Louisiana Cajun music – but as a national sport. It’s the music of finding peace in loss; and it revolves around making do with the little you have, and when truth time comes you don’t have even that. It’s a hymn to finding ways out, through loss and uncertainty and death, with no one to keep you company except the music itself.
This subtle, touching bit of Brazilian culture (it’s in Antônio Carlos Jobim, Chico Buarque de Holanda, Cartola, and even perhaps in Marisa Monte and Caetano Velozo), also relates to a general principle of Brazilian morality that puts a truth – a truth that you can never find, above accomplishment, gratification, pleasure or relief; a principle of not believing what you’re told and only very rarely what you think, and of preferring the ambiguity and the beauty of an incomplete answer to the sneaky comforts of certainty or success. From Joaquim Maria Machado to João Guimarães Rosa, it also structures realism in Brazilian literature. This is a powerful stance that allows you not to cave in until you’re finally overwhelmed. But it’s also a prison – the cost of wrestling sincere smiles out of despair is never being really free to risk total happiness, to become yourself.
This is the sense in which we are the least like America – or rather were. This culture of the beauty and power of ambiguity, rooted on the 50s and 60s, doesn’t feel dated; maybe because it was never fully exhausted – its development was cut short by the dictatorship. Brazilian music is a decades-long lament; a soft but wounded wail, finally followed by silence. Through the dictatorship, and against the flexibility showed by our early music, the simple truth of violence prevailed over the endless openness of contradiction; institutionalized violence won that round, and in the chaos that followed political opening and four hundred years of untreated inequality it keeps winning to this day.
For my generation, born in the 80’s, fresh out of the dictatorship and fresh into globalization, the game had changed and we could never quite find our footing again. Never having accomplished the final leap towards development, and caught between the opposing pressures of the international economy and the well-being of our people, we sacrificed half of our society for a place in the world system.
In that musical/literary sense, the globalization of a third-world country is as welcoming of ambiguity and openness and freedom as the dictatorship was – but with none of the dangerous sense of The Nation that pushed us forward a certain way for a certain time. Happiness, ill-defined as it is, becomes normative, and together with a resentful distrust of whoever was left behind, it turns into a new kind of violence that pervades everything we do.
Everyday I myself have to fight my inner fascist. And from the desperate beauty of the past, we finally end up with nothing but football, environmental faux-sustainability and a conduct of international non-interference – all bits of ‘national identity’ that at best just disguise our mild irrelevance and our allergy to understanding. And with this competitive, mandatory, individual happiness comes a damning intolerance to ambiguity and a great diminishing of the breadth of our thought.
Finally, and ironically, the ease with ambiguity that we’ve lost still remains the best interpreter of where we are now: a nation of betrayed promise, too ashamed to remember what it is, and constantly hungry for no one quite knows what. Assuming a progressively interconnected, progressively unequal, progressively contradictory world future, Brazilian history becomes an invaluable reference for what to do, and what to avoid, and perhaps no less marginal for that.