Literary criticism follows fashions, never evaluating the merits of theories that are repeated left and right. This is the assessment of two specialists who have just published books that seek to change this structure that has been gathering dust.
In “Duas Formações, Uma História”, Luís Augusto Fischer, professor of Brazilian literature at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, reassesses important thinkers in order to seek a new way of doing the history of literature.
The writer, editor and researcher at USP Luiz Maurício Azevedo seeks, in “Estética e Raça”, to make visible what was made invisible and to recover the historicity of black literature with a critique of Brazilian literary criticism.
From a revisitation of two pillars of literature studies in Brazil, Antonio Candido and Roberto Schwarz, objects of scrutiny, Fischer draws other thinkers from the field, puts aside the nationalism that shaped our history of literature and resorts to the historian Jorge Caldeira and to the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro to propose another path.
“We continue to think about the history of literature as it was thought since it was born, between the 18th and 19th centuries”, says Fischer, “in the context of the definition of modern national states, when literature was an auxiliary line of nationalism”.
For him, it is first of all necessary to get rid of the ghost of nationalism, which, even in the best version of the history of Brazilian literature, as in the case of Candido, is the point from which everything is organized. Fischer does not give up, however, a national approach, which, according to him, is one among other possible approaches, but which can help the reader to meet our literature, by showing milestones of a national history.
He then arrives at a story marked by two great forces, which he calls plantation and sertão. “They are not straitjackets, but historical forces that are at work, that depend on waves, ebbs and flows,” he says.
The plantation has as its point zero the letter of Pero Vaz de Caminha and is markedly coastal, slaveholding, landowners, monoculture and exporting, in the sertão, point zero is the oral tradition and is marked by the interior of the country, by the extensive networks of small trade, with different social arrangements and a smaller presence of slaves.
Although in the 1980s and 1990s this duality cooled down, says Fischer, the two forces are still at work. “Who would have thought that ‘Torto Arado’ would be so successful today? And it’s a backwoods romance. This duality was once stronger, but there are still things that are stridently sertão or plantation.”
The history proposed by Fischer is not composed of names and works, although he points to the high point of these two historical matrices. Machado de Assis is from the plantation and Guimarães Rosa from the sertão.
He says he moves away from the idea of a canon, since his concern is less with having a final list of authors and more with understanding the process of constitution of the Brazilian canon. The effort that we see today so that authors who were forgotten along the way are taken to the prominent place they deserve is seen by Fischer, however, as less revolutionary than it is thought to be.
“Many times it happened that of redefining the past in terms of the present. In Independência was like that, they looked back and thought who were the writers who should enter. It wasn’t the same thing, but it was similar, the present rereading the past and remaking the canon,” he says.
Luiz Maurício Azevedo defends that there is a canon, even though he says he believes it is “just a corpse that walks around”. “In Brazil, people don’t feel the pressure of the canon, because they don’t even know what canon is”. For him, the idea is positive insofar as it guarantees the minimum that a person should read. “The canon is the base, it is the thing that everyone will read, with which we will start the courses, but it is not the maximum relationship between Brazilians and literature”, he says.
There is, however, according to Azevedo, a problem: “who chose these books and if they in fact represent a mosaic of possible experiences in literature”. The Brazilian critical gaze, which determines what goes and what remains, however, is marked by who the critics are.
“The Brazilian thinker is, as a rule, a white man, allegedly heterosexual, who occupies a social centrality in Brazilian culture, and he drags the way he sees the world into his critical gaze, which contaminates how he sees the work.” It is quite true, says Azevedo, that there is no such neutral look, however, and therein lies the biggest mistake of the critics, “they consider neutrality what is not neutrality, but commitment to their class”.
Azevedo says in his book that the literary productions of black authors “receive a treatment that is sometimes vilification and sometimes uncritical adulation”. For him, the function of criticism is to erase these authors, so that Brazil is a country of white male authors who, “accidentally, are similar to those who criticize”. “It is very different to criticize an object that is already considered, from the outset, important and to criticize one, from the beginning, unimportant”, he says.
Comparing the treatment given to two authors can show how the difference works. “They say you have to read Carolina Maria de Jesus because she was a poor waste picker, so the weight of biography matters, but when we say that Monteiro Lobato was racist, then they say we should separate the author from the work”, says Azevedo. “In Carolina we don’t dissociate biography from aesthetics, but in Lobato we have to? Why isn’t the same criterion valid for both authors?”
Thus, he says, we have been saying for 40 years that Carolina needs to be recognized by the critics, always discussing the same issues, and it has not yet been possible for her to be placed under the real scope of criticism, due to the value that her writing work has.
The black author is denied art and, thus, the evaluation of his book by the aesthetic aspect is refused, and his work is instrumentalized. “The big argument for reading a black bestseller is ‘this book is necessary.’ But we only use instrumentality for black literature, which is encouraged even by people who are allegedly defending this literature.” Without an aesthetic dimension, the only thing left for the black writer is to talk about his sales.
The path to change, according to Azevedo, is through criticism that is taken seriously, that evaluates literary objects in depth, without fear of saying what is good literature or not. “Did we evaluate well the authors that we say we evaluated well, or did we build an immense machine for reproducing interpretations by thinkers we trusted, such as Antonio Candido and Roberto Schwarz, and so we were just reproducing?”, he asks.
For Fischer, the scenario comes from the precariousness of university life in Brazil, where discussion is not common, contrary to egocentrism. “Positions change according to academic fashion without us evaluating their merit,” she says.
The ghost of nationalism is also an astonishment according to Azevedo. “What if the literature that we think is important is just bad, and we, with forceps, said it was good because we wanted to build a country, because we wanted to be as great as others, and we took half-assed authors and said they were wonderful?”