The paradoxical asset of a weak national identity
In the last years Brazil has intensely discussed its national identity. This question had not been important under the last dictatorship, but as the latter came to an end it gained momentum. At the same time we could see the emergence of a new series of intellectual essays on Brazil, a genre that had been more and less despised since the 1940s or 1950s, when academia and most of all the University of Sao Paulo imposed a technical pattern of quality on human and social sciences as a whole. Essays had been responsible for some important attempts to define Brazil, as witness the still respected Roots of Brazil, by Sergio Buarque de Holanda, the again respected, after a long eclipse, Masters and Slaves, by Gilberto Freyre, and the now almost forgotten Portrait of Brazil, by Paulo Prado, all published around the 1930s. But, when academia imposed its pattern of quality centred in scientific research, those books were heavily criticised, with the only exception of Buarque’s Roots. However, in the end of the 80s Brazil came again to debate its national identity; it is possible to link this renewed demand to a renewed supply of essays that tried to discuss it. Actually this is a demand that exceeds academia, and Luis Fernando Verissimo, a sophisticated but popular writer in Brazil, has been instrumental in shaping a style of newspaper chronicles variously and ironically answering the question of national identity. Here we intend to discuss the issues around national identity focusing some points that can help us to understand Brazilian imaginaries.
We shall begin by José de Alencar’s important novel Iracema (1865). Iracema is a name that sounds as genuinely tupi-guarani, that is, Amerindian, but was created by Alencar himself – even though this fact was only discovered around 1930, by the literary critic Afranio Coutinho, who also seems to have been the first to notice that Iracema is an anagram of America. This means that the character Iracema would be a metaphor for the continent – or at least for Brazil. Iracema is also a Brazilian adaptation of Bellini’s Norma (1831), a popular opera in our country at the times: in 1844, when theatres reopened after the troubles of the Regência period, it was the first opera to be shown in Rio de Janeiro. As in Norma, Alencar’s main female character, Iracema, is a native priestess that becomes the lover of the enemy (either Roman or Portuguese) commander. As in Norma, Iracema has a tragic or at least sad end but her son (or her children, for Norma) survives her.
But there also are important differences. The first one is that native people are divided in Iracema: some, the good ones, favour the Portuguese, while their enemies (the bad guys) fight them. Norma’s Gaulese were united against their foreign foe. This implies that Portuguese can be the allied of the original Brazilians, while Romans could never ally themselves to Gaulese. But the most important difference is that Iracema’s Portuguese lover survives her, and as the father of her son legitimises himself as the owner of the newly-discovered country. (Norma’s lover, Pollione, dies with her at the stake). Allegorically this means that Ceará, Alencar’s and Iracema’s state, which also works as a metaphor for Brazil (or for America), is born as the little orphan Moacir, "son of the grief", as the author translates his name. What was formerly native, or nature, is now dead. We now belong to the Portuguese, or at least to Portuguese language and culture – which may be a little ironic, since Alencar was one of the first Brazilian authors to hold systematically that we do not write as our forefathers1. If there is a Brazilian identity, this is the identity of orphans that belong to foreign fathers. Nature, as a female principle, is presently dead – and maybe it died because Power (her lover’s name, Martim, derives from Marte, Mars, the ancient god of war), the foreign male principle, ceased to love her. This means that our relationship to nature, to our history, to femininity will be quite difficult. They all smell of death. And conversely life means power, war, the male principle – and, to sum it all, everything that is alien and foreign to us. We will probably always miss our lost mother Iracema, that died when we were so young that we can scarcely remember her.
Our relationship to our origins will then be much more difficult than the one that the Italian public of Bellini’s would have to their country. (Norma’s Gaulese were easily deciphered by 19th century public as present-day Italians). It is true that Brazil was unified at the time, while Italy was still divided in several separate states; but Italy could conceive of itself in a historical continuum across two or more millennia, while Brazil would feel that at its birth there was a mother’s death, an unmistakable loss, something that could never be repaired.
Let us now discuss another Brazilian representation of nature. Our present currency, real, dates from 1994, when it replaced the last one of a series of names that in the preceding eight years had been identified in our experience to an inflation with no precedents: cruzeiro (1942-67 and 1970-86), cruzado (1986-9), cruzado novo (1989-90), cruzeiro (1990-3) and cruzeiro real (1993-4). Real has been widely discussed from the economic point of view, but I think I was the only one to discuss its iconography2. Brazilian banknotes traditionally showed the images of heroes of our history – statesmen and soldiers – or allegories of some activities – industry, agriculture, and trade. But in 1994, for the first time in Brazilian history, the iconography of the five banknotes of real consisted only of animals. Men and women were forgotten. Nature replaced history3.
This downsizing of Brazilian history in our 1994 banknotes is not surprising. It is a commonplace in Brazil to say that our history is little known; it is such a commonplace that we should look for a better explanation for this phenomenon. In the 1990s several Brazilian economists thought that our history had been a series of errors. Industrialisation might have been one of them: since 1955, it would have been our major cause of inflation. I dare say that for some economists our recent history could be equated with inflation, and that this is the idea underlying, consciously or unconsciously, the iconography of real. Most of what man did in Brazil would have been faulty. (Curiously this pessimistic belief is shared by many more Brazilians, from the right to the left). We could then forget our whole history – and replace it by nature. If I seem to exaggerate, we could remember the moment when the economists who had devised the Plano Cruzado (1986) – the first of several plans which intended to put an end to inflation – went to President José Sarney to tell him the great lines of the plan. It was reported they suggested cruzado as the name for the new currency, explaining it as a synthesis of the words cruzeiro and desindexado (= no more indexed). Then the President reminded – or rather told – them that cruzado had already been the name of a Portuguese, ergo Brazilian, currency in the 16th century. This story can be read as the mere perception that some economists in power usually know few history, but this seems to me to be a rather superficial reading of it; we would rather say: they do not care about history; and the iconography of real allows us to go even further: they are against our history.
We should now dwell a little on the name of our present currency, after having discussed its images. Real had already been the name of a Brazilian currency; it derived from rei, king, and was a common name for national currencies across all the Hispanic world. (There is a line in Padilla and Montesinos’ hit La Violetera: "que no vale más que un real…"). The choice of this name had historic precedents even stronger than the name cruzado, since real (or its plural form mil réis) had been the national currency for centuries, until 1942. But 1994 real derives from reality, not from king. Ancient real had as its plural réis, new real has as its plural reais. The memory of the ancient name is completely obliterated. This explains why 1994 real could be presented as something absolutely new. Only historians would remember it was the recovery of an ancient name. Then, if in the span of only eight years (1986 and 1994) two currency names in Brazil repeated ancient names of the national currency, and both times this was done by economists unconscious of that repetition, we should consider this as more than a coincidence. Economists in power may antagonise history, or at least Brazilian history. They may have an idea of reality that excludes history (this is why they overvalue nature as a synonym of reality).
Lastly, the name real, when it derives from reality, is a curious name for a currency. Even if a foreign public ignores that in Portuguese the word moeda (as moneda in Spanish) means at the same time money, currency and coins, the fact is that money is not considered in economic theory as something real. It represents a value. Its ontological characteristics are not those of a being, but those of representation and values. To say that money is real, to call a currency real can only be explained as a strong reaction against the devaluation of money. Monetary values had come to value almost nothing in Brazil. We had had inflation rates of 85% in a month (in the beginning of 1990); this implied that banknotes could lose more than 95 % of their face value in less than a year. It also happens that in those years, for the only time in our history, writers appeared in banknotes; and it was told that the family of a writer had not been happy with what in other times would have been an important sign of reverence4. To give currency the name of unidade real de valor (real value unit) and later of real would then help to stabilise what was undervalued or devaluated, to give a smell of reality to what had lost nearly all value. This explains the ontology of real. It also helps to understand its iconography. And last but not least it allows us to understand the strategy of equating history, past and inflation, on one side, and on the other side reality (in the name), nature (in the images) and future.
The first allusion to the name of the future currency as real was heard in a TV Globo soap opera of 1993-4, Fera ferida (Hurt beast), which has extensively discussed corruption in Brazil. Corruption was so widespread in that telenovela that the small town of Tubiacanga was eventually destroyed by a storm, which could (literally) be called in English "an act of God": history (in the sense of human action, especially human political action) was so bad that nature finished by judging and condemning it. But in the last chapter we could see that in a couple of years the stormed town had been able to recover itself; it was even in a better shape than before. Tubiacanga was now a prosper place, and this was due to the action of small entrepreneurs and, we could maybe add, of some informal NGOs. Politicians never did any good to the town (which of course allegorised the country, as it usually happens in Brazilian soap operas), but the independent action of the small ones did.
That could be the good news in the telenovela’s morale. But we also had bad news: the same corrupt politicians remained in power. The mayor and the speaker of the local council had switched places, but they were still in power. What could that mean? One or two things. First, that Brazil can redress itself and is tired of waiting for the actions of politicians. One of the worse traits in our political culture – to condemn the government for everything bad that happens in the country because we hold it responsible for those things we could but do not do – is losing ground. More and more people are organising themselves in order to act. This is an important change in Brazil. But, second, institutional power has not changed. It remains in the same traditional hands. This explains why our politicians are held in something close to contempt. Brazilians elect them but also despise them. A few months later, when Ayrton Senna died in Imola (on May 1, 1994), a reader could write to a major newspaper of Sao Paulo expressing his disapproval that the dead F-1 runner had been mourned at the State Assembly: how could someone so respected person like Senna be associated with politicians? He was the real public person, not the (elected) representatives of the people.
Discussing Iracema we suggested that our history begins as an act of mourning and that we feel orphans. Nature, that was good and belonged to us, had been replaced by a foreign power, which brought us history, but a history that killed our nature (Martim let Iracema die because he did not love her anymore). Action, political action, creative action would be difficult because our history is not exactly ours. Nature is good but it is lost to us. History – prospective history, future history – is frightening and maybe bad. Then, discussing the name and the images of real, we have seen that nature and history have changed their meanings. History – retrospective history, past history – was bad and faulty. Future history could be good, but only if we could break with our past and have a brand new start. Many people could agree with this, maybe even most people in Brazil, but what is far from obvious is that nature and reality could represent that start. The equation nature-reality underlying the 1994 real implied that, instead of a rational project of political creative action, we had a mythical iconography. Finally, discussing the first soap opera that attempted to make an inventory of the Fernando Collor presidential experience we suggested that many people were – and are – sceptical about politicians and political action. Political field would always be subject to corruption and mismanagement. But some light could be seen in the end of the tunnel: independent organised action of common people begins to be important in Brazil. Of course political power would remain in the same hands. Of course small enterprise was more important than NGOs in Tubiacanga. But new political actors could enter the public field and begin to change it. Action – political creative action – could become a possibility. This is different from Iracema and real stories. In Alencar’s novel action was blockaded since we could not stop to mourn our origins. In the real story action was linked to a myth, the myth of reality. Here we have something less ambitious but more promising: the action of independent people.
And in Tubiacanga story nature is not even mentioned. Brazilian auto-image gives much importance to nature. Our flag represents our nature (the green colour mean our forests, the yellow our gold, and so on). It is true that the stars in the centre of the flag originally represented the sky over Rio de Janeiro on the night of November 15, 1889, when we became a Republic5– and this means that a sort of history, even if it is a naturalised astronomic history, stays in the centre of one of our national symbols. For a long time Brazilians were very proud of their nature, much more than of their history. So it is interesting that in a soap opera that discusses Brazil (something some soap operas do, but only some) politics and society come to be more important than nature. Today when we discuss nature we mean ecology, which is completely different from the former ufanismo (from the book Porque me ufano do meu país, "Why I am so proud of my country", by Affonso Celso6, the epitome of the celebration of Brazil for its natural riches). Ecology is a political issue that requires human action, while ufanismo meant all action was unnecessary and even unwelcome since it would compromise our riches.
Natural riches did not need to be exploited. Their richness consisted exactly in being an ontological stock, something that would become more and more valuable precisely by not being exploited. Human action could not be positively valued. It was either impossible or unwelcome. We stayed in the world of nature, while our European cousins were in the battlefield of history. And of course if we now enter consciously the historical arena this change will only keep its promises if the history we make is different from what was history in the preceding times. Our history will not be European or North Atlantic history. Our political action will not be the same as theirs. Even if to have "a politics without politicians", as many Brazilians seem to desire, can be an illusion, it opens some interesting possibilities.
And this verb – to open – may be the synthesis of what we have been saying. For a long time Brazil prided itself of its nature, I mean, of something that is closed and deemed to be perfect. But at the same time Brazil was appreciated as a country able to receive different people, different practices, even different theories. Brazilian modernist writer Oswald de Andrade called anthropophagy this ability to incorporate different and even incompatible traditions into a new body. Anthropophagy is the contrary of a static nature. It means an openness to the Other. It means creative action. Maybe the sometimes sad belief of many Brazilians that we do not have an identity could be deciphered as a melancholic perception of something that in its core is nevertheless an asset rather than a liability: not to have an identity (or not to have an essence, a nature) is to be open to new opportunities. In a world that now gives more importance to culture and creative action than to nature and stability, to human action more than to natural stocks, openness can be an interesting positive trait. Maybe ufanismo was only a bad, very conservative perception of ourselves. Machado de Assis already knew that when he showed his discontent with a foreigner whom he entertained in Rio de Janeiro: this man told him that, much more admirable than the work of man, was the landscape of Guanabara bay – the work of God.
Action and nature often come at odds. To appreciate action we must downsize nature, and vice-versa. This also implies that in order to upsize human action it is necessary to be open to new identities. Maybe the inexistence of a Brazilian ethnic identity will help us in the new world that is coming to light. The emptiness of our identity, the vacuity of our nature could then be positive things.
We could continue for a while, and remember that in philosophy the words nature and essence can be used in a certain sense as synonyms (if we leave aside the meaning of nature as, say, the green world7). One important presupposition of many debates that have raged in Brazil about the reasons why it is so difficult to act politically in our country is that, if we do not know who we are, how can we know what we can do? We then compare ourselves to other people who have a clear perception of their identities – Norma Gaulese, for instance (or should we say Italians?): they know who they are, so they can rebel against the Romans (or the Austrians). But who are we? If we return to Iracema, we are neither pure Indians nor pure Portuguese. If we were either, it would be much easier to know how to act, to understand which acts would be the correct ones. Action would then rely on identity, politics on nature, ethics on a sort of national essence. When they endeavoured either to discover the roots of Brazil or to portrait it, Sérgio Buarque and Paulo Prado both witnessed to the idea that we must understand its essence, in order to seize the reasons of what is bad in our country: if Brazil is unable to develop, if it was the last country in our hemisphere to abolish slavery, if it became the "sleepy giant" celebrated in the national anthem (an image that is mocked in common conversation), it is because Brazil does not know who it is, it is because we do not know who we are.
All the problem lies, however, in this main idea. It is wrong. It engenders exactly what it is supposed to challenge. Those who debated and still debate national identity as something stable think they are trying to free action from its addiction on foreign models. But they establish an unjustifiable distinction between actions good and bad: positive actions would be those conforming themselves to Brazilian essence. Brazilian essence should then precede Brazilian actions. In other words, Brazilian nature (both green and Thomist) should precede Brazilian history and politics. Philosophically this is the precise opposite of existentialism, that says that in human world existence comes before essence. We can then hint that Brazilian debate about itself is rather essentialist. It hangs on a priority of essence on existence, of nature on action, of ontology on politics and ethics. These converging priorities are probably of Thomist origin, which would not surprise, since most of Portuguese culture during the colonial centuries came from scholasticism and until recently most philosophical curricula here were focused on Aquinas. This means, to sum it up, that the question of action is posed exactly in the terms that forbid to answer it. We should break with what we can call the Aquinas question. If we do not act, it is not because we do not know who we are. It is precisely because we keep asking who we are. Action will be creative only if it does not depend on predetermining the nature of the agent.
1 Actually he develops this idea in the postface to Iracema.
2 In a short article I published in Folha de S. Paulo on March 11, 1994 and was later developed as "O real e seu imaginário" in my book A sociedade contra o social (Sao Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2000). In the same book I also discussed Iracema, the soap opera Fera ferida, president Collor and Ayrton Senna – cf. p. 45-91and 101-44.
3 The antithesis nature-history (or natural world vs. human world) has been widely discussed in Brazil in the last years. Some authors who dealt with it are, alphabetically ordered, Marilena Chaui (Brasil: mito fundador e sociedade autoritária, São Paulo: Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2000), José Murilo de Carvalho, Roberto DaMatta ("O mito da natureza", in his Conta de mentiroso, Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1993), and Renato Janine Ribeiro (A sociedade contra o social – o alto custo da vida pública no Brasil, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2000).
4 The story was told with no mention of the writer’s name. But the only writers who appeared in banknotes during the period 1985-1993 were Machado de Assis, dead since 1908, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Cecilia Meireles, Luis da Câmara Cascudo, and Mário de Andrade. If the story is true, discontent should have come from the relatives of one of the latter four.
5 This is explicit in the Decree of November 19, 1889, that defined the new Republican flag.
6 Affonso Celso, count of Ouro Preto, Porque me ufano do meu país, Rio de Janeiro: Laemmert, 1901. After being for a long time out of print this book, much commented but not read, was reprinted a few years ago (Rio de Janeiro : 1997).
7 In Brazil, most discussions on nature understand it rather as green nature, valuing – or overvaluing – the rainforest, the Indians, the first centuries of the country. In order to grasp the full meaning of nature we must, however, take into account both senses.