Monday, August 30, 2010

Brazil as (jungle-)green screen

Over at my academic blog, Domestic Issue, I've just posted a little something on the intellectual history of Brazil--the topic all America is buzzing about, I know--by way of a discussion of a book on that very topic. (It's no longer in print, or else I would link to it.) [EDIT: Just to be clear here, I'm speaking of how this book has treated its subject up to the year 1870, which is the point where I am right now.] The upshot of the post is that the book reads very strangely, to my mind: its author argues in the introduction that we need to be attentive to the historical fact of large numbers of indigenous and African people and that fact's influence on Brazilian thought, but then has spent the hundred or so pages I've read a) also arguing that a multicultural approach to Brazil will not reveal an unalloyed Brazilian mindset; and b) pretty much all but ignoring all non-white Brazilians. It's an indirect verification of something that Darlene Sadlier argues in her book Brazil Imagined, which I recently wrote about with regard to literary regionalism here: that cultural products whose subject is Brazil, whether by Brazilians or non-Brazilians, historically have been more like projections of their makers' fantasies or nightmares, rather than products that purport to show Brazil as it in fact is. I have a little speculation over there about the Brazilian intelligentsia's wholesale embrace of Positivism, also.

You're hearing about all this because, I reminded myself this morning, Brazil's history with regard to the integration of indigenous and African people is very different from Mexico's, and that when speaking of "Latin America," it can be easy to forget or elide those differences. Even the earliest discussions of intellectual history in Mexico contend in some way with its indigenous past and its significance for the nation at that point in time, even if to rail against it. Up to the point that I've so far read in this intellectual history of Brazil, there's plenty of railing at the Jesuits' alleged detrimental effects on intellectual life there; otherwise, Indians and blacks are all but invisible. The gaze is turned toward Europe. Projected on all that green of the Brazilian interior, all they see is what they've borrowed from Europe. But no Brazilian forest, and no trees.


R. Sherman said...

One thing about Brazilian history which is interesting to me, is that at the time the Pope divided the New World between Portugal and Spain, the Portuguese thought they were getting the lion's share of the good stuff.

Obviously, not so much.

That story reminded me of Abraham and Lot going their separate ways in Caanan.


John B. said...

Yeah to all this. Bad timing: the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed 26 years before Cortés got his first gold necklaces from Montezuma. Brazil did have great mineral wealth and was a big tobacco and sugar producer, but nothing like Mexico and Peru were.

I once mentioned to a friend in Spain that I really like the fado singers I have heard, and she said, "Ah, yes: the Portuguese, so filled with nostalgia." As I read A History of Ideas in Brazil, it seemed that, up to the 20th century at least, that same nostalgia had pervaded the ruling classes in Brazil, too: They so loved the monarchy that when the Portuguese drove Napoleon out and the ruling family no longer needed Brazil to serve as their home and wanted it to revert to its status as a colony, the king's son supported Brazil's bid to remain independent, and the son became Brazil's king. Add to that all the looking across the Atlantic rather than to themselves for their intellectual resources, and Brazil ends up looking pretty odd compared to its Latin American brethren.