Published On: September 26, 2015

Brazil’s Biographers

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Litercultura is a literary and cultural festival that took place in Curitiba in August. CIE attended a presentation by historians Lilia Schwarcz and Heloísa Starling. Both authors are well-respected scholars in Brazil and abroad. Lilia has taught at Oxford University in England, and Harvard University and Columbia University in the US among other schools. Today she teaches at USP in São Paulo and Princeton University in the US. Heloísa has taught abroad also, at the University of Toronto and the Rockefeller Foundation, and since 1982 has been a professor at the UFMG History Department in Belo Horizonte.

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Interviewer Manuel da Costa Pinto with authors Heloísa Starling and Lilia Schwarcz                                Credit: Gilson Camargo

[Note: All quotes from the authors’ presentation and book have been translated from Portuguese.]

During the authors presentation and interview at Litercultura, they discussed their book, Brasil: uma biografia, which the two professors co-authored. Their presentation began with an explanation of the title of their book, which is a large, comprehensive study of the history of Brazil, starting with its discovery by Cabral and continuing to the present. The authors said they elected to call the story of their country a “biography” because a biography is the intersection of public and private life. Biography shows how history impacts our daily lives.

The two authors offered an explanation of the title using a quote from their book: “A biography is the most elementary evidence of the profound connection between public and private realms. Only when they are articulated can these realms compose a life’s fabric, making it forever real.”

When asked why they had chosen to write a history of Brazil when there were already many other books on Brazil’s history, they explained that orthodox, positivist historians demand a cut-and-dried distinction between “history” and “non-history”. History is the realm of great achievements and tells the story of great men only. Literature, arts, and people who have simple lives are therefore part of “non-history”.

However, Lilia and Heloísa disagree with this view. They think that everyday life is also an essential part of history. Thus, their new book covers not only the major historical events such as the emperors and dictators and the suicide of Getúlio Vargas, but also visual arts, literature, culture, excluded social groups, social conflicts, etc.

Getúlio Vargas

As an example of elements that may be missing from other historical accounts of Brazil, Lilia said, “History is not only remembering, but also forgetting. History includes “unspeakables.” Racial exclusion is an example of an unspeakable, a problem that for a long time was not addressed and considered nonexistent in Brazil.

The authors planned their history of Brazil with the vision of their country as not just a country but also a “character,” one for which they share great affection. However, their affection doesn’t preclude them from adopting a critical tone. Sometimes they even were ruthless with their character.

Like a complicated character in any story, Brazil is deeply contradictory and ambiguous, they noted. In this sense, the authors describe Brazil’s history as “histórias mestiças.” A mestiço, according to the authors, exhibits cultural inclusion and social exclusion at the same time. That is why it took decades, for example, for Brazilian scholars to understand that the myth of racial democracy was far from adequate. Brazil has a mestiço history, the authors believe. For example, samba and Carnaval are considered part of mainstream Brazil, yet they are of African origin.

Men talking on bench in town square. Credit: Vincenzo Pastore, c. 1910.

Men talking on bench in town square. Credit: Vincenzo Pastore,  1910

Lilia and Heloísa also spent time discussing a topic from today’s news – corruption. Both historians criticized the commonly-held foreign viewpoint that corruption is in “Brazil’s DNA”. They argued that corruption is not an “inevitable destiny”; rather it is a historical process, and not natural, and thus capable of being changed.

Their book states: “Besides being prejudiced, such an understanding naturalizes corruption, simplifies its understanding and discourages us to fight a highly complex phenomenon.”

To prove that corruption can be changed in Brazil, the authors noted the recently created institutions that are fighting corruption, such as an independent Ministério Público (led by General Prosecutor Rodrigo Janot); the Tribunais de Contas; and an autonomous judiciary of federal judges working as special prosecutors (such as Sérgio Moro in Curitiba).

Judge Sérgio Moro of Curitiba

Judge Sérgio Moro of Curitiba

Heloísa: “What’s happening now is that for the first time both corrupted politicians and corrupting companies (corruptores) are being punished. The collusion between big construction companies and political campaigns started with former President Kubitschek in the 1950s. This practice was intensified during the military dictatorship – despite the common perception that there was no corruption during the military rule – and, as the media shows, is still a reality nowadays. But for the first time both knots [politicians and companies] are being investigated by the Ministério Público and Polícia Federal. This is a watershed moment in Brazil’s history.”

Question from audience: “Do you believe Brazilians are politically consolidated? How do you view surveys stating that an increasing number of Brazilians want a return to a military dictatorship? In 2008, Datafolha reported 11 percent supported dictatorship, but today it’s 14 percent. Are Brazilians disillusioned with democracy?”

Lilia responds: “Personally, I am deeply unhappy with the nostalgia some people feel in relation to the dictatorship. That is why we need to study history. Brazilians need to realize that the military dictatorship was very corrupt. That is why we wrote our history of Brazil in accessible language, rather than as a scholarly treatise meant only for academicians. Our editors were essential in this regard because my and Heloísa’s typical writing is too academic. We are so grateful to our editors and proud that Brasil: uma biografia is starting now to be used by high school students.”

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Heloísa: “Brazilian democracy is capable of absorbing these anti-democratic movements asking for dictatorship. Rosa Luxemburg used to say ‘Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.’ Dissenting opinions, even the ones that we do not like, can be voiced in a democracy. What’s new today is that for a long time the left was organizing mass demonstrations, and now it’s the right.”

Lilia: “Both Heloísa and I are aware that democracy is, by definition, the political system that is never capable of being fully established. Democracy is the political regime that is always open, always changing. Democracy, as we wrote in our book, has no ‘final period.’ Its decisions are inevitably provisory and always open to review, criticism, and contestation. So we didn’t mean to say that democracy in Brazil is fully established. What we do believe, however, is that the republican ideal and the democratic ideal are complementary. Now that we are a democracy, we can also fortify our republicanism.”

Audience: “With all due respect, I don’t entirely agree with you. I don’t believe the republican and the democratic ideal are fully compatible. There is a tension between these two concepts. Perhaps you could have addressed this conflict more fully in your book?

Heloísa: “Thank you for pointing that out because that’s something that Lilia and I both noticed after we’d finished writing the book. Since the book covers so much of Brazil’s history, and we wanted to keep the language less academic, we decided not to go into a detailed examination of that argument. However, I’m writing a new book which is a direct response to your excellent question – what exactly is the difference between a republic and a democracy.”

Lilia and Heloísa autographed books after their talk at Litercultura

Lilia and Heloísa autographed books after their talk at Litercultura

Heloísa: “Brasil: uma biografia concludes with the idea that Brazil needs the ‘republicanization’ of its democracy because it suffers from a republican deficit that perpetuates an inconclusive citizenship project. Sérgio Holanda showed this when he introduced the notion of the homem cordial. The word cordial derives from the Latin ‘cor’ meaning heart. Far from being a compliment, what Holanda wanted to denote with this term was a critique: the cordial man is incapable of treating things and power impartially. Everything for him relates to the intimate sphere.

The authors ended their presentation by claiming that in no other country has national identity been as disputed as in Brazil. “Brazilian identity, like all other national identities, is not a metaphysical entity. It is historical and, therefore, always subjected to countless changes. Thus, studying history is of paramount importance because it affords us a way to guide our future,” they concluded.

From their presentation and press conference, it was compellingly clear how strongly the two professors believe in their mission – when we study what we were, we can comprehend what we are, and thus guide better what we might become. As the authors state in their book, their aim is “comprehending the Brazilians that we are, and what we should or could have been.” For this reason, Schwarcz and Starling’s wonderful book, Brasil: uma biografia, should be required reading for all Brazilians.

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