As Sisyphus, Brazilians seem condemned to a recurring task:
the search for their own identity.
Throughout the years, such a difficult assignment has been associated with the repetition of what is presented as being the initial moment of Brazil’s constitution: the discovery of Brazil. To know Brazil is the work of, and for, discoverers.
As tradition or as projection, generations of discoverers of Brazil have attempted the task of identifying the roots of Brazil or of underscoring the motto Brazil, country of the future. These two levels, that of the search for a tradition or that of tradition’s invalidation in formulating a projection, allow us to distinguish two intellectual lineages in the social history of Brazilian culture.
The first of these lineages searches ceaselessly, on differing paths and driven by the most diverse of motivations, to discover the sertão (backlands). Whether as travellers or as missionaries; writers, priests, historians, soldiers, politicians and scientists have all continually embarked upon this route toward a discovery of Brazil. Their search has sought to establish the contours and relief of this terra ignota. For many, the sertão is nothing but an immense emptiness, the word itself being a short form of desertão (a vast desert). For these scholars, however, to discover the sertão is to know that the sertão, in the words of Guimarães Rosa, is everywhere.
Contraposed to this is a second lineage: that of the heirs of those whom Frei Vicente de Salvador accused had insisted upon staying, clawing alongside the sea, like crabs. To the scholars of this group, it is the city, the imperial court, the federal capital and the metropolis that appear as the space for the construction, par excellence, of what we are. Beginning in the city, this identity would extend to the country as a whole, civilizing those that Euclides da Cunha calls our crude fellow-countymen. The question of identity also presents itself to these scholars, but as a task and project always unattainable and that often justifies the evils of the present in the name of hopes for the future.
The distinction between these two intellectual lineages can be located in how each conceives time and, consequently, the possibility of influencing history.
For those who belong to the first group, the key that would allow one to formulate a possibility to build a future that would integrate and empower a genuinely Brazilian history and culture is to be found in the past, understood as tradition. From this comes their concern to know, to integrate, what appears excluded, whether from the formal political arena or from the recognized cultural scene. This is why they present themselves as travellers, indeed at times as pilgrims, in the physical sense of the term, in search of Brazil and of Brazilians, or at times undertaking a metaphorical journey on which it is time, particularly the past, that is the territory to be travelled across on this same search.
For the second lineage the past should be denied. It is almost always understood as colonial delayedness and it is in this that the roots of our evils are fixed. To manage, therefore, to take measure of the past or, if that is too much, to maintain it present in the memory as an element of contrast that allows one to further value an Utopian future in which, by the acceleration of time, it may be possible to locate the raison d’être of the project they cherish: to equate Brazil with nations viewed as being modern in terms of values and culture. In returning to the future, they look to create in the present such conditions as would make possible the construction of what they seem to foresee. Their objective is, above all, to project, to invent, to create in the image and similitude of models perceived as being more evolved. These travellers also set out on a path that carried them to another discovery almost to the contrary, in which Brazil’s identity is aligned with its capacity to be equated with European culture and values, or with the capability of North American enterprise.
As a necessary complement to the above distinction made between the two lineages of Brazilian scholars, we can also relate these two traditions, not only because their representatives are in constant dialogue, but also because these two perspectives can cohabit within the same intellectual production.
The moment Brazil, after the five-hundred year celebrations of its discovery, confronts discussion about its modernity and about the limits of the modern, is the moment in which the relevancy of returning to some of these discoverers will be affirmed. What is intended with this project is to highlight some of the discoverers of this huge sertão; Capistrano de Abreu, Mário de Andrade, Cecília Meireles, Monteiro Lobato and Luís da Câmara Cascudo.
It is due to their discoveries that we, today, view their work as monuments, given that we remain committed to the idea of memory and identity being elements equally indispensable in the incorporation of the many sertões.
Because to bring Utopia into the present is to forge another space of struggle and of life.
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