Antônio Gonçalves Dias is traditionally portrayed as Brazil’s national poet par excellence (ALENCAR, 2016, p. 275; GUDIN, 2006). Certainly the fame and wide circulation of his most celebrated poem, Canção do Exílio ("Song of Exile", 1843), greatly contribute to this status. Alongside José de Alencar, he features as the great exponent of Indianism in Brazilian literature. Both writers found the greatest expression of the commended national values in an idealized Brazilian native that combined both the chivalry lauded by the Romantics and the innocence and purity of a noble savage. Traditional literary criticism is unanimous in considering him the greatest poet of the first Romantic period in Brazilian literature, which was characterized, in general, by a strong sense of nationalism, and the elevation of the figure of the native, especially of those preceding or opposing colonization by the Europeans, as the nation’s highest symbol. Scholastic practice seems automatic in attributing those selfsame values to the poetic production of Gonçalves Dias (AMARAL, 2010, p. 61; NICOLA, 2000, p. 138). At the same time, while Dias indeed projects the model for a great Brazilian nation in an idealized representation of some of the peoples of the Pre-columbian Brazilian lands, aside from the Song of Exile, the reading of some of his production, not only poetic but also ethnographic, does not clearly point to a nationalism so affirmative as we may expect given the criticism that is often delivered to us regarding this author.
In fact, a discussion of a lesser known work by Dias, Meditação ("Meditation", 1850), in which what stands out is a dismal portrait of a country plagued by slavery and corrupt elites, could contribute to a fairer appreciation of an intellectual who has sometimes been accused of complying with the national projects of the country’s elites (GRIZOSTE, 2013, p. 372). Reassessing the Indianism of Gonçalves Dias in the light of the poet of Meditação, this project intends to argue that his nationalism, inasmuch as it is founded on the pride of Brazil’s pre-colonial past, cannot reconcile its inherent contradictions, since Brazil is in fact an outcome of the colonization process, so that his effort of forging out a national identity constitute, rather, an example of – using Roberto Schwarz concept – yet another "misplaced idea".
Since its appearance in 1846, the poetry of Gonçalves Dias has gone through important changes in its appreciation by the critics. The general trend of its first critics did not go much beyond praising its national character and the beauty of the verses (MATOS, 1988, p. 9) . Eventually, Antonio Candido, in Formação da Literatura Brasileira (first published in 1959), will advance a dialectical analysis that highlights opposing directions in the poet that "consolidated Romanticism" among us. He identifies a fundamental tension in Gonçalves Dias: Neoclassical harmony vs. the pathos characteristic of Romanticism (CANDIDO, 1971, p. 81). Candido’s biggest innovation resided in shifting the critic’s eyes to the interplay of movement and tension that pervades the poetry of our first Romantic. Consequently, instead of just lauding the verses of "eternal beauty", the critic demonstrated the analytic gain of visualizing a poet located in time and space, and having to deal with the constraints of the time.
Moving forward to the second half of the 20th century, we find Alfredo Bosi pointing out an altogether different set of conflicts in Gonçalves Dias. Although Poesias Americanas (a section of so-called American poems present in all three books of poetry by Gonçalves Dias) is generally taken as the core of his project of creating a national identity, it contains poems, such as O Canto do Piaga ("The Chant of the Shaman") and Deprecação ("Invocation"), that carry a dreadful foreboding of the doom in store for the peoples of the time. In hindsight, colonization is foreseen as the coming of Apocalypse, the annihilation of America’s native peoples (BOSI, 1986, p. 184). Now, there is a flagrant contradiction in that so-called national project: it is founded on the pride for Brazil’s "glorious" natives peoples of the past; yet those are precisely the same peoples that would fell victim to the massacre of indigenous peoples upon which this historic construct called Brazil would come to be.
Meditação is a lesser known work by Gonçalves Dias. A part of it, with removed bits, was published in the Guanabara magazine in 1859 (MARQUES, 2013, p. 97; GRIZOSTE, 2013, p. 372). However, given its denunciatory character, it was promptly censored, and only published wholly in 1868, after the author’s death. It was written in the form of some messianic Romanticism fashionable at the time. It is the account of a young man who confronts an elder who is capable of showing him the past and present of their nation. The young man represents Brazilians aspirations of a great future, while the old man’s role is to show the infeasibility of this nation given its vices, inherited from the colonizers. The originality of Meditação lies in the author’s acute perception and denunciation, unique at the time, of the socioeconomic problems of Brazil: an economy dependent on slavery and ruled by a corrupt political class resultant from the accord of landowning elites.
A recent book by Wilton José Marques, Gonçalves Dias: o poeta na contramão: literatura e escravidão no romantismo brasileiro ("Gonçalves Dias: the poet in the wrong lane: literature and slavery in the Brazilian Romanticism") (2013), is dedicated to analyzing Meditação and its historic context, and calls attention to the impossibility of publishing such a work at the time. Marques’ starting point is an affirmation by Roberto Schwarz from his well-known essay As ideias fora de lugar: "the favor, mediator of social relations, led Romantic writers to avoid dealing with the subject of slavery more overtly, disguising, in their interpretations of Brazil, the violence that has always governed the sphere of production" (MARQUES, p. 26). Dependent on the favors of a big shot as they were, Brazil’s middle class intellectuals were not supposed to voice their discontent about the social order in such a blatant tone.
Let us now shift our focus to another formulation by Schwarz: the "nationality by subtraction". In another essay, he argues that Brazilians recognize themselves as so, first and foremost, because they are nothing else, their ideological motivations are but passing fancies imported from time to time, but not given time to mature in national ground (SCHWARZ, 2014, p. 81-83). Going further in this line of thought, one could pose the question: Would not Gonçalves Dias nationalism in and of itself also be a misplaced idea? Transplanted from Europe, the strong national feeling that marked Romantic ideals had been a culmination of an internal process arising from the consolidation of the modern nation-states of which the colonies were just a byproduct. Therefore, we could suppose that the so-called nationalism of Brazil’s poet laureate is just an ersatz version of what was going on in Europe. The passage from the Middle Ages to Modernity in Europe was the result of an internal, organic process of expansion, whereas colonization in the Americas, and especially in Latin America, meant violence, conquer and plundering from outside. How can one manage to reconcile, in an artistic project, the pride for Brazil’s great indigenous population of yore with the phantom of their destruction, by which Brazil was born? At the end, how to reconcile civilization and barbarism? There is a clear need for literature to address these questions. Meditação solves this dilemma by attributing the origins of our sins to the Portuguese (DIAS, 1868, pp.80-81). However, such a response is far from being satisfactory, since the country was already independent politically, and therefore, needed to walk by its own.
Schwarz argues that artistic merit lies in the artist’s ability to give an aesthetic form to his or her work so as to retain the sociohistorical tensions that motivated it:
Following Schwarz vision, the great formula of the Indianism of Gonçalves Dias would lie precisely in not having assuaged Brazil’s ever-rampant violence. His poetic output reaches its best when it takes into account the contradictions inherent to a process of national formation founded on the genocide of indigenous populations and the horror of slavery, that is, on exclusion and expatriation. It was on this key that the poetry of Gonçalves Dias reached its highest power and amplitude, and produced its most remarkable fruits: it is vigorous when it depicts the inevitable clash between natives and colonizers in the Poesias Americanas, but is also moving when it presents the romantic tragedy of a Mestizo Indian woman rejected by the men of her tribe (Marabá), or of a slave separated forever from her lover in Africa (A Escrava).
My work will also focus to a great extent on an appreciation of Meditação, but using it as a necessary first step toward a reassessment of Gonçalves Dias nationalistic poetry, especially the Indianist poems. Schwarz will also be of instrumental value, but on a different key: the very concept of “misplaced idea” will guide my investigation of the poetry Gonçalves Dias. I shall investigate to what extent his so-called literary nationalism is consistent with his literary output and, more specifically, with his Indianist poems. In order to do that I intend:
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"World peace" sounds like a beautiful thing, doesn't it? Imagine all humankind living and working together to ensure that differences are respected, and that the benefits from such a global cooperation are fairly distributed among the denizens of the world. But that's just looking at it from one's own cultural perspective. The image of all peoples holding hands and singing "We Are the World" translates much more into an ideal of a world united under my civilizational values than any real alternative to make the world a less bloody place. For many a Muslim, world peace certainly means worldwide submission to Allah; matter of fact, that's the core value underlying Islam (the word itself means "submission"), the so-called religion of peace.
Now, a conscientious fellow human having read this last sentence might raise his or her brow and think: "Wait a minute, I know where this guy is going. He’s probably just another one of those Islamophobic warmongers supporting the extinction of anything that is not Western, capitalistic and supposedly modern. Or maybe even worse!" Quite the contrary. What I’m trying to say here is that, even if you are a strong adherent (as I myself am!) of such dear values as the invaluable nature of life, human rights, liberty and respect to each other’s differences and equality under the rule of law, that doesn’t mean you’re more right (or "righter"?)– least of all more righteous – than those who don’t share the same values. Nor does it mean that differently-minded people (ah, the Gentiles!) will harken to these sacred commandments. In actuality, the key to understanding others and having a realistic problem-solving approach about the ever-rampant violence in our world is, first of all, recognizing our own political stances in relation to those who think differently, which is historically constructed and not derivative of an ethereal order of Truth and Goodness. As a consequence, any Utopia of a world free of conflicts is but an ethnocentric construct in which somebody's version of world peace has won.