Monday, August 26, 2013

Erudition of no consequence


In Colonial Brazil, a “Good Man”, a vague term as all other things in Brazil, was the designation of those who did not work with their own hands. This subjective and imprecise definition was what cast those who could participate in local political decisions, the Good Men, from those who could not. Meanwhile here in the United States a man who did not work with his own hands was regarded with suspicion. Even in the present days labeling an American as intellectual is considered to a certain extent a form of insult rather than a compliment. I still recall an interview David Lynch gave to the Brazilian correspondent Maria Bahiana in Los Angeles at the time he was promoting his film (calling it movie would be an understatement) Mulholland Drive back in 2003 and she introduced him as an intellectual and artist. He defended himself immediately – “an artist maybe, but surely not an intellectual”. Any Brazilian (or European to be fair) would feel comfortable and take this as a complement. It is no absurd statement, David Lynch is indeed someone that can be regarded as intellectual and artist.
Back to the Colonial Brazil, the Portuguese settlers (gold diggers in fact) were forbidden by the king to engage in any other kind of work until they found some amount of gold. The Portuguese Crown concern was that with so many opportunities to thrive in the New World, the search for the universally tradable gold would be relegated  to a secondary plan. The irony is that gold in abundance was only found centuries later when all the hopes had been long deserted. However, this gold prospecting was what doubled the Portuguese Brazilian territory in detriment of the colonies designated to the Spaniards by the Tordesillas Treaty.
Sao Paulo, the richest state in Brazil (richer than most of the 50 US states as well), was settled by the religious order of the Jesuits. Settling in a land far away from the shore: this was the seemly irrational idea from Fray Anchieta whom nobody can tell for sure, even today, whether he was Portuguese, Spanish or British. Most likely a blend of each. Anchieta’s dream was to create the perfect civilization, a new Garden of Eden, with the relatively pure-hearted indigenous population as model. For some time this alternate society worked well, but along came the Bandeiras (explorers) and the attempt to turn the natives into an army. Roberto Pompeu de Toledo book on Sao Paulo’s history tells this story in detail.
Meanwhile in the Northern Hemisphere, the colonization was performed by the Pioneer. Unlike the Bandeiras, the pioneer bought family and had the purpose of working with their own hands on whatever activity they saw fit. In a time of illiterates, nearly all were able to read for they were Quakers.
Quakers learned to read at very young ages as one of the main points of the Protestant Reform was to be capable of reading the Bible without the Pope or Church mediation. At this time, reading was an activity for the unmanly or the subversive (or anything in between) in the Brazil of the “Good Men”.
The book Dom Camuro, by Machado de Assis, illustrates well the erudition for no purpose in one of the characters. Jose Dias was depicted in the book as a borderline conman with enticing and sometimes poetical conversations with no underlying content. When living in the Washington DC area I attended a speech from Brazilian Senator Suplicy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. His twice-the-allotted-time speech in his astonishing fluent English was very scholarly but I believe nobody could get the main thread of thought out of it. Just a long talk with striking words eventually yielding an empty message.
The United States made an effort to sever its ties with its European inheritance for better or worse. The remaining American countries embraced the past as if it was a blessed inheritance. Some of these heirs along with European countries go the extra mile to harvest antipathy towards the alleged lack of intellectual refinement by the average American as if erudition without purpose would accomplish more than hands-on approach. Sao Paulo, even with a comparatively late inception, became this powerhouse partially from the result of the integration of millions of hard-working immigrants with a mindset of making a living out of their own work. They were just unsophisticated European and Japanese people in the pursuit of making a fair living.