Brazilian Academic Raquel Parrine Remembers Antonio Candido, 1918-2017

Candido’s death has engendered a crisis of heritage and legacy.

Antonio Candido, born in 1918 in Rio de Janeiro, passed away last week on May 12 in São Paulo. A writer, editor, critic and academic, he remains one of the best known and most influential literary figures in Brazil. Candido joined the Brazilian Socialist Party in the 1940s and was an active member of the resistance under the dictatorship of Getúlio Dornelles Vargas. He reviewed the earliest work of Brazilian greats like João Cabral de Melo Neto and Clarice Lispector and went on to teach for many years at the University of São Paulo. He received the Alfonso Reyes International Prize for lifetime achievement—the first Brazilian to be so recognized—among many other awards and honors. Here, Raquel Parrine writes of his legacy and the empty space that a new generation of political thinkers and writers will need to fill. 

It is hard for me to write about Antonio Candido. The more I think about it, the more overwhelmed I feel by the impact he had on literary scholarship in Brazil, and on the country itself. Professor Candido was a moral compass, a political trailblazer, and a dearly beloved human being. It is hard to talk about him without resorting to grandiloquent terms, which would reduce his very significant impact on his familiars and on Brazilian society.

I don’t think there is any doubt that Professor Candido was Brazil’s most important literary critic. He belongs to a generation of sociologists and economists who took it upon themselves to inaugurate a properly Brazilian scholarship, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to own the political discourse about our culture, and our exceptionality.

I am talking about a generation that succeeded the French missions of the 1920s and 1930s, which constitute some of the milestones of Brazilian thought. I think of Gilberto Freyre’s Casa-Grande & Senzala [The Masters and the Slaves] (1933), Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s Raízes do Brasil (1936) and Celso Furtado’s Formação Econômica do Brasil (1959). These intellectuals were thinking in terms of origin, formation of the state, and the particularity of Brazilian politics and culture. They considered politics and culture as naturally, necessarily entangled. Prominently among their works rests Candido’s magnum opus, Formação da Literatura Brasileira: Momentos Decisivos (1959), whose introduction is mandatory reading for every literature major in Brazil. In Formação, Candido argues that literature is an expression of a political epoch, and that a true work of art bears, encoded in its form, a reflection about the political stakes of its time.

Although Formação would change Brazilian literary scholarship forever, the most remarkable and celebrated period of Candido’s work began in the 1960s. During the military coup d’état that swept Brazil in 1964, Candido was a dedicated activist, one of the founding figures of the leftist union-based party Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). He ended up being exiled from the country for his Marxist ideas. His political engagement served as an embodied argument that the study of literature is not confined to formalism. Instead, it is a form of being and acting in the world.

Candido’s most cited work might be the essay Direito à literatura (The Right to Literature), first published in 1988. In the piece, Candido argues that literature should be considered a fundamental human right because of its power to humanize. The argument sounds dated today, but it was a specific response to the discussions surrounding the convention for the Brazilian constitution still in place today, ratified that same year after almost thirty years of a violent dictatorship. In a country where subjugation often bears the face of illiteracy, Candido was securing a place for reading and writing in the heart of the state. Even further, he was putting literature at the forefront of the fight against totalitarianism and its capitalist modus operandi. He did this by confronting the military state’s utilitarian concept of man, whose purpose, as defined by the state, was to “make the cake rise, and then distribute it.” Candido countered this with a concept of man as one who stands by himself, and whose existence is defined by his intellectual and aesthetic capabilities.

Candido’s death brings up a crisis of heritage and legacy. We are living in a political climate that demands from academia a strong stand against the state once again. As we know, in 2016 Brazil’s democratically elected, female president Dilma Rousseff, of the PT, was overthrown by her right-wing, male vice president, Michel Temer. In the span of a year, Brazil has witnessed changes in key labour laws, reversal of rights for retirees, cuts to the public health system and research funding, and a rollback of indigenous land demarcation and LGBTQ rights. This is not an exaggeration: numbers show that the new president has a popularity rating of less than 10 percent. It is also remarkable how this illegitimate government has been able to make the worker take the fall for the economic crisis that swept the country. “Complain less, work more”; “We need more labor flexibility in order to make the country grow”; “Why retire so late when you have so much to offer?”; “The country needs your sacrifice now.” Knowledge, literature, and human life are once again stacked in opposition to the political rhetoric of growth, development, and entrepreneurship. The stakes are different from those of the 1960s because the current government is legitimized not by its exceptionality, but by normalcy. In order to resist these political times, we need a new way of writing, something that can both draw and distance itself from the legacy of Candido and his generation. We are slowly watching the intellectuals of the 1960s leave us; we are losing our moral compasses. Without those who defied the dictatorship, what do we have left?

As an alumna of the University of São Paulo, where Candido taught for many years, I feel the responsibility weighing on my shoulders. What to do next? How can we make literature relevant now? Can we truly embrace Candido’s idealism and assume that politics is embedded in a ‘true’ work of art? Is there still a possible stand to be taken by Brazilian academia? What does that look like now? Can one aspire to become the kind of embodied intellectual Candido was? Or have we been totally deprived of our significance? One thing is certain: Candido has left us during particularly dark times. His light will be missed.

Raquel Parrine has a B.A. and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of São Paulo and is currently working on her PhD at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Previously, she was a professor of Hispanic literature in the University of Brasília. She is also the co-editor of the literary journal Revista Raimundo, which publishes new Portuguese-language authors. She has published articles on contemporary Latin American fiction and politics, the philosophy of ethics, and gender studies.


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