The Aesthetics of Hunger and The Aesthetics of Dreaming
I. The Aesthetics of Hunger
Dispensing with the informative introduction that has become characteristic of discussions about Latin America, I prefer to examine the relation between our culture and civilized culture in broader terms than those which characterize the analysis of the European observer. Thus, while Latin America laments its general misery, the foreign observer cultivates a taste for that misery, not as a tragic symptom, but merely as a formal element within his field of interest. The Latin American neither communicates his real misery to the civilized man, nor does the civilized man truly comprehend the misery of the Latin American.
Fundamentally, this is the situation of the arts in Brazil: to this day, only distortions of the truth (a formal exoticism that vulgarizes social problems) have been widely communicated, provoking a series of misunderstandings which go beyond the arts and contaminate the political domain.
For the European observer, the processes of artistic creation in the underdeveloped world are of interest only insofar as they satisfy his nostalgia for primitivism; and this primitivism is generally presented as a hybrid, disguised under the belated heritage of the civilized world, and poorly understood since it is imposed by colonial conditioning.
Latin America remains a colony. What distinguishes yesterday’s colonialism from that of today is merely the more refined form of the colonizer. Meanwhile, those who are preparing for future domination try to replace this with a more subtle form.
Internationally, the problem facing Latin America is still that of merely exchanging colonizers. Therefore, any possible liberation will probably come in the form of a new dependency.
This economic and political conditioning has led us to philosophical undernourishment and to impotence, which produces sterility when conscious, and hysteria when unconscious.
The sterility: all that abundance of works found in our arts where the author castrates himself with formal exercises, but which, nonetheless, never really attains control over form. The frustrated dream of universality: artists who never wake from an adolescent, aesthetic ideal. Therefore, we see hundreds of paintings, dusty and forgotten, in the galleries; books of short stories and poems; theatre plays, films (which, most of all in São Paulo, even caused bankruptcies) ... The institutional world in charge of the arts produced carnivalesque exhibitions in many festivals and biennials, fabricated conferences, easy formulas for success, cocktails across the world, alongside a few monsters of official culture, academics in literature and the arts, painting juries, and cultural parades across the country. University monstrosities: the famous literary magazines, the contests, the titles.
The hysteria: a rather more complex topic. Social indignation provokes passionate speeches. The first symptom is the anarchism found, to this day, in young poetry (and painting). The second is the political reduction of an art that practices bad politics due to its excess of sectarianism. The third, and more effective, is the search for a systematization of folk art. The problem is that, rather than resulting from an organic body, the possibility of equilibrium is the consequence of a titanic and self-devastating effort to surpass our impotency; as such, we remain frustrated and at the margins of the colonizer; and if he understands us it isn’t because of the lucidity of our discourse but rather because of the humanism that we inspire in him. Once more paternalism is the epistemic method set against a language of tears or mute suffering.
This is why the hunger of Latin America is not simply an alarming symptom: it is the essence of our society. Herein lies the tragic originality of Cinema Novo in relation to World Cinema: our originality is our hunger, and our greatest misery is that this hunger is felt but not intellectually understood.
From Aruanda to Vidas Secas [Barren Lives], Cinema Novo narrated, described, poetized, discoursed, analyzed, aroused the themes of hunger: characters eating the earth, characters eating roots, characters stealing for food, characters killing for food, characters running away in search of food, ugly characters, dirty, ravaged, inhabiting ugly houses, dark and dirty. Such was the gallery of famished people that identified Cinema Novo with a miserabilism condemned by the government, by a critique that serves antinationalist interests, by the producers and by the public—the latter being incapable of facing the images of poverty. The miserabilism of Cinema Novo opposes an ameliorating tendency represented by the critic of Guanabara, Carlos Lacerda: films of rich people, in beautiful houses, driving luxury cars; joyful films, comical, fast, contentless, of strict industrial objectives. These are films against hunger, as if, in the glasshouses and luxury condominiums, filmmakers could hide the moral misery of a characterless and fragile bourgeoisie, or as if material and scenographic techniques could hide the hunger that is rooted in our uncivilized state. As if, above all, in this apparatus of tropical landscapes, the mental indigence of the filmmakers behind these films could ever be disguised. What has made Cinema Novo a phenomenon of international relevance is precisely its deep engagement with the truth, its miserabilism, which having been written by the literature of the 1930s is now photographed by the cinema of the 1960s. And if before it was written as a social denunciation, now it is discussed as a political issue. The several stages of our cinematic miserabilism are internally evolutionary. Thus, as Gustavo Dahl says, it goes from the phenomenological (Porto das Caixas) to the social (Vidas Secas), the political (Deus e o Diabo [Black God, White Devil]), the poetic (Ganga Zumba), the demagogic (Cinco Vezes Favela), the documentary (Garrincha, Alegria do Povo), the comedy (Os Mendigos [The Beggars]); distinct experiences, either frustrated or successful, that after three years compose an historical portrait which, not incidentally, will characterize the Jânio e Jango period: the period of great existential crisis and of rebellion, of agitation and revolution, which ended in the April Coup. And so it was, from April on that the thesis of an ameliorating cinema grew in Brazil, systematically threatening Cinema Novo.
We understand this hunger that Europeans and the majority of Brazilians have failed to understand. For the European, it is a strange tropical surrealism. For the Brazilian, it is a national shame. He does not eat, but is ashamed to say so; and yet, he does not know where this hunger comes from. We know—since we made these ugly, sad films, these screaming, desperate films in which reason has not always prevailed—that this hunger will not be cured by moderate government reforms, and that the cloak of technicolor cannot hide but rather aggravates its tumors. Therefore, only a culture of hunger, by undermining and destroying its own structures, can qualitatively surpass itself. The most noble cultural manifestation of hunger is violence.
Mendicancy, a tradition implanted by the redemptive colonial piety, has been a cause of political mystification and of a boastful cultural lie: the official reports of hunger demand money from the colonial countries in order to build schools without ever worrying about the teachers, to build houses without worrying about work, to teach labor without the alphabet. Diplomacy demands, economists demand, politicians demand. Cinema Novo, on the international level, demanded nothing; it fought the violence of its images and sounds in twenty-two international festivals.
Cinema Novo reveals that violence is the normal behavior of the starving, and that the violence of the starving is not primitive. Is Fabiano primitive? Is Antão primitive? Is Corisco primitive? Is the woman in Porto das Caixas primitive?
Cinema Novo teaches us that an aesthetics of violence, before being primitive, is revolutionary. It is the moment when the colonizer becomes aware of the colonized: only when confronted with the sole possibility of expression of the colonized, violence, can the colonizer understand, through horror, the strength of the culture he exploits. As long as he does not take up arms, the colonized man remains a slave; first a policeman had to die before the French became aware of the Algerians.
In moral terms, this violence is not filled with hatred, nor is it linked to the old colonizing humanism. The love that this violence encompasses is as brutal as violence itself, because it is not the kind of love made of complacency or contemplation, but rather a love of action and transformation.
This is why Cinema Novo doesn’t produce melodramas. The women of Cinema Novo have always searched for a possible way out for love, given the impossibility of loving when famished: the prototypical woman of Porto das Caixas kills her husband; Dandara, in Ganga Zumba, escapes from war for a romantic love; Sinhá Vitória dreams of new times for her children; Rosa descends into crime to save Manuel and love him; the priest’s girl rips his vestment to win him over; the woman in O Desafio breaks with her lover so as to remain faithful to her bourgeois husband; the woman in São Paulo S.A. wishes for the safety of a petit bourgeois love, reducing her husband’s life to a mediocre system.
The time has long passed when Cinema Novo had to justify its existence. Cinema Novo is an ongoing, self-explanatory process that is helping us to see reality clearer, freeing us from the debilitating delirium of hunger. Cinema Novo cannot develop effectively while it remains marginal to the economic and cultural processes of the Latin American continent. Furthermore, Cinema Novo is a phenomenon of colonized peoples everywhere and not a privilege of Brazil. Wherever there is a filmmaker prepared to film the truth and oppose the hypocrisy and repression of censorship, there will be the living spirit of Cinema Novo. Wherever there is a filmmaker prepared to stand up against commercialism, exploitation, pornography, and the tyranny of technique, there will be the living spirit of Cinema Novo. Wherever there is a filmmaker, of any age or background, ready to place his cinema and his profession at the service of the great causes of his time, there will be the living spirit of Cinema Novo. This is our definition and through this definition, Cinema Novo marginalizes itself from the industry, because the commitment of Industrial Cinema is to lies and exploitation.
The economical and industrial integration of Cinema Novo depends on the freedom of Latin America. Cinema Novo makes every effort toward achieving this freedom, in its own name and in that of both its closest and more dispersed participants, from the most ignorant to the most talented, from the weakest to the strongest. It is a moral question that will be reflected in our films, whether we’re filming a man or a house, in every observed detail, in its philosophy: it is not a single film but an evolving complex of films that will ultimately make the public aware of its own misery.
This is why we don’t have wider points of contact with World Cinema.
Cinema Novo is a project produced out of a politics of hunger, and suffers for that very reason; all weaknesses derive from its particular existence.
New York, Milan, Rio de Janeiro
II. The Aesthetics of Dreaming
In the “Seminar for the Third World,” which took place in Genoa, Italy, 1965, I presented on the subject of the Brazilian Cinema Novo, “The Aesthetics of Hunger.”
That presentation placed Third World artists before the colonizing powers: “only an aesthetics of violence would be able to offer a revolutionary meaning to our liberation struggles.”
I talked about how our poverty was understood but never really felt by the colonial observers.
1968 was the year of the youth revolutions.
The French May happened at the same time as Brazilian students and intellectuals in Brazil protested against the military regime of 1964.
Terra em Transe [Entranced Earth], 1967, a practical manifesto of the aesthetics of hunger, suffered in Brazil the most intolerant critiques both from the Right and from sectarian groups on the Left.
Between the internal repression and the international repercussion, I learned the best of lessons: artists must always keep their freedom above all circumstances.
Only in this way will we get rid of a very original type of impoverishment: the officialization commonly made by underdeveloped countries of their best artists.
This congress at Columbia is yet another opportunity I have to develop some ideas relating to art and revolution. The theme of poverty is linked to it.
The social sciences have informed statistics and allow interpretations on poverty.
The conclusions offered by the reports of capitalist systems portray the poor as an object to be fed. While in socialist countries, we witness the permanent polemic between the prophets of the total revolution and the bureaucrats who see man as an object to be massified. “The majority of the prophets of the total revolution is composed of artists.” These are people who have a more sensitive and less intellectual approach to the poor masses.
In the 1960s, revolutionary art was the watchword in the Third World, and so it will continue throughout this decade. I believe, however, that changes in many political and psychological conditions demand a continuous development of the concepts of revolutionary art.
A poverty of ideas is often confused with ideological manifestos. The worst enemy of revolutionary art is its own mediocrity. Confronted with the subtle evolution in the reformist concepts of the imperialist ideology, the artist must offer revolutionary answers capable of decrying, in every instance, evasive responses. And, with great difficulty, he must demand a precise identification of what is useful to political activism in revolutionary art; of what is a revolutionary art aimed at opening up new discussions, and of what is a revolutionary art rejected by the Left and instrumentalized by the Right.
As an example of the former I quote, as a man of cinema, the movie La Hora de los Hornos [The Hour of the Furnaces] by the Argentinean, Fernando Ezequiel Solanas. It is the typical pamphletary film, ready for action and polemic, currently used by political activists across the world.
For the latter I suggest some films of the Brazilian Cinema Novo, among them my own films.
And lastly, the works of Jorge Luis Borges.
This classification reveals the contradictions of an art that expresses our contemporaneity. A work of revolutionary art should not only act in an immediately political way but also promote philosophical speculation, creating an aesthetics of the eternal human movement toward its cosmic integration.
Fundamentally, the intermittency of such a revolutionary art in the Third World is due to the repressions caused by rationalism.
The current cultural systems, to the Left and Right, are locked into this conservative reasoning. The failure of the Brazilian Left results from this colonizing vice. The Right thinks according to the reason of order and development. Technology is the mediocre ideal of a power, which has no other ideology than that of the domination of man by consumption. The answers given by the Left, and I’m exemplifying again from Brazil, have been paternalist in regards to the central topic of our political conflicts: the masses of the poor.
The People is the myth of the bourgeoisie.
The reason of the people becomes the reason of the bourgeoisie over the people.
The ideological variations of such a paternalist reason can be identified in the monotonous cycles of protest and repression. The reason of the Left reveals itself as an heir to the European revolutionary bourgeois reason. As such, colonization blocks the possibility of any integral revolutionary ideology which would have art as its noblest expression, because only art can bring man closer to the depths that the dream of such an understanding might allow.
The only way out is a rupture with all colonizing rationalisms.
The vanguards of thought can no longer keep with the futile success of answering to oppressive reason with a revolutionary reason. The revolution is an anti-reason that communicates the tensions and the rebellions of the most irrational of all phenomena, which is poverty.
No statistics can inform the scope of poverty.
Poverty is the most auto-destructive of loads imposed on each and every man, and it resounds psychically in such a way that the poor man is transformed into a double-headed animal: one head is fatalist and submissive to the reason which makes him a slave; the other, to the extent that the poor man is incapable of explaining the absurdity of his own poverty, is naturally mystic.
The dominating reason classifies mysticism as irrational and represses it point-blank. All that is irrational must be destroyed, be it a religious or political mysticism. Revolution, understood as that which takes hold of man and aims his life toward an idea, is the highest spirit of mysticism. Revolutions fail when this possession is not total, when the rebelled man doesn’t liberate himself fully from the repressive reason, when the signs of the struggle aren’t produced at a stimulating and revelatory enough level of emotion, when, “still propelled by a bourgeois reason,” method and ideology blur to the point of paralyzing the transactions of the struggle.
To the extent that unreason plans all revolutions, reason plans the repression.
Revolutions are made from the unpredictability of the practice of history, which is the mysticism of the encounter with the irrational forces of the masses of the poor. The political seizure of power does not imply the success of the revolution.
By way of communion, one must touch the vital core of poverty, which is its mysticism. Mysticism is the only language that transcends the rational schema of oppression. The revolution is magical because it is that which is unpredictable within the dominating reason. At best it is seen as an understandable impossibility. But the revolution must be an impossibility of comprehension for the dominating reason, to the extent that it denies and devours itself before its own impossibility of comprehension.
A liberating irrationalism is the revolutionary’s strongest weapon. “And liberation, even when it confronts the violence of the system, implies the negation of violence in the name of a community founded on the meaning of limitless love among men.” This love owes nothing to the traditional humanism, symbol of the dominating, good conscience.
The Indian and black roots of the Latin American people must be seen as the only developed force of this continent. Our middle class and bourgeoisie are decadent caricatures of the colonizing societies.
For as long as it only inspires an art created by artists suffocated under a bourgeois reason, popular culture will always be a relative protest.
Popular culture is not that which is technically called folklore but rather the popular language of a permanent, historical rebellion.
The encounter between those revolutionaries found beyond bourgeois reason and the most significant structures of this popular culture will produce the first configuration of a new revolutionary sign.
Dreaming is the only right that cannot be forbidden.
“The Aesthetics of Hunger” was the measure of my rational comprehension of poverty in 1965.
Today, I refuse to speak of any aesthetics. True existence cannot be subjected to philosophical concepts. Revolutionary art should be a powerful enough magic to enchant man beyond the point where he can no longer keep on living under this absurd reality.
Borges, surpassing this reality, wrote the most liberating unrealities of our time. His is an aesthetics of dreaming. To me it is a spiritual revelation, which contributes to opening up my Afro-Indian sensibility in the direction of the original myths of my race. This poor and apparently hopeless race elaborates mysticism as its moment of freedom. The Afro-Indian gods will negate the colonizing mysticism of Catholicism, which is the sorcery of repression and the moral redemption of the rich.
I do not justify or explain my dream because it is born from an ever stronger intimacy with the themes of my films, the natural path of my life.
Columbia University, New York