Shepherds of the Night
Mother and Son: A Brazilian Tale
I have never been to Brazil, know little of its history and literature, cannot read or speak Portuguese, and am therefore in a good position to fire off generalizations about Luso-Brazilian culture, secure in the knowledge that I cannot contradict myself. It is, for instance, obvious to my all-seeing eye that the Brazilian writer must face, in a very acute form, the problem of national identity. Any writer is to some extent judged, in his own day, by whether he supports or attacks the national stereotype; Yeats, in his most passionately. Irish phase, encouraged Synge to write The Playboy of the Western World, staged it, and then had to face the fury of the Dublin Catholic middle class who assumed that this “passionate and simple” dramatist was mocking at Irish manhood in his portrait of Christy Mahon. For the Brazilian, the problem must be even more difficult.
As a maritime people wide open to invasion and trade, the Portuguese were always highly tolerant in matters of race and creed, and when they colonized Brazil, importing a large force of African slaves and very few women of their own race, the result was a potpourri of European, African, and Amerindian, which in turn made a strict racial policy entirely out of the question. During the nineteenth century, when the notion of white supremacy was accepted in Europe as virtually scientific fact, the Portuguese tended to be sensitive about this, but more recently this process has gone into reverse; Gilberto Freyre’s Casa-Grande e Senzala (1934), translated as The Masters and the Slaves presented an optimistic and rather emotional view of Brazil as an island of tolerance in a world of sterile race hatreds. In Freyre’s view, the mixture of blood is Brazil’s great asset. While not sentimentalizing the often brutal relationship of settler with slave and Indian, he holds that all has been for the best.
For all I know, this may be quite true, but something that not even Freyre has been able to assimilate into his picture of a tolerant society is the fact that color is closely connected to wealth in Brazil, so that as a rule the darker a man is, the poorer he is. It is the poor who keep alive the racial memories of Africa, who preserve voodoo cults alongside European Catholicism, and who generally display that cultural cross-hatching which makes color of skin a minor difference. In any country the poor live a different life from the rich, but in a country with no tradition of social justice they live a half-secret life which seldom finds literary expression. Thus the Brazilian poor seem doubly mysterious to the outsider. They are there, under the noses of the educated classes, and yet they are remote, enveloped in ignorance and violence. Conditions, in fact, are ripe for pastoral.
Pastoral arises when the cultivated literary artist, middle or upper class, contemplates the swain. Traditionally, the swain has been a rustic, and most typically a shepherd, but now that the…
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