terça-feira, 7 de março de 2017

Brazil, the non-existent place

It was the first question that pointed me in the direction of what would become the documentary “The Last Religion”: why is Brazil the country where Auguste Comte’s influence is most visible and the only country in the world where temples of the Religion of Humanity were built from scratch to the purpose of honouring the French philosopher’s dream?

It is no mystery that Brazil has been for a very long time a fertile ground where religions and beliefs of all sorts have thrived.

But there’s something broader (and hazier) about the allure with which Brazil has fascinated so many people across centuries, one after the other enticed by the endless promises and the hope of a vast New World.

Nowadays, however, with rampant crime, inequality and lasting economic and political crisis, Brazil seems more inclined to scare people away.

But the bleakness is not a Brazilian exclusive. These days, the whole world seems incapable of confronting the future with the slightest optimism. The tomorrows that sing gave way to the yesterdays when all our troubles seemed so far away.

The rise of authoritarianism all across the Americas, Europe and Asia brought back memories of times that many thought closed in History books.

One is reminded of Stefan Zweig and “The World of Yesterday”, the beautiful memories of the Austrian writer, completed one day before he and his wife both committed suicide holding hands in Petrópolis, the German-colonized town on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, where the couple was seeking refuge from the Nazi persecution.

But long before hope turned into despair, and visions became delusions, ideas were all that mattered. Thoughts of salvation, fortune or glory animated the Portuguese missionaries, privateers and soldiers. To each his own utopia.

In the 19th century, late Qing Dynasty, a Chinese reformer, Kang Youwei, entertained the idea of establishing a new China in Brazil.

The project was briefly manifested in "Da Tongshu("大同書"), "The Book of Great Unity", and it would never be more than that: a mere idea, albeit part of a bigger plan.

In “Ta t´ung shu: the one-world philosophy of K`ang Yu-wei” (1), Lawrence G. Thompson notes:

“Ta T’ung shu does not quite fit into the pattern of the Western Utopias, whether of the type exemplified by Plato's Republic, by More’s Utopia or by Butler's Erewhon. Perhaps the essential difference is in the spirit of completely realistic planning which motivates the Chinese work. Granting the visionary quality of the whole scheme, it is nevertheless logically developed from the world as it is, and offers solutions to human problems which may in truth be otherwise insoluble. It is a 'utopia', therefore, only in   the sense in which a serious treatise, dealing with universal human problems and social problems in particular, and conceived on a grand scale, may be called Utopian.”

The same (apparently) “completely realistic planning” can also be found in the story of Fordlândia, the town founded in 1928 by Henry Ford, the American mogul that revolutionized industry with mass production and “who has turned the workingman into a human machine”, as one of Philip Roth’s characters puts it.

Deep in the Amazon jungle, the richest man in the United States hoped to create a typical American town where his workers could dedicate undisturbed to the extraction of rubber, the precious raw material needed for making tires and other car parts.

The enterprise would not end well. (2) In his review of “Fordlandia - The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City”, by Greg Grandin, The New York Times critic Ben Macintyre summarized how the dream irreversibly plummeted: “(…) (T)his outpost of modern capitalism was to be ‘an example of his particular American dream, of how Ford-style capitalism — high wages, humane benefits and moral improvement — could bring prosperity to a benighted land’. That blueprint may have worked in Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich. It most emphatically did not work in the jungle. Instead of a miniature but improved North American city, what Ford created was a broiling, pestilential hellhole of disease, vice and violence, closer to Dodge City than peaceable Dearborn.”

In his review, Ben Macintyre also recalls another American seduced by Brazil, Theodore Roosevelt, who imagined in the Amazon the possibility of creating “populous manufacturing communities” served by the great river, only to return “from his Amazon expedition of 1914 declaring the jungle to be ‘sinister and evil’”.

Macintyre also mentions Nelson Rockefeller, who similarly “thought the 4,000 miles of the Amazon might be cut into canals”, and Elizabeth Nietzsche, “the sister of the philosopher, plunged into the jungles of Paraguay in 1886 intent on creating her own vegetarian Aryan republic, spurred on by the anti-Semitic effusions of Richard Wagner.”

While we’re at it, another character pops up: Brian Sweeney "Fitzcarraldo" Fitzgerald, the hero of Werner Herzog’s movie “Fitzcarraldo”, a rubber entrepreneur in the Amazon Basin in Peru, where he dreamt of building an opera house, probably inspired by The Amazon Theatre, in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

This opera house was inaugurated at the end of 1896, the time of the rubber boom. The theatre is featured in “Fitzcarraldo”, right at the memorable beginning of the film.

But perhaps the most ambitious were the positivists the erected the Temple of Humanity in Rio de Janeiro, the first religious building in the world constructed between 1891 and 1897 to house the cult of the Religion of Humanity.

Today, closed to the public because of a large crack in the ceiling, the Rio’s temple serves reluctantly as a metaphor for Comte’s dream and its decay.

But since ideas really have a life of their own, we can travel south to Porto Alegre, where we find the Chapel of Humanity, the only religious building left that was made from scratch for that purpose still open to the public every Sundays.

There you’ll still get a glimpse of the same hope that animated all those non-existent places. There, utopia has a place, which is another way of saying that it doesn’t exist. But when did it ever exist?


(1) https://archive.org/stream/ServingThePeopleWithDialectics/TaTungShuTheOne-worldPhilosophy_djvu.txt

(2) What’s left today of this utopia that ended in ruins is described here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/world/americas/deep-in-brazils-amazon-exploring-the-ruins-of-fords-fantasyland.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

(3) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/books/review/Macintyre-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitzcarraldo