Lima Barreto on the city of Rio

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The demolition of the Convento da Ajuda

One cannot comprehend a city without these marks of its previous life, without these annals of stone which tell its story.

Lima Barreto was an early 20th century Carioca novelist, famous for his social satire and realism. He was an avid contributor to newspapers (Correio da Manhã), decrying demolitions and disastrous urban planning. The criticisms made in the texts certainly still echo with anyone living in  Rio de Janeiro today: public corruption, greed of both national and foreign developers, and a general disregard for urban beauty and tropical particularisms. The ‘Americanization’/’Europeanization’ of Rio decried by Barreto is that neoliberalism pervading all grand development projects we see pervading cities around the world, all crudely copying the American sky-scrapers into settings where they have no place.

Below are two newly translated texts by Barreto: one a trade against the 1911 demolition of a 17th century convent, and the other a satire these European-loving intellectuals who would like the city to be a tropical Paris. 

I repeat: I do not like the past. Not for the past itself; it is for the venom which it deposits in the form of biases, of rules, of prejudices in our sentiments. 

Barreto introduces into the discussion of cultural the very Nietzchean problem of loving the past just for the past’s sake (‘On the Use and Abuse of History for Life‘). This is where I find the text the most original. He disjoins the preservation of historical monuments from the unwavering and ill-thought ‘worship of the past’ which infects intellectuals and esthetes to this day, for a different concept on the ‘point’ of preserving monuments: their honesty (of course, honesty is always relative, considering the convent was probably built on some Tupi cemetery). The honesty of architectural relics, as opposed to the dishonesty of monstrous, imbecilic, American-styled constructions geared for nothing other than profit: yes, this seems to be a concept which I believe much rhetoric on historic preservation lacks. These seem to be concerned in fact with the same dishonesty motivating new constructions: tourism, and sometimes even imposing an artificial notion of ‘cultural heritage’ upon people who would rather not be obsessed with the past.

His perspicacious suspiciousness of devotion to tradition agrees with a contemporary reading of his writing: although a critical one, he remains a man of his time, and as such would be a bigot worthy of writing for Breitbart today: his comments regarding women and Turks in the text are disturbing. The past deposits venom in the form of biases, rules and prejudices. 

The great irony is that despite Barreto’s honest and reasoned critique of the convent’s demolition, the space which replaced it is now irreplaceable: Cinelândia. The neoliberal project of constructing a hotel on the space never succeeded; in the 20s, the vacant lot gave way to the construction of a complex of cinemas, theaters and bars around square, thus, Cinelândia. The square remains one of the most popular spaces of gathering for all social classes, where everything from protests to samba blocks to culinary classes are held, creating a comic contrast when those in gala dress on their way to the opera pass by. A much more popular and potent use of space than if it had remained an old convent, one might say. But why not demolish a skyscraper instead?


Convento da Ajuda – Bagatelas

The newspapers have announced, with the pomp of photoengravings and the exhibitionism of historical erudition, that the Convento da Ajuda (lit: ‘Convent of Help’), yes, the one on the avenue, was sold to some English and Americans for the nice sum of one thousand eight-hundred and fifty contos (1 conto=R$123,000.00). 

There was a great content in the camp of urban esthetes for such an occurrence. The little monster goes, they say: and there, in that alley so full of pretty buildings, a huge, modern structure shall be constructed, for a hotel with 10 stories.

I smiled at such a belief, because, if the Convento da Ajuda is not as beautiful as the Teatro Municipal (‘Municipal Theatre’), in fact, neither one nor the other are beautiful. Beauty was not realized in either of the buildings of that elegant funnel; and if I allow for the Teatro Municipal, and I look at the Military Club, the monstrous Library, the Fine Arts School, I think for myself, that they are in fact beautiful, but a beauty of our times, as was the convent in the midst of our 17th century.

In that time, that is, between 1748 and 1750, when the building was more or less ready, and if there had been newspapers, they certainly would have spoken on the lovely and important edifice which the loyal and heroic city of São Sebastião of Rio de Janeiro had gained. They would have spoken with the same enthusiasm with which we would speak at the inauguration the theatre of Dr. Passinhos.*  They did not exist, and we cannot go beyond suppositions. One hundred and fifty years have passed, and we became bored with the lovely edifice.

That which is beautiful grows old, and quite quickly; I believe that, in one hundred years, the urban esthetes will complain of the demolition of the Teatro Municipal with the same enthusiasm as my contemporaries complain of the convent’s.

It is to show how the men held as the most nostalgic, most traditionalist, most misoneistic, have not presented, I won’t say protests, but at least grievances against this mutilation which the city will suffer.

None of them is touched with the soon death of those walls; and yet have so much reason to! A convent of nuns is in a way the fifth act of romantic dramas.

At certain times they served as domestic prisons, prison by the order of such and such judge-executioner, the father of the family, always obedient to the vague codes of honor and purity of the family, placing daughters and relatives in convents, because they disliked their boyfriend, or did not judge him of sufficient nobility for their lineage. 

In others, there was the voluntary wish to recluse; but, in the small brain of a woman, naturally this pious wish came from a romantic deception or from the strong belief in the indigence of her beauty. The love of God came after the love of men; and those walls which will crumble under the applauses of esthetes and anticlericals, far perhaps from being impregnated in mystical dreams, is, perhaps, saturated with deceptions, delusions, melancholies, and despairs, I may well say, of very human revolts.

With my particular ideas I can pass without a past and without a tradition; but, others, those who, daily, recount in historic journals of the Jesuit butchers, anecdotes of Prince Natruza**and other edifying and epic things, how is it that they can let disappear without a tear, beneath a barbaric pick-axe, that old monument, pantheon of queens, of empresses, of princesses?

It is that they are convinced of their loyalty, of the necessity of its disappearance, so Rio can become more like Buenos Aires.

The Argentine capital does not allow us to sleep. Are there convents of smooth and monotonous façades on its avenues? No. Then this great house must go under.

Passos*** wanted it; so did Frontin****; but its disappropriation would have costed too much, and so they stepped back.

I do not know well what advantages such a thing will bring. If, at least, they were to build there a Louvre, a Doge’s Palace, something architecturally beautiful and grandiose, it would justify all this content which passes through the souls of the esthetes; but, substituting it with a heinous American building: enormous, pretentious and insignificant, the beautification of the city will not be great and the satisfaction of our eyes will not be of highly artistic nature. One thing is worth the other.

It is not that I have a large admiration for the great house; it is that I also have no great admiration neither for the style, nor for the people, nor for the American precepts of the United States.

In what pertains to ‘immensity’, there are the pyramids of Egypt; and, as they are simple in lines and destiny, one can still see beauty in them; but in a house, a dwelling, with hundreds of meters of height, with a façade of immense surface, of a shape one cannot  fathom the whole and the movement of details in one eye-view, it is not only monstrous, it is daft and imbecilic. 

The convent had no beauty per se, but it was honest; the hotel will also have no beauty and be dishonest, in its intent to pilfer lack of beauty with its mastodonic proportions.

Moreover, one cannot comprehend a city without these marks of its previous life, without these annals of stone which tell its story.

I repeat: I do not like the past. Not for the past itself; it is for the venom which it deposits in the form of biases, of rules, of prejudices in our sentiments. 

Still are cruel the Roman authoritarianisms which subconsciously dictate our laws; still is imbecilic the honor of feudal bandits, barons, dukes, marquis, who determine our social taxonomy, our family relations and from sex to sex; still are the things of the farm, senzalas (slave’s quarters), sinhás (Madames), moças (young Madames) and mucamas (concubine slave), which regulate the ideas of our diplomacy; it still is, thus, the past, of there, of here, of  wherever, which governs, I will not say our ideas, but our sentiments. It is for that reason which I do not like the past; but this is personal, individual. When, however, I make myself a citizen of my city I cannot possibly allow  the attestations of its previous life, of its ugly churches and its heinous convents, to be tread over.

This fury for demolition comes from outsiders, from foreigners, who want a cheap Rio-Paris or a Buenos Aires for a penny.

The anticlerical aspect with which they hide this desire make the city a sudden fancy, where nothing matters.

In general, it is always the religious monuments which remain.

The Parthenon was a religious monument; and religious were the monuments of Karnak.

Will the gothic cathedrals go under, when catholicism no longer has adepts? No. Not unless the old Turks come to conquer Europe as a whole.

The convent alone did not uglify the city, as they say; neither will its demolition diminish religious spirit, nor will it bring happiness to the lives to of the nuns confined there.

Besides, they weren’t many; a half dozen and their release could have been obtained with a tenth of the amount for which they sold the building. One only needed to ask for habeas-corpus…

Of all religious institutions, one of the most wise is the convent. In olden times, and a bit in ours, in which social life was based on fight and violence, there must have been delicate natures which wanted to escape such processes; and the only form of escape was the convent.

It was useful and consequential; and, if today the taste for such reclusions diminishes, it is because in our life there is more tolerance, less exhibitions of virtue and force, less domestic, religious and governmental tyranny.

It is not by decreasing convents with the aid of the American pick-axe that we will find happiness on earth. They can remain, such as objects in a museum – next to cannons, howitzers, police identification files, forensic codes, of all the useless coercion equipment, mostly counter-productive; what, however, we must do is to unblock our intelligence from some harmful beliefs, which weigh over it as atrocious punishments of fate.

Convents are mute; but these [harmful beliefs] speak. They are like the dead who speak, worse than specters, than ghosts and souls of another world, because not only do they inflict fear upon children and women, but also upon men full of courage and daring.

They are what flog us; they are what sear us; they are what take away our joy of life.

*Reference to the newly built Teatro Municipal.
**Only encountered here. A misspelling of Natureza, Nature?

***Mayor of Rio famous for ordering demolitions (1902-1906).
****Engineer who worked with Passos.


The Europeanization of the City 

(Diaries, 1956: 119)

One notices in general that great cities, especially the European ones, have no mountain range such as ours. Well, if such great cities do not have such natural disposition and if Rio wants to be a great European city, the mountains must be levelled. There is no prejudice in this. The only disadvantage would be the suppression of Corcovado, international mountain much sought after by foreigners. As a substitute, one could construct a tower similar to the Eiffel, in Paris. It would even be much better, since Rio would become very similar to the capital of France. The landfill coming from the dismantling of the mountains, would serve to alter the bay, an inconveniance, tomb of crimes and whose beauties, in the judgement of politicians, is an empty banality of rhetoric.

For commerce, we’d have a dock; and and there around Mauá a little lake for poets.

One notes as well that great metropoli are above more or less considerable rivers (Paris, Berlin, London, New York, Vienna, etc) -thus, if Rio desires to be a great metropolis it must be on the margins of a respectable river.

One could transform the Maracanã into a considerable river. With supplementary canalizations at the springs, the increase in its water volume could be obtained; but that would be forgery. The best would be an authentic river, and well catalogued in almanachs. 

None would be more adequate than the Paraíba River, to fulfill such a civilising end.

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