The Cosmopolitanism of the Poor

Consider this passage from the 1956 memoir of a trip to Europe by the diplomat Gilberto Amado: “I began, naturally, to be delighted by the masterworks of French cuisine. We cannot ask the poor and cosmopolitan Manoéis to abdicate their conquests in the global village, far from the native village, but, despite the lack of responsibility on the social and economic levels, each nation-state in the First World can provide them with the possibility of not losing touch with the social values that sustain them in the cultural isolation they must endure in the postmodern metropolis. In the film’s second narrative, when everyone sits around the table in the dining room of the house where Afonso’s father was born, the actor realizes that he has lost his relatives less in memory than in the linguistic hiatus that isolates them in the present. SEPTEMBER 6, 2017

This essay appears in Cosmopolitanisms, edited by Bruce Robbins and Paulo Lemos Horta; with an afterword by Kwame Anthony Appiah (New York University Press, July 2017). Having a father who abandoned his original nationality, the son ended up suffering the violent process of becoming a citizen of France. Paulo Lemos Horta is a scholar of world literature at New York University Abu Dhabi. Today Brazil’s retirantes, many of them natives of regions that are relatively rich, follow the flow of transnational capital like a sunflower. The reversal transforms the anxious and happy reunion scene among relatives into a game dominated by affliction, misalignment, and distrust. What differentiates and distances these men is their family name and the place each occupies in Portuguese society. The son looks like his father; they have the same eyes. As Afonso says to his fellow traveler: “I liked to hear him, but what he says does not pertain to me.”
The actor’s interest in the voyage, as well as his anxiety and his memories are different — dictated by the life experience of that other Manoel, his father. In the case of Brazil, the two revanchist metaphors find their political redemption in the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (the Landless Workers Movement). The old film director, Manoel, and the young actress in love with him. While the director weaves additional reminiscences, the group wanders through the abandoned gardens of a former luxury hotel. Still catering to the director, the car stops for a third and final time, now in front of a house with a statue of Pedro Macau, representing the Portuguese who, after enriching themselves in the colonies, returned wealthy to their country of origin and brought to its shores “the white man’s burden,” in Rudyard Kipling’s phrase. A new and thus far unknown form of social inequality has been created, which cannot be understood in the legal landscape of a single nation-state, nor through the official ties between national governments, since the economic reason that brings the new poor to the postmodern metropolis is transnational and, in the majority of cases, is also clandestine. Two by two. The car first stops in front of the renowned aristocratic Jesuit school where the director began his early studies. These terms, which have pejorative meanings in modern France, have been appropriated in Brazilian Portuguese. Without getting a visa, they travel to countries like Mexico and Canada on the borders of the United States or to Portugal and Spain in the European Union, and there they come together with fellow migrants of all nationalities. The first name of the director and of any and all Portuguese émigrés is the same — Manoel. The first type of poverty dramatized in Afonso’s story predates the Industrial Revolution and presents man in his condition as a worker of the land and herder of animals — a romantic and autochthonous representation. The French-Portuguese actor requests an interpreter in order to speak with his relatives. The aunt enters into a wordless dialogue of gestures. Her husband has the snout of an animal, which the director points out crudely by making faces to imitate him. Fortunately, Voyage to the Beginning of the World is a film with a happy ending. That leap is propelled by the lack of options for economic and social betterment in the villages and small urban centers of their own countries, as is the case in the Governador Valadares region in Minas Gerais, Brasil. There is, if anything, the entertainment industry, represented by the director and the actor, which today is completely globalized. The memory text transforms what seemed to be different and multiple into one and the same. The film director’s story is no different from so many others depicted in modern national literatures since Marcel Proust. In this confrontation between rustic ignorance and the good manners and savoir faire of the metropolitan, the actor arrives at the possibility of a common language that transcends words — the language of affection. The world’s unemployed unite in Paris; London; Rome; New York; and São Paulo, Brasil. In the universe of Voyage to the Beginning of the World there are neither factories nor workers. In the process of hybridization, typical of the lives of metecos who don’t reset their familial values to a blank slate, the actor commits an irreparable omission: the loss of continuity with the mother tongue. The camera abandons the vantage point of the rearview mirror in order to capture the car and the characters in profile, as if to say that it is now narrating a story at the margins of the voyage’s trajectory. I raised my already reasonable aptitude for opining knowingly, and not approximately like a rastaqüera or meteco, on these matters of sauces and condiments.” In French lands, the diplomat, a member of the Brazilian elite, did not want to be confused with the immigrants, from whom he also distances himself back home. This famous French actor Afonso, who has arrived in Lisbon to star in a big film production, plans a voyage to the beginning of the world. The old aunt, his father’s sister, played admirably by Isabel de Castro, does not recognize her nephew in the French words he employs. Arrival at their destination will take even longer due to this rhetorical effect — the experience that awaits the characters in the future is an unknown that will unfurl without warning, as opposed to a David Lynch film in which the camera’s gaze follows the road being taken and a climate of suspense dominates. The actor says to her: “Language is not what matters, what matters is blood.” The dictionary of blood holds the etymology of the language of affection’s elements. He was beckoned by the possibility of easy emigration to big urban centers that lacked cheap workers. Here, as the car gains ground, the camera shows us the signage that has already been obeyed, the asphalt path already traveled, and the landscape already unveiled. His privileged youth, Portugal’s history, and the nation-state become muddled in memory’s landscape. Voyage to the Beginning of the World dramatizes two types of poverty that are minimized in analyses about the processes of the transnational economy. Arms and hands cross, tightening family bonds. Their lives are determined by necessity and by postmodern profit. A few, like the actor in the film, a French national, will become active agents, but most experience a future that they do not participate in except through manual labor which has been rejected by the citizens of the country in question. The viewer enters into a time machine. Faced with the powerful machines that till, plant, harvest, and satisfy the needs of the transnational economy of grain, faced with the extremely modern processes of breeding and raising livestock, faced with the mysteries of cloning animals, the emblematic figure of the Portuguese peasant is anachronistic — an individual lost in time and space in the 20th century, without ties to the present and, for this reason, destitute of any idea of the future. They embrace. ¤
Silviano Santiago writes fiction, essays, and cultural criticism in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. ¤
AS MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA’S 1997 film Voyage to the Beginning of the World unfolds, the camera’s focus merges with the images in the car’s rearview mirror. Rejected by the powerful national states, avoided by the traditional bourgeoisie, incited by the unionized working class, and coveted by the transnational entrepreneurs, the migrant farmer is today the “very brave” clandestine passenger in the postmodern ship of crazies. The poor are anachronistic in another way now, in contrast to the grandiloquent postmodern spectacle that summoned them to its lands for manual labor and housed them in the miserable neighborhoods of the metropolis. Still young and strong, they want to enter the postindustrial world’s metropolises. The main loss is that of the mother tongue. The nephew asks her to go to the cemetery, to visit his grandparents’ tomb. Long gone is the time of the retirantes (refugees, literally people who retire from the land) from the latifúndio’s monoculture and the Northeastern drought. In the first, the director, played by Marcello Mastroianni, commandeers the voyage’s original impulse, namely, the curiosity and anxiety of the exiled French actor. The cosmopolitanism of the poor Portuguese man produced losses for the son that only the voyage at hand — the opposite of the emigrant father’s voyage by foot — can reveal and recompense. This point of view will guide the viewer’s perception of the voyage from Lisbon to a distant town embedded in the mountains of northern Portugal. He made it to Spain during the Civil War. Thanks to the democratization of transportation methods, the farmer disinherited from the land and animal rearing had his horizons broadened. Four people travel along the modern Portuguese highway, not counting the unknown figure of the driver. Unlike the actor, who eagerly anticipates his first meeting with the Portuguese family he lost due to his father’s emigration in the 1930s, the director only intends to revisit the aristocratic past of the Portuguese nation, which includes his ancestors’ achievements and, more recently, his own. The group is transnational in its ease with languages. There is a shared past — in most cases cosmopolitan, aristocratic, stately — that can be drawn from each one of the subsequent autobiographies of various authors. When the film director speaks in the first part of the film, Portuguese is a language as exotic for the French actor as the autobiographical material it contains. The closer he gets to his distant relatives, the further away he feels from those to whom he should be close. The lack of a shared language makes communication impossible and creates distrust, symbolized by the black color of the clothing. In the father’s future, in a most unexpected way, emerges a son who — through who knows what effort and tenacity — belongs to the elite of French cinema. The language of affection becomes complete at the moment when the aunt seals the meeting by giving the nephew a piece of peasant bread. He married a French woman, had two children with her, and bedded many other women. The farmer today leaps over the Industrial Revolution and lands on his feet, midstream, by train, ship, or airplane, directly in the postmodern metropolis, often without the necessary mediation of a consular visa. From his father, the son inherited nostalgia, translated by the guitar he carried and the fado he sang. The first concerns Manoel, the film director, and the second is driven by the French-Portuguese actor Afonso, who is the son of another Manoel. For the characters in transit, distance from the past and the future holds the same dramatic weight. He does not understand what I say.” As she continues to question the situation, she is harsh, intolerant, and agitated: “Why doesn’t he speak our language?” In response to the actor’s repeated requests for recognition, she repeats the same question to the point of exhaustion. The film director does not have the right to impose the memories that fill the void of the aristocracy’s saudade on the other two Portuguese travelers and on the son of the meteco (alien), now a rastaqüera or rastaquouère (good-for-nothing). Long gone is the time described in Graciliano Ramos’s Vidas secas (1938), a time dominated by the pau-de-arara transportation trucks. The old director appropriates the urge to mend a familial past from the son of the alien (meteco or métèque). The Portuguese spoken in the car has nothing to do with him, the son of the meteco in France. In the give and take of cosmopolitan life, the actor ended up without control over the essential tool for communicating directly with his forefathers. As Appiah points out in his preface to Saskia Sassen’s Globalization and Its Discontents (1998): “[T]he highly qualified employees of the management sectors, like finance, see their salaries grow scandalously while the remuneration given to those who clean the offices or make photocopies stagnate or sink at once.”
Between the two poverties — the one prior to and the one following the Industrial Revolution — there exists a revealing and intriguing silence in Manoel de Oliveira’s film. Notice the beam Pedro carries on his back, immobilizing him; read the metaphor of Pedro’s adventures: the Portuguese present moment is torment, and the future arrives gnawed by remorse. The car stops a second time. He went cold and hungry and often did not have a roof over his head. In jail, he learned the rudiments of mechanics. The days that follow are confused with the return voyage to the “beginning of the world.” An image of the actor’s aunt is as mineral in quality as the stony landscape where those who remain to till the land and raise the animals struggle to survive. The words and the images of memory follow the experience of one day in the life of the French actor, son of another Manoel, the Portuguese émigré in Paris. For the miserable and stubborn farmer, just as for the unemployed workers in the urban world, social inequality at home encourages a leap into a very rich and transnational world, a leap that appears somewhat enigmatic but which is concrete in reality. They fight for the survival of farmers in a motorized and technocratic world that excludes them, reducing them to the condition of global society’s pariahs. On this day, the Portuguese past of all the other Manoeís will be unveiled, different in every way from the past of the Manoeís who were being referenced in the film director’s autobiographical and elitist speech. In that other Manoel’s past, his son wants to discover the misery of life in the countryside as much as the taste of adventure in distant lands. Accomplishments are not the only things that define the life of the good-for-nothing Manoéis (rastaqüeras). The actor takes off his jacket, gets close to his aunt, rolls up his sleeves, and asks her, through the interpreter, to embrace him. The other two travelers take on the role of interpreters. She looks into his eyes while speaking to the interpreter: “For whom should I speak? And two more actors — one Portuguese and the other French, the son of a Portuguese father who, at the age of 14, crossed the poor mountains of northern Portugal, fleeing on foot to Spain and then emigrating to France. ¤
Essay translated by   Magdalena Edwards and Paulo Lemos Horta. In a predictable and tedious monologue, he commands the attention of his three fellow travelers as he reminisces. He observes: “[O]ur particular witness accounts become a register for the experience of the many, for all whom, belonging to what dominates a generation, deem themselves different from one another in the beginning and become, little by little, so similar they end up disappearing as individuals.”
The attention of the passengers and the spectators is diverted three times from Afonso’s story. To obtain a passport, they form long lines at the doors of the consulates. He crossed the Pyrenees, who knows how, made it to France, and settled in Toulouse, where he became an employee at an auto shop and later its owner. When the actor seizes the spotlight from the director, his action signals a true epistemological cut. Both associations are timely through the revanchist metaphors they embody: the aunt, a stone in the middle of economic globalization’s road; the uncle, a wolf on the lookout for failures in the computerized sheepfolds so he can pounce. He can’t even relate to modern electronic gadgets like television, which are within reach thanks to the perverse tricks of consumer society. By filling up the heart of the past twice consecutively, the present becomes a throughway to the future. Its members fight for agrarian reform on the legislative level and for ownership of unproductive lands on the judicial level. We can shift the debate in vogue today by introducing the idea of the stable and anachronistic Portuguese village into the discussion about the unstable and postmodern global village constituted by movement within the economic circuits of the globalized world. In an attempt to free his memory from the anguish of saudade, he makes the driver take a detour three times, imposing his particular past’s images on that route and privileging them over Afonso’s journey. The precarious position of its new inhabitants is determined in large part by the need to recruit the world’s disadvantaged, who are willing to perform the so-called domestic and cleaning services and to transgress the national laws established by immigration services. He was imprisoned. Without documents or money, he climbed the mountains of Felpera with only the clothes on his back. Magdalena Edwards will publish her translation of Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier with New Directions in 2018. The other type of poverty dramatized by the second part of the film occurred after the Industrial Revolution. Immediately the language of affection employs the vocabulary of skin-to-skin contact. Everyone is of Portuguese origin and bilingual, with the exception of Afonso who speaks only French. As he reverses his father’s voyage, the actor feels exiled in his father’s land for a different reason than the ones raised by the film director’s narrative. Their goodwill does not compensate for the loss of the mother tongue. She begins to recognize him through his gaze and likeness. He was a “very headstrong” boy, the son of poor farmers from northern Portugal. In the preface to Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s Raízes do Brasil (Roots of Brazil, 1936), Antonio Candido wrote of the disappearance of the individual from socio-literary texts. Two stories are contrasted in Voyage to the Beginning of the World. The actor realizes too late that in the economy of family love, the work of linguistic interpreters has no value. He wants to meet his rural relatives who still live in northern Portugal. A country of sailors, the Portuguese ended up exiling themselves in their own land, in maturity or in old age. These days, due to police persecution compounded by interminable judicial processes, many activists survive as the accused. As much as the French actor tries to counterattack, he only manages to seize the narrative thread from the director late in the film. In truth this is the industry that is being questioned by the film’s multicultural strategy. All the great artists and intellectuals of Western modernity, including the Marxists, went through the madeleine experience. This new ruse of transnational capital anchors the farmer in foreign lands, where his descendants will lose the weight and strength of their original traditions little by little. The aunt finally recognizes him as her brother’s son.