Antonio Candido: Restless intelligence, impeccable integrity

By Luiza Franco Moreira (Binghamton University)

A passage from an essay by Antonio Candido on Kafka’s “The Great Wall of China” has come to my mind quite often in the past few years:

“The complex organization of the empire, expressed in the immense effort of building a wall, rests on reasons that cannot be known. Life does not go beyond daily existence, restricted to the small scope of the village. Beyond the village, total irresponsibility reigns. The cyclopean project makes that all too clear. This wall full of gaps, built to orders that come from an unknown power, is meant to defend a civilization devoid of meaning from invaders who are in fact inoffensive.”

The recent immigration policies of the United States, and the current response to the coronavirus crisis, in this country and elsewhere, have often made me think of Candido’s remarks on the unthinkable reasons of empire, total irresponsibility, and the fear of invaders.

The essay on Kafka is included in O Discurso e a cidade [Discourse and the City], a collection that Candido published more than 25 years ago, in 1993. Certainly, Candido did not have in mind any of our recent disasters when he wrote it. Rather, this passage helps suggest the enduring power of his work to speak to new contexts in meaningful ways. The paragraph also gives a good example of Candido’s lively, clear, subtle, and incisive writing, which has become a stylistic model for many in Brazil.

Antonio Candido (1918-2017) was a literary critic, literary historian, and social scientist, whose work has been widely influential in Brazil and internationally. He was an academic, committed to teaching and institutional building. Candido formed generations of scholars and organized at least two distinguished departments of literary studies. An avid book collector, he was also a generous donor, giving large collections to several libraries in Brazil over the course of his life; his heirs have recently donated the smaller, personal collection that he kept in his apartment to a university library. A committed, unwavering Socialist, Candido was one of the founders of Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores, and remained active in the party until 2002. He wrote for the press throughout his career, articles on literature, cinema, popular song, politics, the university, and any topic that he felt was worthy of attention. A selection of his journalistic writing fills a thick volume, nearly 400 pages long.

Candido’s rich intellectual career spans 6 decades at least. The collection from which the quote on Kafka is taken, O Discurso e a Cidade, is among his later works. This book illustrates his wide range of interests: four lengthy essays that focus on 19th century novels from Brazil and Europe open the collection; they are followed by four short essays focusing on 20th century experimental European narrative and poetry, while the four essays that conclude the collection call attention to out-of-the-box literary texts, which “take their distance” from prevailing norms. Another collection from the early 90s, Recortes [Clippings], takes a lighter approach. It brings together short, occasional texts, including some personal recollections. Characteristically, Candido had a prestigious press publish the more readable volume, but entrusted to a small press the publication of the more weightier collection of literary essays.

The essays on the 19th century novel included in the collection from the 1990s open a useful perspective into his work from that moment back to the 1960s. Throughout this period, Candido focused on writing essays, rather than extended works of scholarship, and constantly returned to a concern with the novel. He gradually expanded and refined the thesis of a “structural reduction,” articulated in the early 60s: factors that are exterior to literature matter to the critic insofar as they become an element that actively shapes the structure of the work of art. O Discurso e a cidade includes 3 tightly argued, learned, and evocative essays on naturalism in France, Italy, and Brazil. In the foreground, we find a discussion of the key role of space, proverbs, and nationalism in the formal organization of novels by Zola, Verga, and the Brazilian Aluísio de Azevedo; the historical and sociological aspects of the argument remain in the background. Candido pursues an extended theoretical argument against Georg Lukács’ depreciative treatment of the naturalist novel. In the perspective of contemporary discussions of world literature, these three essays appear as a study of the transformations of naturalism, moving from the center to the semi-periphery and the periphery. Indeed, Franco Moretti’s treatment of the novel has clearly been influenced by Candido’s arguments.

In an earlier period, during the 1950s, Candido wrote two extended works of scholarship, now considered classics in Brazil: Formação da literatura brasileira [Formation of Brazilian Literature, 1957] and Os Parceiros do Rio Bonito [Sharecroppers in Rio Bonito, defended in 1954 as a doctoral dissertation, first edition, 1964]. Remarkably, these are reference works in two different academic disciplines, literary history, and sociology. Both are based on impressively thorough research. Formação relies on Candido’s wide knowledge of Brazilian literary works from the 18th and the 19th centuries; Parceiros is based on years of ethnographic research in rural communities in São Paulo. Like the later essays, these earlier works pursue layered arguments in lucid, accessible language. Formação is organized by the interest in defining what the system of a national literature is, in order to reconstruct the process through which Brazilian literature took shape. Os Parceiros brings the focus to fall on the cultural significance of food and, in particular, food scarcity, in order to revise widely accepted historical narratives of the settlement of the São Paulo countryside.

Antonio Candido’s restless intelligence and impeccable integrity set a high bar for literary studies in Brazil. Although his work is not as well known outside the boundaries of his country, several essay collections are available in translation: in English, Antonio Candido: On Literature and Society (Princeton, translation and organization, Howard Becker); in French, L’endroit et l’invers (Metaillé/UNESCO, translation Jacques Thiériot), and in Spanish Ensayos y comentarios (Fondo de Cultura, translators, Rodolfo Mata Sandoval and María Teresa Celada) as well as Crítica radical (Biblioteca Ayacucho, translator Mágara Russotto). As a measure of the international appeal of his work, see the Turkish translation of “Crítica e sociologia,” a 1960s essay that initially proposes the thesis of a structural reduction: “Eleştiri ve Sosyoloji” (Monograf, translator Başak Bingöl Yüce).

About the Writer:

Luiza Franco Moreira is Professor of Comparative Literature at Binghamton University (State University of New York). She is the organizer of a forthcoming collection of essays on world literature, with the working title of Premises and Problems: Essays on World Literature and Cinema (SUNY: 2021). She has published Meninos, Poetas e Heróis, a study of the poetry, prose, and journalism of the Brazilian Modernist writer, Cassiano Ricardo (EDUSP, 2001) and Mulheres de branco, a monograph on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (EDUSP 1991), as well as articles and book chapters on Brazilian poetry and history in the mid-twentieth century. One of the defining moments of her intellectual life was an undergraduate course she took in 1975 at the University of São Paulo: “Teoria Literária I,” taught by Antonio Candido.

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