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  • The Angel of History’s Forged Signature: The Ruins of Memory and the Task of Mourning in a Brazilian Postdictatorial Novel
  • Idelber Avelar (bio)

How was it that the devaluation of all higher values and the rejection of everything life-affirming came to constitute the basis for all morality, the paradigm for all “good”? How was it that the negation of life, the negation of the only world there is, came to prevail over the guiltless embrace of life? Whence comes the power, the persuasive strength of what Nietzsche calls “that ghastly paradox of a ‘God on the cross,’ that mystery of an unimaginable ultimate cruelty and self-crucifixion of God for the salvation of man” (Genealogy 35)? Why was it that the thought of the slave, the thought of ressentiment, pity, and compassion in the end triumphed, if triumph is the very thing this thought denies in its ever-deeper flow of self-debasement? How do we explain the paradox of a God who conquers and emerges victorious precisely by surrendering Himself to crucifixion by His own followers? Whence the attraction of the negative?

These are, of course, questions familiar enough to any reader of Nietzsche. They are rehearsed here as a way of introducing the thread [End Page 184] that will guide my reading of one of Brazil’s foremost contemporary novelists, Silviano Santiago. I will analyze in detail his Em Liberdade (1981) within a framework delimited by what one might term “the predicament of postdictatorship,” i.e., that myriad of issues related to memory, mourning, and the reconceptualization of the past that has gained so much prominence in the literature produced in the aftermath of the recent Latin American military regimes. 1 In my reading of Santiago’s novel, the reference to Nietzsche will be crucial because, in addition to engaging recent Brazilian history and the tasks it poses to collective memory, Em Liberdade is also the postdictatorial novel that goes furthest in interrogating a certain mythology of the negative within Latin American intelligentsia. Santiago’s starting point can be read as a spin-off of Nietzsche’s reevaluation of all values: what is the process through which the reactive ideology of suffering martyrs becomes the backbone of national imaginaries and identities?

In Nietzsche’s genealogy, the origin of a concept of moral superiority can always be referred back to a concept of political superiority, a difference in a relation of power. Only a posteriori does the positive or negative marking acquire moral connotations, invariably as a result of one’s position within a field of force. Morality is parasitic upon politics and economics, not the reverse. In a most fascinating passage of the Genealogy (and one that is strikingly suggestive of early Marx), Nietzsche traces the moral notion of guilt (Schuld) back to the material concept of debts (Schulden), a first step in establishing the genesis of responsibility and memory itself in the contractual relationship between debtor and creditor (58–65). The memorious are the ones in debt, Nietzsche seems to suggest. Guilt and conscience are memory functions that grow on the soil of promises made to a creditor. It is thus memory, not forgetting, which is the reactive, negative category in this dichotomy. In the Nietzschean topology, the superior, victorious force has no need to remember. It is the slave who is condemned to memory. Remembrance and guilt (the two seem inseparable in Nietzsche, as though recollection, by its very nature, already implied the burden of a moral debt) are imposed whenever one faces defeat in a confrontation of forces. The legacy of defeat is then a memory immersed in guilt, incapable of that active forgetting which for Nietzsche characterizes all creative, life-affirming power.

In postdictatorial Brazil, where of late the most complicitous [End Page 185] forms of forgetting have thrived to the point of hegemonizing the polis and its institutions—determining, even legislatively, how the past is to be dealt with—to speak of any kind of forgetting, however active, can surely lead to a good deal of misunderstanding. After all, can’t literature contribute to guard national memory, guarantee a mnemonic vigilance that alone will prevent the past from ever repeating itself...

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pp. 184-214
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