- Roots of Brazil by Sérgio Buarque de Holanda
At long last, this classic appears in an English translation. Originally published as Raízes do Brasil in 1936, this is an enduring touchstone of Brazilian cultural history. For decades, it was one of the books every well-educated Brazilian could be presumed to have read. While that universality is no longer assumed, the book remains a key work for historians, and indeed for all those interested in probing the formation of the Brazilian mind.
This excellent edition includes not only a lively translation of the original, but also the author’s prefaces to both the second and third editions of 1948 and 1956, literary scholar Antonio Candido’s limpid introduction to the 1967 edition and his postscript to the 1987 edition, and Pedro Meira Monteiro’s new foreword. The result is a rich, layered work of commentary and annotation. Reading this edition is itself an exercise in intellectual history.
The book is best known for its fifth chapter, presenting the author’s theory of the Brazilian as “the Cordial Man,”—“cordial” not in the sense of gracious, but in the deeper etymological sense of being ruled by the heart and emotion, and basing all decisions and affinities on the “ethos of emotion” (p. 119). The result, Buarque de Holanda claims— and it remains difficult to argue the contrary—is a nation where personal, affective relationships always trump abstract political, religious, or moral principles. This cordiality, the author notes, is the opposite of “good manners,” for mere politeness is a distancing tactic, “a defense mechanism against society” (p. 117). Brazil’s cordial man, in contrast, seeks true liberation within social life, where he frees himself from both the constraints of ritual and the burdens of individualism. Buarque de Holanda’s greatest insight, perhaps, was not in identifying the supremacy of the affective in Brazilian life, but in sketching both its positive and negative implications so clearly.
The work is both clear enough to speak across the decades and multifaceted enough to yield to divergent interpretations. Each generation finds the Roots of Brazil it needs. Candido, writing in the shadow of the deepening dictatorship of 1967, emphasized Buarque de Holanda’s warnings against the rear-guard actions of a reactionary elite, struggling against popular participation in national life: “Partisans of a past on which distance already confers an idyllic hue will probably resist with increasing stubbornness such a movement’s complete realization” (p. xxxii). Meira Monteiro, writing in the days of the self-proclaimed sole superpower and its overweening claims to define the global good, reveals the “anti-American” strain in the book—not in the sense of nativist exceptionalism, but in the sense of “an anguished and perhaps still valid question about other possible models for the political pact” (p. xiv). The cordial man, writes Meira Monteiro, is an “anti-American, not because he hates the United States, but because he is the exact opposite of the person who, in protecting his private life, sees [End Page 367] it as inviolable, hiding all the torments and secrets within the last inscrutable space of his status as an individual” (p. xi).
As such insights suggests, Buarque de Holanda’s masterwork retains its power both to reveal and to provoke debate. The publication of this new translation, making it possible to assign this book in seminars in the United States, is an event of major significance in the field. We may now finally discover our Roots of Brazil.