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  • The Triumph of Brazilian Modernism: The Metanarrative of Emancipation and Counter-Narratives by Saulo Gouveia
  • Sarah J. Townsend

Modernism, Modernismo, Modernist, Modernista, Avant-Garde, Vanguard, Brazil, Literature, Literary Historiography, Canonization, National Identity, Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade, Paulo Prado, Patronage, Getúlio Vargas, Saulo Gouveia, Sarah J. Townsend

Gouveia, Saulo. The Triumph of Brazilian Modernism: The Metanarrative of Emancipation and Counter-Narratives. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2013. 296pp.

Given the recent decline in the fortunes of modernismo, it is hard not to hear an ironic ring in the title of Saulo Gouveia’s The Triumph of Brazilian Modernism: [End Page 241] The Metanarrative of Emancipation and Counter-Narratives. Not so long ago, new appraisals of Oswald or Mário de Andrade could command an immediate audience; despite disagreements over their respective merits, there was a sense that the debates in which they had been engaged were still relevant, or at least worthy of an occasional reread. Today, however, my unscientific impression is that modernismo has become passé. If Brazilian literary studies currently has a center of gravity, it is well disguised, and when it comes to discussions about modernism and the avant-gardes, concretismo and the media art of the sixties and seventies seem to be where the action is. Increasingly, when critics turn back to the twenties and thirties, it is to explore alternative currents and concerns long overshadowed by a select group of artists who in their moments of greatest hubris claimed to have thrown off the shackles of cultural dependency and thrust Brazilian culture onto the modern stage (whatever that means).

But this shift in the status of modernismo—its redefinition as an outmoded avant-garde—also presents the possibility of looking at it anew. In this spirit, The Triumph of Brazilian Modernism casts a critical eye over the movement’s most cherished myths and scrutinizes the process of its institutionalization and canonization. Renouncing any claim to offer a “totalizing” account, Gouveia describes his aim as a modest “attempt to cause a disturbance in the chain of signification that structures the conventions prescribed by the predominant discourse of Modernism” (21). His main targets are the avant-garde rhetoric of rupture; a mode of “aesthetic criticism” that equates formal innovations with oppositional politics; and the related failure to account for modernismo’s ties to the economic elite and the state. Other critics have made these points, and The Triumph of Brazilian Modernism reads more like a recap and synthesis of previous critiques than a radically new intervention. Yet all it takes is a glance at the back covers of any number of other books published during the last decade—particularly those by Latin Americanist scholars in the United States—to realize just how resilient the redemptive interpretation of modernismo is.

The first part of the book outlines a genealogy of the modernista “metanarrative,” which depicts the movement as the protagonist of a heroic struggle for emancipation—emancipation from the Parnassian aesthetics and positivism of the nineteenth century, emancipation (i.e., autonomy) of the Brazilian intelligentsia, and emancipation of the Brazilian people via the creation of an authentic national culture. Few critics would dispute that such a story exists, and the long foray into Jean-François Lyotard’s presentation of the concept of metanarrative in The Postmodern Condition might not have been necessary to prove the point. Gouveia’s more contentious claim is that this metadiscourse or grand récit helped underwrite the legitimacy of the Brazilian state.

Chapter one draws on the work of Sérgio Miceli and others to show how [End Page 242] modernistas of divergent political affinities accepted posts in the Vargas administration following the top-down Revolution of 1930; it also offers an overview of their involvement in the foundation of public universities, including the oft-cited case of the Universidade de São Paulo. For Gouveia, the upshot is that modernista writers were in a position to become their own editors and critics, and the criteria they used to judge literary value helped pave the way for their definitive canonization in the 1950s by a subsequent generation of scholars and writers, including Haroldo...


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pp. 241-244
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