Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pursuing a Flaming Ideal

Antonio Conselheiro {Anthony the Councelor} 
Still from film about Antonio Conselheiro. Image Source

This summer, I read Euclides da Cunha's Os sertões, (you can find it translated by Samuel Putnam as Rebellion in the Backlands). Da Cunha's goal was to provide a chronicle of the messianic uprising that occurred around the same time the country transitioned to a Republic. What he ended up creating was a cultural artifact that chronicled the astonishment of educated Brazilians as they witnessed a clash of incredible proportions take place in the backlands between the political zeal of the new Republican army and the religious fervor of the dispossessed.

The War of Canudos was fought between the Brazilian army and a settlement of backlanders who, in their extreme poverty, fervently heeded the words of a man in a blue tunic whom they referred to as the Counselor. They were repeatedly attacked by the giant and well-supplied army until the entire messianic movement, down to the last man, was eventually wiped out.
Political cartoon from a contemporary Brazilian periodical, depicting Antonio Conselheiro in the process of "halting" the Republic, anthropomorphized as a beautiful woman. Source
The book is divided into two sections; the first section is dedicated to the author's fascinating discourse on both Brazilian identity and the natural world Brazilians inhabit. As a geographer, da Cunha was able to draw from his technical knowledge of the land in order to lend an air of authority to his sweeping observations about mankind and specifically the men of Brazil. In fact, the elán of his prose achieves great literary beauty in his chapter humbly titled, "Man." In this chapter, he offers an elaborate (and sometimes-compassionate) portrait of the Brazilian spirit and its various manifestations. Although rife with deterministic claims relating to the racial heritage of his countrymen, it is possible to nevertheless appreciate the lofty project he embarks upon here; he is attempting to define Brazilianness in the immediate aftermath of the country's transition from monarchy to republic, in a way creating the Brazilian republic's ex nihilo.

The second half of the book is his account of the War of Canudos, the uprising in the Brazilian backlands inspired by the messianic figure Antonio Conselheiro ("Anthony the Councelor"). 
Still from the film, "Guerra de Canudos
The latter part of the 19th century bore witness a series of drastic changes in Brazil: the 1870s saw a huge increase in immigrants from Europe, slavery was abolished in 1888, and the Brazilian Republic was declared in 1889 with the ouster its final monarch, Dom Pedro II. Draught and famine spread through the backlands, claiming the lives of almost two million people. Many of the survivors lived in abject poverty, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, burdened by the racial and social dynamics of a lawless system in which a handful of landowners controlled the entire region. The people of this geographic area were faced with what looked, quite literally, like the coming of the end of the world.  

Antonio Maciel ("Conselheiro" was a name given to him by the people, although he never referred to himself as the Counselor) was ultimately a man who devoted himself to a life of poverty, building churches and encouraging religious devotion everywhere he went. The Catholic clergymen of the backlands, disobedient to the orders of their urban-dwelling superiors, allowed and even helped Conselheiro, as his work rebuilt and renovated the church buildings that had been forgotten by church administrators. Conselheiro urged people to participate in sacraments, to leave any possessions they had to the church, and to go with him to found an egalitarian settlement. 

Canudos settlement, photo by Flávio de Barros
Many followed him deep into the remote corners of the backlands to Canudos. There, they established their settlement and, ever true to his mission, Conselheiro built a church and allowed people to build humble mud huts and devote themselves fully to prayer and serving one another. As word of this settlement spread to Brazilian urban centers, however, the new republic decided to educate these uncivilized backland dwellers by casually murdering their leader. 

Thus, the region surrounding Canudos was suddenly been intruded upon, challenged by a brand new, untested government, and advanced upon by legions of well-equipped military men in what promised to be a violent erasure of their way of life. But the promise of both temporal and eternal salvation (the egalitarian "utopia" of Canudos and the soon-to-arrive utopia of Heaven) had already been galvanized in the hearts of Canudos' residents. A desperate swell of solidarity, unity, and messianic spirit engulfed the people of the arid and remotest parts of the sertão and solidified their determination to rid themselves of the mantle of unjust law. Ultimately, the people of Canudos' strongest weapon became their faith; an undying desire to see the heavens open up and from them descend God's avenging angels inspired them to suffer through famine, thirst, constant bombardment for over 10 months, and much, much bloody death. 

The series of battles fought between the residents of Canudos and the well-equipped Brazilian Republican army stained the scrub of the desert backlands, dyed streams red, dotted the landscape with dismembered corpses, and struck terror into those who heard about it. Euclides da Cunha recorded that every night, after a horrific day of fighting, with the smell of gunpowder and canon fodder still heavily hanging in the hot air, the Ave Maria could be heard, sung by the weak voices of Canudos residents who gathered nightly for Mass, no matter how imminent their deaths or their defeat became. Soldiers told of ghost-like warriors that shot at them from within the very hills; others claimed to have seen them rise from the dead to continue fighting.

The people of Canudos fought very literally down to the last man-- in the end, a group of four men stood around an open grave they themselves had dug, shooting at the advancing army of thousands of men, until each one of them fell dead into the pit.
The ruins of the church built by Antonio Conselheiro and his followers in Canudos. Photo by Flávio de Barros
Many had clung to the hope that Antonio Conselheiro (who died several days before the end of the last battle) was visiting with God in Heaven and that he would soon return with armies of avenging angels to defeat their foe. He did not return, however, and Canudos was utterly destroyed.

The people had been waiting for the apocalypse, and essentially got one. As they prayed for the coming of divine armies that would subject Man to judgement-- punishment for the republican army and exaltation for Antonio Conselheiro's downtrodden followers-- they were almost entirely wiped out, with the exception of about 100 women, children, and elderly who turned themselves over to the army on the final day of fighting. Many of those refugees were never seen again; Da Cunha suggests they were secretly executed by the army. Children were taken home by soldiers as trophies-- Euclides da Cunha himself brought back a child from Canudos and had a friend of his raise the child to adulthood. 
Refugees from Canudos, photo by Flávio de Barros
Throughout his account, da Cunha seems to be trying to understand why these people didn't flee when they saw the legions of the state marching on their settlement. Through the heavy loss of life and the dark days filled with smoke and blood, the people clung to their dust mud huts and refused to relinquish their claim to the land and their worship. Da Cunha repeatedly expresses his uncomprehending horror, asking himself and his reader again and again why they did not retreat, flee to the caatigas when they had the chance. There is almost a pleading in his narrative, as if he wanted to yell out to the Canudos settlement "save yourselves! run away! turn yourselves in and be spared!"

By the end of his account, however, he seems to reluctantly concede that the inherent power of a messianic movement promising a complete and total departure from the earthly suffering the people of Canudos had been enduring was an infinitely vaster and more urgent motive than the mission of the army (which was, essentially, to discipline and "civilize" the "rough-edged" backlanders by getting them on board with the new republican plan for progress). Though the price of resistance was to be high, it was to be paid willingly by all those who intended to witness the final day of judgement from their mud hut.

In spite of the many details that Euclides da Cunha must've imagined or simply invented (such as the inner thoughts and fears of soldiers and jagunços), the reader picks up on one key element of his narrative: there is a deep sense of regret and helplessness that overtakes our narrator, a dumbfounded witness to one of his country's most notorious armed conflicts. Da Cunha was a lettered man who believed wholeheartedly in Brazil's transition to a republic, he supported the new government, but he openly and repeatedly displays his disgust for this brute display of force, mockingly describing the many fumbles and the infinite excesses of the army. (It was thought that the army later plotted da Cunha's assassination, but the official account of his death is that he was shot by his wife's lover.)

In one of the book's final chapters, da Cunha describes the aftermath of the conflict-- he takes his reader through the ruined streets of Canudos, strewn with bodies and the few possessions of the people who used to inhabit it. Scraps of Conselheiro's sermons, preserved in verse form, had been carefully stashed in the mud huts along with coconut-shell rosaries and crudely made icons. Among the debris of this demolished movement, it seems that for a moment, sorrow completely overtakes da Cunha's scientific tone and causes him to doubt all his hopes for the republic, for his modern and "civilized society." As he beholds the depressingly humble remnants of Canudos and rhetorically asks what the purpose of such destruction had been, the reader can almost see his eyes, turned skyward, searching the infuriatingly indifferent sky for some kind of explanation...

What did it matter that they had six thousand rifles and six thousand sabers; of what avail were the blows from twelve thousand arms, the tread of twelve thousand military boots, their six thousand revolvers and twenty cannon, their thousands upon thousands of grenades and shrapnel shells; of what avail were the executions and the conflagrations, the hunger and the thirst which they had inflicted upon the enemy; what had they achieved by ten months of fighting and one hundred days of incessant cannonading; of what profit to them were the heaps of ruins, that picture no pen could portray of the demolished churches, or finally, that clutter of broken images, fallen altars, shattered saints--and all this beneath a bright and tranquil sky which seemingly was quite unconcerned with it all, as they pursued their flaming ideal of absolutely extinguishing a form of religious belief that was deeply rooted and which brought consolation to their fellow-beings? 
(From Samuel Putnam's translation of Os sertões by Euclides da Cunha.)

The only known photograph of Antonio Maciel, taken postmortem (army officials had him disinterred) by Flávio de Barros. Source

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Great Conjunction

Detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment scene in the Sistine Chapel
I've been reading a lot about the apocalypse recently. 

From the Greek, Apo-calyptein, which means literally to "unveil," the word apocalypse can conjure up a mixture of horror, bewilderment, perhaps amusement (see: zombie apocalypse), and certainly a healthy dose of curiosity. 

Eschatological imagery in literature and art presents the culminating moment of human history, potentially its final moment, envisioning the point at which the current world order is subverted or completely obliterated by new order. 

Fear of the apocalypse, as well as a desire for it, has inspired messianic movements through the ages in many different parts of the world. Prominent thinkers throughout history have developed and promoted prophecies that reveal what they believe to be the date or the form of the End Times; sometimes these prophecies induce the laughter of skeptical men, but other times they are met with a fervent hope that they be true. I've been reading about cases in which masses of people have hoped for those prophecies to be true...

The Judge, doin' work. (Detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment scene in the Sistine Chapel)

At first I found it baffling and counterintuitive that people should be motivated by a desire for the end of the world (wouldn't that indicate a suicidal distain for the world, for humanity?). Eventually, after reading multiple accounts of various cultural-historical millenarian movements, I believe I'm beginning to develop an idea of why hundreds, even thousands, of people have come to harbor a profound longing for humanity's final cataclysmic event.

-The most obvious source of millenarian yearning must be violent and relentless oppression. In a world in which physical, emotional, and intellectual suffering is imposed upon one group of people by another, the powerless and anguished group not only wishes for the downfall of their torturers, but for the complete and permanent annihilation of the system or circumstances that made their oppression possible in the first place.

-At the same time violence and oppression stirs a desire for cataclysm among its victims, it can also stir those same desires in the would-be neutral populations. Those who bare witness to the epic failures of humanity can lose their faith in man's ability to govern himself and thereby desire to bring about or witness the end of his reign. An irrevocable transformation, eliminating man's power over himself and the world would forever shift the responsibility off judgment to a realm out of man's reach.

-The apocalypse is a momentous change, but a change that doesn't necessarily mean the end of all things. It is the end of what we have come to know of the world, but that does not mean that everything will cease to exist. A cosmic cleansing of souls or of the material world may take place, or Cthulu could come out of his eons-old hiding place to wreak havoc on our planet. Regardless of the outcome, the world grows old and with it, our deep curiosity to see it turned upside-down. Not even our wildest imagination of the future can be totally discounted; there is no way to positively disprove even the most bizarre post-apocalyptic visions-- utopia? dystopia? They're both fair game.

Ringing in my ears as I type this are the eternal words of Aughra from "The Dark Crystal"(start the video at 3:53). As she scuttles around her model of the cosmos, she tells her gelfling visitor about the Great Conjunction-- a moment when three suns will align and the order of the world will be transformed. With a deliciously haughty attitude, hands on hips, she harrumphs and brushes off the consequences of such a great conjunction, as if it were a routine event that every age must confront... "End! Begin! All the same. Big change. Sometimes good, sometimes bad."

I am going to be writing a series of posts on these messianic movements. The first post will discuss Antonio Conselheiro's messianic movement in the Brazilian hinterlands at the end of the 19th century. Future posts will include the Taqui Ongoy movement of Peru and the secular millennial rhetoric propagated through climate change theories. If I have time, there may even be more posts in the series (I'm thinking about doing one on Isaac Newton's or Antonio Vieira's theories). I hope you enjoy them!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Round Up

Dear petticoat rustlers! This post is simply a round up of some of the things that have recently piqued my interest from around the Internet... presented in no particular order.

1. Hemingway look-alike competition, held every year in Florida. {Photos by Henry Hargreaves} Original photo of Hemingway (pictured upper left) by Yousef Karsh.

2. How would one resuscitate drowning victims in the 18th century? Why, tobacco enema, of course. This also explains the expression "Don't blow smoke up my arse." 

3. Zoomable, digitized version of the manuscript for "Sebastiana del Castillo," one of the very few ballads about a female bandit from the 17th century Latin American imagination, available on the University of Cambridge library website. {Sebastiana's story is a bloody one-- she requests permission to marry her lover and is denied by her parents and brothers, who then lock her up and keep her captive for one year to prevent her from running off with the lover. But after a year, she frees herself, kills her parents and her brothers, and tries to run away with the lover. But the lover proves to be too whiney, so she murders him too. She brings all of her victims' heads to town to tell her story, whence she is condemned to death.}

4. This incredibly nostalgic, slow motion glance into the American past, through the eye of a brightly flashing camera at a child's birthday celebration...

5. Read about how the National Carousel Organization is documenting and archiving the evolution of carousels and their art, especially those produced during the carousel's heyday (1890s-1920s). {Originally, carousels were a way for women to flash a little ankle and men to kindle a little love. Many of the artists who carved and painted the animals saw horses, dogs, deer, and such on a daily basis. Therefore, their great familiarity of the animals' anatomy allowed them to create life-like versions out of wood for the carousels.}

6. Horsemen from Spain...

7. The power to turn your art into dust...

8. Norwegian artist, Ida Frosk, recreates famous paintings... on toast.  

What are you reading about these days on the ole Internet??

Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!

Friday, September 13, 2013

When it Rains Five Days and the Sky Turns Black as Night

Photo Source
So perhaps you've heard about the little rain storm we had here in Colorado?

Oh, petticoat rustlers! It has been a wild month. First, the semester launched at full speed-- I'm teaching a brand new class and taking several wonderful seminars, in addition to helping to run the Portuguese conversation groups on campus. Somewhere in there, I'm also doing tons of reading to try and understand more clearly how this whole dissertation is going to unfold. And alongside all that, I'm training for a back-up career as a circus strongwoman (inspired by my spirit animal, Vulcana).

But over the course of the past week, the sky has remained ominously black and low, heavy and overflowing with constant rain. Two weeks ago, we started to get short, daily bursts of rain that were lovely-- they cooled down the 100 degree heat and helped keep the mountains from starting on fire.

But then the rain started to get heavier and more persistent, with more and more of the day remaining dark and soggy. Finally, the sun stopped peaking through the clouds at all, and yesterday was unlike anything I've ever seen before.
Photo Source
The National Guard, heading into Boulder. Photo Source. 
Torrential rain fell over our town (and all the surrounding towns) for about 16 hours straight. In 48 hours, 14.5 inches of rain had fallen on us (the annual average rainfall here is 24 inches). It was Old Testament. It was apocalyptic. Basements turned into ponds, roads turned into rivers, rivers turned into raging, destructive forces that pulled down highways, swept away cars and houses and trees.

Emergency sirens started blaring through the city on Thursday night and continued through Friday night ("MOVE TO HIGHER GROUND, REPEAT: MOVE TO HIGHER GROUND.") Firetruck and ambulance sirens screamed above the wind and constant sound of rain hitting water, rain hitting roofs, rain trickling slowly into every crack.

The National Guard was called in, the President allotted funds to help with disaster relief. The University has been closed for two days and will be closed through the weekend while they assess structural damage (here's hoping the library was spared!).

In honor of this powerful storm system and surreal past couple of days underwater, I'm dedicating today's post to--first and foremost the emergency workers and folks who lost their homes--but also to some of my favorite passages from literature on rain, storms, and floods...

"Exploración de las fuentes del río Orinoco" ["Exploring the Sources of the Orinoco River"]
Painting by Remedios Varo.
Water dripping from the roof tiles was forming a hole in the sand of the patio. Plink! Plink! and then another plink! as drops struck a bobbing, dancing laurel leaf caught in a crack between the adobe bricks. ...  For a long time, he lay listening to the gurgling of the water; then he must have slept, because when he awoke he heard only a quiet drizzle. The windowpanes were misted over and raindrops were threading down like tears...I watched the trickles glinting in the lightning flashes, and every breath I breathed, I sighed. And every thought I thought was of you, Susana. 
(Excerpt from Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, translation by Margaret Sayers Peden).

I awoke to find the pipes had burst. Somehow, I'd carelessly left the water running in the kitchen; it flooded the floor and poured into the cellar before I'd noticed it. The dampness didn't damage the Chac-Mool ... The moaning at night continues. I don't know where it's coming from, but it makes me nervous. To top it all off, the pipes burst again, and the rains have seeped through the foundation and flooded the cellar. ... This is the first time the runoff from the rains has drained into my cellar instead of the storm sewers. The moaning's stopped. An even trade? 
(Excerpt from "Chac-Mool" by Carlos Fuentes, translation by Margaret Sayers Peden).

And at last the house surrenders its silence.
We enter and pace the abandoned rooms,
the dead rats, the empty good-bye,
water that wept in the gutters.
It wept, the house, night and day,
it groaned with the spiders, ajar,
it shed itself through its dark eyes.
(Poem by Pablo Neruda, from the book Absence and Presence, with translation by Alastair Reid).

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
(One of Lear's lines from King Lear by William Shakespeare). 

When it rains five days and the sky turns dark as night, then trouble's takin' place in the lowlands at night. 
(Line from American blues song, "Backwater Blues," written by singer and composer, Bessie Smith). 

The birds sang because they lacked understanding; the heretics ridiculed us because they had no faith; and we who had both faith and understanding shouted to the heavens, struck our chests, and cried for our sins. 
(Excerpt from Antonio Vieira's sermon, "Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent," delivered in 1665, in which he describes his ocean-crossing journey on a ship filled with tropical Brazilian birds in cages, as they and other passengers were transported back to continental Portugal in the midst of an incredibly tumultuous and dangerous storm just outside of the Azores. The rest of the sermon is quite incredible-- he describes the raging seas, the way the "faithless" clung to the side of the boat, crying that all was lost, the song of the frightened birds barely audible above the thrashing waves, and his own desperate pleas shouted to God as the boat listed threateningly to one side...)

What are your favorite passages about storms in literature?? Have you lived through a natural disaster recently?? Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!