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

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