British Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Brazil

Month: January, 2014

Bowie in Brazil: The Duke, the Emperor and the Marquise

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Bowie in Brazil                                                        ‘Tim White Duck’

Shape-shifting pop-rock enigma, David Bowie, is to give something back to the continent which supplied him with controlled substances for much of the 1970s.

The ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition, which ran to critical and popular acclaim at London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum for six months in 2013 will transfer to São Paulo’s Museum of Image and Sound (MIS) on January 31st.

The multi-media retrospective features over 300 hundred objects – handwritten lyrics, original costumes, set designs, films and Bowie’s own instruments – which trace the sui generis career of the so-called ‘Thin White Duke’ – or ‘Tim White Duck’ as Brazil’s O Globo newspaper improbably referred to him in a recent article.

The collaboration with MIS follows the announcement that the V&A is to establish a partnership with Rio’s future design museum, the Museu da Moda, to be housed at the Casa da Marquesa de Santos. A neo-classical V&A-like pile located conveniently close to the Imperial Palace, the Casa takes its name from its former resident, Domitila de Castro Canto e Melo, the Marquise of Santos and mistress of the first Emperor and ‘Liberator’ of Brazil, Dom Pedro I (1798-1834).

Domitila was the most notorious lover of the priapic Emperor whose compulsive promisucuity rivalled that of the pale pop Duke in his cross-dressing pomp (‘I’ve had so much sex and drugs,’ Bowie once told Morrissey, ‘I can’t believe I’m still alive.’ ‘I’ve had so LITTLE sex and drugs,’ Morrissey replied, ‘I can’t believe I’m still alive.’) Pedro is thought to have fathered as many as 120 illegitimate children, including four with the Marquise herself and one with French dancer, Noemy Thierry (who he impregnated while negotiations for his marriage to Archduchess Maria Leopoldina of Austria were at an advanced stage. Thierry’s baby died soon after being born and the distraught Emperor, somewhat macabrely, had it embalmed and kept in a cupboard, in the royal palace, for nearly 10 years).

The future Marquise was scarcely the most obvious candidate for the post of imperial consort. Said to be “averagely attractive” and “uncommonly fat”, when the Emperor first met her, in 1822, she was a married mother-of-three and bore the fresh scars of a near-fatal knife attack unleashed by her jealous husband. The Emperor nevertheless lost himself in her seductive sloe eyes, paid off the husband and embarked on a tumultuous affair that would ultimately lead – like Edward VIII’s with Wallace Simpson – to his abdication. (The husband, Felício Pinto Coelho de Mendonça, was awarded a lucrative sinecure in exchange for agreeing to the annulment of his marriage and to stop pestering his former spouse. When an outraged Pedro discovered that Felício had written a letter disparaging their affair, the accomplished horseman-Emperor rode forty miles to personally beat him up. A penitent Felício restricted further contact with Domitila to grovelling requests for advancement and intercession in his attempts to sell land to an English gold-mining concern. The sale of the land, to the ill-fated “United Macaúbas and Cocaes National Brazilian Mining Association”, headed by the serial Victorian fraudster, Edward Oxenford, would only be concluded by Felício’s cousin, the Baron of Cocais, in 1833, long after the Marquise had lost her influence at court).

Dom Pedro I

Dom Pedro I: Emperor, Liberator and prolific philanderer

Pedro and Domitila’s torrid affair – said by one biographer to reek of moist, crumpled bed sheets – survived both Pedro’s impregnation of her older sister (not the first occasion on which the Emperor seduced members of the same family) and Domitila’s subsequent attempt to have said sister assassinated. Pedro’s consuming passion was evident in the more than 170 letters sent to his lover, signed variously “Big Devil” (“Demonão”), “Firey Fire” (“Fogo Foguinho”) and “The Emperor”, and illustrated with pornographic doodles of his ejaculating penis. (On one occasion, the romantically-inclined monarch sent Domitila whiskers from his moustache in lieu of his heart, and in another less conventionally romantic moment, according to historian, Alberto Rangel, clippings of his pubic hair. He also despatched detailed updates of the venereal symptoms that hampered the operations of his royal “three-piece machine”.)

In 1825, in a clumsy and monumentally insensitive bid to legitimise his extra-marital affair, Pedro raised Domitila to the position of Maid of Honour to his long-suffering wife, the Empress Leopoldina. Leopoldina now had to put up with the intimate attentions of the “monstrous seducer” from the moment she left her chambers every morning. An accomplished natural scientist and linguist, and the scion of one of the most illustrious royal houses in Europe, marooned in the bumpkin court of her serially unfaithful husband, Leopoldina sank into depression and wrote to her father, Francisco I, begging fruitlessly to be allowed to return to Vienna. She died a year later, at the age of 29, her demise hastened by a boot to her pregnant stomach delivered by the Emperor, furious at her refusal to attend an event at which the Marquise would also be present.

The much-loved Empress’s death was widely mourned, no more so than by Rio’s slaves who regarded her as a protector and patron, and were said to have cried, “Our mother has died. What will become of us?” Domitila was held responsible and her house – the Casa da Marquesa de Santos – pelted with stones. Within three years, she had been permanently banished from the court as Pedro sought respectability in a new marriage to the minor European royal, Amélia Augusta Eugênia Napoleona de Beauharnais, the alluring grand-daughter of the Empress Josephine, and the first princess to accept the reviled monarch’s proposal following ten rebuttals. But Pedro’s political credibility had been fatally tarnished and, in 1831, a series of crises forced him to abdicate the Brazilian throne and seek refuge on the British gunship, HMS Warspite. (As he helped the new Empress up the ladder into the ship, the incorrigible Emperor’s parting-shot was to advise her, “Careful as you go, my dear, you’re not wearing any knickers.”)

On his return to Europe, the Duke of Braganza (as he now called himself) embarked on the final redemptive chapter of his life, displaying unexpected heroism in the war to restore his usurped daughter, Maria II, to the Portuguese throne. Besieged for over a year in the city of Porto by the forces of his brother Miguel, the former domestic-abusing debauchee emerged as a hands-on, Henry V-like soldier-king, criss-crossing the rain-drenched city in military cape and muddy boots, digging trenches, mounting canons, visiting the wounded in hospital, eating with the rank and file, and, inevitably, having affairs with the locals (he fathered his final ‘illegitimate’ child on a brief stop-off in the Azores prior to the start of the war). The siege of Porto was finally lifted after the British were persuaded to send Pedro support in the form of 5 steam-driven warships commanded by Admiral Charles Napier. Napier would later observe of Pedro that, ‘his good qualities were his own; his bad owing to want of education; and no man was more sensible of that defect than himself.’ Pedro’s acute awareness of his educational shortcomings was evident in his declaration to his son and successor, Pedro II, shortly before his abdication: ‘I intend that my brother and I will be the last badly educated members of the Braganza family’.

The Liberator of Brazil died at the age of 36, within months of leading his troops to victory, fatally weakened by war, tuberculosis and, possibly, venereal disease. He would have been consoled, however, to learn that his son, Dom Pedro II, would grow up to be a dedicated scholar and gifted linguist. When Pedro II visited his distant cousin, Queen Victoria, in England, his austere habits and insatiable, polymathic curiosity prompted her to record: ‘The Emperor goes about everywhere & sees everything, but does not go into society. He gets up a 5, & is already out at 6!!’ One can only speculate what Pedro II would have made of the notion that the institution to which his cousin, Victoria, leant her name, the V&A, would one day be associated with another, housed in the residence of his father’s mistress and mother’s nemesis: the Casa da Marquesa de Santos.

Marquesa de Santos II

The Marquise of Santos: averagely attractive and uncommonly fat but possessed of beautiful black eyes

Domitila lived out her last days in her São Paulo mansion, hosting literary salons and charitable events, and supporting a prostitute’s association and another for single mothers (she herself would give birth to a total of 14 children). Isabel Burton, wife of the polyglot explorer, writer, soldier, ethnologist, spy, fencer and sometime Santos consul (1865-1868), Sir Richard Burton, became friendly with the Marquise when she and Burton were living in São Paulo:

‘I used to see a great deal of her … She had been obliged to adopt up-country habits, and the last time I saw her, she received me en intime in her own kitchen, where she sat on the floor, smoking, not a cigarette, but a pipe. She had beautiful black eyes, full of sympathy, and intelligence, and knowledge. She was a great bit of interest to me in that out-of-the-way place’.

Isabel Burton was evidently not the first person to find Domitila ‘a great bit of interest’ or to be struck by those ‘beautiful black eyes’.

Sex, Football, Holidays and Hair-Transplants

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A two-finger salute: the only Churchillian gesture Brazilian politicians have offered their electorate


A two-finger salute: the only Churchillian gesture Brazilian politicians have to offer their electorate

At her 2013 end-of-year press conference, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sounded a somewhat schizophrenic note. Regarding modest projections for Brazilian economic growth in 2014 she told the assembled press corps, ‘I don’t make GDP predictions and I don’t think you should either,’ before swiftly conceding: ‘We are in a position to state that the GDP (for 2013) will be around 2%, 2 something.’ The rhetorically-challenged Rousseff, notorious for Ron Burgundyesque blunders when performing off the cuff, duly swung back onto the defensive: ‘I’m not going to tell you what the GDP will be, either for this year or next year, because if I get it wrong by 0.2 percent, I’ll be the one left carrying the can.’ Continuing in split-personality mode, she warned that it was ‘absolutely unforgiveable for a government to be pessimistic – unless you’re facing a war, and even then I prefer Churchill’s approach: “blood, sweat and tears, let’s go on to the end, let’s defeat (the enemy)” – that’s how you win.’

At a time when the biggest challenge facing Brazil, according to its President, is the relative non-apocalypse of 2% GDP growth – a rate for which David Cameron would willingly trash a Bullingdon Club restaurant – it was curious that she should invoke a speech designed to rally a country as it braced itself against invasion by Nazis.

A few months earlier, the Brazilian Senator, Cristovam Buarque, one of the few righteous souls in the Sodom-and-Gomorrah twinning-candidate of the federal capital, Brasilia, cited the same Churchillian rhetoric, though in a different vein. Responding to news that, despite possessing the 7th largest economy in the world, Brazil continued to occupy an unenviable 88th position in global Human Development Indices, Buarque observed that, in Brazil, such reports are generally greeted with bland assurances that ‘we’re winning the war’ rather than Churchillian entreaties to tighten belts and dig metaphorical allotments.

Churchill’s ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ speech was designed to introduce a sense of urgency into the political debate and distance him from the complacency which had characterized his predecessor’s appeasing administration. It was also carefully calibrated to resonate with that puritanical strain in the British psyche which thrives on the idea of thrift, ration-books and ‘There’s a war on, don’t you know?’ hardship.

But such an appeal has little currency in the increasingly consumerist, pleasure-fixated, conflict- and toil-averse culture of modern Brazil, where a kind of anti-work ethic prevails, the legacy of four centuries of slavery when physical exertion was exclusively identified with the despised slave classes. (This is not to say that Brazilians don’t work hard. Many do and for very little money. But where no immediate self-interest is involved, Brazilians can appear to have an ingrained resistance to putting themselves out, as the abysmal levels of service in almost every sphere of commercial life, and the fact that the average Brazilian worker is only one fifth as productive as his US counterpart, attest. The Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari has noted that whenever Brazilian politicians quote Churchill’s speech they invariably omit the ‘toil’ aspect.) To find a receptive audience in Brazil, Churchill would have to declare: ‘I have nothing to offer but sex, football, Xboxes and holidays!’ (Though, to be fair, it’s a speech that would go down pretty well almost anywhere.)

The political complacency highlighted by Senator Buarque was further evident in the end of year review delivered by the President of the Brazilian Chamber, Renan Calheiros. Calheiros devoted much of a self-congratulatory speech to highlighting cuts in wasteful government spending and advances in transparency. Unfortunately, this transparency didn’t extend to his mentioning that, a few days earlier, he had chartered a Brazilian Air Force jet to fly him 2,000 kilometres for a hair-transplant operation. When news of this flagrant abuse of government resources leaked, Calheiros issued a qualified mea culpa: he would clarify with the Air Force whether he had committed a breach of decorum. (Having agreed to reimburse the public coffers to the tune of R$32,000 a few months earlier, after it was discovered that he had requisitioned an Air Force jet to fly him to a friend’s wedding, it seemed odd that the President of the Chamber should require further clarification.)

By a curious non-coincidence concerning the compulsively promiscuous culture of Brasilia, the surgeon who conducted Calheiros’s transplant turned out to be the same medic who replenished the Bond-villain hairline of Lula’s disgraced and now incarcerated former chief-of-staff, José Dirceu, the alleged architect of the so-called Big Monthly (Mensalão) slush-fund scandal. (Dirceu managed to engineer a further mini-scandal from prison when it was discovered that the hotel where he’d landed a R$20,000 a month ‘managerial’ position – permissible under the terms of his ‘semi-open’ prison sentence – was owned by a shell company, registered in Panama, in which Dirceu himself may have had an interest.)

But the honour for most wretchedly complacent Brazilian politician of 2013 must surely go to congressman, former Brazilian President and vanity publisher, José Sarney. The embodiment of old-school provincial Brazilian politics, Sarney and his family have run the north-eastern state of Maranhão as a family fiefdom for 50 years. His 2009 election to the Presidency of the Senate was described by The Economist as a “a victory for semi-feudalism”.

In response to reports that, in 2013, 59 prisoners were murdered – several decapitated – in a Maranhão prison complex (under the ultimate responsibility of his daughter, the State Governor, Roseana), and that wives and sisters of inmates were being routinely raped by gang members during prison-visits, Sarney proudly declared: ‘Here in Maranhão, we’ve managed to keep the violence in the prisons and off the streets!’ (In November, in a similar spirit of dereliction, the Brazilian Justice Minister, José Eduardo Cardozo, described conditions in Brazil’s prisons as ‘medieval’: ‘If I had to spend many years…in some of our prisons, I’d prefer to die!” he added, grateful no doubt that, as a university graduate, he’d never have to do time in one of the hell-holes reserved for the common refuse of Brazilian society).

If the sober spirit of Churchill’s wartime oratory fails to resonate in contemporary Brazil, his famous rhetorical flourish – “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat” – has a tenuous double-Brazilian connection. By one account, it was the re-unifier of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who coined the original phrase, telling revolutionary forces outside Rome, in 1849: “I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battle, and death.” Garibaldi had previously fought in the separatist Ragamuffin War (the Guerra dos Farrapos) in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina (Churchill had once considered writing a biography of him).

An alternative theory suggests Winston’s inspiration was a speech delivered by Theodore Roosevelt when, in 1897, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he told members of the Naval War College: “Every man among us is more fit to meet the duties and responsibilities of citizenship because of … the blood and sweat and tears, the labor and the anguish, through which, in the days that have gone, our forefathers moved on to triumph.”

Roosevelt famously took part in a 1913-14 expedition to the Brazilian Amazon led by the great advocate of Amerindian rights, Cândido Rondon, where, afflicted by infection- and fever-induced delirium, the former US President endlessly repeated the opening line from Coleridge’s Khubla Khan as his party struggled to trace the headwaters of the aptly named River of Doubt (later renamed the Roosevelt River).

Despite assurances that “this year we had a better performance… in every respect we did well”, Dilma’s Churchillian allusions suggest intimations of gathering storm clouds (if not Luftwaffe squadrons): burgeoning inflation, a weakening currency, the possibility of a credit-rating downgrade, the ongoing loss of BRIC lustre, the corresponding flight of international investment, the prospect of being overtaken by Russia as the world’s 7th largest economy and looming World Cup-related protests, not to mention the perennial problems of creaking infrastructure, excessive bureaucracy, corruption, public order challenges and substandard education.

Regardless of the urgency of the problems, the rhetoric, in a World Cup-election year, will remain relentlessly upbeat. But as Senator Buarque observed, ‘During the Second World War, while Churchill asked for “blood, sweat and tears”, Germany used its propaganda machine to create the impression that everything was fine on the front and that the critics were defeatists. And we all know who lost the war.’