Simone de Beauvoir’s travel to Brazil
Thainã Cardinalli est une chercheuse brésilienne, qui travaille actuellement sur Simone de Beauvoir et son voyage au Brésil, qui s’est déroulé du 11 août au 20 octobre 1960. Thainã analyse ce séjour sous le prisme de l’engagement, en ces temps de guerres de décolonisation au Maghreb et nous régale de documents inédits, qui renouvellent l’iconographie beauvoirienne.
“I hate traveling and explorers”. This famous quote by Claude Lévi-Strauss that opens his travel report, impactful as it is, led me to initiate my master’s degree research. At first, studying travels and, next, the french travelers in Brazil. To those not familiarized, the anthropologist had a brief stay in Brazilian lands. Such time enabled him to visit and contact indigenous people and, some years further, generated the beautiful ethnography Tristes Tropiques.
One could ask the reason to remember Lévi-Strauss in a space related to Simone de Beauvoir. Maybe because I, in opposition to the french anthropologist, love travels and its reports, as much as continuing to investigate them throughout my academic per-course. Or, yet, because Beauvoir’s impressions are not that distant from Lévi-Strauss melancholic ones…
Indeed, these impressions are not really distant as we remember that both authors had intense academic dialogues. In The Second Sex, for example, Beauvoir quotes some of his fellow anthropologist works, specially, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949).
A French Woman in the Tropics
In August, 1960, the philosopher’s two month trip to Brazil is initiated. Accompanied by Jean-Paul Sartre, she partakes guided tours in the country’s major cities. The author also attends to conferences concerning the women situation in cultural centers and universities.
From Recife, inaugural destination in her trip, Simone de Beauvoir reminisces the lunchtime by the quai where she had her first “bâtida: un mélange d’eau-de-vie de canne – cachaça – et de citron”, tried maracujá, “le fruit de la passion”, and manioc flour.1 The philosopher also remembers the visit to a particular farm that captured her attention due to its special organization: similar to the descriptions of rural livings in Casa-Grande & Senzala (1933), by the brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre. As in the famous work, the farm was displayed as it follows: “en bas, les habitations des travailleurs, le moulin où se broient les cannes, une chapelle au loin ; sur la colline, la maison” and “le jardin en pente douce, ses arbres, ses ombres, ses fleurs, l’onduleux paysage de cannes à sucre, de palmiers et de bananiers” 2.
(Descriptions from Beauvoir that are similar to images such as this one, extracted from Gilberto Freyre’s Casa-Grande & Senzala. Vol.2)
On the casa-grande’s terrace, Beauvoir experienced “l’hospitalité brésilienne”: “tout le monde trouva normal de s’installer sur la terrasse et de se faire servir à boire” and continues: “Amado remplit mon verre de jus de cajou jaune pâle : il pensait, comme moi, qu’on apprend un pays en grande partie par la bouche”3.
The name mentioned by Beauvoir correlates to the famous Brazilian writer, Bahia’s Jorge Amado. Her friendship with both the author and his wife, Zélia Gattai, is recorded in Beauvoir’s famous autobiography, La Force des choses4. In this work, the French philosopher devoted some pages to the narration of these Brazilian friends’ trajectories. They had been in touch since the final part of the 1940s, period in which Amado and Gattai were exiled in Europe. Simone de Beauvoir remembers Zélia as being a person of character, goodness, presence and “la langue vive”. Regarding Jorge, she would say that he was sensible “à ce qu’il appelait ‘les petites bonnes choses de la vie’: les nourritures, les paysages, le charme des femmes, la conversation, rire”; worried about “des autres, toujours prêt à les comprendre et à les aider, il avait des aversions décidées et beaucoup d’ironie” ; and, lastly, had a “situation privilégiée” as a writer able to deal in a gentle and critical way with his own country’s political and social problems5.
Amado and Gattai would be the ones responsible for the organization of Beauvoir and Sartre’s events in Brazil. Furthermore, they would also guide the french couple through tours in their travels. Amongst these trips, it is possible to highlight their passage through Bahia, scenery that influenced Gabriela, cravo e canela (1958)6 and where the novel takes place.
(Sartre and Beauvoir inside S. Franscisco Church. Extracted from O Cruzeiro, 10/09/1960. Available at Hemeroteca Digital – Biblioteca Nacional)
It was in Salvador, Bahia’s capital city, that Simone got to know, deeply, the Brazilian markets. Places where everything would be negotiated; from food, plants and animals to religious items. At one of these markets, near the city’s exit, the extreme poverty of the people captured Beauvoir’s attention. In her words, sauf des poteries, assez belles, les éventaires reflétaient la misère des acheteurs : à Bahia aussi la faim rôdait, surtout, dans les endroits qu’Amado appelait ‘les quartiers d’invasion’ parce que les gens s’y étaient installés en squatters”. These people lived at the foot of the hills, in small houses devoid of basic structure and hygiene7.
(Standing, from right to left, Zélia Gattai, Sartre, Beauvoir and Jorge Amado. Sitting, Mãe-Senhora from Ilê Axé Opô Afonja yard. Salvador, Brazil. Extracted from O Cruzeiro, 11/02/1967. Available at Hemeroteca Digital – Biblioteca Nacional)
It is important to state that one of the crucial visits in Salvador was to Candomblé centers; spaces where Beauvoir could observe the rituals, initiation ceremonies and mediumistic trances. The french author related these experiences thoroughly, and tried to apprehend what happened during the trance. To her, as the mãe-de-santo impersonates the orixás, a rupture with social constraints and a rediscovery of African-brazilian customs is symbolized. Henceforth, the trance would connect less to pathological experiences and more to the “cultural order”, as she explains:
On en rencontre d’analogues partout où des individus sont écartelés entre deux civilisations. Contraints de se plier au monde occidental, les Noirs de Bahia, naguère esclaves, aujourd’hui exploités, subissent une oppression qui va jusqu’au les déposéder d’eux-mêmes ; pour se défendre, il ne leur suffit pas de garder leurs coutumes, leurs traditions, leurs croyances : ils cultivent les techniques qui les aident à s’arracher par l’extase au personnage mensonger où on les a emprisionnés; au moment où ils semblent se perdre, c’est alors qu’ils se retrouvent : ils sont possédés, oui, mais par leur propre vérité8.
Being a keen observer of the reality and, more importantly, intellectually sensible to social problems – as indicated in her narrative – Simone emphasizes the libertarian character of such mediumistic processes. Such understanding allows the french philosopher to highlight the importance of candomblé in the Brazilian society and in the personal and professional trajectories of her Brazilian travel companions. As candomblé provides to its member, at times, a spotlight in the religious community, for example a humble dishwasher transforms herself in Ogum or Iemanjá, important orixás, it became a relevant space of observation and intellectual studies. Jorge and Zélia used to participate constantly in these ceremonies; Simone de Beauvoir also points out to the presence of french filmmaker, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and ethnologist, photographer, Pierre Verger, at Mãe-Senhora’s religious centre.
A recently inaugurated city: Brasília
The social focus present in Bahia’s cities reports have also appeared in other fragments of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiographical work. In her descriptions of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo or of cities in the countryside of Minas Gerais state, the philosopher emphasizes historical-geographical references of these places, as well as comments on the observed facts. Such narrative structure also presents itself in the reports concerning the trip to Brasília. The path towards the recent capital – inaugurated only months before her arrival – was made by car; in a vehicle offered by the Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer; and accompanied, again, by Zélia and Jorge Amado. After an exhaustive and monotonous roadtrip, the first impressions of Brasília are not of the architecture or encounter with government officials, including a reunion with Brazil’s president at the time, Juscelino Kubistchek. Instead, Simone de Beauvoir writes about the absence of life in the city and its illusory appearance. In her words, “une maquette grandeur nature”, and continues:
C’est cette inhumanité qui saute d’abord aux yeux. L’avenue principale, large de 160 mètres, longue de quelque 30 kilomètres, est incurvée, mais si légèrement qu’elle semble rectiligne ; toutes les autres artères lui sont parallèles ou la coupent à angle droit, des croisement en trèfles évitant tout danger de collision. On ne peut pas circuler qu’en auto. Et d’ailleurs, quel intérêt trouverait-on à flâner entre les quadra et super quadra de six à huit étages, bâtis sur pilotis, dont de superficielles variations n’atténuent pas l’élégante monotonie ?
This words lean me towards photographical registries such as the one below.
(Picture of the superquadra during Brasília’s construction. Available at Instituto Durango Duarte)
What would be for her, a Parisian traveller woman, to drift by this new space? Across a space where buildings are divide by colossal avenues and whose inhabitants become almost invisible? Much novelty, to her eyes, lifeless. However, it was already possible to see in Brasília the marks, similar to other Brazilian cities, of inequality and heavy presence of automobiles.
The uniformity of the urban buildings contrasted with the social inequality. This problem was observed in the housing blocks that aimed to bring equality, but highlighted, even more, class differences. Simone reports, for example, that wealthy families did not have contact with public employees originated from popular classes. The gorgeous buildings admired by the author, such as the Government Palace, the High Court, the National Congress and the Cathedral, little contributed to soften the social differences found in the urban perimeter. The extended social mismatch was identified, in a similar fashion, between the inhabitants of the planned city and the ones that lived in the orbital cities; peripheral slums that housed, in its majority, the construction workers responsible for the making of Brasília.
(Simone de Beauvoir, Oscar Niemeyer, Jean-Paul Sartre, James Amado and Jorge Amado in Brasília, Brazil. Unknown photographer)
Simone de Beauvoir’s report on Brasília, in opposition to the one about Salvador, offers few details of the everyday life and daily habits, as Beauvoir does not identify, or is not oriented by her Brazilian peers to, these particular details in the capital’s urban territory. Her eyes focused on the huge buildings by Niemeyer and the social contrasts in a city that was idealized, by the communist architect, to be a place of equality. Fleeting visions of a visit that took place in few days, but that crafted strong imagetical appeals and metaphors.
To Simone de Beauvoir, as much as to the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, to understand their diverse and scattered experiences in Brazil, assumed that movement, both physical and mental, would have to be made. But to leave “oneself” also assumes that a return will have to be made, a comeback to the problems and issues that ail one’s society. Regarding the philosopher experience, coming from traumatic post-war experiences and alert to the conflicts between Algeria and the french government that dragged since 1954, it would be unlikely for her to not look with wonder the cultural and popular traditions of Brazil and yet have a preoccupied stare towards social problems and racial inequalities.
Simone de Beauvoir’s trip to Brazil was a warning to her: an acknowledgement of the imperialist power of the capitalist nations and it’s devastating damages.
Thainã T. Cardinalli is a doctoral student at Instituto de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas in Unicamp, Brazil, who is particularly interested in traveller women, travel reports and Brazilian history.
Pour citer cet article : Thainã Cardinalli, introduction de Tiphaine Martin, “Simone de Beauvoir’s travel to Brazil”, Chère Simone de Beauvoir, avril 2020. URL : https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/3017