Thursday, 13 September 2012

My condolences to woodworm

Venice has returned to the swamp, Florence and its offici burn: another Savonarola burns in the open square paintings, tapestries and fake beards. Rome is a ruin to add to another ruin. Of the Vatican not even the bones remain: only the insatiable Coliseum continues, open-mouthed, to claim more victims. Some ash persists in the libraries of London, of Paris and of Berlin. My condolences to woodworm. The literatures are over, and the geniuses, reduced to imbecility, ruminate like the great Chateaubriand, with a thread of drool:

Les petits cochons mangent de…
Et nous mangeons les petits cochons.

So begins the final chapter of Húmus, with an apocalypse of the wretched. In a world without God, the masses form wandering armies to take over the world, pillage, destroy the rich, tired of the lies that have kept them docile, oppressed and meek under the thumb of religion. This is the end of the world once the famous opium of the masses is gone, and I for one love the narrator’s descriptions of the chaos.

In France, in Italy, in Russia, the army skirmishes with the plebe. In the confusion of Europe entire cities burn here and there. Embers and screaming… And the latest telegrams denounce cohorts upon cohorts of disconnected people marching in the same direction. More people, multitudes of dream. The monstrous strides double… Paris burns… in London no stone is left untouched. The masses converge and move, like in the crusades, towards Earth’s same magnetic point. And already in the depths of Asia, in China and India, you can follow on the map identical whirlpools and caravans are heading towards the same destination. The poor don’t want to die. They walk, and sometimes they take a city by force, and stop a few days raping women, destroying banks and dragging in the mud useless rags or kings’ crowns. The soldiery finishes them with bayonets like frightened herds, but another unexpected mass resurfaces, another crowd thicker with shouts and anger. In Berlin, sacked, the army surrounds the city and exterminates them to the last man, but Berlin is a mixture of leftovers and of smoking walls where a general is leading. In Paris, the people, after dragging through the boulevards naked women, princesses, singers or whores, soaks museums in oil and sets them on fire. Viena burns. In the end all telegraphic communication ceases, and it’s only discovered later that, through a deal between the nations, a central government has decided to defend some strategic locations, the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Massif Central, as a last attempt at resisting. Who can, however, count on the loyalty of the troops? Madness is contagious, and at night the soldiers hear screams inside themselves and they throw away their weapons, skirmishing with the plebe.

This is the end of Western civilization, of culture. The climax of Húmus imagines what happens when the West’s moral values, which, for better or for worse, were handed down to it from Christianity, vanish. The problem, as George Steiner suggests in his book, Nostalgia for the Absolute, is that nothing replaced the idea of God when it was displaced from the centre of life. The narrator’s moral dilemma – why continue to be good if God doesn’t exist? – is extended to the whole world, and the conclusion is that once God is dead, there’s no reason to be good anymore.

Still that doesn’t mean society can’t be rebuilt on “different bases.” As soon as the masses revolt, a new power elite starts forming itself, with very specific ideas on how the new society must be organised.

Let us continue… Everything has changed in the world, the world has transformed itself. The history of money is the history of our life. It’s necessary to extort it from copper, from lead, from disgrace. The great questions are no longer the moral questions – it’s the economic questions. The main questions to solve are about tariffs, the difficulties of transportation, the metallurgic questions. Africa is torn apart, the ores of Orenza are mined.

The super-men (super-homens in Portuguese, a translation of Nietzsche’s Über-mensch) take over: the captains of industry, the rich, the politicians, who form a world government. The poor are repelled through violence and duly contained again. For the super-men, conscious life. For everyone else, perpetual ignorance in an animal-like existence.

Ignorance must be maintained and the press suppressed. From now on in every country only Official Diaries are allowed, with the publication of laws and edicts. The press is a force that can only exist in the hands of the State. It took some effort to understand it. The Royal Censorship Committee is re-established for books, suppressing the jury and freedom of gathering.

The world government instituted, wars are started just to keep the populace constantly afraid. Women and children and massacred in order to restore public order. The novel is worth alone for this chapter written in the tone of a prophecy. The final entry of this novel-diary is December 25. Make of that what you will. If the narrator’s vision of the future parallels our modern times, that’s just a sign that history has a tendency for plagiarism. This, however, isn’t a vision propelled by class struggle or economics or politics, even if the novel was published in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution. It must have been impossible for Brandão, writing this during World War I, not to think the end of a world was coming, or to at least entertain its possibility. Still it’s not The End, just an end of a certain worldview, of a tone. This apocalypse is just the logical outcome of a Godless world. Profit, greed and power become the purpose of life instead of Gabiru’s dream that was greater than all other dreams. But let’s not cling too much to reality. The narrator’s horrors are beautiful in their hallucinatory insanity, like the best prophetic poetry.

Re-reading Húmus for these posts has been a very rewarding experience. I noticed things I missed the first time. I think I finally see a vestige of form in it. It’s built as a counterpoint between the narrator’s existential anguish, rocking back and forth between God and Godlessness, and the serene subservience of Gabiru to the dream. Perhaps, I have no certainties yet. Humus, the dictionary tells us, is “the dark organic material in soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter and essential to the fertility of the earth.” Humus, then, is a poetic name for our final destination, unless God exists, and maybe Gabiru is right to dream he does. A lifetime of reading is necessary to decipher this novel, and there may not be anything to decipher. This is a novel not philosophy after all.


  1. Unexpected that this novel would take such a turn. I also love these futuristic depictions that are tied to an authors view of society and people.

    Some of this reminds me of a conversation that I had with someone who wondered why anyone who did not believe in God did not go out and behave completely immorally. I asked her if tomorrow if she become convinced that God did not exist if she would begin behave completely without morals. She admitted that she would not.

  2. Ah, yes, that's the big question, isn't? Are we humans innately moral?

    It could be your friend had just absorbed Christian morality from tradition, society and family around her, and even if she doesn't believe in God, her consciousness is Christian nevertheless.

    Of course morality existed before Christianity, man has always needed to define a code of conduct towards other people.

    And the thing with God, or religion, is that they're very ineffective at making people good. But should the idea just be chucked away completely because of it?

    I find this a very interesting question.