This series of posts springs from three sources. First, my research for “The truth and change,” recalled the poem Brasília, by Sylvia Plath. Second, I have lived in Brazil for long periods of time and consider Belém, the “cidade das mangueiras” at the mouth of the Amazon River, as my second home town. Third, The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath was one of two English-language books I brought with me to Belém in 1992, as I began a year-long stay for my doctoral research.
These are stories of exile, suicide and hope in a world caught just between a despair-ridden past and an open-ended, possibly bright future. They are stories of writers and writing. They are stories close to my heart and deeply tied to my own passions. The first is that of Stefan Zweig’s tragic love affair with Brazil. The exiled Austrian Jew will give his story to Sylvia Plath, the expatriate American poet of Autsrian extraction writing of a metphor sprung from a city she never visited. Like Zweig, she died by her own hand in a foreign land. Finally, Renato Russo brings us back to his Brasília, in an epic poem that marries the cinematic Western to the story of his own country.
These are stories of gifted storytellers whose lives were dealt a blow by the hubris of others. Their achievements in the face of all this are a thing of drastic beauty and desperate truth. Life is hard, a friend of mine once said, and it is. But worth every ounce of the struggle, no matter how it ends.
The truth and Brasília, 1: Land of the future
In 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife, Lotte, commited double suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil. Ever the writer – one of the world’s best known, at the time – Zweig left a note to explain why.
Zweig stated that his decision was “of my free will and in my right mind,” and he told the world why he chose to leave this life. In the dozen years up to this point, Zweig went from being the world’s most-translated author to literary refugee, fleeing his native Vienna for Britain in 1934, then the United States, and finally Brazil in 1941. By this time he was morally and spiritually homeless, “my own language having disappeared from me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.”
No mention is made of Lotte in the letter, so her role, contribution, or support in the decision is only as clear as the fact that she was there on the bed with Zweig at the end of it all, free of struggle, her body like his finally free of the life within it.
Had Zweig the wherewithal to hold out a few years, so the critics say, he might have been able to reinvigorate his spirits – but such conjecture is pointless. Europe in the late 1940s was no picnic, either, and the onset of the Cold War was for many simply a continuation of Europe’s long demise.
For Zweig, the tragedy of Europe was deeply important. He was a stalwart of the pacifist movement, going back to the early years of the century, and he was a famous champion of European integration. A secular Jew from Vienna, he was of the great class of pan-European intellectuals whose history and inclinations drove them to think of a larger cultural world of ideas and human progress. To see that dream dashed so spectacularly by fascism was indeed, I imagine, a tragic, numbing blow to the soul.
Zweig wrote two books in the final years of life that spell his struggle in simple letters. In 1941, he published Brazil: Land of the Future, a love letter to his newly adopted country. On the day before he committed suicide in 1942, Zweig mailed another manuscript to his publisher: The World of Yesterday, an autobiography. Zweig’s European world was on the brink of genocidal horror, and it was killing him. In Brazil, he was trying, heroically perhaps, to follow the European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle, war, and religious strife. He tried, but as he says in the suicide note, he was simply too old to keep on.
. . . after one’s sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. So I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth.
Even as Zweig lived and wrote and died, young Brazilian idealists like Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer were establishing themselves as world class designers and architects. After World War II, Niemeyer’s design for the United Nations in New York placed his ideas on the world’s stage – a House of Tomorrow for the hopes and dreams that Zweig himself had given up on.
Costa and Niemeyer would go on to design Brazil’s city of the future, Brasília, its capital of the future, a gleaming, white, rational city reflecting their beliefs in a truly democratic world that would work for everyone, regardless of class or any other distinction that made life difficult in the old world they inherited. Like Zweig, they looked to a land of the future that was their own Brazil.
Notes and Credits
Cidade das mangueiras = city of mango trees. It’s the local nickname for Belém, where the avenues are lined with mango trees. Every November, when the fruit falls, children scurry into the streets, dodging busses and cars (and sometimes horses) to pick up a free snack.
There are a number of wonderful blog sites, radio interviews, and other web resources available to learn about Stefan Zweig. My source for Zweig’s suicide note is Artopia: John Perreault’s Art Diary. WNYC’s Leonard Lopate did a radio show on August 13, 2007, for which he interviewed George Prochnik, who was working on a book about Stefan and Lotte Zweig. Monica Carter of Salonica writes of Zweig’s Amok and Other Stories,
“Three out of the four stories in this collection put us in the hearts of those suffering from unrequited love. Zweig’s style is so elegant and descriptive, the purity of this love scares and engages us. The last story draws us in to man who cannot find his way home, due to the war. This is the story I found most tragic because of its autobiographical slant. Zweig and his wife committed suicide because the home that they knew, was one they could never get to again. These stories are so worthwhile and if there is any credence to the adage ‘write what you know’ then Zweig was a man who wrote about loss and love with equal knowledge.“
Zweig’s reputation in Brazil is uneven. As journalist Carlos Haag reported in 2006, Brazilians have discounted the authenticity and sincerity of Zweig’s book, from the 1940s onwards. The book was rumoured to be a quid pro quo with the Brazilian dictator at the time, Getúlio Vargas, who allegedly granted the famous exiles, Zweig and Lotte, permanent residency in exchange for the writer’s services. Brazil was to be the land of Zweig’s future, and perhaps nothing more than that.
The photograph of the colonial map of Brazil can be found in the Wikimedia Commons at
. The photograph is in the public domain.
I first heard of Zweig’s book while living in Brazil. The book has been appropriated for an insider joke about eternal contrast between Brazil’s riches and potential for greatness with its ever-present reality of income disparity, poverty, and crime. The joke plays on Zweig’s book title and figures in the second of these postings: Brazil is the country of future, and it always will be.
The statement, “In Brazil, [Zweig] followed the grand European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, and a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle,” is a standard of European history. The notion of a “new world” was the result of Columbus’s discovery of a place that no one in Europe or Asia ever knew existed. John Locke backs up his understanding of the “blank slate” of human history and his state of nature theory with unrelenting references to the Native American societies who demonstrate his point.
Jean De Lery, a French doctor and Huguenot minister who travelled to the original French Colony of Rio de Janeiro (that’s right, it was a French town at he beginning), wrote a brilliant polemic, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, aimed at demonstrating that the Tupi natives were more fully civilized than French Catholics, even if the Tupi had integrated cannibalistic rituals into their warfare. As Lery wrote, the French Catholic monarchy was persecuting the Huguenots and massacring them en masse.
Finally, the Founding Fathers of the United States were themselves European intellectuals in the Enlightenment tradition, who sought to enshrine their country’s ahistorical legacy into the very structure of governance. Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution abolished nobility and privileged relationships with nobles (who could only be from Europe); and the First Amendment’s protection of freedoms to religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition is itself a rejection of the entire course of European political struggle since the Reformation began in 1517.