ICYMI: May 5 was the World Day of the Portuguese Language and Marx
From left: Brazilian author Machado de Assis, ca. 1896; Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago; the young Karl Marx. | Public Domain

In case you missed it (ICYMI), May 5 was the World Day of the Portuguese Language and the anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. So I am left with this difficult impasse: between the two fundamentals, what to do?

“One is not opposed to the other,” a fellow communist might tell me.

To which I reply, “But if they are not opposed, where can I find the mature competence to speak at the same time about both?”

“Practice is the criterion of truth: write and you will see!” commands the comrade.

Urariano Mota

So here I am, lost like a blind man in a gunfight. Where am I going in the midst of so many shots? If I am a practitioner of the Portuguese language, good or bad, bad or good, of Marx I can say that I am a fan without any reservations. But I confess that I am an admirer who has not studied in depth the classic texts of the philosopher who changed the world. The classics by Marx! Let’s be frank and true: Is it only worth reading the Manifesto? Is only its interpretation by Lukács and Gramsci enough? Is reading a few texts by Lenin enough? And so I go on, lost in the gunfire.

So let’s start with the “easiest,” which is the World Day of the Portuguese Language. You can already see the gloomy jungle I have gotten myself into. But let’s go—as we also understand that the global reach and local idiosyncrasies of the Portuguese language are similar to the ways English is used around the world, or French or Spanish or any number of other languages.

To save us from the abyss, it is a good thing that Portuguese is flexible. It is a language that has many addresses, and all the variations fit in it because it is the legitimate speech of the various peoples of the world. From Brazil to São Tomé and Príncipe, passing through Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, East Timor, Macau, Cape Verde, and Portugal, we have the language’s voices. A unity in a diverse world, it could be said, if we were frivolously carried away by the enchanting taste of the phrase. But let us not deceive ourselves. This unity was made and conquered in blood. By fire and sword over the colonized peoples, as has been the expansion of languages and cultures in the world.

The Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago once aptly observed: “There are Portuguese languages and not just one Portuguese language. These languages are, at the same time, the same and different.” In the Brazilian case, the African and Indigenous contributions under the cruelest conditions were made not only in the lexicon but in speech and rhythm. Today, if we take a good look, Brazilian Portuguese speech is another Portuguese. That which songwriter Noel Rosa expressed with such genius in the samba “Não Tem Tradução,” “Everything that the rascal pronounces / With a soft voice is Brazilian, it is already Portuguese.”

But it will be safer if I bring Portuguese to the terrain where I am less ignorant. And I walk lightly to literature, where language finds its most fruitful realization. In it, Brazilians, Africans, Asians, and Portuguese are at the same time distinct and one. Distinct not only from the themes, the landscape, and the people in the narration. Distinct in the new way of seeing human reality in new cultures and features.

Our most distinguished 19th-century writer Machado de Assis (1839-1908) already enlightened us in his essay Instinto de Nacionalidade (The Instinct of Nationality), in 1873:

“Whoever examines current Brazilian literature immediately recognizes in it, as its first trait, a certain instinct of nationality. Poetry, novel, all the literary forms of thought seek to dress themselves in the colors of the country, and there is no denying that such concern is a symptom of vitality and an endorsement of the future.”

And with Machado de Assis, I reach the greatest difficulty, which is to unite Marx with the World Day of the Portuguese Language in a single text. I mean, I, who know too little about Marx, can very well pay homage to my friend and communist writer, the late José Carlos Ruy. He knew how to unite the classics of literature to the Marxist classics like few others. The great Ruy wrote luminous texts about the historical and political reality of Brazil in more than one book. And in his genius, he left the Machado de Assis Dictionary, still unpublished by Editora Anita Garibaldi, which has the original ready to launch it to the world.

In doubt, look at a beautiful page from the unpublished Dicionário Machado de Assis:

“Machado de Assis was a dialectical realist, and an excellent statement of this idea is in the novel Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881), whose narrator is no longer among the living: the deceased Brás Cubas. [This novel, “Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas,” has been translated into English by Gregory Rabassa as Epitaph of a Small Winner.]

Portuguese-speaking countries, 2012 / ePORTUGUESe. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“The novel is a great example of what Marx, when describing the dialectical functioning of thought, called ‘concrete thought’—the ideal as the concrete translated and transposed to the thought, the brain, reflecting the objective world not as a mirror or a photograph—as the old materialism, criticized by Marx and Engels, supposed—but in the form of a record conditioned by the beliefs, ideas and conceptions already mentally existing. The mental image corresponds to the objective world, this mental image is marked by the conceptions, prejudices, beliefs, the ideology that the subject already has in his mind.

“In the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (under ‘The Method of Political Economy’) Marx presented his most direct methodological definition; there he described how categories walk between the abstract and the concrete, producing mental representations rich in multiple determinations and relations. It is worth remembering extensively what he wrote: ‘the method that consists in rising from the abstract to the concrete is for thought precisely the way to appropriate the concrete, to reproduce it as concrete thought.’”

And so I conclude this tribute to the World Day of the Portuguese Language and to Karl Marx, with a quote from the Dicionário Machado de Assis, which I consider to be yet another classic by José Carlos Ruy. Editora Anita Garibaldi, why are you delaying?

This article has also appeared in CounterPunch and NewAge. Uriarano Mota’s novel ‘Never-Ending Youth’ will appear soon from International Publishers in translation by Peter Lownds.


Urariano Mota
Urariano Mota

Urariano Mota is a Brazilian writer and journalist, a chronicler of Brazil’s culture, people, and politics. Mota is the author of the novels "Soledad no Recife," "O Filho Renegado de Deus," and "A Mais Longa Duração da Juventude." He writes a column for the Communist Party of Brazil website Vermelho and is a collaborator of Prosa, Poesia, e Arte. His most recent novel is "Never-Ending Youth," translated by Peter Lownds, and published in the U.S. by International Publishers.