Disruptive Understanding of the Dynamics of Change in History: The Case of the Brazilianists


2016-02-04 Kenneth Maxwell

In a period of profound historical change as we are undergoing, understanding is at a premium.

And what might be called the “inside the beltway” phenomenon is a key barrier to shaping effective understanding and policy responses.

The culture of the analysts drives the debate, not the perspectives of the cultures and key actors outside of the beltway who are reshaping the historical epoch.

It is the challenge of studying and analyzing, but not understanding.

And the role of group think and conventional wisdom in constraining what needs to be understood and what falls out from the bounds of “acceptable” thinking.

History is a brutal and cruel stage on which conflict of Shakespearean proportions happens on a regular basis.

Yet the script is constantly rewritten by players who force themselves on the stage, and yet are not members of the self-appointed elite.

It is not about building intellectual consensus among “stakeholders” and then history follows their script as they would like it written

We have certainly seen this dynamic in terms of the study of Brazil. The tension between the culture of American Brazilianists has a world all of its own, which may or may not have much to do with understanding where Brazil has been or is likely to go within the region or globally.

I recently rediscovered Richard Morse’s occasional paper on the “Brazilianists.”

In 1980 I had been elected chair of the Brazil Studies Committee of the American Historical Association. It was a two-year term. We decided to devote the annual session to a discussion of the recent publications of the “Brazilianists.” The first year we invited Fernando Novais of the University of Sao Paulo to New York. In 1981 we invited Richard Morse to Los Angeles.

Richard McGee (“Dick”) Morse was at the time the William Bonsall Professor of History at Stanford. Born in 1922, his family had been among the very earliest settlers in New England, arriving in the early 17th century. He had attended Hotchkiss, Connecticut’s most prestigious private school. Like his father, he had attended Princeton University.

Chaos theory can provide insights into how to understand disruptive change. But is not about seminars on intellectual convergence of "stakeholders" Inside the Beltway.
Theories like chaos theory can provide insights into how to understand disruptive change. But is not about seminars on intellectual convergence of “stakeholders” Inside the Beltway.

After military service in the Pacific during the final stages of WW2, he completed a PhD at Columbia University. His dissertation was a history of the urban development of Sao Paulo, published in Brazil in 1970. He then taught at the University of Puerto Rico, Yale, and Stanford, before ending his career as the director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Centre in Washington DC.

Morse was always, despite his withering criticism of academic narrowness, also a very skilful bureaucrat. In the early 1970s he headed the Ford Foundation’s office in Rio de Janeiro. And he was also a very effective head of the Wilson Centre’s Latin American Program.

His most famous book was “O Espelho de Prospero” (Prospero’s Mirror”) published in Brazil by Companhia das Letras in 1988.

Morse always believed that Latin American culture mattered in its own right, not as a mere reflection of North America.

This attitude Morse held was the abiding problem of the way in which North American scholars, with their narrow departmentalised, academic, and impoverished cultural perspectives,  tended to view their southern neighbours.

The great Brazilian critic, Professor Antonio Candido, praised Morse’s book for its “rare erudition and constructive intuition.” But it was not universally well received in Brazil. The Brazilian social scientist, Simon Schwartzman, found the book “profoundly equivocal and potentially damaging in its implications.”

The Mexicans were more complementary. Enrique Krause, writing in his literary magazine “Letras Livres” praised Morse for his sense that Latin Americans had indeed created an original civilization. The book was never published in English.

In 1954, while at Columbia University, Richard Morse had married Emerante (“Ema”) de Pradines, a beautiful Haitian classical ballet dancer who was then studying with Martha Graham. Emerante de Pradinas is an pioneering singer, dancer, and folklorist. Their son, Richard Auguste Morse is a Puerto Rican born Haitian-American musician and manages the grand old Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince.

Like his father, and grandfather, he also graduated from Princeton.

Richard Auguste Morse founded the mizikrasin band RAM (named after his initials) which performs each Thursday at the Oloffson hotel, the fictional “Hotel Trianon,” which was the setting for Graham Greens’s famous novel “The Comedians.”

The music is a combination of traditional Haitian Voudou ceremonial and folklore music with rock&roll. Richard Auguste Morse has now become a houngan or Voudou priest.

Richard McGee Morse died in Petionville in 2001. “Ema” is still very much alive at 97.

But the influence of that master of the “eroticism of ideas” very much lives on. I well remember the purple faces of the “Brazilianistas”  gathered in Los Angeles in 1981 when Morse delivered his observations on the “Brazilianists; God Bless ‘Em! What in the World is to be Done?

Morse could not resist the Lenin analogy, pointing out that Lenin’s “What Is to be Done” had been published in 1902, the year his father had graduated from Princeton and his friend, the great Brazilian scholar, Sergio Buarque de Hollanda, had been born.

He ever so gently, but ever so decisively, criticized them: They all suspected that they had been insulted, but none of them really understand just how and why.

Put bluntly, to understand what has happened and is likely to happen is not reduced to what analysts think should happen from their own cultural perspectives.

History has a logic of its own, and does not speak to us necessary in the terms which we would like it to.

Understanding is different than the intellectual domination of conventional wisdom of group think.

Pioneers like Morse are crucial to shape disruptive understanding of the dynamics of change in history.

Editor’s Note: From The New York Times obituary published upon his death in 2001.

Richard McGee Morse, a historian who influenced the field of Latin American studies through his belief that the cultures of Ibero America could help Anglo America understand its own assumptions, died on April 17 in Pétionville, Haiti. He was 78…..

Mr. Morse was one of the first academics in the United States to offer a nontraditional analysis of Latin America by suggesting, often to the dismay of contemporaries, that English-speaking North America had much to learn from the cultures of Spanish-, Portuguese- and French-speaking countries of the South.

His most influential work was perhaps ”Prospero’s Mirror,” published in Spanish in 1982 and in Portuguese in 1988, but never entirely in English.

”For two centuries a North American mirror has been held aggressively to the South, with unsettling consequences,” he wrote in the preface. ”The time has perhaps come to turn the reflecting surface around. At a moment when Anglo America may be experiencing failure of nerve, it seems timely to set before it the historical experience of Ibero America, not now as a case study in frustrated development but as the living-out of a civilizational option.”