[Marxism] Nearly in Ruins: The Church Where Sages Dreamed of a Modern Brazil (NY Times)

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Tue Dec 27 06:57:54 MST 2016



RIO DE JANEIRO — Neighbors from surrounding apartment buildings toss empty beer bottles through a gaping hole in the roof of the once-majestic church. Pigeons roam the cavernous nave, their excrement piling up on the floor. A watchman guards treasures from the thieves who prey on the city’s derelict buildings.

The neoclassical Positivist Church of Brazil, with its soaring columns and a cryptic sign above its entrance proclaiming, “The Living Are Forever and Increasingly Governed by the Dead,” was long a captivating sight on Benjamin Constant Street near the old city center.

These days, the crumbling, graffiti-tagged church, whose freethinking founders helped modern Brazil rise from the ashes of an empire, is just another emblem of how Rio de Janeiro neglects its past, allowing grandeur to fall into ruin.

“Congregants once gathered here to debate incendiary ideas originating in Paris, the holy city for the positivists,” said Christiane Souza, 48, the church’s heritage director. “Tragically, our institution now finds itself in a state of neglect, as if history is something Brazil should disdain.”

Indeed, few Brazilians know much about positivism, the secular religion that was spread in Brazil in the second half of the 19th century by followers of the French philosopher Auguste Comte, except, perhaps, that two of his tenets — order and progress — remain emblazoned on the Brazilian flag.

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Roughly defined, Comte’s philosophy of positivism sought to reorganize society around the concept that explanations derived from science should be prized as a way of understanding the world. Positivism drew admirers in places including Mexico, Britain and Turkey. Taking things a step further, Comte created his own religion to spread his beliefs.

Some facets of his Religion of Humanity resembled Roman Catholicism. The interior of the decaying church here in Rio still has the feel of an austere cathedral, albeit one where services stopped after part of the roof collapsed during a storm in 2009. Worshipers exalted a female icon similar to the Virgin Mary and modeled on Clotilde de Vaux, with whom Comte was in love.

But Comte also told followers to worship humanity, not God, and created a new calendar. Its starting year was 1789, when a mob stormed the Bastille in a defining moment of the French Revolution; he named months after historical titans like Gutenberg, Charlemagne, Shakespeare and Dante.

Brazil, a slaveholding empire ruled by a monarchy for most of the 19th century, was fertile ground for the Religion of Humanity. Francophile adherents to the faith included leading figures in the tumultuous period after the 1889 coup that toppled Brazil’s emperor, such as Cândido Rondon, the explorer who mapped out far-flung stretches of the Amazon rain forest with Theodore Roosevelt.

In other countries, the site where such luminaries assembled might today be enshrined as a museum. Not in Rio, where the authorities last year opened a lavish Museum of Tomorrow to contemplate the future, even as Belle Époque buildings in the city waste away in various stages of decay.

Still, Giovanni Fernandes, the custodian of the Positivist Church, sometimes lets a visitor or two slip inside, offering a glimpse into Brazil’s not-so-distant past. Scattered around the entrance are century-old pamphlets in Portuguese and French that the positivists once printed in the basement.

The titles of the rotting booklets reflect the issues, political infighting and prejudices that used to consume Brazil: “Obligatory Vaccination and the Politics of the Republic,” “The Question of the Border Between Brazil and Argentina,” “In Defense of Brazilian Savages.”

One room with a spiral staircase contains a trove of sculptures shrouded in dust, including a statue of Clotilde de Vaux cradling an infant. Decaying paintings on the wall seem to depict aristocrats in European-style attire lost in philosophical reflection.

Once in a while, scholars emerge from the church with coveted discoveries, as when a mildewy drawer stuffed with old papers yielded the original sketches for Brazil’s flag, which positivists created over the objections of rivals who wanted one modeled on that of the United States.

“There’s so much dust and grime in here that occasionally I tell visitors they should bring a surgical mask,” said Mr. Fernandes, 57, the church’s lonely watchman. “I’m often asked if the building is haunted, and I reply, ‘No, I wouldn’t work alongside any ghosts.’”

Historians say the eerie emptiness of the structure, which was influenced by the Panthéon in Paris, stands in contrast with the role the Positivist Church once had as a point of rendezvous for sages seeking to drag Brazil into the modern age.

Positivists staked out progressive stances on an array of issues, waging crusades against government corruption and in favor of legislation to improve working conditions for poor Brazilians. Clashing with an entrenched oligarchy, positivists campaigned for Brazilian abolition in 1888.

José Murilo de Carvalho, 77, an eminent Brazilian historian, said positivists had despised slavery so much that they had forbidden well-heeled congregants to own slaves and promoted the glorification of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian slave revolution.

“Imagine how that went over in a slaveholding country on edge over any whisper of uprisings,” Mr. Carvalho said. “The positivists were extremely forward-looking for their time.”

Still, while Comte’s Religion of Humanity had more sway in Brazil than in many other countries, the faith never really caught on among Brazilians beyond a core group of adherents thought to number in the hundreds in Rio and the southern cities Porto Alegre and Curitiba.

Some scholars say potential converts chafed at facets like a ban on remarrying after the death of one’s spouse and the religion’s treatment of women, who were to draw a salary for raising children but were prohibited from finding jobs outside the home.

Then there was the sense of bewilderment over certain positions by Comte, like his belief that the brain is an organ through which dead people influence the living — hence the enigmatic sign that once adorned the church’s gate.

Until around a decade ago, a dwindling group of about 10 congregants still convened in the church for services, before the roof collapse. Now the descendants of devotees donate their own time and meager funds to keep the building from collapsing altogether.

“We have thousands of rare books in here, not to mention statues, paintings, banners, ledgers, correspondence and who knows what else,” said Ms. Souza, the heritage director, whose father, Danton Voltaire Pereira de Souza, led the church until his death in 2014.

“It saddens me to think we may be among the last of the positivists,” she said, leaning on scaffolding that was part of an abandoned restoration effort. “Sometimes it feels like we are standing against oblivion.”

Jim Farmelant
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