Being and Becoming

Being and Becoming

Mario Quintana is probably the greatest poet in (at least) the
history of his home state, Rio Grande do Sul. Quintana’s own earthly existence illustrates
the difficulty a poet may encounter in resolving the contrasts between his timeless
profession and his time-ridden existence.
By John Howard

If poetry is a banquet, and it is, surely one of its finest desserts is the memorable
couplet, the aphoristic quality of which may spread it far beyond even the most assiduous
free-loader at the table of the poet. "To be or not to be," for example, is
recognized around the world; known throughout Brazil in both its English and Portuguese

It is therefore a real treat for any reader in Brazilian poetry to discover Mário
Quintana’s take-off on that immortal couplet:

Ser ou estar: eis a questão.

Even those with as slight a knowledge of Portuguese as this writer will immediately
spot the impossibility of adequately translating this genial
philosophic-poetic-grammatical thought on one of the basic questions which finally
confront the thinking reader: ser or estar, two Portuguese verbs which,
alas, can only be translated as "to be." For the native speaker of English, it
may come as a surprise to meet up with these two, and it may require some persistence to
acquire their correct usage. Briefly, the "ser" to be refers to an
essential identity or quality, as in "He is a poet" (Ele é um poeta.)
The "estar" to be refers to a temporary, existential circumstance or
quality as, for example, "He is quite drunk" (Ele está bem bêbado.)

Quintana’s couplet may be used to illustrate some of the difference between the modes
of expression of philosophic prose and philosophic poetry (or poetic philosophy, if you
will). The general intent of philosophical inquiry has been described as an attempt to
discover general principles (statements which belong to the ser—or
"being"—aspect of reality) with which to understand the details of
existence (changeable circumstances which belong to the estar—or
"becoming" aspect of reality). It is the investigation of what the philosopher
Alfred North Whitehead defines as "the ultimate question of the relation of reality
as permanent with reality as fluent."

It is worthwhile noting that the very traditional philosophical pair "being and
becoming" lacks an exact translation in Portuguese, there being no single word which
corresponds to the English "becoming." Curiously, the two English nouns, which
make up this complementary pair of concepts are perhaps best translated, albeit
approximately, by the two Portuguese verbs in question, "ser" and "estar."

Thus, philosophically speaking, one might state the premise of the couplet as "one
question which confronts all men is the basic choice as to whether it is best to devote
one’s attention to that which is essentially more permanent or that which is more
changeable." Stated in this way (either in English or in Portuguese) the proposition
is more rational, less poetic; more given to reflection, less to intuition and feeling.

There being no exact translation of the Portuguese verbs "ser" and
"estar," one might be tempted to translate Quintana’s couplet

Being or becoming:
That is the question.

But the poetic content here falls flat: the structure of the original "To be or
not to be" has been deformed too much out of its grammatical shape, and the result is
a too-obvious squeezing of philosophy into poetry. Neither mode of writing has been
satisfied. Another alternative, which admittedly circumnavigates the problem

To Be or to be:
That is the question.

is better, but the full flavor of "Ser ou estar, eis a questão" can
only be savored in the original Portuguese.

The theme of the eternal versus the temporal, the changeless versus the changeable,
recurs throughout the history of literature not only in philosophy, fiction, and poetry,
but in religious texts as well. It appears Adam and Eve rejected some timeless principle
in favor of some passing enjoyment; the story of Christ might be said to symbolize the
union of the timeless and the historical. Machado de Assis’s Memórias Póstumas de
Brás Cubas may be seen as the reflection of an eternal soul on his earthly, in-time
foibles. In philosophy, William James sums up the "first affirmation of
religion" as "the better things are the more eternal things, the overlapping
things, the things in the universe which throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the
final word."

Mario Quintana’s interest in this theme is made explicit in the following untitled

The beauty of verse printed in books
—a serene beauty with something of the eternal—
Before they are disturbed by women reciters.
There they rest, mysterious amphoras
On their fragile shelves of glass…
There they rest, motionless and silent.
But not identical and dumb as the dead in their tombs.
Each has a distinct timbre of silence…
Only the soul can distinguish their different paces,
When the only sound in your room
Is when you turn, soul suspended, one more page
Of the book…But the verse wounds your chest like
the sword of an angel.
There you are, as if you had, without trying, performed a miracle…
Oh! what a beating, what a beating of wings!

(A beleza dos versos impressos em livro
—serena beleza com algo de eternidade—
Antes que venha conturbá-los a voz das declamadoras.
Ali repousam eles, misteriosos cântaros,
Nas suas frágeis prateleiras de vidro…
Ali repousam eles, imóveis e silenciosos.
Mas não mudos e iguais como esses mortos em suas tumbas.
Têm, cada um, um timbre diverso de silêncio…
Só tua alma distingue seus diferentes passos,
Quando o único rumor em teu quarto
É quando voltas, de alma suspensa—mais uma página
Do livro…Mas um verso fere o teu peito como
A espada de um anjo.
E ficas, como se tivesses feito, sem querer, um milagre…
Oh! Que revoada, que revoada de asas!)

Among other things, the poem is a brief meditation on the persistent wish for
permanence in a life of constant change, the "eternal" poem versus ephemeral
reading aloud, the "motionless and silent" amphoras versus the "beating of
wings." One of the notable contradictions of the poetic process is the poet’s
celebration of events in time which, happily, become timeless when printed as poetry.
Mario Quintana’s own earthly existence illustrates the difficulty a poet may encounter in
resolving the contrasts between his timeless profession and his time-ridden existence: his
well-known difficulty at such mundane tasks as finding a home sharply contrast with his
poetic genius—he is probably the greatest poet in (at least) the history of his home
state, Rio Grande do Sul.

A master of the aphoristic verse, Quintana’s one-liners frequently illustrate the theme
at hand, time and the timeless:

If I were to really believe everything I think, I’d go crazy.
(Se eu fosse acreditar mesmo em tudo o que penso, ficaria louco.)

Here "belief" may be taken as those permanent principles at the base of
consciousness, whereas the stream-of-consciousness, the moment-by-moment changes in the
constant succession of thoughts, are the maddening representatives of the world of time.
Thinking, that is, by its very nature, is a process, and a process is all about change;
believing, on the other hand, is a state of (relative) permanence. There are many other
examples in his poetry:

The quotidian is a disguise of the mystery.
(O quotidiano é o incógnito do mistério.)

Don’t forget: the clouds are always improvising, but it’s the wind’s fault.
(Não esquecer que as nuvens estão improvisando sempre, mas a culpa é do vento.)

Time is just a point of view of our clocks.
(O tempo é um ponto de vista dos relógios.)

In the latter one, time itself is negated as a reality; it exists merely because a
machine we have invented says it does. The unspoken implication is that eternity is the
only reality, an absolute refuting the relevancy of a "point of view."

The soul is that thing always asking us if the soul exists.
(A alma é essa coisa que nos pergunta se a alma existe.)

Destiny is chance gone mad.
(O destino é o acaso que enloqueceu.)

We should go through life as though we were skipping school, not as though we were
going to one.
(A gente deve atravessar a vida como quem está gazeando a escola e não como quem vai
para a escola.)

Now there’s a happy poetic thought: Immortality as an eternal skipping of school.

John Howard has published the translations of several Brazilian poets,
and several poems of his own. He has an MA in literature from California State University.
You can reach him at

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