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Explaining America

Explaining America

Eleonora Duvivier Dodds, an Illinois-based Brazilian
writer, had years of scholastic training at the Catholic University of
Rio, the Cambridge University’s King’s College in England, and the Boston
University. In The Spectacled Angel she develops the thesis that
whatever is superlative in America is the fruit of a mélange of
childishness, religiosity, and technology. Duvivier had a worthy precursor:
French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville.
By Wilson Velloso

After a spate of books and social studies trumpeting that greed
still is the great driving force of US life, politics, and business, that
Americans no longer trust the government or each other, that politicians
are often mere accomplices of big industry, that several do-good nonprofit
entities are mired in scandal, and ministers of religions are behind bar
for sexual harassment, The Spectacled Angel is a welcome perfumed,
cathartic, optimistic breeze.

The opus of Eleonora Duvivier Dodds, a Brazilian writer now residing
in Illinois, deserves to be read. It opens not only a brave new vista —
"the religion of technology" — but also records quite a few positive
sightings of what good America certainly still has to offer.

Duvivier arrives at her conclusions after several years of scholastic
training at the Catholic University of Rio, Cambridge University’s King’s
College in England, Boston University and much extensive personal observation
which she worked on with the tools of her trade.

Her thesis is that whatever is superlative in America is the fruit of
a subtle mélange of childishness, "religiosity," and technology.
Of the three elements, only technology has a clear definition for the man
in the street.

As a Brazilian — and more than that, a Carioca, a citizen of
Rio — Eleonora loves the current intellectual buzzwords in her national
milieu, specially the term lúdico. [Some of the other words:
alíquota, maniqueísmo (Manichaeism) and fariseísmo
(phariseeism)]. No self-respecting Brazilian journalist, reporter,
news analyst, writer of fiction, economics, politics would ever dream of
writing anything without the fashionable terms. Much like in America we
cater to Anschauung, nomenklatura, démarche and
done deal.

Nothing new in that. Similar terms pop up within the upper classes every
20 years or so. But in Brazil, lúdico has its special charm
and several shadings of meaning, qualities much appreciated by the intelligentsia
and politicians, two obviously overlapping groups.

However, as it frequently happens, highfalutin terms, as well as many
lowfalutin ones too, lose and/or gain in translation. A Brazilian dictionary
has a straightforward definition for lúdico (adj): "referring
to games, plays, and sports."

On the other hand, ludic in English, according to The Random
House Dictionary of the English Language (2nd edition, unabridged)
means: "Playful in an aimless way: the ludic behavior of kittens."
It also notes that the term entered the English language in the early forties,
probably coming from the French ludique. It stems from the Latin
ludere, to play. My 1987 OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is silent
about the term, perhaps because it was not yet current in the UK.

In her The Spectacled Angel, a volume published by the Vantage
Press of New York, Duvivier seems to like ludic-lúdico in
all its lexical faces and shapes. And perhaps a few other not yet officially
recognized and recorded.

In it, in addition to postulating a new thesis for the American civilization
phenomenon, the author gives some credit for it to a ludic spirit, which
blends together childhood, religiosity, and technology. With many colors
of innocent awe, she paints a larger than life mural of these United States
as a time when the lights of the 20th century begin their inexorable five-year
blinking out. A similar task was done, some 150 years ago, with identical
mural-wise élan in Democracy in America, by Alexis Charles
Henri Maurice Clérel de Tocqueville, a French nobleman, historian,
and philosopher. A worthy precursor for Duvivier as philosopher, sociologist,
author of French extraction.

OK, few sane people would argue that the United States is not
Number One, Ana Maria Bahiana notwithstanding. And it would be "oversizing"
to claim that America is ahead because it defeated the Reagan’s Evil
Empire
. It is ahead, says Duvivier, because of the power of its syncretic
triad of games of all sorts, mysticism, and technical know-how. A triad
that "obliterates time and space." No less.

Of course, the Brazilian writer mentions neither the Cold War nor Vietnam.
But her thunderous silence about recent history seems to hint that in fact
it was the Soviets that just shot themselves in their communo-pluralistic
foot. Why? Probably for their solipsistic contemplation of the "system’s"
own navel, the unlimited and concerted praise for its own virtues, strengths,
and advantages. Naturally added to its systematic suppression of dissidence,
differences of opinion, and new ideas. All guidelines pointed emphasized
in The God that failed, a little melancholy anthology edited by
my friend Richard Grossman, a British M.P., crushing together essays by
Norman Podhoretz, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, André
Gide (as presented by Enid Starkie), Louis Fischer, and Stephen Spender
— all former stars of the Marxian firmament.

Neither does Duvivier attach it to any comment about the worldwide triumph
of Market Economy, the free market, the unfettered operation of capitalism,
and the ancient and deep Calvinistic belief that the rich are rich…well,
because they deserve to be rich. All the rest being mere Marxist tripe.
Which, of course, it is. There is no remark, either, about how the American
Market Economy is rapidly becoming also the Market Society. And may the
devil carry the hindmost.

The apparent American Solution is recruiting Superman ("created
by the world’s necessity") and changing him into a guy "who enters
a stage where a determined role already waits for him." That is, the
fate-generated Superman, in contrast with God Almighty, "is powerful
for being the leader of a more advanced civilization… [endowed with]
more developed physical powers, for living in a planet more advanced than
ours…" Now we know.

As a result, Superman is also called "the Christ of technology,"
a man who "never had to discover the will of God in his heart: his
mission, given the world and its physical needs, was not born from a personal
relationship with God." A Spanish atheist might call Superman as characterized
by Duvivier an espontáneo, a wannabee bullfighter who suddenly
vaults the barrier into the ring because…because… Porque si.
Not for Money or for Glory. Or because he was inspired by the Holy Ghost
to perform a miracle on command. Just porque si.

Since these are Superman’s premises, it follows, according to the author,
that "there is no separation between matter and spirit…just as there
is none between mind and world. He [Superman] does not think." Doesn’t
the espontáneo description fit him like a glove?

But what would Superman’s world have to offer to you, gentle reader,
and to me, this antiquated Buddhist who tries very hard but seldom succeeds
to follow the 25 centuries-old precepts of right thinking, right living,
understanding, forgiveness, charity, compassion and "loving kindness?"
Well, we can all go to Disney World and marvel, really marvel, honestly
marvel at how technology has morphed the creatures of the world’s lore
— Cinderella and Mickey Mouse, Peter Pan and Captain Hook, Pinocchio and
the Talking Cricket, Snow White and Donald Duck (which in the late 30’s
was a pet subject of a number of scholarly essays by Brazilian psycho-analysts
and writers) — and placed within our reach. Not only that: all these celebs
have been hired to mingle with us, the hoi polloi, the ordinary
mortals, although we can never aspire at flying.

At Disney World, in addition to paying for fun and/or fright in umpteen
versions of the old mine train rides, the Jules Verne’s Nautilus U-boat,
and kindred attractions, we can choose to play Dumbo, or Prince Charming,
Beanstalk Jack/Giant, the Beauty, or the Beast. Yet, in the midst of all
we still wonder: why isn’t Charles Perrault ever given a teensy-weensy
literary credit?

Maurício de Souza, a São Paulo, Brazil, artist and businessman
whose comic strips appear in hundreds of publications at home and abroad,
and who has produced successful full-length films of his simple and simplistic
stories, has been toying for years with the dream of building a "non
technological park." Or at least a "low technology park"
which he is designing with loving care and practical imagination. He plans
to people it with his own children characters and perhaps those of Monteiro
Lobato, Érico Veríssimo and others. But without ogres, witches,
devils, and other European phantasms — just Clean Decent Fun. Does Maurício
have a chance? Probably. Because, as Duvivier herself writes, "any
object is a potential toy or something to be transfigured, a means through
which [a child’s] fantasy is manifested in action…a toy is a vehicle
of magical action." Period. Animation not necessarily essential. But
imagination — fundamental.

Ah, but will visitors to Monicalândia be as happy, without
all the wiring, the chips, the LED’s, the motors, the myriad lights, and
the tape players crammed into the Disney creatures in America and in Europe?
Perhaps. Wouldn’t it be a laugh if Mônica wrestles Minnie Mouse to
a draw? And foreign tourists flock to São Roque or Sorocaba, Itaquecetuba
or Atibaia, to have fun with clumsy wooden redneck marionettes of Maurício’s?
Just like the Collodi’s original Pinocchio, even when given such atrocious
moniker as "Zé Pinho," as he is called in Portugal?

Eleonora, granddaughter of French rural gentlepeople who emigrated to
Brazil during Brazilian Emperor Pedro II’s watch, has been around in the
Americas and in Europe. Her name, Duvivier, indicates that the family has
solid roots in farm country: the name used to be "du Vivier"
(of the fish-hatchery). It was as Duvivier, though, that the family did
so well in Rio de Janeiro, where they became owners of prize Copacabana
acreage. (The family mansion stood on the ground now occupied by the Copacabana
Palace Hotel, at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Duvivier Street.)

She had her share of tribulations in her young life as a well-bred,
well-dressed, heiress. An attractive and sexy young woman, as she looks
in sultry portraits, Eleonora must have attracted many suitors. She married
an Englishman and as his wife she lived a while in England. Now Mrs. Steve
Dodds, an American entrepreneur whose Dubuque IA firm has been doing business
with Brazil for a long long time. Two lovely children grace their home:
a boy, Christophe, now 7, and a newly born baby girl, Olivia Ariel.

Already quite addicted to the movies, in America Eleonora quickly added
TV and Cable TV. She traveled a lot in the United States, studied, observed,
and made notes. Her earlier experience of America ripened into O Anjo
de Óculos, a book published in Brazil a few years ago. That
book is the direct ancestor of The Spectacled Angel, yet the new
version includes large parts that were rewritten, and much added material.
Yet, basically, the book preserves the same thesis and themes of O Anjo.

No fool or couch potato, Duvivier is obviously aware that heavy doses
of hyperbole color television news, which has created a totally new journalistic
ethic. The advent of a TV camera often leads crowds to odd behavior such
as gathering and demonstrating spontaneously for or against an instant
"hero". She knows that TV reporters are not above staging a lively
riot for the benefit of home viewers. [It is almost like auditorium audiences
led to applaud and laugh at the urging of enormous lit-up signs.] Interviews
can be, and often are, carefully rehearsed. And in foreign venues, the
stars are people who manage to speak some English, even if their individual
uneducated opinions are not worth too hoots. This is how majorities and
minorities are quickly put together by TV.

How Coca-Cola came to be such a popular soft drink all over the world
illustrates, for Duvivier, the manner in which — "the more powerful
the product, the more capable it becomes of transforming the consumer
[to become] universal." That is, the consumer is made as
"abstract as…a fiction hero…[and]…through the oneiric power
of the industrial object…[can live an] infinity of situations…without
ever having to experience them." Meaning that the famous drink may
inebriate more than stronger stuff. Poor silly commentators who mocked
Karl Marx for writing (in his Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of
Right, 1844) that "religion…is the opium of the masses!"
Later, others prescribed Valium and Librium instead of opium.
But Coca-Cola?

But the point has been made that "…technology strives to achieve
immortality as if it were a child’s game. Eternal life here on earth, technology’s
most audacious fantasy, results inevitably from the transformation of space
and time into entities more and more abstract, the existentiality of
which is gradually forgotten and the finiteness of which is less and less
accepted."

Further on, the author focuses on the effects of rock music on its public.
But here her classical upbringing raised its eyebrows and she came out
with: "but affirming that [rock] permits the manifestation of a universal
youthful soul is not necessarily praising its musical quality."
After all, "the music of Bach or Beethoven also reaches beyond the
limits of nationality and race, at a more sophisticated cultural level."
She should know. Her brother Edgar Duvivier is a fine musician with several
CDs to his credit. The songs Edgar composes, though with legitimate roots
in the soil of the Brazilian African lore, are delicate, diaphanous, spiritual.
It might be called elitist.

Then, suddenly, the reader is brought back to earth, to the old and
past, to the déjà vu by a chapter on "Dogma &
Ritual." Duvivier changes caps and soars lyrically about communion,
for instance, shedding for a while both spectacles and technology. And
she succeeds beautifully when she produces the most valid pages of her
book.

Then the high society young woman shares with the poorest blacks who
flock the Rio beaches on New Year’s Eve to pay their respects, on this
"opportunity of reconciliation," to the African ancestor goddess,
Yemanjá, the queen of the waters. This lace-like writing, this mini-essay
that reads as a loving vignette.

Later on, the larger theme is resumed — with technology taking a back
seat for a few lines — and Duvivier introduces another of her icons, Marilyn
Monroe. Not only as well-worn symbol of sexuality but also of impunity
because "[she] is not aware of what it is to sin. She is not condemned
for it" (in the movie Some Like It Hot). The unexpectable conclusion,
however, is that "Marilyn… is a technological idol, not for being
a Hollywood creation, but because she fulfills simultaneously the ideals
of a sensual woman, a scheming female, and an innocent girl."

In another worthy chapter — 7, "The Mystical Millionaire"
— elegantly bundled in an exquisite terminological filigree pays homage
to Uncle Scrooge. Not the harsh Scrooge of Dickens. The fanciful Scrooge
of Disney’s, as interpreted by Duvivier. The millionaire who is "penitent"
because making money is a "cult of anguish and pain" and an "expiation
of his sins".

Being the priestess of a new, technological, religion, Duvivier artfully
develops a curious conclusion that "money and technology are aspects
of abstraction…but abstraction can also be redemption" as it elevates
"life into a fiction when freezing it from concreteness, being, in
this way, a religion of angels." Which prompts a Brazilian pronto
(penniless) to groans: "Yeah, tell that to the Marines!" On the
other hand, one wonders what Clausewitz would have said about this doctrine.

Toward its end, this book of many conclusions tackles fashion. Fashion
which keeps us under its yoke…not only as an acute of consumerism but
also industry’s aesthetic incantation to resurrect us, to rescue
us from the leftovers of tired routines, to transform us as characters
in a fantasy dream, providing us with new scripts."

Eleonora Duvivier is at work on a novel. Let’s hope she can make it
as interesting, thought-provoking, titillating, provocative, imaginative
— and ludic — as The Spectacled Angel .

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