Positivismo

Lyrics from “Positivismo” by Noel Rosa and Orestes Barbosa (1933)

Recording by Noel Rosa (1933).

And João Nogueira’s rendition, from 1981, on the album Wilson, Geraldo, e Noel.

A verdade, meu amor, mora num poço / The truth, my love, lies in a well
É Pilatos lá na Bíblia quem nos diz / It’s Pilate from the Bible who tells us so
E também faleceu por ter pescoço / And on account of his having a neck
O autor da guilhotina de Paris / The inventor of the guillotine from Paris died as well
(2x)

Vai orgulhosa querida / Go proudly dear
Mas aceita esta lição/ But take this lesson
No câmbio incerto da vida/ In the uncertain exchange of life
A libra sempre é o coração/ The pound is always the heart
Amor vem por princípio, a ordem por base/ Love comes as principle (or first), order as foundation
O progresso é que deve vir por fim/ Progress is what should come in the end
Desprezaste esta lei de Auguste Comte/ You flouted that law of Auguste Comte
E foste ser feliz longe de mim/ And went off to be happy far from me
(2x)

Vai, coração que não vibra / Go on, heart that doesn’t throb
Com seu juro exorbitante/ With your exorbitant interest
Transformar mais outra libra / To transform yet another pound
Em dívida flutuante/ Into a floating debt
A intriga nasce num café pequeno/ Intrigue is born in a small café
Que se toma para ver quem vai pagar/ That’s taken to see who will pay
Para não sentir mais o teu veneno/ To no longer suffer your venom
Foi que eu já resolvi me envenenar/ I’ve resolved to poison myself


Noel Rosa. When Orestes Barbosa heard Noel’s samba “Não tem tradução,” he reportedly told his friend Antônio Nássara, “That chinless guy is too much. A genius!” (Noel’s face was deformed by forceps at birth.)

Today, September 7, is Brazilian Independence Day (declared in 1822). For the occasion, I wanted to write briefly about this samba (thank you to Pedro Paulo Malta for the inspiration) by the poet, journalist and cronista Orestes Barbosa and Noel Rosa, which plays with that old positivist motto still emblazoned on the Brazilian flag, “Order and Progress.” (The words were actually added to the flag after the proclamation of the republic, in 1889.)

Orestes enjoyed mixing law, philosophy and love in his lyrics. One of his first partnerships with Noel Rosa was the samba “Habeas Corpus” (“In the court of my conscience/ your crime has no appeal… Maybe the habeas corpus of saudades/ Will permit your return to my love”), and shortly thereafter, in early 1933, at Rio’s famous Café Nice, Orestes presented Noel with lyrics he thought would make for a great samba, “mixing women with Auguste Comte,” as he put it, “Positivism and love.” Orestes asked Noel to put the lyrics to music.

Noel was incredibly busy that year. His biographers, João Máximo and Carlos Didier, report he composed nearly 40 sambas in 1933, on top of all the recording and radio appearances he was doing. So he left Barbosa’s lyrics to the side for awhile, until word got back to him that Barbosa was griping to friends in common, wondering why Noel was taking so long with his samba. So Noel quickly composed the music, and brought it to Pixinguinha to orchestrate. He also added a final verse, a message for his partner Orestes: “Intrigue is born in a small café/ Which is taken to see who will pay/ To no longer suffer your venom/I’ve resolved to poison myself.”

Carlos Didier has called Orestes one of just a few rare contemporaries who recognized, “with profundity,” the importance of Noel Rosa. Noel was a popular composer, but few at the time really perceived the extent of his brilliance and his foundational role in the development of samba; Orestes, nearly twice Noel’s age, saw that genius, Didier says.

Noel and Orestes were united as partners in part because of their mutual distaste for estrangeirismos — foreign words, phrases, or sometimes manners, always popular among a Brazilian ruling class that did its best to emulate European society (and, more recently, the United States). Máximo and Didier write that when Orestes first heard Noel’s “Não tem tradução” (“Those people who these days like to show off/ Don’t understand samba has no translation in French/ Everything that the malandro pronounces/ In a soft voice is Brazilian, it’s moved beyond Portuguese”) he told his friend and fellow composer Antônio Nássara, “That chinless guy is too much. A genius! Here we are writing, writing, writing, and he captures everything in half a dozen words. Exactly half a dozen!”

The pair’s recourse to legal and philosophical discourse in their sambas should always be taken as at least a bit tongue in cheek.

So why is “Ordem e Progresso” — Order and Progress — on the Brazilian flag in the first place? Versions of Comte’s positivism held tremendous sway in Brazil in the late nineteenth century, particularly among the military leaders and journalists in the capital of Rio who led the republican movement. (The republic was established in a fairly uneventful military coup on Nov. 15, 1889). Comte had argued that societies thrived once they’d arrived at the last of three stages he identified: theological, metaphysical, and positive. In the final, “positive” stage, society turns to science — rather than gods (theological) or philosophy (metaphysical) — to understand and resolve its ills. The positive stage ostensibly brought rapid technological and industrial progress, just what late-nineteenth-century Brazilian elites longed for as they sought to propel Brazil into the twentieth century as a developed and “civilized” nation.

As the song alludes to, Comte had set forth the “sacred formula of positivism:  Love as the principle, order as the foundation, and progress as the goal.”

Incidentally, the green and yellow on the flag had initially stood for the house of Bragança – the Portuguese royal dynasty — and the Hapsburgs of Austria, whose Maria Leopoldina was the first empress of Brazil. Leaders of the young republic decided to keep those colors, and the yellow rhombus from the imperial flag, merely replacing the royal coat of arms with the aspirational “Ordem e Progresso.”

Main source for this post: Noel Rosa, uma biografia by João Máximo and Carlos Didier

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