What I’ve Been Reading, October 2018

It’s October, and for the past couple years I’ve taken this month as an opportunity to read some spookier pieces than I normally would. So while this post is only mildly spooky (featuring a flying bear, murder, and an enormous black cat), later this month I’m hoping to put out a 100% haunted “What I’ve Been Reading, Spooktober 2018” post, probably talking about The Grip of It and Universal Harvester and House of Leaves (if the library patron who has it now ever returns it), so look forward to that. In the mean time, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer — Wow this book is great.

Borne takes place in an unnamed city, which, along with the rest of the world, has been radically changed by civilization-ending climate change. The only power-structure in place is that of Mord, a colossal flying bear which protects the building of an old bioengineering company (always referred to as “the company”), and the Magician, an old employee of the company who is steadily taking control of various parts of the city. In the shadow of Borne, scavenging humans and escaped bioengineering experiments carve out an existence. One such scavenger is Rachel, the narrator of the book, who scavenges for her partner Wick, another ex-employee of the company. On one perilous scavenging excursion, Rachel finds an odd piece of biotech which looks a bit like a sea anemone, and she takes it back to her home and names it Borne.

Borne soon grows, and eventually begins to talk, revealing his powers of shapeshifting and his unnerving lack of waste—he only ever absorbs things, never excretes any waste. It’s hard to pin down the plot of the book to a specific archetype, because it plays off lots of them. It’s a coming of age story, and a kind of parenting story, and a kind of E.T.-esque story. So it’s peak VanderMeer, in it’s ineffability.Read More »

Review: Something New by Lucy Knisley

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Cover courtesy of First Second books

Something New is a graphic novel memoir by graphic novel memoirist Lucy Knisley. Although I’ve read all of Knisley’s travelogues and her terrific culinary memoir Relish (check it out, it’s got recipes!), I put off reading Something New because I knew it was about Knisley’s wedding and weddings in general, and I didn’t think it would hold my interest. I just feel very detached from weddings. I don’t have the kind of money to throw a wedding. I don’t have any attachment to the religious or cultural aspects of it. I don’t have friends who have been married. I don’t foresee myself being married anytime soon (ever?) I’ve been to tons of weddings, but only as an observer, never as part of the groomsmen party (or the bridal party, for that matter.) So even stories of really crazy disaster weddings don’t really connect to me. Like, okay. You did a weird thing with more money than I can ever imagine myself having in accordance with ancient ceremonies, and you put doilies all over it, and then it rained. Like … cool, fun story.

But! I listened to a podcast with Knisley, where she talked about this book as well as her upcoming memoir Kid Gloves, which will detail her pregnancy and fraught-with-difficulties childbirth. I realized that Kid Gloves sounded like a book I would enjoy, as it would present an honest, warts-and-all portrait of pregnancy. And I thought, well, how can I read that book without first reading Something New? Maybe it too will be a different story of marriage than I’m used to seeing. So I checked it out from the ICPL, and dug in. And then I pulled on my socks and shoes and proceed to kick the crap out of myself for not having at least glanced at the first few pages of this book sooner.

The reason I include all this preamble is that, it turns out, many of my feelings toward weddings were exactly Lucy’s feelings, too, before she decided to get married (and even during the process.) And here’s the thing: the wedding itself isn’t all that different from most weddings. It’s not that different from the classical wedding story. However, it’s Lucy’s skepticism and willingness to present the cold, hard facts of marriage that make it such an engaging read. It’s a testament to Knisley’s storytelling that, as she describes her coming to understand why people love weddings, why they are so special, as she sheds some of her skepticism, so did I, to the point that when she finally arrives at the wedding itself, rather than seeing just a bunch of dresses and strings of light bulbs, I was genuinely touched by the emotional sincerity of the moment.

Knisley achieves this in a lot of ways, but mainly by taking her time. The first 70 pages of the book is a love story, detailing the serpentine path that her and her husband took over the course of several years to finally become engaged. Learning who the principal characters (as it were) of this story are in this way is what makes all the wedding planning (which is the majority of the book) engaging, it’s what gives it all depth. And she isn’t messing around with the other 230 pages either, which she uses to address themes that are universal in weddings and marriage, and show how they manifested in her own life. In this way, she’s both informative on weddings in general (with lots of interludes that include facts or statistics about weddings) and insightful in how these things affected her as an individual. One chapter that I found particularly interesting was the one in which she described her experience being bombarded with targeted ads, and how these ads changed her internet experience (and how her fiancé wasn’t targeted at all.)

As for Knisley’s art, she has a very clean, bright style that draws you forward effortlessly, and occasionally provides some great visual gags. She pairs the images and scenes she illustrates perfectly with her narration, underscoring or complimenting the mood, theme, or idea of her words with her drawings. Also, her depictions of food are mouthwatering (another reason to check out Relish.)

Towards the end of the book Knisley writes, “The strangest part I’ve found of being an adult is that I kept waiting for my life to feel the way other people’s lives felt, viewed by me, the outsider.” And although she goes on to explain that we each have to experience our own lives, our own adulthood, for ourselves, I think that with this book she has, in part, granted the reader the ability to look into her life, and the life of a bride-to-be, from the inside—failed DIY projects and all. This book was a terrific, substantial read, and I cannot wait for Kid Gloves.

What I’ve Been Reading, September 2018

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson — Man I went hard on this book. I essentially listened to the entirety of it over the course of a few days, which, even at 1.5x speed is quite a lot. The book is about a crew of “mistings”—sorcerers of a sort—plotting to overthrow The Final Empire, which is ruled by a god, the Lord Ruler. I’ve heard Sanderson describe it as a mix between a heist novel and epic fantasy, and it seems like those things don’t go together, but Sanderson really pulls it off.

Like any good heist story, the book has a broad cast of characters, each of whom specialize in one aspect of “allomancy”—a form of magic whose users derive their power from ingesting a specific metal or metal alloy. This power is mostly possessed by the nobility, and of course the Lord Ruler, as it is passed down hereditarily. While a system of eugenics has mostly kept the nobility from spreading this ability into the peasant class—the Skaa—some Skaa still end up being allomancers. Most allomancers can only use one metal, but there are some who are “mistborn,” who can use all the allomantic metals (there are ten, and a rumored eleventh, while burning all other metals, or even impure alloys, just makes allomancers sick.) This magic system lends itself well to the heist elements, and gives a very solid sense of progression to Vin, a mistborn and the main character of the book, as she masters the use of all these different metals. The magic also just has a wonderfully tactile feel to it, an almost steampunk-ish brassiness to the language of it—phrases like “Vin flared pewter” or “he rioted her fear” just leap off the page in a way that gives the magic a real sense of weight, even when it isn’t being used to cause some physical change. As the book goes along, and the reader comes to learn the different metals, the action scenes gain a beautiful fluidity, with Vin using a multitude of different metals—flaring tin to see better, then thrusting herself forward with steel and burning pewter to dampen the pain of the impact—and the reader understanding perfectly what all this means. “She burned tin” comes to mean as much as “she squinted,” though again, it has that wonderfully, gritty, imagistic heft to it.Read More »

Review: Rereading Great Expectations

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Engraving titled “Pip waits on Miss Havisham” by Marcus Stone.

A month or so ago I reread Great Expectations in the hopes that it would provide me some nice juicy quotes to pair with chapters of the travel memoir I was writing. That ended up kind of working, but in general I just found myself loving the book, as it more than lived up to my fond memories of it. I actually did review the book on this blog awhile ago, in a What I’ve Been Reading post,  but I only spent a few paragraphs on it, and a lot of stuff struck me that I didn’t really notice the first time around, so here goes.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is narrated by Pip, an orphan living in a small town in southeast England, presumably near the Thames Estuary, as he multiple times describes “the marshes” and the sight of “hulks”—prison ships. Actually, the Pip who’s narrating things is an adult, looking back on his life, mainly focusing on his boyhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

The book is broken into three volumes, and each one is really it’s own little universe, with its own specific goals and style.

The first volume mainly focuses on Pip’s boyhood. Pip is raised by his much older sister, the abrasive, violent Mrs. Gargery, and her husband Joe Gargery, a kind, gentle, infinitely likable blacksmith. Pip is given a taste of wealth and status when Ms. Havisham, an old, reclusive noblewoman, calls him to her house to attend on her, and play with her daughter, Estella. And with that little taste, and with his sudden love for Estella, Pip quickly grows distasteful of his low, common life.

That’s really what the first volume does beautifully—it paints a portrait of the steady development of self-loathing, even of disdain for Joe, in this commoner boy. It shows the growth of his unhealthy desire to be a “gentleman,” to escape the profession of blacksmith. One terrific quote comes as Estella and Pip are playing cards:

“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!”
I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

Towards the end of the volume though, Pip learns of a mysterious benefactor, who wishes him to go to London, and who has granted him great expectations—expectations meaning, by a now archaic definition, an inheritance. Although the benefactor works through an intermediary, not revealing their identity to Pip, all signs point to it being Ms. Havisham. These expectations only drive Pip further apart from Joe, and the volume ends with Pip setting off for London.Read More »

New Publication: ChannelCon ’30

Right on time for convention season, my new novelette “ChannelCon ’30” is now available on Amazon and Smashwords!

0016d89f1aa203ded0e47304488df88d16e3c368With hours and hours of old movies entering the public domain every year, in the near future curators emerge as a new kind of content creator, culling all this old material and selecting personal favorites to livestream on their channels. Lindsey Xong and Amber Smith are two such curators, Amber focusing on finding movies, and Lindsey focusing on commentary and abridgment. Together, the two form Amber Linz, an incredibly popular channel, poised to sign a major deal to to get exclusive access to old movies a year before they enter public domain. To announce this deal and to engage with the curator community, the two go to ChannelCon, the biggest, greatest curator convention in the world.

But almost instantly, it’s clear that ChannelCon is coming apart at the seams, beset by the growing division between purists (who stream content completely unedited) and cureditors (who stream abridged or even completely remixed movies.) As retaliations and acts of sabotage escalate, the two sides seek to claim either Amber or Lindsey as their own, driving a wedge between the duo and jeopardizing their deal. Finding out which side is perpetrating all the chaos is not only important for purists and cureditors—it could also be the only way to save the Amber Linz deal, and Amber Linz itself.

In addition to this novelette, this publication includes an afterword in which I discuss the real world inspiration for this story, and how little fandom and conventions have changed in the past 80 years.

What I’ve Been Reading, June 2018

Currently I’m catching up on all the issues of Asimov’s that I wasn’t reading while I was over in Spain, and other short stories. As far as books, I’m mostly reading them via audiobooks, but I am still reading them.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin — Boy am I late to this party. The Fifth Season is the first in the Broken Earth trilogy, which in itself holds two Hugo Awards for best novel and one Nebula Award for best novel, not to mention three nominations for each of those awards—and it may just clutch a third Hugo Award this August. So yeah, I am late as fuck to a hell of a party.

The accolades are earned. The Fifth Season takes place in a world (Earth?) periodically ravaged by tremendous apocalypses, called “Fifth Seasons” or simply “Seasons.” These global catastrophes usually originate from seismic activity, though grow out of control from there (e.g. an erupting volcano can cause years of winter, a fissure in the earth can release hallucinogenic gas causing a “season of madness” …) The only bulwarks against these Seasons are the orogenes, a subsection of humanity gifted with the ability to sense and quell tremors in the earth, among other things. This first book in the trilogy is split into three narrative strands, each focused on an orogene at a different point in their development, the oldest of which is actually living through a Season, trying to find her daughter.

I won’t talk much more about the story/stories of Fifth Season, because I think it’s the book’s weak point—in as much as healthiness is the weak point of a cake. Fifth Season isn’t really trying to tell a ripping yarn, at least not throughout all of the book. Later on, plot developments start to thicken, but the first half of the book is largely focused on exploration of the world, and of the interior of these characters. In this, Fifth Season excels.Read More »

New Publication: Tallahassee Ca. 2045

Remember this post about the Parkland shooting and representation of high schoolers? The play I was talking about back then is now available, on Smashwords and Amazon.

Tc2045-c-2In the year 2045, a group of politically conscious high school seniors decides to organize a youth rally—a protest to lower the minimum voting age. Just before the protest is scheduled to happen, a massive ice sheet breaks off of Antarctica, causing global flooding. The youth rally becomes a demand for radical change of climate policy, and the politics of the students are put under new pressure. Relationships between the original group of friends strain as the protest grows further and further out of control, and any hopes of changing the world look dimmer and dimmer.

Tallahassee Circa 2045 is an exploration of protest culture, shifting ideologies, and the intersection of youth and politics, set against the backdrop of global catastrophe and an ever-shifting national landscape.

Running time is approximately 120 minutes. The cast is 1M, 5F, 3NB.

In addition to the play, this publication includes an afterword (a large part of which already appeared on this blog in that MSD post) which constitutes an in-depth look at youth rights, representations of high schoolers, and the politically tumultuous period in which the play was written.

Happy summer everyone! #HotOutHere

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XIX, The Question of Commander-in-Chief

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Bartolomé Mitre, as depicted on Argentina’s 2-peso note.

(1) As we have seen from Ferraz’s letter, on 5 September it was not yet thought that the emperor would take part in the siege of Uruguaiana. Tamandaré decided to go and kiss the hand of H.M. in the city of Alegrete (on 2 September), introducing him to General Flores and perhaps General Mitre. With the issue of commander-in-chief Mitre being in one of our provinces, the emperor of Brazil determined to take part in the military operations, especially since he found himself in that province, and not far off. Six days after Ferraz’s letter sent from Passo do Rosário, the emperor reached the encampment at Uruguaiana (11 September).

The question of the allied armies’ commander-in-chief was resolved by the 3rd article of the treaty of Alliance, through which, at the same time that it gave said command to General Mitre, the treaty established reciprocity in the event that military operations took place mainly in Brazilian or Uruguayan territory. However, Ferraz sent the following confidential notice to the governor of Rio Grande on 5 July: “General Osório will always act as chief commander of the army fighting the Paraguayans on the shores of the Plata and the Uruguay. The commander of arms, or anything else, of the forces of that province, in his rank as chief of reserve forces” (it’s best to repeat this to avoid confusion) “will lend to said chief general however much he can lend and however much the general can request, and if need be both forces will operate jointly within the province, or outside of it, if it is invaded; but in this case General Mitre, in accordance with the treaty of the Triple Alliance, will assume command of all the allied forces; and if as consequence of that province’s invasion the allied armies enter your jurisdiction, again General Mitre will exercise command of them.” This notice, taking into account the italicized words, should be interpreted in the following way, according to Ferraz: General Mitre could only exercise command by virtue of the aforementioned 3rd article, outside of our territory; but, the imperial government would waive its right to command in the event that Mitre was carrying out within our borders, having crossed them in pursuit of the enemy, the execution of a strategic plan. It’s clear that the government expected reciprocity in the event that this happened in Argentine territory, according to that article.

Brazil’s generous conduct is quite self-evident. Per the treaty of Alliance, the head of the Brazilian army, Osório, should have found himself under Mitre’s orders, except in the case of war in our territory or in Uruguay. If Mitre had a plan to beat the Paraguayan army, like, for example, the plan that brought to an end the fighting at Yatay, then passing the direction of operations from one general to another, as operations took place on this side and that of the Uruguay, would equate to sacrificing the principal interest of defeating the enemy to the secondary interest of satisfying a formality.Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XVIII, The Emperor in Rio Grande do Sul. — Letters from Ferraz and Boa Vista. — Ferraz and the Cabinet.

The Emperor’s presence in Rio Grande do Sul during the invasion, and concurrent with the allied troops’ arrival, was an act of great consequences—not only for the strengthening of Monarchist sentiments, especially in Rio Grande, but also for the strengthening of the alliance. The letters from Ferraz to Nabuco, written during the voyage, are noteworthy documents. Nabuco was Ferraz’s closest friend in the ministry, perhaps the only one to whom Ferraz could freely vent, without fear of political mistrust or memories of old disagreements. He shows himself extremely protective of his authority, clothing himself with the regalia that his position as ministerial delegate requires. What things he would’ve done, and how he would’ve had to reign everyone in, had the Emperor not been there!

Reaching Santa Catarina (1) on 13 July, Ferraz writes to Nabuco, “The minister has disappeared. The Emperor intrudes in even the most minor details, and everything revolves around him. He has at his disposal even the employees of my office, he gives orders through De Lamare (2), and through any other means. He is stubborn, but then he changes his mind. It is impossible for me to bear. There is no money here for the troops. Let us hope that Dias de Carvalho (3) does something, or takes some measure. I beg that you tell our colleague Silveira Lobo to order the authorities and subordinates in Rio Grande to obey my orders, and only my orders, or those of the governor of the province …”

On 16 July the Emperor unexpectedly arrives in Rio Grande; on the 10th Ferraz writes from that city: “Today, or better said, within two hours (eight thirty), we march to Porto-Alegre. Everything is going well. Enthusiasm has surpassed what was expected. The Emperor is satisfied and is doing well for the moment. The enemy’s plan is to stir up the Blancos … We have to be prepared for everything and we don’t even have cannons … Rest assured that these people think highly of me and are satisfied.”

On 21 July he complains from Porto-Alegre (4) about the state of the palace, and about the manner in which they were received, and on the 22nd he says:

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Ângelo Moniz da Silva Ferraz, as depicted in Galeria dos Brasileiros Ilústres by Sébastien Auguste Sisson.

“They have put me in a jam. They wanted rich tack (5) of silver for the Emperor and the prince; they want for Cabral, Meirelles, and De Lamare also rich tack of three hundred to four hundred thousand réis (6) each, and all this at the Ministry of War’s expense. The demands are constant. They want horses for everyone, and even revolvers for the servants. The Emperor is fine, but he listens to these people despite the fact that he recognizes their (illegible). Caxias has comported himself discreetly and well. It’s been going around that he will be named chief general. Porto-Alegre’s appointment was done at the Emperor’s instruction, after hearing that Caxias and I were pleased with him, because this way everyone is content. Danger has silenced the partisan spirit to the point of seeming dead. ‘Good riddance,’ people tell me, ‘to arms and munitions. There is no money, our colleague who’s giving timely orders as fast as possible.’ The active troops are unpaid and unequipped.”Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XVII, The Emperor Resolves to Go to Rio Grande

Meanwhile and almost simultaneously, in Rio de Janeiro, news of the naval battle at Riachuelo (1) and the invasion of Rio Grande do Sul was received. Moved by patriotic impulses, the Emperor resolved to go immediately to the front, not without some resistance from the ministry. This happy resolution, which played out so favorably, seemed to be supported by only one minister, Silveira Lobo, to whom, for this, the Emperor would show himself forever grateful (i).

Nabuco thought that the Emperor in the South would only raise the spirits of Rio Grande province, while in the capital he would inspire the entire country to war. To the emperor, as we will soon see, Nabuco did not betray his feelings. It was necessary to yield before the strict expression of the emperor’s will. With his departure, the issue of adjourning the Chambers remained won, because absent the sovereign, the ministry’s situation before the Chambers was difficult, and it even could have become a case of governmental paralysis, arising at the same time as the invasion of Brazilian territory.

Olinda writes to Nabuco on 4 July: “I receive now a letter from the Emperor, who tells me that to announce the journey to the Chambers and read them the adjournment decree, it is necessary that we be in São Cristóvão at nine in the morning, with the goal of taking precise measures. As such, Y.E., draft the speech to discuss it in today’s conference.”

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Emperor Dom Pedro II, 1865. Photo by Joaquim José Insley Pacheco.

Nabuco drew up the following draft: “I come to announce in the Senate that H.I.M. has resolved to depart immediately for Rio Grande do Sul, with the object of, with his presence, his prestige, and his example, invigorating the defense of that heroic province in case of foreign invasion. The Emperor feels—and he feels with enthusiasm—that such is his duty as perpetual defender of Brazil, and so firm is H.I.M.’s resolution that the ministry has ended up, by yielding to it, assuming the resulting responsibility. How to resist that desire of H.I.M. when every Brazilian vies for the glory of defending and saving their country, insulted and invaded by foreigners? How to leave him alone, when he should be surrounded by everyone? There is nothing to do but admire and show gratitude to this new proof of the Emperor’s refined patriotism; there is nothing to do but ask God Almighty to protect him and return him healthy and safe, and to add to the Emperor’s titles, with which he reigns over Brazilians, that of glory.”

The following letter accompanied the speech: “I am sending the draft of the speech. It doesn’t seem fit to me to announce the closure, but unwittingly we plant this issue in the Chambers, arousing grave difficulties for us. Tomorrow the decree, which we can present him when advisable, will be signed. Who knows if it will be necessary to do so tomorrow? Y.E. knows that the deliberative assemblies want to make themselves necessary, and be present in grave situations, but experience proves that in such situations they are a nuisance. The adjournment should not be debated. Besides, as the speech is only one, Y.E. should deliver it first in the Senate and then in the Chamber—I find it inelegant that Y.E. and I should say and repeat the same words. See you tonight.”

The joint legislative bodies remained closed until 8 July to 4 March of the following year. A law of the same date sets out how best to handle public business, powers of the ministry, and reciprocal succession of the ministers in absence of the head of State, and on 10 July the Emperor embarks for Rio Grande. With him goes Ferraz, Minister of War, and his accompaniment features the Duke Augusto de Sajonia, son-in-law of H.M., and the Marquis of Caxias, his aide-de-camp.

Footnotes

i. It is known that, to the objections made by the Council, the emperor responded: “If I am stopped from going as emperor, no one can stop me from abdicating and marching as a voluntario da patria.” Baron of Rio Branco, notes to Schneider, I, 218.

Translator’s Notes

1. A major naval battle near the city of Corrientes, on the Paraná river. Brazil won a decisive victory, and effectively secured the Río de la Plata river system up to Humaitá, cutting off the Paraguayan forces that were still in Rio Grande do Sul from any supplies or reinforcements.

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XVI, Necessity of Adjournment. — Silveira Lobo, Minister. — Saldanha Marino.

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Lithograph of the Palácio do Conde dos Arcos, published in Robert Walsh’s Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829.

Furtado, resentful of Saraiva, reluctantly supports the ministry and gets his friends to contain themselves. “I will give the government,” he says in the Senate, of which he was then a member, in July, “the means of sustaining the foreign war in which the empire finds itself endeavored, and my support, until events come to disavow the words of your excellencies … While events are forthcoming, I will keep a look out to see if the political swallows migrate (1). I have nowhere to which to migrate.”

The rift, the separation between Liberals and Conservatives that they’d sealed in 1862, was evident. The Liberals were getting along better with the pure Conservatives (2), with which they united against the Olinda government, than they did with their allies of yesterday. The more this breakdown of the party affected Nabuco, the further he found himself from wanting to contribute to it; nor did it suit him to aid the opposition in eliminating the Conservative element from the party, of which element he himself was a part.

Considering both halves separately, he still preferred that which represented the doctrine of Paraná, Conciliation, which represented the earliest Liberal tradition; recognizing, however, the insufficiency of that element as a third party, he preferred the government of the Conservatives, who formed an essential party. With the fusion of Liberals and moderates to form the other party not being possible, the Conservative party should have governed, the Conservative party which, since Itaboraí surrendered power to Paraná in 1853, had not returned to power except with the reconstructed Abaeté ministry in 1859, and with the Caxias-Paranhos ministry, also reconstructed, and which even in these two cases of purification had lacked Conservative leaders.

The truth is that the Nabuco’s spirit was objective and practical enough to let itself be dominated, especially during grand crises, by traditions without tangibility, by divisions without distinction, by sides with names that had only personal scope, and by relationships that were purely negative. He considered administration to be a practical thing, that required skill, preparation, the height of vision, and a sense of responsibility; for him there was not but one mode of administration, as in the navigation of waters there is not but one course to follow. Ferraz being at the head of the war chest seemed well to Nabuco, as Ferraz was an energetic, expeditious man, with his own resources and audacious initiatives; Nabuco did not have to enter into inquiries about if in 1860 he had fought with all his might in favor of the Conservative party; he accepted Ferraz’s word of honor of not being already joined with that group, without putting forth clear motives or intentions, nor entering into the examination of the past.

The Chamber’s adjournment freed the government from political minutiae; the recess would be long and would provide time for work. Nabuco would make an effort, would work tirelessly all through this period (almost a year) and then when the Chamber reconvened, if political passions showed themselves to be unyielding, rather than ingratiating himself with one of the sides, he would abandon power. Instead of volunteering to destroy the edifice he had raised, he would leave the work of demolishing it to the architects of ruins, precisely because he was sure that the common enemy would not delay in making a sudden invasion into the house divided, interrupting the work of the internal collapse.Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XV, Speech on the “Status Quo.” — The Government.

The speech Nabuco gave in the Chamber on 26 May 1865 was, for that divided assembly, like a shining ray of patriotic eloquence. In the middle of the partisan disagreements, which only tended to worsen and become more irreconcilable, no one expected that appeal to harmony, that invitation to a political armistice in the name of the invaded country. In that moment, his speech had everyone’s assent. Nabuco’s presence beside Olinda was in itself only an agenda of political truces, since one could not forget the sacrifice that he made—his little fondness for power, and his neutrality in personal rivalries. A year later historians will come to do justice to Nabuco’s intentions to save the government and avoid internal struggle. From the first day, his attitude was such that, upon the ministry’s fall, he would continue to be the organizer preferred by the political spirits of the majority and the minority. The session had been very busy. “I have seen you shine today in the Chamber of Deputies,” the humorist Abaeté writes to him, “and I would have envied you if the feeling of friendship did not prevail over that of envy. There is nothing like being minister of the King!”

The speech was short, as fit an appeal to national sentiment, but, precisely because of this, it was vibrant. After having explained the reasons he had for not wanting to take on the task of forming a cabinet, he declares the reasons that moved him to accept his role as justice:

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José Tomás Nabuco as depicted in Galeria dos Brasileiros Ilústres by Sébastien Auguste Sisson.

“My noble friend senhor Minister of the Navy has already explained the reason for my entry into the current ministry. It was a sacrifice that patriotism imposed on us all. You know the circumstances in which the country found itself: the crisis was becoming prolonged; public anxiety instantly increased; each day wasted harmed the great concern by which everyone was preoccupied, that is to say, the dream of returning our national honor and dignity. There does not exist any contradiction in my behavior, given the circumstances that suddenly arose, and besides, there is a great difference between organizing such a cabinet—being its brain—and forming a part of it. What’s more, this ministry’s agenda has been reduced to the war, not wanting to alter the political status quo. The noble deputy of Minas province (i), explaining the reasons that he has for not putting confidence in the current ministry, examined some of its members, attending only to the Liberal element, but upon doing so forgot the principle that serves as the basis of the current government. In effect, so that the noble deputy may deny the ministry his trust for such a reason, he should begin by proving that the Progressive Party, under whose government this Chamber was elected, is dissolved.”

Finally, he invoked with the solemnity of his convictions, words, and gestures, the irresistible motivation of the country’s defense, winning over the Chamber and making it forget its divisions:

“It is evident, senhores, that the same thinking that stopped me from accepting the charge to form a ministry, has brought me to enter into this one; that is, the desire to not alter the status quo during a war. Nothing is less timely than exciting political passions in these moments in which we need the concurrence of everyone to save the country, which has been invaded and bloodied by foreigners. This is not a good opportunity to divide the Chamber, making it powerless to do good and making the life of any ministry impossible.

“I believe, senhores, that with the government limited to this agenda of making war without altering the status quo of our political system, it can’t help but deserve the trust and support of this Chamber and of the whole country.

“I could say more, senhores, but I conclude by making these vows: God would not wish that the country, swayed by political passions, come to be powerless against the foreigners that have insulted our flag; God would not wish that history deplore the fluke of a young nation full of resources and life, but disgraced by its own failings … Let us take on the responsibility of the war and leave the settling of scores for after the victory.”Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XIV, The Ministry Before the Chamber. — Nabuco’s Reasons for Not Accepting the Presidency of the Council.

I know I said it last chapter, but this chapter you really will be completely lost without reading this supplemental post on politics of the Empire of Brazil.

The ministry reflected the situation of the party, but with respect to the hope of restoring unity to the party, the sacrifices that the ministers made were certainly in vain. Otaviano—representative of the Liberal Party in the organization, confidante and friend to Teófilo Ottoni, Furtado, and Sousa Franco—soon proved it, refusing the position offered him. The reason alleged by Otaviano was that he had been designated by Furtado, that is, by his own friends; and for an ambassador of his prestige, standing before the Progressive cabinets, the role of minister did not equate to the position of executor of the Triple Alliance, which he himself ended up signing, or the position of arbiter in the theater of war.

But the reasons he alleged did not leave doubt about the insurmountable division of the old allied parties. To Olinda, who had informed him of his appointment, he answers with the following, in a letter dated 29 May: “The names of political friends, friends at whose side I have been since I began to form part of one of the two parties, appeared in the previous potential cabinets. With such names suppressed in the last and definitive ministerial organization, I don’t consider seemly for me, nor useful for the ministry, my separation from those friends, becoming weakened and without moral force, alongside another citizen friend of mine—a personal friend worthy of my admiration for his talent, but with whom the nation has seen me fighting some in the press, on the debate platform, and in elections, when I appealed to the people who were convinced that he’d fulfilled a great debt.”

The friend alluded to is Ferraz (1), although few politicians have shown more willingness to forget old fights and personal offenses upon entering that cabinet than he. With his political self-sacrifice upon accepting this reliable post, exposing himself openly before the Chamber to the attacks of his adversaries from 1860, he seems to symbolize the sacrifices that partisan interests had to make for the sake of our forces’ victory in the South—sacrifices of which the most heroic was without a doubt that of Caxias (2), who, aged and ailing, went to suffer the fatigues of long campaigns in the marshes and under the sun of Paraguay.Read More »

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I wrote this post before Ursula K. Le Guin passed, though it seems fitting now to open it with these words of hers, in response to the question, “What do you want to happen to your books after you die?”:  “I want them to be available, I want cheap paper editions of them, I want them to be continuously downloaded in forty different languages, I want them to be read, I want them to be argued about, I want people to cry over them, I want unreadable dissertations written about them, I want people to get angry with them, I want people to love them.” Well, I’ve read a second-hand cheap paper edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, gotten angry with it, kind of loved it in a few moments, argued about it (in my head, with myself and with two different versions of Le Guin), and now, behold, an unreadable dissertation blog post. Hopefully, this is exactly as Le Guin would wish. Rest in peace.

TheLeftHandOfDarkness1stEd
Cover of the 1st edition, vastly superior to the latest edition’s cover, which is just a glacier, honestly it’s stunning how mediocre that new cover is. Courtesy of Ace Books

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books I’ve always felt silly for not having read—and likewise, Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those authors I’ve always etc. Not just because Left Hand is considered a classic, and Le Guin one of the greatest, most influential sci-fi/fantasy writers, but because it’s the kind of sci-fi and fantasy that really interests me. Sci-fi with a focus on society, on the world, on characters. Not to mention, the gender thing—I’ve always heard that Le Guin is a great feminist writer, someone who subverts and challenges our ideas about gender, and especially about women. And Left Hand is, of course, the gender book—or the book without gender. A world where the dominant sentient life-form has no biological sex—fantastic. I’m always interested in that kind of premise, I always like to see deconstructions and reconstructions of gender. Yet, I somehow never got around to reading it, I always had some other book or author I was more interested in. I finally decided to read the book when I got it in a white elephant gift exchange, and, for months, had the physical copy sitting about in my bedroom somewhere, staring at me.

So I read it. One less thing to feel silly about Francis, good job. After reading it, and kind of wondering what everyone else saw in it re: the discussion of gender, I read Le Guin’s essay on the book, “Is Gender Necessary?” Actually I read the “Redux” version, which was written over a decade later, with annotations from Le Guin clarifying and arguing with her past self. In some ways, the redux essay is a revisiting of a revisiting—Left Hand came out in 1969, “Is Gender Necessary” (henceforth to be referred to as IGN) in 1976, and the redux in 1988. Which would make this blog post a commentary on a commentary on a commentary on a book, at least in some part.

I’ve struggled with how to write this post. It seems unfair to review the book as if its some kind of argument—in fact, Le Guin herself mentions this in “Redux,” when she writes that “critics of the book insisted upon talking about its ‘gender problems’ as if it were an essay not a novel.” That line instantly made me think of “Cat Person,” the Kristen Roupenian short story that made the rounds last year, and which was bizarrely referred to as an “article” or “essay” by some. These stories did not ask to be scrutinized as perfectly hygienic arguments about gender and sexuality. The idea that Left Hand is an incredible classic which strikes right to the heart of gender politics is external to the book. So I’ll do my best to separate the two, to review the book as just a book, before specifically going into why I found it lacking in terms of gender commentary.Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XIII, Nabuco Recuses Himself from Forming a Ministry. — He Accepts the Role of Minister of Justice.

This chapter and the next few deal heavily with the politics of the Empire of Brazil (should these chapters even be included in this book?), so I recommend reading this supplemental post first. Or you could just skip these chapters entirely. I think they’re neat, but they’re not directly related to the war.

The Furtado ministry fell in a secret ballot vote soon after Parliament reconvened, having not wanted to call for a roll-call vote. They did not want or need to know their enemies.

Firstly, the Emperor called on the Viscount of Abaeté, who for a long time had been a mere spectator of the partisan fighting, to form a government. Abaeté put forward Saraiva’s name. Saraiva, fruitlessly, attempted to form a ministry—Furtado’s friends did not forgive him for that Liberal government’s fall, to which he had contributed (1). In vain, he tried to come to an agreement with Teófilo Ottoni, typical of Saraiva. Giving up, he indicated the name of Nabuco, who was then summoned.

For the first time the Emperor looked to Nabuco, after there’d been five ministries formed with members of the “League” (2), of which party Nabuco had been, in everyone’s opinion, the creator—and the sovereign did not even arrive at him without first having tried two other options. One could believe that the direness of the situation forced the Emperor to turn to Nabuco at the last moment; a circumstance that contributed much to Nabuco, in turn, not accepting.

It was not that some overblown pride moved him: none of his colleagues in the Paraná ministry (3) had even reached this position; Paranhos (Viscount of Rio Branco) would only reach it in 1871; Wanderley (Baron of Cotegipe) in 1885; Pedreira (Viscount of Bom Retiro) had renounced politics. Eusebio de Quierós, who had governed in, made, or unmade every ministry since a certain time, had been called only once to San Cristobal. But Nabuco had created the ruling government, and was, of everyone, the most proper to lead it, because he brought, in a greater degree than any other, the spirit of benevolence, the impartiality necessary to maintain it, and a spirit that inspired great confidence, to—their respective leaders aside—each one of the parties. He had destroyed the Conservative oligarchy in the senate and made possible the new political environment. Of this environment, he was, intellectually, the oracle; politically he had a neutral title—moderator. Because of this, since 1862, every summons to São Cristóvão that was not made to him (although for each time there has been some provisional reason not to name Nabuco) seems to be a preterition (4) For this the belief that he was a persona non grata had been ingrained in political circles; a belief that also existed with respect to Paraná, Eusebio de Quierós, Cotegipe, both Paulino de Sousas, Teófilo Ottoni, and others.

The primary condition for the success of any ministry is the Emperor’s goodwill, and not because he can betray a president of his Council, but because only his discretion can be enough to destroy the minister’s necessary trust in his own stability. So, perfect accord between the two entities—the Emperor and the head of the cabinet—was essential for the government’s progress. The two times that Nabuco had served in the cabinet the Emperor gave him no reason to complain, nor even the third. The reasons that had moved the Emperor to put him off as an option seemed to him plausible, from a strictly parliamentary point of view, given the detachedness in which, without ceasing to guide the government, Nabuco had been placed, and which he himself proclaimed. He also knew the Emperor’s methods well enough to know that if Dom Pedro II had wanted to have him as prime minister, he would have gone looking for him in his exile, as with others he had done on such occasions, even with statesmen that had ostracized themselves. That lack, not of trust, but of desire, of affinity, which the Emperor had toward him, weighed more on Nabuco’s spirit, making him refuse the belated investment of power, than some sensitivity to being summoned only after other ministers.

But more than anything, the visible division of the Conservative Party dominated the Chamber. Nabuco, who had not taken part in Furtado’s fall, was better looked on by historians than Olinda (5), Zacarias, and Saraiva, while the Progressives considered him their most eminent leader. But to form a ministry it was absolutely essential to ingratiate himself with one group or another; in matters of people—which is what these matters come down to, not anything else—and matters of cabinet, for deputies and senators, it was necessary to support their faith in the balance of power, and at the first moment that this was neglected, the minister, whoever they were, had to be excised, which was perhaps feared by Nabuco more than anyone. He would faithfully explain his qualms before the Chamber, and the reasons for his renouncement.

Marquis_of_Olinda_1860
Pedro de Araújo Lima, Marquis of Olinda, ca. 1860.

Hearing this, the Emperor summoned the Marquis of Olinda, and Nabuco, as well as Saraiva, acceded to serve at Olinda’s command, proving that they were not motivated by any ambition for that highest position. The ministry was constituted in the following manner: President of the Council and Empire, Marquis of Olinda; Justice, Nabuco; Navy, Saraiva; War, Ferraz; Treasury, Días de Carvalho; Foreign Affairs, Otaviano; Agriculture, Paula e Sousa. Counting those who had been charged with organizing a cabinet and had not achieved it, the ministry brought under its wings four ex-presidents of the Council—Olinda, Ferraz, Nabuco, and Saraiva. Besides these, Otaviano would’ve entered among them, who found himself at the time in the Río de la Plata, and who could not accept. For such names was the ministry known by the denomination of the cabinet of eagles.Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Supplement 3, Brazilian Politics of the Mid-19th Century

Overview of the Government

The constitution of the Empire of Brazil stated that “The representatives of the Brazilian Nation are the Emperor, and the General Assembly.” [Art. 11. Os Representantes da Nação Brazileira são o Imperador, e a Assembléa Geral.] In this way, the Empire of Brazil was a constitutional monarchy, wherein the Emperor and the Parliament were servants of the people of the empire. The idea was that emperor was the enduring, big-picture ruler (the “permanent will” as Nabuco says in Um Estadista [vontade permanente]), while the General Assembly attended more to the day to day concerns of the state.

The Emperor appointed judges, magistrates, senators, provincial presidents, ministers of state, and eventually the President of the Council of Ministers—a position similar to Prime Minister. The Emperor was responsible for sanctioning laws in order for them to go into effect, though parliament could force a bill into law if it was voted through by two consecutive legislatures. The Emperor could also commute sentences and grant amnesty.

While it’s wrong to say that the emperor was just a figurehead, certainly the General Assembly was the main governing body of the Empire. It consisted of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) and the Senate (upper house.) The General Assembly (which is alternately referred to as “parliament” and “the legislature”) held the power of the purse, power to modify, suspend, and enact laws, control of the military, and power to create government offices.Read More »

New Publication: Beneath Them

beneaththem-c-3I’ve just published “Beneath Them,” a short story available on Smashwords and Amazon.

In this piece of flash fiction, without warning, thousands of alien spaceships have appeared above major urban areas around the globe, and some have descended to devastating effect. Although the aliens have expressed a lack of ill intentions, and a desire for “recreation,” no one really knows what they are doing on Earth. The only thing that is clear is their overwhelming power, and their overwhelming intelligence.

In the shadow of this invasion, life goes on as Atlanta resident Cheyenne, and her younger cousin Denise, deal with roaches in their apartment.

Also included in this publication is a brief afterword, in which I describe my own encounter with a cockroach which inspired this story.

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XII, The Furtado Cabinet and the War

furtado-2
Francisco José Furtado, ca. 1867

The first appeal to Brazilian patriotism, after López’s attack was known, had to be made by the Furtado Cabinet. The first recruitment of the Voluntarios da Pátria, decreed by the cabinet, produced a spontaneous national movement. The nature of our people being, in great part, recalcitrant toward military service, the battalions of volunteers, which the prolongation of the war necessitated, were recruited by allowing the recruits to choose between service in the rank and file and voluntary service, which would be temporary, with special advantages (i). This does not mean that the war with Paraguay would remain well regarded and popular until the end. There is always a great difference, in any country, between those that embrace the national cause with enthusiasm, and those who defend that cause on the battlefield. The merit of those that offer themselves to the war effort should be considered extraordinary; but the fact is that the campaigns of Paraguay were carried out with soldiers from the draft, and that the war would have been impossible to sustain in any other way given the scale it reached and the time it took. Our race, although we become militant as soon as we wear the uniform and grow accustomed to obedience, does not know to voluntarily exchange independence for discipline. However, that initial drive, which produced volunteer battalions, does not cease to be a prize of honor for Furtado, because it is impossible to deny that part of that drive should be attributed to the government’s popularity, and the expansive ableness of the Liberal element represented in the government.

Transferring power to his successors, in May, the Furtado Cabinet left to them the following inheritance: as far as liabilities, a war with Paraguay recently begun, Mato Grosso invaded and partially under control of the Paraguayans, and the expectation of an invasion of Rio Grande do Sul, towards which province Estigarribia’s corps was already marching. As far as assets, the war with Montevideo, which had looked all but declared, concluded despite itself, sooner than should have been expected, and turned into an alliance; the Triple Alliance signed in Buenos Aires, lacking only ratification; an army corps forming in Montevideo; on the Paraná the fleet that, later (11 June), would be victorious at Riachuelo; and, it can be said, in the shipyards, the better part of the ships that were destined to force the pass at Humaitá.

Footnotes

i. Tito Franco says, speaking about the Furtado Cabinet: “In very short time our little fleet numbered 33 steamers and 12 sailing ship, crewed by 609 officers and 3,627 soldiers. The cabinet began rapidly constructing two battleships in the shipyards of the capital, ordered the construction of others which would come later, bought transports and a great amount of arms and munitions. It joined the single voice of patriotism to an army, and through no other means than the decree to create corps of Voluntarios da Patria.”
“The number of citizens that have volunteered themselves to form battalions,” says the War Report, “can be calculated at 10,000. … Recruitment is suspended and recruiters are declared unfit in every province.” From December 1864 to 12 May 1865 (according to the Baron of Rio Branco in Schneider) 8,449 men went to Montevideo, and 1,898 to Rio Grande and Santa Catarina; total, with officers: 10,353. Compare with what Ferraz says later about the inheritance that the 12 May ministry received from its predecessor.

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XI, The Fortune of the Alliance

Brief note: This chapter deals with the Uruguayan War. In the final version of this book, I may end up switching the order of it, so that it occurs closer to chapter IV, V, and VI. Just a heads up. It threw me for a bit when I was first translating it.

The best argument that can be made of the events in Rio Grande is to confess that all our resources together were insufficient to face the enemy; that the enemy’s errors were even greater than ours; and that if we had been wise, perhaps the enemy could have been wise too, crushing us. What’s certain is that everything happened in the best way possible for us. The audacious plans based on the offensive against Estigarribia, when he found himself in Misiones, could have produced a disaster; the very defense of São Borja, could’ve resulted in the union of the three separate columns, and the aid of them by Robles’s army. The only military error worthy of attention that is observed in this improvised war is that of having begun it with forces inferior to the enemy. If the enemy had known to take advantage of the superiority it had in those first minutes, no one can calculate the consequences, or at least the political consequences, of the panic that would have been produced.

All the problems in this war were resolved for us in the most unexpected way. López had no enemy so fatal as his own acts, so poorly directed that they seemed embattled by a hidden power, which entertained itself by scuttling them. His attacks always surprised us, but they lost their effectiveness because of an excess of optimistic recklessness, because of an overly strong surety of being victorious, although the very sluggishness of our movements seems to have helped us, purposefully causing despair in a belligerent who was isolated from the outside world, as Paraguay continued to be, with the river blockaded. The need López felt to attack Rio Grande, a province that he knew to be defenseless thanks to his friends in Montevideo, Corrientes, and Uruguay, became an obsession in the manner of those other despotic whims, and that obsession determined the character of the war. A slave to his fixed idea, he let himself be dragged by it up to the point of invading Argentine territory when he already found himself at war with a nation many times stronger, numerically, than Paraguay, and of a different refinement, wealth, and diversity of resources. If he had proceeded in another way and instead of invading Argentine territory to reach Rio Grande he had left his army from Cerro León and Humaitá to cover his lagoons and jungles, attempting to awaken the suspicions of the Río de la Plata against Brazil’s so-called domineering tendencies, perhaps the Paraguayan War, with Argentine neutrality secretly maintained, would have been the Empire’s ruin.

From this comes the great responsibility taken on by the government that began the Uruguayan War—the cabinet of 15 January 1864 (1). They surely did not foresee Paraguay’s intervention, and when this came about in the form of mediation, it already would be ungraceful to back out. But that is precisely what politics is; the player must always calculate the possible moves of their opponent. In everything we undertake we fight the unexpected; the most foresighted player always wins the game. In 1864 there was in our political sphere a genuine movement in favor of the Uruguayan War, and the Zacarias Cabinet had to yield to that “national unanimity.” It is not a sufficient defense for the cabinet to claim that no one contributed to that unanimity more than the conservative leaders, above all Pimenta Bueno, but it would be valid before a court of chancery.

Given the risk that we ran, the war in 1864 was “a leap in the dark” that the government made with the most absolute unawareness of the complications of the fall. It is quite certain that the complaints and claims that the state of our border produced did not justify the declaration of war to Montevideo, requested by the messengers from the countryside; at least not while the Montevidean government had to fight an armed rebellion. It’s also true that  the ministry of 15 January found in Saraiva a man that, through the sacrifice and nobility of his attitude, mended the toughness and wickedness that there could have been in our instructions, and gave the Blanco government an excellent opportunity to finish the civil war and ensure peace in all of the Río de la Plata; but that same government availed itself of such an opportunity to construct, with Urquiza’s resentment and López’s ambition, a system of forces capable of facing Brazil, once Buenos Aires’s superiority was destroyed. From that point arose an order of things full of dangers for us, in Montevideo, and fortune did not wish for the collision of the two coalitions in formation to remain deferred for a more unfavorable eventuality. In the exact moment in which a delay could have been attempted, which probably would come to facilitate, in the future, a combination of forces against Brazil, the ministry of 15 January falls.

On 31 August Furtado receives a situation that is impossible to modify, though he still wants to, because in place of Saraiva Tamandaré remains, the which considered diplomatic issues with the irritability of the mariner little disposed to measure the political consequences of his actions, so that his admiral’s honor and the brilliance of his flag remain intact before the foreign fleets, and also because in those decisive months of September and October Furtado himself found himself fighting with the great crisis of 1864 (2), which threatened to ruin the commerce of Rio de Janeiro. But the government only had one thought; any other person that would have occupied the seat of power in his place would have done the same; ignorance or calculation would give the same result. The Emperor, who was the permanent will of the country, didn’t think of backing out, but even if it had been proposed, events would not have permitted it. In one way or another López had to initiate the decisive match, and the adversary he chose was Brazil. Whatever the responsibility of the ministers that ran the risk of this war, for which the country did not find itself prepared, and which could have been disastrous, the campaign in itself can be considered (as much as it’s possible to calculate what would have happened if events took another course) as a true lightning rod of all the electricity that had been accumulating in the Río de la Plata.

Translator’s Notes

1. That is, the Zacarias cabinet, lead by Zacarias de Góis e Vasconcelos.
2. This refers to a financial crisis, involving a few major banks in Rio de Janeiro, which had been struggling due to a recent decline in global coffee prices (coffee being an enormous industry in the region.)

The War of Paraguay: Chapter X, General Oversight. — Military Decay.

Two facts explain that disorder— the first (temporary) our complete ignorance of López’s modus operandi; the second (of an essential and permanent character) was the weakness of the whole military system of the Empire.

Our oversight was general. All our civil servants suffered it, and it rested on the political prejudice, turned by the conservative school into a type of national dogma, that friendliness and alliance with Paraguay constituted Brazil’s principal interests in the Plata. That prejudice was so strong that without López’s attack Brazilian statesmen would have had difficulty in agreeing to move our army and fleet against Paraguay. It’s enough to read Paranhos’s circular manifesto from 26 January 1865, addressing the soon-to-be allied nations of the war which we saw ourselves forced to wage, to have an idea of how profoundly that imposed break-up of a friendship, which we cultivated with such care, affected our oldest political superstitions.

In light of subsequent events, this constant request for Paraguayan friendship appears an obvious error. Asunción fostered the secret purpose of dominating navigation on the Paraguay and its tributaries, and taking over Mato Grosso and Misiones, keeping them as a guarantee of their independence and peace. Brazil instructed the Paraguayan army and navy by means of Brazilian officials, like Porto-Carrero and Willagrán Cabrita, Soares Pinto and Caminada, constructing for them the trenches and batteries of Humaitá (1), and the whole system of its defenses; Brazil guided Paraguay through the hand of our diplomats and statesmen: Pimenta Bueno, Bellegarde, Paranhos. Brazil fulfilled no other role with Paraguay than that of the dupe. We armed it against the Empire and shaped the formidable resistance with which we were later to clash.

The_Guard-House,_Humaita
“The Guard-House of Humaitá,” engraving published in the London Illustrated News, 1864.

One of the hypotheses of that a priori diplomacy was that Humaitá’s fortifications would never serve against Brazil, but solely against the re-formation of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. With all that, it didn’t much reckon on what really had importance, dealing with a government like that of López. It did not reckon on his lack of mental fixity; nor on the fears that could assail him; nor on how much was left to the influence of intrigues, flattery, and fear; nor on his lack of perception of national interest or of the strength of his large neighbors; nor on his suspicion of being cheated and seeing himself become an instrument of hidden aims; nor on his extraordinary conceitedness, or on the profound indifference that he must’ve shown to all the benefits of civilization when his time of need, his time of misery arrived; nor on the nomad background, indolent and fatalistic, of the old reduced Indian, a background quite visible behind all the authoritarian ostentations and the regal appearance of his power. Brazil’s best course of action would have been to impede, as much as possible, the fortification of the pass giving access to Mato Grosso, and, if not that, at least not lend itself to help construct a Sevastopol (2) on the river. What is certain is that the appearance of ignoring the military conditions and disturbing strength of Paraguay—the cause of such oversight—reached, without exception, from the Emperor to all the parties, governments, civil servants, diplomats, and military figures of that time.

This ignorance is one of the main factors of the war in 1864. The other is the disorganization of the military service in Brazil. Since the first reign, and above all since the debacle of the Cisplatine War, the old military state, that’s to say, what little of the spirit of the Count of Lippe (3) Brazil’s secession had left us with, was forever decaying, and except in Rio Grande do Sul, the military career ceased to inspire enthusiasm and produce the sense of having a calling.

Little by little the spirit of independence is insinuating itself into the officers, the spirit of individual initiative, of criticizing one’s superiors and the way they carry out discipline. Politics, instead of considering the army as a noli me tangere, respecting its proper character and attending to the most perfect preservation of each of its essential qualities, shows itself indifferent to military glory, and it contributes to the decay of all the elements that constitute a militia. In this way the old traditions of obedience disappear before a new spirit of criticism, individualism, which will come be preponderant after the war, thanks to the importance that independent or irregular elements manage to acquire during it (volunteers and National Guards, above all the Rio Grande National Guard), with relation to regular troops or line infantry. Upon the sudden occurrence of the English affair in 1862 (4) the country feels that it is completely disarmed, without army or navy; that it has done nothing but sleep in the peace of a military dream for twenty years (more than a generation), interrupted only by the struggle against Rosas. Then there’s a reaction; attention turns to the country’s defenses, but fixed so singularly on the state of our fortifications, mere simulacrums at the entry-points of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, so incapable of fulfilling their jobs with the frigate Forte (5) and later with the Wachussett (6).

Politics, more potent than every other concern, deteriorated and rusted the springs of public service. The blame is not isolated to any one person; it belongs to everyone. There was patriotism, good will, and self-sacrifice; but there were also three irresistible things: the indolence born of the climate, of race, and of social habits; the patronage produced by bonhomie and natural benevolence, by the effects of debility, by the lack of resistance, by the fear of consequences, by the near impossibility of saying no, by hurt, by disillusionment; and the partisan spirit with its traditional organization, its secretive freemasonry, its absolute excommunications, imposing conformity on all of its fellow believers. The old Portuguese discipline was too heavy—tiring, like the old dress and old manners—for a society that only wanted rest, the freedom to stretch out and sleep.

From this abandonment, from this force of habit, it is only the privileged class—the political class, responsible for the good preservation of the administrative machine—who could benefit and allow the machine to grind to a halt and become a factory in refuge from its clientele, only they could benefit from the idle parasitism that grabs ahold of the machine, and so, equally, grabs ahold of magistrates or police, schools, colleges and faculties, arsenals, ships and barracks, cathedrals, seminaries and parishes, railways, post offices, town halls, provincial governments, secretaries of state, legislative chambers, electoral colleges—all suffer the same continuous deterioration, upon all sits the same neglect, that same intermittence of energy, that same inferiority of work.

The warrior spirit, the ambition for glory on the battlefield, the custom of obedience and self-sacrifice that forms discipline, the custom of command which the concept of hierarchical superiority gives, which entrusts the care of the troops to the chiefs and makes them compete with each other in the eagerness to have the best instructed and best disposed troop possible—all that, which forms the military environment of a country, was waning, tempering itself to the general tone of indifference that characterized public services, and which, vainly, was hurriedly attempted to be remedied at the last moment. Luckily our moral fiber was not dead; it had been relaxed but not corrupted. There was torpor and laziness, but there was also sensibility, heart, honor, patriotism, idealism—and thanks to the quasi-customary veneration which was still preserved for living examples of the old spirit, of the court of that other epoch, like Caxias, Porto-Alegre, Osorio, Tamandaré, Barroso, thanks to the national conscience admirably embodied by the Emperor, thanks to our economic resources, still intact, thanks to the order of the central motor not yet deteriorated by the mold that covered the surface of the machine, our country could, in a relatively short time, present to the nations of the Plata the greatest military apparatus that to this day has ever been seen in South America, an apparatus that, because of the great expanse of the theater of war, never was fully compiled where it could be contemplated altogether.

Translator’s Notes

1. Humaitá, a Paraguayan fortress on a bend of the Paraguay River, was the single greatest obstacle the allies faced. From October 1866 to July 1868, the allies’ offensive operations all centered on surrounding, and then maintaining the siege of, Humaitá.
2. This is a reference to the Crimean port city, which became infamous when it resisted an enemy siege for 349 days (1854-1855) during the Crimean War. The comparison is apt because both Sevastopol and Humaitá were heavily fortified, both were under frequent, intense bombardment during their sieges, and both faced an allied assault (France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire in the case of Sevastopol.)
3. An incredibly successful military leader, who reformed the Portuguese military and defended Portugal from the Franco-Spanish invasion during the Seven Years’ War. Despite being outnumbered three to one, Lippe successfully drove the invading forces back, and gained renown throughout the Portuguese Empire.
4. In 1862 the British consul in Rio de Janeiro presented the Brazilian government with an ultimatum, making absurd demands in response to a few incidents of Brazilians mistreating British sailors. Surprisingly, Brazil did not back down, and it instantly prepared for a naval war. The British consul backed down, though not before ordering British ships to capture Brazilian merchant vessels as indemnity. Brazil severed diplomatic ties with the empire in 1863, though the conflict did not escalate from there. More on this in Chapter XXV.
5. One of the British ships that captured Brazilian merchant vessels.
6. A warship of the Confederate States of America, captured by a Union ship while in Bahia Harbor, Brazil, violating Brazilian neutrality.