Olavo de Carvalho

Learning to Write

It is by reading that one learns how to write – that is the very type of synthetic formula which bears within it several truths, but that due to its recurring usage is taken, in the end, as having value on its own, like a fetish, empty of that valuable content which, in order to be apprehended, would require the formula to be negated and dialectically relativized rather than uncritically accepted.

Reading, yes, but reading what? And is reading enough or is it also necessary to do something else with what is read? When the formula ends by substituting these two questions instead of raising them it is not worth a thing anymore.

The selection of reading material presupposes several readings, and there would be no way out of this vicious circle without a distinction between two types of reading. Reading merely for research conducts to the choice of a certain number of titles for attentive and profound reading. It is the latter which teaches one how to write, but it is not possible to get to it without the former. The former, on the other hand, presupposes searching and consulting. There is no serious reading, thus, without the mastery of chronologies, bibliographies, encyclopedias, and broad historical reviews. One who has never read through a book, but who from intensive search of indexes and archives has acquired a systemic view of what one should read in the following years, is already a more educated man than he who, right from the start, has delved deep into the Divine Comedy or the Critique of Pure Reason without knowing where they came from nor why he reads them.

But there is also that which, if I am not mistaken, was said by Borges: “To understand a single book, it is necessary to have read several books.” The art of reading is a simultaneous operation on two planes, as in a portrait on which the painter had to work at the same time on the front details and the background lines. The difference between the educated and the uneducated reader is that the latter takes as background, in reading, the current language of the media and of low-level conversation, which is a one-dimensional frame of reference where everything that is most subtle and profound, most personal and significant in a writer is lost. The latter, on the other hand, has more points of comparison; for, being acquainted with the tradition of the art of writing, he speaks the language of writers, which is never “the language of everyone,” no matter that some good writers, misguided about themselves, think that it is.

Strictly speaking, there is no “language of everyone.” There are the languages of regions, groups, and families, and there are the broad codifications which formalize them synthetically. One of these codifications is the language of the media. It works through statistical reduction and the establishment of standard turns of language which, for being recurrent, acquire automatic functionality.

Opposite to that, there is the language of literary art. It works by making good use of the most rich and significant expressions, capable of conveying what could hardly be conveyed without them.

The language of the media or of the public square repeats, in the quickest and most functional manner, that which everyone knows. The language of writers makes communicable that which, without them, would barely be perceived. The first determines a collective horizon of perception within which everyone, since they perceive simultaneously the same things in the same way and without the slightest effort of attention, presumes to perceive everything. The second grants attentive individuals access to the knowledge of things that had been perceived, previously, only by those who paid such things a lot of attention. It also establishes a community of perception, but not that of the public square: it is that of attentive men from all times and places—the community of those whom Schiller denominated “sons of Jupiter.” This community is neither gathered physically as the masses in a stadium nor statistically as a community of consumers and voters. Its members communicate but by the reflexes sent, over a long space and time, by the eyes of the solitary souls which flicker, in the dark vastness, like the lights of farms and villages seen from the window of a plane at night.

One, after all, is the language of false obviousnesses; the other, however, is of those “authentic personal perceptions” of which Saul Bellow spoke. Several mad scientists, amongst which are our literature professors, assure us that there is no difference. But the only scientific method on which they lean to make that assertion is the argumentum ad ignorantiam, the most foolish of sophistic artifices, which consists of deducing from one’s own lack of knowledge of a certain thing the objective inexistence of the thing. The literary language exists, indeed, due to the simple fact that the great writers read one another’s works, learn with each other, and have—as in any other community of métier—their learning traditions, passwords, and codes of initiation. Trying to deny this historical fact by reason of the impossibility of deducing it from Saussure’s rules is negating the existence of atomic particles by reason of the impossibility of knowing their velocity and their position at the same time.

The selection of readings must be guided, first of all, by the desire to apprehend, in the variety of all things read, the unwritten rules of this universal code which unites Shakespeare to Homer, Dante to Faulkner, Camilo to Sophocles and Euripides, Eliot to Confucius and Jalal-Ed-Din Rûmi.

Thus understood, the act of reading is something of an adventure of initiation: it is the conquering of that lost word which gives access to the keys to a hidden kingdom. Outside of that, reading is but professional routine, pedantry, or childish entertainment.

But the acquisition of a code requires, besides reading, active absorption. It is necessary that, aside from listening, you practice the language of the writer being read. To practice, in Old Portuguese, also means to talk. If you read Dante, try writing like Dante. Translate excerpts; imitate the tone, the symbolic allusions, the manner, the worldview. Imitation is the only form of deeply assimilating. If it is impossible to learn English or Spanish by listening only, without ever trying to talk, why would it be different with a writer’s style?

The current fetishism of “originality” and “creativity” inhibits the practice of imitation. It is desired that pupils create out of nothing, or out of the pure language of the media. However, the best they are able to do is to creatively produce standardized banalities.

No one achieves originality without mastering the skill of imitation. Imitation will not make a servile idiot out of you; firstly, because no servile idiot elevates himself to the point of being capable to imitate the great; secondly, for by imitating one author, then another, and another, and still another, you will not become like any of them, but rather, in composing from what you have learned with them your own arsenal of modes of expression, in the end you will be none other than yourself, just empowered and ennobled by the weapons acquired.

It is in this sense and in this sense only that one learns to write by reading. It is a form of reading which requires selective search for unity behind variety, learning through active imitation, and the constitution of personal repertoire in constant expansion and development. Many who today pose as writers not only have never been through such a course of learning but moreover are not even suspicious of its existence.

Out of it, though, everything is barbarity and industrialized ignorance.

Olavo de Carvalho
O Globo, 3rd of February, 2001
Translation by Pedro Cava

Study Before You Speak

The shortest way to the destruction of democracy is fostering criminality through culture and subsequently trying to control it by disarming the civil population. The Brazilian left has consistently walked this double road for at least five decades, and they have always known exactly what the result would be: social chaos, followed by a toughening of the regime if the left is in power, or by insurrectional agitation if it is not.

This is an old, classic, immutable strategy, but the pretexts used to legitimize it according to momentary convenience have been varied enough so as to disorient the spectators, who devote themselves to animated and sometimes fierce discussions about the pretexts and never grasp the unity of the project behind them. More often than not, as is the case in Brazil, they do not even realize that there is a relationship between those two concomitant paths.

Mentally cowardly people will sell off their mothers to avoid running the risk of being labeled “conspiracy theorists.” They debase themselves to the point of defending tooth and nail the “theory of pure coincidences,” according to which actions are performed without authors.

Imagine then the fear these people have of acknowledging something that is already patently obvious to the rest of the world: that communism did not die in 1990 but is today stronger than ever, especially in Latin America. Thirteen years ago, when Jean-François Revel published his last book, La Grande Parade [Last Exit to Utopia], no one in Europe or in the United States disputed him on that point, but in Brazil it remains an arcane secret.

There are even those who deny that Dilma or Lula[1] are communists, but they do so because they do not know exactly what a communist is and imagine, as in general do the classic liberals, that it is simply a matter of ideals and ideologies. In reality, someone is a communist not because he believes in this or that, but rather because he occupies a position in an organization which acts as a part of or heir to the communist revolutionary tradition, with all the plethora of ideological varieties and contradictions there included.

The unity of the communist movement, especially since Antonio Gramsci, the American New Left, and the restructuring of communist parties after the collapse of the USSR, is rather of a strategic than of an ideological kind.

In fact, this movement, whose extinction the fall of the Soviet Union seemed to herald as imminent and inevitable, was only able to prosper and grow formidably since the beginning of the 90s precisely because it relinquished all homogeneous doctrinal self-definition and refined the technique of articulating in a strategic unity of action the most diversified currents and dissidents, whose collaboration was impossible up to that point. Convictions, therefore, whether sincere or feigned, do not play the least part in that.

In order for an individual to talk with some propriety about the communist movement, he must have previously studied the following:

  • The Marxist classics: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong.
  • The most important Marxist philosophers: Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Lefebvre, Althusser.
  • Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism.
  • A few good books on the history and sociology of the revolutionary movement in general, such as James H. Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men, Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, and Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics.
  • Good books on the history of communist regimes, written from a non-apologetic point of view.
  • The works of the most celebrated critics of Marxism, such as Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises, Raymond Aron, Roger Scruton, Nicolai Berdyaev, and many others.
  • Books on the strategy and tactics of communists for taking hold of power, on the underground activities of the communist movement in the West, and especially on communist “active measures” (disinformation, agents of influence), as those by Anatoliy Golitsyn, Christopher Andrew, John Earl Haynes, Ladislav Bittman, Diana West, etc.
  • The largest possible amount of witness accounts from former communist agents or militants who describe their experiences in the service of the movement or communist governments, as those by Arthur Koestler, Jan Valtin, Ion Mihai Pacepa, Whittaker Chambers, David Horowitz.
  • The extremely valuable accounts on the human condition in socialist societies, such as those by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Vladimir Bukovsky, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Richard Wurmbrand.

This is a reading program that can be completed in four or five years by a decent student. I know no one, either on the right or the left in Brazil, no one, absolutely no one who has completed a similar course of study. There are so many people who want to voice their opinions on the topic, usually putting on airs of sapience, and nobody, or almost nobody, who is willing to make the necessary effort in order to provide their words with some substance.

No honest leftist can do so without abjuring his belief for good. No right-winger can do it without recognizing he was a presumptuous fool, a dunce, and in many instances a useful idiot−oftentimes rather more useful and more idiotic than the leftist driven herd.

The left thrives on the exploitation of ignorance, their own or others’. Wherever they exercise their hegemony, the commandment prevails of never reading the works of adversaries and critics, but rather of spreading deformed and caricatured versions of their ideas and biographies, so the militant youth will hate them in the illusion of knowing them. Universities that profess to teach courses on Marxism push this precept to the limits of sheer and naked mind control.

The right, well, the right likes to cultivate its own forms of self-deception, about which I have talked at length in this newspaper. Maybe I will come back to the subject in another article.

Olavo de Carvalho
Diário do Comércio, August 13, 2013
Translation by Pedro Cava


[1] Translator’s note: former presidents of Brazil, belonging to the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT).

What Does It Mean to Be a Socialist?

Socialism has killed over 100 million dissidents and spread terror, misery, and famine over one quarter of the Earth. All of the earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics, tyrannies, and wars of the last four centuries combined have not produced such devastating effects. That is a sheer and simple fact, accessible to anyone who can look into The Black Book of Communism and do some elementary calculations.

Since, however, what determines our beliefs are not facts but rather interpretations, the devout socialist always has recourse to the subterfuge of explaining away that formidable succession of calamities as the effect of fortuitous events independent from the essence of socialist doctrines, which could then maintain, immune to all the misery of its accomplishments, the beauty and dignity of a superior ideal.

To what extent is this claim intellectually respectable and morally acceptable?

The socialist ideal is, in essence, the diminishment or elimination of differences in economic power by means of political power. But no one can effectively arbitrate the differences between the more powerful and the less powerful who is not himself more powerful than both: socialism therefore must gather a power sufficient not only to impose itself on the poor, but also to successfully face the whole of the rich. Thus it cannot level the differences in economic power without producing even deeper differences in level of political power. Moreover, given that the structure of political power cannot float in thin air, but rather that it costs a lot of money, it is not conceivable that the political power might subjugate economic power without absorbing it into itself, taking the riches from the rich and managing it directly. Hence under socialism, precisely contrary to what happens in capitalism, there is no difference between political power and control over wealth: the higher an individual and a group’s position in the political hierarchy, the larger the wealth at their utter and immediate disposal. There shall be no class richer than that of the rulers. Then will the economic differences not only have necessarily increased, but rather, after being consolidated in the unified political and economic powers, they will have become impossibly unsurmountable, except by the complete destruction of the socialist system. And even destruction will not solve the problem, because, there existing no wealthy class outside of the nomenklatura, they will keep the economic power in their hands, merely swapping their means of legal legitimacy and now calling themselves the bourgeoisie. The socialist experience, when it is not crystallized in a bureaucratic oligarchy, dissolves into wild capitalism. Tertium non datur.[1] Socialism thus consists in the promise of obtaining a certain result by those means which necessarily produce the inverse result.

One needs only understand this to immediately realize the emergence of a bureaucratic elite endowed with tyrannical political power and opulent riches is no accident, but rather the logical and inevitable consequence of the very principle of the socialist idea.

This line of reasoning is accessible to any person with average intelligence, but given a certain propensity of weaker minds towards believing rather in desires than in reason, one could yet forgive those poor creatures who give into the temptation of “taking a gamble” on the lottery of reality, betting on chance against logical necessity.

Even if that is incredibly sleazy, still it is human. It is humanlike stupidity to insist on learning from one’s own experience when we have been gifted with logical reasoning, precisely so we could reduce the amount of experience needed for learning.

What is not human at all is rejecting at one and the same time the lesson from logics that shows us the contradictions of a project and the lesson from experience which, so it could rediscover what logic had already taught it, caused the deaths of 100 million people.

No intellectually sane human being has the right to cling so obstinately to an idea so as to demand that humanity sacrifice, on the altar of its promises, not only its rational intelligence, but its very instinct of survival.

Such incapacity or refusal to learn denounces, in the mind of the socialist, the voluntary and perverse debasement of intelligence to a subhuman level, the conscious abdication of that basic capacity for discerning which is the very condition of humanness in the human being. Being a socialist means refusing out of pride to take up the responsibilities of a human consciousness.

Olavo de Carvalho
Jornal da Tarde, October 28, 1999
Translation by Pedro Cava


[1] Translator’s note: from the Latin, “[a] third is not given,” there is no third option.