Flirting while strolling on Central Avenue
The war had passed, the International had been contained in the Soviet distant and frozen lands. The bourgeoisie swings their pearls, feathers and sequins at the Guanabara Palace dance on Paissandu Street, parades their toilette while strolling on Central Avenue or Ouvidor Street and surrenders to flirting in the matchmaking gardens of mansions. However, when they close their eyes for a restful sleep, they are not in any of those places anymore. In their dreams everything is transformed: the Ball at the Club dos Diários turns into a spicy night at the Chat Noir cabaret, strolling on Central Avenue becomes flânerie at the Boulevard Champs-Elysées and the traditional coffee is transformed into the five-o’clock tea. Paris/Rio, Rio/Paris?
The first two decades of the 20th century were the apogee of Rio’s belle époque. What spirit would it have given the Brazilian capital’s city life, not to mention the several capitals that started to become urbanized in this yet so rural country? What mysteries, what aromas, what rhythms reverberate from this time that was so... so belle époque?
For Benjamim Costallat, famous chronicler of the time, the rhythm was jazz, “jazz does not spare modern ears and tortures them until dawn”. Here, as in Paris, at the Belas-Artes dance, the Moulin-Rouge on Tiradentes Square or the Moulin-Rouge at the foot of the bohemian Montmartre hill, Costallat insists, the rhythm is jazz. “And always jazz, like a huge screaming mental home, jazz, always jazz, still jazz, among the thousand dizzying lights of night restaurants, blares and explodes in diabolic honor of the shimmy’s hysterical and lascivious shaking”.
However, not everything is cosmopolitism in the capital of the Republic. While a golden city melts in parties, another one toils from sun to sun. Rio holds two cities in its bowels. The bourgeois one, on Ouvidor Street, nicknamed by Machado de Assis as “the painful way of poor husbands”, with its expensive stores of French inspiration such as Notre Dame, Casa Clark and Torre Eiffel.
The city of teahouses, confectionaries and cafés such as Paris, Deroche, Provence, Colombo and Menères. The city of the clubs, casinos, theaters and lyrical seasons, the time for elegant ladies to parade dressed in fabrics like surah, faille, camlet, taffeta, and elegant gentlemen in top hats, spats and canes, who smoke in smoking rooms, applaud at theaters or score points at poker tables. Rio de Janeiro of the palaces and mansions. Of the garçonière and the maisonnette.
But this city competed feverishly for visibility with another city: the one of barefoot workers, of muddy kiosks at the port, of dumps, of mafuás , of street markets, of zungus , inns and lodging houses. Rio de Janeiro of favelas and cortiços. Of samba and jogo do bicho . Of the rascal and the razor. Of illiterates and spitting on the floor. The legal city makes a contribution, the illegal city makes use of it.
This twentieth century that had started so sweet and exciting for a few, is bitter and cold for the great majority. In the perception of the great poet of the time, Olavo Bilac, modern life had arrived, speeding up time and imposing a new rhythm to the capital of the country. According to Bilac, “human activity increases at an astounding pace. Men today are forced to think and execute in a minute what their grandparents executed in an hour. Life is modern, made of lightning in the brain and fever flashes in the blood”. Rio de Janeiro was becoming civilized, prognosticated columnist Figueiredo Pimentel, creator of Rio’s social chronicle who became the axis of the entire bourgeois life in the capital, and, for this very reason, complained about the remodeling of everything, the urban space, the manners, the habits, the behaviors, the way of dressing, the very way of seeing and facing the world. All of it guided by aggressive cosmopolitism, strongly identified with Parisian life. The passport to enter the modern world, covered in the gold and finesse of a bourgeoisie inebriated by Paris that will remain known as belle époque was the disapproval of traditional Brazilian society and its sameness, expressed in Monteiro Lobato’s character, Jeca Tatu.
It was this remodeling, which spread throughout all aspects of Cariocas’ lives, according to another celebrated social chronicler of the time, and not the cry of Ipiranga, that would mark their definite redemption from the colonial situation. Perhaps we cannot speak about belle époque as a movement, once people were not aware they were living a belle époque, but we can certainly consider it as the spirit of a time. A time of renovation that imposed itself thanks to the containment of the revolution conceived by the most radical republicans, such as the Jacobins, and the maintenance of the power of agrarian elites and their allies.
Reverberating the stabilization of the public order and the relief felt in society’s life, the editor of a fashionable weekly magazine commented:
We have order in the progress and orders prosper. The ghosts that frightened the bourgeoisie were dissipated. No one is worried about attacks anymore [...].no more passionate comments about habeas corpus, be it regarding the competent legislative body – or others, those of desired actresses, true bodies of crime or delight [...].
Belle époque was, hence, the social game of an elite, expressed in its sociability, which, prey to its political conservativeness, had bet all chips on a “poetics of clubs and ballrooms”. According to North-American historian Jeffrey Needell in his book Tropical Belle époque, “in general, these institutions contributed to facilitate social life between the powerful and their families. As a consequence, friendships, romances and personal introductions and contacts that turned class solidarity and the management of personal relations into activities that were not only warm, but also certainly efficient, were the main characteristics of the Carioca belle époque elite. The Casino, the Club dos Diários, the Jockey and the Lírico were traditional elements of just one of the important and influential structures in which the circumstances of power would be defined”.
The haute monde of the belle époque lived a luxurious and refined existence based, preponderantly, on foreign cultural models. Ahead of the capital’s urban transformations and innovations, this elite wanted to turn Rio de Janeiro into a tropical Paris. Born Joões, Josés and Marias dreamed of being Jeans, Josephs and Mariannes. They slept under tropical stars and dreamed of waking up with the sun behind the Montmartre hill.
In this sense, clubs and ballrooms, much more than the street – left to the ignorant and uncultured rabble – become strategic places where the belle époque “laboratory” produces its chemistry. And what was the result of this mixture? Creatures, nearly theatrical characters eager to stage their performance in the new décor of a city that was being transformed and held out the promise – for a few ones - of a renewed life, forged in luxury and enjoyment. Therefore, as it had been in the French Court of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, living in luxury and enjoyment was, more than a pleasure, a kind of obligation that served the organization of relations within this group and, as a consequence, of social hierarchy.
Figueiredo Pimentel, who truly dictated behaviors at the time, accurately expressed what it was to live in luxury and enjoyment, teaching how to transform the mediocre everyday of a tropical elite into a world full of refinement, attractions and excitement. Let us listen to one of his lessons:
What makes a reception, dinner or soirée elegant is not the excess of luxury, wealth or guests. The elegance of any party or gathering resides in the way of being together, in gestures, attitudes, grace, spirit, and elevation of the conversations. It is never elegant to talk about others and much less about oneself. The topics for small talk in a room, a chic restaurant or at a theater must be general ones. At a soirée, one must talk about music, poetry, and literature, choosing the subject according to the conversation partner.
It was through social relations that the haute monde of the belle époque dramatized its being in the world, which manifested itself in mundaneness. Mundaneness turned into a real way to be. As writer Gilberto Amado reminds:
Mundaneness and aestheticism commanded, under the sign of Futility, not only the social movement, but also the literary and the political one. Being mundane constituted a title, a reason of prestige [...] Aestheticism and Mundaneness were the two wheels of the Byzantine carriage in which the flaccid athletes of frivolousness performed in our Constantine circus.
João do Rio, the inspired chronicler of the city, the mundane of mundanes, accurately expressed in his short story “Laurinda Belfort” the core of this spirit, by showing that his married character takes a lover out of sheer mundaneness: “She had not yet had any [passion outside the marriage]. But she would. It would be the last step of her mundaneness”. And after giving his character a lover, João do Rio concludes:
She had been driven to that (cultivating a lover) out of mundaneness, of shamelessness of the soul [...]. From watching the other ladies being loved by discrete and well-dressed men, she found that smart and risky, with a light touch of consented crime. Going like that, in her car, her husband’s car, to surrender to the passion of another man, the elegant gentleman, seemed to be the essential fashionable touch; it always reminded her of Paris romances [...].
Afrânio Peixoto, a politician and literary historian, goes even further in his definition of mundaneness, suggesting it penetrated all aspects of life, including the arts. According to this author, literature was nothing but “the smile of society”. Associating mundanity with frivolousness, Afrânio Peixoto revealed the true spirit of the time: fantasy, narcissism, and elitism.
As in the French Court of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, living in luxury and enjoyment, more than a pleasure, was a kind of obligation that served the structuring of social hierarchy.
Robert Moses Pechman holds a postdoctoral title by the École des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociale de Paris, is a professor at IPPUR/UFRJ and author of Cidades estreitamente vigiadas: o detetive e o urbanista (Casa da Palavra, 2002). Walcler de Lima Júnior is a journalist, master in urban planning and a doctoral student at IPPUR/UFRJ, specializing in the area of culture and city.
(RHBN. No. 5. November 2005. PP. 34-37)