The Florists from Beyond the Grave

by Tamar Guimarães

Tamar Guimarães, A Man Called Love, 2008 stills from slide projection with voiceover 20 minutes, b/w and colour, sound Courtesy of the artist
and Galeria Fortes Vilaça

He was a strange figure, and his camouflage included amusing wigs and dark glasses. He became a national celebrity at the age of sixty, having spent his life notating the words spoken to him by disembodied spirits.

Francisco Candido Xavier was a Brazilian psychic medium and psychographer – a ‘channeller’ of spirits through the written word. The dead spoke, and he wrote it down, as a kind of secretary – a task similar to the civil-service job he held until retirement. He has been described as “the biggest and most prolific psychographer worldwide of all times”, having written over 400 books. In the sixties and seventies he was a celebrity in Brazil, drawing large crowds whenever he appeared in public.

I have scrutinised Xavier for some time in order to investigate the predicament of a man entangled in the lace of a racism in disguise, the cordial racism prevalent in Brazil – a country that has not come to terms with the gap between its reality of white supremacy and its myth of racial democracy. So perhaps, in fact, this is about Brazil, its race relations, its social malaise, with the scrivener to the spirits himself a channel for Brazil’s turbulent history and social political anxieties – anxieties that seem to coalesce, crystallise and find new ‘incarnations’ in his work. Xavier’s literary work speaks of an ‘otherworld’ remarkably similar to the one he lived in. In A Man Called Love, my endeavour was to conjure up some of the historical developments re-staged, or shall I say reincarnated, in his work. I digressed from Xavier to some of the figures and events implicitly and explicitly alluded to in his writing, as well as to other texts that have come to shape my reading of him.

Initially I was interested in Xavier’s function as a scribe for the spirit world – I was entertained by the alternative meaning for the term ghostwriter and amused by a deliberate misunderstanding of the “death of the author”. Later, I thought that if history is the impossible conversation with the dead, as Michel de Certeau suggested, then the medium had a privileged role as a history writer. I thought I could employ Xavier as an indirect means for talking about the underground left-wing movements in 1960s and 1970s Brazil. But soon it became clear that even though I could speak about Xavier’s desire for social justice and universal well-being, implicating him and the rest of the Spiritist community in the struggle for socio-political reform was not going to be an easy task. The medium was indeed a historian, but not a channeller of the history I had desired. Xavier’s huge popularity and, by the same token, Spiritism’s popularity in Brazil coincided with the dictatorships of two periods: the Vargas Era of the 1930s and 1940s and the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.

It seemed as if Xavier was haunted by the phantasmagorias of the nation state: order and progress (the motto on the national flag), political sovereignty, world visibility, industriousness and commerce. His universe was shaped by lifetime employment as a typist at a government model farm. When he writes of the city of the dead, it resembles the world of state propaganda and the highly bureaucratic and hierarchical universe that he inhabited.

Tamar Guimarães, A Man Called Love, 2008 stills from slide projection with voiceover 20 minutes, b/w and colour, sound Courtesy of the artist
and Galeria Fortes Vilaça

At any rate, speaking of Xavier’s public life and work without hermeneutic violence presented substantial difficulty. Could I avoid reducing him, his context and his work to a set of socio-political and psychoanalytic signs? Could I discuss his mystical accounts in ways other than neurotic symptoms, replacing it for the stuff of class, race, geography and colonial trauma? I would need to defer too quick a reading of Xavier in order to understand his work differently, would need to delay brutality in order to produce different readings.

In the project that became know as A Man Called Love(2008), the medium’s inner experience remained a leftover, a residue, untouched by whatever seemed necessary to address first, in order to clear the way for its postponed approach. The socio-political events of the eponymous “neighbouring” city on the astral plane as described in Nosso Lar (Our Home; 1943), one of Xavier’s most famous books, were seen in the light of symptomatic re-stagings of social structures in disarray.

What I postponed until later was to insist that his mystic experience and re-imagination of social space was a form of resistance – albeit a resistance that had to grapple with the constraints of a repressive regime.

Taking the medium’s experience at face value is work in progress and is what set the film A Família do Capitão Gervásio (Captain Gervasio’s Family, 2013/2014) in motion. It is a collaboration with Kasper Akhøj and was shot on several locations in Brazil thousands of miles apart from each other, though it revolves around a Spiritist community in Palmelo, a small dusty town of 2,000 inhabitants in the interior of Goiás (Brazil). Half of the city’s inhabitants are psychic mediums who hold day jobs as teachers and civil servants and partake in daily rituals of psychic healing. In this community, spirits intervene, teach and transform the material world.

The Spiritists in Palmelo practice what is known as ‘the magnetic chain’, a legacy from the German physician Franz Mesmer, the founder of Spiritism Allan Kardec and the French botanist François Deleuze. In Palmelo, the magnetic chain is used for the treatment of several forms of illness, including psychiatric illness, and the film’s subtext is indicative of how such practices came into conflict with official movements toward mental hygiene and the codes of ‘madness’ inflicted by modernisation.

A psychiatric sanatorium was established in Palmelo early on. Later, the sanatorium was closed by governmental inspectors, who ruled that care could not consist of magnetic passes only. The sanatorium has reopened, and contemporary Spiritists state that during curing sessions someone is always being treated, even if it is only the medium.

The film refers to a map drawn by a Spiritist woman in Palmelo, charting twenty astral cities hovering above the whole of the Brazilian territory. In the manner of Xavier’s widely read Nosso Lar, it accounts for astral cities in the vicinity of earthly cities where the recently deceased learn and work. Cities like those on Earth, but infinitely more perfect. These are splendid visions of modernity, in which governors, ministers and endless secretaries are viewed as benign agents of infinite wisdom. Yet to reduce this to a fantasy of progress and urbanisation is to overlook that the town appears absorbed in a radical project under a mainstream guise – a communal effort of psychic rescuing.

TRANSLATION: One of the most perfect works of Anita, the florist from beyond the grave

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