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Tablet - September 2012
Eduardo Goncalves Ribeiro had a tropical personality. Born to a slave mother in Amazonia he grew to be twice governor of the new Brasilian State of Amazonas whose constitution he masterminded on democratic, positivist principles that confronted the church’s interference in secular affairs.
He visited Europe and dreamed the dream of turning his capital Manaus into the Paris of the Tropics. Never married, his work was his life. He rode the high wave of the late 19th century Brasilian rubber boom and the great buildings of the now much dilapidated modern Manaus, especially the famous opera house, witness to the imprint of his very fertile personality on the city.
He ruled over a brief human world mirroring and competing with the impenetrable vegetation and the highly decorated animal kingdom teeming around it on all sides. The surreal costumes of Carnevale seem to reflect the divine imagination at work in the crests of birds and the heart-opening beauty of the inside of butterfly wings. Within this rampant jungle Ribeiro cleared a human space for grand public buildings, parks and gardens, racecourses and bullrings and fine restaurants. It wanted to imitate the European world but always and still seems closer to the jungle whose sovereignty it opposed but on which it also depended. The euphoria of the rubber boom, like that of the City of London in the 90s, often went insane. The rubber barons, not unlike the robber bankers, lit their cigars with hundred dollar bills, watered their horses on champagne and sent their laundry to Paris. Their wives sweltered in fur coats in the opera house built of materials imported from Scotland and Italy.
All this from a white sticky liquid that oozes easily from a cut in the bark of a tree in the jungle. The indigenous people had long used its elastic properties but Charles Goodyear refined the production process and gave the world the rubber tires that it runs on today. True to their noble history of patriotic piracy the downfall of the Manaus dream came from the English. In 1867 Henry Wickham, later knighted for his mission, on instructions from the director of Kew Gardens, smuggled out seeds of the Hervea Brasiliensis rubber tree. By 1920 ninety percent of the world’s rubber came from British plantations in Asia.
As with economists in today’s, desperate efforts were made to prevent the inevitable collapse of Amazonia’s brief glory. Ribeiro must have seen the end coming. One day, in 1900 at the age of thirty-eight he was found hanged in his study sitting in his rocking chair. They say that the voices he had always heard screaming in his head must have become unbearable. One cannot even hover on the margins of his extravagant yet strangely lonely life without the kind of wonder and thankfulness for life that you feel riding up the mighty Amazon by canoe or cutting your way a few metres into the dense jungle. As you fall asleep in a hard-won clearing you wonder whether the jungle will not have moved in and trapped you by morning. As Ribeiro discovered, in the jungle where he was born or in the urban clearing he made, once you let life loose it can only be lived not controlled.
Ribeiro made many mistakes as there must be many seeds left unfertilized in the endlessly self-reproducing imagination of the jungle. Not least of them was the hubris and hollow self-confidence, like that of all imperial attempts to dominate nature, which becomes intoxicated on the elixir of the fantasy of an eternal era of success. Nothing lasts forever and most things don’t last long. But unlike the animals or vegetation in their lush cycles, human beings deny death, convincing themselves that what they give birth to may be, may just be immortal. The jungle and the longer sweeps of history repeat the only immortal lesson: that life is cyclical and that its cycles depend on nadirs, bottom-points and the relief of periodic dissolution.
Despite its fall Manaus is still there, welcoming people to the Amazon. What consoles us for the pain of human stupidity is what the ecology of the jungle demonstrates by its mixture of life and death, decay and regeneration. Here you tread the evidence of how the worst failures serve as sediment for the new wave of life over which we have no control. This moment of powerlessness in the life-process is the source of the fountain of creation, like the point at land’s end where river becomes waterfall as it drops hundreds of metres to a new channel for it to flow in. (Listen to Beethoven’s last piano sonata to hear this).
Maybe this paradoxical hope in the cycle of life was one of the intolerable voices competing for Ribeira’s attention at the end. Maybe he had, like most of us, moved too far from the jungle to hear its lesson.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)