My mother cooked exactly:
Rice, red haricot beans, potato salad
But she sang
– Adélia Prado
The measure of the average distance between two people. Measuring tapes are not that invasive, still the eye measures, evaluates, it becomes startled, excited. The eyes are only emotional measuring tape, sure, but an exact one nonetheless.
And that’s all there is to it: in Rio de Janeiro the average distance between humans is shorter. And that carries enormous consequences.
When I walk through Rio de Janeiro, I see moving human spots. It’s the only city, even in Brazil, where skin colour truly doesn’t exist. In other cities, when a white man and a black man walk side by side, even in strong and most excellent companionship, I see the black and I see the white. Not in Rio. In Rio, there are spots of people. After a spot of two, a blot of four, another of six, only with great effort will I be able to make out the colours (like an amateur art critic). Out of those spots come – and we realize this only with great effort, almost artificially – a black man, a mixed race man and a white man (for example).
The average distance between two people, then: the smallest in the world.
In Rio de Janeiro humans don’t walk side by side, they walk leaning against each other in a mass of oscillating and uninterrupted movements that question the understanding of individual positions. The feet and head of a carioca are never on the same axis. Bodies, in Rio, are inclined organisms, heads never exactly above feet – always slightly or very or very much to the left or to the right. There aren’t straight lines from head to toe, only curved ones. Joyfully so.
(The body of a carioca does not stand straight, not even when lying down; everything is effusively crooked, slanted, temporary.)
I have never played Battleship with a carioca but surely that game would have different rules here. It’s impossible to think of the ships remaining in the same position: a4, d5, a5, d8. They’d sneak their way into another (at least in the evenings): a foot here, a head there.
In Rio, asking someone to stay put – whether they be a child, a grown man or a woman – takes the form of verbal and physiological violence. Certainly the wise carioca parents don’t teach their children to stay still and be quiet, they instead point them towards certain speeds and intensities of movement. To the left, to the right, up or down – that’s the question.
No quiet man will ever enter the Kingdom of Heaven (if the Kingdom of Heaven is anything like Rio de Janeiro).
Maybe it stems from the earth or the forest or the mountains or the water, but the truth is that in Rio de Janeiro there is an excessive amount of energy in humans, which makes walking very close to dancing and dancing very close to semi-erotic, semi-magical movements able to, at their limit, bend the natural course of the stars (or, at least, the natural direction of another human being).
Given that each human being is charged, like a battery, with an enormous tropical energy, no one goes from A to B, even if they are only one hundred metres apart, in an efficient and straightforward way (as would any wise Nordic or German). No, the carioca leaps and perambulates between A and B; the jigging is the display of a force: I have energy to spare, I do not need to walk in a straight line. This is, in the end, a public bestowal. The city gives, the body returns.
(Of course, Rio is a great city of great contrasts, often perverse and violent, boiling with great tragedies. But let us celebrate, for now, at this moment, its verve.)
Let’s say this, to conclude: joy is ineffective. Or, we might say: there is always a compact layer of sadness in efficiency. Efficiency doesn’t jump.
In the end, what one understands in Rio de Janeiro is that joy is the only coherence of a living being. The human condition that precedes all machines, coeval with the sea, the forest and the mountains.
Amount of rapture per square metre: standard unit of measurement.
Do old cows have sad eyes?
Sadness is the name of God’s punishment
and becoming a saint is to withhold joy.
This I want.
– Adélia Prado
This story was originally published in Portuguese in Público
Photograph courtesy of Kenji Nakamura