Migration, Melancholy and Identity

Paulo C. Chagas – [email protected]
  University of California, Riverside

Then shall I turn my face, and hear one bird sing terribly afar in the lost lands. E. E. Cummings

It seems I have always been moving between different places, countries and cultures. Raised as a nomad in Brazil, the country of my birth, I spent most of my life living outside my home country. I have experienced migration both as loss and suffering, and as opportunity and bliss. I feel at home nowhere and everywhere. The experience of migration has created the awareness within me that one must allow grief to emerge and embrace what is given. In the following, I will examine my own path of serial migration and reflect on the notions of melancholy and identity emerging from this process.

When I was born, my father worked as an agricultural engineer for the “Commission of the São Francisco Valley”, an agency of the Brazilian federal government. The São Francisco is the longest river that runs entirely in Brazilian territory, with a length of 1,811 miles, uniting the Southeast with the Northeast of the country. My father’s job was to locate and develop agricultural colonies in the villages along the river, in the states of Bahia and Minas Gerais. This meant moving our family from one village to another, from Irecê to Santa Maria da Vitória, and on to Paracatu. These were places in which the shaping of raw material influenced thinking with a similar rawness, and framed life with the brutality of social conflicts manipulated by corrupt politicians. Life had to be synchronized with the mythical rhythm of the tropical nature, oscillating between tolerance and invasiveness. One had to learn how to hit the head of the “jararaca”, a very aggressive and poisonous snake that once snuck into our house and hid behind the couch, poised ready to strike. On another occasion, one could climb a ladder to observe the monstrous anaconda (sucuri), the largest snake in the world, when it was captured eating a whole calf and put inside a bathroom to become an object of desire and disgust. We kept unusual pets, such as an odd ostrich and a docile deer, and I would spend long periods of time playing alone, listening to children’s stories and music on colorful vinyl records. My mother never understood how I could recognize the different albums, as they all looked the same.

Before turning five years of age, my father was transferred to Rio de Janeiro to work in the administrative office of the “Commission of the São Francisco Valley”. From the solitude of the countryside, we entered the heart of the city. A different rhythm of life synchronized with tools and machines. I attended a preschool where I learned to read and write in English. I never understood why my parents decided to put me in such a school, as English was not a common language and not one they spoke. Indeed, the early immersion in a foreign language would be of great benefit to me later in life. My mother used to bring me to the pre-school by tram, which were cars open at both sides that people would hang outside of while travelling. A short time after that, they were removed from the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Two years later my father was transferred from Rio to Salvador, Bahia, my birth city. He was made available to the state government and assigned to different agricultural projects. Back in the same city as my relatives—grandparents, uncles and cousins—I developed a bond with my extended family, especially my grandfather, a man of severe manners and conservative values. My father’s job required frequent travels; I had the opportunity to accompany him on many trips through the very large state of Bahia. We traveled by Jeep on unpaved roads and visited very poor and remote locations. The colonial past and legacy of slavery were still quite present: human beings, mostly blacks, lived in miserable conditions, but somehow kept the flame of human dignity shining through the darkness of suffering. I was privileged to get to know a reality beyond the comfortable middle class world in which I was raised.

In March 31, 1964 the armed forces led a coup d’état that installed the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil until 1985. This was a couple of days before we moved from Salvador back to Rio de Janeiro, where we moved into a rented apartment near the beach of Copacabana in a building where most of the residents were military officers and their families. During my high school time in Rio de Janeiro, I developed an intense political activism, participating in protests, demonstrations and actions organized by Marxist movements advocating ideas of socialist revolution and supporting the armed struggle against the dictatorial regime. We lived with strong feelings of revolt and an amazing excitement that was propelled by the cultural changes of the 1960s and its demands for greater individual freedom. The revolt provided unique perspectives for exploring new horizons in the society and a passion for visual arts, cinema, and literature. It sparked a creative potential in my generation that seemed inexhaustible.

The growing opposition to the military dictatorship generated both an increase of repressive measures and a radicalization of the political movement. By this time, I had left my parent’s home and went underground with a fake identity after making the decision to leave Brazil in 1970. I went to live with my uncle, a literature professor who had fled from Brazil in 1964, just after the military coup, and led a life of exile with his family in Paris. Sharing the exile experience with other Brazilians living in France in a sort a ghetto caused the beginning of a crisis of identity. As a 16 year old, I was eager to discover new possibilities, but I was taken by a strong feeling of loss: the anxiety created by the struggles with internal and external forces, the loss of attachment that blurred the light of freedom. I travelled to Algeria, where my uncle had lived before moving to Paris, seeking to reestablish connections with the revolutionary project. In the conversations I had with exiled politicians living in Alger, I could sense how the exile affected their being-in-the-world and their relation to time. Miguel Arraes, a former governor who spent fourteen years in asylum in Algeria explained it this way:

Being in exile is like seeing time pass outside you. Things happen without your participating in them, without your being inside them. So you have to make a tremendous effort to keep yourself on a par with reality through conversation, visiting, reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, et cetera. You need to make an effort to live because, on the contrary, when you’re outside of time you don’t live. (Rollemberg 2007, 84)

Through a great coincidence, I got to know a group of 40 political activists who had just been granted political asylum in Algeria. I met them at the airport when they arrived from Brazil, released from prison in exchange for the German ambassador who had been kidnapped by the urban guerrillas. I spent some time with these men and women of different ages and social origins who shared the suffering in prison—some of them were heavily tortured, others never recovered from their trauma. I could not escape the expression of relief in their eyes as well as the anxiety of loss. This was June 1970 when the world cup of soccer was being televised live for the very first time. We watched the final game together, which is considered one of the greatest moments in the history of soccer. Brazil won 4 to 1 against Italy. There was a contention among us, whether or not to support the Brazilian team, as it was massively misused as propaganda by the military regime. Between the revolutionary logic and the feelings of identity, the latter prevailed. It was such an unbelievably surreal situation!

I could have completed high school in France after abandoning it the 10^th^ grade, but I decided to go back to Brazil in January 1971. It was a period when repression and torture reached their heights and a growing number of activists were arrested. Hundreds of people were killed or disappeared by actions of the military repressive apparatus. I saw the people whom I had some kind of political contact with being arrested and thought it would only be a question of time until they caught me. However, as my involvement had ceased, I didn’t fear severe consequences and decided to not flee the country. Then one day, they came in the morning, pulled me out of the bed and took me to the military police headquarters. I was put inside the “refrigerator”, a small cubicle, acoustically isolated, and completely dark and cold. Various noises and sounds (hauling oscillators, rumbling generators, distorted radio signals, motorcycles, electric saws, etc.) shot from loudspeakers, hidden behind the walls. Incessantly, the electronic sounds filled the dark space and overwhelmed my body for three long days. After a certain time, I lost consciousness. Torture was a common practice and many political prisoners died or were badly injured under its brutality. Facing international pressure, the military regime introduced “clean” torture methods that leave no marks, such as the “refrigerator”, where I was tortured in 1971, as a 17-year-old. It was a frightening and terrifying experience, though not so destructive of human life as other torture techniques. The trauma plunged me into a new sphere of existence. It didn’t destroy my self, but quite possibly robbed me of the nostalgia for innocence from the adolescent feelings of revolt.1

The period in which I was absurdly tortured in the refrigerator coincides with the beginning of my interest in music. In 1972, I moved with my family from Rio de Janeiro to Londrina after my father found a new job in the industry of pesticides and fertilizers. I found myself learning basic music skills and working very hard through a bunch of piano books for beginners. Despite being 19-years-old, I would go daily to the local conservatory to take piano lessons along with much younger children who were only starting to move their fingers. In the following year, I moved to São Paulo to study music composition at the University of São Paulo. Music became a kind of Promised Land, an existential space for new migratory experiences and the struggle to compensate for and rediscover the lost object of revolt. This evolution led me to a progressive distancing from my origins toward new nomadic movements. After graduating at the University of São Paulo, I left Brazil and moved to Liège, Belgium, in January 1980 and to Cologne, Germany, in September 1982. After nearly 24 years living in Europe, I moved to California in November 2004.

Trauma and Freedom

I began to consider living in Germany during my music studies in São Paulo. Although I first moved to Belgium and stayed there for almost three years, I envisioned this as a transitional step to settle down permanently in Germany. The German musical tradition and the avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s resonated with my artistic ambitions, and I felt a great existential affinity with the language, culture, and the ambivalent manifestations of tragedy in modern Germany history. When I arrived in Cologne, I moved into a shared flat [Wohngemeinschaft] with Germans looking for a new architecture for communal life. I did not spare any efforts to learn the language, assimilate habits and cultural values, and integrate myself into the society. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation had a great impact on everyday life of the 1980s. One could also feel the ongoing tension emerging from the need to understand the fascist past, while pursuing a new identity that could integrate the rich cultural legacy that had been usurped by the Nazi project into a society oriented by democratic values. The trauma of World War II was projected on the present like a shadow obscuring the enormous destruction and suffering of the Nazi catastrophe; the violent shock left an unutterable sense of failure, damage and loss.

This existential feeling of loss deeply resonated with my own traumatic experience of migration, the departure and separation from my origin—my homeland—and the struggle to reconstruct my identity in a foreign country whose identity was also being rebuilt.2 A sense of strangeness and alienation tainted the exhilarating wish to fit in the German society. I felt helpless and caught in a struggle for self-preservation. I looked to my own roots and tried to hold on to various elements of my native environment in order to resist. I turned my attention to the music of “Candomblé”, the religion of the Afro-Brazilian descendants of slaves. As a child in Salvador, Bahia I remember hearing the rhythms of drums and the melodies of voices celebrating the African deities in the surrounding temples of Candomble, frequented mostly by the descendants of slaves. The sounds came from far away in the night as a subtle vibration of a mysterious place. They remained in my memory as a mythological symbol of the traumatic experience of the loss of my birthplace and the protective mother. I was especially interested in the ritualistic, transcendental function of Afro-Brazilian cult music and set out to create works in which these elements emerge as a convergence of electronic sounds, audiovisual components and live performance giving birth to an aesthetics of intermedia, which became a focus of my composition.3

The awareness of the migrant condition remained concealed in my unconsciousness for almost 15 years, in which I saw myself oscillating between the trauma of loss and the longing for home. As Leon and Rebeca Grinberg (1989) suggest in their psychoanalytic study of migration and exile, the traumatic experience of migration is not an isolated thing, but a constellation of combined factors that produce anxiety and sorrow. The feeling of loss increases the vulnerability of the self that can lead to depression and melancholy. Grinberg introduced the notion that one’s sense of identity emerges as a continuous interaction among spatial, temporal, and social integration. Spatial integration refers to the interrelations among parts of the self that provide the feeling of “individuation.” Temporal integration connects the different representations of self over time and establishes continuity form one to the next; it lays the groundwork for the feeling of “sameness.” Social integration has to do with relations between aspects of the self and aspects of objects that provide identifications; it helps to create the feeling of “belonging” (1989, 132). As Grinberg suggests, the migration affects all three types of relations as they function simultaneously and mutually interact.

The pivotal experience for reversing the melancholy affecting the relation with space, time and society came through an analytical psychology therapy (1993-95). The analysis awakened the awareness and understanding of what was formerly unconscious— the reality of migration—and helped me to recognize and accept migration as something that could enrich and enliven my life. The piece Migration for MIDI-piano, ensemble and live-electronics, which I composed between 1995-97, can be considered an artistic response to the therapeutic approach. The work reflects on the idea of migration as a positive process of reconstruction and re-organization, while simultaneously encompassing the diversity of genetic, social and cultural heritage. The composition is inspired by the short fiction The Library of Babel (1941) by Borges, which describes a universe consisting entirely of a vast library holding the complete informational content of the past, present, and future (Butler, 2010). I recorded the text in four languages (German, Spanish, English and French) with both a female and a male speaker and developed a multi-layered composition of sound migrations on the basis of digital processing of speech and other materials such as piano and electronic sounds.

The digitally networked and globalized society invites us to reframe the understanding of migration. Digital machines of dialogue communication promote an exchange of information capable of bringing people together to an extent that forces us to reexamine notions such as proximity and distance, presence and absence. The Czech/Brazilian philosopher Vilém Flusser analyses the ambivalent potential of migration—the simultaneity of suffering and bliss of a migrant, refugee, or exile—as a function of a specific technology that defines what we consider a homeland. Flusser (2003) states that we are leaving 10,000 years of Neolithic settledness behind us. We are currently experiencing a troubled transition from the agricultural and industrial society into the still-unmapped regions of postindustrial and posthistorical society. The countless millions of migrants—whether guest workers, exiles, refugees, or intellectuals and professors—should not be considered “as outsiders but as vanguards of the future” (2003, 3). They represent a new kind of freedom that emerges from the collapse of settledness: the freedom of the migrant. The notion of home and homeland can be grasped through the dialectic opposing familiar to unfamiliar. Home is what looks familiar in opposition to the world, which seems like an unfamiliar mystery. We should open ourselves to the unfamiliar, to the noise of the world, by allowing the unfamiliar to be perceived as information. Living without a homeland is a challenging experience, but not necessarily a disturbing one. The loss of the original home, this mysterious place to which we were attached, opens us to a different kind of mystery: the mystery of living together with others and taking responsibility for the people for whom we chose to be responsible.


Chagas, Paulo C. 2014. Unsayable Music: Six Reflections on Musical Semiotics, Electroacoustic and Digital Music. Leuven: University of Leuven Press.

Chagas, Paulo C. 2016. “Revolt and Ambivalence: Music, Torture and Absurdity in the Digital Oratorio The Refrigerator.” In Sound Art – Radio Art – Media Art, edited by Hans-Ulrich Werner and Paulo C. Chagas. Siegen: University Siegen [forthcoming]

Butler, Rex. 2010. Borges’ Short Stories. London; New York: Continuum.

Green, Simmon. 2004. The Politics of Exclusion: Institutions and Immigration Policy in Contemporary Germany. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press.

Flusser, Vilém. 2003. The Freedom of the Migrant. Translated by Kenneth Kronenberg; edited by Anke K. Finger. Urbana; Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Grinberg, Leon and Rebeca Grinberg. 1989. Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Migration and Exile. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rollemberg, Dentse. 2007. “The Brazilian Exile Experience: Remaking Identities.” Translated by Timothy Thompson. Latin American Perspectives 34 (4): 81:105.


1  My experience of torture was the subject of the digital oratorio The Refrigerator [A Geladeira] (2014) for two singers (mezzo-soprano and baritone), instrumental ensemble (violin, viola, cello, piano and percussion), electronic sounds, live-electronics and interactive visual projection. The piece develops a multilayered narrative offering multiple perspectives to observing my personal experience of torture and the reality of torture in general. It was commissioned by the Centro Cultural São Paulo and premiered on April 8, 2014 in an event on the 50th anniversary of the Brazilian military coup of 1964. The video documentation of the performance is available at: https://vimeo.com/97100136; and also at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hk5Oc6oA14. For an analytical account of The Refrigerator see Chagas (2016).

2  The German policy of foreigners was also an obstacle for the integrations of migrants. German’s notion of citizenship goes back to a romantic and almost mystical conception of the German people, or Volk, which designates mainly a community of common blood sharing ethnical and biological roots (Green 2004, 25-49).

3  For an overview of my audiovisual and multimedia works see Chagas (2014, 203-49).