Roberto Freire   Leave a comment

“There’s nothing as contagious as the taste for freedom”, Roberto Freire (1927 – 2008) used to say to explain why he went on to create ‘Soma – an anarchist therapy’[1]. Also, poetically, this sentence from one of his books introduces his unorthodox trajectory: graduated in Medicine, practiced in Endocrinology and Psychiatry, trained in Psychoanalysis, journalism, worked widely in the arts – drama, music, TV and film -, political activist, a best-selling writer with 30 books published in Brazil. In this productive walking through science, art and politics, Soma is a synthesis of Freire’s activism.

          Roberto Freire was part of a generation of Brazilians who dared to live a dream. Together with Paulo Freire, not related, and Augusto Boal, he took part in the  educational and cultural projects which were changing Brazil before the military coup backed by the US in 1964. They were jailed and prosecuted during the dictatorship because their activities were considered subversive for the authoritarian regime. Later, Paulo Freire and Boal’s writings were translated and read all around the world, spreading their ideas about how to raise awareness about social and political justice. Roberto Freire is less well-known, but in some way, they complement each other. If the Theatre of the Oppressed can be seen as one of the most engaging form of mixing art and activism; and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a revolutionary approach to education; Soma works with those who are involved in art, activism and popular education.

            When Roberto Freire created ‘Soma – an anarchist therapy’, in the 1970’s, he was looking for therapeutic methodologies that could help and support people who were involved with the resistance against the dictatorship. He studied the psychological and emotional aspects of being an activist, the contradictions between ideology and practices. Why is so difficult to overcome emotions such as jealousy, envy and fear, which disrupt the collaborative process? Taking part in different kinds of social and cultural movements, Freire realized traditional forms of activism, from political parties to clandestine organisations, have the same limitations of the power structure they want to overcome. And he dug deep, finding virus of authoritarianism not only in the state political system, but in all relationships, family, school, sexual, leisure, moral values, in the minimum rules of behaviour which regulate life in association with other people. Capitalism contaminates everyday activities and private relationships, making it difficult to associate and collaborate, therefore an anarchist therapy like Soma should be like an anti-virus to capitalism.

            Freire created Soma as an open ‘work in progress’ throughout his writings, to present and make public his political views, theoretical approaches and ethical choices. Unfortunately, his main books are not translated into English/French yet. But to know what Soma is about, it’s necessary to get briefly introduced to Freire’s ideas. A blend of science, literature and philosophy, his novels, essays and therapy books all express an anarchist approach mixed with the search for pleasure, beauty and good-humour as the most important things to being an activist.

            His first novel, ‘Cleo and Daniel’ (1966), was a big success among young people and a generation book for many Brazilians who took part in the fight against the authoritarian regime. It tells a story about the rebelliousness effect of love under power relationships and how moral and sexual repression can create despair, fear and madness. Authoritarianism does not just forbid freedom of speech, it also kills the possibility of love. The social and personal are one and the same when he writes about  revolution.

            “Why are those who want to change society unable to comprehend the nature of this society? Because they want to make omelettes without breaking the eggs, that is to change society without changing themselves.”[3] (RF) 

            Like lots of people in Brazil, I came across Soma by reading Freire’s books and got hooked by his writings. My favourite book is ‘Utopia e Paixão – A politica do cotidiano’, (Utopia and Passion – The politic of everyday life), published in Brazil in 1984, wrote by Roberto Freire and Fausto Brito. The book was born from hours of conversation between the two authors. Freire, temporally blind as consequence of tortures suffered during the dictatorship, spent most of his time in hospital talking to Brito. Looking for reflections about their hopes, “there’s light even in the darkness”, they wrote a poetical invitation to bring passion into politic and utopia into everyday life, challenging hierarchical relationships at the personal level, of love, family, school, friendship. Almost at the end of the military regime, there they were two militants in crisis with their activism: they had struggled to not die; and now, almost survivors, they had to find a new way of living! And to live is more than just to survive, because “love, not life, is the opposite of death!” (RF). When we are completely safe, there’s no risk, no change, no movement!

            “Risk is synonymous with freedom. Power is established in the search for security. A person who likes risk and adventures has to accept insecurity, because she has her own utopia, she lives for satisfying, at any cost, her need for pleasure. The highest form of security is slavery. Being slaves, we are someone’s property, we do not run any risk so long as we obey the fundamental rules of slavery: to not be free, to not have a choice”[4] (RF)

            His other books went on to deeper this search for freedom and love in social and personal life, keeping a confessional tune where readers could follow his struggles, contradictions and discoveries. ‘Sem tesão não ha solução’ – Without tesão there’s no solution – created a big polemic in the late 1980’s, with some newspapers refusing to write the word tesão in their reviews about the book. In the dictionaries, tesão was defined as being sexual excited. But Freire captured the semantic transformations of this word, linking them to the 60’s spirit of rebelliousness and love, when young people started to use tesão to describe something or someone that brings out the experience of beauty, cheerfulness and pleasure. These three elements are, either together or alone, parts of Roberto Freire’s proposition for the meanings of the word tesão in Brazil.

            “At its current use, the word tesão seems to have made everything sensual. Sensuality is the biggest honesty, what really matters, it’s the most clear and intense, the most sincere and real sensation of being alive.”[5] (RF)

              Following on defining his approach to tesão as a politic for everyday life, ideologies could be split in two, one linked with pleasure and other with sacrifice. Freire wrote that you can find sacrifice ideology in many different doctrines: Christianity is based in the idea of hope in the heaven, even if life isn’t good down here; Marxism asks us to support proletarian dictatorship before the communist paradise; Psychoanalysis does the same talking about repressing our biological instincts to allow life in society.

              Our life is full of the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ we learnt somewhere in the world – family, at school, religious traditions, etc. And these worlds, of course, are also full of them, setting moral and social rules, control based in behaviour patterns. Sometimes, we must ignore our thoughts to be able to listen to ourselves because they are just reproductions of ideas that are not ours. We need to take the risk of being ourselves.

             How many ‘selves’ are there in what one calls ‘oneself’? We can clearly recognise different, and sometimes paradoxical, messages when we come across a decision to be made. We’ve got various ideas about what should or shouldn’t be done; feelings and emotions, mood at the moment; the consequences of our actions, how it will affect other people’s life; what we think are other peoples’ opinions. How can we know what’s nature and what’s culture, what’s coming from our ‘real’ self and what’s regulated by social conventions?

            Most of the time, we know, these kind of messages come from either past experiences or future expectations/projections. We are not looking at or perceiving the present, but somehow disfranchised from it, even if we appear to be concerned with here and now. We can experience these thoughts and emotions when we are coming against a challenge, facing a life change choice, or just playing a game.

           Drawing on Max Stirner’s anarchist ideas, Freire developed his own theory about a biological pleasure principle that should be an internal compass to guide our decision making. We would need to re-learn how to perceive our feeling and emotions, doing things because they bring us satisfaction, pleasure, fulfilment; otherwise, if we do things sacrificing our pleasure, we expect other people to do the same, and will feel upset and frustrated when they don’t. The ideology of pleasure is Freire’s anarchism against the ideology of sacrifice of capitalism.

            “Declaration of an anarchist lover: Because I love you, you don’t need me. Because you love me, I don’t need you. In love we never let ourselves be completed by the other. We are deliciously unnecessary to each other”[6] (RF)

             He lived with intensity. Freire liked to be called Bigode (moustache), his nickname, even among participants of his therapy groups. He loved being informal, going out, enjoying life, crossing boundaries of traditional relationships with a sometimes disturbing radical honesty. He used to define himself as a militant of pleasure, someone not ashamed to show his emotions and feelings even when they were against social rules.

             “I only talked about love in all my life, in all the books I wrote, but I haven’t got any explanation to it. With love you can just do a necropsy, never biopsy. If I examine it, I stop loving. Love is not to be understood, but felt, experienced.”[7] RF       

              Roberto Freire created Soma dreaming to spread out personal and social change like an infection: once you’ve got that taste of freedom on your body, you won’t be satisfied with less. I worked with him for almost 20 years and shared a beautiful collaborative friendship. In his last years, I was already living abroad, but got in touch frequently with him telling about my experiments with Soma, and how it still leaves indelible pleasure experiences of utopia and passion. Doing Soma is not just to keep alive Freire’s work, but his desire to see more and more people infected with tesão.   


[1]               Freire, R. (1988). Soma – uma terapia anarquista – volume 1 – A alma é o corpo.  Rio de Janeiro: Editora Guanabara. Freire, R. (1991). Soma – uma terapia anarquista – volume 2 – A arma é o corpo – Prática da Soma e Capoeira.  Rio de Janeiro: Editora Guanabara.

[3]               Freire, R. (1984). Utopia e Paixão – A politica do cotidiano. Rio de Janeiro: Ed Guanabara.

[4]               idem

[5]               Freire, R. (1987).  Sem tesão não há solução. Rio de Janeiro: Ed Guanabara.

[6]               Freire, R. (1990). Ame e dê vexame. Rio de Janeiro: Ed Guanabara.

[7]               Interview with Roberto Freire by Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo (2003) – http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/folha/ilustrada/ult90u30634.shtml

Posted February 7, 2011 by somaanarchist

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