Machado de Assis
Arguing the Absurd
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is in the cynical tradition of Maupassant, a near contemporary, with Machado de Assis eleven years his senior. But where the great French writer always seemed wise to the ways of the bourgeoisie, Machado de Assis is willing to play up an irrational streak stronger than Maupassant's whilst also retaining that shrewd exploration of middle and upper-middle-class mores. Though best known for Epitaph of a Small Winner, he was also a conspicuously significant short story writer. He wrote more than two hundred of them, and according to translators Jack Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu, in an afterward to The Devil's Church and Other Stories, "no other writer in Brazil achieved his technical mastery of the story form before 1930." He is alongside Jorge Amado and Clarice Lispector one of the three best, best known or best-loved Brazilian writers, but what makes him important is the combination of assertiveness in his approach with the acknowledgement of reason's limits.
From this perspective, one of his most significant stories is the lengthy 'The Psychiatrist'. Here a man of science opens an asylum. By the end of the story insists that he is the only mad person he knows and, after locking up numerous people over the years, feels that he alone should occupy the madhouse. Others stories are notable too, however. In 'The Devil's Church', the devil wonders why he shouldn't have his own church and meet the Godly head-on: "scripture against scripture, breviary against breviary. I'll have my own mass, with wine and bread galore..." In 'Final Chapter' a man announces he is going to commit suicide and explains how he was one of the unluckiest of men. His first great love left him after he lent the other man five hundred dollars which he used to marry the woman. Eventually, he gets married, but the child is still-born, and later the wife dies. A colleague tells him it is probably best that the baby didn't live: he might have had his father's bad luck. Yet before killing himself our narrator announces his will. Eating breakfast that very morning he saw a man whom he knew, someone always at the mercy of reversals of fortune, who nevertheless was walking along the street in a new pair of shoes, looking happy with the purchase, and thus the will is born: he wants his money to be spent on distributing boots to people. Of course he could instead stay alive and spend the money on himself, but then it wouldn't be an act of good fortune; where if others find themselves with a pair of boots that would be. By killing himself and leaving a will the narrator manages to bring some contingent happiness into people's lives that he wasn't fortunate enough to receive.
What do these three stories tell us about Machado de Assis? They suggest the absurd of course, a 20th century problematic exemplified in Kafka, Camus and Beckett, yet one commonly enough to be found in the 19th. It is apparent in Gogol, and Dostoevsky, for example, but in Machado de Assis it is accompanied by a lucid consciousness and a logical rigour that suggests a different tradition: hence the reference to Maupassant. When the psychiatrist, the devil and the unlucky man offer their reasons, we do feel it is reason: it is part of a rational approach to the world, however absurd we find it. This is not like the Dostoevskian character who can say in The Gambler to the woman he loves: "It is dangerous for you to walk alone with me: many times I have felt an irresistible longing to beat you with my fists, disfigure you, strangle you...My love is hopeless, and I know that afterwards I should love you a thousand times more." Machado de Assis's characters are generally more stable than this, and none more so than the 'Psychiatrist's central character Bacamarte. Here is someone who chooses his wife with immense medical logic. When a forthright uncle suggests he could have picked a more attractive woman, the doctor replies that his fiancee enjoys perfect digestion, possesses excellent eyesight, has normal blood pressure and no serious illness. He gives her a clean bill of health and marries her. They fail to produce kids, but this isn't the fault of science; more the failure of his wife's will power. He reads up on all the works of sterility and recommends a special diet. But his wife is having none of it, and continues eating succulent Itaguai pork, while the doctor devotes his time to still further rational study before opening a psychiatric hospital.
The hospital becomes increasingly occupied, and the psychiatrist increasingly powerful, until one day the people in the town rebel, and, after various twists and turns in this long tale, the psychiatrist accepts that he is the only person properly mad. He possesses no vices, no defects: he instead had wisdom, patience, tolerance and loyalty, and others say that the reason he will not acknowledge that he is a flawless man is because he has the additional quality of modesty. This clearly marks him out as an insane human being - or certainly a singularly exceptional one - and so surely it makes more sense that he ends up in the mad house instead of everybody else who, lacking these qualities and numerous others, had been locked up by Bacamarte. If one can't keep everybody in the madhouse for their flaws, since the flaws represent the popular norm, then the most appropriate means of action is to lock up the brilliant, honest and loyal psychiatrist who is the exception.
A number of Machado de Assis stories push the logical into the absurd as they do star twith a certain type of reason that is then called into question. In both 'The Devil's Church' and 'Adam and Eve', the writer takes a couple of religious assumptions and turns them inside out. In 'The Devil's Church' we see that it concerns the Devil not allowing God to have all the best tunes, and to show weak argumentation for what it is. "To finish off his work, the Devil believed it would be appropriate to destroy all human solidarity, seeing that the concept of love for one's fellow man was a serious obstacle to his new institution. He showed that this concept was the simple invention of parasites and insolvent businessmen..." In 'Adam and Eve', over dinner, a judge tells the other guests that it wasn't God who started the world but actually Satan. "It was the Evil One who created the world, but God, who could read his thoughts, allowed him to act freely but took care to emend and polish his work, so that salvation or charity would not be left vulnerable to the forces of evil." So just as Satan created darkness, God created light; just as the devil creates plants, full of thorns and bearing no fruit or flowers, so God intervened and created fruit bearing ones. The judge then continues to tell the story of Adam and Eve, with Eve tempted by the snake who promises that she will be part of a great and wondrous history: "You fool! How can you resist the splendour of the ages? Listen to me, do as I say, you'll be legion, you'll found cities, and your name will be Cleopatra, Dido, Semiramis. Heroes will be born of your womb and you'll be Cornelia." Instead of succumbing to the temptations of future history, Eve and Adam plump for Paradise as God whisks them off to heaven, leaving the earth to Satan and egotism, to evil and what would become civilization.
In both these stories, in 'The Devil's Church' and 'Adam and Eve', Machado de Assis offers a variation of Milan Kundera's notion, the novelistic idea. "There is a fundamental difference between the ways philosophers and novelists think. People talk about Chekhov's philosophy, or Kafka's or Musil's and so on. But just try and draw a coherent philosophy out of these writings! Even when they express their ideas directly, in their notebooks, the ideas are intellectual exercises, paradox games, improvisations, rather than statements of thought." (The Art of the Novel) We don't go to Machado de Assis's work for its philosophy, as we go to Kant, Hegel or even Nietzsche, but for the dramatic quality of its conceit, a conceit that contains thought but doesn't quite foreground it. Near the end of 'Adam and Eve', the narrator says that the guests felt that "instead of an explanation they had heard a puzzling narration," and this happens to be a good summary of what we expect from novelistic thinking. When Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment sets up the problem of guilt and responsibility through Raskolnikov's idea that he can follow through on a crime without moral consequence, when Proust wonders what jealousy happens to be in The Captive, or even when Kundera utilises Nietzsche's eternal return to explore Tomas's life in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, these are novelistic notions, ideas held together less by argumentative thrust, than by dramatic focus.
Obviously there are philosophical texts that hint at the narrational: the dialogues of Plato, the two voices present in Kierkegaard's Either/Or, and Nietzsche's use of the prophet's voice in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Yet the fiction writer is less inclined to use a device to explore a philosophy, than to use ideas to investigate a situation. 'Adam and Eve'is contained by the framing narrative of friends eating dinner. Yet this isn't any old dinner; it is one set during the 1700s and takes place in the house of a plantation owner. Eduardo Galeano describes the lead up to this period succinctly in Open Veins of Latin America. "Brazil...became the world's largest sugar producer and remained so until the middle of the seventeenth century. Portugal's Latin American colony was also the chief market for slaves; native workers, always scarce, were rapidly killed off by the forced labour, and sugar needed thousands of hands to clear and prepare the ground..." In The Devil's Church and Other Stories, 'Adam and Eve' comes immediately after 'Evolution'. In 'Evolution' the narrator meets and befriends Benedito, and finds in him a wilful figure determined that Brazil should progress, a man who would say that "principles are everything and men are nothing. People are not made for governments, governments are made for people." Later the narrator sees that for Benedito slogans are finally more important than what lies behind them, and notes "many of these slogans were from British parliamentary traditions, and he preferred these over others, as if they brought with them a bit of the House of Commons." Benedito also reckons that "Brazil is still crawling - it will only begin to walk when it has many railroads." The story ends with the narrator horrified by the pragmatic nature of Benedito's thinking, aware that for Benedito progress is all; what is sacrificed to it irrelevant. At the same time the narrator notes the irony of him sitting listening to Benedito talking about ruthless progress due to progress itself. Didn't they meet thanks to a railway journey, even if they met getting the stagecoach into town? The story concludes invoking Spencer, one of the 19th century's most vocal proponents of evolution and laissez-faire economics.
Yet in each instance, in 'Adam and Eve' and 'Evolution', Machado de Assis has no philosophical point to make; more a narrative illustrating the limits of social progress. It has often been claimed that Machado de Assis was an ambiguous writer. In a Guardian piece, Chris Power quotes Schmitt and Ishimatsu saying this ambiguity was "in part, the result of his subjective, relativistic worldview, in which truth and reality, which are never absolutes, can only be approximated; no character relationships are stable, no issues are clear-cut, and the nature of everything is tenuous." However, a writer can of course nevertheless narratively assert, make clear at the very least that certain values and beliefs are untenable within the story told. From biblical fables to fairy tales, narrative has often contained within it a strong message, and while a great deal of modern writing has eschewed the prescriptive for the descriptive, nevertheless this doesn't mean that the story can be taken any way at all; more that it can be taken certain ways and not others. Where the fable and fairy tale have a clear meaning, and are often told as a moral lesson so well encapsulated that the moral can be extracted without being stated, the modern short story works more 'extractively': we can say what it isn't saying rather than what it is. Thus the ambiguous isn't open-ended; it is just that the meaning is far from categorical. Machado de Assis is modern in this sense.
For example, if we were to say that 'Evolution' is about the inevitability of progress thanks to figures like Benedito, or that it was a wonderful idea that God whisked Adam and Eve to Heaven so that mankind could get on with making history through great and heroic figures, we would be misreading the stories. But to say that Latin America should be left as a primitive paradise isn't exactly what the writer is saying either. Yet this doesn't make each interpretation equal. The first would be a mis-reading, the second would be a hasty one. A writer's use of ambiguity is often offered not for the purposes of shoulder-shrugging indeterminacy, but to look into the texture of a situation: to slow the reader down in the process of comprehending the problem.
To explore this further, let us leave behind 'Evolution' and 'Adam and Eve' and think about a passage from 'The Bonze's Secret'. Here the narrator and his friend, Diogo Meireles, a practising physician, are travelling in the kingdom of Bungo in 1552. They hear of a man possessed of great learning, who will open his heart and mind only to those who will adhere to his beliefs. The man is a hundred and eight years old and tells them that virtue and knowledge have two parallel lives: "first, in the person who possesses these qualities and, second, in the person who observes them." The man adds: "If you place the most sublime virtues and profound knowledge in an individual who lives in a remote place, isolated from all contact with his fellow men, it would be as if he had no virtues or knowledge. If no one tastes it, an orange has no more value than heather or weeds, and if no one sees the orange, it is worthless. Stated another way, there is no spectacle without a spectator." The story plays out this wisdom by showing Meireles trying to tackle a strange disease where the victim's nose has puffed up, covering half their face. "The physicians of the country proposed removing the swollen noses to relieve and cure the sick, but no one was willing to lend himself to this remedy, preferring excess to absence and considering removal the worst possible solution." Meireles believes though that the removal causes no danger to the patient and they would look no uglier without a nose than with a monstrosity in the centre of their face. But how to persuade people? By replacing the deformed nose with what he calls a "metaphysical" conk. They might not have a nose but they will at least believe they possess one. He suggests this option to various educated members of the community and though shocked they agree: after all since man is only the product of transcendental idealism, a metaphysical nose will work just as well as any other kind. So Meireles begins his operations. "After skilfully removing a patient's nose, he would carefully dip his fingers into a box of metaphysical noses, take one out, and apply it to the empty spot." Everyone was happy. "The best proof of the doctrine and the success of Diogo Meireles's experiment is the fact that those who had their noses cut off continued to use their handkerchiefs to blow them." The narrator then concludes the story by saying "I have related this tale in its entirety so that I might do honour to the bonze and serve the interests of mankind."
This is novelistic idea as playful conceit, pushing into the impossible all the better to register a Kantian notion that there is a general structure to the world, but that we can only see it through the nature of our perception. We have no other access to this world but through our own phenomenal perspective on the world. This can be argued for or against philosophically, but it must remain at all times a rational explanation. Machado de Assis offers it as an irrational one, taking from Kant's transcendental idealism the problem of knowing an object without perceiving it, and giving it a metaphysical spin that takes it into the fantastic. Physicians are usually seen to be men of medical science; yet we all know that they are also on occasion figures of quiet metaphysical persuasion: whether a doctor is admired for their bedside manner or for doling out placebos (up to 97% do so according to one survey by Oxford and Southampton University), medical science sometimes has little to do with the job description. Taking Kant on the one hand and the notion of doctorly coercion on the other, Machado de Assis arrives at a tale that pushes the notion into the irrational but with the idea clearly expressed.
Yet this doesn't mean there is no room for the ambiguous. If we were to say that the story is about the stupidity of people who think they have real noses when they have none at all, this would be a misreading, but if someone were to insist that noses, like all other parts of our body, are only a figment of others' imaginations, that would be erroneous too. What it seems to explore is the question of transcendental idealism (an idea that many philosophers after Kant, including Hegel and Schopenhauer disagreed with), tweaked and pushed further: pushed into the absurdly unlikely but the narratively containable. The story makes sense, but it is a sense made out of the story. It doesn't ask to be a comment on the world; more an idea concerning it. This is often how the novelistic notion works. As Kundera says, Dostoevsky might be a completely affirmative thinker in Diary of a Writer, "but that is not where we find his best ideas. He is a great thinker only as a novelist." Obviously, there have been other philosopher/dramatists, including Diderot, Voltaire, Unamuno, Camus and Sartre, but for Kundera a thought in a novel loses it dogmatic coordinates and becomes a hypothetical reflection, something he believes most philosophers writing fiction miss. It is something however that Machado de Assis clearly understands, as the hypothetical leads to the fantastic, and the marvellous idea of a metaphysical nose.
The writer's own life might almost pass for the sociologically absurd, and Chris Power all but implies this when saying "that someone of his background should become Brazil's greatest writer is, as one critic has noted, as if Tolstoy, rather than inheriting Yasnaya Polyana, had been born a serf." Let us put aside hints of class assumption that suggests great minds ought to come from great genealogies, and accept the difficulty of a mind, any mind, given the wherewithal to produce literature. Machado de Assis was born the son of a mulatto housepainter in 1839, Rio de Janeiro. His mother was white, and died in his early childhood, but his stepmother worked as a cook in a girls' school and it is supposed Machado de Assis listened in on the classes. He also learnt French through a neighbouring French baker. Determined to become a writer from a young age, Machado de Assis sought literary environments, working as typesetter and proofreader, and met people who were writers themselves. All this can be gleaned from various sources, but can be found in William L. Grossman's introduction to Epitaph of a Small Winner. Here we have the accident of birth meeting the assertion of will, and surely only the most blinded can believe that assertion is enough; who can believe that there is such a thing as the self-made man? Whether it happened to be the baker neighbour or the stepmother cooking in a girl's school, these are the accidents of life a keen mind and ambitious person can seize upon, but they are contingent nevertheless. Even the great shift in the writer's work that Grossman, Power and others see comes from the misfortune of ill health. "Much of Machado's fiction prior to 1879", Grossman says, "was in the popular romantic tradition. In that year his health, never robust, broke down so severely that he was forced to spend some months in a health resort. There he appears to have determined to free himself from literary convention alien to his personality, and this lead for example to Epitaph of a Small Winner and the long story/novella 'The Psychiatrist'". Again an accident of life aligns itself to the specifics of one's will. To ignore the former and give credit to the latter is to offer the egoistic over the realistic, the unlikely over the healthily pragmatic.
Epitaph of a Small Winner is full of pithy remarks acknowledging this fact, a first person novel focusing on the philosophical hedonist Braz Cubas. Cubas's procrastination allows for many a useful insight that keys into an irrational perspective contained by a shrewd outlook, all the better expressed through the metaphysical absurdity of a book narrated from beyond the grave. "We kill time; time buries us." "Do not feel badly if your kindness is rewarded with ingratitude; it is better to fall from your dream clouds than from a third-storey window." "God deliver you, dear reader, from a fixed idea; better a mote in your eye, better even a beam." The first chapter is called The Death of the Author, almost a century before Roland Barthes' famous essay of that name, as Machado de Assis offers it not as a provocation towards the flexibility in reading a text, but in announcing that the book in our hand has been written by a dead man. "I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who had died and is now writing." This is a paradoxical chiasmus, a wonderfully well-worded proclamation of metaphysical impossibility all the better to convince the reader of the narrator's viewpoint. Just because he defies reason, that doesn't mean Machado de Assis won't apply it all the more forcefully once the conceit has been established. "I am beginning to be sorry that I ever undertook to write this book", he says halfway through." "Not that it bores me; I have nothing else to do; indeed, it is a welcome distraction from eternity." He isn't afraid of the irrational but he is constantly aware of the rationale behind it.
When in one chapter in Epitaph of a Smaller Winner the narrator discusses the tip of the nose, he does so again through the rational within the absurd. Here he follows Dr Pangloss's notion in Candide that noses were created to support spectacles, and then disputes this claim with one of his own: that, following the fakirs, he reckons the nose is there so that we can look at the tip of our nose until we eventually see the light. He then expands this into an anecdote about competition, suggesting that we often look at the end of our noses when we have bettered another, and regards this as a much more useful explanation than the fakirs: after all, how could civilization develop if were merely contemplating our noses for divine wisdom. No, we do it when we feel we're better than the other chap. "The conclusion, therefore, is that there are two major forces in society: love, which multiplies the species, and the nose, which subordinates it to the individual. Procreation, equilibrium."
This is a properly novelistic idea, and wouldn't be entirely out of place in a Kundera novel. But where Kundera's ideas are frequently provocative, they are rarely irrational. He pushes forward ideas that make sense from a certain perspective. They might not be universal, but they are not absurd or impossible. When in The Unbearable lightness of Being Kundera says "people usually escape from their troubles into the future; they draw an imaginary line across the path of time, a line beyond which their current troubles will cease to exist", he then talks of his character Tereza not doing so. "Tereza saw no such line in her future. Only looking back could bring her consolation." Here Kundera is not offering us anything irrational, but he is offering up a generalisation, and then exempting his character from it all the better to comprehend the singularity of her feelings. The novelistic thought for the Czech author rests on singularities more than categories, and Kundera says "there would be nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable, than the present moment." How to capture the single moment in a singular existence, Kundera asks, and the novelistic idea helps to find it. But Machado de Assis looks instead for the novelistic idea that hyperbolises and exaggerates existence, and knows that to generalise from the particular leads to reductio ad absurdum. Whether it happens to be the sane man who must be locked up, Adam and Eve disappearing from the world to allow history to develop, the devil creating the world or setting up a church to compete with God, these are not arguments to be believed, but impossible ideas, ideas finding their natural home in a fictional universe that always expects us to suspend disbelief, but that Machado de Assis expects us to suspend further than most. Chris Power and Machado de Assis's translators might see a man given to ambiguity, but we can just as easily see a writer given to logical certainty, but within a world where such reasoning faculties are brilliantly argued for from a deliberately untenable position.
© Tony McKibbin