Machado de Assis, The Alienist

The AlienistThe Alienist by Machado de Assis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We could learn a lot, both about life and literature, from this 1882 novella by the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Machado is only now becoming prominent in the Anglophone world with Liveright’s publication last year of his collected short stories (in which another translation of The Alienist appears; I read the 1963 version by William L. Grossmann—the first in English—as reprinted by Melville House). We are currently more aware both of his significance for Latin American letters and of the praise he has already received from English-language authors.

Philip Roth hailed him as a “tragic comedian,” Susan Sontag commended him as “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America,” and Harold Bloom called him “the supreme black literary artist to date.” If we hesitate at Sontag’s import/export terminology or at Bloom’s perhaps presumptuous arbitration of black aesthetics, Roth’s judgment is nevertheless precise. Morten Høi Jensen, reviewing the Collected Stories, has this to say about The Alienist:

“The Alienist,” one of his best (and longest) stories, is a darkly comic parable of bureaucracy, madness, and power equal parts Kafka and Monty Python. I laughed out loud several times as I read it but found, upon reaching its conclusion, that what I had initially experienced as comic had become tragic. It is as if Don Quixote had been condensed to a 50-page novella.

Though Machado is credited with bringing literary realism to Brazil, I was reminded for my part of Voltaire by the novella’s slapstick briskness of narration and arch appraisal of human delusion; Jensen’s evocations of Cervantes and Kafka, however, catch the pre- and post-Enlightenment undertone of despair over human incorrigibility that sounds at The Alienist‘s close.

At 80-some pages, The Alienist is a little epic of revolution and counter-revolution, a little tragedy of one man’s fall from overweening ambition to final self-defeat, and a grand satire, eventually on everyone and everything. The story begins when the brilliant, European-educated physician, the eponymous psychologist Simão Barcamarte, decides, at the age of 34, to return to his provincial Brazilian home town of Itaguaí.

There, and with the support of a local government grateful for his modernization effort, he opens the region’s first asylum and, driven by pure scientific curiosity, determines to find the causes of and discover the treatments for mental illness. A rationalist, he marries a vain woman he hardly cares for because he deems her physiology (blood pressure, eyesight, etc.) promising for his progeny and claims that her charmlessness will leave him undistracted from his scientific work.

But Barcamarte (whose name translates as “Blunderbuss”) finds that more and more of his neighbors can be defined as mad; consequently, he confines more and more of them to his asylum, the Green House, so called because of its uniquely-colored windows. While Barcamarte begins with actually debilitating delusions, he comes to regard every human foible, from poetic fancy to vanity in fashion, as a symptom of mental illness and eventually has four-fifths of the population committed, including his own wife. He says:

“Till now, madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of sanity. I am beginning to suspect that is not an island at all but a continent.”

This incarceration of the populace provokes a revolution led by the barber Porfírio; but the new government, once installed, decides to work with Barcamarte instead of fighting him, and the previous government is restored in the end. This satire on populism, revolution, and governmental inertia suggests Machado’s political cynicism: while Porfírio, pleased with his own grandiose phraseology, proposes storming the “Bastille of human reason,” other fine phrases find their own constituencies, and revolution inevitably comes full circle.

Barcamarte relents not from outside pressure but when he he begins to question his own premises: if four-fifths of people are unbalanced, then how can mental illness be considered a deviation from the norm? Perhaps the norm is psychological imbalance, he concludes, and only the well-adjusted and rational belong in the Green House. He puts this theory into practice, releasing his prior patients and now locking up only those who exhibit unusual sense and rectitude. When he finds that the latter are only too easy to corrupt into irrationality, he frees them too. If folly is universal, what is madness and who is the madman? The story comes to its conclusion with the elegance of a logical proof and the fatedness of a tragedy:

Simão Barcamarte…had found in himself the perfect, undeniable case of insanity. He possessed wisdom, patience, tolerance, truthfulness, loyalty, and moral fortitude—all qualities that go to make an utter madman.

Why do I say we have much to learn about life and literature from this little book?

First, life. Today we encounter an almost unprecedented faith in the medical model of the psyche. Individuals accept, and institutions increasingly not only accommodate but demand, fundamental identification based on labels devised by physicians. That these labels are themselves often tropes, names for lists of symptoms, and that their sometimes pharmacological treatments might conduce more to the profits of corporations than people—these are observations I almost hesitate to type, so concealed are they behind a moralized rhetoric of “help” and “care.”

And while I certainly don’t mean to belittle the necessity of medical intervention for certain mental problems, I find The Alienist prophetic, especially as it was written before even the advent of psychoanalysis. Anticipating 20th-century enemies of totalizing psychology from Woolf and Nabokov to Pynchon and Foucault, Machado satirizes the arbitrariness and authoritarianism of psychological classification and queries the motives, even the sanity itself, of those who would presume to sit in judgment on human reason. In so doing, he speaks to the 21st century.

But Barcamarte is not just the butt of Machado’s joke—and here we find our literary lesson. In one passage, the narrator—who, in Cervantes’s metafictional style, claims to be summarizing a historical chronicle—contrasts Barcamarte with his assistant, the pharmacist Crispim Soares:

Crispim Soares stared at the road, between the ears of his roan. Simão Barcamarte swept the horizon with his eyes, surveyed the distant mountains, and let his horse find the way home. Perfect symbols of the common man and of the genius! One fixes his gaze upon the present with all its tears and privations; the other looks beyond to the glorious dawns of a future that he himself will shape.

The humorous tone of the above notwithstanding, Barcamarte really is a genius. The proof comes when he has enough integrity to subject himself to his own theory. His true universality of perception allies him to his author, whose metafictional irony ensures that he satirizes himself and his discourse (i.e., fiction) as well as his subjects.

Both Machado and Barcamarte are disinterested. This word is now lazily used as a synonym for boredom, but it properly denotes the ideal impartiality of the scientist and the artist. Like every other ideal, it is not humanly achievable, but neither is it to be abandoned. Its mark in this text is the narrator’s dispassionate storytelling, a quality of withholding and understatement that allows the reader to feel the tragic finale to this ironic tale more than any authorial emoting would have.

As Namwali Serpell notes in her polemic on “The Banality of Empathy,” we may need less sentimentality in our fiction and more of the cognitive capacity to recreate viewpoints and attitudes, all the better to perceive both their potentials and their limitations. Here, too, Machado shows the way.