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, 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, 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.


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Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

The Country of the Pointed FirsThe Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One recurring theme of my reviews is that classic literary works often defy or exceed their traditional historical categorizations. The -isms of literary history are a necessary organizing system: they help us to locate books in time and context and to recognize common points of artistic and thematic emphasis in distinct eras. Without some generalizations, we can’t think at all; on the other hand, we can’t let generalizations do all our thinking for us. Since one purpose of art is to surprise and enliven, the best works are often those that cannot so easily be herded into their appointed places by the literary historian.

The Country of the Pointed Firs, a novella of 1896, is a good example of how works are often doing something other than their historical designation, their customary -ism, would suggest. Anyone who has heard of Sarah Orne Jewett at all has heard that she belongs to the broad category of “realism,” and is usually relegated to the subcategory of “regionalism.”

Her most famous work, The Country of the Pointed Firs, does bear out these labels. Narrated by a vacationing writer from the city, the novella is set during one summer in a small fishing village in coastal Maine. Our narrator carefully records the manners and mores of the villagers, as well as the landscape, seascape, and flora of the country. Jewett’s concern for the lives of ordinary people, her precision in description, and her verisimilitude in dialogue all make this a work that exemplifies both realism’s rejection of Romantic flights of fancy and regionalism’s interest in often vanishing ways of life far from the economic and urban centers of American society after the Civil War.

Toward the novella’s conclusion, the narrator is on her way back from a family reunion and comments, “The road was new to me, as roads always are, going back.” A wistful newness disclosed by retrospection is the novel’s emotional keynote. The narrator, about whom and about whose metropolitan life we learn little, spends most of her time in the village with its elderly citizens. She lives with an old herbalist named Mrs. Todd, whose eccentricities furnish much of the novella’s gentle comedy, but she also spends time with old sea-captains and fishermen.

In an early comic-Gothic episode, the possibly senile Captain Littleplace tells her a story of an Arctic expedition so haunted and mysterious that I thought the pointed firs were about to give way to the mountains of madness when the sailors encounter “blowing gray figures that would pass along alone, or sometimes gathered in companies as if they were watching.” A much later episode shows her visiting the elderly widower, Mr. Tilley, whose fastidiousness and grief help draw the plotless narrative to its emotional climax: “‘I can’t git over losin’ of her no way nor no how. Yes, ma’am, that’s just how it seems to me.'” She also hears, at the center of the book, the tale of “poor Joanna,” a woman of an earlier generation, who, spurned in love, retreated to a remote island and lived in seclusion for most of her life.

Though Jewett’s tone is superficially light at first, almost like that of the literature of tourism, the narrator comes not to condescend to but to sympathize with these old villagers: the intensity in love and labor of their vanished time, their deep knowledge of land and sea, their seafaring cosmopolitanism to rival the metropole’s as their travels bring them objects and ideas from far away, and their connection to sources of meaning and value that urbanites never experience. The narrator is impressed by the camaraderie and affection that exists even among inhabitants of various coastal islands:

[O]ne revelation after another was made of the constant interest and intercourse that had linked the far island and these scattered farms into a golden chain of love and dependence.

But the gradual disappearance of this community, and the sense that a larger set of human values is evanescing along with it, accounts for the novella’s gathering tone of elegy. The narrator hints, again and again, that this seaside village and its inhabitants, while quaint, also open onto lonely eternities:

There was a patient look on the old man’s face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.

Jewett’s desire to honor this vanishing culture takes her beyond realism. The narrator at regular intervals deploys a literary technique that we associate not with realism but with modernism: what T. S. Eliot, explicating Ulysses, called “the mythic method.” Jewett orders her present-day subject matter by correlating it with ancient precedents. We may at first find Mrs. Todd a charming and humorous old lady, but the chapter where we first meet her ends this way:

She stood in the centre of a braided rug, and its rings of black and gray seemed to circle about her feet in the dim light. Her height and massiveness in the low room gave her the look of a huge sibyl, while the strange fragrance of the mysterious herb blew in from the little garden.

Likewise, later on, after Mrs. Todd tells the narrator about her unrequited love while they are on an herb-gathering expedition, the narrator observes:

She looked away from me, and presently rose and went on by herself. There was something lonely and solitary about her great determined shape. She might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain. It is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence. An absolute, archaic grief possessed this countrywoman; she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs.

In a later instance of the same mythologizing motif, the narrator says of Mrs. Todd: “She might belong to any age, like an idyl of Theocritus.”

No doubt this incipient modernism helps to explain Willa Cather’s love for this novella. She judged, reports the back cover of the edition I read, that The Country of the Pointed Firs “ranked [with] Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…as one of the three American works most likely to achieve permanent recognition.” Cather alludes, in My Ántonia, to Virgil just as Jewett alludes to Theocritus; and we might see Cather as standing in relation to Jewett as Virgil stands to Theocritus, with each later writer refining the earlier one’s pastoral poetry to praise those who live in, with, and by nature—and who are, by virtue of their proximity to land and sea, closer to the gods.

When the narrator joins a procession of the guests at a family reunion, she reflects, echoing Keats’s “Grecian Urn” this time, on the immemorial rituals of human community:

[W]e might have been a company of ancient Greeks going to celebrate a victory, or to worship the god of harvests, in the grove above. It was strangely moving to see this and to make part of it. The sky, the sea, have watched poor humanity at its rites so long; we were no more a New England family celebrating its own existence and simple progress; we carried the tokens and inheritance of all such households from which this had descended, and were only the latest of our line. We possessed the instincts of a far, forgotten childhood; I found myself thinking that we ought to be carrying green branches and singing as we went.

This is a cold pastoral in the end: the narrator’s sojourn concludes with the summer and she goes back to “civilization.” Like the pastoral poets Theocritus, Virgil, and Keats before her, Jewett has only the consolation and keepsake of her art.

Meanwhile, what remains in my memory from this book is less some patronizingly quirky anthropological information of the sort connoted by “regionalism,” but a tone and vision both more archaic and more modern at once, as when the narrator visits the grave of the self-exiled hermit, Joanna:

I found the path; it was touching to discover that this lonely spot was not without its pilgrims. Later generations will know less and less of Joanna herself, but there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over,—the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance. This plain anchorite had been one of those whom sorrow made too lonely to brave the sight of men, too timid to front the simple world she knew, yet valiant enough to live alone with her poor insistent human nature and the calms and passions of the sea and sky.

This is an example of the realism that is rarely spoken of by the literary historian: the writer’s realistic appraisal of our ability to endure the endemic hardships of the human condition in whatever region we may find ourselves.


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Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Rappaccini’s Daughter”

Rappaccini's DaughterRappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While I am not in the habit of reviewing individual short stories, this is almost novella-length anyway and is one of my all-time favorites. Someone should publish it in a lavish illustrated edition: I imagine mixed media, photos of floral tendrils and marble ruins that frame sketchier figure drawing and landscapes, probably in oil pastels. Alternately, I could see puppets being involved.

The story is prefaced by a self-parodic author biography, in which Hawthorne, in a fit of Romantic irony, Frenchifies himself as M. de l’Aubépine, emphasizing his outsider’s perspective on an America too controlled by Puritan and mercantile values to reward his dreamy and proto-decadent sensibility. I will spare the reader my identification with Hawthorne’s difficulties—well, almost, but the following so well describes one of my own problems that I have to quote it:

As a writer, he seems to occupy an unfortunate position between the Transcendentalists (who, under one name or another, have their share in all the current literature of the world) and the great body of pen-and-ink men who address the intellect and sympathies of the multitude. If not too refined, at all events too remote, too shadowy, and unsubstantial in his modes of development to suit the taste of the latter class, and yet too popular to satisfy the spiritual or metaphysical requisitions of the former, he must necessarily find himself without an audience, except here and there an individual or possibly an isolated clique.

When Hawthorne says that the Transcendentalists “under one name or another, have their share in all the current literature of the world,” I believe he means to identify them with literary avant-gardes in general. It is as difficult today as it was in Hawthorne’s time, in my experience, to find a publisher for fiction that neither announces a radical intention on its surface (a gesture I find facile and overdone—how many more novels do we need with no paragraph breaks or with numbered sections à la Wittgenstein?) nor provides all the traditional satisfactions of the mainstream and popular (which would of course be a far too conventional thing to do for any writer interested in the possibilities of form).

The words “Aubépine” and “Hawthorne” both refer to a flowering plant. Hawthorne himself added the “w” (for “writer”?) to his family name, granting himself a floral appellation in an attempt to expiate the Puritanical crimes against nature and pleasure committed by the witch-hunting Hathornes.

In this particular tale, flowers are at issue: set in Renaissance Italy, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” tells of a young man named Giovanni who comes to Padua to study and takes an apartment overlooking a garden where he spies a beautiful maiden named, like Dante’s beloved, Beatrice. Alas, as the tale unfolds, we learn that Beatrice has been turned by her scientist father into an ambulatory poison flower, contaminating Giovanni through his very love of her. Aubépine, the self-mocking preface tells us, has “an inveterate love of allegory,” and this tale’s allegory seems clear enough at first: men, whether Dante or Rappaccini, make women into angels or demons, pure flowers or poison ones, and then hold them responsible for it despite their lack of control in the matter. As Beatrice tells Giovanni at the conclusion, “‘ Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?'” She’s not wrong: his obsessive voyeurism and idealism draws him into a relationship with her, and his refusal to countenance anything less than spiritually beatified in that relation causes him to fall prey to her father’s machinations and then to blame her for the poison with which the old scientist has corrupted her. Allegorically, then, we have a prophetically feminist statement from an author better remembered for complaining about the female authors who were his more successful rivals.

I’m not sure, though, that finding a satisfyingly “progressive” thesis is the only way to read this strange story. First of all, it should be admitted that the story is strange; apparently based on an ancient tale that Hawthorne found in Burton, its depiction of a mad scientist turning his daughter into a super-villain was pulpy enough to inspire both DC and Marvel comics to create characters based on Beatrice, according to Wikipedia. And Hawthorne, perhaps more like both Giovanni (the voyeur of the garden) and Rappaccini (the master of the garden) than he lets on, enjoys himself amid the floral perfumes, creating an aesthetic and sensory prose that in its near opiation looks forward to Pater, Huysmans, and Wilde:

Giovanni still found no better occupation than to look down into the garden beneath his window. From its appearance, he judged it to be one of those botanic gardens which were of earlier date in Padua than elsewhere in Italy or in the world. Or, not improbably, it might once have been the pleasure-place of an opulent family; for there was the ruin of a marble fountain in the centre, sculptured with rare art, but so wofully shattered that it was impossible to trace the original design from the chaos of remaining fragments. The water, however, continued to gush and sparkle into the sunbeams as cheerfully as ever. A little gurgling sound ascended to the young man’s window, and made him feel as if the fountain were an immortal spirit that sung its song unceasingly and without heeding the vicissitudes around it, while one century imbodied it in marble and another scattered the perishable garniture on the soil. All about the pool into which the water subsided grew various plants, that seemed to require a plentiful supply of moisture for the nourishment of gigantic leaves, and, in some instances, flowers gorgeously magnificent. There was one shrub in particular, set in a marble vase in the midst of the pool, that bore a profusion of purple blossoms, each of which had the lustre and richness of a gem; and the whole together made a show so resplendent that it seemed enough to illuminate the garden, even had there been no sunshine. Every portion of the soil was peopled with plants and herbs, which, if less beautiful, still bore tokens of assiduous care, as if all had their individual virtues, known to the scientific mind that fostered them. Some were placed in urns, rich with old carving, and others in common garden pots; some crept serpent-like along the ground or climbed on high, using whatever means of ascent was offered them. One plant had wreathed itself round a statue of Vertumnus, which was thus quite veiled and shrouded in a drapery of hanging foliage, so happily arranged that it might have served a sculptor for a study.

As in so much of Hawthorne’s writing, an ineliminable Puritan sense of guilt runs under the aesthetic pleasure, creating a powerful sense of irony. The story is both a richly lurid tale of sin and a self-critique—recalling Calvinist self-examination and anticipating the postmodern progressivism that is that Calvinism’s legacy—for writing such a wicked thing at all.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!