Discussed in this essay:
• Epitaph of a Small Winner, Machado de Assis (trans. William L. Grossman). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240pp, $14.00
• Quincas Borba, Machado de Assis (trans. Gregory Rabassa). Oxford University Press. 320pp, $39.99
The Empire Through the Eyes of a Former Slave
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis—better known simply as Machado—lived during a peculiar time of the Brazilian empire. Led by Pedro II, imperial Brazil promised its citizens prosperity but gave only poverty; Pedro praised Europe’s culture and its democracy, yet he carried out an oppressive authoritarian rule at home. These wide gaps between rhetoric and policy were not lost on Machado. As both a writer and a citizen Machado was in an unusual position from which to evaluate his country—a descendant of freed slaves (the peculiar institution remained active in Brazil until 1888, when Machado was forty-nine), he accomplished the rare feat of improving his social standing. Through self-education Machado managed to escape poverty and become a civil servant for the Ministry of Agriculture, and this straddling of two worlds—the destitution of his upbringing and the alleged national revival enjoyed only by those at the top—would define much of Machado’s writing life.
Like Russia in the mid-nineteenth century, Brazil experienced a cultural Europeanization that masqueraded Europe more than it mirrored it. Though the Empire’s democracy was modeled after Britain’s Parliament, its balance of power, which teetered overwhelmingly away from the people and towards Pedro II, was more of an autocracy than a participatory form of government. And while Brazil imported the clothing, architecture, and arts that were common in Europe, the Empire still left much to be remedied; after all, Brazil was still plagued with both overwhelming poverty and slavery, not to mention that the legal voting population was an insignificant fraction of the whole (and on top of that, Pedro II always reserved the right to call for new elections when he saw fit). With its ostentatiously hollow mimicking of London and Paris, Brazil added up to a fictionalized reality—one that Machado’s writing pierced right through.
While satirizing the gap between propaganda and fact is hardly uncommon, Machado’s treatment of it was. With great wit, intelligence, and a penchant for adopting the forms of other writers, Machado took on these conflicts as they challenged people’s lives both personally and nationally. On every page, Machado’s writing is soaked with the marks of a satirical genius comparable to Swift and Sterne. Gleefully utilizing literary devices that were well ahead of his time, Machado’s novels, especially his 1881 masterpiece The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (recently re-released as Epitaph of a Small Winner), are testaments to the resistance of a forced reality. They carry within them both the exhilaration of countering fantasy with fantasy as well as a depiction of the capacity for personal destruction when everything around you is a lie.
Bras Cubas, which is narrated by the titular character from beyond the grave, spans the whole of the narrator’s life, from death back to adolescence, to love, adultery, and, finally, his bitterly humorous explanation as to why he came out of life marginally ahead. At 200 brief pages, Bras Cubas is a stark contrast to the Romantic impulses of Machado’s contemporaries. Yet somehow, there’s fullness in his prose. Cynthia Ozick, in her introduction to Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, marveled at the self-sustained bountifulness of Bellow’s prose, “as if every source and resource of procreation were already contained in it.” Like Bellow, Machado had the ability to cover an incredible amount of ground in a single page, a sentence, even a phrase. And also like Bellow, with skillful precision Machado unravels ideas, philosophies, and the humanity of his character’s souls in a way that’s succinct yet fully realized.
Cubas is a man who doesn’t believe life is about accomplishing anything; he doesn’t believe people can sum up their lives by keeping a ledger of victories and losses. He pursues love, but never fruitfully; he attempts a crackpot treatise to cure melancholy, but never finishes. What his life amounts to is the quixotic journey of a man without a quest. Still, Cubas utilizes every ordinary episode of his life for maximum effect; he’s witty, charismatic, and strangely philosophical. At its core, the book is Machado’s testament to the examined life, and all the wonder of simply being alive, yet in its construction, in its aesthetic and contextualization in history, Bras Cubas achieves much more than that.
Stylistically, it was Bras Cubas that marked the very startling change in Machado’s writing. Prior to that novel, Machado’s writing is easily recognizable as adhering rather strictly to the principles of Romantic European fiction of Flaubert and Balzac. But as pointed out by David T. Haberly in his introduction to Quincas Borba (published in 1891), Machado struggled with accepting the style of novels imported from Europe that bore no relevance to Brazil’s oftentimes desperate reality under Pedro II:
Deeply embedded within the plot structures of most 19th-century European novels he had read were social patterns—true love leading to marriage, upward mobility, the rise of the middle classes, for example—that were utterly alien in a society where virtually all upper-class marriages were arranged and characterized by its rigid immobile hierarchical structure, without anything approaching a European bourgeoisie. After 1879, therefore, Machado stopped trying to be realistic in his plots and descriptions; he recognized that he was describing an apparent reality that was itself fundamentally fictional.
Bras Cubas was the outcome of that line of thought, a book that is captivating, intelligently created, and ripe with complexities, and that is full of remarkable aesthetic innovations. Like the wildly bizarre narrator and protagonist of Tristram Shandy, who can’t detail his own birth without mapping a course that includes every tangential stop along the way, Cubas halts his story for any number of digressions. At different intervals in the novel, Cubas pauses to contemplate ideas he believed Aristotle left out of his philosophies, the criticism he expected his memoirs to receive and, in one of his wittiest chapters, the inherent breakdown of communication between man and woman, as represented by a unspoken dialogue between Cubas and his lover, Virgilia. The chapter, which is titled “A Dialogue Between Adam and Eve,” looks like this:
In any given chapter Cubas wrestles with his reasoning for telling his story; he makes references to chapters he considered leaving out; he stalls to point out his failures as a writer and our failure as readers. These chapters, alongside other elements of Machado’s writing, reflect the manner in which Brazil had divorced itself from reality— the country was not European, yet acted as such nonetheless. The reality Machado was presented with was not one he believed in, and his aesthetic depicts that rift. Most of his works contain a self-conscious nod to the limitations of presenting a consistent reality (a technique now most commonly associated with postmodernism). The prevailing idea in Brazil at the time was to mimic all things European, and Machado did that with his writing—to an extent. There is the romanticism of someone like Flaubert, and the keen attention to character psychology, but with the application of unreliable narrators and characters who converse with stars or are reincarnated as dogs, Machado added layers designed to pull readers out of his works, to make them pause. And that was his ambition: to pull people out of the veneer Brazil was presenting at the time.
|Machado de Assis
What Machado’s short digressions in Bras Cubas ultimately represent are meditations on the difficulty, perhaps in the impossibility, of portraying reality through fiction. Though Machado’s novels can all be classified as realism, it’s evident that he struggled—as Swift did in his send-up of European society, government, and religion in Gulliver’s Travels—with creating a fictional world where a straightforward reality was represented. For his entire career, Machado wrestled with the novel as a form, referring to them as “ideas out of place,” and this battle is perhaps no better seen than in Bras Cubas.
The Greatest Writer of All Time
If we were to hold writers to T. S. Eliot’s belief that good writers borrow and great writers steal, then Machado may be the greatest writer of all time. Machado didn’t just wear his influences on his sleeve—he draped himself in full garment, a pastiche that reflects, to borrow a term that Jonathan Lethem has popularized, his ecstasy of influence. In his pen Machado believed himself to carry the whole of literature that came before him. His narrative digressions were taken from Sterne, his sense of satire from Swift, tragedy from Shakespeare; he borrowed keen detail and representation of society from Balzac, penetrating character psychology from Stendhal.
Yet in spite of his knowledge of the how European novels failed to depict Brazil’s particular reality, Machado never let go of his deep knowledge of Renaissance and Romantic fiction (and all the histories and philosophies in between). While Machado’s straddling of the line between influence and plagiarism has been questioned over the years, it seems like an unnecessary concern when put in context because at the heart of things Machado doesn’t mimic European novelists as much as he apes them. While he makes conscious nods to his predecessors and their tomes, he does so with an ironic wink as he defamiliarizes their central characteristics. Machado’s novels are heavy on their depiction of realism—especially in terms of social mobility—and the sense of deep characterization (as found in Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room, another one of Machado’s reference points). Yet whereas this tradition presented straightforward realism, Machado warped his reality in slight but substantial ways—like having his narrator tell his story from the grave. His appropriation of European influences contains that necessary component William Gass felt all avant-garde artists need to possess:
[T]hey must remain wild and never neglect an opportunity to attack their trainers; above all, it is the hand that feeds them which must be repeatedly bitten. They have to continue to do what the avant-garde is supposed to do: shatter stereotypes, shake things up, and keep things moving; offer fresh possibilities to a jaded understanding; encourage consciousness; revitalize the creative spirit of the medium; and, above all, challenge the skill and ambitions of every practitioner.
In the prologue to Bras Cubas, Machado lays the groundwork for his indulgence of drawing from other writers. In it, he states: “I, Bras Cubas, have adopted the free form of Sterne and Xavier de Maistre.” Like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the references made in Bras Cubas alone are almost too numerable to count: in addition to literary sources, Machado cites the Bible, philosophers, and numerable historical events.
|A portrait of Machado de Assis by Henrique Bernardelli
References—coupled with Machado’s digressive and intrusive narratives—are in a sense used to undermine the reliability of the narrator, a hallmark of Machado’s novels. The prolific use of external material creates a pastiche of histories and other fictions, sometimes anachronistic, sometimes misquoted. James Wood and Vladimir Nabokov have discussed the role of the narrator as oftentimes meant to teach readers how to read the novel—so it is with Machado’s narrators, all of whom not so much teach readers as much as challenge them to find a consistent reality, an indisputable meaning. Yet this impulse isn’t out of gamesmanship, nor does it derive strictly from the milieu Machado inhabited—the fact is, Machado was a person who didn’t believe in a knowable reality. His personal philosophy can best be described, as pointed out by Haberly, as one of complete skepticism. Machado is known for believing that nothing controls the fate of the world other than blind luck and chance; there is no truth, no prevailing order. Sadly, his characters don’t adhere to the same principles, and they ultimately pay the price for their attempts to instill cohesive meaning into the world.
What all of Machado’s novels attempt to do is show how attributing any order to the world is a task eventually doomed to failure. All of his characters are in social situations that allow them the freedom to contemplate their lives way more than is necessary; they’re unburdened from financial woes and have plenty of time—too much, in fact—to search for the truth of their existence. Bras Cubas is dead, Rubião (protagonist of Quincas Borba) is wealthy through inheritance, and Bento (narrator of Dom Cassmuro) comes from an upper-class family. With too much time to think, all these characters encounter the disturbances brought on by a mind occupied with recollection and philosophizing: mania, jealousy, and mental collapses.
But though Machado’s writings are all exercises in skepticism, his characters don’t adhere to the same underlying principles of thought. Dom Cassmuro begins with Bento considering his life, trying to make sense of where things went wrong. He’s living in a home that he had built to replicate—down to the smallest detail—his boyhood estate. (Like Henry James, Machado was obsessed with the precise placement of the narrator.) In constructing the house, Bento is attempting to form some sort of linear order that meaning can be derived from:
Clearly my aim was to tie the two ends of my life together, and bring back youth in my old age. Well sir, I managed neither to reconstruct what was there, nor what I had been. Everywhere, though the surface may be the same, the character is different. If it was only others that were missing, all well and good: one gets over the loss of other people as best one can; but I myself am missing, and that lacuna is all important.
As with Cubas, Bento tries to access an unattainable reality: he attempts again and again to prove that his wife is an adulteress. Though his evidence is practically non-existent, his reasoning flimsy at best, Bento still perseveres in his recollections, deceiving himself and attempting to the same to his readers (whom he addresses often, sometimes casually, sometimes pleadingly). In the end, for all his struggles to prove his wife’s infidelity, Bento is no further justified than when he started. Furthermore, not only has he undermined his own purpose, he’s undermined his own self and how well, as a narrator and a character, he can be known.
As a critic, Machado was known for was his attacks on Naturalism—especially as represented by Emile Zola. Machado was skeptical of creating characters that were wholly knowable, consistent, and predictable. What Machado engenders is an anti-Romantic narrative, told through the lens of a character who is anything but noble or trustworthy. Machado’s creation is a challenge to Zola, who was of the mind to “affirm, with intense conviction, the Truth is on the march and nothing will stop it.” For Machado, there is no such march, no such destination because for every truth there’s another conflicting truth out there that is just as compelling.
The link tying Machado’s works and his personal philosophy is represented adroitly through the character Quincas Borba, who appears in both Bras Cubas and the novel named after him. Borba is the father of his own philosophy (called “Humanitas”) which is essentially a less scientific version of Darwin’s evolutionary theories mixed with the universality of Brahmanism. Quincas Borba represents chaos in Machado’s world, an entity whose suppositions on life stand in exact opposition to the author’s own. He believes in a unified order to the world and that Humanitas is that order. Less of a philosophy that gives meaning to existence (or deconstructs it, like Nietzsche), Humanitas is more of a narcissistic utopia based upon the acceptance and justification of the world’s ills. The idea is that every living person is Humanitas, that Humanitas is in us, all around us. Therefore, life is a process of adaptation and recognizing the fatalism of all things—even poverty and war.
The funny thing, though, is that no one in Machado’s novels (except Borba) seems to understand what Humanitas is—yet they are taken in by it nonetheless. We see this kind of opaque, ill-defined dogmatic following in our culture all the time, where people follow a guiding principle regardless of its consistency or validity—be it a religion, a political figure, or Oprah. Just so long as the system and its bearer bring order. When Cubas and Borba meet to discuss Humanitas we see that Borba’s definition of his philosophy isn’t clear, nor is it especially appealing. Still, though he admits to not fully comprehending Borba’s somewhat wacky system, Cubas buys into it.
While not as stylistically adventurous as Bras Cubas, Quincas Borba is a strange novel in its own right. It’s narrated by Cubas, who is still somewhere in the afterlife and has the ability to witness events that occur after his death and to people he never even knew. His fits of digressions aren’t as essential here, though he does step out from the narration every now and again, unsettling the reader’s trust in his validity as a narrator (at one point, a character gazes up at the stars, and they gaze back down at her, commenting on the novel). There’s also the matter of Quincas Borba, the book’s title character, dying within the first thirty pages and quite possibly being reincarnated into his dog through the workings of Humanitas (hence an English translation of the book floating out there with the title Philosopher or Dog?).
When the book opens, Borba is rich and dying. His care has been entrusted to Rubião, the brother of the woman whom Borba was in love with before she passed away. In their time together Borba attempts to explain Humanitas to Rubião, even though Borba’s caregiver is in no position to understand Humanitas because he is, according to Borba himself, an “ignoramus.” And Rubião agrees; he doesn’t get Humanitas. Yet with no heirs, no relatives, no one in his life but the dull-witted Rubião, Borba feels a certain necessity in explaining his philosophy, of passing it down as best he can. So he tries to contextualize Humanitas within death, which, he claims, doesn’t exist.
In its Darwinian design, death is nothing more than a necessity for the survival of others, according to Borba. To elucidate the universal nature of Humanitas, he tells Rubião a parable involving two tribes confronted with one field of potatoes.
There are only enough potatoes to feed one of the tribes, who in that way will get the strength to cross the mountain and reach the other slope, where there are potatoes in abundance. But, if the two tribes peacefully divide up the potatoes from the field, they won’t derive sufficient nourishment and will die of starvation. Peace, in this case, is destruction; war is preservation. One of the tribes will exterminate the other and collect the spoils . . . to the victor, the potatoes.
Rubião is still confused by the dying philosopher’s reasoning. It isn’t until the moment Borba dies and leaves Rubião his entire estate that Humanitas becomes clear. At that point Rubião believes the world has opened to him. He thinks he gets it. “To the victor, the potatoes!” he repeats to himself. The truth, though, is that he has no idea what’s in store for him. Believing that he’s found the order to his life, Rubião takes his fortune from the countryside to Rio de Janeiro. There, instead of attaining the fruition of his supposed manifest destiny Rubião is swindled, has his heart broken, and eventually loses his mind.
The takeaway from Rubião’s story, as with all of Machado’s fiction, is that the destructive force of existence comes from adhering to any system that promises truth or universal knowledge. All truth is based upon a knowable, agreed-upon reality, a fundamental principle that was in much dispute over the course of Machado’s life. The Brazilian Empire promised Europe but delivered squalor, and this disturbed Machado to his core, not only because of the broken society but also because of the belief in the masquerade. Acceptance of this kind of truth is fundamentally a dichotomy of belief, and this idea that belief can validate a supposed truth is at times both reckless and manipulative. Judging by the downfalls of his characters, Machado’s views of an imposed truth or system of beliefs can be and should be understood as a warning to what can happen when the worst of both worlds are common—when a reality is both imposed and normalized.
Michael Moreci’s debut graphic novel, Quarantine, will be published by Insomnia publications in 2010. His shorter comic work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in FutureQuake, Something Wicked, Accent UK’s Victoriana anthology, and Insomnia’s Layer Zero: Survival anthology. His freelance journalism has been published in the Huffington Post, Stop Smiling, North Shore magazine, In These Times, and Earth Island Journal. Michael currently lives in Chicago with his wife and dog. Contact him at michael.moreci (at) gmail.com.
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