Chapter I: How Itaguaí Got Its Madhouse
The chronicles of Itaguaí tell that long ago there lived in town a certain Doctor Simeon Blunderbuss, a man of noble birth and the greatest doctor in Brazil, Portugal, and both Old and New Spains. He had studied at Coimbra and at Padua before returning to Brazil at the age of thirty-four. The King could not manage to convince him to stay on in Coimbra as regent of the university, nor in Lisbon directing royal affairs.
“Science is my only occupation,” the doctor told His Majesty, “and Itaguaí is my universe.”
Having so declared, he returned home to Brazil and devoted himself body and soul to his scientific work, balancing his research with practice and testing his theories with poultices. At the age of forty he married Dona Evarista da Costa e Mascarenhas, a lady of twenty-five; she was the widow of a circuit judge, and neither pretty nor pleasant. One of the doctor’s uncles, a hunter by trade and known for his blunt talk, marveled at his choice. Simeon Blunderbuss explained that Dona Evarista presented physiological and anatomical qualities of the first order; she digested with ease, slept soundly, had a regular pulse and excellent eyesight, and was thus well equipped to bear him strong, healthy, intelligent sons. If, beyond these gifts—the only ones worthy of a wise man’s concern—Dona Evarista’s features were somewhat poorly arranged, far from lamenting it he thanked God, because he thereby ran no risk of neglecting the interests of Science in the single-minded, petty, and vulgar contemplation of his consort.
Dona Evarista disappointed Dr. Blunderbuss’s hopes; she bore him no sons, neither strong nor weak. Science is long-suffering by nature, so our doctor waited three years, and then four, and then five. After five years he undertook a thorough study of female fecundity. He reread all the Arab and other texts he had brought back to Itaguaí, sent inquiries to Italian and German universities, and finally prescribed a special diet for his wife. The great lady, who had been raised exclusively on Itaguaí’s finest pork, paid no attention whatsoever to her husband’s admonitions, and it is to her unfortunate, if understandable, dietary resistance that we owe the total extinction of the Blunderbuss dynasty.
But Science has the ineffable gift of easing all sorrows; our doctor plunged wholly into the study and practice of medicine. It was at this time that he became particularly attracted to one corner of medical science—that of alienism, the study of cerebral pathologies and mental illness. There was not a single authority on the subject in all the colonies, nor indeed in the entire kingdom; it was unexplored territory, or nearly so. Simeon Blunderbuss saw that any material advance would draw the world’s attention to Portuguese science, and particularly its Brazilian branch. “A crown of everlasting laurels” was the expression the doctor himself used, but only in his private raptures at home; outwardly he was modest, as befit a learned man.
“The health of the soul!” he cried out. “That’s the calling most worthy of a doctor.”
“Of a true doctor,” added Crispim Soares, the town pharmacist, a friend of Blunderbuss and his frequent dining companion.
The Town Council of Itaguaí, among other sins accused by History, had up to this point paid no attention to the demented. A raving madman might be locked up in a closet at home and neglected there until death came to cheat him of the benefits of life, while a harmless fool would be left to freely roam the streets. Simeon Blunderbuss quickly saw how to reform such sloppy practices. He asked the Council for permission to shelter and treat all the madmen of Itaguaí and other nearby towns and cities, in a facility he would build, to be funded by a fee which the Council would pay when the patient’s family could not manage it. The proposal excited the interest of the entire town and encountered great resistance, it being hard to uproot old habits, whether bad or merely sloppy. The idea of putting all the madmen in the same house, living together, seemed itself a symptom of dementia, and some even hinted as much to the doctor’s wife.
“Look, Dona Evarista,” said Father Lopes, the local vicar, “why don’t you see if your husband will take a trip to Rio de Janeiro? This always studying, studying—it’s no good, it affects one’s judgment.”
Dona Evarista, aghast, sought out her husband and told him she had certain “wishes,” but one above all: to go to Rio de Janeiro, where she would consume whatever diet he thought necessary for the procreational outcome he wished. But that great man, with the rare sagacity which so distinguished him, saw through his wife’s intention and replied, smiling, that she need not fear. He went straight to the Town Hall, where the Council was debating his proposal, and defended it with such eloquence that a majority at once resolved to grant him the authority he sought, at the same time voting to impose a tax to subsidize the board, lodging, and support of the poor crazies. It wasn’t easy to find something to tax; everything was taxed in Itaguaí. After lengthy study, the Council decided to issue permits for the plumes on the horses in a funeral procession. Whosoever wishes to befeather his hearse’s horses shall pay the Council twenty cents per permitted plume, the same sum being hourly adduced according to the time elapsed from the occasion of death through the final consecration of the grave…. The secretary got lost in calculating the estimated revenue from the new tax and one of the Councilors, who didn’t believe in the doctor’s enterprise, proposed that he be relieved of a pointless task.
“These calculations are unnecessary,” he said, “because Dr. Blunderbuss will never accomplish anything. Who ever heard of putting all the crazies together in one house?”
The worthy Councilor was mistaken; the doctor accomplished everything. As soon as the authorization was issued, he began to construct his asylum. It was in New Street, at the time the prettiest street in Itaguaí, and it had fifty windows on each side, a courtyard in the center, and plenty of cells for the guests. The doctor, a great amateur Arabist, found a passage in the Koran in which Mohammed declares that fools are to be venerated, because Allah has relieved them of their wits that they may not sin. The idea had a nice profound ring to it, and he had it inscribed over the entrance to the asylum; but as he was wary of the vicar (and by extension the bishop), he attributed the thought to Benedict VIII. For this minor and otherwise pious fraud, the doctor earned himself Father Lopes’ retelling, over lunch one day, of the life of that eminent pontiff.
The Green House was the name given to the facility, after its windows, the first of that color to appear in Itaguaí. It was inaugurated with great pomp; from all the nearby towns and hamlets, from some of the remoter ones, and even from the city of Rio de Janeiro itself people came to attend the ceremonies, which lasted seven days. Many lunatics had already been installed in their cells, and their families took the occasion to witness the paternal tenderness and Christian charity with which they were treated. Dona Evarista, basking in her husband’s glory, dressed luxuriously, draping herself in jewels, flowers, and silks. She truly was a queen during those memorable days; visitors called on her twice, even thrice, heedless of the plain and modest customs of the era, and they not only paid her court, they praised her, inasmuch as—and this fact is honorable testimony to the society of those times—they saw in her the happy wife of a noble spirit and a famous man; and if they envied her, it was the pure and holy envy of admiration.
After seven days the public festivities came to an end; Itaguaí finally had a madhouse.
Chapter II: A Flood of Madmen
Three days later, in private discourse with the pharmacist Crispim Soares, the alienist revealed his heart’s fondest desire.
“Charity, Mr. Soares, certainly comes into my method, but it comes as a seasoning, a condiment, which is how I interpret the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians: ‘And though I understand all knowledge, and I have not charity, I am nothing.’ My foremost goal in my work at the Green House is to make a profound study of madness in its many degrees, to classify the varieties—and at last to discover the cause of the phenomenon, and a thorough treatment. That is my heart’s fondest desire. I believe I shall thereby do good service to humanity.”
“Excellent service,” corrected the pharmacist.
“Without this asylum,” continued the alienist, “I could accomplish little; it affords me a much wider field of study.”
“Much wider,” the other added.
And they were right. From all the nearby towns and outposts, madmen streamed to the Green House. The raving maniacs, the simpletons, the obsessed: every branch of the family of those whose wits had deserted them. After just four months, the Green House had become a village of its own. The original cells filled up, so another wing of thirty-seven was added. Father Lopes confessed that he hadn’t imagined there were so many crazy people in the world, let alone such unaccountable variations. One, for example: a rough and ignorant lad, who punctually every day after lunch would deliver an academic lecture, decorated with tropes, antitheses, and apostrophes, with nuggets of Greek and Latin and pearls of Cicero, Apuleius, and Tertullian. The vicar wished it would never end. My!—a boy he’d seen just three months before, playing ball in the street!
“I can’t deny it,” the doctor answered, “but Your Reverence has seen the reality. This happens every day.”
“I’m of the opinion,” the vicar said, “that it can only be explained by the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel, as Scripture tells us. Most likely, once the languages had been mixed up it became easy to mistake one for another, so as soon as a man’s reason stops working . . .”
“That may indeed be the divine explanation of the phenomenon,” agreed the alienist after a moment’s reflection, “but it’s not impossible that there is also some human explanation, purely scientific—and even a cure.”
“So be it, I am still eager. Truly I am!”
There were many who were mad with love, but just two whose deliriums took a disturbing form. The first, a certain Falcão, a lad of twenty-five, thought he was the morning star; he would open his arms and spread his legs wide to give them a ray-like appearance, and then stay like that for hours on end, waiting for assurance that the sun was up before he came back to himself. The other endlessly walked, walked, walked, around the rooms or the courtyard or up and down the corridors, looking for the end of the world. He was an unfortunate man whose wife had left him for a dandy. As soon as he discovered the affair, he armed himself with a pistol and took off on their heels; he caught them two hours later, at the foot of a lake, and killed them both with the utmost cruelty. Jealousy was satisfied, but the avenger went mad. From that moment on he would anxiously search to the ends of the earth, on the hunt for fugitives.
There were several examples of delusions of grandeur. The most notable was a poor devil, the son of a tailor, who would recite to the walls (because he never looked directly at anyone) his entire pedigree, which went as follows:
“God begat an egg, the egg begat the sword, the sword begat David, David begat purple, purple begat the duke, the duke begat the marquis, the marquis begat the count, and that’s me.”
He would knock himself on the forehead, snap his fingers, and repeat five or six times in succession:
“God begat an egg, the egg . . .”
Another of the same variety was a clerk who presented himself as the King’s butler; another was a cowhand from Minas Gerais, whose folly it was to distribute herds of cattle to everyone, giving three hundred head to one, six hundred to another, twelve hundred to a third, with no end in sight. I won’t describe all the cases of religious obsession; I’ll just cite one patient who, calling himself John of God, would then claim to be the God John, and would promise the kingdom of heaven to whoever worshipped him and the fires of Hell to the rest. And then there was the graduate Garcia, who never spoke because he thought that on the day he managed to proffer a single word, all the stars would drop from the sky and engulf the earth in flames, such was the power God had granted him—or so he wrote on paper the doctor provided, less out of charity than out of scientific interest.
For, in truth, the patience of the alienist was even more extraordinary than all the manias the Green House contained; it was nothing less than astonishing. Simeon Blunderbuss began by setting up an administrative staff, an idea supplied by Crispim Soares along with two of the pharmacist’s nephews. He charged them with enforcement of the rules approved by the Town Council, distribution of food and clothing, and all the record-keeping and papers and so forth. For the doctor, it was the best he could do just to keep his office straight.
“The Green House,” he said to the vicar, “is now a complete world, with management of the flesh as well as management of the spirit.” Father Lopes laughed at this pious joke and added—with the sole aim of contributing his own bon mot—“Keep your hands off the spirit, or I’ll have to report you to the Pope.”
Once disburdened of administration, the alienist proceeded to a sweeping classification of his patients. He divided them first into two principal orders, the angry and the meek; then he moved on to the various subclasses, obsessions, deliriums, and hallucinations. With the taxonomy complete, he began his thorough and endless research. He analyzed each madman’s manner of dress, the timing of his attacks, his likes and dislikes, his words, his gestures, his propensities. He investigated each patient’s life, profession, habits, history of illness, infant and childhood injuries, other types of malady, and family history of same; he probed deeper than the most diligent prosecutor. And each day he noted some new observation, some interesting discovery, some extraordinary phenomenon. At the same time he researched the best diet, medicinal remedies, curative and palliative treatments—not just those from our preferred Arab authorities but also ones he discovered himself, through his own wisdom and patience.
All this work demanded the better part of his days. He hardly slept or ate at all, and even when he ate he was still at work, now poring over an ancient text, now ruminating on a difficult case, and often he would go from start to finish of supper without saying a single word to Dona Evarista.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908) was the author of nine novels and hundreds of short stories, as well as essays, plays, poetry, and journalism. Despite humble origins and haphazard education, he became the founding president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and is still today generally regarded as Brazil’s greatest writer. Matt Rowe (www.LocalCharacter.com) is a writer, editor, and translator from Italian, Portuguese, and French. His new translation of Machado de Assis’ The Alienist, from which this excerpt is taken, will be published in July by Calypso Editions.
image by Unknown – Arquivo Nacional, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70409605
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