“The people are led by blind faith, and in a case like this their legitimate indignation may demand a certain course of action of the government. But the government, burdened with such great responsibility, need not put it into practice—at least not entirely.”
—The barber Porfírio, in Machado de Assis’ The Alienist
A highly educated man proposes that the government create a publicly funded system of healthcare. His opponents question the scientific basis of his ideas while clinging to religion. Some wonder where the money will come from; others worry about who will decide who receives care. As ordinary citizens see more and more of their friends and family fall victim to a corrupt system, they unite in a protest that is intended to be non-violent but turns bloody when challenged by government militia. But, rather than the people’s triumph, the seizure of power only marks the moment when hypocrisy, under the banner of “compromise,” becomes pervasive. That’s what happens in Machado de Assis’ 1882 novella The Alienist , the opening chapters of which are excerpted in this issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
The Alienist takes place not in the United States of 2012 but in the Brazilian colonial outpost of Itaguaí, sometime around the year 1800. Itaguaí lies about forty miles west of Rio de Janeiro and has been called “one of the poorest areas of the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan region,” a marginal place on the edge of the great city’s sprawl, dominated by heavy industry and a shipping port for its population of over 100,000. In 2007, according to urban legend, a baby girl was born in Itaguaí with her hands conjoined; when doctors separated them, they found written on her palms the message “Jesus está voltando” (Jesus is coming back).
Two hundred years ago, Itaguaí was much smaller, though perhaps even more precarious. The port had not yet been developed; shipping in the area was targeted by pirates based on the coastal islands; the Portuguese had decimated the Y-tinga tribe to make room for the colony. By setting his tale in Itaguaí, Machado places his satire at a safe, abstracting remove in both space and time—while hinting that its uncomfortable truths may nevertheless be closer than we think.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1839, in poverty, to a mulatto housepainter and a washerwoman from the Azores. His mother died when he was ten; he was sickly; his schooling was scattered. He spent his entire life within a day’s travel of the city, and he read widely; he learned English and French well enough to read and translate their literature, and later added German and Greek. He held important administrative posts in government, and he was the founding president of Brazil’s Academy of Letters. By his death in 1908 he had written nine novels, hundreds of stories, and assorted plays, poems, essays, and newspaper columns. His novels and stories have been read worldwide, and their English translations, beginning in the 1950s, have particularly influenced the American authors John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Sara Levine. Susan Sontag called him “the greatest author ever produced in Latin America.”
Machado lived and wrote in a Rio de Janeiro at the end of its brief empire; with few exceptions, his fiction is set in the city, among society both high and low. In 1831, Rio saw the crowning of Pedro II Emperor of Brazil at the age of five. Pedro II used military as well as economic might to turn Brazil into a regional power, but by 1881 Rio was a city of four hundred thousand and Pedro II was becoming old and wearing of rule. Republican forces staged a coup in 1889, bringing the Empire to a close. These struggles for political and philosophical legitimacy are echoed in microcosm in the Itaguaí of The Alienist .
In 1881, when The Alienist was first serialized in an elegant ladies’ magazine, Machado had just published his breakthrough novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. The work confounded critics who preferred his earlier, more conventional romances to this new ironic and digressive style, influenced by Laurence Sterne and Xavier de Maistre. The style came about following a crisis in Machado’s mental and physical health. The causes of this crisis are unclear, though Machado suffered from seizures all his life, and his diagnosis of epilepsy (frequently sidestepped by biographers out of so-called delicacy) is relevant here. To pose one of the questions that lurks behind The Alienist : how delicate is it to deny another’s suffering? And moreover, what must we think when an epileptic pens a nasty satire centering on the medical profession?
Nasty is indeed what The Alienist is. As Michael Moreci wrote in these pages, “On every page, Machado’s writing is soaked with the marks of a satirical genius comparable to Swift and Sterne.” Like the writing of those men, Machado’s satire is steeped in irony and indignation. Contra William L. Grossman, who made the first English translation of The Alienist in 1963 and called Machado “a masterly, restrained performer in revealing the hypocrisy and moral inadequacy of ordinary citizens,” this is not a restrained work. Would a restrained satirist name his title character after a clumsy, outdated firearm? In translating the good doctor’s name, rendering “Simão Bacamarte” as “Simeon Blunderbuss,” I have broken one of the unwritten rules of literary translation—never to translate names. But a Portuguese reader finds “bacamarte” inappropriate and funny as a family name, and “blunderbuss” accurately achieves the same effect for English readers. Without such a signal in its very first sentence, The Alienist would risk being taken too seriously; the satire would appear to be subtle, not blunt. Having transgressed once, I also chose “Simeon” over the more obvious “Simon” for its extra apish ring. I did not translate any of the other names in the story—but then none of them is as important, or as freighted with connotation.
Although Machado’s title is O Alienista—“the alienist”— Grossman used an inaccurate but more familiar title, The Psychiatrist. In English, the word alienist is obsolete and—well, alien, despite a ’90s bestseller by Caleb Carr. The word psychiatrist entered both English and Portuguese around the time Machado was writing; it quickly supplanted alienist, though it missed the older word’s focus on mental illness rather than health. In the time when the story is set, however, neither word existed. As Melville House has done for their upcoming reissue of Grossman’s translation (otherwise unchanged), I chose the older term, trusting in the modern reader’s curiosity.
* * *
“Under the current definition, since time immemorial,” the priest added, “madness and reason have been perfectly delimited. One knows where one ends and the other begins. Where will this new theory lead?” —from The Alienist
More than just a critique of the medical profession, the resolutely modern The Alienist directs its bile against the same overdependence on scientific rationalism that we still adhere to. Machado returned to this subject throughout his career. He was opposed to the 1889 republican coup, which was motivated in part by adherents of Auguste Comte’s philosophy of scientific Positivism. Moreci’s observation of Machado’s 1880 novel Brás Cubas—“the destructive force of existence comes from adhering to any system that promises truth or universal knowledge”—applies equally to The Psychiatrist. However distant the writing or setting, that kind of debate remains current today.
The political currency of the novella is perhaps even more striking. Machado’s Brazil in 1881 was the scene of scattered revolts and rebellions, though the most famous, the War of Canudos, was more than a decade in the future. In the novella, Itaguaí undergoes a revolution, a reign of terror, a counter-revolution, and a restoration that directly reference events in the France of its time. None of these regimes is seen as fully legitimate; all are infected by hypocrisy and compromise. One leader’s partisans become his most insistent critics. Neighbors, friends, and family occupy the parks and battle each other in the streets; citizens inform on one another and think nothing of forging facts to their advantage.
Since its first publication, The Alienist has always been current in Brazil. There have been many movie adaptations (notably The Alienist of 1970, by cinema novo director Nelson Pereiera dos Santos) and multiple new graphic novels versions have come out in recent years. Grossman’s 1963 translation, (long out of print but to be reprinted by Melville House later this year) was joined by Alfred Mac Adam’s in 1998, but that translation was printed only in an expensive fine-press edition. My new translation is intended to once again give English-language readers access to this classic of world literature, in all its current relevance and raucous life.
Matt Rowe (www.LocalCharacter.com) is a writer, editor, and translator from Italian, Portuguese, and French. His new translation of Machado de Assis’ The Psychiatrist 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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