Machado de Assis’s men
Brás Cubas, Bentinho, Cristiano Palha, advisor Aires. For those who don’t know or remember, they are characters from the so-called “second phase” of Machado de Assis’s fiction, which began with “Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas” (1881). It was something of a snap: Machado’s books suddenly began to be told in the first person, in a careless, sarcastic, unreliable and free manner. Figures to make allegories and ironize the situation of the time. Result: such narratives pointed to the literary modernism of the 20th century and brought a new vision of Brazil.
The creative leap was remarkable compared to Machado’s “first phase”. In this one there was a focus on more conventional realist novels: “A Mão ea Luva” (1874), “Helena” (1876) and “Iaiá Garcia” (1878). The author’s first books sought the form of the narrator in the third person, in the romantic spirit, to deal with women immersed in a society whose only recourse was to defend itself in paternalism.
The characters Guiomar, Helena and Estela circumvented the obstacles in a country that had a colonial heritage and slavery as the structure of life organization. A step ahead of José de Alencar, certainly, but no progress in Machado’s second phase.
What is new in Machado from the 1880s is the literary form. A first-person fiction writing that goes against the standards of the realist novel and, in addition, reveals the perverse side of male characters in Brazil. The reader was asked to distrust the narrators – this is the discovery of Machado de Assis.
Respectable lords of the empire appear in a ridiculous, useless, parasitic way, but without losing the aura of famous men. Brás Cubas, for example, discusses the most advanced ideas in the world that are useless. He himself goes to study in Portugal, but studies are of no use in practical and social life.
In “Esau and Jacob” (1904), the character Conselheiro Aires learns how a high-class citizen of imperial Brazil is useless. His conversation with Custódio (the confectioner) is emblematic. The confectioner’s owner had a dilemma: his shop was called “Empire”, but the period of the Republic had begun. If he changed the name to “Republic”, he feared the defenders of the old imperial regime. By keeping the traditional name it could upset the republicans and lose the parish.
The “magic solution” was given by Aires in a Brazilian synthesis of perversity and lack of commitment to the world: “Aires proposed a compromise, a title that would fit with both hypotheses, – Confeitaria do Governo.
“It works for one regime as well as for another.”
masters of concealment
The character of Conselheiro Aires embodies the ways of acting in a society in transformation, the Brazil that went from a static regime, based on old values, to a modern class structure with its social mobility. To adapt well to the new regime, it was necessary to be malleable, plastic, able to adapt to the money-led world of capitalism. Machado used and abused economic images to describe social relations.
In “Quincas Borba” (1891), the main character Rubião receives an inheritance, does not understand the new rules of the game and simply goes crazy. The married couple Palha and Sofia, in turn, teach hours on how to survive in society’s new environment.
But no one is as supreme in the art of the new times as Bento Santiago, the narrator of “Dom Casmurro” (1899). The flamboyant Brás Cubas leaves the stage, enters the guy who controls the gesture of dissimulation, being one thing and acting another. The grotesque gives way to a serious and respectful tone. Bentinho will write his story to make the reader believe that he was betrayed by his wife Capitu. The secret is to hide the character of a scoundrel in the refined writing of a literate man. Perhaps it is the most modern, most 20th century tale of Machado de Assis. Jealousy clouds a man’s vision, and the woman pays the price for her husband’s insanity.
Betinho is not just a literary or aesthetic creation. It is a stylization of a master of the empire in Brazil: obtuse, mediocre, full of whims and who remains attached to the already outdated values of the slave world. The imperial regime that made Brazil the last country in the world to abolish commercial slavery. These men dream of being capitalists, but they are still just slave owners.
It was up to the English critic John Gledson to formulate an interpretive key regarding Bento. For him, the narrator of “Dom Casmurro” would be a mirror of Emperor Dom Pedro II, an allegory of the central figure of the Brazilian 19th century.
“A direct parallel between Bento and the regime and the person of d. Pedro II when he mentions the Age of Majority and Bentinhos and d. Pedro when they are forced to assume a responsibility for which they were not prepared. Furthermore, the parallel is implied with the regime that the novel in principle began on the day of the 15th anniversary of the authority. It is likely that other aspects of Bento’s personality also linked him to the emperor”, says Gledson, in the book “Machado de Assis — Impostura e Realismo”, which is the most complete analysis of “Dom Casmurro”.
“The main purpose of the novel’s satire [Dom Casmurro] it is the institution of the empire, and in this context (as it represents its opposites), d. Pedro II is ridiculed. His only appearance in the novel takes place in a dream, which makes sense given the institution’s role in creating a point of convergence with the illusions of its subjects,” adds Gledson, who sees Machado de Assis bringing the two figures together ( a historical and another fictional) of “conservatism” and of “lack of virility”.
perverts and sadists
In Machado’s second phase, the characters seem to have the seriousness of formed and enlightened subjects. They are the ones who completely control the narratives. But the good life is due to the advantages of the society whose relations are governed by “favour”, the unequal exchange of goods between masters, households and slaves.
Who gave the most far-reaching interpretation of Machado de Assis was the critic Roberto Schwarz. His book “A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism” (1991) analyzes the novel “Posthumous Reminiscences”. It took almost a hundred years for anyone to unravel the historical-aesthetic sense of Machado’s work.
And there is an even more interesting point that has begun to unfold in recent years regarding the scope of what Machado de Assis wrote in his great novels. In 1980, the same Schwarz showed the approximation of Machado’s second phase of psychoanalysis: “Machado de Assis is a writer who in 1880 says things that Freud would say 25 years later”.
According to contemporary readers, the Brazilian author’s characters anticipate problems addressed by the inventor of the psychoanalytic method – with an emphasis on the theme of “perversion”. In 2004 Tales Ab’Saber collected the structure of common points, expectations and complements between Machado and psychoanalysts. It is a network of concepts that brings one discovery after another and sheds light on how the country functions up to the present day.
Ab’Saber’s starting point is the volubility of Brás Cubas. As Schwarz has shown to exhaustion, the volatile narrator of “Posthumous Reminiscences” breaks the rules of narrative and society simply by the whim of social class. It is a violation of norms that has no motivation or goal, but leads to pleasure, to an excessive satisfaction. The subject exchanges opinions, ideas and owes no satisfaction.
Who is this volatile figure who enjoys and delights in breaking the most basic laws and rules of 20th century society? According to Ab’Saber, he is nothing less than Freud’s “pervert” or Jacques Lacan’s “sadist”. But according to Freudian theory, the European who commits a perversion is made to feel compelled not to repeat his act. But what do Brás’s contemporaries do? They feel no remorse and continue to practice the same perversities again and again. Machado de Assis captured a social figure that would not be noticed until the following century.
“The Brazilian situation would be, in a way, judging by Machado’s radicalism, the site of the perversion appropriate to the global system of meanings and dominations that can only be thought of in the European experience of the 20s of the 20th century. [com Freud]when capitalism definitively broke with all compromise solutions and openly tended towards destruction and fascism, as in the periphery of the system [o Brasil] it already appeared very clearly configured throughout the last century”, says Ab’Saber.
So if we want to understand how the contemporary subject works, on a planetary level in the 21st century, it is enough to know the characters of Machado de Assis. They showed the art of dissimulation, of being malleable, flexible and, above all, how to take immense pleasure in breaking the rules. Thus, following Schwarz and Ab’Saber’s trail, it is in the periphery of the world (Brazil, for example) that capitalism shows its true ways of functioning, without the disguises and civilized air of the Europeans.
In Brazil, the pervert/sadist is directly linked to the legacy of the slave order. Today, readers of Machado de Assis can map these social types when surfing social networks, flipping through newspapers or watching television news. It is, for example, the economist who is doing a PhD. in the United States, with a scholarship paid by the government, and returns to the country to make money in the financial market. Deep down, this figure serves no purpose. Everything turns false, does not leave the place. Real characters today are actually contemporaries of Brás Cubas, Bentinho, Cristiano Palha and Conselheiro Aires.