Wuthering Expectations will be closed for the holiday on Thursday and Friday. Next week, if all goes well, I will balance my Eça de Queirós obsession with some Machado de Assis. Exact contemporaries, careful readers of each other’s work – Eça actually rewrote an entire novel because of Machado’s criticisms – they could hardly be more different.
A preview today, Machado’s novella The Psychiatrist (1881-2), a prescient satire of the new profession and of social science in general. I read it in The Psychiatrist and Other Stories (1963); William L. Grossman translated.
A famous psychiatrist, “one of the greatest doctors in all Brazil, Portugal, and the Spains,” returns to his obscure home town to conduct his researches, marries, and opens a mental asylum, although to many citizens “[t]he idea of having madmen live together in the same house seemed itself to be a symptom of madness” (3). Dr. Bacamarte’s reasons for choosing his wife (“neither beautiful nor charming”) tells us exactly who he is:
The doctor replied that Dona Evarista enjoyed perfect digestion, excellent eyesight, and normal blood pressure; she had had no serious illnesses and her urinalysis was negative. It was likely she would give him healthy, robust children… he would not be tempted to sacrifice his scientific pursuits to the contemplation of his wife’s attractions.” (1)
After the first surprisingly large “torrent of madmen,” Dr. Bacamarte’s theories evolve, and the definition of insanity expands. A revolutionary political plot develops, opposed to the coercive madhouse, at least until it takes power and the madhouse becomes a useful tool for enforcing the junta’s power.
Soon enough, eighty percent of the town’s population are in the asylum, which leads the psychiatrist to again revise his theories: because, statistically, insanity is the norm, the insane must therefore be sane, and the sane insane. The eighty percent are released; members of the bizarrely “mentally well balanced” twenty percent are put in the madhouse. Soon the asylum is full of the town’s most unusual inhabitants: the modest, the truthful, the wise.
Can you guess how the story ends?
“This is a matter of science, of a new doctrine,” he said, “and I am the first instance of its application. I embody both theory and practice.” (44)
Machado’s story zips through many of the next century’s critiques of psychiatry, from the shaky authority of the psychiatrist to the abuse of the field by totalitarians, all of this pre-Freud. His novels, first person and digressive, are quite different. The Psychiatrist is focused, fierce and purposeful.