Friday, December 9, 2011

The pure aesthetic sensation of cruelty - the humane and inhumane Machado de Assis

I want to look at one more Machado de Assis story before setting him aside for a while, another of his at least sixty masterpieces of world literature.  It is Machado’s clearest statement about human cruelty.  No one is in favor of cruelty – no, perhaps Céline and similar authors are in favor of cruelty – but many are indifferent.  The narrator of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881) is indifferent, and not just because he is deceased.  Machado can seem indifferent, or even cruel; “The Hidden Cause” is a cruel story.

A young doctor, Garcia, by chance encounters an older man, Fortunato, who has rescued the victim of a random stabbing.  Fortunato assists Garcia in treating the man’s serious wounds.  Garcia is impressed by Fortunato’s fortitude and dedication in the face of danger and pain.  He can tell, though, that something is odd about Fortunato, “that the human heart is a well of mysteries.”

The doctor and Fortunato eventually found a hospital, and the doctor falls in love with Fortunato’s young, beautiful wife – heaven forbid we do not have this plot in a Machado story.  The doctor again observes Fortunato’s unswerving dedication to his patients:

He flinched at nothing; there was no disease too painful or repellent; he was ready for anything, at any time of the day or night.  Everyone was amazed and delighted.  Fortunato studied and followed the operations, and no one else was allowed to apply the caustics.

The story has five pages left, so the title’s “hidden cause” had better appear soon.  It does, in a scene from which I will refrain from quoting.  Detailed, Saw-like torture of a mouse, that is what is in the scene.  I have moved past the ‘orrible bits to get to the point:

Garcia, facing him, managed to control his disgust at the spectacle and observe the man’s expression.  No anger, no hatred; just a vast pleasure, quiet and profound; what you might get from hearing beautiful sonata, or looking at a perfect piece of sculpture – something like a pure aesthetic sensation.

I had better stop, since one more ‘orrible bit follows.  Fortunato’s wife is tubercular, and the story ends with a final demonstration of the hidden cause, one equally horrible but not grisly:

The kiss burst into sobs, the eyes couldn’t hold back the tears, which flowed thick and fast; the tears of silent love and irremediable despair.  Fortunato, at the door, where he had stopped, quietly savoured this explosion of moral pain, which lasted a long, long, deliciously long time.

That last line is, I think, the only point in the story where the point of view fully meshes with that of the sadistic Fortunato.  “Deliciously” is his word.

Machado’s cruel story does not condemn the sadist or argue with him.  It simply exposes him.

I am looking at A Chapter of Hats: Selected Stories, translated by John Gledson.  The same story is translated elsewhere as "The Secret Heart."


  1. Doesn't this belong alongside your commentary on slavery and slave-catching? If we don't demand condemnation and argument, we might get exposure of human nature (I almost wrote explosure, which, yes, also), which is the mainspring of why I read. Our own reactions are there for a purpose, conversing with the narrator.

    How does this go along with your secret Crazy Theory of Dom Casmurro?


  2. Yeah, this is the sequel or extension of the Machado-slavery post, more evidence for the way to read both the stories that are explicitly about cruelty and the ones (those precoccupied narrators) who do not seem to notice it all around them.

    Dom Casmurro is presumably most blind to his own cruelty. An interesting passage to explore would be the one about his mother's treatment of her slaves, bringing many of the country slaves into the city household and so on. I do not quite know what to make of that passage.