Thursday, December 8, 2011

What a gulf there is between the spirit and the heart! - Machado's pessimism

I would like to write something about the pessimism of Machado de Assis.  I fear I lack the necessary philosophical foundation.  It is easy enough to see that the philosopher in Quincas Borba, creator of the doctrine of Humanitas, is a kook – “To the victor, the potatoes!” is a summary of his beliefs.  It is only slightly harder to do the tiniest bit of research and discover that Machado is satirizing positivism and Auguste Comte, which is pretty much a dead end for me.

The introduction to the Oxford University Press edition (tr. Gregory Rabassa) tells me that Quincas Borba has been interpreted as an allegory of the 1831 to 1889 reign of Emperor Pedro II.  You do not say.  That would be about as fruitful a path for me to pursue as a critique of positivism.  What can I do here.

That line in the title is the first sentence of the single paragraph that is Chapter II.  In Chapter I we learn that Rubião has just inherited a fortune, and that he would not have done so if events had not gone his way:

“See how God writes straight with crooked lines,” he thinks.  “If my sister Piedade had married Quincas Borba it would have left me with only a collateral hope.  She didn’t marry him.  They both died, and here I am with everything, so what looked like misfortune…” (end of Ch. I)

The ellipses are where Rubião’s selfish feelings (“heart”) collides with his guilt (“spirit”) over enjoying the deaths of his sister and friend.   He tries to distract himself by concentrating on a canoe that is floating by – “What a fine canoe!”  But his heart “let itself go on beating with joy.”

Much of Machado’s pessimism or cynicism is little more than a clear-eyed view of human nature.  Rubião is hardly a bad person, at least not the sort of monster Machado would portray in Dom Casmurro, his next novel.  Quincas Borba, with all its variety of characters, may have no bad people, although each character is selfish in his own unique way.  One minor character even approaches selflessness:

In spite of her cousin’s resistance, Dona Fernanda stayed on for Maria Benedita’s convalescence, so cordial, so good, so merry that it was a delight to have her in the house.  The happiness of this place made her forget the unhappiness of the other, but when the new mother was fully recovered, Dona Fernanda turned her attention to the sick man.  (Ch. CXC)

That Dona Fernanda eventually remembers the unhappiness of another is, in Quincas Borba, a moral triumph.  That sick man is Rubião, who does achieve an escape from his egotism, although not in a way anyone would want to imitate.

In the last chapter, the narrator stands at a distance from his text:

Weep for the two recent deaths if you have tears.  If you have only laughter, laugh!  It’s the same thing.  The Southern Cross [invoked early in the novel]… is so high up that it can’t discern the laughter or the tears of men.

Bras Cubas is dead, Dom Casmurro is deluded or even insane, and the narrator of Quincas Borba chooses the point of view of the stars.  From far away, crooked lines look straight.


  1. Much of Machado’s pessimism or cynicism is little more than a clear-eyed view of human nature.

    Now that makes me want to read him. What's that say about me, I wonder?

    ~scott gf bailey

  2. It says you're, let's see, an adventurous reader.

    I am not sure I was able to see this distinction just having read The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas. Without knowing the author better, it was too hard to separate the author and the narrator, and I'm still likely doing it wrong.

  3. Just a wild idea which can be rejected out of hand without offence. In that post Darwin Victorian age the Spencerian thesis applied the survival of the fittest to the laissez faire economic system. 'Dog eat dog' was the popular characterisation of this. As in our day where the evolutionary is fashionably applied to ethics, to politics, the ratings wars and the market,the function of life is to survive by ensuring a food supply. This banal idea is symbolised by the most ordinary and abundant food, the humble tuber. So, to the victor the potatoes.

  4. Not at all wild - Machado is specifically targeting Social Darwinism. In the parable in the novel, the victors win the potatoes, and the losers are exterminated.

    That was some good reading between the lines you did there.