Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The attentive reader has four stomachs in his brain - instructions for reading Machado de Assis

For, the attentive, truly ruminative reader has four stomachs in his brain, and through these he passes and repasses the actions and events, until he declares the truth which was, or seemed to be, hidden. (142)

Machado de Assis, and the narrator of Esau and Jacob, seem to have called his attentive readers cows.  Never mind that.  My question is, what truths are at issue here?  What is hidden, and what merely seems to be hidden?

The context of the quotation is that the father of the novel’s heroine has changed political parties for reasons of ambition – his wife’s ambition, specifically.  The mystery, for the narrator, is why the man abandoned his principles so easily; the hidden truth is the role of the wife.  Machado’s novels, with their fractured chronologies and digressions, can superficially resemble puzzle novels – Dom Casmurro­ more than superficially – but the greatest puzzles are those of motive:  why do people do the strange things that they do?  Within the novel, it is Counselor Ayres who is continually working to solve the mysteries, ruminating along with the reader.  In this case, the narrator (also Counselor Ayres) simply tells the reader the “truth”:

Note that I have spared him [me, the reader] Ayres’ work; this time I did not oblige him to find out everything for himself as he has been obliged to do on other occasions. (142)

Then he calls me a cow; I have inverted the quotation.  My point is that the mysteries of Esau and Jacob are not so different than those of Henry James or Marcel Proust, however differently they are presented.

The central mystery of Esau and Jacob is the heroine Flora’s love for the twin brothers of the title.  Does she love Pedro or Paulo or both?  Is there a way to choose between them?

The girls that saw them go by on horseback, along the shore, or up the street, fell in love with that perfect order of form and motion.  Their very horses were exactly alike, almost twins, and beat their hooves in the same rhythm, with the same vigor, with the same grace.  Don’t go imagining that the tossing of their tails and of their manes was simultaneous: it is not true, and might make one doubt the rest.  But the rest is certain. (73)

Neither James nor Proust are likely to scold the reader for extending an image too far.  I usually emphasize, when I am writing about tricky narrators, the bumps and sharp turns in the way they tell the story.  But Machado is clear in Esau and Jacob that the central issue is how we read it.


  1. The other three stomachs in my brain may have more to say later.

    You're really getting at one of the central problems of Modernism, though: how is the narrative to be assembled by the reader, and is the primary aim of the reader to discover the story or the guiding schema? Unless you're not talking about that at all. I'm very sleep deprived this morning. Very.

  2. Exactly! Whether Machado's \ the narrator's direction are good or completely misguided, the problem is in the reader's hands.

    I now think - but wonder - that this particular novel is more directly about this particular problem. Thus the narrator doubling as a character whose action is to interpret the events of the book. Three levels, character, narrator, reader. Four, Machado is a level.

  3. Then he calls me a cow

    An excellent joke!

    Though grotesque, I love the image of the brain-stomachs. I mean, we do say that we "ruminate" on these things!

  4. Exactly - Machado is literalizing the "ruminating" metaphor.