The Psychiatrist (O Alienista) by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, 1882
THE PSYCHIATRIST (O Alienista)
by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, 1882
Like his novels, Machado de Assis's stories can be divided into early and late periods. Papéis avulsos (Odd Papers), the first of the mature collections, appeared in 1882, one year after Epitaph of a Small Winner (Bráz Cubas) . The stories and the novel both reveal sharp changes in theme, form, and technique. From the late 1870s the author was increasingly a biting satirist of the social structure and the middle class of Brazil's second empire and early republic (1840-90). The reader is particularly aware that the well-being of the characters who are the butt of Machado's satire depends on those lower than they in the hierarchy.
Among the best-known narrative of Papéis avulsos is "The Psychiatrist" ("O Alienista"), in which the author satirizes positivism, the philosophy of Auguste Comte prevalent in nineteenth-century western Europe, and therefore in urban centers in Brazil, that science held the solution to every human problem. Possibly suggested by the theme of Jonathan Swift's "A Serious and Useful Scheme to Make a Hospital for Incurables," Machado's satire, like many modern ironic treatments of ontology and epistemology, goes much farther than Swift or other precursors to obliterate the boundary between reason and madness. The theme was a favorite with Poe as well as with realists such as Maupassant and naturalists such as Chekov, to mention only a few writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century who influenced Machado. Those preoccupied with the impressionistic interpretation of ethical matters are numerous. As Anatole France pointed out in a speech at the Sorbonne in 1909, Machado deserved to be classified among them as both precursor and contemporary.
Like his other stories, "The Psychiatrist" means different things to different readers. Its satire may be aimed at the scientific rationalism and complete authority of the psychiatrist for whose typically Brazilian ways of thinking Machado had little love. After all, Bacamarte, the name of the psychiatrist, means "good for nothing" in Portuguese. Or the writer who created the characters of Braz Cubas and Dom Casmurro may have believed in Bacamarte's definition of insanity, so comprehensive that almost every normal individual could be considered insane. Can one really know the meaning of "insane" and therefore of "being insane"?
As in Dom Casmurro, the structure of the story rests on an ironic inversion of roles. The learned psychiatrist, who at the outset dedicates himself to committing people to the so-called Green House, ends up by judging them all sane—cured by him?—and by committing himself. Again, what is the relationship between meaning and knowledge? Like the arbitrary, imprecise tool of language that it must use for definitions, as the structuralists point out in their basic precepts, science fails to offer perfect understanding of the human condition.
Typically cold and rigid, the doctor bases his choice of a wife on her health rather than her beauty. Biologically, she should give him good children, but she proves to be barren. So long as his knowledge remains purely theoretical for her, she loves and admires him. In practical terms, however, the diet he prescribes is not for her, and she becomes jealous when his studies preempt her in his concerns. The setting in a small city especially reveals the petty, egotistical side of human behavior that is the object of the psychiatrist's practice. A gentle madman, the rationalist Bacamarte does not inspire sympathy as the daydreamer Don Quixote does. Nor does his Sancho Panza, the opportunistic pharmacist, or any of the other secondary figures with which Machado surrounds the master. In these respects the work is reminiscent of aspects of Madame Bovary. All are deemed mad by the psychiatrist in a story that is neither tragedy nor comedy. Before the psychiatrist's arrival the dangerous ones were locked up in their rooms for life, the docile ones left free to go about their business. But Bacamarte finds even the most normal persons to be mad, and after a while he comes to question his own mental balance. He advances a new, entirely opposed and absurd theory of insanity according to which the well are now sick but also rational. Although undisturbed by his reversal of positions, he wonders if the asylum's inmates he now releases were, in fact, insane, if he actually cured them, or if their mental balance was so natural and inherent that it eventually asserted itself. After another 20 minutes of "rational" inquiry, Bacamarte discovers in himself the one he sought, the individual with all of the virtues of a well-balanced yet insane person. Embodying both the theory and practice of his new scientific doctrine, Bacamarte sets out to cure himself, and the omniscient narrator remarks that some of the Green House's former inmates have suggested that the doctor was the only madman ever committed to the asylum.
Reacting to his contemporaries' superficial treatment of Brazilian reality, Machado probes his characters to reveal highly complex behavior. His worldview is a subjective, ambiguous one, for truth and reality are always relative. As Machado explores the consciousness of his characters, in which time is expanded and contracted at will, his reader attempts to make sense of the experience. Machado's sense of time is relative, and what the reader experiences, albeit perhaps the most tangible part of his work, therefore remains fluid. Machado's extensive use of suggestion for communication permits him to convey a great deal in a compact space. Whether in his novels or stories, he has the principal action reside in the character and develops it with the greatest possible economy of means and stylistic precision.
—Richard A. Mazzara