Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Alienist, by Machado de Assis




9781612191072
Melville House, 2012
translated by William L Grossman
originally serialized 1881 in A Estação as "O Alienista"
published 1882 as part of  Papéis Avulsos 
86 pp

paperback
(read earlier this month)

"I know nothing about science, but if so many men whom we considered sane are locked up as madmen, how do we know that the real madman is not the alienist himself?"

The Alienist is part of Melville House's lovely Art of the Novella series; books are available individually or as part of a subscription service, and they're well worth every penny.  I certainly got my money's worth with this book, which is true satire in every sense of the word.

We discover right away that the titular Alienist, Doctor Simão Bacamarte, "one of the greatest doctors in all Brazil, Portugal, and the Spains" is driven by science and rationalism.  As he replies when offered two very high offices by the King of Portugal who tried to prevent his return to Brazil, "Science...is my only office..."  And for sure, he makes scientific studies of everything. When he married his wife, for example, he chose her because she
"enjoyed perfect digestion, excellent eyesight, and normal blood pressure; she had had no serious illnesses and her urinalysis was negative."
She was also "neither beautiful nor charming," another point in her favor, since Bacamarte wouldn't be "tempted to sacrifice his scientific pursuits" contemplating her "attractions."  When she couldn't conceive, he even started on an "exhaustive study of sterility,"  as we're told, reading the "work of all authorities."  When his prescribed "special diet" didn't work, he "cured himself of his disappointment by plunging even deeper into his work."  As a result, he finds himself studying psychopathology, a "field, indeed, in which little responsible work had been done anywhere in the world."  In his town of Itaguai, the mentally ill have been neglected; eventually Bacamarte is able to persuade the Council to build a "madhouse," which comes to be known as the Green House.  It is there that the doctor plans to
"study insanity in depth, to learn its various gradations, to classify the various cases, and finally to discover the cause of the phenomenon and its remedy."
The trouble is, however, that there is no true scientific definition of what exactly constitutes mental illness, and as Bacamarte develops new theories, his ideas begin to change and so do his candidates for those to be sent to the Green House, to the point where "one no longer knew who was sane and who was insane."   Needless to say, there are people in Itaguai who don't necessarily agree.

 That's a very quick summary of the plot, but in this book there's much more than merely plot to consider as is usually the case in satire;  aside from the focus on the changing definitions of insanity by a self-professed authority  (a commentary, I think, on the folly of relying solely on science-based reason), ideas,  society and politics of the time are put squarely under the microscope here as well.  I don't want to say any more than that because it certainly is a story not only worth reading, but also worth spending time pondering to pick up what's actually going on here.  I loved this little book.

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