As soon as I opened the old copy of “O Alienista”, by Machado de Assis, I immediately underlined a passage. I’ve said at some point that I like to vandalize my books like that. Even if I never consult that quote again, or even though, in doing so, I have no idea what led me to underline it. I like the look of a book all crossed out and in which twenty years from now someone will read “Alexandre de Moraes” without having the slightest idea who the guy was.
“Science, he said to Your Majesty, it’s my only job; Itaguaí is my universe”. This was just the first passage underlined with the now obvious annotation, but which two decades from now will look like a hieroglyph: “Alexandre de Moraes”. Whose only use is the democratic rule of law (as he understands it) and whose universe is restricted to that ugly palace of the STF. From there, for me, Dr. Simão Bacamarte lost his hair and gained a toga. And the cause of madness became the cause of the democratic rule of law – with quotes, many quotes, please.
The obvious association between the Machadian phrase and the Alexandrian reality of the beginning of the 21st century it bothered me. I shrugged my shoulders and continued reading. A few pages later, I noted one of the cases of madness told by Machado: “a dull and villainous young man, who every day, after lunch, regularly made an academic speech, decorated with tropes, antitheses, apostrophes, with his remarks of Greek and Latin, and their tassels of Cicero, Apuleius, and Tertullian.” In the margin, I noted that the candidate for the asylum is the one who refers to Machado as “Bruxo do Cosme Velho”. And I looked around to see if anyone around had a straitjacket.
Attention, clipping from the STF
Another remark of absolute obviousness and a little shameful: “a man of science, and only of science, nothing dismayed him outside of science”. Here the first reference is the minister who is not dismayed by anything outside his anti-Bolsonarist crusade. Obviousness of truisms, everything is truism. The second reference is perhaps less obvious, and therefore as deep as a children’s pool: how ridiculous were the men who, in the face of the Covid-pandemic 19, were not dismayed by nothing outside of science. “May we never be men of one thing!” I wrote in the margin, and if I didn’t, I should have.
Ah, yes, another obvious but necessary passage. In it, Dona Evarista, the alienist’s wife, is leaving for Rio de Janeiro. Machado de Assis describes the scene as follows: “And the entourage left. Crispim Soares, on returning home, had his eyes between the two ears of the roan beast on which he was mounted; Simão Bacamarte stretched his hands along the horizon ahead, leaving the responsibility for his return to the horse. Vivid image of the genius and the vulgar! One gazes at the present, with all its tears and nostalgia, the other delves into the future with all its dawns.”
The note in the margin is: “Has Alexandre de Moraes already read this book? ”. If the STF clipping team is reading this text, please extend the question to the minister. And I would like to take the opportunity to ask Minister Alexandre de Moraes if he understands that, in this allegory, genius is the conservative and commonly known as the progressive who “reveals the future with all its dawns”. Advisor who may be reading this, please pass this last question on to Minister Barroso as well. Thank you.
Another good moment for reflection by the STF ministers is when Simão Bacamarte realizes the size of his insane endeavor to cure all the crazy people in the universe. In the case of Itaguaí. “Madness, the object of my studies, was until now an island lost in the ocean of reason; I begin to suspect that it is a continent”, says the alienist. And by now the reader, both mine and Machado’s, has already realized the danger of giving power to a man obsessed with a cause, be it science or the democratic rule of law, both with plenty of quotation marks.
Then in “O Alienista” the obvious is once again realized and Bacamarte begins to use his own power for his own benefit. “The alienist said that only pathological cases were admitted, but few people believed him. Popular versions followed. Revenge, greed for money, punishment from God, monomania of the doctor himself, Rio de Janeiro’s secret plan to destroy any germ of prosperity in Itaguaí (…), a thousand other explanations, which explained nothing, such was the daily product of the public imagination.”
Inversion of values
I thought about it, but did not write it down in the margin because the pen had fallen on the floor and I stayed too lazy to catch: Machado de Assis predicted Twitter. And it did not give Simão Bacamarte the contemporary ability and ambition to silence the fertile public imagination. Had he given this super power to the character, Machado would have avoided, in the following pages, the rebellion that culminates in an (obvious) reflection on the will, both of the alienist and our bald constitutionalist: “I have nothing to do with science; but if so many men in whom we assume judgment are recluses for being insane, who tells us that the alienated is not the alienist?”.
Nor do I have anything to do with legal and political science, but, if so many men in whom we assume freedom of conscience are imprisoned for being anti-democratic, who tells us that the anti-democratic is not the one who says more to act to defend democracy? It is not by chance that it is worth mentioning here another obviousness that jumps to the eye: “The Alienist” is an allegory of the French Revolution, led by illuminists gullible in the utopia of reason and willing to use all the necessary violence to impose the ideals of equality, freedom and fraternity – not necessarily in that order.
Simão Bacamarte soon falls into disgrace. In his defense, he evokes God and “the masters”. He even offers himself as a sacrifice. Perhaps (and this is an interpretation that I hope is not obvious, although it seems) in the end the alienist really knows the human soul to the point of foreseeing the rebel leader’s ambitions and, therefore, knowing himself to be safe. “The barber felt the government’s ambition dawning in him; it then seemed to him that, by demolishing Casa Verde and overthrowing the influence of the alienist, he would come to seize the Chamber, dominate the other authorities and constitute himself lord of Itaguaí”, writes an unbearably cynical Machado de Assis.
After the rebellion, the Machiavellian patience of Simão Bacamarte prevails, so corrupted by his certainties that he starts to consider even more crazy those who show any vocation for excellence or holiness. “The alienated were housed by classes. A gallery of modests was made; that is, madmen in whom this moral perfection predominated; another of tolerant, another of truthful, another of simple; another of loyal, another of magnanimous; another of sagacious; another from sincere; etc.”, reads anyone who reaches this part of the book and resists the urge to throw it dramatically against the wall. Would it be too obvious to speak here of “inversion of values”?
Diabolical, Simão Bacamarte corrupts the entire city, which starts to see evil as an unequivocal sign of sanity and good as a mark of incurable dementia. And it is at this moment that Machado de Assis’ novel loses some contact with our reality. Unless you want to play the optimist and read what happens next as a prophecy. Because, taken by the vanity of the supposed self-knowledge that makes him the most healthy among the healthy, the alienist has no alternative but to lock himself up in the asylum, surrendering himself “to the study and healing of himself”.
In view of which I note in the margin a comment that I will certainly not understand in the next rereading: “Perhaps someone, seeing himself as the greatest defender of democracy in the entire universe and beyond, does not perceive in this fury all that of fascism, authoritarianism and even totalitarianism and, in this way, for the sake of general sanity, retreat to the study and cure of yourself”. I close the book and go to sleep exhausted by so much obviousness.