Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas discussion: Chapters 108 - 160

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Chapter CXXXV: Oblivion
… Put that name in small caps. OBLIVION! It’s only proper that all honor be paid to a personage so despised and so worthy, a last-minute gues at the party, but a sure one. The lady who dazzled at the dawn of the present reign knows it and, even more painfully, the one who displayed her charms in bloom during the Paraná ministry, because the latter is closer to triumph and she is already beginning to feel that others have taken her carriage. So if she’s true to herself, she won’t persist in a dead or expiring memory. She won’t seek in the looks of today the same march of life with a merry heart and a swift foot. Tempora mutantur. She understands that this whirlwind is like that, it carries off the leaves of the forest and the rags of the road without exception or mercy. And if she has a touch of philosophy she won’t envy but will feel sorry for the ones how have taken her carriage because they, too, will be helped down by the footman OBLIVION. A spectacle whose purpose is to amuse the planet Saturn, which is quite bored with it.

Chapter CXXXVI: Uselessness
But, I’m either mistaken or I’ve just written a useless chapter.

The final section of the book goes to the end of Brás Cubas life, wrapping around to meet the first chapters of the novel. Machado’s work is very much a product of its time, focusing on not just Brazil at that moment but also current philosophical trends. Quincas Borba’s Humanitism, which takes up a sizeable part of this section, is a parody of various philosophical and scientific theories. Although I would have loved notes referring to all the different theories that were being parodied, in the end it probably doesn’t matter. The book, a product of its time, transcends those limitations and remains entertaining today. Even without notes, I could easily identify some targets:

”Humanitas,” he said, “the principle of things, is nothing but man himself divided up into all men. Humanitas has three phases: the static, previous to all creation; the expansive, the beginning things; the dispersive, the appearance of man; and it will have one more, the contractive, the absorption of man and things. The expansion, starting the universe, suggested to Humanitas the desire to enjoy it, and from there the dispersion, which is nothing but the personified multiplication of the original substance.”

If all this sounds like scholarly blather, I’m sure it is intended to be that way. Never mind that the three stages are really four (keep that thought in mind, though), the target seems to be Auguste Comte’s Law of Three Stages (see Positivism) or any other arbitrary timeline in defining human development. Borba’s philosophy is never fully explained, which is appropriate for the book and the character. Borba is first seen as an adult in some sort of state between delirium and insanity, but lucid enough to filch Brás’ watch. After a sizeable inheritance, Borba is able to apply a gloss of sanity with his money. He eventually loses that gloss while working on Humanitism.

That money could buy acceptance into the idle rich was yet another dig at their uselessness. Rocking the boat, however, was the one unforgiveable sin for this class. Brás’ speech on shortening the shako gets himself drummed out of parliament (even though he has fully embodied the pointless existence and actions perfectly), and makes himself a pariah by launching an opposition newspaper. Yet it is at this point that he makes his greatest contribution by joining a service order. And on the cusp of becoming famous with his poultice to cure melancholy, he dies due to his neglect of himself, the irony being that he has finally found meaning to life.

Time, always a force in the novel, is more pronounced in this section. The opening quote above is part of Brás’ reflection regarding aging as he reaches 50. The power of reading an old note and Brás’ reaction to it shows that some things stand outside of time. But for the most part, we are all on our way to OBLIVION, as noted by all the deaths. Is Brás the exception since he is able to write his memoirs there? More than likely, no (since we know this is fiction). His reflection on the short bridge between life and death highlights the reality and commonality of death while his silence on the afterlife punctuates his nihilism about life. Brás thinks that chemistry can explain human nature (Achilles and Lady Macbeth are given as examples), so there is no soul…nothing deeper to man during his life. The last chapter piles up mostly negatives, ending with a bittersweet positive:

This last chapter is all about negatives. I didn’t attain the fame of the poultice, I wasn’t a minister, I wasn’t a caliph, I didn’t get to know marriage. The truth is that alongside these lacks the good fortune of not having to earn my bread by the sweat of my brow did befall me. Furthermore, I didn’t suffer the death of Dona Plácida or the semidementia of Quincas Borba. Putting one and another thing together, any person will probably imagine that there was neither a lack nor a surfeit and, consequently, that I went off squared with life. And he imagines wrong. Because on arriving at this other side of the mystery I found myself with a small balance, which is the final negative in this chapter of negatives—I had no children, I haven’t transmitted the legacy of our misery to any creature.

This is quite the negative outlook until the irony dawned on me. For an entire novel, I have seen a character defining himself as a reader. His view of the world is through literature. When he gives examples of human nature explained through chemistry, he does not mention real people but fictional characters instead. His descriptions of the afterlife rely on “Hamlet’s undiscovered country” metaphor. Yet this traveler did return and did have a child—this book. While he accuses us of reading to escape life, his escape (in reading) was at a breadth that is breathtaking. In addition, he has escaped death, momentarily at least, judging by the ability to write this book. Reading helped Brás escape time in visiting other ages, whether Old Testament days or the Elizabethan age. Yes, there is nihilism in the thought that worms will eventually gnaw “the cold flesh of my corpse” (from the books dedication) and everything we accomplish will turn into nothing, but while we live we can exist outside our own time. And like the note that Brás finds, literature can move us regardless of when it was written. His offspring ensures it.

While this is the last section of the book, I hope to post something on Machado de Assis actively engaging the reader. First I have to figure out what it is I’m trying to say…

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