Patience, sagacity, tolerance, veracity, perseverance, loyalty—all the qualities, in other words, that defined madness

From Machado de Assis’ The Alienist:

Back and forth he went, the great alienist, from one end to the other of his vast library, lost in meditation, oblivious to everything except the daunting intellectual problem of cerebral pathology. Suddenly, he stopped. Standing at a window, with his left elbow in his open right hand and his chin on his closed left hand, he asked himself:

“Were they really insane? And did I really cure them? Or …”

And digging deeper, he concluded that he really could not claim to have added anything to his patients’ already existing mental faculties. The apparent cures had simply revealed an underlying mental imbalance that was present all along—latent, perhaps, but present.

This conclusion produced in the spirit of the illustrious alienist two contrary reactions: gratification and discouragement. He felt gratified that, after such arduous labors and prolix investigations, he could at long last affirm the following truth: Nobody was crazy in Itaguaí, nobody at all. But no sooner had this idea refreshed his soul, than another sprang forth to discourage him. The second idea was doubt. Was it possible that Itaguaí possessed not a single perfectly balanced mind? Must not such a conclusion be, ipso facto, erroneous? And did it not, therefore, invalidate all his theories and destroy the majestic scientific edifice that he had so patiently erected?

According to the old chroniclers of Itaguaí, the affliction experienced by the egregious Simão Bacamarte at that moment figures among the most awesome spiritual tempests in the annals of mankind. Tempests terrify only the weak, however. The strong confront the thunder and do not tremble, but only grow stronger. After twenty minutes, a gentle light illuminated the face of the alienist.

“Yes, it must be that,” he thought.

And “that” was this. Simão Bacamarte had found all the characteristics of a perfect mental and moral equilibrium within himself. Patience, sagacity, tolerance, veracity, perseverance, loyalty—all the qualities, in other words, that defined madness. He had reservations about this conclusion, too, of course, and almost discarded it as illusory. Prudent man that he was, however, he assembled a jury of his friends and asked for a frank opinion. Their verdict was affirmative.

I wrote it with the pen of mirth and the ink of melancholy

The prologue to the the new Penguin translation of a book I’ve long meant to read, Machado de Assis’ The Posthumous Memoirs of  Brás Cubas.

That Stendhal should have confessed to writing one of his books for only a hundred readers is a source of surprise and consternation. What comes as no surprise, nor will likely provoke any consternation, is if this book fails to garner even Stendhal’s hundred readers, nor fifty, nor twenty, nor even ten, if that. Ten? Perhaps five. This is, it’s true, a diffuse work, in which I, Brás Cubas, if I have adopted the free form of a Sterne or a Xavier de Maistre, may have added a few grumbles of pessimism. That may well be. The work of a deceased man. I wrote it with the pen of mirth and the ink of melancholy, and it is not difficult to predict what may come of such a union. Add to which the fact that serious people will find in the book some likeness to an out-and-out novel, while frivolous people will not find their usual novel here; it will thus be deprived of the esteem of the serious and the love of the frivolous, which are the two chief pillars of public opinion.

But I still harbor hopes of winning the sympathies of that opinion, and the first remedy is to avoid a drawn-out, exhaustive prologue. The best prologues have the fewest things, or say them in an abrupt, obscure manner. Accordingly, I will refrain from relaying the extraordinary process that I employed in composing these Memoirs, crafted here in the otherworld. It would be of interest, but tediously lengthy, and superfluous to one’s understanding of the work. The work in itself is all: if it should please you, my fine reader, I am paid for my labors; if it should not please you, I will pay you with a flick of a finger, and farewell.

The Stendhal reference is to the second preface of De l’Amour (On Love). Sterne is of course Tristram Shandy. De Maistre is the still-underappreciated author of Voyage autour de ma chambre (A Journey Around My Room). Apparently one of the earlier editions of the novel included Charles Lamb in this list of major influences but he was later cut here (as he has been everywhere, sadly).