Tag Archives: machado de assis

The unavoidable class conversation in “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas”

15 Feb

Last semester, when we read Zola, Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert for LIT 640, the one discussion that was unavoidable was that of the role of social climbing, in the greater context of social class hierarchies, in understanding the driving force of the novels and their protagonists.

Social climbing, a fear of judgement and a need to win over high-ranking individuals (and at one point an entire city, as seen at the end of Pere Goriot) mark the characterization of every protagonist in the French Realist Fiction novels we read, which made me think of the social currents that move the bourgeois society Cubas thrives in, and to an extent Cubas himself.

The connection with these French Realist authors (for me!) is further strengthened by the shout-out given by de Assis to Stendhal’s statement about his “hundred readers”– however, it’s interesting to see de Assis (via Cubas) subvert the traditional role of Realist Fiction by nonchalantly questioning whether his “Memoirs” would garner “even ten” readers, as if to avoid all traditional goals of Realist Fiction (relevant in terms of Post-colonial fiction goals). By doing this, not only does de Assis want to shed light on the complexities and hypocrisies of contemporary Brazilian society, but also seems to undermine the ever-present social climbing (traditionally, the main focus of writers such as Stendhal) by circling every situation without making a clear judgement. One such instance is the cock fight Cubas witnesses while in the company of Nha-lolo and her father.

It’s interesting that the chapter containing the incident is titled ‘Downhill’; descending Livramento Hill, Cubas tells the reader how he loses years coming down, till he is 20 years old, presumably back when he was as yet unaffected by social maneuverings. When he opens the parasol for his fiancee, after assuring us that the weather was beautiful, he refers to Borba’s philosophy, claiming that “Humanitas kissed Humanitas” (168). I interpreted Borba’s philosophy to be a sort of selfish, unscientific Darwinism that justifies all means to all self-serving ends, including broad social issues like poverty and war; this reading made me believe that Cubas is saying that in this passage, by being attentive to his fiancee, he is protecting his own interests, and in doing so, goes back to a time when he didn’t care about anyone’s needs as much as his own, and therefore feels so much younger.

At the same time, Nha-lolo herself, who is far younger than Cubas actually is, is shown to be anxious to leave the hill and the vicinity of the cock fight– We are told why in the following chapter: she is wholly concerned with the way her father reveals his (to her, as described by Cubas) low-brow fascination with the street cock fight (“A Very Delicate Intention”) that may seem “unworthy” to Cubas himself. In this chapter, Cubas finds in Nha-lolo’s discomfort and her continuous urge to better herself good reason to marry her, as if he would be doing her a favor. This again is a reference to the concept of Humanitas, and shows us just how de Assis turns the traditional idea of social climbing on its head.

At the end of “Downhill”, Cubas describes the two roosters who were in the fight. We are told that he is unable to identify immediately which bird won and which one lost, as both birds look defeated. The onlookers and bettors are elated however, and discuss the various triumphs of both roosters, who nonetheless are nothing more than commodities to them. This is ultimately the Marxist conversation on ownership of the means of production, and the bourgeois vs. the proletariat. However, what is really interesting is the final lines of this chapter:

“I went along in vexation. Nha-lolo was especially vexed.”

Here, the fate of the birds and what it metaphorically stands for is only a mere annoyance for Cubas and his fiancee– Nha-lolo in fact, is only vexed because of what her father’s enthusiasm reveals about her origins, which (to her) are far more humble than those of Cubas’. Cubas himself “goes along” with it all, abdicating all agency, criticizing and yet at the same time washing his hands of the inherent class-based bias at work, both within his relationship to Nha-lolo as well as within the group of onlookers and bettors. I believe that de Assis does such a fantastic job of subverting every possible for/against argument w.r.t. social climbing and class struggle that the very act challenges the entire idea of social hierarchy (as per Western European tradition) itself.

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Narrator: Dead or Alive

15 Feb

“The main defect of this book is you, reader. You’re in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble, and fall …” (111).

The structure and style of the narration in The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas struck me as following as similar path of several Russian novels. Dostoevsky, Gogol, Nabokov and so many others tease the reader by self-consciously playing with words/thoughts/ideas. While in Speak, Memory Nabokov starts his memoir before his existence with the image of a crib before his birth, this narrator starts with the end of his existence. The narrator is not dying, but already dead, which makes the reader question his intentions from the very beginning all the way to the final page. Throughout my reading, I’ve been trying to figure out what this element adds to the story. Is there a significant change in a narrator who is dead or alive?

There are two types of unreliable narration: the naïve and the manipulative. This narrator is more than the manipulative unreliable narrator because of the fact that he is dead; it’s almost as if death has given him a step back by not only relating past events but looking at it knowing that nothing can change or be added. But as he says that death has allowed him to express his memoirs without a filter, doesn’t he still have a filter? And isn’t Cubas exactly the same as before he died? As we mentioned last class, there is a “nonproductiveness of time” in the novel that Schwarz discusses. When we believe a thought it about to be explained, it is turned around; when we question an idea, the next chapter takes it back. So is there really value in having the narrator tell this story “not exactly (as) a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer” (7)? Or is this an element solely used to stress the volubility of the novel?

Why Can’t We Have It All?

14 Feb

I would like to challenge the notion that the merit of a Marxist reading of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (PMBC) goes deeper than “only” reading it as a sort of proto-postmodern text. Firstly, this idea fails to notice what I believe to be an important but elusive connection between the Marxist reading and the novel’s great influence on the more cynical postmodern novels of the 20th century. One of the traps of academic writing is the use of onlyone lens through which to view literature and  another, equally limiting trap is the conflation of analysis that goes beyond authorial intent with analysis that dare not take author intent into account.

The Marxist analysis by Schwarz in A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism (MPC) is incredibly useful. It allows the reader to move beyond appreciation for PMBC’s ironic send up of the Brazilian bourgeoisie as entertainment and to analyze the hypocritical society exemplified by the title character in terms of capitalism and colonialism and its less desirable effects. Sussing out the many contradictions represented by Cubas and his fellow characters (his relation that treats religion mainly as ceremony and not as spiritual comes to mind) is key in seeing the true value of the novel as effective literature.

Despite the usefulness of Schwarz, PMBC must be seen as both a Marxist text and an early example of postmodern metafiction to be fully appreciated and, indeed, the postmodern/metafiction reading lends itself to Marxist ideas. If we accept that one of the recognizable features of postmodern literature is a sort of rejection of the idea of narrative and that Capitalism has survived in small part thanks to a widely believed and flawed narrative, these two approaches to reading are profoundly connected.

The idea that capitalism replaces older societal orders with a sort of meritocratic pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality is the flawed narrative. We see the failure of the industrious but morally lacking (Marcela) and Cubas himself is a pseudo intellectual, undeserving of his wealth. The rejection of narratives seems to relate quite well to exposing the contradictions of capitalism, thus the two approaches can go hand in hand.

On a loosely related note, the idea of rejecting authorial intent seems untenable if not counterproductive. Schwarz himself cannot keep from commenting on the author’s intent. The critic writes, “With Malice and intelligence, Machado made sure he provided an abundance of cliches, always place in compromising positions.” There are further examples of Schwarz analyzing Machado de Assis’ hostile structure and prose.

One of the great joys of reading PMBC is Machado’s use of literary references and the other trappings of the mainstream writing of his time even as he toys with traditional structure. I believe this is done not just to frustrate or entertain (Schwarz calls the preface’s satire “bland”, which is infuriating) but rather to satire the form itself (an important component of metafiction is exposing artifice of a form through that very same form, see Patricia Waugh’s Metafiction). Exposing the contradictions and failings of society is no more or less important than exposing the weakness or arbitrary nature of that society’s literature and does not come into conflict with a Marxist reading.

In summary, I believe that is is far more illuminating to allow for multiple readings of PMBC. The postmodern/metafiction reading seems to dovetail nicely with Schwarz’s Marxist reading. For students, this may be the best use of our time, as Schwarz has already provided a lengthy and venerable volume of Marxist analysis. If only there were more time…