Tag Archives: the posthumous memoirs of Brás Cubas

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…