More on Machado
Dr. Damien-Adia Marassa
Black Holes, Gravity at its Extreme, or the Body Magnetism of Machado de Assis
Machado de Assis is the core around which all Brazilian letters revolve. Having long become an international center of attention, located at the heart of the so-called “periphery of capital,” Machado stands as a pivotal figure in the contemporary reappraisal of Brazilian literatures both within Brazil and abroad, catalyzed in part by ongoing contestations of the racial imagination and the meanings of slavery for the future present of Brazilian society. As it turns out, and as has always been known, Machado’s writings illuminate and alight upon such urgent matters of our time, from within the time and place addressed in the majority of his writings; the city of Rio de Janeiro where Machado spent most of the 19th century, 8 years of the 20th and, posthumously, all of our present. Situated at the vanishing point of a Transatlantic horizon, where African chattel slavery and the (post-/neo-)colonial nation-state conjoin with the self-conscious imperialist desire for a cultural ambassador to the world, an export to double for internal consumption, fit for the once and forever "country of the future."
The mandate to produce this Old World’s utopia in the Americas, a “new” world built to the fantastic specifications of a return to the garden (think, Caetano Veloso’s “brutality garden”), mixed the industry of colonial expansion with racial enjoyment and extractive mastery. It was still the order of the day for the Brazilian aristocracy at the heyday of Machado’s writing career, rounding out the previous century whose crisis W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed as “the problem of the color line.” The color line of the 21st century, as the case may be, may yet turn out to be the problem of Brazil’s Machado de Assis; or, more precisely, the color line of Machado’s Brazil problem.
Machado’s heritage as a descendant of slaves, suffering since childhood from epilepsy, racial discrimination, and the loss of his immediate family is easy to read in the nature of his explicit concerns, motivations, and empathies as a writer so finely attuned to the intellectual currents of his time, white and black across the Americas and the Transatlantic. Even as he connected through his writing to social formations and communication networks of the social elite and the undercommons of his age, Machado was distinguished with highest honors of the court of the Republic, as well as emphatically championing in his lifestyle and writing the everydayness of his and Rio de Janeiro's disavowed, invisible blackness.
Picture Machado – having lost a sister in her infancy, his mother when he was 10, and abandoned by his father in his teen years – coming home from work to read by candlelight; his future publishing career before him, now already begun with the poem Ella (“She”) dedicated to the memory of his departed sibling. Published by Francisco de Paula Brito in 1855, “She” becomes both a testament to the spiritual connection with the deceased that Machado would maintain throughout the rest of his writing career as a consistent theme, if not a real or metaphoric ancestor (muse?) to the nine plays, nine novels, scores of short stories, and hundreds of chronicles he would o/pen with the key of his brilliance.
Dom Casmurro, dubbed the Brazilian Othello by Helen Caldwell, is the novel most often described as his greatest work and praised, by some, as the greatest South American novel of the century and since. I do not wish to weigh in to qualify this praise, other than to exclaim at the superlative qualities that attach themselves to his person, and equally as to his art, such that for very justifiable reasons, at times these two can seem become confused to an enlightening effect and we lose site of the line separating Machado and his body of work. This is an effect of his own writing, clearly in evidence in the seminal realist novel of Brazilian literature and Machado’s “breakthrough” work, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas published the early 1890s. In both preceding and subsequent publications, however, the narrative point of view of Machadian fictions are often found to be posthumous persons or a narrator undergoing massive life transition at the limit between death and life.
The facts seem remarkable; that no other writer has been conjectured to be of greater importance in the Western Hemisphere, and that this master on the periphery is actually a marked man at the center or source of the accumulation that wrought the center. In other words, as a black Brazilian writer, who accomplishes what he does for the Brazilian language and literature, Machado actually places Brazil's enormous economic role in the 18th-19th century global economy (directed from the lesson of the Haitian Revolution and American Civil War, both of which the Brazilian elite had observed with horror) as a cultural project requiring a radical and extensive critique of Brazilian slavery society within a Trans-Atlantic framework. As Roberto Schwarz has argued in his extensive analysis, one encounters such a critique nowhere in more breadth and depth of analysis than in the work of Machado de Assis. This type of Black Atlantic optic has been adopted and propounded in recent years, with varying motives and approaches, by scholars such as Paul Gilroy, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and Achille Mbembe.
Although Machado de Assis would become a straw man for the types of critiques of nationhood and identity to which the Brazilian modernist movements would subject him, and whom they were too busy being modern to read (or otherwise consume), his insight into the substance of modernity outstripped, in my opinion, the insights of his ad hoc and ad hominum critics, remaining an incommensurable muse for some of the most inspired voices of Brazilian literature and poetry, even influencing other South American writers like Borges, Fernandez, Marquez, and Cortazar. In Machado's analysis of the consumerist production of the world through capitalism, which is to say, the devouring of peoples, places, and things of capitalist appropriation, he proved blackness to be not on the side of the cannibal - modern or not - but, like what Fred Moten has discovered/desired blackness to be, more of a contagion – a virus that makes you dance, which alters the subject of modernity in uncanny ways.
In this sense, Machado seems to be not the satellite of the earth, but rather, the Sun of our solar system.
I mean for this analogy to be abstracted quite concretely to suggest that Machado is literally our greatest writer. This our is the ours of Jose Marti, the “our” of the letters of European and African languages meeting (in secret) upon his tongue, penned as the first fitting language of Brazil. The language groups that Machado inscribes in his works are a quotidian, everyday fact of the multiple peoples of the world who have helped to fashion the destiny and fortunes of a city with one of the largest black populations in the world. Given his critique of Indianism and other movements in early American writings, notable in the works of José de Alencar which sought to devise an exotic new language from an ethnography of indigenous languages and narratives, Machado’s is a largely, if not entirely, Afro-Brazilian employment of the Portuguese language, working influences into the archive rather than working them into commodities. Machado is, ironically in some ways, one of the greatest proofs that Africa is still, as it was, an integral part - perhaps even at the midmost heart - of the development of the West as much as of the Americas.
In order to grasp, in their proper dimensions, the world-historical and planetary significance of Machado de Assis and (or because of) his body of work, we might consider the effects of his writing on the country and the times in which he lived by considering this influence on the scale of the cosmos. The gravity of his multiple destiny and the multiple densities of his spiritual, cultural, and bibliographical influences place Machado’s coveted literary, and racialized, historical bodies at a tipping point of a compressive force. A black hole is gravity at its extreme, that almost unthinkable phenomenon of mind and matter bending force that comes into being from the explosion of a super nova, taking light, matter, vibration and sound, all across another threshold, into the mystery of another world opened up within this world. Because the news that Machado brings to us is ancient and hot off the press; it's been around and can't wait to be found out.
His work is, like our universe, constantly expanding.
- Read more of Dr. Damien-Adia Marassa's work.
- Read Dr. Damien-Adia Marassa's translation of Machado's play The Gods in Suits (Os Deuses de Casaca).