Literature in quarantine: Journey around my room

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By Antonio Candido*

Commentary on the classic book by Xavier de Maistre

1.

A simple guess, without investigation to give it solidity, and that perhaps someone has already formulated: the mature “manner” of Machado de Assis, defined with the posthumous memories, could be due in part (small part though it may be) to the influence of Xavier de Maistre.

Everyone remembers the note “To the reader”: “It is, in fact, a diffuse work, in which I, Brás Cubas, if I adopted the free form of a Sterne or a Xavier de Maistre, I don't know if I put some moods of pessimism. Could it be". In the “Prologue of the third edition”, commenting on Antônio Joaquim de Macedo Soares' observation that the book recalled the Travel in my land, by Garrett, Machado concludes, after quoting the words above, attributed to his character: “All these people traveled: Xavier de Maistre around the room, Garrett in his land, Sterne in the land of others. Of Brás Cubas one can perhaps say that he traveled around the wheel of life”.

Sterne is distinguished in world literature; Garrett is illustrious in the Portuguese language; Xavier de Maistre is obscure even in French. It is only natural, therefore, that we only think of the first one, when we find the dotted chapters of Brás Cubas (55 and 139), its lightning chapters (such as 102, 107, 132 or 136), Virgília's scribble in Chapter 142 However, Xavier de Maistre, who was the one who used the dotted lines, but adopted other “oddities” from Sterne, may have influenced Machado de Assis as much or more than he did, judging by some indications that we will see later. And maybe he even served as a mediator between the two, thanks to the dominating presence of French literature in Brazil.

When Machado speaks of “free manner”, he is thinking of something practiced by De Maistre: capricious, digressive narrative, which comes and goes, leaves the road to take shortcuts, cultivates the a-purpose, erases the straight line, suppresses connections. It is facilitated by the short, apparently arbitrary chapter, which breaks up the continuity and allows jumping from one thing to another. Instead of coordinating the variety through extensive divisions, the author prefers to emphasize the autonomy of the parts in brief units, which, by facilitating the “diffuse” mode, enrich the effect of the whole with the insinuating charm of suspended information, typical of the fragment.

In Machado de Assis's novels, this mode corresponds to entering the second stage. The first four he published are because he liked it, but he rinsed it in his vitriol. As to the matter, it is evident, for example, that Chapter 154, "The Ships of Piraeus," repeats an anecdote mentioned in Chapter 37 of the travel, which Xavier de Maistre would have extracted from Fontenelle, as I read in the note of an edition of his text made in Italy. But in my opinion, the most important thing is the issue of involuntary acts, which in Xavier de Maistre are a central support of the narrative and appear episodically in Brás Cubas, but in a way that leaves no doubt as to the transposition.

It would be a case of remembering that the Trip around my room it is a significant moment in the process of awareness, by literature, of the split personality, a theme of notorious importance in Romanticism, which would come to have overwhelming force in our time. By the way, this is not the only precursor feature in Xavier de Maistre's work, but here it is the only one that interests me.

2.

Count Xavier de Maistre (younger brother and godson of the famous reactionary thinker Joseph de Maistre) was born in 1763 in Savoy, a French-speaking region that then belonged to the Kingdom of Sardinia, in whose armed forces he was an officer. Later he emigrated to Russia, where he married, became a general, lived most of his life and died in 1852, very old. Because of a disciplinary transgression, when he was a lieutenant, he was imprisoned for forty days in a Piedmont fortress and he described with wit and grace the imaginary journey around his prison room. This and other writings of his had a certain success in France, to whose literature he belongs despite being a foreigner who only knew Paris in his late teens. On the occasion of this visit, Sainte-Beuve wrote a complimentary article about him, which appears in the Garnier edition of his complete works, in one volume.

The trip (obviously influenced by Tristran Shandy and sentimental journey, by Sterne) describes his movements in the room, getting up and going to bed, meals, pictures and objects, small incidents, his dog Rosina and his servant Joanetti, all filled with digressions and reflections from the which highlights the interest in involuntary acts, including those that would later be called failures.

These acts presuppose disagreement between the levels of psychic life, as if there were more than one being within us and they could eventually disagree and even conflict. Xavier de Maistre explains the division by means of a “philosophical law” that he humorously claims to have discovered, namely: within man the “soul” and the “animal” coexist in a not always peaceful way (the beast), also called “the other”. The “soul” is reason and conscience, in the psychological and moral sense; the “animal” is the instincts, but also the spontaneity of feelings and actions. Throughout amusing cases and incidents, he suggests that the relations between the two are complicated and he always pretends to be in solidarity with the “soul”, but in many cases his greater complacency with the manifestations of the “animal” is evident.

A curious passage is the one that reports a nocturnal emission, typical mischief of the “other”, severely faced by the “soul”, but nevertheless analyzed with tolerant sympathy. Later, already installed in respectability, Xavier de Maistre disapproved of this literary boldness and expressed the desire that the respective chapter be suppressed in future editions – being heard today by the prudish organizer of the aforementioned Italian edition.

The “soul” and the “other” can thus act as if they were independent, maintaining a whimsical relationship, illustrated by accidents and distractions that seem as significant and characteristic of the being as conscious acts. It is as if Xavier de Maistre were inaugurating, more than a century before Freud, something similar to what the latter would call “the psychopathology of everyday life”, based on the analysis of lapses.

Example: the narrator tells that, leaving home to go to the Royal Palace, in Turin, he plunged into a meditation on painting and when he realized he was arriving at the house of a beauty (with whom he would be dreaming many pages later when the pollution happened). . Here is the final excerpt of the chapter: “While my soul was making these reflections, the other was going on its own, and God knows where it was going! — Instead of going to court, as he had been ordered, he veered so far to the left that by the time my soul caught up with him he was at the door of Madame de Hautcastel, half a mile from the royal palace. Let the reader think of what would have happened if he had entered the house of such a beautiful lady alone.”

The narrator hints at the kind of loose behavior that the “other” would have towards Madame de Hautcastel without the control of reason, but what the Brazilian reader thinks is that he has already read something similar, in Chapter 66, “The legs”, of the The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, where the “deceased author” tells how, thinking of his mistress, they took him without his noticing to the hotel where he used to have meals: “Yes, friendly legs, you left it to my head to think about Virgilia, and you said a to the other: – He needs to eat, it's time for dinner, let's take him to Pharoux; let's share his conscience, one part stays there with the lady, let's take the other, so that he goes straight, doesn't collide with people and carts, takes his hat off to acquaintances, and finally arrives safe and sound at the hotel”.

Here, contrary to the text quoted above, automatism does right, not wrong, but the mechanism is the same, as well as the implications and tone of humor.

3.

It seems clear, therefore, that Xavier de Maistre permeated Machado de Assis' narrative turn, as Machado de Assis suggests in the aforementioned note to the reader. Talent of infinitely superior scope, he realized that in the modest and charming travel the theory of the “other” was a mild device to illustrate without pedantry the complexity and contradictions of behavior and the mind. In his work, automatism, here and elsewhere, meshes with a much richer and more expressive treatment of the divisions of being, but that doesn't make it any less the debt in relation to the official writer that today few consider and some even despise, like André Gide in a certain passage of the daily, where (as if he were thinking acrimoniously of Machado de Assis) he writes that nothing irritated him more than a certain conventional spirit “like Sterne and Xavier de Maistre”…

*Antonio Candido (1918-2017) was Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP.

Article originally published on USP Magazine.

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