The Alienist by Machado de Assis

The Alienist, another of the recent Art of the Novella publications, is, shamefully, the first thing I have managed to read in full by Machado de Assis. (Dom Casmurro, I hear you calling my name, and loudly, don’t worry!) The title may be a bit puzzling—it’s a little-used synonym for psychiatriast, and probably chosen because it is closer to the original O alienista.

The scene is set with a description of the rise of Simão Bacamarte, “one of the greatest doctors in all Brazil, Portugal, and the Spains”—at least, according to “[t]he chronicles of Itaguai,” a town in Brazil somewhat distant from Rio de Janeiro. After distinguishing himself around South America and Europe, the doctor decides he wants to specialize in what he describes as “[t]he loftist possible goal for a doctor,” that is, “[t]he health of the soul.” Dr. Bacamarte, now settled back in Itaguai, decides to open an asylum—something never before contemplated there, and which makes people a bit nervous. But the town council comes around right away, and The Green House is established.

As the brilliant doctor that he is, Bacamarte not only treats people in The Green House, but he also decides who must be treated there. And I do mean “must.” Involuntary confinement begins first for those widely recognized as mad, but soon extends to those who aren’t so recognized—and soon, to anyone who dares to question Bacamarte’s decisions on the subject. After all, if you’re questioning the opinions of a psychiatrist on someone’s insanity, you must be insane! This all comes from Bacamarte’s special theory about insanity: “Till now, madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of sanity. I am beginning to suspect that it is not an island at all but a continent.” That is, most people are insane.

Soon, many in Itaguai are more than worried, and there is a small and unsuccessful insurrection. The Green House continues to absord more and more of the population. Eventually, Bacamarte begins to change his theories on madness. He was wrong all along! All the asylum-dwellers are let out, and replaced with everyone who hadn’t previously been confined! This is again because of Bacamarte’s special theory, or rather, a reversal thereof: how could nearly everyone be mad? He must have been wrong—a touch of insanity is normal, and it is those who appear completely sane who are not (and, thus, in need of medical attention).

The jacket copy of the Melville House edition, translated by William T. Grossman, asks, “How can one individual judge another’s sanity? And what do you do when your community is held to ransom by a mad despot who does a frighteningly good impression of a rational human being?” I think these questions are far too reductive. The problem in Itaguai is not really Dr. Bacamarte: it is the insidious label of “madness” and the conclusion so easily assumed from it, that the mad must be involuntarily incarcerated, not because of their acts, but because of an alleged medical condition that can not be satisfactorily described, understood, or otherwise pinpointed by medical professionals at all. Itaguai is eventually saved when Bacamarte sequesters himself in The Green House, but the accusation of madness and its consequences are still as dangerous as ever—Machado de Assis’s satire goes far beyond these bounds.

I have given you hardly any of the writing, which is lovely. This is, as they say, “a ripping tale.” And very funny. Read it!