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Quincas Borba, rise and fall of a spirit by the virtuous hand of a genius of universal literature

By Flavio Roberto Nunes 

“Whoever was once faced with this indecipherable enigma of our own nature, is frightened, feeling that the germ of it is deposited in us and for something invades us, takes us, crushes us and bury us in a desperate inverse and absurd understanding of ourselves. , others and the world. Each madman brings his world within himself and for him there are no more similar ones: what was before madness is very different from what comes to be after.”

Lima Barreto, Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma

  Quincas Borba, despite the preference of most critics and readers for Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, or for Dom Casmurro, is, without a doubt, Machado de Assis' most admirable novel. With a richness and complexity that all his other works are far from reaching, it amazes, in addition to other aspects, the well-achieved achievement in the intertwining of the lives of characters worthy of a portentous imagination as was, in his maturity, that of the great writer.
   Such a result was not achieved overnight. First published over five years, from 1886 to 1891, in the magazine A Estação, the book version would only come to light in 1892, a version that, by the way, was quite different from the one that was gradually appearing in this kind of illustrated newspaper aimed at the female audience, with cutting and sewing tips and advice for women who learned to play the piano and read in French, such as Maria Benedita, women who danced polkas and waltzes to the sound of the dance orchestras in the homes of the wealthy, such as Sofia, women adept of fashion and the whole modus vivendi of French society in the heat of the imperial court.


3rd Edition, 1899

    In addition to the excerpts removed and those added, the order of the chapters and even the beginning, another example of the difference between the magazine version and the one published in a book is the prologue, which is only available in the feuilleton version. Revealing the controversy surrounding the title, in this prologue Machado makes it clear that the main character of the plot is not Quincas Borba from Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, that castaway of existence, beggar, unexpected heir and inventor of a philosophy. The creator of Humanitism, it is said, will die in the first chapters, and this fact is not so important, given that the author and we readers do not need him. Therefore, Rubião is the central figure of this construct published over five years, with many interruptions and delays whose reasons, despite the efforts of biographers, remain obscure to this day.
   This living picture, filled with references to other authors and works of universal wisdom, appears to us as a kind of philosophical-literary encyclopedia. Cervantes, Shakespeare, La Fontaine (“the Gallic Homer”), Fielding, Gógol, Goethe, Poe, Flaubert, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Spencer, and the novel Saint-Clair das Ilhas, by the English writer Elizabeth Helme, read by Major Siqueira, are some of the great classics in the intertextuality of a work at the time difficult to classify. Like Capistrano de Abreu, who had already asked himself if Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas was a novel, José Veríssimo, another respected critic, also a contemporary of Machado, even proposed a restructuring of the criteria and standards of criticism to analyze it. However, as not even Jesus Christ pleased everyone, as they say, there were also those who violently disparaged both the novel and its author. Sílvio Romero, another famous critic of the time, although out of pure resentment and revenge for having had one of his works previously criticized in a negative way by Machado, called Rubião a “no-nonsense lunatic” and Brás Cubas a “cloying adulterer”, saying that both were not they went from “pretentious and insignificant in their pretentiousness, two geeks, conventional types, true abortions of an imagination with no real creative force, coming from the pen of a writer who does nothing but ape Sterne…” Well, let’s leave Sílvio Romero with his drool of Cain and let's talk about the style, sober as a Greek temple and finely ironic, of our author.
    In Quincas Borba's pages, we do not find a description of the landscapes of Rio de Janeiro, odes to exotic birds, to idealized Indians or anything else. This is not a documentary about customs, literature loaded with local color, as they say. What is there is a deep probing inside the human soul. Psychology is what occupies the foreground, although the historical background, according to its importance, does not fail to receive its due treatment. More relevant, however, are the feelings that arise in these souls due to motives, feelings common to all men and women of all times and places. As happens at the moment of the externalization of a Natural Force, jealousy, carnal passion, envy, ambition, hatred, that is, all those universal manifestations of human character that reason throws at the concept of feeling appear as soon as the factors appear. that cause them to introduce themselves to the characters. Through his gestures, thoughts and words, his intentions become patent, but only for us readers. Rubião, in his simplicity and imprudence, aggravated by madness, will always be a mere pawn in the hands of the scoundrel.



Defoe, Fielding and Sterne: Inward sources of the novel

  Still speaking of intertextuality, I can't think of any other Brazilian novelist who has carried a novel of his with so many quotes and allusions. Without forgetting that it was Machado who incorporated the English tradition into our literature, until then little or nothing explored by Brazilian authors, who were more in line with the French. Some criticize the procedure. And yet, it seems even difficult to have literary creation that is present without the contribution of tradition. There is no isolated work. The genius of a western writer inevitably passes through his relationship with the European canon. Everything that is civilizing, for better or for worse, comes to us from Europe, and literature could not be otherwise. The craftsman, with his intuitions worked out in a rational way, seizes everything that is available to him. So is the author of Quincas Borba, who parodies and satirizes until he no longer wants to tell the story of a progressive dementia in a spirit that is nonetheless an allegory of the decadence of the Brazilian political system that was also disintegrating.
    There are several characters, several melodic lines that intertwine around the theme of madness in a country of enslaved people. A problem for a nineteenth-century novelist. How to touch the point of slavery? How to handle the problem? ignore it? Incorporate it with or without criticism, with or without value judgments? Here is something decisive. The point of view of the narrators and characters of Machado de Assis is, for the most part, that of the upper middle class, the bourgeoisie, the bureaucracy, the nobility, those who did not work and considered blacks a filthy beast. Brás Cubas could not be anything. However, as he says, relieved, at least he didn't have to earn his bread with the sweat of his own brow; Palha, owner of the firm Palha e Cia, a large import house on Rua da Alfândega, advises Rubião on the need to have only white servants in the house. They are marquises, counts, viscounts, diplomats, magistrates, politicians participating in the warm and disturbed sections of the Chamber, newspaper owners, characters who reveal to us the morality of the time, difficult but not impossible to be analyzed in the light of today, despite the supreme effort of thought that demands this return to the past. Something that stands out in the nature of these creatures, given the pessimism of the writer, has a lot to do with the skepticism of Brazilians in general, the disbelief concealed in the face of conventions.



Artistic projections of sociopolitical feelings

    A writer with Machado's talent, in addition to being a master of short stories, could only have done very well in the romance genre. The list of works that try to explain the format is extensive, whether it already existed in antiquity with Menippean satire, whether it emerged with Cervantes or Defoe until it was consolidated with Fielding, Sterne, etc. Perhaps the genre only made sense even in Modernity, it is an expression of its own, not being able to exist outside of it. It is the prose epic of a world without God, different from Antiquity and the Middle Ages, in which the meaning of individuals' lives was evident. In the modern novel, one runs after a meaning and comes face to face with the absurd. But one cannot have a precise definition for such an anarchic, multiform genre, whose only rule is that there are no rules to create it. The argument of extension to differentiate it from the novel or the short story is the least sustained. What is certain is that it is a genre that can contain all other conceivable genres and styles of text. What better format would lend itself to an artist like Machado, situated on the periphery of the world, someone who has innumerable perplexities within sight and who needs to arrange them in a place that welcomes everything with benevolence?
   The title of the book is a kind of gimmick. Anyone who has read Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas thinks they will read more about the life of the philosopher who was a childhood friend of Brás Cubas. He is then faced with a story already in progress, in media res , with Rubião and his sense of ownership staring at the cove from the window of a large house in the neighborhood of Botafogo, thinking about what it was, what it is, the beautiful Sofia, the death of his friend Quincas Borba, who had almost married Piedade, Rubião's sister. Here he just needs to thank God that she died before marrying Quincas Borba, which would prevent him from being the universal heir in his friend's will. “So that what seemed to be a disgrace…” is Rubião's thought, in the free indirect speech, masterfully worked by Machado when rotating the characters' points of view. Until you go back to the past, and the story starts to be told from the beginning, to then arrive again where you left off and so on. The reader feels as if deceived and at the same time delighted with the artist's maneuver. Quincas Borba, who goes to the end with Rubião, is the dog he is given the task of raising under penalty of not receiving the inheritance. Another title conundrum. Is it the philosopher, who has also gone mad and seems to have passed the grain of nonsense to Rubião, or is it the dog? In the end, the narrator will tell us that it doesn't matter even that, nor even less if we cry or laugh with the luck of Rubião and his animal. The Southern Cross, the constellation that Rubião had asked Sofia to look at, remembering him, is high enough to discern the laughter and tears of mere mortals.


Axe: as a wizard between two worlds


  The narrative focus here could not be other than the third person. At first, it would be almost impossible to explore the subjectivities of each character to such an extent, deepen the subtleties, ambiguities, adopt the various points of view, refract the word in the indirect discourse book in which the author as if incarnates in the characters. Approaching and distancing himself from each subjectivity, in a kind of kaleidoscopic narrative polyphony, the author takes us out of Barbacena with Rubião and Quincas Borbacão and inserts us into the different logic of a metropolis by the sea where everyone wears masks, and, therefore, it is not known for sure who is who. “The court is the devil”, says one of the characters to Rubião, who, in the living room of his house in Botafogo, displays, in addition to carved silver trays, the bronze figures of a Mephistopheles and a Faust. The court thus represents the circles of a hell where adultery, betrayal, lust, avarice, prodigality and relativism parade, since the landscape and everything else depends on the point of view, and “the best way to appreciate the whip is to have the handle in your hand”.
    Quincas Borba's philosophy, Humanitism, is something latent throughout the novel. Rubião, dressed in an eleven-pole shirt, as they used to say in Rio de Janeiro, will suffer his foundations in his own skin. “To the victor, the potatoes”, he will die repeating in his final delirium. Most of Rubião's potatoes will stay with Cristiano de Almeida Palha and his wife, Sofia, while the rest will be squandered and devoured by other guests and diners, his new “friends” in the capital. But this philosophy is far from being taken seriously by the author here. He treats her ironically, making fun of her. After all, the principles of doctrine are great and ingenious sophistries that do not hold up to a more attentive audience. In fact, Quincas Borba's philosophy, which he thought of baptizing with the name Borbismo, see you!, is a parody of the various philosophical, aesthetic and pseudoscientific currents in vogue at the time, such as Positivism, Darwinism, Naturalism, among other justifiers of inequalities and suffering. The weak that break. To the winners, the potatoes. It is not even remotely a Naturalist novel, written to corroborate a thesis, that of Humanitism, which in essence is the philosophy of a head seriously consumed by insanity. On several occasions, Quincas Borba explained to Rubião some principles of his doctrine. There is no death, Humanitas is hungry and needs to eat, Humanitas is in all things, it is a recondite and identical substance, a single and universal principle, eternal, indestructible and indivisible, although, deceived by our senses, by our perception, we see it. divided into phenomena only apparently different and separate from one another. In the death of individuals, only the phenomenon disappears, the substance remains the same, so that there is no place for man's rationality and freedom, for reason, for his intellectual work. There is only Humanitas, every man is Humanitas, no man is opposed to another man, the victim is the same as the executioner, there is no dialectic, envy is a virtue, and while peace means destruction, war is necessary to conservation, and so on to the most absurd absurdities.


Arthur Schopenhauer: philosophy of moral consolation

  And so I invite the reader who has not yet done so to enter this universe populated by angels and demons, more demons than angels, it is true, all gravitating around our Rubião, from his departure to his return to Barbacena, passing through dark hours of delusions, forgetfulness, mental disorders and confusion. It has comadre Angélica, Cristiano Palha, Sofia, Carlos Maria, Freitas (the architect of ruins), Dona Tonica and Dona Fernanda (the only two living beings perhaps endowed with a high character in history), Camacho, Major Siqueira, beggars, slaves, pages and many others who came out of the virtuous pen of a writer who had that sincerity of the word and seemed to have really seen the things he reported. On these days, when I finished rereading his books, I paid a visit to the Academia Brasileira de Letras, of which, in addition to being one of its founders, he was also its first president. When I saw the beautiful bronze statue of him built by Bartolomeu Humberto Cozzo, in 1929, in honor of the ninetieth birthday of the writer from Rio de Janeiro, I thought to myself: “Not bad for a stutterer and epileptic mulatto, grandson of freed slaves and born poor in the Morro do Livramento at the height of slavery... So what looked like a disgrace...”

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