THE DEMISE OF THE AUTHOR
I debated for a time as to whether I ought to open these memoirs at the beginning or at the end-that is, if I would start out with my birth or with my death. Granting that the common practice may be to begin with one's birth, two considerations led me to adopt a different method: the first is that I am not exactly an author recently deceased, but a deceased man recently an author, for whom the tomb was another cradle; the second is that this would make the writing wittier and more novel. Moses, who also recounted his own death, did not put it at the commencement but at the finish: a radical difference between this book and the Pentateuch.
That being said, I expired at two o'clock in the afternoon on a Friday in the month of August, 1869, at my handsome country home in Catumbi. I had seen some sixty-four robust and prosperous years, I was a bachelor, I had around three hundred thousand milris to my name, and I was accompanied to the cemetery by eleven friends. Eleven! True, there had been neither letters nor announcements. What's more, it was raining-drizzling-a fine, doleful, steady patter, so steady and so doleful that it led one of those faithful at the last to insert this inspired idea into the speech that he delivered at the edge of my grave:
You who knew him, gentlemen, you may join me in saying that nature herself seems to be weeping for the irreparable loss of one of the finest figures to have ever honored humanity. This gloom, these drops from on high, those dark clouds veiling the blue like a mourning band, all this is the raw, wicked pain tearing nature to the quick; all this is a sublime paean to our illustrious deceased.
Good, faithful friend! No, I don't regret the twenty bonds I left him. And it was thus that I came to the close of my days; it was thus that I set off for Hamlet's undiscovered country, without the young prince's anguish or doubts, but slowly and falteringly, like one leaving the stage far too late. Late and weary. Some nine or ten people saw me go, among them three ladies: my sister Sabina, married to Cotrim; her daughter, a fair lily of the valley; and . . . -A little patience, please! I'll soon tell you who the third lady was. Content yourselves for the moment with the knowledge that this anonymous woman, though no relation of mine, suffered more than those who were. It's true, she suffered more. I won't say that she tore her hair with grief or that she rolled across the floor in convulsions. Nor, for that matter, was there anything terribly dramatic about my death . . . A bachelor breathing his last at age sixty-four is hardly the classic tragedy. And even if it were, the least appropriate thing for this anonymous woman to do would have been to reveal her sentiments. Standing beside my bed, her eyes glassy, mouth half-open, this pitiful lady could barely credit my extinction.
"Dead! dead!" she repeated to herself.
And her imagination, like the storks that an illustrious traveler once saw take flight from the Ilissos, bound for the shores of Africa, heedless of the ruins and the ages-the lady's imagination also soared over the wreckage of the present to the shores of a youthful Africa . . . Let her go; we shall go later; we shall go when I restore myself to those early years. For now I want to die peacefully, methodically, hearing the sobbing of the ladies, the low murmuring of the men, the rain drumming on the caladium leaves in the garden, and the piercing sound of a razor being sharpened by a knife grinder, out by the door to a currier's shop. I swear to you all that this orchestra of death was much less sorrowful than it might seem. After a point, it became positively delightful. Life floundered in my chest like the surging of an ocean swell, my consciousness melted away, I was drifting down into physical and moral immobility, my body becoming a plant, a stone, loam, nothing at all.
I died of pneumonia; if I should say that it was less pneumonia than a grand and useful idea that caused my death, my reader may not believe me, and yet this is the truth. I will lay out the case for you in brief. Judge for yourself.
The fact is, one morning when I was out for a walk in the garden, an idea hopped up onto the trapeze in my head. Once hanging there, it began to wave its arms, swing its legs, and perform such daring tumbler's somersaults as one could scarcely believe. I let myself contemplate it. Suddenly, it took a flying leap and stretched out its legs and arms, forming an X: decipher me or I devour thee.
This idea was nothing less than the invention of a sublime remedy, an anti-hypochondriacal plaster destined to alleviate our melancholy humanity. In the patent application that I subsequently drew up, I called the government's attention to this genuinely Christian aim. To my friends, I did not deny the pecuniary advantages that were sure to result from the distribution of a product with such sweeping and profound effects. Now, however, that I am on the other side of life, I can confess it all: what drove me most of all was the gratification it would give me to see in newsprint, showcases, pamphlets, on street corners, and finally on the medicine boxes, those four words: The Br‡s Cubas Plaster. Why deny it? I had a weakness for hubbub, banners, pyrotechnics. Modest sorts may reprove this defect in me; I would wager, however, that the clever will grant me this talent. My idea had two faces, like a medal, with one turned toward the public and one toward me. On one side, philanthropy and profit; on the other, a thirst for fame. Let us call it a love of glory.
An uncle of mine, a canon receiving a full prebend, used to say that the love of temporal glory was the ruin of the soul, which ought to covet only the eternal sort. To which another uncle, an officer in one of the old tero infantry regiments, replied that the love of glory was the most authentically human thing in man, and hence his most genuine feature.
Let the reader decide between the military man and the priest; I will return to the plaster.
But, now that I've spoken of my two uncles, allow me to draw up a brief sketch of my genealogy.
The founder of my family was one Dami‹o Cubas, who flourished in the first half of the eighteenth century. He was a cooper by trade, hailing from Rio de Janeiro, where he would have died in penury and obscurity if he had limited himself to making the cubas, or barrels, that gave him his name. But no; he became a farmer, planted, reaped, and exchanged his products for a pretty and honest penny until he died, leaving a substantial fortune to a son, Lu’s Cubas. This young man is truly the start of my forebears-of the forebears that my family would own to-since Dami‹o Cubas was, after all, a cooper, and perhaps even a bad one at that, whereas Lu’s Cubas studied at Coimbra, became a distinguished statesman, and was a personal friend of the viceroy, Count da Cunha.
Since the name Cubas wafted of cooperage, my father, Dami‹o's great-grandson, alleged that the cognomen had been given to a knight, a hero of the African campaigns, in recognition of a feat in which he captured three hundred barrels from the Moors. My father was a man of great imagination; he escaped from the cooper's shop on the wings of wordplay. He was a good man, my father, worthy and loyal like few others. He had a way of putting on airs, it's true, but who in this world hasn't wrapped himself in an air or two? It may be appropriate to note that he resorted to invention only after having tried out falsification; he had initially grafted himself onto the family of my famous namesake, Captain-Major Br‡s Cubas, who founded the town of S‹o Vicente and died there in 1592, and it was for that reason that he gave me the name Br‡s. The family of the captain-major objected, however, and it was then that my father conjured up the three hundred Moorish barrels.
A few members of my family are still alive-my niece Ven‰ncia, for example, the lily of the valley, the flower of the ladies of her time; and her father, Cotrim, a fellow who . . . well, let's not anticipate events; let's be done with our plaster once and for all.
THE FIXED IDEA
My idea, after all its somersaults, had become a fixed idea. God save you, reader, from a fixed idea; better a mote in your eye, or even a beam. Look at Cavour; it was the fixed idea of Italian unity that killed him. It's true that Bismarck hasn't died; but it must be said that Nature is a fickle maid and History is an inveterate flirt. For example, Suetonius gave us a Claudius who was a simpleton, or a "pumpkinhead," as Seneca called him, and a Titus who was deservedly the delight of Rome. Recently, a professor has come along and found a way to show that of the two Caesars, the truly delightful one was Seneca's "pumpkinhead." And you, Madame Lucrezia, the flower of the Borgias, while a poet painted you as a Catholic Messalina, along came a skeptical Gregorovius to wash away a great deal of that depiction, and while you may not have come out as a lily, neither were you left a swamp. I shall let myself stand somewhere between the poet and the scholar.
Long live history, then, voluble history, which can go every which way; and, returning to fixed ideas, I shall say that they are what make strong men and madmen; wandering, vague, or shimmering ideas make for Claudiuses-in Suetonius's version, that is.
My idea was fixed, as fixed as . . . Nothing comes to mind that is quite so fixed in this world: perhaps the moon, perhaps the pyramids of Egypt, perhaps the late German Diet. The reader may pick the analogy that suits him the best; go on, pick one, and don't get your nose out of joint just because we still haven't arrived at the narrative part of these memoirs. That is where we are headed. I do believe that you prefer anecdotes to meditations, like all the other readers, your comrades, and I believe you do well to prefer them. Well, that is where we are headed. Nevertheless, it should be said that this book is written unhurriedly, at the pace of a man no longer burdened by the brevity of the age; it is a supinely philosophical work, but of an inconstant philosophy, first austere and just as quickly playful, one that neither edifies nor destroys, neither inflames nor chills, and is nevertheless more than a pastime and less than an apostolate.
All right; straighten out your nose, and let us get back to the plaster. We shall leave history, with her elegant lady's whims. None of us ever waged the Battle of Salamis or wrote the Augsburg Confession; for my part, if Cromwell ever comes to mind, it is only to think that His Highness, with the same hand that locked the doors of Parliament, might have forced the Br‡s Cubas Plaster on the English. Do not laugh at the joint triumph of pharmacy and Puritanism. Who does not know that at the foot of every large, public, prominent flag, there are often a number of other, more modestly proportioned flags, which are hoisted and flutter in the shadow of their larger counterpart, and which quite often survive it? To offer a poor analogy, it is like the rabble, sheltered in the shadow of the feudal castle; the castle fell and the rabble remained. Indeed, they became grand in their own right, a veritable stronghold . . . No, the analogy's really no good.
IN WHICH A LADY BETRAYS HERSELF
And then, just as I was occupied with preparing and perfecting my invention, I was struck squarely by a draft; I fell ill straightaway and took no steps to cure myself. I had the plaster on the brain; I bore within me the fixed idea of the mad and the strong. I beheld myself from afar, rising up from the mob-thronged ground and ascending into the heavens like an immortal eagle, and when faced with such a stupendous spectacle, no man can feel the pain that pricks at him. The following day, I was worse; I finally treated myself, but only partially, with no method, care, or persistence; such was the origin of the ill that brought me to eternity. You already know that I died on a Friday, an unlucky day, and I believe to have proven that it was my invention that killed me. Some demonstrations are less lucid, and no less triumphant for it.
It would not have been impossible for me to step over the threshold of a century and appear in the papers, in the company of other Macrobians. I was healthy and robust. Suppose that, instead of laying the foundations for a pharmaceutical invention, I had been attempting to piece together the elements of a political institution or a religious reform. The breeze would come along all the same, with far greater efficacy than the human faculty of calculation, and all would be done for. Thus goes the lot of men.
With this reflection, I bade farewell to the woman-I won't call her the most discreet, but certainly the loveliest among her contemporaries-the anonymous woman from the first chapter, the very same, whose imagination, like the storks of the Ilissos . . . She was then fifty-four years old, and she was a ruin, an imposing ruin. Just imagine, reader, that we had loved each other, she and I, many years before, and that one day, having taken ill, I see her appear at my bedroom door . . .
Copyright © 2020 by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.