“Ex Cathedra” — Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

“Ex Cathedra”


Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

translated by

Rhett McNeil


“Godfather, you’ll go blind from that, sir.”


“You’re going to go blind. Reading is so sad. No sir, give me that book.”

Caetaninha took the book out of his hands. Her godfather paced around and then went into his study, where there was no lack of books. He closed the door behind him and kept reading. That was his vice. He read excessively; he read morning, noon, and night, during lunch and dinner, before going to sleep, after bathing; he read as he walked, read standing up, read in his house and in his barn; he read before reading and he read after reading; he read all sorts of books, but especially books on law (in which he’d received his degree), mathematics, and philosophy. Lately, he’d also been reading up on the natural sciences.

Worse than going blind, he went crazy. It was near the end of 1873, in Tijuca, when he started to show signs of mental disturbance; but, since the episodes were minor and few, his goddaughter only started to notice the difference in March or April of 1874. One day, over lunch, he interrupted his reading to ask her:

“What’s my name again?”

“What’s your name, godfather?” she repeated, astonished. “Your name is Fulgencio.”

“From this day forth, my name will be Fulgencius.”

And, burying his face in the book, he went on reading. Caetaninha mentioned the episode to the slave women, who admitted that they’d had their doubts about him for some time, that he hadn’t seemed well. Just imagine how fearful she was; but her fear soon passed, leaving only compassion behind, which increased her affection for him. His mania was also limited and docile, and was only related to books. Fulgencio lived for the written word, the printed word, doctrines, abstract thought, principles, and formulas. He eventually passed from mere superstition to true hallucination of the theoretical. One of his maxims was that liberty would not die, so long as there was a single piece of paper on which to declare it. So one day, waking up with the idea of improving the condition of the Turks, he wrote a constitution for them and sent it to the British diplomat in Petrópolis as a gift. On another occasion, he set about studying the eyes in anatomy books to verify whether they were really able to see, and concluded that they were.

Tell me, readers, whether, under such conditions, Caetaninha’s life could have been a happy one? It’s true that she wanted for nothing, because her godfather was rich. He had been the one who’d raised her, from the age of seven, when he lost his wife. He had taught her to read and write, French, and a little bit – so as not to say almost nothing – of history and geography, and had charged the domestic slaves with teaching her embroidery, lace-making, and sewing. There’s no denying any of that. But Caetaninha had turned fourteen and, if, in the early years, her toys and the slaves were enough to entertain her, she was now at an age when toys go out of style and slaves hold no interest, when no amount of reading or writing can transform a solitary house in Tijuca into a paradise. She went out sometimes, but rarely, and always in a rush. She never went to the theater or to dances, never made or received visits. Whenever she saw a cavalcade of men and women on horseback out in the street, her soul would ride pillion on one of the horses and ride off with them, leaving only her body behind, right next to her godfather, who kept on reading.

One day, while she was out by the barn, she saw a young man mounted on a little mule approach the gate, and heard him ask her if this was the house of Doctor Fulgencio.

“Yes, sir, this is.”

“May I speak with him?”

Caetaninha replied that she would see about it. She walked into the house and went to the study, where she found her godfather contemplating, with the most delighted, beatific expression on his face, a chapter of Hegel.

“A young man? What young man?”

Caetaninha told him that the young man was in mourning clothes.

“Mourning clothes?” repeated the old doctor of law, hastily closing his book. “It must be him.”

I forgot to mention (although there’s time enough for everything here) that three months earlier, Fulgencio’s brother had passed away up north, leaving behind a son. A few days before he died, the brother wrote him, entrusting him with the orphan he would soon leave alone, and Fulgencio replied that he should come down to Rio de Janeiro. When he heard that there was a young man in mourner’s garb at his gate, he assumed that it must be his nephew, and he was right to do so. It was the nephew indeed.

It seems that, up to this point, there has been nothing in this story that departs in any way from a naively romantic tale: we have an old lunatic, a lonely, sighing maiden, and we’ve just seen a nephew suddenly arrive on the scene. So that we don’t come down from the poetic region in which we currently find ourselves, let me merely mention that the mule on which Raimundo arrived was led to the stables by one of the blacks; I’ll also gloss over the circumstances pertaining to the young man’s accommodations, limiting myself to mentioning that, since his uncle had completely forgotten that he’d told him to come – by dint of spending all his waking hours reading – nothing was ready for him at the house. But it was a big, affluent house, and, an hour later, the young man was set up in a gorgeous bedroom, from which he could see the barn, the old well, the wash basins, plenty of green leaves, and the vast blue sky.

The idea of getting them to marry somehow fused together with one of his recent opinions that love was conducted in empirical fashion and lacked a scientific basis.”

I believe I haven’t yet mentioned the young guest’s age. He has fifteen years under his belt and a hint of fluff on his upper lip; he’s nearly a child. Now, if this made our dear Caetaninha restless, and if the slave women went from one end of the house to the other eavesdropping and talking about “ole massa’s nephew from out of town,” it was only because there was nothing else going on in their lives there, not because he was a dashing, grown man. The man of the house had this same impression, but there’s a difference here. The goddaughter didn’t realize that the purpose of upper-lip fluff is to one day become a mustache, or if she did think about this, she only did so in passing, and it’s not worth writing it down here. Not so with old Fulgencio. He understood that he had before him the makings of a husband, and he resolved to get them to marry. But he also saw that, short of taking them by the hand and ordering them to love each other, chance and circumstance could lead these things down a different path.

One idea begets another. The idea of getting them to marry each other somehow fused together with one of his recent opinions. It went like this: in matters of the heart, calamities or simple displeasures stemmed from the fact that love was conducted in empirical fashion and lacked a scientific basis. A man and a woman who understood the physical and metaphysical reasons for this feeling would be more apt to receive it and nurture it effectively than another man and woman who knew nothing of the phenomenon.

“My little ones are yet green,” he said to himself, “I have three or four years ahead of me, and I can start preparing them now. We’ll proceed logically: first the foundations, then the walls, then the ceiling… instead of starting with the ceiling straight away… A day will come when people learn to love the way they learn to read… And on that day…”

He was stunned, dazzled, delirious. He went over to the bookshelves, pulled down a few volumes – astronomy, geology, physiology, anatomy, jurisprudence, political science, linguistics – and opened them, leafed through them, compared them, copying down a little from this one and little from that one, until he had a program of study. It was composed of twenty chapters, in which he put forth general concepts about the universe, a definition of life, a demonstration of the existence of man and woman, the organization of societies, the definition and analysis of the passions, a definition and analysis of love, as well as its causes, necessities, and effects. To tell the truth, the subjects were daunting, but he intended to make them more amenable, discussing them with simple, common language, giving them a purely familiar tone, like Fontenelle’s astronomy. And he stated emphatically that the essential part of the fruit was the pulp, not the peel.

All of this was ingenious, but here’s the most ingenious part: he didn’t invite them to learn. One night, gazing up at the sky, he said that the stars were shining brightly. And what were stars, after all? Did they, perchance, know what stars really were?

“No, sir.”

It was only a small step from this point to the beginning of a description of the universe. Fulgencio took this step so nimbly and naturally that they were enchanted, and asked for the entire journey.

“No,” said the old man, “let’s not exhaust it all today. This can’t be understood well if it isn’t learned slowly. Maybe tomorrow or the day after…”

Read the rest of “Ex Cathedra” at Bookanista.

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