Sunday, 13 September 2015 15:29

The Mirror

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By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.

Translation by Wilson Loria. Originally published in Reprinted with permission.

Draft of a new theory of the Human Soul

One night, four or five gentlemen debated over various issues of high transcendency; however, the disparity of opinions did not bring about the least alteration of their spirits. The house stood on the hill of Santa Tereza; the room was small, lit by candles whose light mysteriously blended with the moonlight that came in from outside. Between the city -- with its agitation and adventures -- and the sky -- where the stars winked in a limpid and calm atmosphere - were our four or five investigators of metaphysical things, in friendly fashion, resolving the most arduous problems of the Universe.

Why four or five? To be exact four spoke, but besides these four, there was a fifth character in the room who was quiet, thoughtful, dozing off, and whose contribution to the debate was nothing but grunts of approval now and then. This man was old as the others, between forty and fifty, provincial, a capitalist, intelligent, not lacking education, and apparently astute and caustic. He never argued with anyone and he defended his absence from the conversation with a paradox, saying that a discussion was the polite form of the fighting instinct that lies deep in Man, like an inheritance from bestial times, adding that angels and cherubs never disagreed with anything, and in fact were spiritual and eternal perfection.

As he gave this same answer that night, one of the men present contested it and challenged him to demonstrate what he was saying if he could. Jacobina -- that was his name -- reflected for a moment and answered, "Come to think of it, perhaps you, my good man, are right."

Suddenly, in the middle of the night, it happened that the fellow started to speak, not for one or three, but for thirty or forty minutes. The conversation, in its meanderings, eventually came to the nature of the soul, an issue that radically set the four friends apart. To each his own; not only agreement among them, but the discussion itself became difficult if not impossible because of the multiplicity of the questions springing from the main topic, and a bit, perhaps,because of the inconsistency of opinions. One of the debaters asked Jacobina for an opinion -- a conjecture, at least.

"Neither a conjecture nor an opinion," he answered back. "Either may provoke dissension, and as you know, I do not argue. But if you want to listen to me in silence, I can tell you something that happened to me once, which is the clearest demonstration of what you are talking about... First, there is not only one soul, but two...


"No fewer than two. Each human creature carries with him two souls: one that looks from inside outside and another that looks from outside inside... Be as amazed as you wish, let your mouths hang open, shrug your shoulders, anything, but I do not admit rebuttal. If you question me, I shall finish my cigar and go to bed. The external soul can be a spirit, a fluid, a man, many men, an object, an operation. There are cases, for example, in which an ordinary shirt button is the external soul of a person; -- the same, as a polka, a card game, a book, a machine, a pair of boots, a melody, a drum, etc. It is clear that the task of this second soul is to transmit life, like the first soul; both fulfill Man, who is, metaphysically speaking, an orange. He who loses one of the halves, naturally loses the half of his existence; and there are cases -- not so rare -- in which the loss of the external soul implies the loss of the entire existence. Shylock, for example. The soul of that Jew was his ducats; losing them was equivalent to death. 'I will never see my gold again,' he said to Tubal. 'It's a dagger thrust into my heart.' Pay attention to that line; the loss of the ducats, the external soul, was death to him. Now, it is necessary to know that the external soul is not always the same..."


"No, sir. It changes in nature and state. I am not talking about certain absorbing souls like the mother country which Camões said he would die with, or the power that was the external soul of Caesar and Cromwell. These are energetic and unique souls; there are others, likewise full of energy, but of a mutable nature. There are gentlemen, for example, whose external soul in their first year of life was their rattle or wooden horse, and later, we may suppose, was their Masonry group. I myself know a lady -- in reality extremely kind -- who changes her external soul five, six times a year. During the opera season, it is the opera; when the season is over, her external soul is replaced by another: a concert, a ball at the Casino, Ouvidor Street, Petrópolis..."

"Pardon me, but who is this lady?"

"This lady is a relative of the devil's and has the same name. Her name is Legion... and like this, there are other cases. I myself have experienced these changes. I shall not relate them because it would take me too long. I shall restrict myself to the episode mentioned to you. An episode during my twenty-fifth year..."

The four gentlemen, anxious to hear the promised case, forgot about the controversy. Blessed curiosity! You are not only the soul of civilization, but also the fruit of harmony, heavenly fruit, of another taste but no different from the fruit of mythology. The room, moments before noisy with physics and metaphysics, is now a dead sea: all eyes are, on Jacobina, who reshapes the tip of his cigar recollecting his memories. Here is how started his story...

"I was 25 years old, I was poor, and had just been promoted to the rank of second lieutenant in the National Guard. You can't imagine what a stir this caused in my family. My mother was so proud! So happy! She called me her lieutenant. Cousins, uncles and aunts -- it was all sincere and pure happiness. In the village, note, there were a few resentful people; weeping and gnashing their teeth as in the Scriptures; and the reason was only that there were many candidates for the post and these had lost. I also suppose that part of their disappointment was entirely gratuitous: born of the mere distinction. I recall some young men, acquaintances of mine, who looked askance at me for a time. On the other hand, many people were happy about my promotion, and the proof of this is that my entire military uniform was given to me by my friends... It happened then that one of my aunts, Dona Marcolina, the widow of Captain Peçanha, who lived many leagues from the village in a secluded and solitary little country place, wanted to see me and asked me to come over and bring my uniform. So I went, accompanied by a slave, who returned to the village a few days later because Aunt Marcolina, as soon as she got me settled in the house, wrote to my mother saying that she wouldn't let me leave for at least a month. And how she hugged me! She also called me her lieutenant. She found me handsome. And as she was a bit of a jester herself, she confessed to me that she was jealous of the young lady who one day would be my wife. She swore that in the whole province there wasn't another man who could hold a candle to me. And she would always call me lieutenant: lieutenant here, lieutenant there, lieutenant all the time. I asked her to call me Joãozinho, as before; but she shook her head saying no, that I was 'Mister Lieutenant.' One of her brothers-in-law who lived there, a brother of the late Peçanha, called me nothing else. It was 'Mister Lieutenant,' not for mockery, but seriously and in front of the slaves who naturally did the same. At the

table, I had the best seat and was the first to be served. You can't imagine. If I told you that Aunt Marcolina's enthusiasm reached the point that she had them install in my bedroom a big mirror, a rich and magnificent piece that clashed with the rest of the house, whose furnishings were modest and simple... It was a mirror given to Aunt Marcolina by her godmother, who had inherited it from her mother, who had bought it from the noblewomen who came to Brazil with Dom João VI's Court in 1808. I didn't know if there was any truth in it; it was tradition. The mirror was naturally very old, but you could still see some gold, somewhat worn by time, some sculpted dolphins in the upper corners of the frame, some mother-of-pearl ornamentation and other caprices of the artist. Really old, but good..."

" A big mirror?"

"Big. And, as I told you, it was an enormous gesture on her part, since the mirror was in the living-room. It was the best piece of furniture in the house. But there was no one who could talk her out of it; she said it didn't matter at all, that it was just for a few weeks, and finally that 'Mister Lieutenant' deserved much more.

The thing of it was that all these gestures of affection, attention and favors worked a transformation inside me, which was helped and completed by the natural sentiment of youth. You can imagine, I suppose?"


"The lieutenant eliminated the man. For a few days, both natures were in balance; but it wasn't long before the primitive one surrendered to the other. A very small part of humanity remained inside me. So it happened that the external soul, which was previously the sun, the air, the fields, the eyes of the young ladies, changed its nature and became the courtesy and the flatteries of the household, everything that related to the position, nothing of what related to the man. The only part of the citizen that stayed with me was the one that had to do with the exercise of the rank; the other faded away into thin air and the past. It's hard for you to believe, isn't it?"

"It is even hard for me to understand," answered one of the listeners.

"You shall. The facts will better explain the sentiments: facts are everything. The best definition of love cannot be compared to a kiss from your beloved, and if I remember rightly, an ancient philosopher demonstrated the movement walking. Let us look at the facts. We will see how, while the consciousness of the man obliterated itself, that of the lieutenant became alive and intense. Human sorrows, human joys, when only that, barely gained from me indifferent compassion or a patronizing smile. By the end of the third week, I was someone else, entirely someone else. I was exclusively a lieutenant. Well, one day Aunt Marcolina received some bad news: one of her daughters, married to a farmer who lived five leagues away, had fallen ill and was dying. Good-bye, nephews! Good-bye, lieutenant! Being an extremely loving mother, she immediately planned the trip, asked her brother-in-law to go with her and asked me to take care of the house. I believe that if it weren't for her distress, she would have done the opposite; she would have left the brother-in-law and would have gone with me. But what happened was that I stayed there alone except for the few slaves of the house. I confess to you that I soon felt a great oppression, something like the effect of four walls of a prison cell, suddenly raised around me...

It was the external soul reducing itself, limited now to a few uncultured spirits. The lieutenant continued to dominate in me, although, life was less intense and my consciousness more feeble. There was a note of humility in the way the slaves treated me, which somehow compensated for the affection of my relatives and the domestic, interrupted intimacy.

That very night I noticed that the slaves doubled their respect, their joy and their protests. It was 'Master Lieutenant' every other minute; Master Lieutenant is very handsome, Master Lieutenant shall become a colonel; Master Lieutenant shall marry a beautiful girl, a general's daughter; a concert of compliments and prophecies that left me ecstatic. Ah, perfidious ones! Little did I suspect the secret intention of those vile creatures."

"Of killing you?"

"Would that it were."

"Something worse?"

"Listen to me. On the following morning, I found myself alone. The traitors, seduced by others or by their own act, had decided to escape during the night and that's what they did. I found myself alone, not another person within the four walls, the property deserted, the fields abandoned.

Not a single human breath! I went through the house, the the slave quarters, everywhere. No one, not even a child. Only a few roosters and hens, a pair of mules philosophizing about life as they shook off the flies, and three steers. Even the dogs had been taken by the slaves. Not a single soul. Does that seem better to you than to have died? It was worse. Not because of fear; I swear to you I was not afraid. I was a bit cocky, so I felt nothing during the first couple of hours. I was sad because of the loss caused to Aunt Marcolina; I was so perplexed, not knowing whether I should go to her and give her the sad news or remain there to take care of the house. I chose the second alternative so as not to leave the house alone and because, if cousin was really ill, I would just add to the mother's pain without any remedy. Finally, I was going to wait for Uncle Peçanha's brother to come back that day or on the following day, since he had already been gone for thirty-six hours. But the morning passed with no sign of him. In the afternoon, I began to experience the feeling of a person who has lost all his nerves and was not conscious of his muscles. Uncle Peçanha's brother did not come back that day or the following day or even that whole week. My solitude took on enormous proportions. Never had the days been so long, never had the sun burned the earth with a more tiresome obsession. In the living-room, the hours struck from century to century on the old clock, whose pendulum tick-tock, tick-tock hurt my internal soul like a continuous flicking of eternity. Many years later when reading an American poem, by Longfellow I believe, I came across those famous lines: Never, for ever! -- For ever, never! I confess I got the chills. I recalled those ghastly days. That was exactly the way Aunt Marcolina's clock went: Never, for ever! -- For ever, never! They were not the strokes of a pendulum, it was a dialogue from the abyss, a whisper from nothingness. And the night. Not that it was more silent. The silence was the same as during the day. But the night was the shadow, the even narrower, or wider, solitude. Tick-tock, tick-tock. No one in the rooms, on the veranda, in the corridors, on the grounds, no one anywhere. You laughing?

"Yes, you sound as if you were a bit afraid."

"Oh. It would have been good if I had felt fear. I would have survived. But the distinct aspect of that situation was that I could not even feel afraid, that is, feel fear as it is commonly understood. I felt an inexplicable sensation. I was like a walking corpse, a somnambulist, a mechanical doll. Sleeping, it was different. Sleep provided relief. Not for the usual reason of it being the brother of death, but for another. I think I can explain the phenomenon this way: sleep by eliminating the need for an external soul, allowed the internal soul to act. In my dreams, I would proudly wear the uniform among family and friends, who praised my elegance, who called me lieutenant. A friend of the family would come and promise me the rank of lieutenant; another the rank of captain or major; and all of this made me feel alive. But as I awoke, in bright daylight, the consciousness of my new and only being faded away with sleep -- because the internal soul lost its exclusive action and became dependent on the other, which stubbornly refused to return... It did not return. I would go outside, from one place to another to see if I could discover any sign of its coming back. Soeur Anne, Soeur Anne, ne vois-tu rien venir? Nothing, not a thing; just like in the French tale. Nothing but the dust of the road and the grass out on the hills. I would return home nervous, desperate, and stretch on the settee in the living-room. Tick-tock, tick-tock. I would get up, walk around, tap on the window panes and whistle. On one occasion, I thought of writing something: an article on politics, a novel, an ode. I did not choose anything definite. I sat down and wrote a few words and loose sentences on a piece of paper just to try different forms. But the form, like Aunt Marcolina, did not come. Soeur Anne, Soeur Anne... Not a single thing. At most, what I saw was the blackness of the ink and the whiteness of the paper.

"Didn't you eat?"

I ate a little fruit, bread, preserves, a few roots toasted in the fire, but I would have withstood that happily if it were not for the terrible moral situation I found myself in. I recited verses, speeches, parts of Latin texts, verses by Gonzaga, eight-line verses by Camões, ten-line verses, an anthology of thirty volumes. Sometimes I did exercises, at other times I pinched my legs; but the effect was merely a sensation of physical pain or tiredness and nothing more. Everything was silence, a vast, enormous, infinite silence only underscored by the everlasting tick-tock of the pendulum. Tick-tock, tick-tock...

"In reality, anyone would go mad."

"You are going to hear worse things. I must tell you that since I was left alone, I had not looked in the mirror once. My abstention was not deliberate, I had no reason for that. It was an unconscious impulse, a fear of seeing myself one and two persons at the same time in that deserted house. And if this explanation is a true one, nothing is better proof of human contradiction, because at the end of eight days, it occurred to me to look in the mirror with the exclusive objective of finding myself divided in two. I looked and stepped back. The glass itself seemed to be in conspiracy with the rest of the universe; it did not reflect a clear, whole figure, but one that was vague, foggy, diffuse, the shadow of a shadow. The reality of the laws of Physics do not allow me to deny that the mirror reproduced me textually, with the same contours and features; that is the way it must have been. But that was not the sensation I had. So I became fearful. I attributed the phenomenon to my nervous excitement; I was afraid that if I remained there longer I would go mad. 'I am going to leave,' I told myself. And I raised my arm in a gesture that was both angry and decisive, as I looked into the mirror. The gesture was there, but dispersed, rent, mutilated... I started to get dressed, mumbling to myself, coughing without needing to, shaking out my clothes briskly, fretting for no reason over the buttons just to say something. Once in a while I glanced furtively at the mirror: the reflection was the same diffusion of lines, the same decomposition of contours... I continued dressing myself. All of a sudden, out of an inexplicable inspiration, an uncalculated impulse, I remembered... See if you guess what my idea was, gentlemen...

"Tell us."

I was looking into the glass with the persistence of a desperate person, contemplating the features themselves, broken and unfinished, a cloud of loose, shapeless lines when the thought came to me..."

"Tell us, tell us..."

"I remembered to put on the lieutenant's uniform. I put it on, I got myself all ready. And since I was in front of the mirror, I raised my eyes, and... you won't believe it: the glass then reflected the whole figure; not a line missing, not one different contour; it was really me, the second lieutenant who had finally found his external soul. That soul, absent with the owner of the house, having dispersed and fled with the slaves, was there whole again in the mirror. Imagine a man who, little by little, emerges from a state of lethargy, opens his eyes without seeing, then begins to see, to distinguish people from objects, but does not know how to tell one from the other individually. Finally, he knows that this So-and-So, that is So-and-So: this is a chair; that over there, a sofa. Everything goes back to what it was before the dream. That was what happened to me. I looked in the mirror, walked from one side to the other, stepped back, gesticulated, smiled and the mirror reproduced everything. I was no longer an automaton, I was a living being. From then on, I was someone else. Each day, at a certain hour, I put on the lieutenant's uniform and sat in front of the mirror, reading, looking, meditating. After two or three hours, I took the clothes off again. With this routine, I was able to get through six more days of solitude without feeling them...

When the others in the room came to their senses, the narrator had gone down the stairs...

Read 19597 times Last modified on Friday, 23 October 2015 19:09

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