Machado de Assis’s 1882 novella, The Alienist, is very funny in the same way that Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls is funny. Neither book contains outright jokes, per se, but each satirizes society in such a fashion the the reader ends up laughing at the overall situation.
I might argue that they are funnier in telling someone about them than they are in reading them, but both are very funny.
The Alienist is an early practitioner of psychiatry. He arrives in a middle size Portuguese town of mid-range wealth and sets up shop running an asylum for the purpose of research. The town elders hope his new asylum will bring a new level of fame and respectability to their town so they grant the alienist nearly free range to determine who needs to be committed to the asylum and how their condition should be treated.
The humor comes along as the alienist begins to see that the closer he looks at human behavior the more crazy people he begins to find. If you really look closely at what the townspeople do and why they behave the way they do, just about everyone is clearly insane on some level.
Soon the alienist has most of the town elders committed along with growing numbers of average townspeople.
That’s pretty funny stuff.
Like the Cheshire Cat says, “We’re all mad here.”
I’ll have to read The Alienist again to really be sure just what Machado de Assis is up to, but my take-away this time will just be that we all have to be a little mad to get along in life. If you try to really look at our individual behavior rationally as the alienist does, you can’t help but notice that we’re all a little bit crazy.
I was surprised to find that the alienist does cure his patients. After a time in his asylum, he pronounces them cured and releases them. However, they don’t really seem to be any different to me.