In investigating classic novellas, I stumbled across Machado de Assis‘ The Alienist and subsequently couldn’t put it down. This Brazilian work was written at the end of the 1800’s and explores the rising field of psychology and the dangers of judging what is sane or insane.
Now, I really don’t want to ruin the various twists in this rather short novella, so I’ll only give you with a short summary. The protagonist is a doctor who learns of psychiatry and decides to build a sanitarium in his town to which he starts to commit most of his neighbors. But that’s just the first third. Suffice it to say you are left a distinct impression that no one in the town is strictly sane by the end of it all.
But this book explores some interesting themes on the topic of mental health, ones we can relate to today. How do we define what is normal and what is insane? Are we, as humans, even capable of making that distinction for ourselves? And if everyone around us could be dubbed unstable, does that not make the stable ones the abnormalities?
Beyond these heavy philosophical arguments, the book is stunningly well written, with a compelling plot and characters. You definitely feel sorry for the doctor’s wife by the time all is said and done. And, of course, it’s gorgeously presented by Melville House.
But I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on these philosophical quandaries, particularly if you’ve gotten a chance to read some of Machado de Assis’ work for yourself. What do you classify as insane, what gives the medical community the right to make these judgment (and if you didn’t know, this week marks the newest release of the guidelines for those judgments)? What if we’re entirely wrong about who is the normative human beings, and which are the non-normative?