from Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis

I’ve been rereading this 1899 novel by Machado de Assis, and came across this passage, which seems somewhat related to the conversation JOB and I have been having over the last month or so.

God is the poet. The music is by Satan, a young and very promising composer, who was trained in the heavenly conservatory. A rival of Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, he resented the preference they enjoyed in the distribution of the prizes. It could also be that the over-sweet and mystical style of these other pupils was abhorrent to his essentially tragic genius. He plotted a rebellion which was discovered in time, and he was expelled from the conservatory. And that would have been that, if God had not written an opera libretto, which he had given up, being of the opinion that this type of recreation was inappropriate to His eternity. Satan took the manuscript with him to hell. With the aim of showing that he was better than the others—and perhaps of seeking a reconciliation with heaven—he composed the score, and as soon as he had finished it, took it to the Heavenly Father.

“Lord, I have not forgotten the lessons I have learned,” he said. “Here is the score, listen to it, have it played, and if you think it worthy of the heavenly heights, admit me with it to sit at your feet …”

“No,” replied the Lord, “I don’t want to hear a thing.”

“But, Lord …”

“Not a thing, not a thing!”

Satan went on pleading, with no greater success, until God, tired and full of mercy, gave His consent for the opera to be performed, but outside heaven. He created a special theater, this planet, and invented a whole company, with all the principal and minor roles, the choruses and the dancers.

“Come and listen to some of the rehearsals!”

“No, I don’t want to know about it. I’ve done enough, composing the libretto …”

If we imagine that the score is by Schoenberg, maybe the passage will make even more sense!


  1. “his essentially tragic genius”

    This is where the writer lost me. (Saecula saeculorum, Milton will be the nail in the tire where poetry’s rubber hits the road…).

    In fact, the creepy thing is that one could very well argue that Milton was using Satan to defend his own Protestantism…

    Non serviam, indeed.

    But thanks for the passage!


    • Quin Finnegan says

      re: “his essentially tragic genius”, I thought he was just referencing the idea that Tragedy is generally about a hero’s downfall—so in bringing up Milton’s Satan I think you aren’t lost at all (although it’d be helpful if you would break down that nail metaphor, and what it means for the rubber of poetry to hit the asphalt).

      Thanks for the comment!

      • But no, only Milton, riffing on the newfound individualism of every man his own pope and all that, would think to make the Prince of Darkness, the Prince of the Air, so sympathetic to man.

        I don’t mean “lost” as in, “don’t understand,” I mean “lost” as in “can’t assent to this fiction(al thought experiment).” Percy’s experiments rang true; this one doesn’t. It has about it the same sort of quackery as we see in Milton’s muscular iambics presenting Satan sauntering around in the shadows, quoting bloated lines of poetry like some ur-Byronic hero…

        That said, I will never stop reading Milton, of course. He’s just too good, bloat or no bloat. But you can disagree and still enjoy, no? The Cantos are another such. As is The Preludes. And even Zukofsky’s “A.” Each has moments of brilliance – sometimes a flash of lightning, sometimes a whole room full of masterly portraits and landscapes well lit from brass-cowled lighting above the frame…

        The nail metaphor refers to the sucker punch that Milton delivered to the epic form by rendering the West’s last great epic simultaneously the first great apology for romanticism (vs. realism, Christian realism, in particular). It would take a while for the world to recover, if ever it did. Of course, it did in certain ways. O’Connor’s Misfit, for instance, is Christian realism’s answer to Milton’s romanticized Satan.

        Can we think of any poetic antidotes to romanticism? Eliot comes to mind, although his idealism didn’t allow him to fully explore the possibilities. Yvor Winters didn’t produce enough to make him a great example. Although his criticism is just waiting for someone or someones to take up the cause.

        “In Defense of Reason” should be on every Catholic writer/poet’s bookshelf. End of story.

        Also, let me anticipate, because I heard the man speak at University of Dallas all those years ago, Rene Gerard also fits the bill. But I fear I have not read enough to make a judgment either fully or fairly.


        • Quin Finnegan says

          Whoops! Now that I’ve reread your comment, I’m not sure how I misread it the first time around. And yes, you are quite right about the quackery. I should have mentioned, or quoted in such a way as to make obvious, that the analogy is actually spoken by a character who is indeed a quack. So don’t give up on Machado yet! He is well worth reading. From the perspective I see outlined in your comment, I think you’d find him interesting as a realist who anticipates modernism, without succumbing to its worst excesses.

          Your remarks about Satan and Milton’s bloat are much appreciated. Thanks for breaking down the nail metaphor for me … apologies for being obtuse. I do understand and basically agree with what you say about Milton’s sucker punch, although I wonder if giving him credit for the world’s downfall is falling under the spell of his Satan too much. Do the fairly recent hypotheses for Dark Matter and Dark Energy owe something to Milton? I think Milton as early Romantic and Satan as ur-Byron is brilliant.

          And yes, we certainly ought to be able to read and disagree. Otherwise we might as well just lie on the couch, reading and rereading our own unfinished masterpieces (see Kundera above!).

          After a very early infatuation with Eliot I haven’t been able to go back, but I’ll take your word for it.

          I find more Christian Realism (three cheers for Christian Realism!) in Auden than in Winters … or even Stevens, who has the mind of Winter, but also the summer thaw in Winter’s nick. But maybe you’re the one to take up Winters’ cause?

          And Girard certainly does fit the bill, although he hasn’t offered his own fiction, never mind poetry … which is something of a cause for wonder in itself. Why not?

          Many thanks for your comments, Mr JOB!

        • Quin Finnegan says

Speak Your Mind