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The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas: On Temporality

How Machado de Assis reimagines our understanding of time and history.
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Machado de Assis | Colnect

Thank you Julia Blunck for suggesting Machado de Assis’s authorship. Julia Blunck is the editor for The Social Review.

Walter Benjamin argues for a distinction between linear time and ‘messianic time’ (Martin 8) (Benjamin et al., sec.XVIII). The former is the dominant Marxist narrative of historical materialism whereby people self organise, technology progresses, emergent class structures form, and eventually, revolution (Benjamin et al., sec.XIV). The latter, ‘messianic time’, argues that history is immediate to all of us and understands that any progress which follows is not inevitable (Benjamin et al., sec.XIV) (Benjamin et al., sec.XII). Machado de Assis likewise recognises that our history is both malleable and perceptible. In his novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (Brás Cubas), Brás Cubas recalls his life, a memoir beyond the grave, inverting the typical flow of narrative time (Machado de Assis et al.).

Benjamin’s historical materialism’s ‘homogenous and empty time’ runs throughout Brás Cubas (Martin 8) (Benjamin et al., sec.XIV). The novel suggests a meaningless Cubas’ progression as part of a running joke (Machado de Assis et al. XII). Despite cruelly utilising a position of immense power and wealth, a European slaveowner, Cubas describes himself as a subject of pity, his society to be flawed, and his readership to be contemptible (Chalhoub 223). Speck understands this to be ‘the autobiography of a weak-willed Brazilian dandy of the first half of the nineteenth century’ (Speck 8).

However, Brás Cubas is not just a linear narration of Cubas’ life. It is an epistolary that begins in the protagonist’s death, followed by the cause of death, followed by his life and death repeated. This reordering is an ‘effort to bring back the past [that] amounts to a fight against time and death’ (Speck 7). Whilst other characters are confined to linear time, Cubas skips back and forth, reliving the life he wants. His reordering of life ‘succeeds in bringing back a past he lost in living’ (Speck 7). Beyond this reordering, Machado de Assis employs ‘experiments’, suggesting the reader also ‘alternate’ the reading order (Speck 12). He demonstrates that narrative time, ‘author time’ and ‘reader time’ is subjective to our experience (Speck 12).

Machado de Assis also employs romantic imagination in Brás Cubas to expose limitations in naturalism (Chalhoub 223). Naturalism offers a logical determinism that rationalises the present condition of life, and it is a common form within European literature (Chalhoub 224). Positivism is one offshoot, a process that relies exclusively on logical proof to determine truth. Borba, a friend of Cubas, proposes a parody called Humanitism, rationalising death and inhumanity through a scientific lens (Chalhoub 228). As a result, Borba studies the human condition whilst alienated from what it means to be human. Machado de Assis demonstrates how thinking and the art derived from it must consider the lived human experience.

Cubas concludes that he finds himself in the centre of ‘folly and fatal history of humanity, from its origins up to the present time of civili[s]ation’, realising there is a higher truth that he did not before care to consider (Jackson 49). Machado de Assis imparts that we are more than the worms that eat Cubas’ remains; we are what we can collectively realise (Speck 12). Likewise, Benjamin sees history as an immediate realisation of life’s highest abstraction (Benjamin et al., sec.XVIII). Both authors ultimately appeal to a higher aspiration of meaning that gives us hope for life’s worth.


Benjamin, Walter, et al. “On the Concept of History [Translation].” Marxists, 2005,

Chalhoub, Sidney. “Rediscovering a Masterpiece in a New Translation: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, by Machado de Assis.” Transition, no. 130, 2020, p. 222,

Jackson, K. David. “DREAM OR DELIRIUM? REVISITING THE AGES IN EÇA AND MACHADO.” Romance Notes, vol. 50, no. 1, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for its Department of Romance Studies, 2010, pp. 47–59.

Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria, et al. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Oxford University Press USA - OSO, 1997,

Martin, Theodore. Temporality and Literary Theory. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Speck, Paula K. “Narrative Time and the ≪defunto Autor≫ in ‘Memorias Postumas de Bras Cubas.’” Latin American Literary Review, vol. 9, no. 18, Latin American Literary Review, 1981, pp. 7–15.