Clarice Lispector (1925-1977) was a Brazilian author whose work is known for its philosophical depth, modernist stylistic tendencies, and keen observations of everyday life. This fall, New Directions published The Complete Stories, which collected Lispector’s short works, written from her teenage years up until the end of her life, in a translation by Katrina Dodson. In honor of this publishing event, Full Stop contributors Becca Rothfeld and Nathan Goldman conducted an in-depth dialogic inquiry into Lispector’s short fiction over email, in which they discuss her embrace of the body, her linguistic innovations, and her interrogations of gender, sexuality, and the boundaries of the human. Please continue to check back on the site to share in their conversation over the course of this week.
Here’s my first attempt at a thought-provoking missive re: Lispector’s short stories and, at least implicitly, her longer works. Rather than advancing any sort of interpretive thesis, I’m going to start with a series of questions that I hope will serve to guide/foster/structure discussion. Feel free to respond directly or indirectly, or to raise new questions, or to say something totally unrelated! Or to do all of the above!
1. What is Lispector’s understanding of the relationship between passion and intellectualism, and what, exactly, does she mean by “passion”? She seems to reject some class of passions as overly effete — see, for instance, “Letters to Hermengardo,” where she explicitly dismisses passions as the “suffering pointlessly” (88) — but she also seems to regard a second class of passions as symptomatic of a more primal vitality. In stories like “Miss Algrave,” “The Escape,” and “The Triumph” (and, less immediately relevantly, in The Passion According to GH), Lispector implies that the brand of petit bourgeois domesticity often imposed on women stifles a more essential or authentic mode of engagement — one that is characterized by sensuality and animality, thus by one form of what typically counts as “passion.” What, in Lispector’s view, differentiates the sorts of passions against which she cautions Hermengardo and the passion of GH, which she seems to endorse?
I’m not sure, which is why I’m asking, but I have two preliminary ideas. For one thing, Lispector’s notion of passion seems to me to be bound up with her understanding of gender. In many if not most of her stories, men seem incapable of displaying or perhaps even experiencing the depth of feeling with which their female spouses or love interests often overflow — and indeed, men almost always play the role of keeping women from their passions, obliviously if not maliciously. I wonder if Lispector believes there to be a uniquely female brand of passion. Secondly, I wonder if the sort of passion that she derides in “Letters to Hermengardo” represents a different and more rational kind of wanting. In the same passage as the one I quoted above, she goes on to diagnose us as “animals disturbed by man.” Perhaps she thinks that human concerns — the petty projects in which we become so overly invested on a daily basis, like our jobs or the maintenance of our houses — distract us from surges of passion that would otherwise overwhelm us.
2. I wonder about her confused relationship to animality. In, for instance, “The Body,” Lispector seems disgusted by the bestial quality of the characters, who are dominated by their appetites. But in stories like “Miss Algrave” Lispector seems to celebrate a human’s descent into animality. In “Forgiving God,” she goes so far as to note “I’m not someone who needs to be reminded that inside everything is blood. Not only do I not forget the blood inside but I allow and desire it, I am too much blood to forget blood, and for me the spiritual world has no meaning, and neither does the earthly world.” And yet the bodies in “The Body” are so devoid of humanity that they come to repulse us. Perhaps physicality is, for Lispector, a sort of spirituality — but she seems intent on uniting the two disparate elements, or at least the tension between them, by eliminating one of them.
The space between human and animal collapses throughout the book and throughout Lispector’s oeuvre more generally: in “The Chicken,” a chicken’s maternal gestures echo our own, endowing it with a sort of humanity; in The Passion According to GH, a woman comes to identify strongly with a cockroach; in “The Monkey,” Lispector describes a pet marmoset as a “laughing man” and purchases a monkey who is a “miniature woman” dressed in human clothing; and in “Letters to Hermengardo,” she makes the statement I’ve quoted above, about how men should strive to wrench their animality from the contrived, contorted skein of human rationality. But as humans become animal, animals become human, adopting their clothing and gestures. I wonder if Lispector succeeds in reducing the human to the animal, or if the reduction of one of our opposing elements to the other is the right strategy.
That’s all I’ve got for now!
Thanks for starting us off with such deep questions and thoughtful readings. First let me admit that I’m new to Lispector’s work and am frankly humbled and dazzled by these stories, their richness and weirdness. I’m looking forward to seeing where our discussion takes us.
You first asked: “What is Lispector’s understanding of the relationship between passion and intellectualism, and what, exactly, does she mean by ‘passion’?” I agree with your reading — she figures certain passions as effete and others as vital — and I think you’re absolutely right to tie the difference to gender. A number of the stories seem to rest on some variation of this structure: the female protagonist is constricted by her relationship with a simple-minded man; the relationship ends; the woman is liberated into a full, rich, and sensual experience of herself; the woman returns to her marriage and its numbness. In “The Escape,” the unnamed protagonist leaves her husband, who has “good sense” but whose whole being is conventional. After she leaves him, “she can laugh,” she feels hunger for the first time in twelve years, and she considers saying to a fat man, “Son, I used to be a married woman and now I’m a woman.” Men’s passions, for Lispector, are inhibiting in their shallowness and reasonableness. This connects to your second idea, that the passions Lispector condemns are those infected by reason and practical concerns.
I get the sense that Lispector distrusts the human (or at least Western) penchant for simplifying: the taxonomies of natural science and the ground-seeking of philosophy. Thus I want to say that the boring passions are those we’ve named. I’m thinking of “Obsession,” in which the narrator’s affair is prompted by “groundless melancholy” and “a dull and incomprehensible nostalgia,” which are inexplicable for her in the world of convention, where she is “used to giving a clear name for all things,” “a milieu where habit had long since opened the correct paths, where facts were reasonably explained by visible causes and the most extraordinary were connected, not through mysticism but through self-serving complacency, to God.” (It’s really striking to me that there we find a critique of religion: even society’s treatment of the Absolute is complacent and self-serving, thus boring!) Lispector seems to admire unnameable things. Lispector’s prose itself is mystical and lilting, darkly arcane yet comic, as if to conjure that mysterious passion. (If so, that implies a use of language — in fiction — that is darker than the clear naming of things that makes up the conventional world.)
I think I’ve brought us back to passion vs. intellectualism, if we understand intellectualism as something like my loose and oversimplified sketch of Western society and thought. Do you think I’m on the right track there? I’d like to tie this back to gender, because I think there’s a lot there I haven’t grasped. How can we dig deeper into her feminist critiques of marriage and men? And how can we understand her celebration of the mystical and unnameable without slipping into a misguided gender essentialism (the feminine as the mystical, primal, earthly) — or does Lispector do this herself?
You asked, next, about Lispector’s “confused relationship to animality.” I’m so glad you asked about this, both because it fascinates me too and because I think it’s a good question to pair with the one about passions. You linked them, I think, with this claim: “Perhaps physicality is, for Lispector, a sort of spirituality.” I see what you mean about the collapse of one into the other (particularly in “Miss Algrave”), but I also noticed instances in which the two seem to coexist. Attraction to men arises as physical and psychical: in “Jimmy and I,” the narrator “remember[s] Jimmy, his hair and his ideas.” Spiritual transformations are accompanied by physical acts: in “The Escape,” the narrator leaves her husband only when the emotional suffocation of the past twelve years turns physical — “It was hot and she was suffocating. She opened all the windows and doors. But no: the air was there, stagnant, solemn, heavy” — and her decision to leave follows a thunderclap and rainfall, which I read as an orgasm image. That brings me to another question: What do we make of Lispector’s understanding of female sexuality (connected, obviously, to the earlier questions about gender)? Two of many places we might look: “Miss Algrave,” which you brought up and which hinges on a woman’s transformation from (archetypal and literal) Virgin to (archetypal and literal) Whore, and “The Escape,” where we find these lines that link female desire to that mystical passion we’ve been discussing: “I couldn’t specify whether my unease was desire for Daniel or yearning to seek the newly discovered world. Because I awoke simultaneously as a woman and a human.”
But that tangent took me away from animals. You wrote, “The space between human and animal collapses throughout the book and throughout Lispector’s oeuvre more generally.” On the whole I agree. To add another example from a story you quoted, in “Forgiving God,” a woman’s divine epiphany gets disrupted by seeing a dead rat that terrifies her and disrupts her acceptance of the world as it is, which leads to this claim about the relation between the woman and the rat: “perhaps neither I nor the rat are meant to be seen by our own selves, distance makes us equal.”
But I wonder about the example of “A Chicken.” You wrote that the “chicken’s maternal gestures echo our own, endowing it with a sort of humanity.” I see where you’re coming from, but then I’m not sure what to do with lines like these: “What was it in her guts that made her a being? The chicken is a being . . . Warming her offspring, she was neither gentle nor standoffish, neither cheerful nor sad, she was nothing, she was a chicken.” Is Lispector attempting to short-circuit anthropocentrism and go straight to the chickens themselves? I think maybe yes. If so, I’d quibble with “endow” (does she mean, rather, to reveal?) and “a sort of humanity” (maybe we’re now talking about being?). Or: should we instead read this as further commentary on the animality in human beings? What do you think?
One more hunch/tangent. Is Lispector playing off the classic Western philosophical figuring of human beings as between animals and the divine? That would send us back to the physical/spiritual thing. But if Lispector’s divine is sensual — her psychical somehow conflated with the physical — what does that mean for her understanding of God? And if she is picking up on that Western philosophical thread, how do we understand her relationship to the philosophical traditional? (So far I’m reading it as an irreverent engagement: at least, the bits about Hegel in “Jimmy and I” seem wry, and the format of “Letters to Hermengardo” reads to me like a parody of an Aristotelian treatise). I think that’s a question about gender, too, because of that canon’s suffocating maleness. This is a bit of a mess! Anything worth pursuing here?
Last thing, a question that’s been bugging me: What does Lispector mean by “human,” and how does that relate to these other terms we’ve been discussing — woman, man, passion, animal, and God?
I hope some of this is of interest. Feel free to pick up or abandon any threads and respond however! Looking forward to your thoughts.
Becca Rothfeld is a freelance book critic and a graduate student in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge
Nathan Goldman is a writer living in Minneapolis. His work appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Word Riot, and other publications.