Mystic Goddess of Brazil
Writer Clarice Lispector’s exoticism had much to do with her Jewishness; her literary vocabulary did not
The events of Near to the Wild Heart are few and ambiguously told. After these scenes of childhood, we suddenly jump to Joana as a young woman, married to a man named Otavio. Otavio is still seeing the bovine, devoted Lidia, who was his lover before he met Joana, and in time he gets her pregnant. When Joana finds out about this, her response is not jealous rage or heartbreak: Rather, she goes to visit Lidia and declares that she is ready to give Otavio up, but only after he has gotten her pregnant as well. Then she goes on to take a strange man as a lover. In the conservative Brazil of the 1940s, this must have read as a deeply shocking piece of immorality. It is Lispector’s bid to place Joana outside the pale of conventional morality, while still insisting that we admire her personal integrity and force.
What Joana does, however, matters much less to our sense of her than her thoughts, to which Lispector gives us intimate and unremitting access. Indeed, Near to the Wild Heart feels like a book still emerging from an old-fashioned conception of what a novel is, still clinging to the armature of a love story, when what really interests Lispector is simply the moment-by-moment evocation of a “wild” consciousness. For long stretches, in fact, the book reads like a surreal prose poem:
I get up soft as a breath of air, raise my sleepy flower head, my feet light, I cross fields beyond the earth, world, time, God. I dive under and then emerge, as if from clouds, from lands still not possible, ah still not possible. … I don’t feel madness in my wish to bite stars, but the earth still exists.
A little of this goes a long way, and there is more than a little of it in Near to the Wild Heart. The poeticisms and clichés, the breathlessly heightened emotions, the narrator’s entirely unironic sense of her own specialness—these are all the kinds of vices that usually disappear from a writer’s work at a very early stage. The progress of most writers is in the direction of objectivity; they learn not to declare emotions but to embody them in characters and situations.
The strange thing about Lispector is that she seems immune to this kind of growth. If you turn from her first book to Água Viva, one of her last, the approach is fundamentally the same, only purified. Now there is not even the shadow of a plot, and there is no character interposing between reader and author. We have what appear to be the meditations of Clarice Lispector as she sits at her desk, writing bulletins from each moment as it passes. (The Portuguese title literally means “living water,” Moser writes in his introduction, and Lispector wanted it to convey “a thing that bubbles. At the source.”)
What she ends up writing about, however, is the impossibility of grasping the moment as it passes—the very same problem that preoccupied Joana, who “never managed to grasp ‘the thing.’ ” Now we hear Lispector making the same lament:
Let me tell you: I’m trying to seize the fourth dimension of this instant-now so fleeting that it’s already gone because it’s already become a new instant-now that’s also already gone. Every thing has an instant in which it is. I want to grab hold of the is of the thing. … I want to possess the atoms of time. And to capture the present, forbidden by its very nature: the present slips away and the instant too.
Água Viva, at just 88 pages, feels like a long book, because it constantly circles back to this initial frustration. The impossibility of living wholly in the moment, of seizing the thing-in-itself through the veils of perception, is a venerable Romantic theme, dating back to the German Idealist philosophers of the early 19th century, and Lispector often seems to be in dialogue with philosophy more than with literature. Yet few writers have ever tried so hard to record the tremulous, instant-by-instant consciousness of this impossibility; Lispector never tires of reenacting the world’s elusiveness before the mind’s grasp. As a result, what matters is not so much what Lispector writes as the act of writing itself:
So writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not the word. When this non-word—between the lines—takes the bait, something has been written. Once whatever is between the lines is caught, the word can be tossed away in relief.
Ironically, while the powerlessness of writing is Lispector’s ostensible theme, the effect of Água Viva, as of Near to the Wild Heart, is actually to glamorize the writer as a figure of unusual power—as a person more sensitive, tumultuous, and exposed than the common run of humanity. Many passages in Água Viva are pure self-mythologizing, so naïve and grandiose that it disarms criticism. When a writer tells you, “I have a gift for passion, in the bonfire of a dry trunk I contort in the blaze”; or “I am still the cruel Queen of the Medes and the Persians. … My aura is the mystery of life”; or “I walk on a tightrope up to the edge of my dream,” there is no possible response except to fall down and say, “My Goddess!” or to close the book and smile.
The novelist’s work regularly foreshadows actual events. In his latest book, the action finally shifts to Israel.