Mystic Goddess of Brazil
Writer Clarice Lispector’s exoticism had much to do with her Jewishness; her literary vocabulary did not
And even Água Viva seems restrained next to A Breath of Life, which was compiled from Lispestor’s manuscript notes after her death in 1977. “I am making a really bad book on purpose in order to drive off the profane who want to ‘like,’ ” Lispector writes early on. “But a small group will see that this ‘liking’ is superficial and will enter inside what I am truly writing, which is neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good.’ ” This captures something of the perfect self-regard of the book, which is structured as a poetic dialogue between a male “author” and the character he creates, named Angela Pralini. Angela has much in common with Joana—she is another force of nature (“My heart is life. My electronic energy is magic of divine origin”), though this is asserted rather than dramatized. She provides a foil for the author to raise such vital questions as, “Is Angela my edge? or am I the edge of Angela? Is Angela my mistake? Is Angela my variation?” The least disciplined of these four books, A Breath of Life best shows how completely devoid of irony Lispector’s writing is. The slightest smile would puncture the iridescent bubble of her language.
The Passion According to G.H. displays the same kind of vulnerability as all of Lispector’s writing; but more than the other three books it also gives evidence of great strength. The action of this novel, first published in 1964, is reduced to a minimum. It tells the story of a well-to-do woman who walks into the maid’s room in her large apartment, sees a cockroach in the wardrobe, and undergoes a nervous breakdown that is also an existential crisis and a mystical revelation.
All the energy of the book lies in the minute evocation of G.H.’s train of thoughts and emotions during that experience. As in Lispector’s other books, she sets herself the challenge of getting as close as possible to a moment-by-moment transcript of mental experience. But here, that experience has a rigor and conceptual content that is lacking in Água Viva or The Breath of Life. Seeing the roach precipitates in G.H. a realization of the unity of all living matter, the kinship between human and insect, which makes a mockery of human pretensions to civilization:
How could I describe that crude and horrible, raw matter and dry plasma, that was there, as I shrank into myself with dry nausea, I falling centuries and centuries inside a mud—it was mud, and not even dried mud but mud still damp and still alive, it was a mud in which the roots of my identity were still shifting with unbearable slowness. Take it, take all this for yourself, I don’t want to be a living person!
Personal identity, the sense of being a self, has vanished. (Significantly, we never learn G.H.’s name, and her initials appear only as the monogram on a piece of luggage, a trivial and vain assertion of individuality.) At first, this seems like the kind of existential dread that Sartre evoked in Nausea, where it is the sight of a tree’s roots that leads to a revelation of the meaninglessness of all being. But Lispector is after a deeper and subtler insight, which, as she develops it, seems to head in the direction of classic mysticism. Everything living, she writes, is an aspect of God; the body of God is the world, and if we could only realize that we too are part of this body, we would know an ultimate contentment and consolation. What makes human beings unlike cockroaches, alas, is that we demand not just to be God, but to know God:
Only through an anomaly of nature, instead of being the God, as other beings are He, instead of being He, we wanted to see Him. It would not hurt to see Him, if we were as great as He. A roach is greater than I because its life is so given over to Him that it comes from the infinite and goes toward the infinite without noticing, it doesn’t miss a beat.
Finally, G.H. decides that the only way to demonstrate her embrace of the unity of being, her rejection of human separateness and pride, is to literally join herself to the roach—by eating it. It is a deliberately shocking denouement to a story in which almost nothing external happens, but it doesn’t feel exploitative, because it is such an appropriate conclusion to the mystical logic Lispector has laid out. “Through the living roach,” Lispector writes near the end of the book, “I am coming to understand that I too am whatever is alive.”
The Passion According to G.H. is the most philosophically and religiously acute of these four books, and for that reason, it raises most sharply the question of whether Lispector, a Jewish woman, can be considered a Jewish writer. In Why This World, Moser makes much of the fact that Lispector was born in the same part of Ukraine responsible for the birth of Hasidism and suggests that her work was shaped by the same experience of historical rupture and trauma that produced the great Jewish mystics. “She recounted her quest [for God],” Moser writes, “in terms that … necessarily hearkened back to the world she had left, describing the soul of a Jewish mystic who knows that God is dead and, in the kind of paradox that recurs throughout her work, is determined to find Him anyway.”
This is a tempting thesis, but it runs up against the fact that Lispector’s mystical vocabulary, in The Passion According to G.H., is much more Christian than Jewish. There is the title, which assimilates G.H.’s experience to the Crucifixion; there is the eating of the roach, a parody of Communion. More fundamentally, Lispector’s vision of transcendence through abasement seems indebted to the paradoxical mysticism of Spanish Catholic writers like Saint Teresa of Ávila (who was herself the descendant of converted Jews). Whether Lispector was directly influenced by Catholicism or not, she lived and wrote in a Catholic culture, which seems to have provided her with much of her spiritual vocabulary. To read her as a Jewish mystic requires more knowledge of her biography than she allows into her work itself. But there can be no doubt that The Passion According to G.H. is the work of a writer with genuine metaphysical gifts—the sort of book that deserves to give birth to a legend.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The novelist’s work regularly foreshadows actual events. In his latest book, the action finally shifts to Israel.