Photo collage: Tablet Magazine
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine
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An affair—‘the pain of creation, yet without the creation’—by the great 20th-century Brazilian writer, from the ‘Complete Stories’

Clarice Lispector
October 23, 2015
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine
Photo collage: Tablet Magazine

Now that the affair is behind me, I can recollect it more serenely. I won’t try to make excuses for myself. I’ll try not to point fingers. It simply happened.

I don’t recall very clearly how it started. I transformed myself independently of my consciousness and when I opened my eyes the poison was circulating through my blood irremediably, its power already ancient.

I must tell a bit about myself, before my encounter with Daniel. Only thus can one understand the ground in which his seeds were scattered. Though I didn’t think one could entirely comprehend why those seeds bore such sad fruit.

I was always serene and never showed the least sign of possessing those elements that Daniel brought out in me. I was born of simple creatures, steeped in that wisdom one acquires through experience and figures out with common sense. We lived, from childhood until I was fourteen, in a nice house on the outskirts of town, where I went to school, played and roamed without a care beneath the benevolent gaze of my parents.

Until one day they discovered I was a young lady, lowered the hem of my dress, made me wear new clothes and considered me almost ready. I accepted the discovery and its consequences without much commotion, in the same distracted way that I studied, went out, read, and lived.

We moved to a house closer to the city, in a neighborhood whose name, along with other subsequent details, I shall suppress. There I would have the chance to meet other boys and girls, Mama said. I really did make friends quickly, with my good-natured, easygoing cheer. They thought I was adorable, and my sturdy body, my fair skin made them like me.

As for my dreams, I was so full of them at that age—those of any young girl: to get married, have children and, finally, be happy, a desire I didn’t really clarify and which confusingly matched the endings of the thousand novels I’d read, without ever contaminating me with their romanticism. I only hoped that everything would be all right, though I would never be overwhelmed with satisfaction if that’s how it turned out.

At nineteen I met Jaime. We got married and rented a pretty, nicely furnished apartment. We lived together for six years, without children. And I was happy. If someone asked me, I said yes, adding not without some bewilderment: “And why wouldn’t I be?”

Jaime was always good to me. And I considered his not very impassioned temperament to be somehow an extension of my parents, of my former home, where I’d grown used to the privileges of an only daughter.

I lived easily. I never devoted a deeper thought to any one subject. And, as if to spare myself even more, I didn’t entirely believe in the books I read. They were made just for entertainment, I thought.

Once in a while, groundless melancholy would darken my face, a dull and incomprehensible nostalgia for times never experienced would invade me. Nothing romantic, and I’d push them away as quickly as I would a useless notion unconnected to the really important things. Which ones? I didn’t really define them and grouped them under the ambiguous expression “things of life.” Jaime. Me. Home. Mama.

Meanwhile, the people around me carried on serenely, their foreheads smooth and unworried, in 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. The only events that could disturb their souls were birth, marriage, death and their attendant conditions.

Or am I mistaken and could it be that, in my happy blindness, I didn’t know how to peer into things more deeply? I don’t know, but now I think it seems impossible for the shadowy region in every man, even the peaceful ones, not to harbor the threat of other, more terrible and suffering men.

If that vague dissatisfaction ever arose to bother me, I, without knowing how to explain it and used to giving a clear name to all things, wouldn’t allow it or would attribute it to physical ailments. Furthermore, the Sunday gathering at my parents’ house, together with the cousins and neighbors, whatever pleasant and lively game would quickly win me over again and set me back on the straight path, to walk again with the masses who have their eyes closed.

I realize now that it was a certain apathy, rather than peace, that turned my acts and my desires to ash. I remember how Jaime had once said, a bit emotionally:

“If only we had a child …”

I responded, carelessly:

“What for?”

A dense veil isolated me from the world and, without my knowing it, an abyss separated me from myself.

And that’s how I went on until I caught typhoid fever and nearly died. My two households sprang into action and throughout nights and days of labor saved me.

Convalescence arrived to find me thin and wan, without the slightest interest in anything of the world. I hardly ate, grew irritated at the simplest words. I’d spend the day propped against the pillow, not thinking, not moving, caught in a sweet and abnormal languor. I can’t say for certain whether this state more easily allowed Daniel’s influence. I rather imagine that I exaggerated my infirmity to keep people around me, as when I was ill. Whenever Jaime got back from work, I’d purposely emphasize my fragility.

I hadn’t meant to frighten him, but I managed to. And one day, when I’d already forgotten my “convalescent” pose, they informed me that I was to spend two months in Belo Horizonte, where the good climate and new environment would strengthen me. Argument was out of the question. Jaime took me there, on a night train. He found me a nice boardinghouse and departed, leaving me alone, with nothing to do, suddenly launched into a freedom I hadn’t asked for and didn’t know how to use.

Perhaps that was the start. Out of my sphere, far from the things that seemed like they’d always been there, I felt unsupported because in the end not even conventional wisdom had taken root in me, so superficially had I been living. What had kept me going until then were not convictions, but the people who held them. For the very first time they were giving me a chance to see with my own eyes. For the very first time they were isolating me with myself. Judging from the letters I wrote during that time and read much later, I notice that a feeling of distress had seized me. In all of them I mentioned coming home, desiring it with a certain anxiety. That is, until Daniel.

I cannot, even now, recall Daniel’s face. I mean my first impressions of that physiognomy of his, altogether different from the assemblage I later got used to. Only then, unfortunately a bit too late, did I manage through daily proximity to comprehend and absorb his features. But they were different … Of the first Daniel I’ve retained nothing, except the imprint.

I know that he was smiling, that’s all. From time to time, some isolated feature of his comes to mind, from the former days. His long and curved fingers, those thick, wide-set brows. That’s all. Because he overpowered me in a way that, if I can put it like this, almost prevented me from seeing him. I really do believe that my later anguish was intensified by this impossibility of reconstructing his appearance. So all I possessed were his words, the memory of his soul, everything that wasn’t human in Daniel. And during nights of insomnia, unable to reconstruct him mentally, already exhausted by these futile attempts, I’d glimpse him as you might a shadow, huge, with shifting contours, looming oppressive yet also distant as a threat. Like a painter who bends the treetops in order to capture a gust of wind on his canvas, sending hair and skirts flying, I could only ever manage to recall him by transporting me to myself, to the version from that time. I martyred myself with accusations, despised myself and, hurt and brokenhearted, lodged him vividly inside myself.

But I must start at the beginning, to put a bit of order into this narrative of mine …

Daniel lived in the boardinghouse where I was staying. He never approached me, nor had I ever particularly noticed him. Until one day I heard him speak, entering suddenly into someone else’s conversation, though without losing that distant manner he had, as if just emerging from a deep sleep. It was about work. Which should be no more than a means of ending immediate hunger. And, amused at scandalizing the bystanders, he added—any day now he’d abandon his own, which he’d done several times before, to live like “a good bum.” A bespectacled student, after the first moment of silence and reticence that fell, coldly retorted that above all else work was a duty. “A duty in the interest of society.” Daniel made some gesture, as if he couldn’t be bothered to convince anyone, and granted one sentence:

“Someone’s already declared there’s no foundation for duty.”

He left the room, leaving the student fuming. And me, surprised and amused: I had never heard anyone defy work, “such a serious obligation.” Jaime and Papa’s greatest revolts manifested themselves in the form of some trivial complaint. In general, I’d never recalled that you ever could not accept, could choose, could revolt … Above all, I’d perceived in Daniel’s words a disregard for convention, for “things of life” … And it had never occurred to me, except as a slight whimsy, to wish that the world were different than it was. I recalled Jaime, always praised for “fulfilling his duties,” as he said, and felt, without knowing why, safer.

Later, when I saw Daniel again, I stiffened into a cold and useless posture, since he barely noticed me, lumping me together with the rest of the boardinghouse, safeguarded. However, when I looked everyone over at dinner, I vaguely felt a certain shame in belonging to that amorphous group of men and women who had banded together in tacit agreement, stoking their indignation, united against the one who had come to disturb their comfort. I understood that Daniel scorned them and I was irritated because I too was implicated.

I wasn’t used to lingering for very long over any one thought, and a subtle discontent, like an impatience, seized me. From then on, without thinking, I avoided Daniel. Whenever I saw him, I imperceptibly grew wary, eyes wide open, watchful. I think I feared he’d make one of those cutting remarks of his, because I was worried I’d agree … I mustered my dislike, defending myself from who knows what, defending Papa, Mama, Jaime and all my own people. But it was in vain. Daniel was the danger. And I was heading toward him.

Another time, I was wandering aimlessly through the empty boardinghouse, at two o’clock on a rainy afternoon, until, hearing voices in the waiting room, I went in. He was talking to a thin fellow, dressed in black. Both were smoking, speaking unhurriedly, so absorbed in their thoughts that they didn’t even see me come in. I was about to retreat, but a sudden curiosity took hold of me and led me to an easy chair, at a distance from where they were sitting. After all, I justified to myself, the room belonged to the lodgers. I tried not to make a sound.

In those first few moments, to my astonishment, I understood none of what they were saying … I gradually made out a few recognizable words, among others that I’d never heard spoken aloud: terms from books. “The universality of …” “the abstract meaning of …” It must be known that I never witnessed discussions in which the subject wasn’t “things” and “stories.” I myself, having little imagination and little intelligence, thought strictly along the lines of my narrow reality.

His words slid over me, without penetrating. However, I sensed, singularly uncomfortable, how they hid a harmony of their own that I couldn’t quite grasp … I tried not to get distracted so as not to miss any part of the magical conversation.

“Achievements kill desire,” said Daniel.

“Achievements kill desire, achievements kill desire,” I repeated to myself, somewhat bewildered. I drifted off and when I started paying attention again yet another brilliant and mysterious phrase had been born, disturbing me.

Now Daniel was talking about himself.

“What interests me above all is feeling, accumulating desires, filling me up with myself. Achievements open me up, leave me empty and sated.”

“There’s no such thing as satiety,” the other one said, between exhalations from his cigarette. “Dissatisfaction returns, creating yet another desire that a normal man would try to satisfy. You’re justifying its futility with some random theory. ‘What matters is feeling and not doing …’ Sorry. You’ve failed and all you can do is assert yourself through the imagination …”

I listened to them, numb. Not only did the conversation surprise me but, the grounds on which it was based, something far from everyday truth, but mysteriously melodic, touching upon, I sensed, other truths unknown to me. And I was also surprised to see them attack each other with unfriendly words that would have offended any other person but that they accepted indifferently, as if … as if they didn’t know the meaning of “honor,” for example.

And, above all, for the very first time I, in a deep slumber until then, caught a glimpse of ideas.

The uneasiness those first conversations with Daniel produced in me arose as from a certainty of danger. One day I managed to explain to him that the thought of this danger was linked to expressions read in books with the scant attention I generally granted to everything and that now flared in my memory: “fruit of evil” … When Daniel told me that I was speaking of the Bible, I was seized with terror of God, combined nevertheless with a strong and shameful curiosity like the kind from an addiction.

Because of all this, my story is difficult to explain, when divided into its elements. How far did my feeling for Daniel go (I use this general term because I don’t know exactly what it contained) and where did my awakening to the world begin? Everything was interwoven, mixed up inside me and 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.

Perhaps Daniel had acted merely as an instrument, perhaps my destiny really was the one I pursued, the destiny of those set loose upon the earth, of those who don’t measure their actions according to Good and Evil, perhaps I, even without him, would have discovered myself some day, perhaps, even without him, I would have fled Jaime and his land. How can I know?

I listened to them, for nearly two hours. My staring eyes hurt and my legs, frozen in place, had fallen asleep. When Daniel looked at me. He later told me that the burst of laughter that so wounded me, to the point of making me cry, was caused by the days-long delirium he found himself in and above all by my pathetic appearance. My mouth gaping stupidly, “my foolish eyes, attesting to my animal ingenuity” … That’s how Daniel spoke to me. Clawing at me with easy and colorless remarks that he tossed off but that dug into me, swift and piercing, forever.

And that’s how I met Daniel. I don’t recall the details that brought us closer. I only know that I was the one who sought him out. And I know that Daniel took me over gradually. He regarded me with indifference and, I imagined, would never have been drawn to my person if he hadn’t found me odd and amusing. My humble approach to him was my gratitude for his favor … How I admired him. The more I suffered his scorn, the more superior I considered him, the more I separated him from the “others.”

Today I understand him. I forgive him for everything, I forgive everything in people who can’t get a hold of themselves, people who ask themselves questions. People who look for reasons to live, as if life alone didn’t justify itself.

Later I got to know the real Daniel, the invalid, the one who only existed, though in perpetual radiance, inside himself. Whenever he turned toward the world, now groping and spent, he realized he was helpless and, bitter, bewildered, he discovered that all he knew was how to think. One of those people who possess the earth in a second, with their eyes closed. That power he had to deplete things before getting them, that stark premonition he had of “afterward” … Before taking the first step toward action, he had already tasted the saturation and sorrow that follow victories …

And, as if to compensate for this impossibility of achieving anything, he, whose soul so yearned to expand, had invented yet another path suited to his inactivity, where he could expand and justify himself. To make the most of oneself, he’d repeat, is the highest and noblest human objective. To make the most of oneself would mean abandoning the possession and achievement of things in order to possess oneself, to develop one’s own elements, to grow within one’s own form. To make one’s own music and hear it oneself …

As if he needed a scheme like that … Everything in him naturally reached the maximum, not by objectification, but in a state of capacity, of exalted strength, from which no one benefited and of which everyone, besides him, was ignorant. And this state was his summit. It resembled something that might precede a climax and he burned to reach it, feeling that the more he suffered, the more alive he was, more punished, nearly satisfied. It was the pain of creation, yet without the creation.

Because when everything melted away, only in his memory was there any trace.

He never let himself rest for long, despite the sterility of this struggle and no matter how exhausting it was. Soon he would once again be revolving around himself, sniffing out his nascent desires, concentrating them until they were brought to a breaking point. Whenever he managed it, he’d vibrate with hatred, beauty or love, and felt nearly compensated.

Anything was an excuse to set him off. A bird flying by, reminding him of unknown lands, breathed life into his old dream of flight. From thought to thought, unconsciously driven toward the same end, he’d reach the notion of his cowardice, revealed not only in this constant desire to flee, not to align himself with things so as not to fight for them, as in his incapacity to achieve anything, since he himself had conceived it, pitilessly dashing the humiliating good sense that kept him from flight. This duet with himself was the reflex of his essence, he discovered, and that was why it would go on all his life … That was why it became easy to sketch out the distant, gasping, faltering future, until the implacable end—death. That alone and he would attain the goal toward which his inclination guided him: suffering.

It seems mad. However, Daniel also had his reasons. Suffering, for him, the contemplative, was the only way to live intensely … And in the end it was for this alone that Daniel burned: to live. Only his means were strange.

He surrendered so much to the feeling he created and therefore it grew so strong that he’d eventually forget its induced and nurtured origin. He’d forget that he himself had forged it, would imbibe it, and lived from it as if from something real.

Sometimes the crisis, with nowhere to vent, became so painfully dense that, submerged in it, exhausting it, he finally longed to free himself. He would then create, so as to save himself, an opposing desire that would destroy the first. Because at those times he feared madness, felt he was ill, far from all humans, far from that ideal man who would be a serene, animalized being, with an easy and comfortable intelligence. Far from that man he could never become, whom he couldn’t help but scorn, with that haughtiness gained by those who suffer. Far from that man he envied, nonetheless. When his suffering overflowed, he sought help from that kind of man who, in contrast to his own misery, seemed beautiful and perfect to him, full of a simplicity that for him, Daniel, would be heroic.

Tired of being tortured, he’d seek him out, imitate him, with a sudden thirst for peace. It was always that opposing force that he introduced in himself whenever he reached the painful extreme of his crisis. He granted himself some balance like a truce, but one that boredom soon invaded. Until, from the morbid desire to suffer anew, he would solidify this boredom, transforming it into anguish.

He lived in this cycle. Perhaps he’d permitted me to get closer during one of those times when he needed that “opposing force.” I, perhaps I’ve already mentioned this, was the picture of health, with my restrained gestures and upright posture. And, I now know, the reason he sought to crush and humiliate me so was because he envied me. He wanted to wake me up, because he wanted me to suffer too, like a leper secretly hoping to transmit his leprosy to the healthy.

However, unsuspecting as I was, for me his very torture blurred things. Even his selfishness, even his spitefulness made him seem like a dethroned god—a genius. And besides, I already loved him.

Today, I feel sorry for Daniel. After feeling helpless, not knowing what to do with myself, with no desire to go on with the same past of tranquility and death, and not succeeding, the habit of comfort, at mastering a different future—now I realize how free Daniel was and how unhappy. Because of his past—obscure, filled with frustrated dreams—he hadn’t managed to find a place in the conventional world, more or less happy, average. As for the future, he feared it too much because he was well aware of his own limits. And because, despite knowing them, he hadn’t resigned himself to abandoning that enormous, undefined ambition, which, when later it had already become inhuman, was directed beyond earthly things. Failing to achieve the things right in front of him, he’d turned toward something that no one, he guessed, could ever achieve.

Strange as it seems, he suffered from unknown things, from things that, “due to a conspiracy of nature,” he would never touch even for an instant with his senses, “even just to learn about its material, its color, its sex.” “About its qualification in the world of perceptions and sensations,” he said to me once, after I went back to him. And the greatest harm Daniel did me was awaken within me that desire that lies latent inside us all. For some people it awakens and merely poisons them, as for me and Daniel. For others it leads to laboratories, journeys, absurd experiences, to adventure. To madness.

I now know a thing or two about those who seek to feel in order to know that they are alive. I too ventured upon this dangerous journey, so paltry for our terrible anxiety. And almost always disappointing. I learned to make my soul vibrate and I know that, all the while, in the depths of one’s own being, one can remain vigilant and cold, merely observing the spectacle one has granted oneself. And how often in near-boredom …

Now I would understand it. But back then I only saw the Daniel without weaknesses, sovereign and distant, who hypnotized me. I know little about love. I only remember that I feared him and sought him.

He made me tell my life story, which I did, fearfully, choosing my words carefully so I wouldn’t seem so stupid to him. Because he didn’t hesitate to talk about my lack of intelligence, using the cruelest expressions. I’d tell him, obediently, small facts from the past. He’d listen, cigarette in his lips, eyes distracted. And he’d conclude by saying, in that singular way of his, a blend of the suppressed desire to laugh, of weariness, of benevolent disdain:

“Very well, quite happy …”

I’d blush, not sure why I was furious, wounded. But I wouldn’t reply.

One day I talked about Jaime and he said:

“Interesting, very normal.”

Oh, the words are common, but the way they were uttered. They revolutionized me, made me ashamed of what was most hidden inside me.

“Cristina, do you know you’re alive?”

“Cristina, is it good to be unconscious?”

“Cristina, there’s nothing you want, is that so?”

I’d cry afterward, but I’d seek him out again, because I was starting to agree with him and secretly hoped he’d deign to initiate me into his world. And he knew just how to humiliate me. He started to dig his claws into Jaime, into all my friends, lumping them together like something contemptible. I don’t know what it was that, from the start, kept me from revolting. I don’t know. I only recall that for his ego it was a pleasure to dominate and I was easy.

One day, I saw him suddenly get excited, as if the inspiration struck him as both fortuitous and comic:

“Cristina, do you want me to awaken you?”

And, before I could laugh, I already saw myself nodding, in agreement.

So began the strange and revelatory outings, those days that marked me forever.

He’d have hardly condescended to look at me, he made me realize, if I hadn’t decided to be transformed. As mad as it sounds, he’d repeat several times: he wanted to transform me, “to breathe into my body a little poison, that good and terrible poison” …

My education had begun.

He spoke, I listened. I learned of dark and beautiful lives, I learned of the suffering and the ecstasy of those “privileged by madness.”

“Meditate on them, you, with your happy middle ground.”

And I would think. The new world that Daniel’s persuasive voice made me glimpse horrified me, I who had always been a docile lamb. It horrified me, yet was already pulling me in with the magnetic force of a fall …

“Get ready to feel with me. Listen to this passage with your head thrown back, eyes half-closed, lips parted …”

I’d pretend to laugh, pretend to obey as a joke, as if begging pardon from my former friends. And from myself, for accepting such a heavy yoke. Nothing, however, was more serious for me.

He, impassive, preparing me as if for a ritual, insisted, solemnly:

“More languor in your gaze … Relax your nostrils more, get them ready to absorb deeply …”

I would obey. And above all I would obey while trying not to displease him with any single thing, placing myself in his hands and begging forgiveness for not giving him more. And because he asked nothing of me, nothing that I’d hesitate any longer to offer him, I fell even further into the certainty of my inferiority and of the distance between us.

“Let yourself go even more. Let my voice be your thought.”

I would listen. “For those who remain incarcerated” (not only in prisons, Daniel would interject) “tears are a part of daily experience; a day without tears is a day in which the heart has hardened, not a day in which the heart is happy.” “… since the secret of life is to suffer. This truth is contained in all things.”

And little by little, really, I was understanding … That slow voice ended up burning in my soul, stirring it profoundly. I had been wandering through grottos for many long years and was suddenly discovering the radiant passage to the sea … Yes, I once shouted to him barely breathing, I was feeling! He merely smiled, still not satisfied.

Yet it was the truth. I, so simple and primitive, who had never desired anything with intensity. I, unconscious and cheerful, “because I possessed a cheerful body” … Suddenly I was awakening: what a dark life I’d up till then. Now … Now I was being reborn. Lively, in pain, that pain that had been lying dormant, quiet and blind in the depths of my self.

I grew nervous, agitated, but intelligent. My eyes always uneasy. I hardly slept.

Jaime came to visit, spending two days with me. When I got his telegram, I went pale. I walked as if dizzy, figuring out how to keep Daniel from seeing him. I was ashamed of Jaime.

Using the excuse that I wanted to try a hotel, I booked a room. Jaime didn’t suspect the real motive, as I expected. And this brought me closer to Daniel. I distantly yearned for my husband to react on my behalf, to snatch me from those hands. I don’t know what I was afraid of.

They were two awful days. I hated myself because I was ashamed of Jaime yet did everything possible to hide with him in places where Daniel wouldn’t see us …

When he left, finally, I, somewhere between relieved and helpless, granted myself an hour of rest, before returning to Daniel. I was trying to put off the danger, but it never occurred to me to flee.

I had faith that sometime before I left Daniel would want me.

However, news that Mama had fallen ill called me back to Rio before that day arrived. I had to leave.

I spoke with Daniel.

“One more afternoon and we may never see each other again,” I ventured fearfully.

He laughed softly.

“You’ll come back for sure.”

I got the distinct impression that he was trying to suggest that I return, as if it were an order. He’d said to me one day: “Weak souls like yours are easily led to any kind of madness simply at a glance from strong souls like mine.” However, blind as I was, I rejoiced at this thought. And, forgetting that he himself had already affirmed his indifference to me, I clung to this possibility: “If you’re suggesting that I track you down one day … isn’t it because you want me?”

I asked him, trying to smile:

“Come back? Why?”

“Your education … It’s not yet complete.”

I came to my senses, fell into an intense gloom that left me slack and empty for several moments. Yes, I was forced to recognize, he had never even been disturbed in the least by my presence. But, again, that coldness of his somehow excited me, built him up in my eyes. During one of those sudden exaltations that had become frequent with me, I wanted to kneel near him, abase myself, worship him. Never again, never again, I thought, frightened. I dreaded not being able to bear the pain of losing him.

“Daniel,” I said to him softly.

He raised his eyes and, seeing my anguished face, narrowed them, analyzing me, comprehending me. There was a long minute of silence. I waited and trembled. I knew that this was the first truly alive moment between us, the first to link us directly. That moment suddenly cut me off from my entire past and in a singular premonition I foresaw that it would stand out like a crimson spot on the whole arc of my life.

I was waiting and as I did, all my senses on edge, I’d have wanted to freeze the whole universe, afraid that a leaf would stir, that someone would interrupt us, that my breathing, some gesture would shatter the spell of the moment, make it vanish and cast us back into the distance and into the void of words. My blood beat muffled in my wrists, in my chest, in my forehead. My hands ice-cold and clammy, almost numb. My anxiety left me extremely tense, as if on the verge of flinging myself into a maelstrom, on the verge of going mad. At a slight movement from Daniel, I nearly exploded into a scream, as if he had shaken me violently:

“And what if I come back?”

He met this phrase with displeasure, as always when “my animal intensity shocked him.” He fixed his eyes on me and his features underwent a gradual transformation. I flushed. My constant concern with piercing his thoughts hadn’t granted me the power to penetrate the most important ones, but I had honed my intuition for the minor ones. I knew that for Daniel to take pity on me, I would have to be ridiculous. Another person’s hunger or misery moved him less than a lack of aesthetics. My hair was down, damp with sweat, falling across my flaming face and the pain, to which my physiognomy, calm for years and years, was still unaccustomed, was probably contorting my features, lending them a touch of the grotesque. At the gravest moment of my life I had become ridiculous, Daniel’s punishing look told me as much.

He remained silent. And, as if at the end of a long explanation, he added, in a slow and serene voice:

“And besides, you know me far better than you’d need to live with me. I’ve already said too much.” Pause. He lit his cigarette unhurriedly. He looked deep into my eyes and concluded with a half-smile: “I would hate you the day I had nothing more to say to you.”

I’d already been so downtrodden that I wasn’t hurt. It was the first time, however, that he’d openly rejected me, myself, my body, everything I had and was offering him with my eyes closed.

Terrified by my own words that dragged me along independently of my will, I proceeded with humility, trying to please him.

“Won’t you at least answer my letters?”

He had an imperceptible moment of impatience. But he answered, his voice controlled, softened:

“No. Which doesn’t mean you can’t write me.”

Before I took my leave, he kissed me. He kissed me on the lips, which didn’t ease my worry. Because he was doing it for me. And I wanted him to feel pleasure, to be humanized, to be humbled.


Mama recovered quickly. And I had gone back to Jaime, for good.

I resumed my previous life. Yet I moved like a blind woman, in a kind of stupor that shook itself off only when I wrote to Daniel. I never received a word from him. I no longer expected anything. And I kept writing.

Once in a while my state worsened and every instant grew painful like a small arrow lodged in my body. I thought of fleeing, of running off to Daniel. I would fall into feverish fits that I tried in vain to control through household chores so as not to alert Jaime and the maid.

A state of lassitude would follow in which I suffered less. Yet, even during that phase, I never relaxed completely. I carefully scrutinized myself: “would it return?” I would refer to the torture with vague words, as if I could hold it off that way.

In moments of greater lucidity, I’d remember something he once told me:

“You must know how to feel, but also how to stop feeling, because if an experience is sublime it can equally become dangerous. Learn how to cast the spell and then break it. Pay attention, I’m teaching you something valuable: the magic that is the opposite of, ‘open, Sesame.’ The best way for a feeling to lose its perfume and stop intoxicating us is to expose it to the sun.”

I had tried to think about what had happened clearly and objectively so as to reduce my feelings to a rubric, with no perfume, no subtext. It seemed vaguely like a betrayal. Of Daniel, of myself. I had tried, nevertheless. Simplifying my story in two or three words, exposing it to the sun, seemed really laughable to me, but the coolness of my thoughts didn’t spread to me and it rather seemed an unknown woman with an unknown man. Oh, those two had nothing to do with the oppression that was crushing me, with that painful longing that made my eyes go blurry and troubled my mind … And even so, I had discovered, I was afraid to free myself. “That” had grown too much inside me, leaving me full. I’d be helpless if I were ever cured. After all, what was I now, I felt, but a reflection? Were I to eradicate Daniel, I’d be a blank mirror.

I had become vibratory, strangely sensitive. I could no longer stand those agreeable afternoons with the family that once amused me so.

“Sure is hot, huh, Cristina?” said Jaime.

“I’ve been going over this stitch for two weeks now and I just can’t get it right,” said Mama.

Jaime broke in, stretching:

“Imagine that, crocheting in weather like this.”

“The hard part isn’t the crocheting, it’s racking your brain trying to figure out that stitch,” Papa replied.


“Mercedes will end up engaged to that boy,” Mama announced.

“Even as ugly as she is,” Papa replied distractedly, turning the page of his newspaper.


“The boss has now decided to use that delivery system of …”

I would disguise my anguish and make up some excuse to step away for a moment. In the bedroom I’d bite down on my handkerchief, stifling the cries of despair that threatened my throat. I’d collapse onto the bed, my face buried in the pillow, hoping that something would happen and save me. I was starting to hate them, all of them. And I longed to abandon them, to flee that feeling that was growing by the minute, intermingled with an unbearable pity for them and for myself. As if together we were victims of the same, inevitable threat.

I’d try to reconstruct Daniel’s face, feature by feature. It seemed to me that if I could remember him clearly I’d gain some kind of power over him. I’d hold my breath, tense up, press my lips together. One second … One more second and I’d have him, gesture by gesture … His figure was already taking shape, nebulous … And finally, little by little, crestfallen, I’d see it vanish. I got the impression that Daniel was fleeing me, smiling. However, his presence wouldn’t leave me entirely. Once, while I was with Jaime, I had felt him and blushed. I had imagined him watching us, with his calm and ironic smile:

“Well, look what we have here, a happy couple …”

I had trembled in shame and for several days could hardly stand the sight of Jaime. I thought of Daniel, even more intensely. Lines of his stirred up a whirlwind inside me. The odd phrase would rise up and haunt me for hours and hours. “The only attitude worthy of a man is sorrow, the only attitude worthy of a man is sorrow, the only …”

From a distance, I was starting to understand him better. I’d recall how Daniel didn’t really know how to laugh. Once in a while, when I’d say something funny and if I caught him off guard, I’d see his face seem to split in two, in a grimace that contradicted those wrinkles born solely from pain and reflection. He’d look both cynical and childish, almost indecent, as if he were doing something forbidden, as if he were cheating, hiding from someone.

I couldn’t bear to look at him, in those rare instants. I’d lower my head, annoyed, filled with a pity that hurt me. He really didn’t know how to be happy. Maybe he’d never been taught, who knows? Always so alone, since adolescence, so far removed from the least overture of friendship. Today, without hatred, without love, with no more than indifference, how much kindness I could show him.

But back then … Was I afraid of him? I just felt that all he’d have to do was show up, a single gesture would make me follow him forever. I used to dream of that instant, I’d imagine that, by his side, I would free myself from him. Love? I wanted to go with him, to be on the stronger side, for him to spare me, like one who seeks shelter in the arms of the enemy to stay far from his arrows. It was different than love, I was finding out: I wanted him as a thirsty person desires water, without feelings, without even wanting to be happy.

Sometimes I’d allow myself another dream, knowing it was more impossible still: he’d love me and I’d have my revenge, feeling … No, not superior, but equal … Because, if he wanted me, it would destroy that powerful coldness of his, his ironic and unshakable scorn that fascinated me. Until then I could never be happy. He haunted me.

Oh, I know I’m repeating myself, that I’m rambling, mixing up facts and thoughts in this short narrative. Nevertheless, it’s taking me so much effort to marshal its elements and put them on paper. I’ve already said that I’m neither intelligent, nor cultivated. And merely suffering isn’t enough.

Not speaking, with my eyes closed, something beneath my thought, deeper and stronger, apprehends what happened and, in a fleeting instant, I see it clearly. But my brain is feeble and I can’t manage to transform that vivid minute into thought.

It’s all true, nevertheless. And I ought to acknowledge still other, equally true feelings. Often, while thinking of him, in a slow transition, I’d see myself serving him like a slave. Yes, I’d admit, trembling and afraid: I, with a stable, conventional past, born into civilization, felt an excruciating pleasure in imagining myself at his feet, a slave … No, it wasn’t love. I horrified myself: it was debasement, debasement … I’d catch myself peering in the mirror, searching for some new sign in my face, born of pain, of my vileness, and that might guide my mind toward those tumultuous instincts I still didn’t want to accept. I was trying to unburden my soul, tormenting myself, whispering through clenched teeth: “Vile … despicable …” I’d answer myself, a coward: “But, my god (lowercase, as he’d taught me), I’m not guilty, I’m not guilty …” Of what? I never said exactly. Some awful and powerful thing was growing within me, some thing that paralyzed me with fright. That was all I knew.

And confusedly, faced with the memory of him, I would shrink back, unite myself with Jaime, drawing him close to me, wanting to protect us both, against him, against his power, against his smile. Because, knowing he was far away, I’d imagine him watching my days and smiling at some secret thought, the sort whose existence I could only guess at, without ever managing to penetrate its meaning. I sought, after a long while, over a year, as if to justify to myself, to Jaime and our bourgeois life, how he had taken over my soul. Those long conversations in which all I ever did was listen, that flame that lit up my eyes, that slow gaze, heavy with knowledge, beneath thick eyelids, had fascinated me, awoken in me obscure feelings, the aching desire to immerse myself in something unknown, to attain something unknown … And above all they’d awoken in me the sensation that palpitating inside my body and spirit was a deeper and more intense life than the one I was living.

At night, unable to sleep, as if speaking to someone invisible, I’d say to myself softly, defeated, “I agree, I agree that my life is comfortable and mediocre, I agree, everything I have is trivial.” I felt him nod benevolently. “I can’t, I can’t!” I’d shout to myself, this lament containing the impossibility of no longer wanting him, of carrying on like that, of, first and foremost, following the grandiose paths he’d started to show me and where I was getting lost, puny and helpless.

I had learned of ardent lives, but had returned to my own, dull one. He had let me glimpse the sublime and insisted that I too burn in the sacred fire. I was thrashing around, with no strength. Everything I had learned from Daniel only made me realize how trivial my everyday life was and despise it. My education hadn’t ended, as he’d so accurately put it.

I felt alone in the world, I tried to escape in tears. Yet my attitude in the face of suffering was still one of bewilderment.

How did I find the strength to destroy all that I had been, to hurt Jaime, to make Papa and Mama, old and tired already, so unhappy?

In the period leading up to my decision, as in certain illnesses just before death, I had moments of respite.

That day, Dora, a friend, had come over attempting to distract me from one of those headaches that I used as an excuse to surrender freely to melancholy, without being disturbed. It was a remark of hers, if I’m not mistaken, that launched me toward Daniel by other means.

“Darling, you should have heard Armando talking about music. You’d think he was talking about the best meal in the world or the most gorgeous woman. Going on and on, like he was gnawing on every little note and spitting out the bones …”

I thought of Daniel who, on the contrary, made everything immaterial. Even the one time he’d kissed me, I had imagined it didn’t involve lips. I trembled: not wanting to impoverish his memory. But another thought remained lucid and undisturbed: he used to say that the body was an accessory. No, no. One day he’d glanced with repugnance and censure at my blouse that was heaving after I’d been running to catch the bus. Revulsion, no! He’d said to me, continuing another cold thought: “You eat chocolate as if it were the most important thing in the world. You have a horrible taste for things.” He ate like someone crumpling a piece of paper.

All of a sudden, I realized that a lot of people would smile at Daniel, with one of those proud and ambiguous smiles that men dedicate to one another. Perhaps I myself would have disparaged him if I weren’t ill … At this thought, something rebelled inside me, strangely: Daniel …

I suddenly felt exhausted, without the strength now to go on. When the telephone rang. Jaime, I thought. It was as if I were fleeing Daniel … Ah, some help. I answered, eagerly.

“Hello, Jaime!”

“How’d you know it was me?” came his nasal, good-natured voice.

As if someone had poured cool water over my face. My nerves relaxed. Jaime, you exist. You’re real. Your hands are strong, they take me in. You like chocolate too.

“Will you be long?”

“No, my girl. I called to ask if you need anything from downtown.”

I struggled for another second not to scrutinize his careless sentence. Because lately I’d been comparing everything to the beautiful and profound things Daniel had told me. And I would only calm down, after I agreed with the invisible Daniel: yes, he’s dull, mediocrely, incredibly happy …

“I don’t need anything. But come home right away, okay? (Now, darling, before Daniel comes, before I change my mind, now!) Hello! Hello! Listen, if you want to bring me something, buy some candy … chocolate … Yes, yes. See you soon.”

When Dora left, I stood in front of the mirror and fixed myself up as I hadn’t done in months. But anxiety robbed my patience, left my eyes bright, my movements darting. It would be a test, the final test.

When he arrived, my agitation stopped immediately. Yes, I thought deeply relieved, I was calm, almost happy: Daniel hadn’t shown up. He noticed I’d changed my hair, my nails. He kissed me, unworried. I took his hands, ran them over my cheeks, my forehead.

“What’s the matter, Cristina? What happened?”

I didn’t answer, but thousands of bells clanged inside me. My thoughts vibrated like a shriek: “Just this, just this: I’m going to free myself! I’m free!”

We sat on the sofa. And in the silence of the living room, I felt at peace. I thought of nothing and leaned against Jaime serenely.

“Can’t we stay like this the rest of our lives?”

He laughed. Stroked my hands.

“You know? I like you better without nail polish …”

“Request granted, sir.”

“That wasn’t a request: it was an order …”

Then back to silence, whipping in my ears, my eyes, sapping me of strength. It was nice, tenderly nice. He ran his hands through my hair.

Then, as if a spear had pierced my back, I grew suddenly irritated on the sofa, opened my eyes, focused them, dilated, on the air …

“What happened?” asked Jaime, worried.

His hair … Yes, yes, I thought with a slight, triumphant smile, his hair was black … His eyes … Just a moment … His eyes … black too?


That same night, I decided to leave.

And suddenly, I no longer considered the matter, stopped worrying, gave Jaime a pleasant evening. I went to bed serene and slept through the night, I hadn’t in a long time.

I waited for Jaime to go to work. I sent the maid home, gave her the day off. I packed a small suitcase with the essentials.

Before leaving, though, my calm suddenly evaporated. Useless, repeated movements, darting and stumbling thoughts. It seemed as if Daniel were next to me, his presence almost palpable: “These eyes of yours rendered right on the surface of your face, with a delicate brush, a touch of paint. Meticulous, light, incapable of doing good or evil …”

In a sudden burst of inspiration, I decided to leave a note for Jaime, a note that would hurt him the way Daniel would hurt him! That would trouble him, crush him. And, just for the pride of showing Daniel that I was “strong,” remorseless, I wrote deliberately, trying to make myself distant and unattainable: “I’m leaving. I’m tired of living with you. If you can’t understand me at least trust me: I’m telling you that I deserve to be forgiven. If you were more intelligent, I’d tell you: don’t judge me, don’t forgive, nobody can do that. But, for the sake of your own peace, forgive me.”


Silently I took my place beside Daniel.

Gradually I took over his daily life, replaced him, like a nurse, in his movements. I looked after his books, his clothes, brightened his surroundings.

He never thanked me. He simply accepted it, as he’d accepted my companionship.

As for me, from the moment in which getting off the train I approached Daniel without being repelled, I had taken a single-

minded attitude. Neither from contentment because of him, nor regret because of Jaime. Nor quite relief. It was as if I had returned to my source. As if previously they had chiseled me out of rock, cast me into life as a woman and I later returned to my true roots, like a final sigh, my eyes closed, serene, standing still for eternity.

I didn’t dwell on the situation, but whenever I scrutinized it I always did so in the same way: I live with him and that’s it. I stayed close to the powerful one, to the one who knew, that was enough for me.

Why didn’t that ideal death last forever? A bit of clairvoyance, at certain moments, warned me that peace could only be fleeting. I sensed that living with Daniel wouldn’t always be enough for me. And I plunged even deeper into nonexistence, granting myself respites, putting off the moment when I myself would seek life, to discover by myself, through my own suffering.

For the time being I would just watch him and rest.


The days passed, the months fell away one by one.

Habit settled into my existence and its guidance soon kept me busy by the minute with Daniel. Soon I no longer became enthralled, exalted, as before, when I listened to him. I had entered him. Nothing surprised me anymore.

I never smiled, I had unlearned joy. Yet I wouldn’t have removed myself from his life even to be happy. I was not, nor was I unhappy. I had so incorporated myself into the situation that I no longer received stimuli and sensations that would allow me to modify it.

Only one fear disturbed my strange peace: that Daniel would send me away. Sometimes, silently mending his clothes at his side, I sensed that he was about to speak. I’d drop the sewing onto my lap, go pale and await his order:

“You can go.”

And when, finally, I’d hear him tell me something or laugh at me for some reason, I’d pick the fabric back up and continue my work, fingers trembling for a few seconds.

The end, however, was near.

One day when I’d gone out early, I took longer than usual to come home, due to an accident on one of the roads. When I got to the bedroom, I found him irritated, his eyes gazing off into the distance, not replying to my “good evening.” He hadn’t eaten dinner yet and when I, feeling guilty, begged him to eat something, he kept up a long, willful silence and finally informed me, scrutinizing my worry with a certain pleasure: he hadn’t had lunch either. I rushed to put on the coffee, while he kept up the same sullen attitude, a little childish, watching my hurried movements from the corner of his eye as I set the table.

Suddenly I opened my eyes, in shock. For the first time I was realizing that Daniel needed me! I had become necessary to the tyrant … He, I now knew, wouldn’t send me away …

I recall that I stopped with the coffee pot in my hand, disoriented. Daniel was still gloomy, in silent protest against my accidental negligence. I smiled, a little bashfully. So … he did need me? I didn’t feel joy, but something like disappointment: well, I thought, my job is done. It frightened me, that unexpected and involuntary reflection.

I had already served out my term of slavery. Perhaps I’d go on being a slave, without rebelling, for the rest of my life. But I was serving a god … And Daniel had gone soft, his spell was broken. He needed me! I repeated a thousand times afterward, feeling that I had received a beautiful, enormous gift, too large for my arms and for my desire. And the strangest thing is that with this impression came another, absurdly novel and powerful. I was free, I realized at last …

How can I understand myself? Why that blind conformity at first? And afterward, the near joy of liberation? What matter am I made of in which elements and foundations for a thousand other lives mingle but never merge? I go down every path and still none is mine. I have been sculpted into so many statues and haven’t frozen into place …

From then on, without actively deciding to, I imperceptibly neglected Daniel. And no longer accepted his dominance. I was just resigned to it.

What good is it to narrate trivial events that demonstrate my gradual progression toward intolerance and hatred? It’s well-known how little it takes to transform the mood in which two people live. A slight gesture, a smile, snag like a fishhook onto a feeling coiled in the depths of calm waters and bring it to the surface, making it clamor over the others.

We went on living. And now I savored, day by day, mingled at first with the taste of triumph, the power of gazing directly upon the idol.

He noticed my transformation and, if at first he retreated in surprise at my courage, he took up the old yoke with still greater violence, prepared not to let me escape. Yet I would find my own violence. We took up our arms and were two forces.

It was hard to breathe in the bedroom. We moved as if in the thick of danger, waiting for it to materialize and crash down on us, behind our backs. We grew cunning, seeking a thousand hidden intentions behind every word offered. We hurt each other at every turn and established victory and defeat. I grew cruel. He grew weak, showed what he was really like. There were times when he was a hair’s breadth away from begging me for help, confessing to the isolation in which my freedom had left him and which, in my wake, he could no longer bear. I myself, my strength quickly flagging, sometimes wanted to reach out to him. Yet we’d gone too far and, proud, couldn’t turn back. It was the struggle, now, that kept us going. Like a sick child, he grew increasingly capricious. Any word of mine was the start of a harsh quarrel. Later we discovered yet another recourse: silence. We hardly spoke.

So why didn’t we separate, given that no serious ties bound us? He didn’t suggest it because he’d grown used to my help and could therefore no longer live without someone to wield power over, to be a king over, since he had no other subject. And perhaps he really did love my companionship, he who’d always been so solitary. As for me—I took pleasure in hating him.

Even our new relations were invaded by habit. (I lived with Daniel for almost two years.) Now it wasn’t even hatred. We were tired.

Eventually, after a week of rain that had trapped us together for days on end in the room, fraying our nerves to the limit—eventually the conclusion came.

It was a late afternoon, prematurely dark. Rain dripped monotonously outside. We’d hardly spoken that day. Daniel, his face white over the dark “scarf” of his neck, was looking out the window. Water had fogged the windowpanes; he pulled out his handkerchief and, attentively, as if this had suddenly become important, started wiping them, his movements painstaking and careful, betraying the effort it took to contain his irritation. I watched him while standing next to the sofa. The clock went on ticking in the room, heaving.

Then, as if I were continuing an argument, I said to my own surprise:

“But this can’t go on …”

He turned and I met his cold eyes, perhaps curious, definitely ironic. All my rage solidified in that moment and weighed on my chest like a stone.

“What are you laughing at?” I asked.

He kept staring at me and went back to wiping the windowpanes. Suddenly, he recovered and answered:

“At you.”

I was astonished. How brave he was. I was afraid of how boldly he challenged me. I answered haltingly:


He leaned slightly closer and his teeth gleamed in the half-darkness. I found him terribly handsome, though the realization didn’t move me.

“Why? Ah, because … It’s just that you and I … indifferent or hateful … An argument that has nothing really to do with us, that doesn’t exhilarate us … A disappointment.”

“So why laugh at me, then?” I continued obstinately. “Aren’t there two of us here?”

He wiped a droplet that had trickled onto the windowsill.

“No. You’re alone. You were always alone.”

Was this just a way to hurt me? I was surprised all the same, I was stunned as if I’d been robbed. My God, so … neither of us believed anymore in whatever held us together?

“Are you afraid of the truth? We don’t even feel hatred toward each other. If we did we’d almost be happy. Beings made of strong stuff. You want proof? You wouldn’t kill me, because afterward you’d feel neither pleasure nor pain. You’d just think: ‘what’s the point?’ ”

I couldn’t help but notice the intelligence with which he penetrated the truth. But how things were going so fast, how fast they were going! I thought.

Silence fell. The clock struck six. Back to silence.

I breathed hard, deeply. My voice came out low and heavy:

“I’m leaving.”

We each made a slight, quick movement, as if a struggle were about to begin. Then we looked at each other in surprise. It had been said! It had been said!

I repeated triumphantly, trembling:

“I’m leaving, Daniel.” I came closer and against the pallor of his slender face, his hair looked excessively black. “Daniel”—I shook him by the arm—“I’m leaving!”

He didn’t move. I then realized that my hand was clutching his arm. My declaration had opened such a gulf between us that I couldn’t even bear touching him. I pulled it away with such an abrupt and sudden movement that the ashtray went flying, shattered on the floor.

I stood staring at the shards for a while. Then I lifted my head, suddenly calmed. He too had frozen, as if fascinated by the swiftness of the scene, having forgotten any mask. We looked at each other for a moment, without anger, our eyes disarmed, searching, now filled with an almost friendly curiosity, the depths of our souls, our mystery that must be the same. We averted our gaze at the same time, disturbed.

“The prisoners,” Daniel said trying to lend a lighthearted, disdainful tone to the words.

That was the last moment of understanding we had together.

There was an extremely long pause, the kind that plunges us into eternity. Everything around us had stopped.

With another sigh, I came back to life.

“I’m leaving.”

He didn’t make a move.

I walked to the door and at the threshold stopped again. I saw his back, his dark head lifted, as if he were looking straight ahead. I repeated, my voice singularly hollow:

“I’m leaving, Daniel.”


My mother had died from a heart attack, brought on by my departure. Papa had found refuge with my uncle, in the country.

Jaime took me back.

He never asked many questions. More than anything he wanted peace. We went back to our old life, though he never came completely close to me again. He sensed that I was different from him and my “lapse” frightened him, made him respect me.

As for me, I go on.

Alone now. Forever alone.

“Obsession,” by Clarice Lispector, from Complete Stories, copyright © 1979 by the Heirs of Clarice Lispector. Translation copyright © 2015 by Katrina Dodson. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) is the author of Near to the Wild Heart and many more novels, short stories, and essays.