Thinking The Breadth of Being
"Thinking is not something I consider dangerous. And I can think without allowing it to upset me." It is a remark Clarice Lispector makes in one of her Selected Cronicas, 'God's Sweet Ways', but it is also indicative of a wider interest in thinking when it comes to her fiction work also. Should a fiction writer be suspicious of thinking, and should any thought a novel or story have be hidden in the characters and situations rather than exposed as authorial perspective? When in another cronica, 'Rebelllion', Lispector says, "when love is too great it becomes futile: it can no longer be put to use and not even the person loved has the capacity for so much love" it resembles passages from the short story 'Love'. "Life was vulnerable. She loved the world, she loved all things created, she loved with loathing." A page later the narrator says, "She no longer knew if she was on the side of the blind man or of the thick plants." In this short story about a housewife who gazes intensely at a blind man, someone unable to return her gaze. Lispector uses thought not so much to assert herself, to allow an authorial authority into the work, but as if thought itself was the place where one holds oneself together. If Milan Kundera explores well the novel of ideas that incorporates Robert Musil, Hermann Broch and Thomas Mann, there appears to be another type of thought available to the novel too. If Musil, Broch and others brought a certain type of meditation into the novel, it seems quite different from the thinking writers like Lispector, Helene Cixous and Robert Walser offer. When Kundera says in The Art of the Novel, "the appeal of thought: Musil and Broch brought a sovereign and radiant intelligence to bear on the novel", with the intention "not to transform the novel into philosophy, but to marshal around the story all the means - rational and irrational, narrative, contemplative - that could illuminate man's being", this was authoritative thought. Lispector, Walser and Cixous practise what we'll call vulnerable thought. But what is the difference?
Later in The Art of the Novel Kundera discusses Broch and says, "for Broch, that history is clearly defined as a perpetual disintegration of values. The characters are locked into this process as in a cage and must find a way of living that suits the progressive disappearance of common values." Kundera says Broch was sure of this historical judgement, but Kundera adds that even if Broch was wrong this didn't matter: "because the process of disintegration of values is an indisputable possibility of the human world." It is a perspective on the world, which is valid despite its partiality. Yet it is clear that Broch shapes his novel around this idea, and this is quite different from the thinking in Lispector's work. The idea isn't bolstered by assertion but fractured by vulnerability. Some might insist there is no place for ideas in the novel; we are saying not only is there a place for them, but that they take different forms.
Lispector seems to be an obsessively vulnerable thinker, a writer for whom thinking doesn't win arguments and leads to asserting a position, but that asks the reader to empathise with the fragility of the thought. In the novel The Apple in the Dark, the narrator is talking about the central character's attempt to write, and says "he found that everything that had seemed ready to be said had evaporated now that he wanted to say it. What had filled his days with reality had turned into nothing face to face with the order to describe it." Where for Kundera or Musil this would be an opportunity for meditating on the gap between experience and the word, for Lispector it leads to an empathy for author and character: as if through writing about this engineer trying to put words on the page, she asks the reader to acknowledge the difficulty she has putting them down on his behalf. "But when it came to writing he was as naked as if they had not let him bring anything along. Not even his own experience." It resembles the opening remark in Cixous's The Book of Promethea: "I am a little afraid of this book. Because it is a book of love. It is a burning bush. Best to plunge in..." Or a passage from a Robert Walser story 'Swift and Sluggish': "I admit that the invention of the story has cost me not a little trouble, although readers may perhaps find it somewhat silly."
Cixous is herself one of the great commentators on Lispector, with an obsessive need to talk about her work, evident when she says in an interview: "First, it is true that Clarice Lispector has an absolutely exceptional place in my space of references, and that she is unique for me. I compare her with no one. With no one among our contemporaries." ('Guardian of Language') In Coming to Writing and Others Essays, she says in the title essay, on Lispector, "a patience pays attention. An attention that is terse, active, discreet, warm, almost imperceptible, imponderable like a light rekindling of looks, regular twenty-one days and twenty-one nights, at the kitchen window, and at last an egg is." This is vulnerable writing, perhaps even bad prose and weak thinking according to some tastes. It resembles this passage from Lispector's The Apple in the Dark. "Martim thought with a depth that put him precisely in the middle of the emptiness. Truth is never terrifying, we are the ones who are terrifying. And also. "What will truth be like?" Just let someone who does not believe that truth happens look at a chicken walking around with the strength of the unknown." In each instance we have writing that is vaguely argued and metaphorically inexact. If Cixous started by saying "patience pays attention" and concluded with the idea that patience allows for thinking, thinking is like gestation, and in time thought will arrive just as a hen will lay an egg, the thought would achieve the sort of coherence we often find and expect in Kundera and the writers he admires. If Lispector had said that Martim was in the depths of being, where no social value could be accepted, no reason to live acknowledged, and added that this is the state of the beast with a will to live but no consciousness that needed to acknowledge it, again we would have a coherent thought and metaphorical language that would augment it.
One offers these paraphrased examples not to suggest that Cixous and Lispector don't know how to write, but that their work takes place as if in an area of the half-thought, the semi-articulated. It feels like the activity of the present tense; when Kundera talks of two different types of men in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it is the already thought. When he says that there are womanizing men who look for an ideal women and men who look for endless variety, he insists: "The obsession of the former is lyrical: what they seek in women is themselves, their ideal...the disappointment that propels them from woman to woman gives their inconstancy a kind of romantic excuse, so that many sentimental women are touched by their unbridled philandering." However, "the obsession of the latter is epic, and women see nothing the least bit touching in it...this inability to be disappointed has something scandalous about it." We might not agree with Kundera, but the argument is laid out clearly enough, with even the use of italics to point up the difference between the two types. This is an authoritative authorial intrusion, making a clear dichotomy before going on to explore the womanizing of Kundera's central character Tomas. Yet Lispector writes as if more from the heart than the head, and seeks a language that doesn't demand that we accept its authority, but much more that we acknowledge its attempt at thinking.
In the former instance, the writer demands we comprehend the thought, and Kundera confidently argues his point, and since there is very little vulnerability in the thinking, very little vulnerability comes through in the writing. There are many very good reasons to go to Kundera, but vulnerability is rarely one of them. To Woolf, to Kafka, to Duras, yes, but not to the Czech master whose essays are like an integrated extension of his novels, and even vice versa. Yet few writers write as vulnerably as Lispector, and this shows particularly in the syntax. There is the sentence that isn't quite a sentence in 'Love'. "Anna tranquilly put her small, strong hand, her current to everything." Other passages are grammatical but brilliantly disjunctive, with the words hardly following one from the other. "The moral of the garden was something different." "The nausea reached her throat as if she were pregnant and abandoned." Rachel Kushner in Bookforum notes her "flexing language and punctuation in the interest of ephemeral and barely graspable truths".Gregory Rabassa's introduction to The Apple in the Dark states that "the invention is...[that of] certain radical departures in the use of syntactical structure., the rhythm of the phrase being created in defiance of norms..." Lispector marshals "the syntax in a new way that is closer perhaps to original thought patterns than the [Portuguese] language has ever managed to approach before." Rabassa uses the past tense, but maybe the present continuous would capture better Lispector's thinking processes. As Lispector says in 'The Making of a Novel', "what I write does not refer to the past, but thought in the present: whatever comes to the surface is already expressed in the only possible words, or simply does not exist."
This is also a process where thinking is more apparent than doing, where the perception of an event is more important than the actions involved. We can see this clearly in some of Lispector's short stories, including 'The Dinner', 'Love', 'The Chicken' and 'Preciousness'. In 'The Dinner' we might be surprised when near the end of the story we realize that the narrator is a man. The story has focused so exclusively on the narrator's observations that the narrator is hardly a character at all; more a disembodied, un-gendered point of perception indicative of vulnerability not because of what the man says about himself, but because of the way he witnesses the actions of another character. As the narrator watches this man whose appearance suggests he is in his sixties, he notices someone with powerful hands and a ring on his finger indicating power. While eating, he emanates a force that fascinates the narrator. "...Suddenly turning his meat from one side to another, examining it vehemently, the tip of his tongue showing, prodding the steak with the back of his fork, almost sniffing at it, his mouth already in action." The narrator sees little that is sensitive and vulnerable about this man, and sees his own weaknesses as if all the more pronounced. At the end of the story the narrator says "when I have been betrayed and slaughtered, when someone has gone away forever, or I have lost the best of my possessions...I do not eat." The story examines from a purely perceptual point of view the eating of a meal by a restaurant visitor and we understand the narrator as someone who notices in the other figure characteristics that we assume he himself lacks.
If it is often said character is action, then in Lispector's work character is frequently inaction, even petrification. If anyone from E. M. Forster to Aristotle can insist on the importance of event, Lispector wonders what happens when you emphasize the perception of it. Forster says in Aspects of the Novel, "the novelist who betrays too much interest in his own method can never be more than interesting; he has given up the creation of character and summoned us to help analyse his own mind, and a heavy drop on the emotional thermometer results." Aristotle talks about the importance of mimesis: "the construction of the best tragedy should be complex rather than simple; and it should also be an imitation of events." What often comes through in Lispector though is not identification with a character, but an empathic response to selves other than our own. If Forster might see an author too interested in his own mind to create character (namely Gide's The Counterfeiters in the passage quoted), then Lispector is a writer who is perhaps too concerned with what is going on in other people's to create event. Nothing happens in 'The Dinner', but much is achieved: Lispector offers the surface of one person and the centre of someone else, and we muse over the centre of the former through the latter, and wonder what sort of figure the narrator might be as a consequence of this investigation into the man eating.
In 'Preciousness' the narrative position is third person, but the narrator seems to hover over her character, like a benign, floating figure determined to make sure that this fifteen-year-old girl who is neither pretty nor robust, but who possesses within her qualities that are as if somehow outside her, is okay: "Inside her thinness existed the almost majestic vastness in which she stirred..." The story ends with the girl insisting she needs new shoes, and that after saying to herself a person is nothing, adding more warmly, "a person is something." The last lines of the story are: "There is an obscure law which decrees that the egg be protected until the chicken is born, a bird of fire. And she got her new shoes." It is as though the narrator has been protecting her, like an egg carefully guarded by its mother, an embryonic chick carefully protected by its shell. Whether first person or third person, we feel the narrators' view of the world as if it's ready to break, and is held together by forces often no more secure than narration itself, or rather the sensibility of narration.
What do we mean by this? It returns us to our remarks about authorial vulnerability, and in 'A Knowing Sensibility', from Selected Cronicas, Lispector says, "often this so-called intelligence of mine is so limited that one would think I was stupid. People who refer to my intelligence are, in fact, confusing intelligence with what I would call a knowing sensibility. Now that is something I really do possess." Lispector isn't of course talking about knowing in the sense of clever. "Not withstanding my admiration for sheer intelligence, I find a knowing sensibility much more important...I daresay this is the kind of sensibility I exercise when I write, or in my relationships with friends. I also exercise it when I come into superficial contact with certain people whose aura I can sense immediately." This is a sensibility that doesn't size people up or take their measure; it searches out their nuances and their disposition. It is as though Lispector is acutely aware of two sides of being, and the conflict between them: the pragmatic and the ecstatic; the practical and the emotionally spiritual. We see this wonderfully expressed in 'The Chicken' as Sunday lunch becomes the family pet. The pragmatics of putting food on the table leads to a metaphysical question about what happens to possess life. As the parents chase the chicken around the room, the narrator wonders "what was it in the chicken's entrails that made her a being? The chicken is, in fact, a being." Where most accept that one chicken replaces another, "so similar in appearance that when one died, another automatically appeared, so similar in appearance that it might well be the same chicken", this one starts to possess singular qualities as both the father and then the daughter insist it can't become lunch. "If you have this chicken killed", the father says, "I will never eat fowl as long as I live!" "Nor me!" the daughter adds. By the end of the story, though, the practical finally trumps: "one day they killed her and ate her..."
It is a cruel end to a touching story, but Lispector for all her sensitivity as a writer isn't given to sentimentality. Avoiding the sentimental is central to her sensitivity, and this is why we talk of the pragmatic and the ecstatic. Man (or woman) is a survival instinct and a consciousness, but it is never the latter without the former, and Lispector, while always searching the breadth of possible consciousness, contains it within the practical need to eat. Yet the more sensitive a being happens to be, the less pressing will be this preoccupation. Rachel Kushner in 'Bookforum' talks about a dinner party Lispector once held where she forgot to serve food, an anecdote that even if it weren't true would be apt: would we believe it if it were said of Norman Mailer, Alberto Moravia or Garcia Marquez, all writers suggesting the unproblematically sensual when it comes to the spiritual, or rather writers whose work usually indicates the paramountcy of the physical over the immaterial? Yet food plays a very important part in Lispector's work. In 'Love' just after crushing an ant in the kitchen ("the small murder of the ant") she helps the maid cook dinner: "she went from one side of the kitchen to the other, cutting the steaks, mixing the cream" as she can't get the blind man she saw out of her mind. He epitomizes fragility, perhaps, a vulnerability she didn't allow the ant, and a precariousness she worries about concerning her kids. "The slightest movement on her part and she would trample one of her children." Love is an awareness of the fragile, the soul an immaterial conduit for such a feeling. One reason Cixous has been so drawn to Lispector's work is because she sees in it this conduit at its most explorative. "The soul is the magic of attention. And the body of the soul is made from a fine, fine ultrasensual substance, so finely sensitive that it can pick up the murmur of every hatching..." The necessity of food is perhaps the opposite of this, the basic human need versus all the human possibilities.
In Crowds and Power Elias Canetti says "the psychology of seizing and incorporating, like that of eating in general, is still completely unexplored." Talking of pursuing one's prey, of primitive man and hunting, Canetti believes "this watching and lying in wait for prey is a state of such peculiar tension that it can acquire a significance of its own independent of circumstances." This is the nobility of hunting. perhaps, where the self-sufficient meets patience, and where patience, after all is a virtue. But we aren't usually inclined to think of the hunter as virtuous, as though he seeks a higher purpose in the kill: patience isn't its own reward, the eating and killing of the prey happens to be. Perhaps this is why many find hunting in modern society so appalling: that it claims higher values within the lowest of demands and without an earlier age's sense of necessity. It is the practical without the pragmatic, laying claim to an element of the ecstatic. However what is interesting about Lispector's work is that she wonders just how far we can escape this primal relationship with meat and murder, by thinking about the issue of eating. Whether it is the steak in 'The Dinner', the steak in 'Love', the chicken in 'The Chicken', meat is murder, but not as some punitive vegetarian slogan, but as a basic way of looking at our being in relation to those of others. In 'The Crime of the Mathematician', a man thinks about his dog: "...I did not want you to eat meat so that you would not become ferocious, but one day you jumped up on the table and, among the happy shouts of the children, you grabbed the meat..." In 'The Buffalo' the narrator talks of "the ragged humpbacked camel chewing on itself, absorbed in the process of recognizing its food." In the short essay 'Eat Up, Eat', Lispector says: "No, my house is not metaphysical. No one is overfed in this house but everybody likes to eat well." In another essay in Selected Cronicas, she talks of the "egg being the chicken's soul". The metaphysical and the physical are closely linked in Lispector's words partly by food. When E. M. Forster says in Aspects of the Novel "like sleep...food does not merely restore our strength, it also has an aesthetic side, it can taste good or bad. What will happen to this double-faced commodity in books?", Lispector might have replied that we concentrate instead on its antithesis to the spiritual. While Forster says "the main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love and death", Lispector might not have disagreed, but she wouldn't have been thinking of them as Forster would have been inclined to couch them. As Cixous says in 'Clarice Lispector', "to allow a thing to enter in its strangeness, light from the soul has to be put into each look, and the exterior light mixed with the interior light. An invisible aura forms around beings who are looked at well." If we look at animals well, if we look at anything well, does eating flesh become more difficult? As the narrator says in 'The Dinner', "I leaned over my meat, lost."
How many of us are leaning over our meat, lost: how many are in constant crisis as our basic needs are forced to take precedence over our spiritual demands? This needn't concern a belief in a higher being, just a belief in a broader range of consciousness when thinking of the notion of being. Many will resolve this provisionally with vegetarianism, others with veganism, with a way of feeling they have escaped the food chain of existence. But food is just one of the most obvious areas in which our being usurps another, but what about the poverty we see around us, wars fought in our name, goods we buy clearly with the exploited labour of others? When Rousseau proposed man was born free but is everywhere in chains, one might be inclined to think of the word chain in other contexts too: including the food chain which hides the nature of the very meat in our food, as we noticed with the horse meat scandal (Guardian, 22/10/13). There is also the production chain which leads from shrimps on our plate to slavery in the high seas (Guardian, 30/6/14), and the exploiting of tea-leaf pickers in India (Guardian, 01/03/14). Then there are chains of command which make us wonder how implicated the British government happened to be in torturing terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay (Independent, 16/12/2014). This is not the place to discuss various recent social and political scandals, but we offer the above just to point out the precarious place our existence has when it comes to choosing an ethical life, a life that might refuse meat but cannot quite avoid implicating itself in other chains.
A word commonly used and too obviously applied in aesthetic academic discourse is the notion of the 'other'. "The Other is an individual who is perceived by the group as not belonging, as being different in some fundamental way. Any stranger becomes the Other. The group sees itself as the norm and judges those who do not meet that norm (that is, who are different in any way) as the Other. Perceived as lacking essential characteristics possessed by the group, the Other is almost always seen as a lesser or inferior being and is treated accordingly. The Other in a society may have few or no legal rights, may be characterized as less intelligent or as immoral, and may even be regarded as sub-human." (Academic Home Page)
But Cixous's notion of an invisible aura is a useful way of looking at the term and comprehending Lispector's work. It's as if by offering this look, this look that refuses to reduce the subject or object to use value, expands it into a subject or object of soul value. It is an approach that is the antithesis of a writer like Evelyn Waugh, who once said in the Paris Review, "There are the protagonists and there are characters who are furniture. One gives only one aspect of the furniture. Sebastian Flyte [in Brideshead Revisited] was a protagonist." When Waugh later says "No writer before the middle of the nineteenth century wrote about the working classes other than as grotesques or as pastoral decorations. Then when they were given the vote certain writers started to suck up to them", he more or less claims they should remain present simply as furniture. This is being without breadth, with Waugh more interested it would seem in higher being (he was a Catholic convert) than its manifold possibilities here on earth. The other remains other, and he has no interest in discovering an invisible aura in characters who should remain items of furniture. Yet if Waugh could say that "Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly." (CatholicAuthors.com), Lispector might reply that we can explore infinitude in this world without converting to a categorical notion of a deity. Only the socially elevated human consciousness is worthy of attaining higher spiritual value would appear to be Waugh's position, if we take into account his remarks on the lower orders and religious orders. Yet Lispector sees being horizontally more than vertically - a proper democrat of the soul, evident when she says in Selected Cronicas: "I cannot explain it, but I find that animals are more often in an existential state of grace than human beings."
In a letter responding to the Kushner BookForum article, the writer says, Lispector's "books are being promoted dishonestly, as if they were going to appeal to large numbers of English-speaking readers. They will not; they will find at most 500 enthusiastic new readers." The writer has a point, no matter the assertive declaration, and it resides in the basic ontological difference between Waugh and Lispector. Waugh accepts, even demands, a narrow range of human experience that can create clear narrative parameters. "It is drama, speech, and events that interest me", Waugh says insistently. Lispector's books vulnerably wonder where self and other, object and subject, separate. There is no clear line, and this creates a properly disturbing reading experience. As Cixous puts it, Lispector's writing "teaches us that the most difficult thing to do is to arrive at the most extreme proximity while guarding against the trap of projection, of identification. The other must remain absolutely strange within the greatest possible proximity." Lispector seeks out, instead of the comfortable identification with character, the uncomfortable sense that even the notion of character (human, animal, plant, mineral) is a moot point. It remains literature on the edge of consciousness as it asks what consciousness happens to be, and who can claim sovereign right over its existence. Many writers (from Forster to Waugh) would be inclined to say the human; others, and few more than Lispector, being. Such a response makes literature a vulnerable and precarious thing indeed.
© Tony McKibbin