A Pilgrimage to Clarice Lispector Through Obsession, Memorialization, Death, and Becoming
From the first encounter—the first time I read her book—I knew I was of her spirit. There was an immediate intimacy between us. I think of her as Clarice, not Lispector.
Clarice seemed to create her characters just to speak to me. Macabéa: a poor woman living in Rio who is made out to be—by all the men in her life—dumb, unworthy, “simple” in the most degrading form. Rodrigo, the narrator of the novel, writes about her because of her unfortunateness, her wretchedness—because he feels no one else will waste their time. Olímpico, her boyfriend, treats her with disdain to cover up his own banal mediocrity. Of course, Macabéa, written by men, cannot see her own beauty. But it is Clarice who has truly written her. In Clarice’s reality, she is questioning, intelligent, wanting. She is beautiful. She is a women who doesn’t fit into a category, although others desperately try to force her into one. A woman who just wants what others have told her is the best of life—a man, money—a rich foreigner to sweep her away and give her everything she never knew could be possible.
My grandfather always wanted me to marry an American—un gringo. He came to this country seeking refuge, and this country took him in with open arms. The least he could do was offer the women in his family to American men. His oldest daughter was already twelve—too old to be expected to assimilate fully. But his youngest—my mother—was five: the perfect age to be American on the outside, and Cuban on the inside; American enough to be considered, but exotic enough to be a prize. How ironic it would be that my aunt was the one to marry un gringo and my mother to marry a born-and-raised Cuban. Maybe I would marry an American—an American like me: foreigners on the land of their birth, looking for ourselves on both sides.
In some ways, I was like Macabéa: someone who was lost, someone who was written by others, someone who wanted what others had wanted for her. Macabéa just desired to know what love was, what life meant. A fortune-teller told her a foreign man of money would come to save her; he would make her rich and happy. But the story couldn’t end this way. Macabéa was not another fairytale to show women that men were the answer. So, she died. She was hit by a car and killed by accident just after discovering what she thought would be her truth.
Maybe that is how I’ll go. Maybe that is how Clarice went: by accident to prove a twisted fairytale wrong. Clarice knew me before knowing me. She knew me in Macabéa. Maybe she knew me in herself. Herself as Macabéa. Maybe I am a part of her. Of her essence, of her spirit.
When I finished The Hour of the Star, I needed more. I became obsessed; I wanted to know everything about her. The first thing I found: the date of her death. When I saw that she died December 9, 1977—died so young and with so much more to offer the world—I was devastated. I used the research as a way to keep the grief, the grief of never having the chance to meet her, at bay. Well, if I couldn’t meet her, I at least needed to know who she was. I researched all I could, read all I could—I fell farther and further into the rabbit hole of Clarice’s life. I brought her back to life. At least, I hoped to bring her back to life.
I read somewhere once that many Native American tribes believe everyone has two souls: one that dies with you at the moment of death, and one that travels to the world of the dead. In this world, emotions are not heightened. If you lived a “good life,” you feel a semblance of happiness as you roam around. If you lived a “bad life,” then you may be a tad gloomy in your after-existence. Your second soul—the one that roams with a faint feeling—lives on as long as someone remembers you. The less people think of you, the fainter you become and once there is no one alive that remembers your life or can speak your name, your second soul disappears.
I always wondered how this would work. What happens if there is a resurgence of thinking about you? Do you come back? Can you ever come back after you disappear? Whatever the case may be, Clarice must be shining as bright as the sun. There are so many of us that think about her, talk about her, love her. Benjamin Moser, a man who fell deeply in love with Clarice, wrote a biography that I devoured. He thinks of her. I think of her. I think of her constantly. I see her in everything.
I see her in everything I read. Jean-Luc Nancy, in his book Listening, describes sound viscerally: the body becomes a sound chamber, the womb is the place where we are formed both literally and metaphorically. The womb is acoustic, not visual. We feel the vibrations in the body.
Do you know how Clarice listens to music? “She gently rest[s] [her] hand on the record player and [her] hand vibrates, sending waves through [her] whole body.” Clarice knew of those vibrations—she was aural. Clarice knew Nancy before he knew himself—before his ideas on listening came into existence. Maybe Nancy is a part of her. Or she is a part of Nancy.
For Nancy, sound is not about understanding, it’s about the thing itself: “What secret is at stake when one truly listens, that is, when one tried to capture or surprise the sonority rather than the message? What secret is yielded—hence also made public—when we listen to a voice, an instrument, or a sound just for itself?” Clarice, in her book Água Viva writes all about the it—the itself. An example: “I came to write you. I mean: be.” She doesn’t want to understand—she wants to be. Nancy wants to be. I want to be.
The visual is everywhere. Clarice made that obvious: we could never really escape from the primacy of the gaze. In The Hour of the Star, there is a scene where the use of language makes most clear the inability for the visual to be separated completely from the auditory. During a scene between Macabéa and Olímpico, he begins:
“—Look at what?
“—No, my God, not ‘look’ to see something, ‘look’ when you want someone to listen! Are you listening to me?”
This makes obvious the reliance on sight to express even the simplest auditory functions. To look becomes synonymous with to listen. There is a muddling of the senses, and the dominance of one. Clarice is attempting to bring sound back into the equation. We try to develop analysis with metaphorical language that gives superiority to the eye. We make points, make visible, make clear, make transparent. Clarice’s text punctures ways of reading and understanding by shifting voices, pushing us to reorder the way we examine understanding and experience. Clarice utilizes rhetorical strategies that problematize the way we read as a linear and enclosed space. Sound makes its way in, even with the gaze staring it down.
If we believe Nancy—if the visual is about understanding and the sonorous is about the thing itself—then Clarice is sonorous. Her writing is sonorous, her purpose is sonorous. She is to be with, to be of—not to know.
Moser’s biography of Clarice was long and beautiful, one that I could spend time with—that didn’t end too quickly. He was someone I could take a walk with, in my mind’s eye. A comrade that understood my need to know…or better yet, to be (be with Clarice). In it, he told me that Clarice thought she had paralyzed her mother. That it was her fault. But others reassured her that her mother was paralyzed before she was born. Later in our walk, Moser revealed to me that Clarice’s mother got pregnant because people believed that “pregnancy could fix everything.” But alas, it did not fix Clarice’s mother. Clarice could (should) have at least taken solace in that her birth did fix the world, if only a little. It brought her to us.
In The Hour of the Star, she told me, right from the start “I am not an intellectual, I write with my body.” Nancy uses the body in listening. The body is the resonance chamber. So when Clarice writes with her body, do her words become sounds—is it not about reading anymore? But about listening? Nancy believes that “to be listening will always, then, be to be straining toward or in an approach to the self.” And Clarice is always writing to become. To transform the self. Her words are whispers, her sentences secrets that are beyond meaning: “So that’s why this story will be made of words that gather in sentences and from these a secret meaning emanates that goes beyond words or sentences.” Her words (sounds) transform us.
The Pain of Clarice
If Clarice is the body, and if the body is listening, then what sound is Clarice? Maybe she is the scream—the scream of the Pogroms. Maybe she and Edmond Jabès scream together—Jabès the scream of the Holocaust. Jabès wrote, “I scream, I scream, Yukel. We are the innocence of the scream.”
The innocence of the scream? What is another word for innocence? The not knowing? Maybe the not needing to know? The inability to know because of the horror in which one is enveloped? Jabès wrote:
A book is shedding its leaves.
What is the story of the book?
Becoming aware of the scream.
Maybe Jabès is become aware of Clarice’s scream. Maybe Jabès could sense that Clarice was also a scream—the same way Clarice could sense me and my need. That her book was made of screams: “Because there’s the right to scream. So I scream.” It seems that Clarice and Jabès are talking to each other. They have been talking to each other all through their lives—through their hardships: the pogroms, the holocaust. Through their loss. She talks about his book, even if some may not know it: “I swear this book is made without words. It is a mute photograph. This book is a silence. This book is a question.” And now they are both talking to me: through each other, from each other.
Freud explains that mourning is the feeling of loss, that we “rely on it being overcome.” But mourning is not pathological. Melancholia, on the other hand, is from the loss of an object that is withdrawn from consciousness. In mourning, there is nothing unconscious in the loss. In melancholia, the suffering is internal, the impoverishment of the ego, while in mourning it is the external world that is empty. What makes melancholia unique is that it arises from mourning plus narcissism, which is why it leads back to the ego.
Macabéa seems like a classic melancholic, but Freud’s description of melancholia as something of the mind doesn’t fit Clarice. Maybe Macabéa is mourning? Maybe she is mourning her existence being written by men? And that mourning ends when she dies? Or does the melancholia end?
Clarice finds herself—recreates herself—through her words. Or, to be more precise, the meanings behind her words. She writes, “I incarnate myself in the voluptuous and unintelligible phrases that tangle up beyond the words.” She hides in the ego, but gets her fuel from the world. She is both melancholia and mourning. She is mind and body: “Could it be that what I am writing to you is beyond thought?” Her writing is the thread between her body and my mind, my body and her mind.
In Stanzas, Giorgio Agamben explains medieval priests understood sloth as a type of demon that provided anguished sadness and desperation—a type of running away from God. This sadness and desperation could only be handled by denial, a long and “guilty sleep. But this was not a manifestation of laziness—it was the utter anxiety of not being able to do what is necessary, the fear of failing. Agamben takes the reader from the religious descriptions of sloth to Freud’s melancholy. He adds the missing pieces to Freud’s melancholia—which is that the object lost is actually unknown. In the same way that the slothful monks had not yet experienced the failure to live up to their duty to God, but felt the repercussions of that failure, the melancholic, in Agamben’s understanding of Freud, has not yet lost any object but feel the impacts of that loss. Clarice has not yet lost me, but can feel my loss. And I can feel hers.
Clarice has moments of weakness. Or…weakness does not seem like the right word. Moments of vulnerability, of fear. In Água Viva she writes to me, to the reader. She offers the reader an intimate place in her life—one of listener, receiving confession. She confesses, “I write to you because I don’t understand myself.” What is complex about this is that she attempts to understand herself through a reader that exists after her, temporally. The thread that connects reader and writer moves beyond space and time. She becomes a subject that we can lose—or in Freudian terms, an object loss. But we can always get her back, at least after she has finished what she needed to do. She goes beyond living—beyond her living, beyond my living. She states, “I’m back, I was existing.” Clarice is infinite, but also concrete—bodily. She is the slothful priest and the primal melancholic in that she yearns for something that has not actually been lost. She yearns for a reader that has not been born and that has already died. In turn, that reader yearns for her. I have experienced the loss of Clarice without ever actually having had her.
"You who are reading me please help me to be born."
Speaking with Clarice
I once had a dream that I was laying in bed, trying to fall asleep, when Clarice appeared—laying next to me on her side, her hands clasped is if in prayer, under her cheek for support. She said to me:
Clarice: Oi, why are you dreaming of me?
Daimys: Well, I wanted to know you.
C: But I left you my books, are they not good? Did I not write them well enough?
D: No! That’s not it. I just want more. What I have is not enough.
C: But will anything be enough? I left you many novels, a ton of chronicles…what else could I have left?
D: I think you misunderstand me, I think you are perfect. You have not done anything wrong.
C: Well I’m not perfect, but that’s the beauty of death—only the best of you is remembered.
D: How is death? Scary?
C: Not as terrible as you would think. It is a lot of work though. I have to travel around the world finding all the people who think of me. I have also met some interesting people around here, but I can’t find them anymore. I guess they’ve traveled to different places than me, finding the people that think of them.
D: Maybe they’ve disappeared because people have stopped thinking of them.
C: But I haven’t stopped thinking of them…anyways, I like what you’ve been writing about me.
D: Really? Do you think it’s good?
C: Well do you like it? Because it seems the living should be the judge of new writing, not the dead.
D: I like it, but I am biased, no?
C: What does that matter? Everyone is biased.
D: But liking it is different than it being good writing.
C: But what does it matter if it’s good, if people like it?
D: I don’t know.
C: Me neither.
D: Well, thanks for visiting. I don’t want to keep you too long. I’m sure others want to talk to you.
C: You’re not keeping me. I have a lot of time; forever, actually.
D: Then stay a while….
C: I’ll just stick around until you fall asleep—watch your breathing. I like seeing people breathing. I like seeing what makes people alive.
D: Is it the breathing? The lungs?
C: Well no, not just the breathing. The heart pumping blood is pretty important. The liver filters the toxins out. It’s all of it—the whole body. Now fall asleep, my child. Let me listen to your body.
I have never really thought of the body, I was trained to be of the mind. It fit me well, since I was written as one of the mind, the intelligent one in the family. The one of books. Not the one of looks. The mind was what I needed to focus on. But there were my hands. The things I used most—to hold my books, to write my papers, to do my research. My hands are what connected me, physically, to my mind. These same hands connected me to Clarice. She knew about hands; she said, “for I want to feel in my hands the quivering and lively nerve of the now and may that nerve resist me like a restless vein.” She wanted to feel life in her hands. I was feeling her life in my hands, but I was also feeling her death.
It was the second time I had felt death in my hands. The first was Pipo’s. My grandfather’s hands were purple from the bruising. His skin like paper from the medication. A week before his death, I took his hand in mine. Tears welled as we looked at each other. His elegant jeweler’s fingers entrusted in my searching writer’s hand. Our two worlds—old and young—wanderer and bedridden. I knew his time was coming. The man I would one day inherit my terror from was on his deathbed. He became my angel. My angel of death.
I read through Água Viva as if it was my last supper—as if it would be snatched for me at any moment. I found myself in the pages. I found her in the pages. And I knew, after my second read-through, after my tears were striking my cheek, making my face shiver. I knew after my nose got a chill—running from the bridge to the brain. I knew after I kept imagining my grandfather as my reaper. This book wasn’t just about my connection to Clarice, but Clarice’s gentle hand guiding me through death. Guiding me through my fear. Guiding me through a reacquaintance with my body—my need to listen to my body.
The fear Agamben discusses relates to my own fear of death. Of failing to be good enough to hold a place in heaven. Of there not being a heaven, or of there being a heaven. Of my eventual non-existence. It seems I may suffer from melancholia. What have I lost? The blindness to death. I have already lost myself. My inevitable death has already washed over me and created mania. The mania that Agamben intuitively connected to melancholia.
I want more than me. Than my existence. I want to exist in others, the way Clarice exists in me. I want to bring Clarice back to life, if only to know that someone may, one day, bring me back. That someone will think of me—that my soul will come back into existence in the world of the dead, even if it had disappeared for a while.
Clarice gave me hope that we can die and be reborn many times in one lifetime—in eternity—even if the cost is painful:
To create a being out of oneself is very serious. I am creating myself. And walking in complete darkness in search of ourselves is what we do. It hurts. But these are the pains of childbirth: a thing is born that is. Is itself.
Becoming is painful. Maybe that’s why I have been avoiding it (although claiming I did it as every moment passed). Clarice—a woman, a mother, makes pain a process. The pain is what makes becoming. It seems women better understand the importance of becoming—of birth, of rebirth. Robert Frost once wrote:
A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.
Frost questions if the pain in being is worth it, I suppose because he can. Because he’s had the luxury of existing without excusing his existence, without fighting for existence. It seems Frost only dwells in the mind. Clarice does not take her existence for granted. She listens. She feels the pain in her body—the price of becoming.
There is nothing similar to the pleasure of discovering someone else who feels as you do—who understands as you do. Clarice taught me how to become—how to become new. But, alas, there is a greater pleasure. A new pleasure that one can only find with a writer like Clarice, who can read a reader’s need for importance in their existence. Clarice makes existence as a reader of books just that much more worth it.
Clarice allows her reader to do the same for her—gives the reader credit in her becoming. Clarice readied a space for me in her becoming. I helped her become: “I have started to communicate so strongly with you that I stopped being while still existing. You became an I.” We are one.
I have followed a winding path to becoming with Clarice. I have insisted on making her, a dead person, the center of my life—of understanding my life. These next lines are Clarice’s final words to me. Final allowance into her soul. Final permission to say what I have been thinking but am too afraid to say—permission because she said it first.
I’m not going to die, you hear, God? I don’t have the courage, you hear? Don’t kill me, you hear? Because it’s a disgrace to be born in order to die without knowing when or where. I’m going to stay very happy, you hear? As a reply, as an insult. I guarantee one thing: we are not guilty. And I have to understand while I’m alive, you hear? because afterwards it will be too late.
And now I can follow:
I am talking. I need to tell. Talking to myself. Telling myself. Talking to you.
Do you understand me?
Can you bear my story?
Can you bear witness to my story?
Can you bear the weight of my story?
Will you bear my fear,
I just want solace.
I just want relief.
I just want understanding.
I just want to be with.