Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Ineffable Claptrap of Clarice Lispector

Book covers with the author's face: a sign the book has no story


When you decide to write about Brazilian literature for a whole month, you have to buy Brazilian books. I had doubts regarding my first incursion into the literary universe of Clarice Lispector (1920-1977), however  I knew that I needed to read one of her books. But since from what I had heard and skimmed of her she didn’t seem like my type, I treaded carefully and bought the smallest book of hers I could find, a novella called Stream of Life. Even at just 77 pages I found the book too long and I think one of her newspaper articles would have sufficed to say I’ve read her. If I have to despise a writer, I may as well despise her at the end of three or four pages instead of 77.

The book contains a nameless woman’s monologue – an unimportant detail, all the novels I’ve picked up and perused contained women’s monologues – about nothing. Miss Nameless attempts to fool the reader with lofty dissertations about language, identity, God, the senses, all in order to hide the big nothing at the centre of the book. She divides her activities between painting and writing, which makes her babbling about nothing twice as pretentious. Can we attribute a cause to the nameless narrator’s namelessness? I think, I said I think, it has something to do with what she bizarrely calls the ‘mystery of the impersonal which is the “it”,’ an English pronoun that does not exist in the Portuguese language but has tremendous importance to Miss Nameless. Why? I don’t know. To any English native speaker the word it has no special properties. As someone who has used the English language since the age of 9, I merely find it a useful word that lets me discuss inanimate objects, abstract ideas, activities, or people of undefined sex with a community of people who communicate in that language. For Miss Nameless, however, it contains arcane powers that conjure lots of grand ideas about identity, the self, etcetera. In other words, Miss Nameless had a stoner epiphany about this English word, the same way some people oh and ah about god and dog having the same letters, only spelled backwards. Ferdinand de Saussure would point out that, linguistically speaking, there exists nothing extraordinary about this random coincidence. I would add that it, by itself, should not make someone go gaga. Unfortunately this book contains nothing but stoner epiphanies and silly navel-gazing contemplations from a disordered mind.

Besides it other words in the text suffer abusive treatment by quotation marks; the pronoun I and the third person singular of the present tense, in the indicative mood, of the verb to be, vulgarly known as is, have entered the dark gates of Ward “” never to come out again. Is and I (as in me) come a long way, ever since I read Robert Anton Wilson’s Quantum Psychology and discovered Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics, and its off-shot, E-Prime, a prescriptive form of English that states that by eliminating the verb to be from language you can eliminate conflicts and logical fallacies. I found these ideas quite seductive during my studies of English Linguistics at the university, but only because understanding E-Prime posed less a difficulty than mastering the workings of Noam Chomsky’s X-bar theory, and because it gave me a focal point on which I could concentrate my rebellion against the teachers who tortured me with endless parsing trees of noun phrases, verb phrases and other horrors. But then I discovered that languages like Russian and Arabic do not have the verb to be, and although so far I’ve written this post in E-Prime, now comes the time to say its inventor, David Bourland, was full of crap. But linguists and pseudo-linguists who know nothing about languages making radical statements about language is nothing extraordinary. Benjamin Whorf, the 20th century’s greatest chemical engineer, great not because of anything he contributed to chemistry or engineering, was also a weekend linguist famous for having formulated the principle of linguistic relativity after studying the Hopi language. Whorf did not speak Hopi, and people who did have debunked his theories, but the principle remains strong in popular culture. Whorf also helped disseminate the myth that Eskimos have thousands of words for snow. Whorf did not speak Eskimo-Aleut languages either, and I recommend Geoffrey Pullum’s The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language for a good put down of that one.

Anyway, I digress – but not as much as Miss Nameless does. Anyway, this is just to say I just can’t stand writers who fetishize words as if they had magical powers. They’re just fucking words. If you’re a talented writer and know how to put words together, they can have an incantatory power over the readers, usually making them go, “Wow, that’s really fucking good writing!” But they’re not magical formulas, they’re not spells.

But where were we? Ah yes, so Miss Nameless spends the whole book talking about the self, identity, the mind, and lots of nouns in majuscules - because we all know that the things words mean become as real as Pinocchio if you write them with a capital letter. Anyway, the whole book is about identity, also known as the most overrated theme in literature ever since cultural studies took over academe. How does literature go from The Odyssey to War and Peace to Stream of Life? When did things go so awfully wrong?

My contention is that Stream of Life is mystical twaddle, besides just not being very well written. It’s not literature, it’s just more of the mumbo-jumbo Paulo Coelho, Carlos Castaneda, L. Ron Hubbard, Allan Kordec, Depak Chopra and Kahlil Gibran spent their whole lives foisting on needy fools, spouting lots of pompous, ponderous words about the unspeakable, the ineffable, and always promising some grand revelation on the threshold of human senses, of flawed human perception, that will change their lives. But it’s not philosophy, it’s not wisdom, it’s just unintelligible snake oil they’re selling. I have very strong opinions about the ineffable. As my good college buddy Ludwig used to say during Philosophy classes, if you can’t speak about something, shut the hell up!


But perhaps I’m letting my anger cloud my judgment. The narrator is clearly insane and I haven’t done anything positive about that. Now I’m genuinely sorry Miss Nameless is suffering from some psychotic breakdown that makes her struggle with her identity, that this episode has damaged her perception of reality, time and space, and that she thinks she’s connected to everything in some great cosmic web, a conception which is but a symptom of her masochistic need for self-flagellating dehumanization. I’m sorry for her, I’m sorry and I want to help her. It's true, I do. And I think the first step in making her sane again is giving her an identity. Normal people have names, and she needs to be made to feel that she’s normal. So I’m giving her a name. It doesn’t have to be her real name, but it’s a step in the right direction. Let’s call her Clarice for now.

One of the problems with Clarice is that after her identity meltdown she began thinking she was a writer. This has become the nucleus of her new non-identity. Still I think it’s encouraging that, in lucid moments, she lets the truth slip out, as if something in the recesses of her broken mind is fighting back the insanity. “I write to you in disorder, I know,” she confesses, aware of her mediocre talents for literature. “But writing for me is frustrating,” she says in another rare moment of frank self-analysis. The first step in becoming sane is accepting you have a problem. “This isn’t a story because I don’t know a story like this,” she says, simultaneously admitting her ignorance of literature and recognizing she has no storytelling abilities. This is the kind of positive attitude we want to focus on. Accept your illness, Clarice, that’s the only way you can have a breakthrough.

Really, at times the text she’s writing seems like a map out of her madness. Of course we all know the map is not the territory (thank you, Count Korzybski), and the text can only give us clues on how to proceed. Another significant moment in her autopsychography is when she’s confronted with her inability to pursue a true vocation as a writer. “There are many things to be said that I don’t know how. The words are missing. But I refuse to invent new ones: the existing ones must already say what can be said and what is forbidden.” I patiently tried to explain to her, real writers coin neologisms frequently. I’m not completely sure I managed to make her understand. She doesn’t completely trust words, she fears them on some pre-rational, primitive level. Sometimes it’s fascinating to see innocent Clarice, previously ignorant of words, express wide-eyed wonder at them. “It’s so curious, to have replaced inks by this strange thing, the word. Words – I move carefully between them which can become menacing.” I want to tell her she’s not a painter, but decide to withhold that; no point fighting in two fronts at the same time. First cure her of one delusion, then another.  Occasionally she subconsciously fights her illness. I find it positive when she associates words with danger, since her fantasy that she’s a writer is but a pernicious effect of her condition. At some ineffable level she’s aware that she’s not well, that she’s not a writer, that she’s living a lie. But how to explain this to her? How to transform these random moments of lucidity into the instrument of her recovery? Modern medicine limps on without answers.

Unfortunately relapses are frequent with the patient. “I know what I’m doing here: I’m improvising. But what’s wrong with that? I improvise like in jazz they improvise music, jazz in fury, I improvise in front of the audience.” And we have to start therapy all over again. Clarice’s brain, you see, is vulnerable and incapable of parsing information; she absorbs random titbits into some invisible order only she understands, the key to it hidden somewhere in her mind. I say to her, it’s important that you don’t confuse things. Don’t disperse. You’re not composing music, you’re writing a book, well you think you are, in the fantasy world you've created for yourself. Inside the whirlwind that is your currently deranged mind, it may be that you came upon a quote you heard one day, who knows how and where, that all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music and now that’s seeping into your condition. Actually novels aspire to be novels, with memorable characters, interesting plots, action, dialogue, humour, drama, tragedy, etc. When I try to prove this by telling her to go read a real book and not the incomprehensible poppycock she scribbles in her cell, she succumbs to attacks of sulkiness and refuses to talk for days.

I’m afraid that if we don’t halt the deterioration of her condition the patient’s identity collapse will progress to more dangerous levels, to misanthropy even. “What colour is the space infinite? the colour of the air.” Although this is gibberish, it shows that Clarice is retreating further and further into an inhuman identity. Clarice is beginning to renege her five senses and claim special powers of perception. Her hatred of her own human body leads me to fear for her well-being, and measures have been taken to make sure she doesn’t mutilate herself while she’s alone in her cell. After the mediocre writer, the abysm of formlessness. Concomitant with the devolution of her human consciousness is the distressing tone she employs in her writing. As her faculties grow dimmer, her language becomes more and more impenetrable, to the point she’s just blabbering mystical humdrum. Her limited vocabulary hinges on a nexus of ponderous words like uterus, roots, mystery, infinite, umbilical, fluids, etc. At one point she even developed a new identity, that of a ‘cat-mother-creator,’ reminiscent of how some artists create personas, like the great painter Max Ernst and his Loplop. Although I was always taught to consider the connection mere romantic excess, can it be possible that a link between madness and genius exists, that the patient Clarice and a genius like Ernst somehow tap into some mysterious pool that exists in the depths of our subconscious? The difference is that the artist taps into this chthonic energy and creates something immortal, art; one could even argue the artist’s sanity depends on this form of conventional insanity. Clarice’s own madness possesses no therapeutic value to her. On the contrary, her head is filled with phantasms that threaten to cause damage to her. Consider, for instance, when she believes to be a messiah. “You’ll ask me why I take care of the world. It’s that I was born ordained.” Clarice thinks higher powers have given her a mission. Her megalomania makes her see herself as a protector and saviour. “But when winter arrives I give and give and give. I shelter a lot. I hold broods of people against my warm breast.” When she’s living out this persona, this super-mom goddess, talking to her is nearly impossible. With time, any communication with her may be impossible. The moment her fantasy reality erases the last vestiges of her sane self, we can no longer bring her back to her pre-Authorial Persona identity. And when that happens there will be no stopping more Streams of Life from coming into existence, forever expanding like the bastard child of an Adolf Wölfli epic, until like the Tlön Encyclopaedia it colonizes all literature, at which point I’ll have nothing good to read.

This post was written for the 2013 Women Challenge.


  1. So, not your kind of book then? ;)

    A simple 'not for me' would have sufficed too...

    1. You'd have to read the book to appreciate how moderate my rant really was ;)

  2. I'm with you on this particular book. She's so mad and cruel I haven't tried anything else. I do have several stories that I might consider reading in case I'm feeling masochistic.

    1. Fortunately I have over 100 books at home waiting to be read, so there's not even the ghost of a likelihood of reading Lispector in the next years for me.

  3. Whew! I feel like I need s shower after reading this. But it's a post to keep, a classic, even if just to get to your damning final line. You seem to confirm all the negative press I've read about Lispector and more, so okay, I won't be running to read her. But I am quite eager to see where some of your comments here (regarding ineffability, neologisms, the incantatory power of words, etc.) may lead when you turn to Grande Sertão: Veredas.

  4. Best one yet, in and of itself justifying your turn to Brazil, and to book blogging, and to reading. Wölfli - perfect, perfect.

    My fear about your last line is that I will be among the colonized, and therefore will not know the difference. The past will have changed along with the present and I will just keep reading, like the poor ruminant I am.

    1. Tom, I'm just glad someone got the Wölfli reference :)

  5. " Actually novels aspire to be novels, with memorable characters, interesting plots, action, dialogue, humour, drama, tragedy, etc."

    I vehemently oppose such a postulate. And I feel safe to do this as I am sure that some greats like Beckett would back me up...

  6. I do not believe that the elements in that list are meant to be present in all novels. Beckett's novels have some of those things.

    And I doubt that Beckett aspired to the condition of music with his novels, although he could surprise me, as he usually does. Chess, maybe, he might aspire to the condition of chess. But more likely, the condition of fiction.

    1. "the condition of fiction"

      I do not think that such a thing exist (or should exist). Apart from that, how would you describe The Unnamable in your own words? Does it fit into any of these categories, like 'action, plot, dialogue etc'?

      My sole point being that all of this is clearly a matter of taste. And I think I can say that without even having read Agua Viva myself (btw but I had fun reading Miguel's review, even though I am not a fan of polemic in general). You see, obviously the book/author interests some people, see here:
      or here
      as it did Helene Cixous and others, see this for example

      To quote from the latter article:
      "In response to what the French feminists (Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, et al) saw as the relegation of the Other (principally woman but also anyone who wasn’t a straight white Western male) to a subordinate, nearly silent position in literature, Cixous came up with the notion of “feminine writing,” a mode of expression that celebrated and respected the Other’s differences, placed experience before language, and privileged unconventional narrative approaches. Cixous promoted this much criticized utopian idea using Lispector’s opus as the supreme representative of l’écriture féminine. What the French feminists (and the Vida stats) uncovered is not simply a gross disparity of opportunity but, even more significant, the lack of a sincere attempt by all of us to equally value Other ways of reading and writing and creating literary culture, which is finally our great loss."

      Putting restrictions on what fiction is supposed to do just limits the possibilities. Personally I do not see any point in limiting the possibilities of literature.

  7. I really like that last sentence: "[...] the lack of a sincere attempt by all of us to equally value Other ways of reading and writing and creating literary culture, which is finally our great loss."

    For other interesting views on Lispector see the always insightful Quarterly Conversation:

    1. Oh, and I knew that read a short review by someone whose literary taste I respect very much at some point. I just rediscovered it:

      I just ordered Lispector's book, now I want to find out myself ;)

  8. That's all right. I don't think the condition of music exists either.

    The Unnamable has humor and a memorable character, the narrator. So we have hit two items on the list! For some reason you picked a subset that did not apply. I wonder why.

    I do like the idea of assigning test questions as part of literary argument. "Describe in you own words..." I am going to borrow that.

    I do not believe that this is all a matter of taste. Miguel is making an argument about what Lispector's novel does, about what it does and does not do,not simply expressing his distaste. This is good criticism. It does not have to be the final word on the book. How could it?

    What do you think Miguel, are you limiting the possibilities of literature here? I don't see it, but maybe that is what you meant.

    1. "The Unnamable has humor and a memorable character, the narrator. So we have hit two items on the list! For some reason you picked a subset that did not apply. I wonder why."

      Sorry, that was just laziness, you might have noticed that I also left out others that do not apply, as for example 'drama'.

      "I do like the idea of assigning test questions as part of literary argument. "Describe in you own words..." I am going to borrow that."


      "What do you think Miguel, are you limiting the possibilities of literature here? I don't see it, but maybe that is what you meant."

      I mainly wanted to bring across that one could also easily take apart Beckett's The Unnamable with similar arguments as the ones above for Aqua Viva. But ok, a therapy session with Beckett's narrator would be a lot of fun, as I admit :)

    2. And if you are interested in a diametrically opposed view on the same book then read that review from the Fictional Woods linked above in my post:
      Birne31 May 2013 15:22

      So if that's not a matter of taste then I do not know...

  9. Quite a discussion we have going here.

    a) I vehemently oppose such a postulate. And I feel safe to do this as I am sure that some greats like Beckett would back me up...

    I've only read some of Samuel Beckett's plays. I can't make any pronouncements regarding his prose fiction at the moment.

    I can only reply that, ever since fiction exists, writers have told stories about interesting characters doing interesting. For all the so-called influence of the one that continues to have everlasting importance is the one who had to go through lots of adventures to reach his home island and meet his wife and son again. One Lawrence Sterne, one Clarice Lispector, one Alain-Robbe Grillet, one writer who goes off-path here and there, won't change millennia of tradition and intuitions about fiction is and isn't.

    b) Cioux, Kristeva, Irigaray... invoking the female wing of deconstruction, when I despise the male one, won't contribute anything constructive to this topic.

    c) Her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, appeared in 1943 and was an immediate and huge sensation, celebrated as the finest Portugese-language achievement yet in, as one critic put it, penetrating “the depths of the psychological complexity of the modern soul.”

    I prefer to live in ignorance of that critic's name. I can only say: 1) I was needing a good laugh; 2) I feel very sorry for that writer; 3) obviously he had not read Fernando Pessoa's poetry when he wrote such absurdity.

    d) Moser asserts Clarice was compared most often to mystics and saints.

    How is this high praise to a fiction writer? If she did what mystics and saints did, then she didn't do what fiction writers do, therefore she's a failure as a fiction writer. If she wanted to write theology or philosophy, she should have done so, honestly.

    1. Hey Miguel, thanks for your detailed reply.

      "I can only reply that, ever since fiction exists, writers have told stories about interesting characters doing interesting. For all the so-called influence of the one that continues to have everlasting importance is the one who had to go through lots of adventures to reach his home island and meet his wife and son again. One Lawrence Sterne, one Clarice Lispector, one Alain-Robbe Grillet, one writer who goes off-path here and there, won't change millennia of tradition and intuitions about fiction is and isn't."

      'Interesting' is a highly relative and subjective term of course and thus very problematic in this respect. I personally do not think that it should matter if the majority of writers or readers have a certain conception of what is interesting. The only relevant question is if a writer accomplished what she set out to do in the first place. And I understand that your conclusion is that she did not. What I am not sure about is though to what extend your assessment might be driven by certain expectations of what literature is supposed to do or not do, or certain aversions against specific trains of thought, topics etc. I will come to this book soon enough and I will find out. I am still perplexed about the immense difference in your opinion about the book and Björn's opinion (linked above). I respect you both very much for your intelligent views on literature, thus I am at a loss in this case.

      For me very often the writers who leave well trodden paths are the real geniuses. Those are the writers who really have something new to say. I could not care less about what the general audience expects to get out of literature.

      Thanks for your detailed answers, as I said before, it is great that there are blogs such as yours, where native speakers of the language in question can make qualified comments.

    2. Birne, I disagree 'interesting' is such a relative concept. A novel about someone investigating a murder, no matter how badly written, has many good chances of being more interesting than a novel about a man looking at grass grow. Some things are just naturally interesting. I'm not the greatest fan of what is called popular fiction, but I won't ignore there are some formulas that work very well to tell stories.

      What Lispector set out to do was apprehend the moment, the now, an enterprise already undertaken by Ulysses and a spectacular failure of intention since the now cannot be apprehended. Why a third-rate new attempt? Some things are just beyond human perception, literally out of our reach to put into words, and this novel, if it can be called that, sounds exactly like nothing but mystical mumbo-jumbo because of that.

      As for leaving the well-trodden path, although I admire innovation, when its results are worthwhile, what is wrong with the formal simplicity, I'd say even conservatism, of Franz Kafka or Jorge Luis Borges? More and more I think like Borges, who stated a poem should be more concerned in being beautiful than being innovative. His short-stories, written in very clear and straightforward prose, explored ancient concepts in extraordinary new ways. Lispector, on the other hand, build a baroque cathedral of words to hide the fact she has little, perhaps nothing, to say. But you can judge that when you read the novel.

  10. e) In order to do so, Lispector had to invent new language.

    I do happen to know Portuguese, and I can assure you she did no such thing. She breaks off sentences, that's all. Compared to Mário de Andrade's Macunaíma, an almost total rupture with Portuguese from Portugal and a melting pot of Portuguese, Tupi and African words, plus hundreds of neologisms, which only influenced João Guimarães Rosa's Grande Sertão: Veredas, which only influenced all Portuguese-language African literature afterwards, Lispector's petty 'inventions' is like a stage magician trying to impress Merlin holding a magic wand.

    f) In fact, Lispector realizes the original purpose of literature,

    Someone actually wrote this with a straight face? It's an interesting statement to be found when I'm accused of a prescriptive view of literature. Really, what is the original purpose of literature? Where's the instruction manual? And how come, of all the writers in history, of Homer and Cervantes, of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of T.S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges, it's an individual called Clarice Lispector who realized this original purpose no one ever heard of?

    g) She goes after essence, life stripped of what is the horizon and almost the whole of literature: the social sphere, family life, the contemporary scene, historical time, and, of course, romantic love.

    I genuinely don't understand what a reader like this gets from literature. If society doesn't interest him, if family relationships don't interest him, if history and current events don't interest him, if something as universal as love doesn't interest him, is this person even a real person or just a sociopath pretending? Are Lispector's fans people who just can't deal with the messy, grimy aspects of life, its physicality, its body and odors and appetites, and so hide their misanthropy under a nice-sounding pursuit of 'essences,' as if those phantasms existed? I wonder, for readers with such specialized tastes, when they're not reading Lispector, what else are they reading? Not other writers, because the other 99,9999999% actually care about society, history, relationships, etc., so I guess they just spend their lives bending over the Upanishads, the Bible, the Koran, in neverending study of the great spiritual texts.

  11. I have a couple of blogging friends I normally trust who tell me that they think Lispector's pretty great somehow, Miguel, but I had pretty much the same reaction as you did to her book The Hour of the Star a couple of years ago: "more annoying than interesting," "way self-conscious prose," "hamfisted dialogue," etc. I alas didn't come up with any description as good as your "ineffable craptrap," but you get the picture: Lispector's about as dull as they come.

    1. Lispector, for all her sins, seems to be getting us all very creative. I actually wrote ineffable claptrap, but 'craptrap' is an interesting pun ;)

      And perhaps accurate in more ways than we expect - it does trap crap between its covers; and it also traps the reader in a lot of crap. Well done, Richard!

    2. That was an "accidental pun," so I guess the joke's on me! Unfortunately, I knew what you wrote and I now see that the l is nowhere near the r on my keyboard, must be claptrap and/or craptrap karma at work!