Monday, 7 December 2015

She Played Hard with Happiness - Clarice Lispector

In Chapter Six of his novel Murphy, Samuel Beckett considered what he called “Murphy’s mind”:
Murphy’s mind pictured itself as a large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the universe without. This was not an impoverishment, for it excluded nothing that it did not itself contain. Nothing ever had been, was or would be in the universe outside it but was already present as virtual, or actual, or virtual rising into actual, or actual falling into virtual, in the universe inside it.

In Beckett’s fiction, there is a sense that the spirit of his characters is elsewhere, hidden from their bodies. They may know how to think, but the notion that this leads them therefore to exist is a sour joke. The word “therefore” in the Cartesian equation has been somehow mislaid. Their bodies, in all their frailty and levels of discomfort, tell his characters that they are alive. This knowledge is made more comic and tragic and indeed banal by the darting quality of the minds of many of Beckett’s characters, by the amount of nonsense going on in their heads. They are like hens pecking at memory and experience.

Hens are dear to the strange, bitter heart of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Their general helplessness combined with their persistence, their constant pecking and mindless squawking, seemed to animate something in her spirit. During her childhood in the north of Brazil, according to her biographer Benjamin Moser, “she spent hours with the chickens and hens in the yard.” “I understand a hen, perfectly,” she told an interviewer. “I mean, the intimate life of a hen. I know how it is.” One of her finest stories is “A Chicken,” three pages long, which tells of a bird trapped in a kitchen waiting to be sacrificed for Sunday lunch who decides to make a brief, defiant flight, only to be chased by the man of the house. “From rooftop to rooftop they covered more than a block. Ill-adapted to a wilder struggle for life, the chicken had to decide for herself which way to go, without any help from her race.”

The day is saved, or at least the chicken is, when she lays an egg and it is decided not to cook her, but instead to include her in the household. Thus
whenever everyone in the house was quiet and seemed to have forgotten her, she would fill up with a little courage, vestiges of the great escape—and roam around the tiled patio, her body following her head, pausing as if in a field, though her little head gave her away: vibratory and bobbing rapidly, the ancient fright of her species long since turned mechanical.

Lispector, however, has no interest in allowing this triumph to be more than brief. In a brisk and sudden final sentence, she does away with her brave bird: “Until one day they killed her, ate her and years went by.”

In a later story, “A Tale of So Much Love,” the figure of the chicken will reappear with even more human qualities. It begins: “Once upon a time there was a little girl who observed chickens so closely that she got to know their souls and innermost yearnings.” As the chicken is being eaten by the family, Lispector comments: “Chickens seem to have a prescience about their own fate and they never learn to love either their owners or the rooster. A chicken is alone in the world.”

Lispector also wrote a story, or a meditation, called “The Egg and the Chicken,” in which she ponders the great matter of Being from the perspective of chicken and egg:
The egg is the chicken’s great sacrifice. The egg is the cross the chicken bears in life. The egg is the chicken’s unattainable dream. The chicken loves the egg. She doesn’t know the egg exists. If she knew she had the egg inside her, would she save herself? If she knew she had the egg inside her, she would lose her state of being a chicken. Being a chicken is the chicken’s survival. Surviving is salvation. For living doesn’t seem to exist. Living leads to death…. Surviving is what’s called keeping up the struggle against life that is deadly. That’s what being a chicken is. 
 Besides chickens, Lispector was interested in rats. In “Another Couple of Drunks,” the narrator conjures up the aftermath of the death of a child:
The household rats take fright and start to race around the room. They crawl up your son’s face, still warm, gnaw at his little mouth. The woman screams and faints, for two hours. The rats visit her body too, cheerful, nimble, their tiny teeth gnawing here and there…. She looks around, gets up and the rats scatter. 
 In “Preciousness,” the girl recalls that when she was ten “a boy with a crush on her had thrown a dead rat at her.” In an essay on Brasília, included in this book as a story—it is a sort of story, but perhaps, as with many of these stories, it could be better defined as a strange display of sensibility—Lispector writes:
It was built with no place for rats. A whole part of us, the worst, precisely the one horrified by rats, that part has no place in Brasília. They wished to deny that we are worthless. A construction with space factored in for the clouds. Hell understands me better. But the rats, all huge, are invading. 
 If Brasília has no place for rats, then Rio de Janeiro, where many of these stories are set, has plenty of such spaces. In “Forgiving God,” the narrator of the story, who feels that she is “the mother of God” while walking down Avenida Copacabana,
almost stepped on a huge dead rat. In less than a second I was bristling from the terror of living, in less than a second I was shattering in panic, and doing my best to rein in my deepest scream. Nearly running in fright, blind in the midst of all those people, I wound up on the next block leaning on a pole, violently shutting my eyes, which no longer wanted to see. But the image stuck to my eyelids: a big red-haired rat, with an enormous tail, its feet crushed, and dead, still, tawny. My boundless fear of rats. 
 If rats then represent terror and chickens innocent striving for something approaching authenticity, humans, for Lispector, are strangely in the middle, often stricken with fear, or handing out terror, but ready also to soar or break loose or achieve some freedom or be fully alert to their fate in a time short enough for one of her stories to be enacted.

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