Olímpico: The Last Man Will Be the First

The fact that The Hour of the Star was the last book published in Clarice Lispector’s lifetime would be enough to make it a work of very particular importance. As was said of the author’s first book Near to the Wild Heart, which was “the bottle of essences from Clarice’s work” (Oliveira, p.10), the germ of her whole universe, The Hour of the Star also “includes” the whole of her work, although it does so in a less “wild,” more stylized, more concise way, if one likes, than would be expected in a debut book. (Even with regard to a writer who, artistically, seems to have been born already mature, as is the case with Clarice Lispector). The Hour of the Star, contrary to her other works – in a kind of admission that one would have advanced in the direction of the simple, the defined, the recognizable – is even considered by the author (and rightly so) to be a more traditional, well-formed narrative, a story that goes against her “habits,” that is, “with a beginning, middle and “grand finale” followed by silence and falling” (The Hour of the Star, p. 15).

The fact that this book – through the meta-literary comments of Rodrigo S.M, its author-narrator – forces the reader to assume a position of permanently-imbalanced-interlocutor, allows us to catch a glimpse of Clarice, albeit in the form of a silhouette austerely immersed in her usual workshop, having fun like never before. Humor permeates the whole work and is manifest, in a particular way, in the meta provocations of the narrator, who, for example, tests the reader’s patience with an introduction that hesitates, advances, and retreats, which seems to never begin or end, like “never ending chewing gum:” “Oh I’m so afraid to start and don’t even know the girl’s name” (The Hour of the Star, p. 20).

Humor also seems to guide the reader through an itinerary of ideological “lessons” that he must consider: about life, literature, the construction of characters and stories, the narrator’s gender, gender in general, etc. Since, as a researcher, what interests me most in the author’s universe is, at the moment, gender, it is precisely this ironic portrait of the two genders and the relation between them that I wish to address here, especially focusing on the perspective of Olímpico. As many readers will have already realized, throughout all of Clarice’s work there is a dazzling – almost primordial, inaugural, Edenic – vision of gender, of the man-woman division.  One notes a frightened fascination that there is a male-animal-man in the world, as we read, for example, in the short story “The Buffalo,” and also in another story about phantasmic and monstrous masculinity titled “The Dinner”, a short story that has an important first draft in her laboratory book of (almost) all drafts titled Near to the Wild Heart.  Now, what I intend to say in this text of mine revolves around this gender that fascinates and frightens Clarice. In The Hour of the Star, as I suggested earlier, there happens to be a kind of conclusion to a conversation related to themes and obsessions that guided (or diverted) the author on her short but intense path in this life. In this brief book, we find many (or perhaps all) of Clarice’s topoi.  I highlight “gender” here with respect to how it serves as a rules manual, a manual (which is also performative) of behaviors and etiquette, so to speak, of what it is to be a man and what it is (and means) to be a woman. As for being a woman, it is obvious to me that Macabéa is defined (like many of Clarice’s characters) by the (often suffocating) rules of her gender; although the definition, in this case, is made negatively. Macabéa is “incompetent for life” (The Hour of the Star, p. 24). Macabéa is what is lacking in her, is what escapes her. She is what she does not have and is founded upon that which she is not even aware of desiring, paralyzed by her enormous innocence: to be a complete woman. “Since even the fact of becoming a woman didn’t seem to belong to her vocation” (The Hour of the Star, p. 28).

Macabéa, as we have already understood – and the text seeks to tell us just that – is touchingly (and only apparently, of course) subhuman, among other reasons for being a subwoman, or a woman whose great flaw moves Rodrigo (i.e. Clarice peeking over her shoulders) manifesting itself in a suffering (which is social as well) that comes from not having achieved the gender goals that she so confusedly desires and dreams to attain, expectations to gradually grow up and have: a) a boyfriend;  b) a husband with a social position;  c) a rich and handsome husband;  d) a foreign husband-boyfriend driving a Mercedes, etc. It concerns the aspiration to an idealized fulfillment of gender, which is nonetheless presented here in a spectacular and delirious way (which suggests, precisely, the impossibility of completely fulfilling this aspiration) marking the all-powerful and violent expectations that, at the time, were offered to most women, to most women who inhabit her novels and short stories.

Olímpico – who, in his status as the “the first thing she could call a boyfriend in her life” (The Hour of the Star, p. 40) – occupies the zero degree of this delirious gender scale and, like Macabéa, also fails in his aim of achieving the ideal goal of the masculine gender, that is, of the masculinity that he sees as dominant and hegemonic (although he never admits this). But where Macabéa fails in a poetic, pathetic, and charming way, Olímpico fails in a deplorable, malevolent way. We laugh with delight at the harmless candor of Macabéa, a child-woman imitating a woman. But we smirk with alarm and irony at the indecently masculine arrogance of Olímpico – of whom it is said that he defines himself superlatively as a man for having killed another man and having thus created a great secret that he stoically guards:

… it wasn’t by chance that he had killed a man, a rival of his, in the back of beyond, the long jackknife entering softly softly the backwoodsman’s liver. He had kept this crime an absolute secret, which gave him the power a secret gives. Olímpico was tough as a prizefighter. (The Hour of the  Star, p. 52)

Although Clarice gives and takes, as she often does, and precisely “withdraws” from Olímpico the innocence that she had given him in the previous sentence, I choose to underscore his fundamentally innocent side here. First, Clarice says of Macabéa and Olímpico: “… I just know that they were somehow innocent and cast little shadow upon the ground” (The Hour of the Star, p. 44). And then she corrects herself: “No, I lied, now I see it all: he wasn’t innocent in the least, even though he was a general victim of the world. He had, I just discovered, inside of him the hard seed of evil, he liked taking revenge, this was his great pleasure and what gave him his strength in life. More life than her, who didn’t have a guardian angel” (The Hour of the Star, p. 44; my underline). This vindictive and malicious innocence (I prefer to focus here on the innocent-Olímpico) recalls one of the last sentences in The Apple in the Dark: “Because we are not so guilty after all; we are more stupid than guilty” (The Apple in the Dark, p. 445). Both Macabéa and Olímpico would not know what they are doing – for better or worse – thus being, I hope, worthy of the loving God’s forgiveness. What fascinates me is that they are, in this sense (but not in others), on the same level and thus constitute a perfect match in their imbalance, in their trauma, in their gender tragedy. Both are complicit in their innocence, automatons that reproduce two destructive, pathetic, failed gender models. In fact, they are so “equal” that “They could have passed for brother and sister, something which — I’m only realizing it now — rules out getting married” (The Hour of the Star, p. 43-44).  They are, therefore, the reflection of each other in the distorted mirror of gender; but they are still in front of a mirror. It is a bit like the “pre-lovers” of the well-known short story “The Message:” the two youths both want to be writers, they are both innocent, but they are increasingly ridiculous to the extent that they learn to be male and female. What makes the situation more desperate in The Hour of the Star is that – in addition to the literary world – it refers to many Olímpicos judging themselves superior to many Macabéas (and the rest of the world) without realizing that they are the equal to them, not to mention the many Macabéas who consider themselves inferior to many Olímpicos (and the rest of the world) without suspecting that they are or should be equal (or superior) to so many others.

Returning to what I said about tropes, which are somehow the archetypes of Clarice’s universe, Olímpico concentrates the most arrogant and violent in man, which is referenced in countless points of the work and assumes different forms.

Olímpico is defined by a catalog of masculine attributes, which I will come to illustrate. To begin with, he is unfaithful. One of the most important points for the general interpretation of the story, in my opinion, is the fact that Olímpico abandons Macabéa and trades her for her best friend (or enemy). Their relationship is one that could never have been and that Macabéa desperately desires due to a confused innocence or apathy, one never knows, or due to the simple blind impulse of animal happiness, of tending to be happy without thinking:

She wasn’t an idiot but she had the pure happiness of idiots. (The Hour of the Star, p. 61)

The only thing she wanted was to live. She didn’t know for what, she didn’t ask questions. Maybe she thought there was a little bitty glory in living. She thought people had to be happy. So she was. (The Hour of the Star, p. 27)

Perhaps due to what I have just said, in Macabéa, sadness is confused with joy, despair with hope, and love with disaffection. What is strange and repellent in Olímpico is his taste for meat, for the blade that cuts it, for blood, which was already manifested in the monster-man from the tale “The Dinner,” the one who eats with the urgency and voracity of beasts. 

One thing he wanted to be was a bullfighter. Once he’d gone to the movies and shivered from head to toe when he saw the red cape. He didn’t feel sorry for the bull. What he liked was seeing blood.  (The Hour of the Star, p.42)

Macabéa also likes meat. But she above all likes its smell – just as Clarice enjoys chicken with brown gravy despite feeling sorry for the chickens, because “small sacrifices prevent larger ones”—, blood being something she rejects because it causes her to vomit, marking the vertigo of death that she rejects. Let us not forget that upon being run over, and after a lifetime of avoiding vomiting (in order not to waste food), she precisely vomits her own blood on the side of the road.

For her the smell of raw meat was a perfume that levitated her as if she’d eaten. As for him, what he wanted to see was the butcher and his sharp knife. He envied the butcher and wanted to be one himself. Sticking a knife into meat turned him on. (The Hour of the Star, p. 48)

Olímpico is the obvious caricature of the man who, being as inferior as or more so than women, sees himself, in his delusions of grandeur, as a figure who is much superior not only to her but to everything, a figure for which there are no limits to fame or glory. He affirms in the third person and in his threatening tone: “In the backlands of Paraíba everybody knows who Olímpico is. And one day the whole world will know about me”  (The Hour of the Star, p. 45).

In addition to this form of masculine grandiosity, which seems ridiculous when presented in this way but which is part of the horizon of aspirations (that are impossible to completely fulfill, it should be noted) of all men (the hero, the leader, the winner, the lone victor, the self-made man, etc.), we see other exaggerations of ambition and vanity in all-men-Olímpico.

Masculinity is a homosocial enactment. We test ourselves, perform heroic feats, take enormous risks, all because we want other men to grant us our manhood. Masculinity as a homosocial enactment is fraught with danger, with the risk of failure, and with intense relentless competition. (KIMMEL, 1994: p. 129)   

These delusions of triumph on his part, and the impossible heroism against everything and everyone, assume the form of threats in Olímpico, as I had suggested. First, he threatens that he will be rich: “But one day I’ll be very rich — said he who had a demonic grandeur: his strength was bursting” (The Hour of the Star, p. 42). We know that he is homophobic because – when answering Macabéa when she asks him what “elgebra” is – he pontificates “Knowing that stuff is for queers, for men who become women”  (The Hour of the Star, p. 46).

As for vanity, it is known that Olímpico, at a dentist’s office in Paraíba, had replaced a perfect canine tooth with a gold tooth because “[t]his tooth gave him a position in life”  (The Hour of the Star, p. 42).  Naturally, Olímpico thought he was very intelligent and not only dreamed of being a congressman, but – as Rodrigo S.M himself, that is, Clarice reveals – he will one day be a congressman.  Loving to hear to speeches, Olímpico said to himself, loud and alone:

– I’m very intelligent, I’ll end up a congressman.

And who can deny that he was good at speeches? He had the singsong tone and the oily phrases, just right for someone who opens his mouth and speaks demanding and determining the rights of men. In the future, which I don’t get into in this story, did he or didn’t he end up in Congress? And forcing other people to call him doctor. (The Hour of the Star, p. 43)

Tragically – and how could it not be so in a tragicomedy like this? – Macabéa “[…] thought Olímpico knew a lot about things. He said things she’d never heard” (The Hour of the Star, p. 48). Tragically, also, there is great inequality in the way that they both navigate the urgencies and contingencies of fulfilling gender mandates and models. Olímpico, in spite of everything, has the advantage of being (or of seeming, in that society and at that time) more sure of himself. It is that “Macabéa was actually a medieval figure whereas Olímpico de Jesus thought of himself as a key player, the kind that opens any door” (The Hour of the Star, p. 43). Gender, in fact, is not fair, and nobody here said it was. The “equality” of inadequacy in the face of a dictatorial and merciless patriarchal system is, in fact, “unequal:” “[…] Olímpico was a certified and vital demon and from him children would be born, he had the precious semen. And as was already said or not said Macabéa had ovaries shriveled as a cooked mushroom”  (The Hour of the Star, p. 53). It is an unequal system indeed for men and women, for Macabéa and Olímpico, although we must not forget that, in her enormous wisdom, sensibility, and humanity, Clarice recognizes that Olímpico does not cease to be (even as a man, I would risk saying) “a general victim of the world” (The Hour of the Star, p. 44). We are, in effect, more stupid than guilty, for following and having followed for centuries – so foolishly – a gender playbook as guilty as it is stupid. And yes. May God forgive us. May God have mercy on us.

Clarice did.

Translated from the Portuguese by Marco Alexandre de Oliveira.

Photography

Thomaz Farkas. Filmagens de Viramundo, 1964. Thomaz Farkas Collection/ Instituto Moreira Salles

Bibliography

Oliveira, Rosiska Darcy de. “Perto de Clarice”. In Clarice Lispector. Perto do coração selvagem. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves. 1992. 5-10.

Kimmel, Michael. The Gendered Society. New York and Oxford: Oxford 

UP. 2004.

Lispector, Clarice. The Apple in the Dark. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. London: Haus. 2009. 

_________. “The Message.” The Complete Stories. Translated by Katrina Dodson. New York: New Directions, 2015.

_________. The Hour of the Star. Translated by Benjamin Moser. New York: New Directions. 2011.

_________. “The Dinner.” The Complete Stories. Translated by Katrina Dodson. New York: New Directions, 2015.

_________. “The Buffalo.” The Complete Stories. Translated by Katrina Dodson. New York: New Directions, 2015.

_________. Near to the Wild Heart. Translated by Giovanni Pontiero. New York: New Directions, 1990.

About the author

Born in Portugal, António Ladeira is currently Associate Professor of Lusophone Literature at Texas Tech University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages ​​and Literatures from the New University of Lisbon and a PhD in Hispanic Languages ​​and Literatures from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He was also a professor at Middlebury College and Yale University. As a Fulbright Scholar, he was a researcher at the University of São Paulo (USP) with a project on Clarice Lispector, an author about whom he has published articles and is preparing some more extensive works on masculinity and gender issues. A poet and fiction writer, he has published works in Portugal, Colombia, and Brazil.