Meaning is a Breath: Images in Clarice Lispector

Hack, Lilian. Meaning is a Breath: Images in Clarice Lispector. IMS Clarice Lispector, 2021. Disponível em: Acesso em: 02 March 2024.

Crossing the Atlantic Forest breathing outside, I enter the small research room with white walls and lots of tables1. The interior resembles a kind of aquarium, with a large glass extending from one side to the other of the wall, in front of the hallway that gives access from the elevator to the other rooms on the same floor. The air conditioning feeds the environment and takes care of its noises. Preparing an atmosphere for reading and writing, I see an empty table next to a chair, in which I sit. My hands, covered by surgical rubber gloves, still do not know exactly how to measure touch. In this setting, I wait for the two paintings by Clarice Lispector that are under the care of the Literature Archive of the Moreira Salles Institute (IMS)2. After a few minutes, not knowing what to do with my eyes, I accompany the footsteps of a woman who brings two boxes in her hands, smiling discretely out of restlessness. As she opens the door to the glass room, she receives the help of her colleague, who was supervising my wandering eyes and the concentration of another researcher. I feel a certain complicity between the two as they put the volumes on a higher table, right behind the one where I had sat down. Promptly, and with the discretion of a few words, I join them. And then, in a whisper, I hear something more or less like this: “Wow, I’ve never seen these paintings before….” Escaping the tension, the woman from the boxes lets out a smile and adds: “Me neither!” I was absolutely stunned by what I heard, equally thrilled by my first time. So we opened the boxes together and saw the two paintings with the same surprise, in a brief and intense moment.

That was the first sensation which I had when I saw Clarice’s paintings: my whole body shivered in a flush that was shared with these two women who worked every day at the archive. A kind of slip, a discomposure, a “human dismantling.” As Clarice wrote, “She needs to move her whole boneless head to look at an object.”3 – it is necessary to disorganize the act of seeing in order to see a disorganized form. My flush understood this measure of sharing an unveiled intimacy that fluctuated from strangeness to bodily rapture. Two images were lit up in an intense red inside the boxes and offered themselves for the first time to the gaze of three women. The painting was like a body shown inside out: beyond the entrails, there was the uterus. Clarice’s painting had the viscosity of a placenta. Her images had the consistency of a thing.

Gradually, I contained my emotion and identified my sensations. Each of us resumed our places, and I dedicated myself to the details. These images have the consistency of trees, of vegetable matter, wood being the support for these two paintings. In one of them, the vertical lines visibly follow the designs provided by the wood, and create a spatiality that is flaccid and hard at the same time. The warm colors loosen in a lassitude given by the repetition of the strokes. It is the painting titled Interior de gruta (Cave Interior), as can be read on the back which contains this inscription next to Clarice’s signature. However, its dating is controversial, for it is hidden in a dense mass of paint. Only in the transparency of the colors do we guess with a certain insistence the year 1960, drawn with a felt-tip pen in a small “text box,” which was demarcated by Clarice with the paint itself, on the lower right side of the painting’s surface. This date is the same as that recorded in the writer’s collection at the IMS.

Figure 1. Clarice Lispector. Interior de gruta (Cave Interior), 1960. Mixed technique on wood, 40x56cm. Literature Archive Collection at the Moreira Salles Institute. Image source: personal archive.
Figure 2. Clarice Lispector. Interior de gruta (Cave Interior), 1960. Detail of the thickness of the wood support. Image source: Personal archive.
Figure 3. Clarice Lispector. Interior de gruta (Cave Interior), 1960. Detail of the title, date, and signature. Image source: Personal archive.
Figure 4. Clarice Lispector. Interior de gruta (Cave Interior), 1960. Detail of the back of the painting. Image source: Personal archive.

The other painting on the table is recorded, in the same collection, without a title or a date. In this painting of wild and quick brushstrokes, the green color predominates next to the very pasty blue, white, and red strokes and smears, in a gesture very different from the one we sensed in the previous painting. When I request to see it outside the box to which it was attached, I notice how Clarice gave it special care, framing the small painting made on the thin wooden board and adding a hook on the back – we can even see the seal of the framer who did the work. But it will only be on a second visit to the archive, this time in another consultation room and with natural lighting, that it will be possible to see an inscription that seems to draw the title, the date, and the signature on the painting. Insisting with a magnifying glass at the edges of the frame, it is possible to see lines that, in this consultation, allowed me to suppose the inscription of the word “Mata” (Forest) and the year 1975 next to Clarice’s signature, again in the lower right corner, in the small “text box,” where it proceeds in the same way, covering the record with ink.

Since research always holds surprises and discoveries generated by the archive’s own inexhaustible status, it was only very recently, months after this consultation and the publication of the doctoral dissertation in which I make this attribution, that a new investigation with equipment more fit for the task, revealed that the title of this painting would be Esperança (Hope), dating from May 1975.

It is curious that the reading and confirmation of the title depend on a certain insistence, leaving us extremely uncertain. This occurs in other paintings by Clarice. Had she acted in order to erase the traces, to elide names and titles? As researchers, we are immersed in the task of unveiling and disseminating, but as artists, we know full well that incompleteness, chance, and hesitation are decisive factors in the outcome of a work. My hands in surgical gloves are ultimately tiny in the face of the unprecedented experience of contact with the work. What remains of the traces is always subject to recreations, and that is what nourishes the words.

Figure 5. Clarice Lispector. Esperança (Hope), 1975. Acrylic on wood, 30x40cm. Literature Archive Collection at the Moreira Salles Institute. Image source: personal archive.
Figure 6. Clarice Lispector. Esperança (Hope), 1975. Detail of the title, date, and signature. Image source: personal archive.
Figure 7. Clarice Lispector. Esperança (Hope), 1975. Detail of the back of the painting. Image source: personal archive.
Figure 8. Clarice Lispector. Esperança (Hope), 1975. Detail of the painting on the research table. Image source: personal archive.

In comparison, we clearly see how these two paintings are different from each other. Interior de gruta (Cave Interior), from 1960, has an economy of gestures. The watery paint was well spread and absorbed by the wood, which consists of a surface so thin and improvised that it has not escaped the deformations of time. There is a transparent, viscous layer covering the painting, which may be a dull varnish or a colorless gum. The vertical lines follow the designs of the wood, and in fact recall the walls of a cave, the walls of the cave. A few beings float through the painting and help to compose this shapeless landscape. They are small butterflies drawn with ballpoint and felt-tip pens, in cliché forms, that preserve a gesture of lightness, as if they were flying at the entrance to the cave. But the composition of colors, the freedom in making apparent the spots of paint that follow the lines of the wood, make the title induce this analysis, since the representational, mimetic meaning is not evident. It seems that Clarice paints a cave seen from the wood in its veins. The cave arises from the painting, not from a scene painted on it. Esperança (Hope), on the other hand, admitting this recently attributed title and dating, would have been painted more than ten years after Interior de gruta (Cave Interior). In this painting, there is a freedom and lightness in gesture that imprints the colors onto the picture. Applied with greater speed, the brushstrokes are dense from the paint mass, displaying more confidence in the command of the material and the technique. It is surprising to see how Clarice seems to be more at ease, without feeling so attached to this kind of boundary given by the lines of the wood. In addition, the frame demonstrates the genuine desire to exhibit this painting. Due to its more planned finishing, it stands out in relation to Interior de gruta (Cave Interior), as well as in relation to the other paintings by Clarice found under the care of the Museum Archive of Brazilian Literature (AMLB) at the Rui Barbosa House Foundation (FCRB), which has most of the collection of the writer’s paintings, with sixteen paintings, all made during the same year of 1975. However, Interior de gruta (Cave Interior) marks the presence of a theme that seems to be very important for the writer, since she will repeat this motif in another painting titled Gruta (Cave) – which is found under the care of the AMLB/FCRB.

Figure 9. Clarice Lispector. Gruta (Cave), 1973-1975. Mixed technique, 40 x 50 cm. Brazilian Literature Museum Archive. Image source: personal archive.
Figure 10. Clarice Lispector. Gruta (Cave), 1973-1975. Detail of the title and date. Image source: personal archive.

This presence of the caves is also intense in the books in which Clarice left us records of aspects of her paintings.  In Água Viva4, the elusive painter character who ventures to write for the first time offers us the following passage:

I want to put into words but without description the existence of the cave that some time ago I painted – and I don’t know how. Only by repeating its sweet horror, cavern of terror and wonders, place of afflicted souls, winter and hell, unpredictable substratum of an evil that is inside an earth that is not fertile. I call the cave by its name and it begins to live with its miasma. I then fear myself who knows how to paint the horror, I, creature of echoing caverns that I am, and I suffocate because I am word and also its echo.

We can suppose that it concerns the painting Interior de Gruta, which would date from 1960, and that therefore Clarice will already have painted in 1973, when she publishes Água Viva.  In A Breath of Life5, it is the character Ângela Pralini who reveals to us the method used by Clarice to paint:

I am so upset that I never perfected what I invented in painting. Or at least I’ve never heard of this way of painting: it consists of taking a wooden canvas — Scotch pine is best — and paying attention to its veins. Suddenly, then a wave of creativity comes out of the subconscious and you go along with the veins following them a bit — but maintaining your liberty. I once did a painting that turned out like this: a robust horse with a long and extensive blond mane amidst the stalactites of a grotto. It’s a generic way of painting. And, moreover, you don’t need to know how to paint: anybody, as long as you’re not too inhibited, can follow this technique of freedom. And all mortals have a subconscious. 

We have many indications that Clarice is referring here to the painting Gruta. And analyzing the two paintings on the same theme, we confirm that this is Clarice’s procedure for painting these and other pictures. That is how we could read these two novels from the records and traces that both keep of her paintings. And that is how Clarice reinforces, in her texts, this interest in caves in the elaboration of her images.

Clarice Lispector’s painting is at the same time close and far from her words. This means that we cannot so easily submit one to the other, that is, search in the literature for a meaning for her images, or believe that her images contain a meaning for her literature. We refer here to meaning experienced as correspondence, explanation, narrated fact, biographical or iconographic data to be unveiled. In her work, Clarice seems to ceaselessly escape from everything that makes sense, to escape from facts in the direction of sensations, of that which affects the body in a certain chaos of senses. Or rather, for Clarice, meaning is a breath. To friend and secretary Olga Borelli6 she would have once said: “My books, fortunately for me, are not overcrowded with facts, but rather with the repercussion of facts on individuals.”7 If this “repercussion of facts” – the surrender to sensation – is what moves Clarice’s writing, we can assume that it will be no different in her painting.

This is how we can see her images painted from this “repercussion of facts” on our body. But these “facts” are of a different order. We would say that Clarice’s painting is “overcrowded with material facts.” And these material facts produce sensations, as Gilles Deleuze8 very well demonstrated. The material facts of painting are different from historical, literary, narrative facts. At the level of sensation, they become detached from words, or move towards an indiscernibility between word and image. And at this point, the material facts of Clarice’s painting demands from us a perspective from the sensation that the image reflects on us. In other words, Clarice’s painting is made of the material of things. The painting is a thing. It is not an image of a thing, but this thing that is the image. It is necessary to repeat: the image is not in the place of things, representing them, but is something showing itself through the painting, the drawing, the colors, a gesture. As Maurice Blanchot9 wrote, “one lives an event as an image.” Sensation flutters before images, producing effects that are always different each time. It makes meaning escape, at the same time that it generates meanings. So that when we name the sensation, we fabricate possible meanings for the vertigo in which the image has cast us.

Georges Didi-Huberman10 shows us how much the history of art remains, at times, excessively concerned with the facts and ends up not worrying about the effects of painting, that is, with its repercussion on individuals. A proposition parallel to that of Clarice! According to the philosopher and historian, the image calls for a methodology of the gaze which would be that of metamorphosis: a desire for words to be transformed into an image, a desire for the image to be transformed into words, a desire to see the two as two sides of the same coin. And so, to write in the face of the image would be to desire for the metamorphosis to happen, for the word to make the image appear – as if in a flutter of wings.

Clarice writes and paints glued to sensations, to the repercussions of facts, glued to this desire for metamorphosis, wanting the material of things – of words and images – to deliver her a vitality that life lacks, for it pulsates in what is most tenuous and delicate, in an extraordinary infra-dimension of what is most ordinary. That is why she wants to escape the description of the painting, the description of the cave. It is suffocating to echo words. She thus surrenders to sensation, to horror, as we read in the passage quoted from Água Viva. Therefore, it will be necessary to make words an experience of exploring images, an exploration of the interior of the painted cave. It will be necessary to strip her human body and become an animal. It will be necessary to strip the writer to become a painter and vice versa. It will be necessary to strip words of their ready-made meanings to make them images. To metamorphose the body and words. To surrender to becoming. To return words to the gush of a spring, of a fountain that bubbles in the depths of the earth – living water. To return words to the meaning that comes as a breath. And on this point Clarice is a painter who has a singular capacity to understand that her images do not encounter a description, a double, an explanation in her words. The word touches the image precisely in that dimension in which it is delivered to the event, to the experience, to a fact lived and only very precariously transposed into words. To refer to this experience will be possible only by making words into images, and images are made of sensations, as Clarice herself has written.

It is not by chance that in the two novels in which Clarice explores her painting – Água Viva and A Breath of Life – the act of writing itself is a central theme, which makes writing function, and the writer is also a character in the plot, always in the process of being confused with the narrator, and sometimes even with the objects and scenes that are narrated. There is a tension, a suspension in the separation between subject and object, which we could transpose into a suspension of the separation between word and image. It is not by chance, either, that painting, the image, is what makes writing enter the vertigo of the impossibility of naming, a theme that is dear to a certain mystical-religious tradition, especially the Jewish one, which was certainly not foreign to the writer. But it is also a fundamental theme for any debate about the practices that involve writing about art, writing about the image, a clash faced by anyone who creates images or who elaborates discourses about them, and is confronted with transposing this process of creation/perception in words. And we know full well that all perception is a creation, and that writing would resume an infinite pulsation of images. These novels by Clarice expose the desperate attempt to offer a word that can reach the images in her sight, in the act of seeing – of seeing even her own paintings – encompassing a certain experience of seeing much more than naming the seen. Some of the titles of her paintings can be read in this way, as the attempt to enunciate an experienced sensation – to name the sensation and not the painting. Thus, Esperança (Hope), for example, will not be the representation of what Clarice believes to be hope, but the sensation that the painting causes to emerge in the face of the impulse to produce meanings. It does not concern only a game between visual perception and verbal description, of making words say the painting, say the seen, but giving words a capacity to see the sensation, to make words seers. It is not an echo, but a pulsation. A breath.

In November 1950, Clarice Lispector visits a prehistoric cave on the outskirts of the city of Torquay, in England. At the time she was living with Maury Gurgel Valente, who was pursuing his career as a diplomat, which led them to settle in that location. We read the impressions of that visit in a letter addressed to her sisters:

Yesterday we went to see some ancient, prehistoric caves – from millions of years ago. It was very beautiful. Despite a certain anguish. I left there inclined not to worry about small things, since before me so many years had passed.11 

Known as Kent’s Cavern, this set of caves constitutes one of the most important paleontological sites in Europe, since some of the most remote hominid fossils in the region were found there.

Only ten years before Clarice’s visit in 1940, the Grotte de Lascaux, in France, was “discovered,” whose walls contain one of the oldest sets of cave paintings of which we are aware. Along with other grottos or prehistoric caves thus recognized not only in Europe, but also in Africa, the Americas and Asia in the following years, a very particular scenario for theories of the image in modernity was considered, causing a true stir in the history of art, raising issues that have different ramifications on the movements and theories of modern and contemporary art, as well as on the production of several artists.

Five years after Clarice’s visit to the Torquay cave in 1955, the writer and philosopher Georges Bataille visits the Grotte de Lascaux. This long and impressive tour will give rise to one of the most important books to date on the philosophical and artistic impact of the historical recognition of cave paintings for modernity. In LascauxOr, The Birth of Art,12 Bataille asserts: “We know next to nothing of the men who left behind only these elusive shadows.” And today it is no different. Almost nothing. We make suppositions, we invent possible stories. Recently, an exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou13, in Paris, had as a theme the impact that this new area of ​​research, prehistoric art, had on modern artists, immersing them in this phantasmatic view of that which is “before history.” Prehistory would thus be a modern enigma. We understand how the desire to know the origins of humanity in its relation to art is inseparable from an impulse to recognize these same origins based on the sphere of the enigma. In Bataille’s words, “we are left painfully in suspense by this incomparable beauty and the sympathy that it awakes in us.” 

To say the same about the caves painted by Clarice and, by extension, all of her images, would not be an exaggeration. We know “almost nothing,” they leave us likewise in suspense, left to the enigma. We may ask ourselves: would Clarice have transposed, years later, the experience of this visit to the caves of Torquay to the paintings of the caves, as well as to her texts? Or would it be that, as a good reader, she would have accompanied some debate about cave paintings, supposedly the first images made by these humans “without language,” influencing their first forays into the elaboration of their own images? This universe of associations – an underground connection between things – will not be enunciated by the writer, of course, but perhaps, we may suppose, felt by her through contact with the material of painting and words. As a friend and interlocutor of several important Brazilian and foreign artists of the time, Clarice did not paint ignoring the modern debates on art. Thus, despite the timidity and technical fragility of her paintings, they are likewise part of a corpus of works and practices that offer us a scenario of the artistic production of the period. Of course, Clarice would nonetheless never agree with such a statement, she, who in her own words “was never modern.” Clarice was actually ancient, prehistoric, extemporaneous. Basically, in her own words: “when I think a painting is strange that’s when it’s a painting. And when I think a word is strange that’s where it achieves the meaning. And when I think life is strange that’s where life begins.”14


1  Translated from the Portuguese by Marco Alexandre de Oliveira. The original title was: “O sentido é um sopro: Imagens em Clarice Lispector.” 

2  This consultation was part of my doctoral research in visual arts, with an emphasis on history, theory, and art criticism, in the Graduate Program in Visual Arts at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). The dissertation, titled “Escrever um sopro em papel de água viva: imagem e pintura em Clarice Lispector” (Writing a Breath on Living Water Paper: Image and Painting in Clarice Lispector) is available here:

3  LISPECTOR, Clarice. Água Viva. Translated by Stefan Tobler. New York: New Directions, 2012, p. 83.

4  LISPECTOR, Clarice. Água Viva. Translated by Stefan Tobler. New York: New Directions, 2012, p. 9. 

5  LISPECTOR, Clarice. A Breath of Life (Pulsations). Translated by Johnny Lorenz. New York: New Directions, 2012, p. 43.

6   BORELLI, Olga. Clarice Lispector. Esboço para um possível retrato. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Fronteira, 1981, p. 70.

7  The original quote in Portuguese reads: “Meus livros felizmente para mim não são superlotados de fatos, e sim da repercussão dos fatos nos indivíduos.”

8 DELEUZE, Gilles. Logique de la sensation. Paris: Editions de la difference, 1981.

9 BLANCHOT, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Translated by Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989, p. 260.

10 DIDI-HUBERMAN, Georges. Falenas. Translated by António Preto, et al. Lisbon: Imago, 2013, p. 306.

11  LISPECTOR, Clarice. Minhas Queridas. (Ed.) Teresa Montero. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 2007, p. 236. The original quote in Portuguese reads: “Ontem fomos ver umas cavernas antigas – milhões de anos pré-histórica. Foi muito bonito. Apesar de dar certa aflição. Saí de lá disposta a não me preocupar com coisas pequenas, já que atrás de mim havia tantos e tantos anos.”

12  BATAILLE, Georges. Lascaux: Or, The Birth of Art: Prehistoric Painting. Skira, 1955, p. 12-13.

13  DEBRAY, Cécile; LABRUSSE, Rémi; STAVRINAKI, Maria. Préhistoire, Une énigme moderne. Exhibition Catalogue. Paris: Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, 2019.

14  LISPECTOR, Clarice. Água Viva. Translated by Stefan Tobler. New York: New Directions, 2012, p. 76.

Conversion through hatred

, Conversion through hatred. IMS Clarice Lispector, 2019. Disponível em: Acesso em: 02 March 2024.

Caetano Veloso says that when he played his song “Odeio” (I hate), which would be included on the album, for his friend and composer Jorge Mautner, while still at his guitar the latter cried and told him that it was the most beautiful love song that he had ever heard. The refrain, which repeats “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate,” when sung in a low voice, suggests a feeling of gentleness instead of the expected aggressiveness: “it seems sweet,” he explains. Caetano himself declared that when he composed “Odeio,” he was in fact thinking about how love and hate can easily be converted into each other: “when you have a love fight, you get very angry,” he commented in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine at the time of the album’s release, in 2012.

Based on this observation, it is possible to think of an axis in which love and hate are located at two extremes of a single affective mobilization. In other words, hate is love that recedes, despite being equally radical in its passion, while indifference is its opposite. Caetano’s refrain takes advantage of this ambivalence by synthesizing in just one verse — “I hate you” — both the anger of hatred (in words) and the sweetness of love (expressed in the melody and in the “grain” of the singer’s voice). The effect, according to the composer, is to be able “to express love as ‘I hate.’”

This is the theme of the short story “The Buffalo,” by Clarice Lispector, whom Caetano has been reading since adolescence, when the writer’s first texts were published in the Senhor magazine. The story, included in the book Family Ties, begins inadvertently, as if the facts were already in progress: “But it was spring. Even the lion licked the lioness’s smooth forehead.” Little by little, we find out that the protagonist had been to the Zoological Gardens to learn with the animals how to hate, and she intended to kill. About the motive for the unusual mission, there are two vague and sparse indications in the text. The first, when the narrator briefly describes the submissive posture of the woman before her boyfriend or husband: “everything was caught in her chest. In her chest that knew only how to give up, knew only how to beg forgiveness […].” The second, in a quick flashback, when she finally gathers the courage to tell him that she hated him – “‘I hate you’, she said in a rush;” however, “she didn’t even know how you were supposed to do it. How did you dig in the earth until locating the black water?”

The couple’s fight unleashed the woman’s murderous impetus. Did she go to vent tyrannically at the animals the contained anger to which she was unable to give free reign in her amorous relationship? We also do not know why she believes that the lesson of hatred could be learned from the animals. Is it because they only have instinct? Whatever the reason, she goes from cage to cage and, at each attempt, gets frustrated: the lions licked each other and loved each other exhaustively; the giraffe, like whatever is “large and nimble and guiltless,” was foolish and innocent; the “moist hippopotamus” conveyed a “humble love in remaining just flesh;” in the monkey cage, a mother breastfed her child and an old monkey with cataracts stared at her sweetly – the woman, upset, looks away and escapes. The bestiary continues with the sweet elephant whose strength is overwhelming but not crushing; the patient camel with “dusty eyelashes,” and the coati with a childish and questioning gaze.     

Until the spiral guard rail makes the woman lose her center; one no longer knows whether she is outside or inside the cages. She then trades places with the animal and goes from subject to object: “Her forehead was pressed against the bars so firmly that for an instant it looked like she was the caged one and a free coati was examining her.” In concert with animal behavior, the movement of nature only inspired in her notions of freedom and offering: “everything being born, everything flowing downstream;” “out of pure weeds sprouted between the tracks in a light green so dizzying […].” All around, everything therefore opposed her desire for revenge. 

Dissatisfied, she walks aimlessly. She then realizes that she is in the amusement park of the Zoological Gardens, in line for the rollercoaster, behind a few couples. Her turn arrives and she sits by herself. The ordinary situation sets off an unsuspected relation with Christian morality: “she looked like she was sitting in a Church.” As the train departs, the character undergoes a physically liberating and sensorially vertiginous experience (which is formally accompanied, in the text, by the sequence of coordinate clauses that list, with repetitions, reminiscences, screams, and situations):            

[…] but all of the sudden came that lurch of the guts, that halting of the heart caught by surprise in midair, that fright, the triumphant fury with which her seat hurtled her into the nothing and immediately swept her up like a rag doll, skirts flying, the deep resentment with which she became mechanical, her body automatically joyful – the girlfriends’ shrieks! – her gaze wounded by that great surprise, that offense, ‘they were having their way with her,’ that great offense – the girlfriends’ shrieks! – the enormous bewilderment at finding herself spasmodically frolicking, they were having their way with her, her pure whiteness suddenly exposed.

While riding on the rollercoaster, she becomes mechanical like the machine; she becomes depersonalized. And she loses her reference to the ground. On this aspect, it is worth mentioning a comment by the Italian writer Giulio Carlo Argan, in his book Storia dell’arte come storia della città (History of art as history of the city). By criticizing the obsession of architects and urbanists for a city of the future built so that life occurred on elevated surfaces, he observes that the relation of people with space and each other presupposes ground level as a humanistic reference. It is only based on a common plane, he argues, that all people, in the act of spinning on their own axis, can locate themselves, simultaneously, at the center of the world and periphery of their fellow human beings, who for their part are also centers of themselves and peripheries of others.      

The character’s dehumanization provoked by the experience on the rollercoaster can likewise be understood through the dilacerations of the body – “that lurch of the guts.” The fragmentation of the image of the human body – characteristic of vanguard movements from the beginning of the 20th century, such as Cubism and Surrealism – is an expression of denial of the elevated view of the human in favor of a low materialism that accepts the obscure forces of nature. That is what Georges Bataille qualified as “evil,” in the well-known book Literature and Evil, that is, the idea of an unmeasured life that is ideally intense and that therefore must be lived in the transgression of goodness and the morality associated with its conservation. 

Not by chance, at the end of the violent experience on the rollercoaster – which totally exposed her! –, the character comes back down to earth and to the humanistic morality of the ground. Pale, “weak and disgraced,” as if she had been “kicked out of a Church,” she “straightened out her skirts primly,” without looking at anyone, like a pariah. Something remains, however, that ferments within her: “the sky was spinning in her empty stomach; the earth, rising and falling before her eyes, remained distant for a few moments, the earth that is always so troublesome.” It is precisely on the troublesome earth – to which she stretches her hands like a “crippled beggar” (still mutilated, therefore) – that she will continue, transformed by evil and by her lesson of hatred alongside the animals. Finally, the link between love and hate is revealed:

Then, born from her womb, it rose again, beseeching, in a swelling wave, that urge to kill […] it wasn’t hatred yet, for the time being just a tormented urge to hate like a desire, the promise of cruel blossoming, a torment like love, the urge to hate promising itself sacred blood and triumph, the spurned female had become spiritualized through her great hope. But where, where to find the animal that would teach her to have her own hatred? the hatred that was hers by right but that lay excruciatingly out of reach? where could she learn to hate so as not to die of love?           

In the hyper-morality achieved by the character, love and hate are equal in intensity and become inseparable. Until then, she only knew how to bear, “have the sweetness of unhappiness.” The hatred for which she so longed was the same that served as raw material for her forgiveness. Between sudden bursts of activity and torpor – which demonstrated her disorientation – she rests her hot face on the cold and rusty iron bar of the railings. The temperature shock and the textures provoke in her the sensation of being hated. There is a symbolic rebirth – “opened her eyes slowly,” “a certain peace at last,” “of someone who had just died.”      

Finally, she arrives at the cage of the black buffalo. She fixes her gaze on it – the animal stares back. Attentive to the slightest movements of that “a body blackened with tranquil rage,” she realizes that she is being noticed and becomes absorbed. A “white thing” spreads within her – a substance that is similar to the vital “white mass” eaten by G.H. and expelled from the cockroach like ripened fruit from the horror, in the book The Passion According to G.H. “Death droned in her ears” like an enticing breath of evil – a metaphor for living a life of risk. From then on, the character reaches a sort of primordial purity. With her face “covered in deathly whiteness,” she painfully feels the “first trickle of black blood” flow within her: hatred, at last. The buffalo has its back turned to her. She grabs a rock on the ground and tosses it inside the cage. It turns around and faces her, motionless. That is when the woman declares her sentence:            

I love you, she then said with hatred to the man whose great unpunishable crime was not wanting her. I hate you, she said beseeching the buffalo’s love.  

The character’s search comes to an end in a paroxysm: not the unconditional, “pure love,” of nature, which brings to life “weeds sprouted between the tracks in a light green,” but the love among people who, to become fully realized, requires its opposite: hatred – according to Freud, the basic human affect, from which love is erected as a construct. Hatred is also the basis of the political theory of Thomas Hobbes, in the Leviathan, when he defines sovereignty. According to his maxim, man, wolf to men, fears violent death, and for that reason, the self-preservation instinct, subsidized by hatred of the other, establishes the regulatory state of collective life. Self-love adds rigor to the relation among equals. However, it is before the buffalo – in a sort of bullfighting ceremony –, and not anyone else, that the character feels threatened and threatening, “trapped in this mutual murder.” This is the moment in which hatred arises as a self-defense impulse and she feels anger at what could destroy her. Here we discover the reason why the lesson on hatred was sought at the Zoological Gardens. If one cannot call hatred that which in animals is merely instinct, it is in the so-called animal instinct of man that hatred resides. And that is how the short story ends: the woman falls on the ground in slow vertigo. One does not know if she dies or faints. But was not death – whether real or metaphorical – the North Star of this love story?

*Image of the title page taken from the book Death in the Afternoon, by Ernest Hemingway. Unidentified author.

“Love Smells Like Death”

, "Love Smells Like Death". IMS Clarice Lispector, 2019. Disponível em: Acesso em: 02 March 2024.


Clarice Lispector wrote about sex only once. It was in the book A via crúcis do corpo (The Via Crucis of the Body). Even so, as her biographer Benjamin Moser observes, “the theme that unites the collection is not, in fact, sex. It is motherhood.” Indeed, based on this comment, it is possible to think that the writer undoes the boundary line that separates maternal love and sexual desire by uniting the two instincts into a conjunction, such as in the female organ common to birth and to copulation.  

Moser also says that some of the writer’s friends considered her “touchingly naive” in matters of sex. Her friend and plastic artist Maria Bonomi, who at the time had separated from her husband to date a woman, was supposedly interrogated with “technical questions” by a curious Clarice. Such an interest was also imprinted in the article “O vício impune da literatura” (The unpunished vice of literature), published in the Folha de S.Paulo, in 1992, in which one reads about a supposed “exchange of imported pornographic magazines” between her and the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. 

In any case, it is Clarice herself who is evasive, in the preface to A via crúcis do corpo: “if there’s indecency in the stories, it’s not my fault. Needless to say it didn’t happen to me.” In 1975, in an interview given to the Manchete magazine on the occasion of the book’s release, she reiterates: “Even I was surprised […] how I knew so many things about the topic.” 

If it is true that there is almost no sex in Clarice’s work, it is also a fact that her literature is impregnated with eroticism; an eroticism that touches the limits of matter. The best example of this is the mystical experience that the main character of The Passion According to G.H. undergoes when she eats the white mass of the dead cockroach that she had just crushed against the closet door, in the maid’s microcosmic room. 

The incident with G.H. can be understood in light of what the French thinker George Bataille, in his book Eroticism, classifies as “sacred eroticism,” which is connected to the concrete world, to its objects, and is therefore distinguished from the eroticism of bodies or of hearts – an experience that is thus independent both of sexual and personal relations.

For him, the depersonalization of the erotic fusion can be considered similar to that experienced in sacrificial rituals. In the face of the immolation of the victim – in the case of G.H., the cockroach –, what is revealed to the senses of the participants, who often eat it, is the experience of the sacred. As Bataille affirms: “a violent death disrupts the creature’s discontinuity; what remains, what the tense onlookers experience in the ensuing silence, is the continuity of all existence with which the victim is now one.”

Continuity and discontinuity are terms that must be understood as the reintegration of a mortal and singular being, who is therefore discontinuous, to the general fermentation of life, which is indistinct and impersonal. As in Lavoisier’s maxim, “nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed,” the body serves as food for bacteria, which participates in the decaying process of human flesh and sets in motion the incessant cycle of life and death.   

The immediate horror experienced with the putrefaction of the corpse reveals to men and women the unavoidable affinity between the “stinking putrefaction” of death and the essence of life itself. Thus, if on the one hand “the horror of death drives us off, for we prefer life; on the other an element at once solemn and terrifying fascinates us and disturbs us profoundly.”    

A disturbance of such an order, Bataille continues, is triggered by the direct contact with that which is commonly called nausea or repugnance. The term he uses, “sovereign disturbance,” perfectly fits that which critics and Clarice herself call “existential moment,” “surprise,” “flash,” “epiphany,” etc., in her work. The overcoming of disgust seen in sacrifice is the same that, in the face of an unexpected event, will cause the disorder that comes from reality-based erotic experience to burst in Clarice’s characters. It is an experience that, since it is not part of our will, always “waits upon chance,” according to the French thinker.        

But if for the writer, as we have seen, sex is not a priority, what is it that is revealed, then, in the blatant eroticism of her texts? In The Passion According to G.H., she herself answers: “Ah, people put the idea of sin in sex. But how innocent and childish that sin is. The real hell is that of love. Love is the experience of a danger of greater sin — it is the experience of the mud and the degradation and the worst joy.”


In the short story “Love,” from the book Family Ties, Clarice Lispector narrates the story of Ana, a housewife who is on the tram, tired, returning from the market to her house, and carelessly thinking about everyday life at home: the broken stove, her children, her husband – to everything, Ana gave “her small, strong hand, her stream of life,” one reads.  

The narrator warns the reader: “A certain hour of the afternoon was more dangerous. […] when the house was empty and needed nothing more from her, the sun high, the family members scattered to their duties.” At this moment, Ana became restless. Before having a family, her life was “restless exaltation,” it was no longer within reach, for she “had created at last something comprehensible, an adult life” — in order.  

Absorbed in her thoughts, Ana is disoriented, all of a sudden, by the sight of a blind man chewing gum: “[…] her heart beat violently, at intervals. Leaning forward, she stared intently at the blind man, the way we stare at things that don’t see us. He was chewing gum in the dark. Without suffering, eyes open. The chewing motion made it look like he was smiling and then suddenly not smiling, smiling and not smiling — as if he had insulted her.”

It is worth observing the original way that Clarice stages some clichés, restoring to them the original meaning of the words. The trivial description of the blind man – eyes open in the dark, which is equivalent to the commonplace “seeing in darkness” – is metaphorically figured as a sort of existential longing on the part of the character: the calm understanding of life in full ebullition, in its intrinsic disorder. The chewing that seemed to make him oscillate between laughter and seriousness evokes, in the same way, the reconciliation “without suffering” between opposites, in a unity that is primordial and “inexpressive,” as G.H. says.      

Suddenly, the tram brakes and the bags that were on Ana’s lap fall on the ground. She yells. The driver stops. She collects what was scattered on the ground. But the eggs had broken: “viscous, yellow yolks dripped through the mesh” of the knit bag. Here, we witness the representation of yet another catch phrase: “the life that slips through your fingers.” The yoke, the egg of a chicken, if fertilized by the male, gives life; if not, it is life that could have been and was not. Thus, once the spoil of life – her own? – has been discarded, all the fragile harmony of Ana’s everyday life also slips away.       

She then perceives an absence of law; she no longer knows where to go – “She had pacified life so well, taken such care for it not to explode. […] And a blind man chewing gum was shattering it all to pieces.” Without realizing it, she missed the stop for her house and, in a rage, gets off the tram. It was getting dark. Little by little, she recognizes the place where she is and walks through the Botanical Garden. Equivalences arise with the Garden of Eden, which, on the one hand shifts the Judeo-Christian mythical paradise to the real park in the city of Rio de Janeiro, but, on the other, describes it in new terms. Contrary to the nice and lovely atmosphere in Genesis, in “Love,” horror and degradation are established:       

 There was a secret labor underway in the Garden that she was starting to perceive. In the trees the fruits were black, sweet like honey. On the ground were dried pits full of circumvolutions, like little rotting brains. The bench was stained with purple juices. With intense gentleness the waters murmured. Clinging to a tree trunk were the luxuriant limbs of a spider. […] it was a world to sink one’s teeth into […]. it was fascinating, the woman was nauseated, and it was fascinating.


Bataille, in another text, the essay “The Language of Flowers,” published in the magazine Documents in 1929, criticizes the image of the flower as a symbol of the discovery of love. The frequent association would be explained, according to him, by the fact that both the brilliance of flowers and human feelings are “a question of phenomena that precede fertilization.” Nevertheless, for men and women, what becomes a sign of desire, in the flower, is the corolla, its most decorative aspect, and not the sexual organ, a “rather sordid tuft,” covered by the petals. The flower’s appearance is equivalent, therefore, to an ideal of human beauty and, for this reason, says nothing about its real nature – flowers “wither like old and overly made-up dowagers, and they die ridiculously on stems that seemed to carry them to the clouds,” affirms the thinker, for whom “love smells like death.”      

To destroy the impression of harmony in the nature of plants, Bataille continues, it is enough to imagine “the impossible and fantastic vision of roots swarming under the surface of the soil, nauseating and naked like vermin.” To roots, in contrast to stems, could then be attributed the lowest moral value. The similarities between Clarice’s text and Bataille’s arguments are evident (and somewhat unprecedented). She writes: “The erotic impulse of entrails is linked to the eroticism of the twisted roots of trees. It is the rooted force of desire. My truculence. Monstrous viscera and hot lava of burning mud.” [1] The theme reappears in The Passion According to G.H.: “the unclean is the root — for there are created things that never decorated themselves.”

In “Love,” Ana’s experience is therefore the experience of interdiction. The narrator alerts the reader: “The moral of the Garden was something else.” Unlike the biblical garden, where God already dictated orders to the first couple, in Ana’s garden (or Clarice’s), it is the character herself who encounters, without prescription, and with a mix of attraction and repulsion, the erotic depersonalization that reconciles good and evil in an indistinct and amoral totality. In the words of Spinoza, of whom Clarice was an enthusiastic reader, Ana allows herself to be “affected” by the things of the world and learns an ethical lesson that has the body as a seat and real experience as a base. In a manner very close to the Dutch philosopher, Clarice reflects, in The Passion According to G.H., upon morality:      

 Would it be simplistic to think the moral problem with regard to others consists in behaving as one ought to, and the moral problem with regards to oneself is managing to feel what one ought to? Am I moral to the extent that I do what I should, and feel as I should? All of a sudden the moral question seemed to me not only overwhelming, but extremely petty. The moral problem, in order for us to adjust to it, should be at once less demanding and greater. Since as an ideal it is both small and unattainable. Small, if one attains it: unattainable, because it cannot even be attained. […] The solution had to be secret. The ethics of the moral is keeping it secret. Freedom is a secret.

The Secret (or The Ethics)

Ana was breathing in the putrid perfume of the decomposing plants – until she remembers her children. She immediately feels guilty. But why? “What was she ashamed of?” When she left the garden, she was no longer the same. Now, “her heart had filled with the worst desire to live.” And this was incompatible with her previous routine. Still in a trance, she arrives home, receives guests for dinner; the children play in the living room. Everything seemed normal, but she was absent and delirious, and she involuntarily frightens one of her children:     

Mama, the boy called. She held him away from her, looked at that face, her heart cringed. Don’t let Mama forget you, she told him. As soon as the child felt her embrace loosen, he broke free and fled to the bedroom door, looking at her from greater safety. It was the worst look she had ever received. The blood rushed to her face, warming it.

Ana’s senses were saturated and the atmosphere of the house was like an overwhelming shadow. She hears an explosion on the stove. “What happened?!”, she asks her husband, startled. He becomes surprised by his wife’s fear; “‘It was nothing,’ he said, I’m just clumsy.’” He brings her close to him and caresses her. Ana transfers to her husband all the love of one who had come face to face with death and tells him in a serious tone: “I don’t want anything to happen to you, ever!” He finds what she said funny; “Time for bed,” he says. He then leads his wife to bed, “removing her from the danger of living”;  back to the night that follows the day that follows the night – practical life, which, although miserable, nevertheless bears the existence of who knows love.        

[1] The passage, written by hand on the backside of the typescript for “Objeto gritante” (“Screaming Object,” the text that gave rise to the book Água Viva), is quoted by the Angolan critic Carlos Mendes de Sousa, in Clarice Lispector: pinturas (Clarice Lispector: Paintings).