Clarice Lispector – The Vertiginous Glance

Image: Andrés Sandoval


Commentary on the book “A Maçã no Escuro”

It will not be difficult to point out in women's literature the vocation for meticulousness, the attachment to sensitive detail in the transcription of reality, characteristics that, according to Simone de Beauvoir, derive from women's social position. Connected to objects and depending on them, tied to time, in whose rhythm she knows she is physiologically inscribed, the woman develops a concrete and earthly temperament, moving as a thing in a universe of things, as a fraction of time in a temporal universe. His is a reflective life, without values, without initiative, without major events, and the insignificant episodes that compose it, in a way, only make sense in the past, when memory, selecting what the present grouped without choice, fixes two or three monuments that stand out in the foreground.

Thus, the female universe is a universe of remembrance or waiting, everything living, not from an immanent meaning but from an attributed value. And as the landscape that unfolds beyond the open window does not allow her, the woman seeks meaning in the confined space in which life ends: the room with the objects, the garden with the flowers, the short walk to the river or the fence. The vision she builds is therefore a myopic vision, and in the terrain that the lowered gaze covers, the very close things acquire a luminous sharpness of contours.

It was this myopia that Clarice Lispector, in her last and admirable novel, transferred, in a very curious way, from the apprehension of reality to the apprehension of essences and time. Indifferent to the external appearance, it seeks to penetrate what is hidden and secret in things, what is hidden and secret in things, in emotions, in feelings, in the relationships between beings; indifferent to the organization of events in a broad temporal scheme, where past, present and future are stages of a sequence, she conceives a fractional time, made up of small segments of duration that, incessantly recomposing themselves, can only be seen from very close and in a flash.

For her, the temporal flux is just that sum of instants, and the concern to fix the “urgent moment of now”, is translated in the style itself, in the constancy with which the term “instant” returns obsessively to her pen and, above all, with which he makes exhaustive use of all the adverbs and temporal locutions that, not infrequently, make his beautiful prose ugly through continuous repetition: “then” – “now” – “afterwards” – “suddenly” – “an instant further” – “immediately” – “after an instant” – “one step further” – “shortly” – “for a brief second” – “in the next instant” – “at that moment” – “meanwhile” – “ in the meantime" - "at that time" - "in that interval" - "in that fraction of a second."

What the novelist aims at is to apprehend the exemplary instant, that tiny portion of duration capable of illuminating an entire sequence of actors with its revealing meaning; but apprehend with the naked eye, without subterfuge, “in a vertiginous glance”. Her technique will therefore be quite different from that of other creators who, also concerned with the significant moment, dilate it, expand it to better apprehend its meaning. This is the case of Eisenstein, in the cinema, who in the anthological scenes of the Odessa staircase, in The Battleship Potemkin, and the opening of the bridge, in October, monumentalized the instant, creating a fictitious and dramatic time. In this way, what you have before your eyes is an instant seen under a microscope, a reduced time that never flows away – the soldiers uninterruptedly descending the stairs, the bridge never ending up opening.

An instant, therefore, in which instantaneity is denied, in the same way that the microscope denies, in the unforeseen structure of a sheet of tissue, the reality that the naked eye apprehends. Here, insignificant duration is converted into significant duration, into a dissected time that the eye can freely apprehend and measure. Nothing could be more different from the proud attitude of Clarice Lispector who, accepting the bet, looks attentively at the flow of time, trying to subjugate “that rare moment” to the word – in which “it hasn't happened yet”, “it's still going to happen”, “almost already happened". “His desire is to convey to the reader the sensation of 'being present at the moment when what happens', as he is convinced that 'when looked at closely, things have no shape, and that when looked at from afar, things are not seen. and that for each thing there is only an instant'.” She is, thus, what could be called a “novelist of the instant”, in the sense, for example, in which there are novelists of the present and novelists of memory. And with the scarce time that mediates between being and nothingness, she weaves her entire narrative.

It's on page 129 d'The Apple in the Dark that we find the most characteristic part of the novelist's way of apprehending the meaning of things; the one where it best expresses the philosophy of the moment, of which the book is an exhaustive application: “And the thing was done in such an impossible way – that in impossibility lay the hard grip of beauty. They are moments that are not narrated, they happen between passing trains or in the air that awakens our face and gives us our final size, and then for a moment we are the fourth dimension of what exists, they are moments that do not count. But who knows if it's that longing like a fish with its mouth open that a drowning person has before dying, and then it is said that before diving forever a man sees his whole life pass before his eyes; If in an instant he is born, and if he dies in an instant, an instant is enough for a lifetime.”

For Clarice Lispector, a moment will be enough for the entire narrative. And your task will be, precisely, to narrate these “moments that are not narrated”, to highlight the “moments that don't count” and that we usually miss, because they happen while we are off guard. – However, only they are significant, as they reveal what is deepest in us, our “final size”. Her objective will be (to apply her own revealing image) to catch, in a lucid flash, the whole meaning of life, “with that eagerness like a fish with its mouth open that a drowning person has before dying”.

However, if your aspiration is to stop the moment, how can you not deny its fleetingness? Because if what defines the instant is being ephemeral, by fixing it we are denying its essential truth, transforming it into an echo, a resonance of meaning, like “the pain (that) remains in the flesh when the bee is already far away”. If our perception of the world is always behind in relation to the constant becoming, how can we apprehend the instant, this kind of pregnancy of the present, if what we just apprehended has already been projected into the past, “like when a clock stops ticking? and only then does he warn us that he used to knock”?

How to fix the instant, if from the moment we surprise reality it is no longer the reality we were aiming for, but its own negation? “For example, a little bird was singing. But from the moment Martim tried to make it happen, the little bird ceased to be a symbol and suddenly it was no longer what you might call a little bird.” How to apprehend reality, if the very act of apprehension magically destroys the perceived object, stripping it of all its differentiating richness? “Like someone who could not drink water from the river except by filling the hollow of their hands – but it would no longer be the silent water of the river, it would not be its frigid movement, nor the delicate avidity with which the water tortures stones (...) It would be the concave of their own hands.”

Thus deciphered at the subterranean level of the word, of verbal witticisms, of images, The Apple in the Dark reveals a torn tension between an aspiration (grasp the instant) and the impossibility of realizing it (the instant is inaccessible); reveals the constant oscillation between attempt and renunciation. And I believe that it is the desperation before the difficult task that she set out to accomplish, and whose difficulty the novelist proclaims with a certain pride – because “in the impossibility lay the hard grip of beauty” – that leads her to pursue a reality that escapes her fingers. , not only with the locutions of time – as we have already seen – but with the images that he keeps multiplying uninterruptedly, with the linked comparisons, almost always of a dazzling beauty. To each obstacle she opposes a new example, a new metaphor, a different verbal cunning, concealing a trap in each corner of her prose, where this hummingbird hunter tries to imprison what is most skittish and imprecise.

And since reality is fleeting and constantly changing, when describing a face it is still the indefinable detail that the novelist will attach herself to, not endeavoring, for example, to surprise the color of her character's eyes, but the fact that they are “positive”, “known” or “affected”; not trying to specify the features of the physiognomy, as they are “all the more indecisive as one could imagine that they could be dismantled to form another set, as prudent in not being defined as the first”. For Clarice Lispector, there is a profound complexity everywhere that appearance seeks to camouflage, and that is why she is always turning reality from front to back, suspicious that it is in the reverse of the plot that she will be able to decipher, after all, the hidden game of threads , the laborious combination of colors, the secret truth of the figures. Suspicious of everything, even words, whose worn-out connotations, always falling short of the richness of feelings, she tries to compensate for by new combinations: “It wasn’t hate – it was love in reverse, and irony, as if both despised the same thing”.

In this game of insatiable search for adjustment between expression and content, it really adds an unsuspected dimension to the range of human feelings, a subtlety that is almost never arbitrary, always revealing. And since he describes things in reverse, when he turns to the outside reality, he prefers not to dwell on what the senses apprehend, but on what they miss, avoiding the areas of light to get lost in the imprecise area of ​​shadow where the contours submerge. He tries to feel “the dry smell of exasperated stone that the day has in the countryside”, or “the acute lack of smell that is peculiar to very pure air and that remains distinct from any other fragrance”. He tries to discern in the night the “secret warp with which the darkness is maintained”, or to accustom the ear “to the music that one hears at night and which is made of the possibility of something chirping and of the delicate friction of silence against silence”. And he will develop his acuity in such a way that he will be able to distinguish between this nocturnal silence, made of expectation and alarm, and the pitiless, desolate silence of the midday sun: “The silence of the sun was so total that its ear, rendered useless, experimented with dividing it into imaginary stages like a map in order to be able to gradually encompass it”.

The inaccessible, the inexpressible, that which has no smell or color, that which has not yet been said... Clarice Lispector's book is a struggle against the fleeting instant, a desperate effort to stop time, to fix the moment in a glance, define what cannot be defined, surprise the deaf sound of silence, return to light the forms that darkness dissolves. That's why (on the scale of feelings) when she focuses on love, she doesn't accompany its slow metamorphosis, preferring to be present at the moment when it blossoms.

Absorbed, with her face tilted, Ermelinda pits the corn. It is an afternoon, “in the middle of the vacancy of the countryside”. In the distance, Martim appears and disappears from the girl's visual field. She watches him work, distracted, but suddenly she feels alive, “as if enjoying a faintness and a heat (…) The man's hammers beat like a heart in the field. Her face bent toward the corn did not see Martim. But with each hammer blow he gave that girl's body, so vague, a body. Ermelinda felt an embarrassed softness against which, for no reason at all, she struggled, raising her head with a certain pride. It is true that her defiance could not sustain itself for long, and by and by the heavy head again bent down in thought (…) It was then that she raised her head and stared into the air with some intensity. It was just that something soft and insidious had mingled with her blood, and she remembered how love was spoken of like poison, and she nodded submissively. It was something sweet and full of discomfort. That she, conniving, recognized with tortured softness like a woman who, clenching her teeth, haughtily recognizes the first sign that the child is going to be born. She recognized then, with joy and impassive resignation, the ritual that was being performed in her. Then she sighed: it was the gravity she had been waiting for all her life ”.

The passage is long, but it would have been difficult to quote half of it. For it is in this love that does not yet exist, that has just revealed itself, and offers itself to the character as a presence but not yet as a contact or participation of two beings; which for now is just a promise of love – it is in him that the novelist locates the moment of fullness. For her, what matters is, in fact, the ritual of waiting, the laborious preparation for the “instant when a woman will belong to a man”, the magical universe that expectation creates.

Communication with the beloved object, far from bringing the feeling to its saturation point, will destroy it, make it fall apart, decompose: “And she, she looked at the stranger. Before there had been in the girl a silent warmth of communication from her to him, made of pleading and sweetness and a kind of trust. But in front of him, to her surprise, she seemed to have really ceased to love. And thrown into the situation she had created, feeling alone and intense, if she stayed there it was only by determination (...) And the moment he finally stood right in front of her, she looked at him with resentment as if he was not the one who she was waiting, and only an emissary had been sent to her with a message: "The other one could not come".

Thus, in the same way that perception destroys reality in constant becoming – and the little bird we concretize is no longer a little bird, the river water we imprison in our hands is just the concave of our own hands –, also the relationship between the sexes, once exploded, it tends to cancel itself out. And if everything brings with it the yeast of its destruction, it is natural that love also appears, for Clarice Lispector's female character, as wanting and not wanting (“I had wanted so much to have a lover! I wanted more"); as a feeling that we only become fully aware of when her loss is already outlined: “So, because Ermelinda only knew that she loved him when the man took a step and she thought he was leaving. In fright, she reached out a hand to hold him back”.

It is true that, for the novelist, the impossibility of communication is not characteristic of love, but of relations between beings in general. In the book, the characters live as if on a war footing, constantly measuring each other with their eyes, accepting mutual anger “like enemies who respect each other before killing each other”. But it is between the man and the woman that the misunderstanding becomes acute. In such a way that, in the rare moments when communication is outlined, the rhythm of abandonment and retreat, of delivery and containment, organizes the movements in a grotesque and caricatured ballet, as if each gesture contained in itself the opposite gesture, its own denial: “Martim held out an impulsive hand, but as the woman didn't expect the gesture, she was surprised to extend her hand. In that fraction of a second, the man, without offense, withdrew his hand – and Vitória, who was already putting hers forward, kept her arm uselessly outstretched, as if it had been her initiative to look for it, in a gesture that suddenly became one of appeal. - the man's hand. Martim, noticing with both hands outstretched, warmly squeezed the woman's icy fingers, who could not contain a movement of recoil and fear.

– Did I hurt her? he shouted.

- No no! she protested in terror.

Then they were silent. The woman said nothing more. Something was definitely over.”

In Clarice Lispector's book, everything derives from her philosophy of the moment. It is she who governs his imaginary universe and explains his verbal tics, his irresistible attraction to images and comparisons, to the imprecise and indefinable. It is she who explains her attitude towards love, her melancholy conviction of disagreement between people. But by leaning attentively on the exemplary moment, the novelist tries to surprise, beyond the flight of the hour and the irremediable solitude between beings, the trajectory of a man. Therefore, changing perspective now, it is necessary to abandon the meaning of the novel at the hidden level of style, looking for it in the more apparent reality of the plot, the actions and behavior of the characters.

The plot is simple. – Having committed a crime, Martim flees the city and arrives at a farm, owned by Vitória, a single woman who is starting to age. Interested in taking refuge there, he agrees to perform, in exchange for lodging and food, the rough jobs that Vitória is willing to assign him. In addition to her, a relative of his, Ermelinda, a young woman and widow, and the mulatto cook with a small daughter, live on the farm. The arrival of Martim disturbs the isolation in which the women live and, little by little, the peaceful rhythm of life for Vitória and Ermelinda changes – the disturbing presence of the man highlighting the personal problems of each one. Driven by instinct, Martim, one afternoon, ends up possessing the fined woman and, soon after, giving in to Ermelinda's siege, he becomes her lover.

For Vitória, also in love with the stranger, love is revealed in the form of torture; torture that he imposes on Martim through increasingly arduous tasks, and on himself, through resignation. Out of pride, and perhaps out of fear of her feelings, she ends up reporting him to the police. But the interlude on the farm, the humble jobs he is obliged to carry out, the daily contact with the land and the animals, the experience of others and the meditation on crime, mean for Martim the learning of life, which prison, finally , put an end.

When the book begins, Martim is running away and little by little, and in a confusing way we realize that he murdered – or tried to murder – his wife. However, the crime itself is not of the slightest importance, it is not a concrete act whose motives interest us, but an abstract crime, the last attempt of an alienated man to conquer freedom. Crime is therefore conceived, paradoxically, not as a barrier or a defeat, but as “the great blind leap”, “the astonished victory”, the last free gesture from which Martim can, finally, build with his own hands the your destiny. Like a watershed, the great "act of rage" separates doomed existence from chosen existence; it is the height of evil, from which innocence will be possible: “From that moment on he would have the opportunity to live without doing evil because he had already done it: he was now an innocent”.

Contradictorily, therefore, crime means the rupture of all commitments, the destruction of the established order, the possibility of building a new order: “Once he had destroyed the order, he had nothing more to lose, and no commitment could buy him. He could go against a new order.”

Thus, the hero that Clarice Lispector proposes to us is the totally unrelated character, the man who renounced everything that defines him as a man, “a man on strike” of his own humanity, and whose innocence is expressed in the abandonment of thought and of the word: “But now, the layer of words removed from things, now that it had lost language, it was finally standing in the calm depth of mystery”.

And I believe that here the novelist faces the biggest problem of all the ones she set out to overcome. She continues, as we see, in her usual effort to describe things in reverse, conceiving crime as a free gesture and applying herself to giving us a man through his own negation, that is, through the absence of language and thought. It is true that out of difficulty she builds some of the best pages of the novel, inventing an autonomous existence for her hero, a reality that is not provided by the perspective of the novelist, nor of the character, nor of a witness, but which is there, taking place before our eyes.

Thus, in Martim's initial flight into the night, he does not give us a description of a man's flight into the night; or an interpretation of the flight by the narrator, through the analysis, for example, of fear or expectation – what we feel is darkness itself, apprehended by a frightened man who flees and lets himself be guided by the acute twitching of the senses. It is true that he does not always manage to create this existence in action or, better, this act of merely existing, without “having the slightest intention of doing anything with the fact of existing”, this weight of presence that has “the taste that language has”. it's in your mouth." And the beautiful pages, such as those of Martim in the vacant lot, of Martim in the stable, among the cows, are opposed by other less happy ones (such as those of the speech to the stones), which belie the reality of the character's “man on strike”.

Recapitulating, it can be said, therefore, that it is from the crime that Martim is born, starting to exist in a state of innocence, free from any and all subjection. And indeed, we witness the birth of the hero. Clarice Lispector begins the novel with a dark part, of painful accommodation in the dark (Martim's flight into the night); cutting it violently, a rupture of light occurs (the break of day), causing one sequence to alternate in shadow with another in the crudest light. In this way, he probably wants to offer a powerful metaphor of birth, because when he wakes up, Martim receives in his eyes, like a newborn, the weight of the day: “And a brutal light blinded him as if he had received a salty wave of water in his face. sea". The hero has just been born. Alone, in full sun, in the open, having come out of the darkness, having “lay down his weapons as a man”, with no more ties to hold him, without thought or word, he begins the adventure of freedom on his own.

However, here as in other books by the writer, the desire to preserve freedom at any price, to avoid any and all subjection, inevitably leads man to look for new subjections. Slowly “the vast emptiness of himself” begins to be filled and Martim, who had with difficulty destroyed all the ties, starts again laboriously tying up the broken links. Little by little, his thought returns: “in his alert sleep, at times a thought would already sparkle in him like a sliver of stone”; and, gradually, in stages, contact with the world is re-established.

First communication with the stones; then the approach to the plants, which one arrives at after a day's work, “guided by a somnambulist's obstinacy, as if the uncertain tremor of a compass needle were calling him”. Refugee in the vacant lot, he attentively searches for the meaning of life, observing with his mouth half open the plants dirty with dust, the “decomposing dead leaves”, “the sparrows that blended with the ground as if they were made of earth”. And having achieved the dullness of a plant himself (“his compact absence of thought was a dullness – it was the dullness of a plane”), Martim can move on, to the stage of the animals: “That was how the new and confused step of the One morning the man went out of his reign on the land, into the half-light of the corral where the cows were more difficult than the plants”.

This contact, however, is more painful, and at the door of the stable Martim hesitates, “pale and offended like a child when the root of life is suddenly revealed to him”. It is not easy for him “to finally free himself from the reign of mice and plants – and reach the mysterious breath of larger animals”. But soon, accepting the “great tranquil transfusion” that takes place between him and the animals, he is ripe for the next contact, with his peers. The physical power of the mulatta will be the last moment of this initial apprenticeship, from which he will emerge as a man.

Once the contact stage is over, Martim surrenders to the joy of living and working. The fullness reached, the brief moment of perfection is, however, soon destroyed by the growing feeling of the uselessness of his gesture: “what he had experienced was just the freedom of a toothless dog”. Furthermore, as he re-establishes contacts with the world, abandoning the “wild of a man” where he had voluntarily exiled himself; As he accepts the thought back, the need to name things and call his crime a crime is imposed. But before assuming the responsibility of guilt, Martim goes through the experience of fear.

It was then that Clarice Lispector, who had been focusing on the characters individually or in pairs, organized them, for the first time, into a common experience. From the beginning of the novel the drought has been prowling; and if it served to reinforce the tension of beings, the incommunicability of relationships and the atmosphere of expectation in which people move, the arrival of rain will correspond to the final end of tensions, when everything that was dammed up explodes: in Martim, the great fear of guilt, in Vitória, already old, the fear of her own body still alive; in Ermelinda, the fear of solitude and death.

On a stormy night, a helpless Martim turns to God and the two women eagerly seek the man's support. Afterwards, having reached the saturation point, everything will be in its place. The very beautiful description of nature appeased after the storm marks the end of each character's trajectory. He also finished the meditation on crime. Martim already knows “what a man wants”, and starting from the need to be rejected, he arrives at the desire to be accepted by others again: “his eyes were moist with the desire to be accepted”. Humanity's slow learning has taught it that we cannot renounce others, because “others are our deepest dive”.

The hiatus that opened with crime is closed. It doesn't matter that, for a moment, the world of established values, which Martim has abandoned and into which he is going to enter again, seems hateful, symbolized by the figure of the professor who comes to arrest him. Now, as someone who accepts the rules of the game, he will even accept ready-made phrases and conventional respectability, since he has learned that understanding or loving is an attitude, “as if now, reaching out his hand in the dark and picking up an apple, he recognized in his fingers so clumsy for love an apple”. The trajectory he took, from rebellion to submission, showed him that freedom is impossible; no gesture will be able to buy it, because man's life is one of constant aggregation, and one always returns, eagerly, to the narrow circle of addictions – to beings, to feelings, to injustice. Martim's story is actually the story of a conversion: conversion to the condition of a man.

The complexity of the problems posed in The Apple in the Dark, the density achieved in the analysis of certain feelings and situations and, above all, the great originality of its verbal universe, make Clarice Lispector's book one of the most important in recent years. However, if the peculiar way (analyzed in the first part of this study) of the novelist to apprehend reality through glimpses is responsible for the perfection of so many truly anthological passages, it is also the main obstacle she will have to fight when building an organic whole.

Em The Apple in the Dark, the significant and intense moments alternate, in a non-harmonious way, with the discursive passages, full of unnecessary considerations. The book, like Clarice Lispector's perception, is therefore worth the exceptional moments, failing to organize them within the novelistic structure. The acuity that leads him to penetrate so deeply into the heart of things is that perhaps it makes it difficult for him to apprehend the whole. For in her myopic vision, she sees with admirable clarity the shapes close to her eyes – but, raising her eyes, she sees the distant planes blur together, and she no longer distinguishes the horizon.

*Gilda de Mello e Souza (1919-2005) was a professor of aesthetics at the Department of Philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of reading exercises (Publisher 34).


Clarice Lispector. The Apple in the Dark.

Originally published in the magazine Comment, Rio de Janeiro, 1963.

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