I'm With Stupid

The Hour of the Star by  Clarice Lispector, New Directions Publishing

Stupidity is always conditional. An observer discovers some ignorance in a subject, or else the subject stumbles on her own stupidity, usually engendering a torturous self-doubt about what other ignorances might be lurking within. The only antidote to stupidity is an agitated intelligence constantly prowling for blank spots in one’s outward seeming. Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star is a romance, then, between stupidity and its neurotic observer, a restless stretching away from form, tradition, and the stupefying rules they impose on writing.

The novel is narrated by Rodrigo S.M., a writer whose post-modern monologue addressed to us, his readers, makes up the entirety of the novel. Rodrigo imagines Macabéa, a girl so poor, ugly, and stupid—she is perpetually amazed by non-sequitur morsels of trivia discovered on the radio—that she becomes his emotional ideal, free of the intellectual hedge mazes that torment him. It’s anti-intellectual writing, trying to free itself from the idea that the canonical ordering of the past can say anything about the experience of the present. Lispector dedicates the book “to the very crimson color scarlet like my blood of a man in his prime and so I dedicate it to my blood.” It’s a rejection of the arterial walls in favor of the fluid they surround, a novel to the flowing of experience without the history, science, and philosophy that structure and explain it.

Her book is not about blood, but the romantic figuration of blood, the metonymic ghost we invoke when we talk about blood and heart and love. Literal facts are useful only in their ability to provoke a momentary flush of experience, and whatever sensical purpose they have is beside the point, a disposable hallucination waiting only for some new discovery or trick of science to sweep it to the margin. Truth is not truth but only the best we could do at the time, stupidity that has not yet discovered itself.

The Hour of the Star, which has just been republished by New Directions with a new translation by Benjamin Moser, Lispector’s most recent and most meticulous biographer, was Lispector’s last work, written in 1977, just before she was diagnosed with the ovarian cancer that would kill her shortly after the book’s publication. Lispector was born in Ukraine in 1920, but immigrated to Brazil with her parents as a child, where she spent most of her life. Elizabeth Bishop, who befriended Lispector in Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s, described her as “the most non-literary writer I’ve ever known.” Lispector’s style, beautifully preserved in Moser’s translation, is an entropic mess, self-consciously bucking off grammar and coherence for a tone that feels most like a just audible whisper, fragments and sentences that sound out ideas without committing to any.

Rodrigo S.M. is a writer successful enough to support himself through his art but otherwise invisible to most people. “Before this typist turned up in my life, I was a man who was even a bit contented…” he admits. The typist is Macabéa, a young woman from the same northeastern part of Brazil that Lispector grew up in. She is both dumb and ugly, qualities that Rodrigo flagellantly obsesses over, for how can someone lacking the two qualities most yearned for in literary tradition be happy? Macabéa “never figured out how to figure things out,” and is “so dumb that she sometimes smiles at other people on the street. Nobody smiles back because they don’t even look at her.” The world’s indifference is mostly the result of her appearance. There is no delicate grace or subtle finery to her. “Some people have got it,” Rodrigo tells us. “And some people don’t. It’s very simple: the girl didn’t. Didn’t have what? Exactly that: she didn’t.” When she at long last gets a boyfriend, the brutish Olimpico, who picks her up in a cafe, he tells her she has “the face of somebody who ate something and didn’t like it.” She’s a pitiable character who doesn’t know why she should be pitied.

These are perverse and fallacious descriptions of any person—and doubly so from a literary man turning the idea of an uneducated woman into a pommel horse over which to contort himself. And, in a way, Lispector returns the favor by imagining Rodrigo as her own pommel horse, a perfidious curator of elliptical questions and rash conclusions.

Rodrigo mistrusts his own literary instincts, repeatedly insisting that Macabéa’s story deserves to be told in simple language. “I’m not going to adorn the word,” he tells us, “because if I touch the girl’s bread the bread will turn to gold—and the girl (she’s 19) the girl wouldn’t be able to bite it, dying of hunger.” These protestations evaporate when Rodrigo slides into gilded descriptions of Macabéa’s celibacy, “so vast was her almost unlimited breath of life and as rich as that of a pregnant maiden, impregnated by herself, by parthenogenesis; she had schizoid dreams in which giant antediluvian animals appeared as if she’d lived in the most remote epics of this bloody earth.”

These inconsistencies are not a weak point in Lispector’s fiction, but the animating force behind it. The title itself joins two fundamentally incompatible ideas, a fractional blink of human time and a cosmological body whose lifespan is incomprehensible in “hours.” The awareness of these incompatibilities frees Rodrigo to zig in any direction he likes, not because he expects to find some truth but because he hopes to come up against resistance—”She’s accusing me and the way to defend myself is to write about her”—an existential refutation of an intellectual sentiment easy enough to pass off as true and beautiful in grammar’d words. In a way Rodrigo is Macabéa’s antithesis, a creature who is perfectly un-pitiable who is nevertheless filled with the uncertain blossoms of self-pity.

There is a ghoulish quality to the way Rodrigo looks at his invention, all of her qualities an inverse description of his worst aspects. He describes himself as a parasite, hiding himself in Macabéa’s husk, wanting to use her not just as an “object-thing” for his thought experiment, but as a victim. “I want to try at least once the lack of taste that they say is in the host. Eating the host will be tasting the flavorlessness of the world and bating in the no.” And later, he sharpens the yearning along the whetstone of Macabéa’s ugliness and his secret arousal that comes from fixating on it. “I want to be a pig and a hen and then kill them and drink their blood. I think of Macabéa’s sex, mute but unexpectedly covered with thick and abundant black hairs—her sex was the only vehement sign of her existence. She asked for nothing but her sex made its demands, like a sunflower in a tomb.”

Macabéa’s ugliness and stupidity are not literal but obsessions Rodrigo is trying to free himself of. In a perverse, self-flagellating way, he finally imagines himself as even stupider than Macabéa. “If she was dumb enough to ask herself ‘who am I?’ she would fall flat on her face. Because ‘who am I?’ creates a need. And how can you satisfy that need? Those who wonder are incomplete.”

Lispector paradoxically begins and ends the story with ruminative “yeses,” a conspicuously canonical continuation of Molly Bloom’s last affirmation, extending it to cosmological proportions. “All the world began with a yes,” Rodrigo begins. “One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born.” It’s almost satiric, taken in context of Lispector’s invented male author inventing a pathetic second skin for himself, a half-life away from Joyce’s half-ecstatic, half-defeated remembrance of sex past.

The book’s closing invocation of the affirmative is a haunting bookend to the opening. After having given Macabéa a boyfriend, cheap and petty though he was, Rodrigo takes him away again, driving Olimpico into the arms of Gloría, one of Macabéa’s fat and pale-skinned co-workers. Gloría mentions her habit of visiting a psychic—”They bled a black pig on top of me, seven white hens and tore off my clothes that were soaked with blood,”—and suggests Macabéa might benefit from a session—“Do you have the nerve?”

Macabéa decides to take the trip and the psychic does for her what Rodrigo has been unable to, giving her a glimpse at a happy future far beyond the stupid contentment of her present. The horrific price of this gift is unhappiness. She becomes a person “pregnant with the future. She felt inside her a hope more violent than any despair she had ever felt.” And at this moment Macabéa steps off the sidewalk and into the street where a Mercedes “as enormous as an ocean liner” hits her and speeds away. As Macabéa dies in the street, her own stupidity fertilized by the imagination of the psychic, Rodrigo begins to lose interest in her. She is joining the same mire of words and facts that he has been in, the first “yes” of her future intelligence has been uttered. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep her from dying,” Rodrigo says. “But what an urge to put her to sleep and go off to bed myself.”

In her last moment Macabéa reject this immiserating intelligence she’s been given, “She wanted to vomit something that wasn’t her body, to vomit something luminous. A thousand-pointed star.” Having completed the virginal sacrifice, Rodrigo realizes what he might have accepted without the crushed viscera and traumatized naif, “The best thing is still this: not to die, because dying is insufficient, it doesn’t complete me, I who need so much.” When Rodrigo delivers his final, thin “yes,” a response not to a question but a reminder that it’s strawberry season, we are given our final incompatibility: a statement that doesn’t require affirmation given it nonetheless.

Rodrigo’s last “yes” is an embrasure of sacrificial exorcism, purifying one’s irresolvable hypocrisies through the spilt blood of a virgin that was never there in the first place. Intelligence is not the beautiful fruit sprung from the discovery of new truth, but instead a weapon used to hack away the contented peace of the idiot whose indifference makes the educated mind salivate—a dead body become a field of strawberries, peacefully waiting to be plucked and consumed.