A Ritual for Mystery

Clarice Lispector’s crônicas

Jared Marcel Pollen
Maureen Bisilliat / Instituto Moreira Salles

“Everything affects me—I see too much, hear too much, everything demands too much of me,” Clarice Lispector once wrote. Appropriately, the newly assembled collection of Lispector’s crônicas­, a weekly column she wrote for the daily newspaper Jornal do Brasil between 1967 and 1973, is titled Too Much of Life.

A genre specific to Brazilian newspapers, the crônica gives the cronista, or chronicler, a topical latitude and stylistic freedom beyond that of an ordinary columnist. Already a celebrated novelist when Lispector was offered the post, she was apprehensive, but not because she considered the position to be beneath her. She was, rather, suspicious of writing as a profession—that is, paid writing, obligatory writing; she repeatedly insisted on being regarded as an amateur in order to preserve her sense of freedom. Upon accepting the job, the feeling she had was one of “absolute terror.” In an early piece from June 1968, she wrote: “Is the crônica a story? Is it a conversation? Is it the summation of a state of mind?” Three years later, in May 1971, she mused, “Let’s be honest: this isn’t a column at all. It barely is. It doesn’t fit the genre. Genres no longer interest me. Mystery interests me. Do I need to have a ritual for mystery?” This is exactly what the crônicas became.

Newspapers are not naturally enigmatic media, unlike the novel, where confusion, confoundment, disorientation are expected and welcome. By virtue of the broad net they cast, newspapers are designed to be intelligible to all. They are, as Lispector put it, “there to be understood”—an impulse that couldn’t have been further from her own as a writer and thinker. The question thus became: what to write about, and with what authority? Can one write about love but not the economy? And on what grounds? “It is timidly, audaciously, that I dare to talk about the world,” she admitted in an early entry, unsure of her own reach. It is an expression of doubt that appears throughout the column, as Lispector insisted on her own inadequacy as cronista and the seeming incomprehensibility of every subject she touched.

Funny, dark, whimsical, intimate, and always self-questioning, the crônicas seemed to touch everything.

One of the problems with the crônicas was that they were too personal. Lispector was worried about revealing too much of herself—a curious fact, given the raw consciousness she exposed in her fiction. In the novels, she was able to remain opaque by disappearing into narrative personae, but the direct voice of the crônicas demanded that she be familiar and accessible to readers. In an entry from September 1968, she acknowledged: “In this column, I am, in a way, letting myself be known. Am I losing my secret, private self?” It was almost impossible, she claimed, even when writing about sports, the summertime, or the cinema, to not reveal some part of herself. In their fan mail, readers advised her to “just be yourself.” But being oneself implies knowing who one is, and these questions were “all far too big”—sometimes to the point, it seems, of resignation. In one week of July 1968, her only entry was: “I am so mysterious that I cannot understand myself.”

In a piece a few months later, she consoled herself with a quote from Fernando Pessoa: “Speaking is the simplest way of making ourselves unknown.” Pessoa, who internalized his many imagined identities, shared the same dread about the notion of a clearly intelligible self as well as the presumption of understanding. In The Book of Disquiet, he writes that “to be understood is to prostitute oneself.” Moreover, to sell one’s false self-understanding to others is an act of deep deception. If one of the definitions of writing is the process of consciousness discovering itself, Lispector wrote as if she were afraid of learning too much. She referred to herself as “a failure” and “an audacious coward,” perhaps for this very reason. “I feel that I am much more complete when I don’t understand,” she wrote. “Not understanding, to my way of thinking, is a gift. … The good thing is to be intelligent and not understand.” Indeed, what the crônicas occasioned was a chance to write about the persistence of unknowing.

Funny, dark, whimsical, intimate, and always self-questioning, the crônicas seemed to touch everything: reflections on writing, motherhood, the seasons, depression, love, suffering, death. We get book reviews, riffs on soccer, childhood memories, responses to fan mail, phone conversations with friends, as well as interviews with Pablo Neruda and Brazilian sculptor Mário Cravo. Some entries consist of beguiling one-liners, like the piece titled, “A Challenge for Psychoanalysts”: “I dreamed that a fish took off its clothes and was left naked.” During the summer of 1969, she also serialized two short stories: “The Egg and the Chicken” and “The Princess.” The former is one of her finest: its preoccupation with essence, metaphysics, and its meditative narrative style presage the kind of experimentation she would later undertake in Água Viva and Um Sopro de Vida.

This “new hobby,” as Lispector described it in one of her first crônicas, required that she find an intellectual style whereby private, “risk-free” thinking could be done for the enjoyment of the public. As in Montaigne’s Essais, the crônicas are characterized by an animus brincandi (bouncing mind) that enables them to be playful and anecdotal while remaining deeply self-interrogating. “A word of warning,” Lispector wrote in one of her first columns. “Sometimes, we start to play with thinking and, quite unexpectedly, the plaything begins to play with us”—a sentiment that unmistakably echoes Montaigne. “This is not good. But it is fruitful.” The crônicas are naturally analogous to the Essais in their skepticism and self-doubt, their embrace of perception, and their rejection of systematic thought. And as with Montaigne, Lispector recognized that there is something essentially superfluous to documenting one’s thoughts so regularly. It is in many ways an act of vanity, but one that elicits self-discovery.

Lispector was phobic about the dilution of language through overuse: “Writing too much and too often can contaminate the word.” Indeed, the obligation of having to write—together with the pervasive sense of the inadequacy of words—is an idée fixe in the crônicas, and Lispector repeatedly harangued herself for it: “If I could, I would leave my place on this page blank: replete with a resounding silence,” marks a May 1971 entry. The distrust of the merely documentary function of writing also reflects a wider anxiety about language’s sense-making abilities. “I don’t know how to ‘clothe an idea in words,’” she wrote in a piece a year earlier. “When I am writing, I feel again what is apparently the only paradoxical certainty: that what gets in the way of writing is having to use words.”

The experience of reading Lispector’s prose is that of prolonged semantic disorientation. Language is placed in a state of profound discomfort, where it is constantly being pressed and shifted in order to uncover that which seems unsayable. It is language that is fraught with epistemic conundrums: its life-giving abilities, its powers to evoke and reveal are repeatedly questioned, teased, finessed, and reproached. As Benjamin Moser, Lispector’s biographer and caretaker of her work in translation, points out, her “weird word choices, strange syntax, and lack of interest in conventional grammar produces sentences—often fragments of sentences—that veer toward abstraction without ever quite reaching it.”

Lispector once described writing as "a curse, but a curse that saves."

We return again and again to the idea of words dissolving, to the possibility of being able to write without a style, that is, to write as faithfully to one’s perception as possible, which Lispector describes as a “purification rite.” This means locating voids within language. In a June 1969 entry on writing, she gave the following advice: “If you must write something, at least don’t squash the words that are there in between the lines.” This is the task of the mystic: to use language to break through language, to rearrange the alphabet in order to unravel the mystery of existence and spell the name of God.

In all of Lispector’s work, we see a restless effort to understand things in themselves by using language to break through the ontological barrier. For a word can never truly reveal anything; it can only gesture toward it. Writing thus becomes a kind of a quantum experiment with its own uncertainty principle: to observe something and put words on it is to essentially change its nature. The implication being that true perception is free of language. “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees,” as Valéry said. This longing to finally be free of language is perhaps the most dominant sentiment in the crônicas, one that Lispector returns to obsessively: “I’d prefer to stay silent,” she wrote in February 1968. And in May 1970: “I would live. I would not use words. And that might one day be my solution. If so, good.”

Lispector once described writing as “a curse, but a curse that saves.” However, in a rare filmed interview from 1977, she spoke of the intolerability of life without writing. In response to the same question Rilke posed to his young poet—if you couldn’t write, do you think you would die?—she said: “When I am not writing I’m dead.” If language is a curse, it is because it never relieves us of its necessity. The crônicas show the everyday struggle of language—in confronting the everyday itself and the obligation we have to continue its use, even long after we’ve glimpsed its limits.

Jared Marcel Pollen is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness: Stories (2019) and the novel Venus&Document (2022). His work has appeared in Gawker, Liberties, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Jacobin, Tablet, and Astra. He currently lives in Prague.
Originally published:
October 31, 2022

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