Born in western Ukraine, Clarice Lispector (1920–77) suffered in her early years from famine, war, and violent antisemitism. When her family arrived in Brazil in 1922, Clarice’s father made a living selling rags; her mother died a few years later. Her novels and stories—among them The Chandelier (1946), The Besieged City (1949), The Passion According to G.H. (1964), and The Stream of Life (1973)—explored her existential speculations in a brilliantly inventive, lyrical, and metaphorical style using interior monologues and stream of consciousness. This selection from The Passion According to G.H. was translated by Idra Novey and is part of the forthcoming Latin American Ecocultural Reader, edited by Gisela Heffes and Jennifer French. In it, the death of a cockroach sparks a metaphysical crisis and an expansion of consciousness beyond humanity.
Each eye reproduced the entire cockroach.
—Pardon me for giving you this, hand holding mine, but I don’t want this for myself! take that roach, I don’t want what I saw.
There I was open-mouthed and offended and withdrawn—faced with the dusty being looking back at me. Take what I saw: because what I was seeing with an embarrassment so painful and so frightened and so innocent, what I was seeing was life looking back at me.
How else could I describe that crude and horrible, raw matter and dry plasma, that was there, as I shrank into myself with dry nausea, I falling centuries and centuries inside a mud—it was mud, and not even dried mud but mud still damp and still alive, it was a mud in which the roots of my identity were still shifting with unbearable slowness.
Take it, take all this for yourself, I don’t want to be a living person! I’m disgusted and amazed by myself, thick mud slowly oozing.
That’s what it was—so that’s what it was. Because I’d looked at the living roach and was discovering inside it the identity of my deepest life. In a difficult demolition, hard and narrow paths were opening within me.
I looked at it, at the roach: I hated it so much that I was going over to its side, feeling solidarity with it, since I couldn’t stand being left alone with my aggression.
And all of a sudden I moaned out loud, this time I heard my moan. Because rising to my surface like pus was my truest matter—and with fright and loathing I was feeling that “I-being” was coming from a source far prior to the human source and, with horror, much greater than the human.
Opening in me, with the slowness of stone doors, opening in me was the wide life of silence, the same that was in the fixed sun, the same that was in the immobilized roach. And that could be the same as in me! if I had the courage to abandon . . . to abandon my feelings? If I had the courage to abandon hope.
Hope for what? For the first time I was astonished to feel that I’d based an entire hope on becoming something that I was not. The hope—what other name could I give it?—that for the first time I now was going to abandon, out of courage and mortal curiosity. Had hope, in my prior life, been based upon a truth? With childlike surprise, I was starting to doubt it.
To find out what I really could hope for, would I first have to pass through my truth? To what extent had I invented a destiny now, while subterraneously living from another?
I closed my eyes, waiting for the astonishment to pass, waiting for my panting to calm to the point that it was no longer that awful moan that I’d heard as if coming from the bottom of a dry, deep cistern, as the cockroach was a creature of a dry cistern. I was still feeling, at an incalculable distance within me, that moan that was no longer reaching my throat.
This is madness, I thought with my eyes closed. But it was so undeniable feeling that birth from inside the dust—that all I could do was follow something I was well aware wasn’t madness, it was, my God, the worse truth, the horrible one. But why horrible? Because without words it contradicted everything I used to think also without words.
I waited for the astonishment to pass, for health to return. But I was realizing, in an immemorial effort of memory, that I had felt this astonishment before: it was the same one I had experienced when I saw my own blood outside of me, and I had marveled at it. Since the blood I was seeing outside of me, that blood I was drawn to with such wonder: it was mine.
I didn’t want to open my eyes, I didn’t want to keep on seeing. It was important not to forget the rules and the laws, to remember that without the rules and laws there would be no order, I had to not forget them and defend them in order to defend myself.
But it was already too late for me to hold myself back.
The first bind had already involuntarily burst, and I was breaking loose from the law, though I intuited that I was going to enter the hell of living matter—what kind of hell awaited me? but I had to go. I had to sink into my soul’s damnation, curiosity was consuming me.
So I opened my eyes all at once, and saw the full endless vastness of the room, that room that was vibrating in silence, laboratory of hell.
The room, the unknown room. My entrance into it was finally complete.
The entrance to this room had a single passageway, and a narrow one: through the cockroach. The cockroach that was filling the room with finally open vibration, the vibrations of its rattlesnake tails in the desert. Through a painstaking route, I had reached the deep incision in the wall that was that room—and the crevice created a vast, natural hollow hall as in a cave.
Naked, as if prepared for the entrance of a single person. And whoever entered would be transformed into a “she” or “he.” I was the one the room called “she.” As I had gone in which the room had given a dimension of she. As if I too were the other side of the cube, the side that goes unseen when looked at straight on.
And in my great dilation, I was in the desert. How can I explain it to you? in the desert as I’d never been before. It was a desert that was calling me as a monotonous and remote canticle calls. I was being seduced. And I was going toward that promising madness. But my fear wasn’t that of someone going toward madness, but toward a truth—my fear was of having a truth that I’d come not to want, an infamizing truth that would make me crawl along and be on the roach’s level. My first contact with truths always defamed me.
—Hold my hand, because I feel that I’m going. I’m going once again toward the most divine primary life, I’m going toward a hell of raw life. Don’t let me see because I’m close to seeing the nucleus of life—and, through the cockroach that even now I’m seeing again, through this specimen of calm living horror, I’m afraid that in this nucleus I’ll no longer know what hope is.
The cockroach is pure seduction. Cilia, blinking cilia that keep calling.
I too, who was slowly reducing myself to whatever in me was irreducible, I too had thousands of blinking cilia, and with my cilia I move forward, I protozoan, pure protein. Hold my hand, I reached the irreducible with the inevitability of a death-knell—I sense that all this is ancient and vast, I sense in the hieroglyph of the slow roach the writing of the Far East. And in this desert of great seductions, the creatures: I and the living roach. Life, my love, is a great seduction in which all that exists seduces. That room that was deserted and for that reason primally alive. I had reached the nothing, and the nothing was living and moist.
Excerpted from The Latin American Ecocultural Reader, edited by Gisela Heffes and Jennifer French
A comprehensive anthology of literary and cultural texts about the natural world drawn from throughout the Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil, including both canonical figures and works as well as contemporary writing that illuminates the marginalized environmental cultures of women, indigenous, and Afro-Latin American populations.
JENNIFER FRENCH is a professor of Spanish at Williams College. She is the author of Nature, Neo-Colonialism, and the Spanish-American Regional Writers.
GISELA HEFFES is an associate professor of Latin American literature and culture at Rice University. She has published two monographs and four novels in Spanish.