Excerpt from “The Passion According to G.H.” by Clarice Lispector

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There I was open-mouthed and offended and withdrawn—faced with the dusty being looking back at me.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.

Once you “see” dragonflies, your world will change.

The following is an excerpt from Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History, written by Cindy Crosby and illustrated by Peggy Macnamara

In my mailbox is a birthday card from my brother Chris. I open the envelope and shake out a wooden bookmark etched with the image of a dragonfly’s wing. I’m touched. But not entirely surprised. To see anything dragonfly-related prompts my family to think of me. This connection to dragonflies has come about gradually over the past fifteen years—so gradually that some days I’m not quite sure how it all happened. But there it is. Dragonflies and my life are intertwined.

That day, I had returned from Florida, where I celebrated my birthday with my husband, adult children, and six assorted grandkids under age eight. It was the perfect week. Beach, pool, family cookouts, more beach time. Southern dragonflies buzzed through the landscape, many new to me. Interesting shorebirds. Exotic flowers in tropical colors. I felt happy. At peace. Rested.

Then, as our vacation was about to end, my phone vibrated. I saw there was a message from my doctor’s office. Opened it.

The word stared up at me.

Malignant.

Before I’d left home, I’d had a few tests. The doctor who did the first test, and then the second, was reassuring. I’ve done thousands of these biopsies! This one doesn’t look problematic. But of course we won’t know until the tests come back.

And now they had.

“There is no reason to write a book unless the process of imagining it changes one’s life forever,” asserted Richard Manning in his opening chapter of Grassland. This diagnosis dropped into a life molded and shaped by the rhythms of dragonflies. From April to the end of October, I’m restless whenever I’m indoors, wondering what I’m missing by not being outside. The life of the skies and the watery underworld of creeks and ponds have me in their grip; I don’t want to ever feel it loosen.

Chasing DragonfliesDragonflies have become a part of my identity. They’ve been a solace through my cancer diagnosis and my recovery as I watched them fly through my backyard, where I was relegated to a lawn chair in the midst of writing this book and unable to chase them. Dragonflies were also an introduction to hundreds of kind and interesting people, many willing to share their passion for dragonflies and Odonates by phone and email and by my side in the field, mentoring a willing learner like myself. Dragonflies are my nemesis too, the cause of frittering away hundreds of hours of time that might have better been spent earning a paycheck. Or so some people might think.

Once you “see” dragonflies, your world will change. Every backyard barbeque, each walk along a river, or time spent weeding a garden—suddenly, you notice—they are everywhere! So many aloft. So many fluttering in the grasses, skimming ponds, hovering around traffic lights. Each one a bit of unique insect art.

In An Obsession with Butterflies, author Sharman Apt Russell says that adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension: “All this existed before, has always existed, but you were unaware. You didn’t see.” Russell’s butterflies have been my dragonflies.

Dragonflies say “mystery” to me.

There is so much we don’t know about the order Odonata. So much to learn. Dragonflies live most of their lives under the surface of the water. One fine day, they pull themselves out, split their old “skins,” and, changeling-like, become something beautiful, colorful, and new. Grow wings. Take to the air. Their brief lives are over before you can blink. Or so it seems. As Kobayashi Issa, the Japanese haiku poet, wrote:

Days are short—the
dragonfly’s life
fleeting, as well

The first half of my life, I had a lot of pat answers to some of life’s most difficult questions. The second half of my life I live knowing some answers are going to be in short supply. Cancer, with its shattering shock waves and mysteries, reinforced this realization. The dragonflies, with their ancient lineage and predictable lives—yet shot through with mystery and the unknown—echo this enigma. Their lives are tenuous, as our lives are. Dragonflies move between water and air, transforming themselves, all while prone to the whims of weather and the vagaries of the next frog, bird, or other predator waiting to snatch them from life.

And yet, for hundreds of millions of years, they have been evolutionary survivors.

As I write these words, a pandemic is sweeping the globe. Illinois families are sheltering in place to avoid becoming infected with the COVID-19 virus. We’re unable to go about the normal rhythms of our days. Workplaces, nature centers, houses of worship, schools—all are closed. My husband, Jeff, and I drive to our daughter’s house and talk to the kids from our car, while they stand on the porch. I teach my classes online. Fear, anxiety, and uncertainty reign.

And yet. Temperatures warm. The month of April arrives. My crocus and daffodils bloom. I stand on the back porch and scan the skies. Although my life and millions of other lives are in complete disarray, the dragonflies are unaffected. The first migrants will arrive any day. Their rhythms of life go on. I find comfort in this. We don’t know how this global pandemic will end. But there is solace in the rhythms of the natural world.

 

Cindy-Crosby-tallgrass-prairieCINDY CROSBY is the author of The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press, 2017). She is a natural history instructor in the Chicago region who coordinates dragonfly monitoring programs at the Morton Arboretum and Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site.