Time in Exile: In Conversation with Heidegger, Blanchot, and Lispector
25 FEBRUARY 2021
Excerpt from Time in Exile: In Conversation with Heidegger, Blanchot, and Lispector, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2020.
Clarice Lispector, photo by Giorgio de Chirico; Image credit: El Pais
(Reading Gerundive Time with Clarice Lispector)
Where am I going? And the answer is: I’m going.
Reading Time and the Time of Reading
n the previous chapters, I attempted to show how Heidegger and Blanchot approach the is-being, the gerundive temporality that marks the experience of time in exile. Heidegger does it more explicitly in terms of “presencing” and “whiling,” and Blanchot in terms of “effacing” and “disappearing.” Both come close to what I am calling the is-being, in their discussions about the “neuter” departing from the urgent necessity to leave behind deep-rooted habits of thought and language. In his late work, Heidegger connects the question of whiling and abiding with thoughts on Gelassenheit, releasement or serenity, and Blanchot follows the Levinasian path of the thought of passivity. What matters in these central verbs, in the German lassen and in the French passer (which the word passif comes from) is the “pas,” the step and the not, the step [not] beyond. Both Heidegger and Blanchot left behind to us, their readers, the most anguished works of thought and language about the search for leaving and about abandoning the search for a beyond. Both were in search of a step beyond the need for stepping-beyond; both were in search of a thinking and writing of the withdrawing of being itself, the withdrawal of the presence of the present, assuming, albeit in very different ways and paths of thoughts and language, that a “not,” a “ne pas,” belongs originarily to being itself and to the event, to recall a passage by Heidegger in the Contributions to Philosophy that reads:
To be sure, a “not” does essentially occur in the hesitant withholding if grasped more originarily. But that is the primordial “not,” the one pertaining to being itself and thus to the event.
The experience of leaving, lassen, quitter, abandoner, passer, is a difficult one; as much as the experience of being expulsed and disseminated, the leaving and the guilt of leaving mark strongly this difficult experience that is exile. Perhaps, rather than of exile, we should speak of leaving, or in the language of Osip Mandelstam, we should speak of “the science of departure.” In their attempts, Heidegger and Blanchot remain caught up or entangled within the need to overcome overcoming, to transcend transcendence, a situation of anguished absence of exit. They remain captured by the figure of truth as unconcealment, of appearing in withdrawing, which, it should be noted, is a narratival figure of the apocalypse. Of course, we should not forget the differences that distinguish them, but, at the same time, it is difficult to deny how they share the figure of absence and absenting, of fading away, and its crepuscular silvery realm of transitivity. Against the hegemony of presence and its domain of entities and substantial meanings, Heidegger and Blanchot propose nonetheless a thought of the “there is,” it is, it gives, the “Es gibt” in Heidegger and the “il y a” in Blanchot. Both understand the temporality of the neuter as interruption of chronological time, and propose thoughts about time-space, and about the eternal detour in the return and the eternal return in detour. Both write and think at the limits of language, of writing, of thinking, at the limit at which what must and is valid—es gilt—to be said, written, and thought touches what cannot be said, written, or thought. They are both in the space of literature, writing through thoughts and seeking to transcend the transcendence of writing. They are both in philosophy, thinking through the written, seeking to transcend the transcendence of thoughts. They are between philosophy and literature, between theory and literature. They are located in the suspension of both philosophy and literature: thinking at the “end of philosophy,” writing at the “end of literature” and are very attentive to the event of thought in language and of the language of thoughts. Both came close to what I am calling gerundive time; they came to a thought of existing at the edge of existence. In them we certainly find a thinking and a writing about something very close to gerundive time, but still gerundive time remains to be thought and written while being thought and written.
In order to continue developing this reflection on gerundive time as time in exile, I propose to bring in another voice. This voice writes in the Portuguese of Brazil, a language growing in the estuary of colonization, of different layers of immigrations, of mixtures, of the autochthone becoming heterotochtone and the heterotochtone becoming autochthone. I mean the writing voice of Clarice Lispector, herself a child of exile who arrived in Brazil at the age of two months, before having a language to carry in her arms, to call her own. She considered herself Brazilian, and Portuguese her only language of writing, which is to say, of being. Clarice is one of—if not the—greatest Brazilian writer of the twentieth century.
As a way to address the question about the temporal meaning of exile as the experience of gerundive time in the work of Clarice Lispector, I propose an “approaching reading” of some lines of her novel The Passion according to G. H., from 1964, a book written in neuter, as she says herself: “I have no words to express, and speak therefore in neuter.” This is a book written from out of a radical leaving-behind of all hope, of abandoning the wish to transcend the is-being. Together with these lines, I will read other lines from Água Viva (1973), in which the gerundive writing of Clarice acquires even wider dimensions. How, then, are we to read Clarice Lispector? And how are we to read these lines of her books?
In her seminal readings of Clarice, Hélène Cixous proposes a kind of poetics of “reading according to C. L.,” according to Clarice Lispector. Using the paraphrase of Clarice’s title, Cixous aims to find in the texts by Clarice the resources to enter into them. On the one hand, she assumes the impossibility of holding Clarice’s texts in the hands of theory, insofar as they are as Água Viva, which in Portuguese can mean both a spring or a fountain and a jellyfish. In order to read a living water, Clarice’s text, a text that is more a jellyfish, one must let the text overwhelm the reader and even develop a certain “capacity of improvisation” through which different modes of reading can be performed, such as singing it, for instance. On the other hand, Cixous describes the act of reading Clarice like being “before the law,” as in Kafka’s story, in which the fundamental prohibition “You will not go through” repeats relentlessly. The path chosen by Cixous is much more the one of a reading guided by “the problem of the law, the word, writing and the (libidinal) structure of the writer” than the one of improvisation. It is in many aspects a Kafkaesque reading of Clarice. She considers that
when we read a text, we are either read by the text or we are in the text. Either we tame a text, we ride on it, we roll over it, or we are swallowed up by it, as by a whale. There are thousands of possible relations to a text, and if we are in a nondefensive, nonresisting relationship, we are carried off by the text . . . But then, in order to read, we need to get out of the text . . . At some points we have to disengage ourselves from the text as a living ensemble, in order to study its construction, its techniques, and its texture.
The need to choose beforehand a reading guide, for instance a Kafkian view, to describe the reading as a choice, “either . . . or” (“we are either read by the text or we are in the text”), and to “get out of the text” and to “disengage ourselves from the text,” casts the reading of Lispector as an act of deciphering the rules of a construction, and hence of a newly formed form. Cixous’s very inspiring readings of Clarice are investigations in the techniques and textures of a living form, attempts to follow her literature as “a trinket of water,” another English translation of Água Viva. Cixous assumes that Clarice’s text “disobeys all organizing laws, all constructions and that goes very far,” but she nonetheless looks for the order in this disobedience, for the organization of this disorganization. Cixous admits without hesitation that Clarice’s literature “is not into a law that represses differences, but into one that formalizes, that gives form” and seeks the laws of this formalization. In her readings, she searches both the internal coherence of Clarice literature and the way she differs from other writers and philosophers. She acknowledges how Clarice’s first published novel, Near to the Wild Heart, and the late Água Viva, for instance, maintain the same Clarice path, although the new form, the Claricean form, seems more accomplished in the late work. Thereby a certain teleological view of literature, the belief that an author “develops” and “enhances” a singular capacity and style is sustained. Comparing Near to the Wild Heart, a title taken from James Joyce, with Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or with Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster, bringing all them to the Kafkian subject of the Law under a Derridean light, Cixous sometimes reduces Clarice to a cliché of a woman writer: Clarice is a writer who follows an “organic order” and not a “narrative order”; she is more of a “savage, uncultured” and “naïve” writer than a cultivated one (as Joyce); and she writes from her “unconscious” resources. In those literary judgments, Cixous cultivates the philosophical dualism of body and soul, of nature and culture, of life and form. Thereby, she can hardly recognize, however, that Clarice’s writing leaves behind all systems of hope, based on divisions, oppositions and antagonisms, which are systems of forms, indeed the thought of form itself.
Cixous sometimes reduces Clarice to a cliché of a woman writer: Clarice is a writer who follows an “organic order” and not a “narrative order”; she is more of a “savage, uncultured”14 and “naïve” writer than a cultivated one (as Joyce); and she writes from her “unconscious” resources.
Untitled painting by Clarice Lispector; Image credit: Itaúcultural.org
There are no guidelines to read Clarice’s books except reading her books. And not even another book by her can become the key to the one being read. To the question of how to read Clarice, there is only one possible answer—one must read her books, each one, as a world that has precisely begun to exist. To read Clarice, one must experience the exhaustion of any need for interpretative reading, which is continuously requiring to “disengage from the text as a living ensemble, in order to study its construction, its techniques, and its texture.” One has to discover that there is no entry to her writing because, enigmatically, one is always already in it. If we insist on comparing Clarice’s texts with Kafka’s and Blanchot’s, then we discover that Kafka and Blanchot present a literature of the prohibition to enter—the law, literature or life—thus there is nothing beyond their doors; in Clarice’s literature, however, there is no prohibition to enter but the discovery that there is no entry thus one is already in—literature is necessarily from life toward life. As she remarked once, “[W]hich existence could be previous to its own existence?” That is why the readers have to disarm and dis-form their forms for the sake of discovering that one is already immersed in her writing thus she is being written by life itself. In order to do that, one has to be immersed within the text; that is, one must read it without goals or intentions as one swims in sunny water. The need to develop the capacity of improvisation is decisive here. But even so one has to accept that the meaning of improvisation is also shaken and has to be itself improvised again and again.
How should one read The Passion according to G. H., this book that Clarice herself considered the one that best captured her demands as a writer? Clarice opens the book with a very short note “to possible readers,” saying: “This book is like any other book. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly—even passing through the opposite as what is approaches.” This is neither a recipe nor a method of reading and interpreting her or the writing; it is not even a request, a claim, or a desire. Like any other book, this book can be read, and read in many ways, but if it would be read by “already formed souls,” those who know that the approach of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly, that would make her—the writer—happy, content. In English, the adverb “already” hides in plain sight the connection to “all read,” intimating that one has to be ready for reading, reading in the sense of approaching, “whatever it may be,” gradually and painstakingly. How should one read as if one had already read, and how should this “already” be gradual? This and many other enigmatic questions emerge from this reading because approaching “whatever it may be” to read means here to approach without knowing what one is approaching; it means to approach the unknown, to approach an enigma, a mystery. It means to follow “the side of not-knowing,” to borrow a formulation by Cixous, but we should add of not-knowing even to not know. And not only that, it means to experience the most difficult demand by Clarice, namely, that “what I am writing to you is not for reading, it is for being.” How then does one read not for reading but for being? And how is it that those that have already formed souls would be more desirable as readers when what matters is reading for being and not for reading?
The book is not merely about approaching “whatever it may be.” The book is approaching the whatever it may be, and this is what renders it so hard and difficult to read. Thus, what the reading experiences already from the start is that what happens in the book happens in the reading, in fact, that what is being written in the book is the being read of the book. This “whatever it may be” is what both the narrator—meaning the writer and the reader approaches. They—both writer and reader—encounter nothing but it, the whatever “it” may be. In fact, the story of this book is both the most banal and the most overwhelming. A Brazilian woman, upper-middle class, living at “the top floor of a super structure,” finds herself alone in her apartment. The maid has quit. The Lady enters the maid’s room, intending to clean and arrange it, when she is surprised to see how the room has been left clean and arranged, almost empty. She sees her own suitcases near the wardrobe and finds herself somehow depicted in initials “G. H.” engraved upon the leather cases. In these initials, “G. H.,” she finds her self in its nonbeing, finds it no longer a self, because she finds it instead as “what is neither me nor mine.” Despite the attempts of some commentators to read the initials “G. H.” as an abbreviation for “gênero humano,” literally human gender, we should be careful not to overinterpret them. They are nothing but marks engraved on leather, as much quotation marks as letters; for the “I,” though it is no longer clear whether this refers to the narrator or the narration, is placed in quotation marks: “‘I’ always kept a quotation mark to my left and another to my right. Some ‘as if it wasn’t me’ was broader than if it were.” With the recurrent quotation marks along the text, the written word calls attention to its being written and print character. “I,” she, the narrator, G. H. is the writing. It brings the reader to the event of reading, both the reading of the writing while being written and the visual event of noting down this reading writing. In the attention to the being written and read, the focus is no longer on the “I” that writes or on the “eye” that sees. In this attention, the self in its nonbeing is encountered. This encounter happens throughout the whole book. Indeed, the epigraph of the book, written by the art historian Bernard Berenson and quoted in the English original, reads: “A complete life may be one ending in so full identification with the non-self that there is no self to die.”
The Lady opens the door of the wardrobe and encounters a cockroach. The cockroach—this is “what it may be,” not in the sense that the cockroach decides what it may be, but in the sense that it names precisely the “whatever it may be.” The story is [the writing of the reading of the writing of] the gradual and painstaking approach of the cockroach—of the whatever it may be. Though it is perhaps the only novel after Kafka that has a cockroach as its subject without reproducing anything from Kafka, it is not Clarice’s only writing about a Cockroach. In one short story called “The Fifth Story,” she begins by reflecting on the possible titles of a story about encountering a cockroach: “The Statues,” “The Murder,” or even “How to Kill Cockroaches.” She then continues that there could be a fourth narrative inaugurating “a new era at home, it begins as we know: I was complaining about cockroaches”; the fifth story, she then says, could be called “Leibniz and the Transcendence of Love in Polynesia.” Whatever title it may receive it is also a variant of the same theme—of the whatever it may be.
The Passion according to G. H surpasses all possible titles and stories about an encounter with a cockroach at the very beginning, opening instead by raising the central question: “But why not let myself be carried away by whatever happens? I would take the holy risk of chance. And I will substitute fate for probability.” In Portuguese, the formulations are more complicated. “By whatever happens” translates pelo que for acontecendo, which literarily means something like: “by whatever it will be happening.” Further on, the Portuguese does not say “I would” but rather “I will have to take the holy risk of chance. And I will substitute fate for probability.” The gerund “happening,” acontecendo, is conjugated in connection with the future of the subjunctive of the verb “to be” (for). That is why Clarice does not say “I would” but “I will.” The future is already happening, and the happening is already continuing and hence in some sense future. This temporal incoherence is part of the profound disorder provoked by the encounter with the cockroach or the whatever it will be happening. The gradual and painstakingly approach of whatever it will be happening approaches the most frightening. What is the most frightening? Being.
How could I explain that my greatest fear is precisely of: being? And yet there is no other way. How can I explain that my greatest fear is living whatever comes? How to explain that I can’t stand seeing, just because life isn’t what I thought but something else—as if I know what! Why is seeing such disorganization?
The greatest fear is of to be-being—the cockroach. But there is no other way: the greatest fear is ir vivendo, literally, to will-go living, it is o que for sendo, not only what is being but whatever will-go being. Beside the insistent and in Portuguese very common combination of the gerund and the future of the subjunctive, in Portuguese, as in Spanish, there are two verbs to say being—ser and estar. Far from opposed, they are used also in intertwined and complex verb forms, as in the expression estar sendo, to be (estar) being (sendo). There are also two forms of the verb “to be” in the continuous form “being,” which in English is both a present participle and a gerund. First, there is the substantive ente, formed from the present participle of “to be,” deriving from the Latin ens, and equivalent to on in Greek, étant in French, and Seiende in German; then there is the gerundive mode sendo, which is the mode that Clarice uses here and everywhere, and which is very common in Portuguese. The distinction between present participle and gerund is subtle but nonetheless intense. The greatest fear is to live in gerundive time, to go on is-being, so to say. This demands the holy risk of chance, the substitution of fate for probability.