“That Full Void”: Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star
The Hour of the Star (Centennial Edition) by Clarice Lispector, trans. Benjamin Moser.
93 pp. New Directions, 2020. $17.95.
“A Passion for the Void”: that’s the title of the introduction to the centennial edition of The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector’s final novel. In it, Colm Tóibín introduces readers to Lispector by way of a secondhand anecdote, the writer José Castello’s recollection of finding the great Brazilian Jewish novelist on a street in Rio, gazing into a shop window populated by naked mannequins. “Clarice,” concludes Castello, “had a passion for the void.”
What can it mean to be passionate about nothingness? And what earthly concerns might be contained in such a passion? Artists tend to have a passion for the void, as do mystics, as does anyone who struggles to accept the basic premise “I am I” and get on with their day. These are not the kinds of people we consider crucial to the operations of historical and political life.
Yet Lispector did not live at a distance from historical and political life. While Elizabeth Bishop described her as “very coy and complicated,” and Tóibín describes “a sense that she was deeply mystified by the world, and uncomfortable with life itself,” Lispector was nonetheless an activist and public intellectual. A self-described democratic socialist, she wrote and mobilized throughout the 1960s against the U.S.-backed Brazilian coup of 1964. Her concerns were basic, essential: access to education and the eradication of hunger. The risks were great, but she supported her teenage son’s participation in protests and herself took part in the important 1968 demonstration, the March of the One Hundred Thousand.
So maybe the question then becomes: how does a passion for nothingness sustain a passion for justice? The Hour of the Star, like Lispector herself, is a curious and enthralling mixture of these two impulses. The novella’s subjects are both “coy and complicated” and forthright. In a remembrance written for the centennial edition, Lispector’s son Paulo Gurgel Valente writes, “This book has a clear, direct meaning, without mysteries: life is cruel, unjust, and terrible for the marginalized residents of the Brazilian metropolis.” Published in October 1977, just a few months before the author’s death and nearly a decade before the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, The Hour of the Star is a strange and exquisite consideration of the places where justice and the void intersect. It is a book about people who drift far from the centers of power and control, and about the radical texture and meaning of that drift.
The novella’s protagonist, Macabéa, is such a person; she is a typist, a peasant from rural northeastern Brazil living in Rio, whose only luxury is to paint her nails red and bite them down. The book reminds us constantly that Macabéa is a virgin, but Lispector gives the word a vast new meaning: not only bodily but social, expressive, mystical. Macabéa’s “soul [is] even more virgin than her body”; she experiences herself as translucent and so is nearly at one with the world, impenetrable because undifferentiated.
Like Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, The Hour of the Star is a short book about a woman who is no one: a person who doesn’t see herself—and who isn’t seen—as having any relationship to history or the future; she is of the meek who expect to inherit nothing. The most beautiful thing Macabéa sees is a patch of sickly grass growing in a gutter. Like the dandelions Maud Martha loves, these wisps of grass are discomfiting for more than one reason: we’re heartbroken that Macabéa’s world is so small but also ashamed that we didn’t notice the grass, that we’ve developed an ethos in which it’s embarrassing to find small things beautiful. Like the woman who wrote her into being, Macabéa lingers with the void: “It seems to me that her life was a long meditation on the nothing.”
This “me,” the book’s narrator, is a bunch of something—he is the “author of a life.” And he is a literal author, a writer who blusters, expounds, and hesitates; he’s obsessed with and exasperated by the way Macabéa exists in the world. Having glimpsed her once on a street, he recognizes something in her; it’s this something—this nothing—that the book is about, the quality of her consciousness as he imagines it. He fears she’s like an animal but also a saint.
It’s a fear that those whose sense of self is rooted in knowing often have about those perceived to be unknowing: a fear that the worldly have about the naïve, that analysts and experts have about those who don’t aspire to understand or control. There’s a lot of projection going on in The Hour of the Star, masterfully orchestrated by Lispector, but it’s not a book concerned with who we “really” are. At times, the narrator feels like a stand-in for Lispector, and he also feels a lot like Macabéa, who may be imaginary, and who may also be a lot like the author. The book reads like a poem in which the “I” is ultimately a stand-in for nothing, or else for God. The novel is dedicated to Schumann and to Stravinsky and to Lispector’s own blood, to Chopin and “to all those. . . who have foretold me to myself until in that instant I exploded into: I. This I that is all of you since I can’t stand being just me, I need others in order to get by, fool that I am, I all askew, anyway what can you do besides meditate to fall into that full void. . .”
To fall into a full void hardly seems an act of social engagement, nor is it necessarily a gesture of personal empowerment. Macabéa may be saint-like, but she is also starving: she can afford to eat only hot dogs and doesn’t even know she’s hungry because she has never felt full; even “sadness was a luxury.” This may be, in one respect, a state of grace, the ability to see God in the gutter, but it is also a state of profound marginalization.
That there is very little plot in The Hour of the Star feels important in several respects: Macabéa is nobody, so of course what happens in her life is what we call nothing: a rooster crows, she cuts out advertisements, she stays home from work one day and drinks instant coffee. But we also feel Lispector insisting that nothing—the nothing that is something, that full void—happens, it happens in the world over and over, it happens to Macabéa throughout the novel by way of parenthetical explosions, such as when a boyfriend dumps her and “her reaction (explosion) came suddenly unexpected: with no warning she started laughing.” You rarely wonder what’s going to happen next in The Hour of the Star because it’s clear from the start that the answer is (explosion) nothing.
Virginity, ecstasy, happiness, time, and void. I’m not finally sure how to describe the role that these subjects play in The Hour of the Star, except to repeat that Lispector delicately underscores their relationship to political life. Mystical subjecthood and political subjecthood are intertwined here: “Who hasn’t ever wondered: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?” The question belongs in the voting booth as well as in the place of worship. The politics of liberation, not to mention liberation theology, would have us move from ignorance to knowledge, from naivete to empowerment, from acceptance to resistance. Lispector scrambles these assumptions, muddling the worldly with the un- or otherworldly, knowledge with ignorance, monstrosity with humanity. “The girl didn’t wonder why she was always being punished but you don’t have to know everything and not knowing was an important part of her life.”
It’s the void, after all, which in its magnitude most closely resembles the infinity of communion, what the book’s narrator calls “essence at last touching essence.” “And—” writes Lispector in her dedication, “and don’t forget that the structure of the atom cannot be seen but is nonetheless known. I know about lots of things I’ve never seen. And so do you. You can’t show proof of the truest thing of all, all you can do is believe. Weep and believe.”
I’d like a yard sign that reads, In this house we weep and believe. It’s a political statement I could stand by, even as it seems to be a form of inaction. Whether weeping and belief are forms of inaction was of deep concern to Lispector, as Valente recounts. A Jew whose family fled Ukraine and settled in Brazil when she was one, she wrote in 1964, “Long before I felt ‘art,’ I felt the terrible deep beauty of the struggle.” She wanted her art to participate in that struggle, although, like many artists, she felt she was failing in that regard: “What I can’t figure out is how to use writing for that, as much as this incapacity wounds and humiliates me.”
Before Lispector became a writer, she trained as a lawyer, and I wonder if she may have felt incapacitated in that realm as well. The truth is that neither art nor law prevent injustice, and our helplessness before that truth takes on mystical dimensions. It is not a form of evasion, or not necessarily so, to say our hope for justice must lie within that mystical space. Essentially we don’t know who we are, or where we are, or what we are. Yet we must come to terms with ourselves and others—others who likewise don’t know who or where or what they are. It’s only through recognition of this radical state of not-knowing that any kind of peace can emerge. In other words, if we all could wake up every day and know nothing—be intimate with that full void and know not a single thing—we would all be mystics, “essence at last touching essence.” There would be no capitalism, no war. No sex scene. We would all be virgins. Nothing would happen. And then nothing, again.