With all of Clarice Lispector’s musings on the body, it is no wonder that I had a physical reaction to her novel, Near to the Wild Heart. I was at a Mexican bar in Brooklyn after attending a lecture on Lispector, the same bar that has appeared in my poetry, 10 years after I first read Hélène Cixous’s The Laugh of the Medusa. Mid-sentence, I burst into tears. Maybe I was responding to a deeply Brazilian sentiment in Lispector’s writing, and this unearthed saudades for my family. When I read her words on the subway, or even safe at home in my bed, I felt that mysterious longing claw through me: a voice, so limitless and uncharted.
Joana, the main character in Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, experiences a similar physical connection with the voices she encounters throughout her life. When Joana meets a stranger with a “low curved tone, without vibrations,” contrasted to the “sharp, empty soaring upwards, with identical clear tones” of her own voice during the early months of her marriage, Lispector writes, “from that day on, Joana felt voices. She understood them or didn’t understand them. No doubt at the end of her life, for each timbre wave of her own reminiscences would surface to `memory, she’d say: how many voices I’ve had…” (65-6).
Women’s voices live inside Joana, and they are released through the physical act of her writing. To Joana, voice can indicate the transformation or stagnation of self, and with self, transformation or stagnation in writing. A woman’s voice might convey a fragile history (65) or a long journey underground (66). Some of the voices she understands, and others she does not. Or perhaps, some of the voices she will only understand later in life. Voices will stay and reemerge. The meaningful ones will return to her, perhaps in a dream, perhaps in a whisper.
The French philosopher Hélène Cixous heard Clarice Lispector’s voice and felt immediate inspiration. This connection almost seems obvious; they both investigate woman’s voice, her writing, her body, by actually breathing it into text. Cixous interprets into philosophy what Lispector did through her art. Maybe Cixous hears her own voice in Lispector’s writing. Their connection is built like a spider’s web through time, weaving like-minded influence through the literary tradition.
In The Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous explicitly connects a woman’s voice to her body:
Listen to a woman speak at a public gathering (if she hasn’t painfully lost her wind). She doesn’t ‘speak,’ she throws her trembling body forward; she lets go of herself, she flies; all of her passes into her voice, and it’s with her body that she vitally supports the ‘logic’ of her speech. Her flesh speaks true. She lays herself bare. In fact, she physically materializes what she’s thinking; she signifies it with her body. (881)
Cixous undermines the societal ideal that women should not tremble when they share their writing by undermining the ideal that logic is superior to visceral emotion or that logic exists exclusively in the mind. The same concept resonates with Joana’s observations of the monotone voices that don’t have vibrations, her identical “clear tones” that take form once she’s married (literally married, yes, but also married into the social institution). Speaking publically becomes synonymous with bravado and tremble synonymous with meekness. But why? Why mustn’t we tremble when we speak words that are true and so vitally connected to our self? Trembling is, in fact, a physical reaction to the important voice in the text.
Lispector wrote a story in Portuguese called Sunday, Before Going to Sleep, (translated) where the Brazilian word for Sunday, the masculine Domingo, literally means “the day of the Master.” Inherent in the word’s gender assignment is a surrendering to “the masculine” as “the Master.” As Cixous discusses in her essay Reaching the Point of Wheat, or a Portrait of the Artist as a Maturing Woman, Lispector’s entire Domingo story takes place on a Sunday, and thus within the masculine. However, Lispector subverts the gender preference by ending the story with the feminine word for night. Cixous writes in her discussion of Lispector’s story, “The great Domingo(d) has eventually given a textual birth to ‘uma arvora pequena,’ a little she-tree. The wee tree, both feminine and phallic, stands small and erect at the end of the Domingo(ne) world. The ends of the text are then phallic through feminine.” (11)
Lispector’s masterful balance between form and content breaks through the coded language structure and offers an un-gendered bending from within the text. The gap between the physical self—as it exists in the material world—and the self as it is represented within the text, has closed. That is, it has broken through the signifier versus signified structure. Woman is inside the text and the text is present in the physical world.
This breaking through language, both Lispector and Cixous suggest, requires an inward investigation not only of self, but also of form. The investigation is neither linear nor simple; solitary pleasure in the inspection of pain (pain in self-discovery, pain in defying literary convention) can, for many reasons, feel forbidden. Lispector captures the sensitivity around this process throughout Near to the Wild Heart. A young Joana hears her aunt discuss with her husband about how evil Joana is because Joana stole a book (the metaphor of the woman “stealing” writing does not go unnoticed). In the chapter “The Bath,” Lispector writes, in Joana’s consciousness,
Who was she? The viper, Yes, yes, where should she flee? She didn’t feel weak, but on the contrary gripped by an uncommon ardor, mixed with a certain happiness, dark and violent. I am suffering, she thought suddenly and surprised herself. I am suffering, a separate awareness told her. And suddenly, this other being loomed big and took the place of the one who was suffering. Nothing happened if she kept waiting for what was going to happen… Events could be halted and she could knock about empty like the seconds on the clock. She remained hollow for a few moments, watching herself closely, scrutinizing the return of pain. No, she didn’t want it! And as if to stop herself, full of fire, she slapped her own face. (44)
It’s natural that Joana would punish her body, actually slap her own face, when scrutinizing these contradictory emotions of both suffering and happiness (the word “scrutinize” appears again and again throughout the novel). The Medusa was the one punished for attracting Poseidon and him raping her. Women have learned to train the physical self out of a connection to the interior self for centuries. Various Myths of the Woman come to mind—the Medusa, yes, but also the Madonna, the Mother—as archetypes of what the Woman should be versus what she actually is.
The idea that happiness and suffering—pleasure and pain—might not only coexist, but actually work in tandem, is a fragile and dangerous balance, but a balance where the body can finally find release from these myths. And isn’t this concept the essence of love? As Cixous writes, love takes risks (893). “What woman hasn’t flown/stolen? [she writes earlier that the French word for steal and for fly are both ‘voler’.] Who hasn’t felt, dreamt, performed the gesture that jams society? Who hasn’t crumbled, held up to ridicule, the bar of separation? Who hasn’t inscribed with her body the differential, punctured the system of couples and opposition? Who, by some act of transgression, hasn’t overthrown successiveness, connection, the wall of circumfusion? A feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive” (887, 888). Joana steals the book to understand the boundaries of this coupled system of morality: good versus bad, right (write) versus wrong. She steals the book and understands the severity of a woman’s punishment for defying the social system. She does this, and she writes.
It is through this act of defiant investigation, the interior detective, that women can truly take pleasure in the body. Lispector invokes the idea of self-love as a byproduct of self-discovery. She writes,
At times, following my discovery comes love for myself, a steady gaze in the mirror, an understanding smile for those who stare at me. A period of interrogating my body, of gluttony, of sleep, of long walks in the open air. Until a phrase, a look—like the mirror—reminds me surprised of other secrets, those that make me limitless. (60)
Again, there exists a balance between the presence of the body to the exterior world—a smile to those who gaze—and the “limitless” interior where she maintains her secrets. At this point, Joana is still young and learning how much the world observes her body. She looks in the mirror to mirror the gaze that she receives, to understand it, and to remember all the secrets she contains that cannot be seen with the naked eye. She knows that in every woman, there are intangible qualities that can never be stolen, that will never have to be won back.
For Cixous, this intangible quality is closely linked to writing, form, as well as to masturbation, and she sees all as necessary to liberate the body. She writes,
A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systemic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erogeneity. This practice, extraordinarily rich and inventive, in particular as concerns masturbation, is prolonged or accompanied by a production of forms, a veritable aesthetic activity, each stage of rapture inscribing a resonant vision, a composition, something beautiful. Beauty will not be forbidden. (876)
Writing, like a woman’s physical exploration of sensuality, combines form with rapture. This marriage—abstraction held within form—is the essence of beauty. Unlike masturbation, writing brings pleasure to others as well. It will allow room for social context, for morality, for intention, and for pleasure.
Beauty—the abstraction—must be brought to concrete form through nature and the tireless practice of craft. Women must write as a craft, and we must write from a natural form. Joana, who acts as a vessel for Lispector’s dialogue with the world, constantly writes the natural world into her consciousness. She has “discovered a miracle above the rain,” (58), a “wish to bite the stars,” (59); during sleep she describes herself as “inside a cocoon” (123). It is through this relationship with the natural world, and away from the superficial, that Joana is able to discover the subconscious. In the moments following her contemplation over morality and the stolen book, Joana takes a bath:
The girl laughs gently out of bodily happiness. Her smooth, slender legs, her small breasts poke out of the water. She barely knows herself, she hasn’t finished growing, having merely emerged from childhood. She stretches out a leg, looks at her foot from afar, moves it tenderly, slowly like a fragile wing … She laughs quietly, moves her long neck from one side of the other, leans her head back—the grass is always fresh, someone is going to kiss her, soft little rabbits huddle together with their eyes closed—She laughs again, in light murmurs like those of the water. She strokes her waist, her hips, her life (56, 57).
Doubly does Joana discover herself through the act of masturbation. Yes, she’s transforming from girl to woman: the image of fresh grass and little rabbits like the coming of spring, a rebirth, the bath like a baptism, a new year. Joana explores her body to find happiness and laughter, to find self in the physical sense, but also to find her life. “She barely knows herself,” writes Lispector, “she hasn’t finished growing,” which means both physical growth, but also a complete understanding of herself as a woman. In a way, Joana knows that to understand herself as a woman, she must understand her body. Again, she relates her body to the natural world—her foot a fragile wing, her imagination an idyllic field. To mature, to achieve spiritual beauty through her bodily form, she must connect to the natural world.
Women’s writing not only serves as an individual act of liberation, it also serves as a larger resistance against existing hierarchies of thought. Cixous writes, “By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display—the ailing or dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and location of inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time” (880). Medusa’s image appears in my mind as the uncanny stranger on display—the woman who persists even after she has been killed. Those who do not know her true story may find her immortality terrifying. But to look at her straight on is to see that her immortality is promise. She will live on through her story.
GABRIELLA BURNHAM is a graduate of the Writer’s Foundry MFA program and teaches writing and literature at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. She is currently writing a novel set in São Paulo, Brazil where she lived as a young girl and where most of her family still lives today. Her writing explores the meaning of home, in body, in country, in selfhood, in family and community.