International Women’s Day 2024

Wild and Heretical: Why we should read Clarice Lispector this International Women’s Day

“I should have liked to be other people first in order to know what I was not. Then I realized that I had already been those others and found it easy. My greatest experience would be to be the other of the others: and the other of the others was me.” – Clarice Lispector, “The Greatest Experience,” in The Foreign Legion (1964/1986) 

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977)

Her origins were in the Ukraine – born into a Jewish family in a time of chaos famine and violence, and so as it was with many others, she and her family became refugees dislocated to Brazil. Yet despite these hazardous origins Clarice Lispector (1920-77) is today appreciated as an extraordinary Latin American author, known for her powerful and ontologically driven narratives that uniquely illustrate the processes of existential quest and the alienating forces of otherness.  

These tropes of quest and alienation permeate her best known novels such as The Passion According to G.H (1964), An Apprenticeship, or, The Book of Delights (1969), The Stream of Life (1973), and The Hour of the Star (1977), each uniquely capturing something of our as well as her search for an answer to the unanswerable question “Who am I?” But it was because Lispector was sensitized early in life to the alienating forces of alterity, a sensitivity that she matchlessly combined with her ontological quest, so her underlying preoccupation was with the unfair treatment, marginalization of, or lack of compassion shown towards others – especially women, and the ontological despair that framed these lives. Confronted with their despair, and madness, Lispector’s work is haunted by silent and silenced women – a quiet so tangible and “absolute”, Lispector wrote, “it’s like the silence of death” (Lispector, ‘The Triumph’, 1940). 

Perhaps despite or maybe because of their marginality and impoverishment, the women in Lispector’s novels, the protagonists, are also often the recipients of unexpected (and sometimes quite strange) epiphanies, ecstatic experiences that rupture their routine lives – which have the effect of provoking among these women an intense search for a way of understanding the enigmas of their existence: the problems of self and subjectivity as well as identity difference, and the condition of psychological and spiritual exile. 

Although by no means orthodox, Lispector’s literary world, at least partially originates from her Jewish sensibility, but hers is a fabulously wild and non-religious connection to the normative Jewish world. Yes, divine eruption breaks into and disrupts the lives of the many women in Lispector’s novels, but this is not the disruptive work of the religious God, but rather that of an un-organized and unbounded God. 

This is what Clarice Lispector brings to Jewish life, all life, a linking of the divine with the wild and heretical, a form of Judaism or a religious outlook beyond the machinery of ritual, sacred equipment and belief. What she explores in her stories is a mystical force beyond any taxonomy – so that the Jewish-mystical sensibility [covertly present] threading its way through her work is experienced as diasporic, incomplete, and open to wild possibility. 

Maybe then, if we dare, we should read and celebrate the extraordinary Clarice Lispector this International Women’s Day, and with her proclaim:  

“Hallelujah, I shout – hallelujah merging with the darkest human howl of the pain of separation – but a shout of diabolic joy. Because no one can hold me back now.” (Clarice Lispector, The Stream of Life.) 

Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry