12 January 2009

Ur-story: Quid Pro Quo, Clarice

[This continues our look at Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star]

The question raised in our initial post comes down to something like this: Why does Lispector feel the need to distance herself from Macabea? Why does she need the intermediary Rodrigo? According to the translator, Giovanni Pontiero (yet another intermediary):
"As Macabea stumbles from one embarrassing exposure to another, one can virtually hear the author muse: 'there but for the grace of God go I'. This diary of a nobody gains in strength and meaning as a game of counter-reflections develops between the author and her protagonist. For, while it is true that Lispector would have us believe in a male narrator, she does not relinquish involvement. The advantage she claims to derive from this masculine alias is one of emotional detachment. Its validity and necessity, however, is debatable." (91-92)
I will not speculate on the author's motives and intentions. They are lost to us now; the author is long dead; we cannot ask her. I will, however, look to the text.

The central fact in the life of Macabea is her anonymity, her blankness, She is truly a nobody. Everyone in the novella itself seems to be competing to control her, to define her. Her boss in the typing pool at the pulley equipment manufacturer threatens to fire her because she makes so many errors as a typist. It is only her politeness and docility that saves her. The sadistic old aunt who raised her in the absence of her parents beats her. Her situation living in the crowded slums of Rio, the heat of the summer, the economics of Brazil all threaten to take her over. Olimpico, the boy with whom she has a brief affair, is narcissistic and abusive to the point of cruelty. At one point, after Macabea asserts that she is happy inside, he claims he can lift her off the ground with one hand:
"They walked to the corner of the street. Macabea was overjoyed. He really could lift her up above his head. She shouted gaily:

—This is like flying in an airplane.

That's right! Suddenly he couldn't support her weight on one arm any longer and she fell on her face in the mud, blood spurting from her nostrils. She was tactful, however, and quickly reassured him:

—Don't worry, it's nothing serious.

Having no handkerchief to wipe the mud and blood off her face, Macabea rubbed her face with the hem of her skirt. She pleaded with him: Please don't look while I'm cleaning my face. No decent girl ever lifts her skirt when there are people watching.

Olimpico was becoming extremely impatient but made no reply. After this little episode, he didn't make any attempt to see her again for days: his pride had been injured." (52-53)
Gloria, Macabea's femme fatale co-worker, steals Olimpico from her. She is a large-breasted, maternal figure in Macabea's life and makes some pretense to look after her well-being, though it is rarely from kindness. The doctor, whom Macabea sees on a suggestion from Gloria, diagnoses her with TB and summarily dismisses her from his office because of her hopelessness. Madame Carlota, the fortune-teller Macabea goes to see (again on suggestion from Gloria), gives her false hope and a bogus reading. It bears mentioning in this context that the images of Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo likewise control Macabea's self-image, Monroe being the 'star' of the title—at least until the very end.

This battle for control goes on in Macabea's relationship with the author and her alias as well, giving us an insight to the authorial relationship with character. At times, Rodrigo professes to care about her. At others, he grows bored, impatient with this story. It is a battle of control—determinism vs. free will—over the carcass of poor Macabea. By distancing herself from her character, Lispector lets her live. Perhaps Lispector was trying not to leave her own fingerprints on all the manipulations of poor Macabea. No matter.

Yet, amidst all this skirmishing over her anonymous existence, Macabea in all her ugliness and brokenness and anonymity persists. She has, we are told, a certain freedom in her inner life that none of these combatants can ever touch—not even the words of the story. That, it seems, is what it means to be alive. To be an Other.

So, some thirty years later, into the fray we ride, boasting our own reading. Attempting to exert control over poor Macabea. Will the text bear up under a social reading, a cultural critique? Yes. Is there a critique of colonialism here? Yes. Are there class clashes? Yes. Is there false consciousness? Yes. Will the text support a gender-based critique? Yes. Is there a post-modern component? Yes. Yes. Yes.

As the writer emphasizes in the first and last sentences, the text is radically open.

Yet, when we cut through the onion-skin layers of complexity, there is a certain tragical realism to the story. A certain humanity.

Macabea is a typist who cannot type: she is barely equipped to survive in the modern world of mechanical devices and grammar/language. Her life is squalid. The one joy she finds (short of death) comes from the solitude she achieves by skipping work one day and listening to music on the radio and dancing around her shared flat alone.

Love and fellow-felling are illusions, as mythical as Mt. Olympus. Macabea suffers abasement, abuse, betrayal, and, finally, a fall into the mud as a result of her one 'love' affair. Her one 'friend' at work, Gloria, cynically uses her.

Medicine fails her as well. She is equipped to survive, but nothing much more.

Ultimately, it is Macabea's superstitions that kill her. She is musing on the charlatan fortune teller's prognostications as she steps dreamily into the path of the oncoming Mercedes—a symbol of what? reality? European colonialization? industrialization? modernity? It matters not. She dies.

And, in dying, Macabea experiences:
"A sensation as pleasurable, tender, horrifying, chilling and penetrating as love. Could this be the grace you call God? Yes? Were she about to die, she would pass from being a virgin to being a woman. No, this wasn't death. Death is not what I want for this girl: a mere collision that amounted to nothing serious. Her struggle to live resembled something that she had never experienced before, virgin that she was, yet had grasped by intuition. For only now did she understand that a woman is born a woman from that first wail at birth. A woman's destiny is to be a woman. Macabea had perceived the almost painful and vertiginous moment of overwhelming love. A painful and difficult reflowering that she enacted with her body and that other thing you call a soul and I call—what?

At that instant, Macabea came out with a phrase that no one among the onlookers could understand. She said in a clear, distinct voice:

—As for the future.

Did she crave a future? I hear the ancient music of words upon words. Yes, it is so. At this very moment Macabea felt nausea well up in the pit of her stomach and almost vomited. She felt like vomiting something that was not matter but luminous. Star with a thousand pointed rays.

What do I see now, that is so terrifying? I see that she has vomited a little blood, a great spasm, essence finally touching essence: victory!

And then—then suddenly the anguished cry of a seagull, suddenly the voracious eagle soaring on high with the tender lamb in its beak, the sleek cat mangling vermin, life devouring life." (83-84)
Macabea dies with the text, in its last pages. Obversely, she lives only in its pages. In this, she is like Ivan Ilych—though without the moral insight. In this she is like Malone, as well—though less of a raconteur. She does not tell her own stories; she hasn't the power. She merely 'exists'. Macabea is an empty signifier (to borrow Saussure's structuralist term), and it is for us to supply the meaning—much as that is our task in our own lives.

So much meaning. Such a short book.


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