Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
In the dedication to her novel The Passion According to G.H., which was written in 1964, Clarice Lispector writes that she “would be happy” if the book “was only read by people whose souls are already formed.” This book is for those who are minded about their spiritual development, and not merely looking for literary entertainment. Indeed, with The Passion According to G.H., Lispector has written what more closely resembles what might be called a religious text rather than fiction; the book places her on par with Pascal’s Pensées, The Wisdom of Solomon, or The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross. The narrators stated purpose of writing the book is to get rid of the words that get between our consciousness and “real life.” She wants to explore the “terrifying freedom” of being alive. And she does this by describing an encounter she has with a cockroach.
Who is she? She is G.H., a successful sculptor, a reputation that means a lot, since it places her “in a social region between women and men,” which grants her “far more freedom to be a woman.” G.H. was born poor, but through “reasonably good investments” becomes “fairly well-off.” With her money and education, she raises her class so that she has a maid rather than being one herself. One day, G.H. goes into the unvisited room of her maid’s quarters and discovers a cockroach. This sight initiates a “landslide,” as G.H. calls it, or a one hundred and seventy page spiritual crises, or mystical experience, or breakthrough in consciousness, or whatever you want to call it.
The cockroach is a symbol for G.H.’s spiritual awakening. “As ancient as legend,” the cockroach is a remnant from the time of “chimeras and griffins and leviathans.” Through this mythical symbol, Lispector plunges the reader into the “divine primary life,” or the “raw hell of life,” which for her are the same. Writing like an author of one of the Gnostic gospels, G.H. elaborates on her insightful introspection through paradox, dissolving dualities of good and evil, dissolving boundaries between the self and Existence, or God, all in order to “create someone who will understand.”
Even though The Passion According to G.H. is not a novel in the conventional sense, the writing is hypnotic, and reaches sublime heights. The last sentence of each chapter is the first sentence of the next, providing a sense of cyclical continuity. Combining the qualities of both an extremely talented artist with the insight of a mystic, Lispector is able to precisely portray a reality that words can only symbolize. That is, she writes about spiritual or religious experiences without using spiritual or religious language. For example, without using the word “karma” or “soul” G.H. writes that she “was seeing the awareness from which I’d lived before, an awareness that never leaves me and that in the final analysis might be the thing that most attached to my life—perhaps that awareness was my life.”
In her interaction with the cockroach, G.H. is able to experience the truth of religious teachings; the fact that through sensations—“I was all acid like metal on the tongue”— evil punishes itself. She surrenders to evil, sinking into her “soul’s damnation,” and in doing so discovers for herself, though her own experience, what lies behind evil, and why we shouldn’t commit evil. She feels seduced, pulled toward a madness that is truth. But G.H. also realizes that the truth promised by religions is a truth we do not really want; we only want the promise of truth. She experiences “the crash with the moment called ‘right now,’” gaining freedom by toeing the line of madness. And this all in the course of a few moments, simply by meditating on a cockroach.
If it sounds deep, that’s because it is. If it sounds confusing, that’s because reality is confusing. If G.H. sounds crazy, she knows she is crazy. She doubts herself: “I myself prefer to consider that I have temporarily taken leave of my senses, rather than having the courage to think that this is a truth.” Also, G.H. doesn’t delude herself by vowing to live an ascetic lifestyle based on her spiritual epiphanies; rather, she says, “if I reach the end of this story, I’ll go, not tomorrow, but this very day, out to eat and dance” and “I’ll furiously need to have some fun.” In other words, she not trying to achieve mystical or religious insight, it’s just what happens.
But Lispector knows we have a choice; we can either live on the surface of reality, or, like G.H., we can try to “know about everything.” G.H. sells her soul to find out “that everything,” but specifies that she “hadn’t sold it to the devil, but much more dangerously: to God.” Through this knowledge, a holy experience can become a mundane, every-day experience, and every-day experience can be transformed into what can only be called holy. The experience of this transformation is what The Passion According to G.H. is about. Lispector wants to transform her readers, not merely entertain them, and reading The Passion According to G.H. is certainly a transformative experience.
Oh, and, the ending is shockingly and delightfully disgusting.
This is the second of a four-part review of New Directions’ reintroduction to the work of Clarice Lispector
Translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey
New Directions, May 2012