Hélène Cixous: a Sort of Family

In those days I sought, with genuine anxiety, “women’s texts”: I told myself I couldn’t go through life without the company of female peers; even if I adored Kafka I felt myself without an echo of reply, all the more so as on the politico-social-institutional scene, there were men (only), and so masculine, save Derrida, that the world could not imagine a feminine sensibility or states of mind – except Shakespeare and Kleist – but that didn’t suffice (see Proust, whom I read a great deal now, there was no innerness save masculine, not one woman is lit up from within), and I was scared. So I began to roam the world of libraries to see if there mightn’t be on the other side a door I had failed to try. That’s when the work of Clarice Lispector happened to me. And not long after, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, Ingeborg Bachmann. So I was reassured, as if I had a sort of family to visit and depart from. I felt myself read and understood by friends I hadn’t met, whom I would never meet.

Hélène Cixous
Encounters.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

The Madness of Reason

I can still reason-I studied mathematics, which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to eat straight from the placenta.

The other day I posted some thoughts about Clarice Lispector’s brilliant Água Viva. Often when I complete a book, particularly one as rich as this one, I’ll spend some time on a second close-reading, looking for patterns and motifs I may have missed on my first reading.

I became ensnared by the sentence quoted above, specifically the phrase, ‘the madness of reason’. The phrase links two words that could almost be binary opposites. Madness, aside from its use to define mental illness, is linked to extreme foolishness, wildness, chaos. Reason, however, is identified with logic, practicality, common sense.

I decided the answer lay in Foucault and spent three pleasant hours immersed in his texts, specifically his argument that, at a specific period, madness was isolated from reason as unreason. Madness reached a symbolic peak during the Renaissance, depicted in the art, philosophy and literature of the time as innate in man. You only have to recall Shakespeare’s fools, my favourites are the gravediggers in Hamlet, whose role is to undermine reason with folly, demonstrating the madness of reason.

Though I haven’t yet bought Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector I found an excerpt, which made more of the phrase, “mathematics, which is the madness of reason,” and Lispector’s mystical use of numbers. In this lay an answer of sorts.

“My passion for the essence of numbers, wherein I foretell the core of their own rigid and fatal destiny,” was, like her meditations on the neutral pronoun “it,” a desire for the pure truth, neutral,unclassifiable and beyond language, that was the ultimate mystical reality. In her late works, bare numbers themselves are conflated with God, now without the mathematics that binds them, one to another, to lend them a syntactical meaning. On their own, numbers like the paintings she created at the end of her life, were pure abstractions, and as such connected to the random mystery of life itself. In her late abstract masterpiece Água Viva she rejects “the meaning that her father’s mathematics provide and elects instead the sheer “it” of the unadorned number: “I still have the power of reason-I studied mathematics which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to feed directly from the placenta.”

I rarely read secondary literature until exhausting a writer’s own oeuvre, though I am wondering whether I ought to reverse  that custom.

Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva

Benjamin Moser, in his introductory essay to Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva, writes “Clarice pushed her language as far as it could go without risking incoherence. The book was written in fragments, and Olga Borelli’s editorial method, she wrote, was ‘breathing together, it’s breathing together.'” In Água Viva Lispector eschews traditional narrative structure and adopts a fragmentary form more familiar to readers of Beckett. Though Lispector evinces a Beckettian influence her style is less bleak, and takes less risk of a total collapse of meaning.

In the first fragment, Lispector writes,”Hallelujah, I shout, hallelujah merging with the darkest howl of the pain of separation but a shout of diabolic joy.” Aside from its expression of worship, hallelujah is musical composition based on the word. The shape and essence of Água Viva is atonal music, describing an arc through repetition and difference. She goes on to write,”You don’t understand music: you hear it. So hear me with your whole body.”

I see that I’ve never told you how I listen to music-I gently rest my hand on the record player and my hand vibrates, sending waves through my whole body: and so I listen to the electricity of the vibrations, the last substratum of the reality’s realm, and the whole world trembles inside my hands.

Though the fragments are not arranged by logic or driven by plot or circumstance, they are joined by their adjacency. An intimation begun in one fragment may be driven into the next or never reprised. The coherence of the work is the quivering tension between joy and pain, and the perception of endurance.

Água Viva’s narrator is a painter, turned to writing, using language to pin down time, that moment of an instant-didn’t someone define an instant, a ‘now’ as of three second’s duration? Lispector writes, “I want to put into words but without description the existence of the cave that some time ago I painted-and I don’t know how.” Without description, with plain prose, Lispector’s imagery creates a depth of mood evocative of a richly painted canvas. Its brilliance, like that of a fine painting, is that you could quite happily lose yourself for hours in its artistry. As Bergson wrote, “No image can replace the intuition [of being], but many diverse images, borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.”

This New Directions edition of Água Viva is translated by Stefan Tobler. My first Clarice Lispector book has disarmed me utterly with no less a thrill than my discovery, a long time ago, of Duras, Beckett and, more recently, Darwish.

“Reading the Girls” List Version 1.3

About a fortnight ago I asked for help. In response to writer Maureen Johnson’s convincing polemic against the way that publishers and critics present female writers I asked, “Can you add to the list of female writers I ought to be reading?”

Johnson listed several that revealed new possibilities:

Edna Ferber, Diana Wynne Jones, Kate Chopin, Patricia Highsmith, Miles Franklin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Lillian Hellman, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Robinson, Lorrie Ann Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary McCarthy, Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Edwidge Danticat.

In the comments to my post, readers made some great suggestions. These are too good to be buried in comments, so I list them below. There’ll be some we know and love, and others that offer an opportunity for discovery.

  1. Annie Dillard
  2. Francine Prose
  3. A. S Byatt
  4. Zora Neale Hurston
  5. Nicole Krauss
  6. Valerie Martin
  7. Helen Oyeyemi
  8. Marilynne Robinson
  9. Zadie Smith
  10. Eudora Welty
  11. Clarice Lispector
  12. Catherine Rey
  13. Nadine Gordimer
  14. Simone de Beauvoir
  15. Aphra Benn
  16. Phillis Wheatley
  17. Herta Muller
  18. Sigrid Undset
  19. Katherine Anne Porter
  20. Shirley Jackson
  21. Shirley Hazzard
  22. Shirley Ann Grau
  23. Baroness Blixen (Isak Dinesin)
  24. Rebecca West
  25. Beryl Markham
  26. Elspeth Huxley
  27. Jennifer Egan
  28. Elinor Lipman
  29. Georgette Heyer
  30. Gail Scott
  31. Lydia Davis
  32. Aimee Bender
  33. Carole Maso
  34. Ingeborg Bachmann
  35. Marguerite Duras
  36. Rosalind Belben
  37. Amelie Nothomb
  38. Olive Moore
  39. Evelyn Scott
  40. Helen DeWitt
  41. Joanna Scott
  42. Alice Munro
  43. Cynthia Ozick
  44. A. M. Homes
  45. Janice Galloway
  46. June Akers Seese
  47. Marguerite Young
  48. Susan Daitch
  49. Rikki Ducornet
  50.  A.L. Kennedy

Thank you so much for those suggestions: Kevin of Interpolations, wrappedupinbooks, Jen of Being in Lieu, verbivore of Incurable Logophilia, Emily of evening all afternoon, Steven Riddle of A Momentary Taste of Being and jaimie.