The Child, the Animal, Lispector

by on Aug.16, 2010

Existentialist Brazilian TV. 1977. Clarice Lispector refuses to name her unpublished book’s protagonist, whom we now know as Macabea. “It’s a secret,” she says. In this, her last interview, Lispector is asked about her relationship to students who visit her home. Specifically, what this relationship “reveals.”

Lispector: “It reveals something surprising. That they’re in the same boat.”

Reporter: “What does that mean, to be in the same boat?”

Lispector: “It’s that I think, sometimes, I’m isolated. Then I see university students–very young people–who are completely on my side. This shocks me. It’s gratifying.”

A smoker, Lispector is somber throughout the interview, unrecognizably Brazilian. “I’m talking from my tomb.” Yet, again on the topic of youth, the writer rises from her grave: “When I communicate with children, it’s easy because I’m very maternal.” And falls once more: “When I communicate with adults, I’m actually communicating with the most secretive part of me. Then it’s difficult.”

She thinks “the adult is sad and solitary” while “the child has released imagination” (fantasia).


Au hasard Balthazar. A film by Robert Bresson, Sontag’s spiritual stylist. The camera follows a donkey and a girl by making mirrors of their intimacy:

Haystacks, swing sets, a bestial baptism followed by the sharing of salt. Marie and her playmates fail to see a line dividing themselves and the foal. There’s no display of species anxiety. If their behavior suggests fantasy, it’s not that of spectacle, Disney, the crudely anthropomorphic. Marie, later in the film, stages a solemn wedding ceremony for herself and Balthazar. Children, we’re told, are innocent: their humanity is not oppressive to them like it is to us. While Edelman’s desperately reproductive adult thus figures the Child into “an imaginary fantasy of the recognizably human,” here our vision blurs. Children spill into the animal. They even get sick and approach death as fragile animals.

This weird species of space begs a question I could ask in two ways. My attempt to be stupid, if not childlike:

if child and animal coexist boundlessly, of what, if not power, does their relationship consist?

if Romulus and Remus (or, in India, Amala and Kamala) were raised by the she-wolf, what did she see when she first saw them?  Why not eat them?


These are not questions I want to answer.


Reporter:  “At what point, according to you, does the human being become sad and solitary?”

Lispector: “That’s a secret. I’m sorry, I’m not going to answer…”

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6 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes Göransson


    You should check out Aylin Bloch Boynukisa’s story, “I have nothing to do with birds” in the new Action, Yes:

    I think I will write something else about this; it does seem to revise Edelman in the same way you do: the children become equivalent to the birds instead of opposed to them.

    I wrote about this story on Exoskeleton a while back; it’s originally from my favorite Swedish feminist/queer/gothic online journal Läcker.


  2. Johannes

    I should add that the story is explicitly about Edelman’s chapter about the death drive and The Birds.


  3. Lucas

    Johannes, I love the story’s blurring of girl and bird (which are the same thing in the UK!). Notice how Lee is “a little sad” in his childless adulthood. I, too, have wanted to give him a hug.

    Jackie, thank you for the link. “Babochka” is beautiful, as is your idea of ecstatic effacement in Lispector. Too lazy to do it myself, I was hoping someone would point out her “trial run of a model of dehumanization.” The latter being Adorno’s words on Kafka.

    Sarah, striking how that Sigur Ros video reverses Wojnaworicz’s falling buffalo, an image suffused with the tragedy of AIDS. Children fly while the gays die. But what would Edelman say about gay children?

    I’ve seen “L’enfant savage” but not the other film. Am curious about the maternal body, whether it’s what the male cheetah becomes when he looks after lost cubs.

    Joyelle, yes, Bresson knows what he’s doing without really “knowing.” Interesting that you mention Scalapino, whose Instead of an Animal begins, unforgettably, with breastfeeding.

  4. Jackie Wang

    loving it–the blog….yeah yeah

    this reminds me a little of a post i made on my blog no-too-long-ago:

  5. Sarah Fox

    Sigur Ros on children, animal merger, and power relationships:

    One of my favorite films about childhood is Truffaut’s “L’Argent de poche”: “Children exist in a state of grace. They pass untouched through dangers that would destroy an adult.” But Truffaut, reacting against a traumatic & essentially parentless childhood, couldn’t get past the promise of the child’s redemption through the civilizing authority of the adult (e.g. “L’Enfant Savage.”) Still, his deep regard and respect for the magical consciousness of childhood infuses so many of his films.

    What if Remus and Romulus had been found, instead, by a hungry he-wolf? The maternal body, in recognizing its differentiation from the other (in a biological, rather than symbolic, sense), adjusts into a body that can be eaten (but not consumed). The maternal body is designed to accommodate the other. More on this soon…


  6. Joyelle McSweeney

    Lucas, intriguing set of ideas and those Bresson images are just so clear they fall like some kind of knives through my eye water. Images that clear are weaponized.

    I’m intrigued by the use of the word ‘secret’ in Lispector’s answers. I’ve been thinking about what this secrecy might be in, say, Jack Smith and Leslie Scalapino.