"It Seems as if the Saint Has Lifted Her Skirt": Hilda Hilst on her obscene book

by on Jan.07, 2012

The Late, Great Hilda Hilst

In her comments to my last post, Lara raised some interesting points about the sexual politics of Hilda Hilst’s The Pink Notebook of Lori Lamby, a book that initially shocked her critics and readers in light of her much tamer earlier work.  Back in 1990, when the book was first published, Hilst gave a great interview on Brazilian TV.  I transcribed and translated the whole thing because of how ably I think Hilst navigates the kinds of ethical and representational issues that keep coming up on Montevidayo.  Her responses, it seems to me, get to the heart of what’s at stake in excessive writing.  Hilst mentions Clarice Lispector, Genet, and the “nostalgia for sanctity” that obscene writing provokes–itself a dazzling response to anyone who might call her nihilistic (not that Lara is doing this!).

Hilda, is Lori Lamby an act of rebellion?

It’s an act of aggression.  It’s not a book—it’s a banana that I’m giving to editors, to the publishing industry, because for 40 years I worked seriously, I had an excess of seriousness, of lucidity, and absolutely nothing happened.  And now I think people need to wake up.  It’s very important, if a person has been sleeping for too long, you suddenly commit a vigorous act so that the person gets up.

Does this country not like seriousness?

No, it doesn’t.  You’re not supposed to think in Portuguese.  It’s good to think in English, in German—people accept it.  In Portuguese, to think is something horrible, and so editors hate you, they spit in your face.  That’s what they did to me for 40 years.  The only editor that didn’t spit in my face was Massao Ohno, except that Massao Ohno loves to keep his books at home, he loves to look at the books.  So, if there’s no distribution, there are no sales.  I love him, he’s a great artist, a great visual artist, but he’s in love with books and stores them in his bedroom, some even under his bed!

How was Lori Lamby received by critics and readers?  Has it already provoked them?

People think Lori Lamby is totally repugnant.  And I think that’s exactly the effect I wanted.  But I personally think Lori Lamby is a puerile book, an infantile book, it’s porno for kids.  Now I’m going to publish a porno for adults called Contos d’Escarnio:  Textos Grotescos.  I hope to become an excellent pornographer.

You hope to become a great pornographic writer?

I think the writer wants to be read.  That’s the method and will of the writer.  It doesn’t matter to me if you think I’m excellent—did you read my writing?  No, m’am, I’ve never read it.  I hope this time people read me inside capsules, on the ferry, on an airplane, and in bathrooms, too.

Hilda, critics tend to compare you to Clarice Lispector and Guimarães Rosa, on a pedestal with the other saints of Brazilian literature.  Will they accept the Hilda Hilst who writes smut?

No, they won’t.  It seems as if the saint has lifted her skirt—they’re not having it.  Leo Ribeiros, who was for many years my great ally, thinks the book is poorly written, shitty, trashy, repugnant.

And is the book trashy, shitty, and repugnant?

Yes, more or less.  But it seems as if that’s what editors like.  And people, too—because there’s a great sadness in the world, and laughter is a great solution for one’s mental health.  It was excellent for mine.

Is Lori Lamby a comedy?

Very much so.  Now, I laugh a lot, right?  Writing the book, I laughed; rereading it, I laugh.  Some people feel sick reading it.  But Genet was also a writer whose every line makes you vomit, and he’s a great writer, right?

That’s what I’d like to know.  It’s OK for the male writer to be pornographic—everyone accepts Jean Genet, respects Lawrence, respects other male writers, like Henry Miller—but is a woman allowed to write pornography in Brazil?

No, it’s not allowed.  That’s why people think I’m completely crazy.  But I think the nature of obscenity lies in one’s desire for conversion.  Henry Miller said, “I want light and abstinence.”  So, if you manage to act repugnant enough, you end up making people feel nostalgic for sanctity.

31 comments for this entry:
  1. The Modesto Kid

    Is your translation of the interview available online anywhere?

  2. Lucas de Lima

    You’re looking at it!

  3. Lara Glenum

    Thanks for this, Lucas! I love that she calls it “an infantile book” and “a banana.” It’s very Catholic, though, this claim that “the nature of obscenity lies in one’s desire for conversion,” no? The desire “to make people feel nostalgic for sanctity” seems like it runs more along a moral axis, less along the potatoesque collapse.

    I like art that makes me laugh and vomit at the same time. I hope this book does. I hope you translate the whole thing.

    I love Genet and his pageants. And I absolutely think it’s important for women to write books that are “shitty, trashy, and repugnant.”

  4. Lucas de Lima

    Lara, I think the via negative that Adam mentions effects the collapse or commingling of sacred and profane. In that sense I don’t find Hilst’s Catholicism troubling or easily reducible to a moral axis. To me it’s refreshing and even crucial, as I do think nihilism is out there, though maybe I tend to see in more benign-seeming texts than this kind of writing.

    Modesto, those titles have never been translated, but Nighboat is apparently publishing another Hilst in September in a partnership with a Brazilian press: http://www.abolhaeditora.com.br/index.php/north-america/?___store=english&___from_store=abolha

  5. adam strauss

    Interesting! Particularly, for me, how she seems to posit this “grossness” as a way back to health, to balance–a via negativa to a positive place; and then the awakeness idea interests me too and I’m not sure how to link these two strands but I am curious to try and braid ’em.

  6. The Modesto Kid

    Yep — the first time I read your post I was thinking this was a more recent interview, then I reread and figured out what was going on. Very cool!

  7. The Modesto Kid

    BTW: Do you know if Lari Lamby and/or Contos D’Escárnio is available in translation?

  8. Lara Glenum

    Lucas, I don’t find Hildt’s Catholicism troubling at all, and I’m a huge fan of the *via negativa* tradition.

    Hildt is, though, making a moral claim (not an easily reducible one, no). But anytime, terms like “sanctity” and “conversion” are invoked (esp. as positive nodes), we’ve got moral concerns afoot.

    As you know, I’m a pretty cautious (and hungry) reader, and sometimes a paranoid one, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality. The cautious part is good, the paranoid, not so much. I’m thankful to you and anyone else who hands me a different lens through which to see/read things. That lets me see around blind, scary corners in my own thinking. It’s a relief, really. Because my paranoia stems from personal trauma, not (as dear Johannka so often thinks) disembodied “moral concerns.”

    My questions about Hildt are not objections but questions. Things that are unsettled for me. A lot of which will probably remain unsettled, which is maybe why I make art.

    I do think, though, that Hildt’s statements, with their “nostalgia for purity,” are a good example of the fact that, despite nearly everyone here’s claims to the contrary, the excessive art we all love doesn’t necessarily come from a values-free place (or even want to).

    The Necropastoral, for example, seems to be underwritten by huge ethical concerns (about the environment and capitalism, for starters). I would underscore that concerns (mine or Joyelle’s or anybody’s) do not equal moralizing critique. Clearly, we’re all extremely interested in binaristic-destroying performance here, even if we don’t always agree on what succeeds (which is a totally personal call).

    But it’s kind of absurd to front what keeps getting shilled here, that the excessive art we love is somehow beyond values/ethical concerns, when in fact, we actually do have a very complex set of ethical concerns miraculously at work here on MV, a lot of which seems to be a response to individual and collective trauma.

    I’m not interested in dwelling on the ethical responsibility of art or some bullshit (which I don’t at all believe in), but I do want to, as Hildt says, “lift the skirt” for a moment here. We’re all negotiating systems of value. And how our aesthetic experiences crystallize, destroy, affirm, or cannibalize them.

    I don’t want to own a code of ethics. Or ethical art. I do want to own my unsettled questions, the things that trouble me. To live with them, watch them, stay near them. Maybe that’s perverse. I don’t know.

    (BTW, I’m guessing you’ve read Bataille’s writing on l’inform, or “the formless,” which seems to me to be directly analogous to the potatoesque? Bataille looms large in all these conversations for me.)

  9. Lucas de Lima

    I think we’re mostly on the same page here; I agree that no art is beyond ethical concerns. But I’m unsatisfied with criticism that stabilizes ethics by privileging identity and representation over affect. I’m in favor of thinking about art as unstable energies that cannot be cleaved from one another (e.g., Hilst’s nostalgia for saintliness is inseparable from her taste for porn). That’s why Puar’s analysis of terrorist bodies has been fundamental to my thinking about art. That’s also why the potatoesque emphasizes conviviality as opposed to more prescriptive terms like transgression that calcify ethics. Actually, there’s a part in Terrorist Assemblages that makes sense to type out here:

    “A paranoid temporality therefore produces a suppression of critical creative politics; in contrast, the anticipatory temporalities that I advocate more accurately reflect a Spivakian notion of “politics of the open end,” of positively enticing unknowable political futures into our wake, taking risks rather than guarding against them.”

    Thanks for the suggestion on Bataille! I’m actually reading Blue of Noon right because Johannes told me to. In Hilst’s book, Lori misspells his name as “Batalha” (“Battle”).

  10. Lara Glenum

    Yes, I’m with you here, Lucas, when you say “I’m unsatisfied with criticism that stabilizes ethics by privileging identity and representation over affect. I’m in favor of thinking about art as an unstable assemblage of energies, forces, and intensities that cannot be cleaved from one another…”

    And though I really relish what you’re saying, I’m not sure that “conviviality” and “illegibility” aren’t/can’t also become prescriptive terms. But I’m hopeful.

  11. Lara Glenum

    O and I love this, too: “positively enticing unknowable political futures into our wake, taking risks rather than guarding against them.” Very beautiful.

  12. Joyelle McSweeney

    Lucas, thank you so much for translating this interview and Lara and Lucas, for the points you are both working out in your dialogue. For my part, I am against exploitation– the sexual exploitation of children and adults, also the economic exploitation of children and adults, also environmental catastrophe. I am intrigued by the passage Lucas translated because it suggests that there is a doubleness and aperture in place between the kind of narration the adults do about their world and the kind of narration the exploited child performs. It creates a shocking and interesting vertigo that attracts me and also makes me feel chagrined. I think this art is making visible and more than visible exploitation going on all around us, makes a pleasurable and thus uncomfortable burlesque of it, and opens an unexpected cultural aperture or even void that the reader is faced with. And this interview is really major. Along with the Kim Hyesoon interview last week, I feel really bolstered by these voices. Thank you to all!

    What does irritate me is when people out there in the poetry world think they can have an ethical poetics ie clean of the types of ambient coercions and violences we’re innundated with in this present hellish universe. I don’t think that’s possible and I think it’s actually immoral! I think Art should make us susceptible, vulnerable, exhilarated, chagrined, obliterated, changed into Art. So those are my morals! I think I have morals because I am a Catholic. I think Sin leaves a Stain, but that, paradoxically, Stigmatas signal something else entirely. I also think it’s possible that (Virgin)Mary was an exploited child, heavenly exploitation! I also just read this line about St. Eustace, that a holy stag with Jesus between his antlers spoke in God’s voice and said, “I will hunt you [ Eustace] and capture you with my mercy”. Eustace’s emblem (the crucifix between the antlers of a deer)is the emblem of Jagermeister!

  13. Joyelle McSweeney

    I also like Sin and Stains.

  14. Jared

    I think Lara is on to something important here that seems to be at the bottom of Hilst’s own concerns and that drives her to this “move” to pornographic writing. I always say to my fundamentalist friends that the reason an atheist is an atheist is partly because they see the hypocrisy of the religious. It’s not that they have no ethics (which is the slippery slope the fundamentalist always warns about), it’s that their sense of ethics runs far deeper than the surface level where religion tends to mask social/ethical/political relations in bland and unexamined commandments. So, very interesting that in light of getting no traction with “serious” writing about ethical concerns, the only way to get someone to read her bible is for Hilst to replace its contents with pornography. I buy that! It seems a *Last Temptation of Christ* or, maybe better, *Life of Brian* type of moment…

  15. adam strauss

    I love this comment stream (thank you Lara for generously, honestly working through questions), and am fascinated by the porn for children/porn for adults concept and the way it links to JM’s point that the writing becomes an exhilerating, giddy aperture for reading about abuse (if that’s remotely apt as summary); does this method maybe make abuse that much more real/point to just how difficult it can be to extricate a being from these dynamics? I wonder if the almost charming, funny, “burlesque” quality is a way of revealing a situation but letting complexity as opposed to fixed and perhaps not maximally effective (as a singular tactic, not that this experimental way is the only way!) this imagination should burn in hell framing get at a problem. That prior sentence got lost from me syntacticlly, apologies. And I think I mazy have just paraphrased various points rather than added anything but well this thread excites me–aesthetics and ethics twined into line cast out into the deepblue!

  16. Lara Glenum

    O Joyelle, hooray! You constantly remind me of why I love you. Esp:

    “What does irritate me is when people out there in the poetry world think they can have an ethical poetics ie clean of the types of ambient coercions and violences we’re innundated with in this present hellish universe. I don’t think that’s possible and I think it’s actually immoral!”

    Immoral, yes! Art is coercion and (pleasurable) violence. I can’t see it any other way. I do like my pleasure dialed up, though. I get cranky when I can’t feed (i.e. my pleasure is blocked).

    I like the idea that Hildt’s text opens a void. That feels right.

    I want to hear more about the differences between sin/stains and stigmata! Please elaborate!

  17. Lara Glenum

    Also, Lucas, did Hildt actually write/finish Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos? If so, have you read it? What’s it like in relation to Lori Lamby?

  18. adam strauss

    “What does irritate me is when people out there in the poetry world think they can have an ethical poetics ie clean of the types of ambient coercions and violences we’re innundated with in this present hellish universe”–is this akin to culpability/pointing to how interred a subject is in the mud they may be wanting to dissavow? To not making critiques which suggest the critiquer is outside the dynamic being critiqued? That the poet speaks from a clean very lofty space?

  19. an unoffended pro-anti-art neoliberal

    Has anyone here (besides the author of this article, I presume) actually read Hilda Hilst? Does it matter?

  20. Lara Glenum

    Lucas, a good place to get a bead on Bataille’s theory of the l’informe (which I find so akin to the potatoesque) is in Yve-Alain Bois & Rosalind Krauss’ book, Formless:


    I think you and Mary will love it. It’s so potatoey!

    Also, have you read the chapter “The Stuplime” in Sianne Ngai’s brilliant book, Ugly Feelings? I think it’s also very much in the potatoesque vein.

    And where can I read about Puar’s analysis of terrorist bodies, which you so often mention?

  21. Lucas de Lima

    Well, for Puar conviviality is by definition unpredictable. It’s the “open materiality of bodies as a Place to Meet,” or perhaps the vulnerability that Joyelle is talking about. So it seems that, because of its grounding in bodies intensifying and dissipating together, conviviality would have to avoid prescription. This is what the Deleuzian turn to affect is all about–everything, all matter, is always moving, and we need a frame that reflects this flux to the point that such a frame might itself dissolve and make way for new models. This is why I hesitate to think of ‘extremist’ art such as Hilst’s in moralistic terms; I’m much more interested in what it does to me rather than in what such art might readily signify in language. Although this approach could seem like a suspension of ethics, for me it’s the most ethical thing we can do right now in order to be more politically creative. Mary’s post on Grosz speaks to this point: “We must begin from the ground up, to reconsider our ways of knowing and our potential capabilities.”

    I’m reading Contos D’Escarnio right now along with 300 other books and it’s pretty amazing, but not quite as unsettling as Lori Lamby (all sex partners are adults–though not all are human!). Will check out the link and Ngai’s book, which I know my potato-in-crime has already read. You can find Puar’s analysis in her Social Text article “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages” but actually the final version of it, in her book Terrorist Assemblages, is even better. Another reason why anyone committed to feminism and race should read the book is Puar’s brilliant discussion of Abu Ghraib.

    Here’s a great interview with her: http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2008/05/02/qa-with-jasbir-puar/

  22. Lucas de Lima

    Hi unoffended pro-anti-art neoliberal. I think it’s OK that people haven’t read Hilst, as the convo has taken on larger proportions. But I do hope you all get to read her one day! There is one interesting part in Lori Lamby where Lori gets weirded out by the porn her uncle writes, as if herself in disgust. That moment seems pertinent to our topic.

  23. Johannes

    I think Puar gets “conviviality” from Mbebe’s “On the Post-Colony.” Both are great reads. Mbebe has this really great chapter on the grotesque in African art/politics that’s worth reading.


  24. Lara Glenum

    Thanks for pointing out this Puar interview, Lucas, which is really fantastic. I especially love the following:

    “Because Deleuzian-inspired assemblages prioritize encounter and movement over positioning and location, one can never know in advance ‘how’ to organize. A main component of assemblage is that it resists the call to announce a complicity-versus-resistance binary, recognizing that complicities are multifarious and just as unstable as resistances, and our efforts (including my own) to redress the fetish of resistance by emphasizing complicity have indeed led to a reification of the polarity of the two terms.”

    I think, though, that in terms of this blog thread, my questions about Lori Lamby dovetail with what Puar calls being “fascinated by what claims to oppositionality insidiously conceal in terms of subterranean conservative proclivities.” Not that Lori Lamby necessarily does this, but the passages you’ve cited leave this as an open question/curiosity for me, for all the reasons I stated. I’ll wait to read more.

    Lastly, I love the moment where Puar clamis that “assemblages are open to their own self-annihilation,” which seems both rad and important.

  25. Johannes

    Also, I don’t think conviviality is prescriptive (though anything can be) – I think this is an exciting change from the typical paradigm of “resistance” and “subversion.”

    Also, Lara, I’m thinking about trauma quite a bit these days: how do you read it in Montevidayo?


  26. Lara Glenum

    Yes, Johannka, I meant what I said about “conviviality” and “illegibility” becoming prescriptive terms in the broadest sense (i.e. any terms can become prescriptive). One set of terms replacing another opens new apertures–which is great and exciting!–but then sometimes (maybe often) those apertures get fixed. Language poetry and its heirs are a good example of this kind of codification.

    That’s why I think it’s so important when Puar claims that “assemblages are open to their own annihilation.”

    Lucas, I’m interested in hearing what more about “what the text does to [you] in a bodily sense, if you feel comfortable sharing.

    I also read at the level of bodily response. As a child/teenager whose body got trespassed on quite a bit, my trauma comes right to the surface within the first few lines of Lori Lamby. My experience was one of total terror and unspeakable shame. As you can see from the terms I’m invoking, I still haven’t worked through it.

    So my trauma performs my reading for me. I keep somehow getting read as though I’m privileging moralistic readings of texts (which I totally disavow–how many times do I have to say this?), but I’m reading through my own trauma and terror.

    So I’m not up against my own moral limit but a trauma limit. There are things I can’t look at because of the panic they invoke. I try to work through it, but sometimes I can’t.

    So when Joyelle says “this art is making visible and more than visible exploitation going on all around us,” I may not be someone who needs their eyes opened on this front.

    And the fantasy that my abusers had that I was somehow enjoying the abuse was perhaps the worst part of all. It’s part of what enabled them.

    My shame at not having been able to stop it all is still white hot.

  27. Lara Glenum

    Johannka, you asked me how I think trauma functions on MV? My sense is that we’re collectively pretty traumatized by the horrific state of things, what Joyelle calls “this present hellish universe.” We are all very hungry for pleasure, despite this. Or maybe, to spite this.

    We often feel crushingly trapped/threatened. We are collectively trying to tunnel a way out through art that makes us “susceptible, vulnerable, exhilarated, chagrined, obliterated, changed into Art” (again, Joyelle’s words).

    Sometimes I’m able to locate pleasure in my own debasement. Sometimes I’m not. I’m not often able to locate pleasure in the debasement/humiliation of others, even if it’s clearly staged. In fact, it totally repulses me. I don’t feel “intrigued but chagrined.” This is a visceral reaction, not a moral one.

    My intestines are my morals. I am a limited creature. Only one of my six legs actually works.

  28. Lucas de Lima

    Lara, I appreciate this elaboration, especially the idea of a “trauma limit.” But you did ask us to consider how we “negotiate systems of value.” To me that sounds moralistic, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing (I too stand by my morals). I was trying to say that my reading practice would avoid negotiating systems of value as we know them; instead, it would open our bodily capacities to what is emergent, unknown and unknowable, politically, ecologically, etc. in and through a text.

    At first I felt ashamed while reading the book–as if I were exploiting Lori through my voyeurism–but then her monstrosity and voracity collapsed this binaristic relationship with the book so that it, too, exploited me. What I felt were multiple ecologies of sensation while reading the book: not just child abuse and prostitution, but also the bodily delights and degradations of the market, of commodifying bodies as well as art, structured through capitalism as Lori’s desires are (and in some sense Hilst, since she talks about sales above).

  29. Lucas de Lima

    Not to mention my own de$ire$!

  30. Lara Glenum

    Lucas, you say: “my reading practice would avoid negotiating systems of value as we know them; instead, it would open our bodily capacities to what is emergent, unknown and unknowable, politically, ecologically, etc. in and through a text.”

    This is exactly what I relish so much about you and all the work you do. It’s super-valuable to me.

    I think the term “moralistic” feels like too much of a (very narrow) one-way street, which is why I used the term “negotiating systems of value” (i.e. what we value and what we don’t, which is in some way, as I mention above, based on what we can stomach). That’s different than moralizing, which is wanting to censor/condemn someone else’s production or experience based on an ideological platform.

    Surely, we’re allowed to react our of our own complex organism without it being labled moralizing. (And certainly anyone who’s read my poems wouldn’t peg me as coming out of a pedantic, safe, or moralizing aesthetic.)

    Thanks so much for elaborating on your response to the text. I’m eager to read it with you, once it’s translated.

  31. adam strauss

    I salute this: “My intestines are my morals. I am a limited creature.”