Ecologies of Sensation: The Book(s) of Bhanu Kapil and Clarice Lispector

by on Feb.21, 2012

The rainbow sloth, like literature, suffuses and shatters your body.

“The mask is what you use; it isn’t a fake, it’s a mask.  Your senses love you; they evolved to be your mask–or you made them, didn’t you?” –Alice Notley, Culture of One

Lately, I’ve been compelled to regard books as pulsating organisms with ecologies and becomings of their own.  If once the book struck me as an intermediary technology between writers, their subjects, readers, and God, I now often get the feeling that these figures orbit the book.  This is to say that I think a book creates and undoes its own material boundaries.  Through sensation, a book may animate another’s body, or take on mythic, mystic, otherworldly proportions; it may stand in, like scripture, for all books and words at a given point in time; or it may do none of these things.  Whether the book fails or succeeds in its trajectory or finds unexpected lines of flight, it’s always capable of more (more, more) futures than we can anticipate.

As in Amit Rai’s concept of ecologies of sensation, my version/vision of the book situates it in multiple timespaces:  the book is “an event that performs anew with each repetition and with each new scene of circulation […] an unpredictable but patterned trajectory of present conforming to past but open to future mutations.”  A happy accident in my Intermediate Poetry class last term confirmed the book’s event-like unpredictability.  Months before its publication, I’d assigned Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene.  When my copy came in the mail, I saw that it reset and repeated itself after the first 20 pages.  In fact, my occult copy embodied Bhanu’s description of its “arcing once more through the crisp dark air;” it stuttered with a blunt physical force not unlike “a schizophrenic narrative [that] cannot process the dynamic elements of an image, any image.”  Even the page with publication details insisted on reproducing itself, exploding the narrative over and beyond the table of contents that traditionally delimit it.

“On the night I knew my book had failed, I threw it.”  I love how, by thwarting its author’s intentions, the corrected copy of Schizophrene also sketches its own body, “a hunk of electromagnetic fur torn from the side of something still living and thrown.”  A body that itself becomes indistinguishable from one of the book’s ‘human’ subjects later on:  “Can you smell her burning fur?”

Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star enacts a porosity so total, for me, that it seems to inhabit yet diverge from the same ecology of sensations.  It is, as in Edmond Jabes’ lifelong conversation with the page, an evolution of the book, the event that both repeats and alters itself through unforeseeable futures.

In light of how brilliantly this novella of 85 pgs ponders and violates received ideas about writing the other (much like Schizophrene), I don’t know why it isn’t more widely read outside Brazil.  It’s seriously one of my favorite books of all time!  Maybe, by refusing its finiteness as an object, The Hour of the Star disobeys too many unspoken rules.  Because no word in Lispector’s novella is able to circumscribe itself and merely point to its referents, the narrative has enough power to actually kill off its fictional author–a male stand-in for Lispector–at the same time as its female protagonist, the ill-fated Macabéa.  I was going to say that it ‘earns’ or ‘gains’ this power, but that’s not really true–right on the second page “to feel” becomes “a fact.”  Instead of undercutting the book’s authority in a typically postmodern strategy, the metatext sets off an overwhelming sensorial overflow:  the author admits to following an “occult fatal line” when Macabéa becomes real enough to “whisper” and “breathe” into him.  She is the book-as-event, both untimely enunciation and aborted Annunciation, some kind of murderous virginal angel who also makes us fly and die inside her, as any star should.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes Göransson

    Great post, Lucas. Great quote from Notley; I wish I had remembered that when I wrote about “sincerity” vs “intensity” the other day.


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  3. Lara Glenum

    “…a book creates and undoes its own material boundaries.” Beautiful, Lucas! I wan to track down The Hour of the Star.