by Lucas de Lima on Nov.21, 2012
Before embarking on her pornographic trilogy (whose first book I’ve written about as “porn for children”), Hilda Hilst had to meet her calling. She had to profane the sacred, tearing God out of a birdshit-ridden sky. The result was The Obscene Madame D, her first work to appear in English via a unique partnership between Nightboat and the Rio-based A Bolha, and co-translators Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo.
“What is obscene?” Hilst once asked in an interview. “To this day nobody knows what’s obscene. Obscenity, to me, is poverty, hunger, cruelty. Our era is obscene.” Hilst’s pronouncement finds resonance in the very mega city where she lived before secluding herself with nearly 100 dogs in a rural refuge known as Casa do Sol. São Paulo, a city where wealth and destitution brutally clash, happens to be the birthplace of pichação—a practice of class warfare in which young, poor Brazilians scale and spray-paint the facades of monuments, chic high-rises, and government buildings. As an NY Times article points out, pichação can be fatal. While defacing structures, gang members not only risk falling to their deaths from dizzying heights but are prone to brawls with rival groups who are also vying for prized buildings. The drama of these stakes is, to say the least, notable. The pichador, you might say, is ready to die for his art-crime, itself a visionary execution at once urgent and extravagant. Because it smears that which is exalted—literally staining upward mobility with the threat of precarity—his weapon bleeds out societal extremes with its own brand of crude, black scarring.
“They compare us to barbarians, and there may be a little truth in that,” offers Rafael Guedes Augustaitiz with perhaps more insight than he realizes. In fact, this coded writing ravaging the cityscape has ancient roots. While practitioners of pichação seek to imitate the gothic typography of heavy metal albums, their occult source is the Viking runes of Scandinavia, which originally inspired the lettering of bands like AC/DC and Iron Maiden. In an unleashing of forces that predate graffiti art, urbanization, and colonial Christianity, pichação creates mutant twins of Brazil’s famed Christ the Redeemer statue. Its powers are spectral and indecipherable to the powers that be, suggesting as much the dream language of a people to come as that of barbarians, modern and primitive.
I want to argue that Hilst’s book is like pichação as the cry of a similarly expansive consciousness whose rupture, and daring, also invite strange powers. For me, the narrative traffics in potent outpourings of madness, baseness, and the abbreviation in its title—dereliction.
It’s no coincidence that Hilst claimed to have suprarational abilities. As documented in this awesome segment on TV, she heard ghosts speaking to her in recorded conversations and on the radio, even making out strings of Portuguese in American music. The Obscene Madame D centers on Hilst’s quasi-double, Hillé, as a hysterical widow whose speech blends with the words of her dead husband and father, her vicious neighbors, and a mysterious materialization of God—the Pig Boy. While rendered into English as “Porcine Child,” I confess to preferring a straightforward translation, as well as the hyperkinetic lack of indentation found in the original text:
House of the Sow, that is what they call my home now, I am now the wife of that Porcine Child Builder of the World, I open the window chanting howls, I snarl expletives at the company at large, I roll my eyes in their orbits behind the mask, didn’t I tell you that I cut ovals out of the oakum and adjust them to my face? That I draw in black eyebrows, eyes, white gaping mouths? There are masks like groins pricked with yellow hairs (cardboard tubes, painted nails), there is a mask made of dung and soot, a mouth full of teeth, there is a disastered remainder of me, a sort of female-individual who is trying to understand the half-light, cruelty—black squares dotted with black—a female-someone who evolves overheard in the midst of people, stares at them, attaches to the aqueous of corneas, to the blasted splendor
Hillé, people find your way of looking more and more strange
you know very well
it’s that I don’t understand
what don’t you understand?
“I don’t understand the eye,” Hillé responds, then later recalls, “I saw the Porcine Child shiver with pleasure before the All, his limp little hands reverberated in the oily half-light, narrow fingers tendered as high as possible, in search of who? His twin brother petrified, eyes blind, head dangling over his chest, the body a nacreous, pearled outgrowth.”
As in the disintegrating image on its cover, The Obscene Madame D barely identifies its speakers, invoking consciousness as a whirlwind of voices, body parts, shreds of experience. As in the art of pichação, meanwhile, the book reaches “as high as possible” in order to confront its opposite: God blinded and struck with fear, God embodied in the lowliest of species, a pig whose divine squalor rubs off when Hillé wears masks modeled after its characteristics.
Why drag holiness down into a pigsty? In such descent, I sense a reconciliation of opposites that does not defuse energy but rather doubles it, reproduces it, breeding loving yet terrifying alliances. This gesture repeats Genet’s identification of violence in a bud bursting forth. If the indecency of society stems from division–that is, the exaltation of gods of various kinds way above the heathens below—this violence must be forced to fold in on itself. A “nacreous, pearled outgrowth” of a body is thus born within and beyond Hillé/Hilst/Madame D, showing creation itself to be inconceivable in our world without some kind of obscene thrust. Without the dirt of a pig, in other words, nothing new can bloom and float to the sun; the pig is the mother substance needed for remaking.
As the italicized ejaculation of the pig boy or his sow mother, the last line of The Obscene Madame D could easily be graffiti on a church wall: “Deliver me, Lord, from imbeciles and cretins.” It signals the desolation of the path Hillé forges toward a vision of impossible love, of supernatural commingling. By drawing from the most basic, intense materials available to them, Hilst and the pichadores thus obey the imagination’s highest/lowest calling, completing total works that are only incomplete insofar as we haven’t yet learned how to live out their promises. We don’t understand their eyes.