Clarice Lispector on Bad Taste and Being a Charlatan

by on Jan.07, 2013

arco3_g_20110111My best friends since moving back to Brazil have been Clarice Lispector’s cronicas, which she wrote for Jornal do Brasil in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  They are hardly cronicas, actually, and more like personal blog posts in the style of Bhanu Kapil or Kate Zambreno.  I was struck by how much the following passage I translated addresses some of Montevidayo’s recurrent themes:  bad/good taste, counterfeitness, sincerity, and gaudy feathers (which here would evoke the populism of Carnival):

A friend of mine said that there’s a charlatan in all of us.  I agreed.  I feel a charlatan spying on me from within.  She only doesn’t win because, first of all, she’s not real, and because my honesty is nauseatingly base.  There’s something else that looks over my shoulder and makes me smile:  bad taste.  Ah, how often I feel like giving into bad taste.  Bad taste in what?  Well, the possibilities are limitless, simply limitless.  From the moment you use the wrong word exactly when it sounds the worst to the moment when beautiful, truthful words unsettle and shock an unsuspecting listener.  Bad taste in what else?  How you dress, for example.  Not necessarily anything as obvious as the equivalent of feathers.  I don’t know how to describe it, but I’d know perfectly well how to wear bad taste.  And what about in writing?   As the line between bad taste and the truth is almost invisible, it’s very tempting.  And even if just because a certain kind of good taste in literature is worse than bad taste.  Sometimes, for the sheer pleasure of it, I tread on this fine line.

How is it that I’m a charlatan?  In all sincerity, I went along thinking I had my life settled.  For example, I studied law, fooling myself and everyone else.  No, more myself than anyone.  In doing so, I was sincere:  I studied law because I wanted prison reform in Brazil.

The charlatan is a counterfeit of herself.  What exactly am I saying?  Something that already escapes me.  Does the charlatan compromise herself?  I don’t know, but I know that sometimes charlatanism hurts deeply.  It gets in the way in the gravest of situations.  It makes you want to stop existing exactly when you most forcefully exist.

I was told that a critic called Guimaraes Rosa and myself a hoax, or essentially charlatans.  That critic won’t understand anything I’m saying here.  This is something else.  I’m talking about something profound, even if it doesn’t seem like it, even though I too am sadly playing a little with the topic.

I wonder what to make of Lispector’s mention of a painful charlatanism?  It seems categorically different from the charlatanism described in the first paragraph.  Maybe she’s talking about a certain kind of restraint—a conservatism of expression that is inherently cynical and limiting, perhaps in contrast with the “limitless possibilities” of unbridled bad taste, or what it is to let oneself “play” with a “profound” topic.

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