On the Heterodox Jewishness of Clarice Lispector
A Writer of the Diaspora, In Search of God
The following essay appears in the current issue of The Scofield (dedicated to the life and writing of Clarice Lispector).
Am I Jewish? It’s a difficult question to answer. Consider the facts. My mother is Jewish. So is my father—he gave me Goldman, the clearest marker of my Jewishness besides, perhaps, my nose—though traditionally, paternal lineage is irrelevant. I have a Hebrew name (Natan Ari) but remember little from Hebrew school besides ceremonial terms and the word for fish (dag). I was Bar Mitzvahed; driven by an American Idiot-level understanding of and disdain for George W. Bush, I used the occasion to bash the war in Iraq before an astonishingly polite audience. I don’t follow halakhah—Jewish religious law—though I don’t eat meat and thus keep some kind of Kosher. I’ve attended synagogue once in the past two years, for Yom Kippur, the last refuge of the mostly lapsed Jew; I fasted. I often do not believe in God.
If I am Jewish, what makes me so? The word—Jewish, that suggestive suffix—seems to signify not a stable identity, but a flux. A spectrum spanning Jewish and goyish, on which one could plot qualities nearer to one or the other pole: Jew, goy. How, then, to decide what I am? As I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve felt an increasing urgency to articulate answers. Yet I’ve grown less and less clear on what Jewishness might mean.
I know, at least, who I am not. Many Jewish identities feel alien to me. I’m not the Orthodox adherent; my faith in God and ritual is too precarious, and my politics are incompatible with his practices. I’m not the Zionist; I won’t condone a Jewishness tied to what I understand to be a racist military occupation. I’m not the secular American Jew; I share his enthusiasm for latkes and Seinfeld reruns, but I find myself drawn to Torah and Talmud and prayer. These categories are not exhaustive. But if my Jewishness is not the Jewishness of so many I’ve seen, what is it? Is it Jewishness at all?
I have a special affinity for a Jewishness that is tied to texts. When I came close to my Jewishness in college, it was texts—the strangeness of the double creation narrative in Genesis, the fusion of mythical tropes with philosophical argumentation in the Book of Job, the irreverence of Spinoza’s critique of religion—that brought me there. When I feel lost, I look to books.
I came to Clarice Lispector late: in 2015, thirty-eight years after her death and six years after Benjamin Moser’s definitive English-language biography, Why This World, brought her to broader attention in the English-speaking world. When I took an assignment to review her Complete Stories last August, I was feeling especially ambivalent about my Jewishness. My fianceé and I had just returned from Jerusalem. We’d been visiting my father, who was taking a sabbatical there. I left the Jewish state feeling deeply connected to the tradition embodied there but also deeply alienated from the state’s imperialist occupation, which it justifies through a perversion of that same tradition. I was moved by Israeli expressions of passionate devoutness—faces lost in the ecstasy of prayer before the Western Wall, a whole city coming to rest to celebrate the Sabbath—but repulsed by cavalier racism, the way even progressive Israeli Jews seem unable to grasp the daily violence of oppression perpetrated on their ethnically Arab neighbors. I returned to the United States wondering whether I should call myself Jewish when the progressive Judaism I valued and had been raised with—an American adaptation that values pluralism, rejects messianism, and emphasizes community, study, and social justice—seemed so incompatible with the right-wing, nationalist, anti-pluralist Judaism that seems to dominate that nation, and, I sometimes worry, the world.
I don’t remember the moment when I learned about Lispector. I do remember, early on, encountering the claim, now made by many, that she is the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka. Perhaps because my discovery of Lispector coincided both with my own crisis of Jewish identity and with my understanding of her as a Jewish writer, the question of Lispector’s work’s Jewishness has followed me through my increasing interest in her books. The more I’ve learned about her and the more of her work I’ve read, the more relevant it seems to my own questions.
For much of her life, Lispector did not practice Judaism. And though she nurtured interests in facets of Jewish thought, Jewishness remains covert in most of her work. Ambivalent about my own Jewishness, I wondered: is Lispector’s work ambivalent about its own? What vision of Jewishness reveals itself in her words? Can that vision of Jewishness help to equip me with a Jewishness I can live with?
Where else to begin than with God? He haunts Lispector’s work. Her writings are characterized by a near constant reach toward transcendence, the contact between human and divine. “It’s with such profound happiness. Such a hallelujah,” begins Água Viva, an anti-novel that could reasonably be called a prayer. “Hallelujah, I shout,” the speaker says, “hallelujah merging with the darkest human howl of the pain of separation but a shout of diabolic joy.”
God is with Lispector from her first work to her last. He appears just a few pages into Near to the Wild Heart, her first novel, and lingers near the end of the version we have of A Breath of Life, posthumously assembled from scraps she left at the time of her death. Lispector and her characters have much to say about the deity, much of it provocative or inscrutable. The speaker of Água Viva: “The living it is the God” (God appears sometimes as Deus, sometimes as o Deus—the God—often in the same work). Rodrigo S.M., the narrator of The Hour of the Star, echoing Spinoza: “God is the world.” The author character in A Breath of Life: “Is God a word?”
This last expression is a compact culmination of much of Lispector’s thinking on the divine. It associates God with language and suggests the possibility of speech as a means of access to divinity. Its force is open to interpretation; it can be read either as an expansion of the word into God, or as a reduction of God into a mere word. The line has the tenor of a paradox—fit not for grasping, but for dwelling in. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a question: an opening of possibilities. Lispector’s constant questioning of the meaning of God accords with my own experience of my Jewishness. I vividly recall, as a child, picturing an anthropomorphized God—white, male, bearded, old—and I recall feeling unsettled when my parents tried to teach me that to be Jewish did not necessarily mean to believe in such a God, that when we uttered one of God’s many names during worship, it could mean many things. That many rabbis do not, in fact, believe in such a God. Now I see this as liberating.
Finding a Jewishness in God and the human reach toward the divine seems to mean finding it in religion—in Judaism. But when Lispector’s characters practice a religion, it isn’t Judaism, but Catholicism. What about Lispector herself? She was buried in a Jewish cemetery, according to Orthodox ritual. Her tombstone bears the name she was given at birth, Chaya, Hebrew for life—fitting, for questions of vitality, blood, and breath thread through her work. But, despite the manner in which she was interred, Lispector left institutional Judaism after her father died, when she was in her twenties (as I am now). After this point, did she even consider herself a Jew? In what Moser calls “a rare declaration,” she once said: “I am Jewish, you know. But I don’t believe this nonsense about the Jews being God’s chosen people.” As for religion? She told an interviewer, “I am a mystic. I have no religion.” So it’s not in the machinery of ritual, sacred equipment, and belief that I should search for the Jewishness of Lispector’s work.
What about mysticism? It’s a popular word in writing on Lispector. It’s the most readily available English term to capture her work’s attention to mystery, divinity, and spirituality and her predilection for ecstatic movements between concepts, images, and claims. Pick a paragraph at random from one of her more abstract works—Água Viva or A Breath of Life—and you’ll see how well the word fits. It’s a useful term, too, for naming Lispector’s intellectual disposition toward the profound and her distaste for taxonomies of knowledge with their concretized concepts. The author character in A Breath of Life says, admiringly, of Angela, the character he has created, “she exists without words and is only an unsayable, incommunicable, inexorable atmosphere. Free of scientific and philosophical rubbish.” Mysticism leaves behind the articulable and seeks the unsayable. Lispector preferred this approach.
What might be specifically Jewish in Lispector’s mysticism? Moser links Lispector to the robust tradition of Jewish mysticism by suggesting that she shares with this lineage an interest in a peculiar set of problems around language and God. Jewish mysticism ascribes great power to language. And in Lispector’s work, language takes on incredible powers. In The Hour of the Star, Rodrigo S.M. hints at the transcendent potential of words: “don’t forget that to write anything at all my basic material is the word. So that’s why this story will be made of words that gather in sentences and from these a secret meaning emanates that goes beyond words and sentences.” For Lispector, language also has an essential sensual power, which she frequently links to the ecstatic power of music. Again, Rodrigo S.M.: “Words are sounds transfused with unequal shadows that intersect, stalactites, lace, transfigured organ music.” In A Breath of Life, the author character writes, “In what I write the only thing that interests me is finding my timbre. My timbre of life.” Lispector understands words as conveying more than mere significations. Through speech, she seeks the ineffable spirit of things.
In much of Jewish mysticism, language leads to God. “The discovery of the holy name,” writes Moser, “synonymous with God, was the highest goal of the Jewish mystics.” The link to the divine is clear for Lispector, too. Yet God is beyond human language. “For the Jewish mystic,” Moser goes on, “creating and contemplating random combinations of letters was a path to hidden knowledge, and even a means of discovering the Holy Name itself: the word which, by definition, can belong to no human tongue.” The more linguistically experimental turns in Lispector’s work share a kinship with the mystics’ strategy. The impulse to press language to its limits in a search for the divine courses through her work; it may be the animating desire of her entire oeuvre. She and her characters are repeatedly frustrated by the limits of human speech. In A Breath of Life, the author character declares, “I write in words that hide others—the true ones. Because the true words cannot be named.” He goes on: “I—I want to break the limits of the human race and become free to the point of the wild or ‘divine’ cry.” Angela, too, expresses a mystic’s understanding of the value of language pressing beyond meaning. “I like words,” she says. “Sometimes a random and scentillating”—yes, scentillating—“phrase occurs to me, without having anything to do with the rest of me. . . phrases almost on the edge of meaninglessness but that sound like words of love. Saying meaningless words is my great freedom.”
Elsewhere, Angela ventures into meaninglessness: “I can speak a language that only my dog, the esteemed Ulysses, my dear sir, understands. Like this: dacoleba, tutiban, ziticoba, letuban. Joju leba, leba jan? Tutiban leba, lebajan. Atuoquina, zefiram. Jetobabe? Jetoban.” This moment closely approximates the language game of the mystics Moser describes, except the hidden meaning Angela seeks is communication with a non-human animal. But non-human animals and God—as the author character of A Breath of Life writes, the “wild” and “divine”—are linked for Lispector. “My dog teaches me to live,” Angela says. “All he does is ‘be.’ ‘Being’ is his activity.” This is not far from how many have described God. And in Água Viva, as well, Lispector tries a method similar to the mystics’. “As the God has no name,” says the speaker, “I shall give Him the name of Simptar. It belongs to no language.”
I’ve found a glimmer of Lispector’s work’s Jewishness in its kinship with the tradition of Jewish mystical thought. The word tradition is key. I’ve seen that the conceptualization of Jewishness as religion—as Judaism—has little purchase on Lispector’s work. But to seek Jewishness without Judaism is to risk losing a lot. Judaism is practice, faith, and sacredness grounded in texts, objects, and days whose meaning is founded on a history. A Jewishness without Judaism risks rootlessness and opens itself to the accusation that it’s meaningless, a Jewishness that might as well not call itself Jewish at all. This has been my worry, in negotiating which parts of Judaism to practice and which to leave behind. How far from ritual orthodoxy can I stray before I am no longer a Jew?
Religion, though, is not the only source of rootedness, and Judaism is not the only source of Jewish rootedness. Might Lispector’s work partake of other traditions of Jewishness?
Jewishness is a tradition of texts; Jews are the people of the book. Judaism is tied to the sacredness of texts and the duty of studying them, and Jews have long understood themselves as such by a divine covenant given specificity in written laws and meaning in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Even the interpretations of these texts, once an oral tradition, have become a text—the Talmud—worthy of its own complex tradition of interpretation. Recently, one of my ways into Jewishness has been a chavruta, a two-person Talmudic study group, on Levinas’s readings of the Talmud. Beyond these directly religious texts, Jewishness has flourished in textual traditions in philosophy, literature, and critical theory.
Lispector’s work participates in the Jewish textual tradition simply by virtue of being textual. But Lispector seemed to have little time for her forebears. She was no devoted student of the Torah. Moser writes that “unlike the classical Jewish mystics she did not venerate, or even seem to notice, the religion’s sacred texts.” And though she did read deeply in literature on Kabbalah—mystical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible (the Hebrew word means tradition)—Lispector insisted throughout her life that she did not particularly value literary learnedness, let alone Biblical erudition. The infrequency of allusions to Jewish texts in her work makes the few we can find all the more striking. What can I learn about Lispector’s work’s Jewishness as Jewish text that interacts with other Jewish texts?
Lispector’s first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, makes extensive use of Spinoza. I’m unsurprised. Here is a great Jewish writer whose relationship to Jewishness is conflicted at best; he was excommunicated at the age of 23 for, according to a written proclamation, “abominable heresies,” which included the theological and metaphysical views that interested Lispector. They interested me, too, when I read Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. A heretic to Jews of his time, Spinoza is now a hero of modern liberal and secular Judaism.
A long passage in Near to the Wild Heart borrows liberally from Spinoza and quotes from Lispector’s notes on him. The reader learns that Otávio—future husband of Joana, the novel’s protagonist—wishes that he would “be asked to write articles about Spinoza” rather than forced to practice law. The passage continues in the dramatization of Otávio “reread[ing] his notes on his previous reading.” The stream of ideas and questions that follows presages some of the preoccupations of Lispector’s career. For instance, the flux of things in an immanent creation:
Mortality as regards the human. Immortality through transformation in nature.—Within the world there is no place for other creations. There is just an opportunity for reintegration and continuity. Everything that could exist already exists. Nothing else can be created but revealed.
All things are linked; creation is continuous. Such thinking recurs throughout Lispector’s work, culminating in the meditations on creation and vitality in A Breath of Life.
Perhaps the most striking part of the passage is the section that considers whether God is a willing consciousness and the possibility of miracles:
A God endowed with free will is lesser than a God of one law. […] God’s perfection is proven more by the impossibility of miracles than by their possibility. To work miracles, for a humanized God of the religions, is to be unfair […] Neither understanding or volition are part of God’s nature, says Spinoza. This makes me happier and freer. Because the idea of the existence of a conscious God is horribly dissatisfying.
Here, Otávio considers and seems to embrace a Spinozan rejection of some of the supernatural tenets of religion. Is this opposed to Lispector’s mysticism? Not if her mysticism is an attempt to uncover divine meaning in things as they are: a transcendence borne of immanence. In A Breath of Life, the author character writes, “The miracle is the final simplicity of existence.” This statement rethinks the Spinozan disavowal of miracles by redefining miracle in immanent terms.
This thinking about miracles is inseparable from the understanding of God as something other than the “humanized God of the religions.” Throughout her work, Lispector thematizes the confrontation with the divine as a confrontation with something other than a person. She exposes her characters to the often shattering absence of moral meaning in the world and presses them to find some other, deeper meaning in the revelation of what Angela, in A Breath of Life, calls “the immanence of the sacred Nothing.” This thinking rests on an amoral, Spinozan God who emerges again and again. “God is whatever exists,” says G.H. in The Passion According to G.H. And in The Hour of the Star: “God is the world.”
This, Lispector’s final finished novel, also features one of the most striking and sustained references to the Jewish textual tradition. The novel’s central character bears the name Macabéa, a reference to the Maccabees, the leaders of the Jewish rebellion against the Greek occupiers of Judea whose victory is commemorated in the holiday of Chanukah. Lispector, Moser attests, “would have known [the Maccabees’] story from childhood.” This is how I know it, too, and I can still recall it most vividly in the simplified idiom of children’s books and songs meant mainly to explain the logic of the candles lit on the chanukiah—which, as I was eager as a child to remind people, has two more branches than a standard menorah. The Maccabees’ story is told in two books that are, in the Jewish tradition, extra-canonical. How fitting that one of Lispector’s most extensive uses of Jewish text is in reference to a narrative that is given little religious significance.
The Hour of the Star is the story of Rodrigo S.M., a writer who is arguably a fictionalized version of Lispector herself—the book’s preface, apparently written in his voice, is entitled, “Dedication by the Author (actually Clarice Lispector)”—who is struggling to write the story of Macabéa, an impoverished young woman with whom he is obsessed. After the narrator spends nearly half of the slim novel ruminating on writing, God, and other Lispectorian themes, he follows Macabéa and her ill-fated relationship with her boyfriend, Olímpico. Moser observes that this name, too, is a reference to the Maccabees’ tale—specifically, “to the false god the Jews refused to worship when the Temple was polluted and called ‘the temple of Jupiter Olympus’ (in Portuguese, Zeus Olímpico).”
What interests me more than any specific interpretive intersections between Macabéa’s story and her namesake’s is the ambivalence The Hour of the Star expresses about its characters’ names’ significance, which also puts into question the manner and meaning of Lispector’s engagement with Jewish text. Before revealing Macabéa’s name, Rodrigo S.M. writes that “the anonymous girl in this story is so ancient that she could be a biblical figure.” He alludes to the name’s biblical significance while also calling Macabéa “anonymous”—without a name, though it is her name that confirms the significance. This line pulls the reader in two opposite directions; it embodies a tension between Macabéa’s name’s meaningfulness and its insignificance.
This ambivalence about the significance of names haunts the novel. It’s inescapable on the first page following the preface, which lists the book’s thirteen titles, with Lispector’s name signed between the fourth and fifth:
IT’S ALL MY FAULT
THE HOUR OF THE STAR
LET HER DEAL WITH IT
THE RIGHT TO SCREAM
AS FOR THE FUTURE
SINGING THE BLUES
SHE DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO SCREAM
A SENSE OF LOSS
WHISTLING IN THE DARK WIND
I CAN’T DO ANYTHING
ACCOUNT OF THE PRECEDING FACTS
DISCREET EXIT THROUGH THE BACK DOOR
Does the multiplicity of names suggest that the reader ought to pay close attention to each title to draw what meaning they can? Or does it imply that the names are interchangeable and thus disposable? I think both. The reader is asked to take the names both seriously and lightly. A similar effect is achieved by the placement of the author’s name in the midst of the parade of titles immediately following a preface that attributes the book to her and preceding a book that attributes itself to another.
A few moments in the novel heighten the tension around names. “I don’t understand your name,” Macabéa tells Olímpico when she first learns it. Then she admits, “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter… we don’t need to know what our names mean.” Later, she expresses uncertainty about her identity: “I’m not quite sure who I am.” An obtuse literalist, Olímpico responds, “But you know your name is Macabéa, at least?” She replies, “That’s true. But I don’t know what’s inside my name.” She senses that her name has an inside, a meaning deeper than its mere shell. Lispector uses the connection of the characters’ names to the Jewish textual tradition to put into question the significance these names—these merely surface level referents—truly have.
Lispector’s troubling of the significance of her characters’ Biblical names in The Hour of the Star prepares the way for the novel’s climax, which is marked both by what may be the most explicit Jewish textual reference in all of her work and by an expansion of the question of names’ meaningfulness into the broader Lispectorian question of words’ meaningfulness—an expansion that points toward a reimagining of what it means for Lispector to engage in the Jewish textual tradition. Macabéa goes to see a fortuneteller, who gives her a series of wonderful predictions. Hope is kindled in the young woman, who “had never had the courage to hope.” She begins “to quiver because of the painful side there is in excessive happiness”; she is “learning for the first time what others call passion.” This passage draws our attention to the source of this transformation and unveils its true significance: “Macabéa stood a little dizzy, not knowing if she’d cross the street since her life had already been changed. And changed by words—we have known since Moses that the word is divine.”
Lispector invokes Moses, an unquestionable link to the Jewish textual tradition. In so doing, she helps me to reimagine that tradition as one in which Jewishness means the veneration of texts, of words. If for Moses, as for Lispector, the word itself is divine, isn’t there Jewishness in the simple belief that words are sacred?
My search for the source and meaning of Lispector’s work’s Jewishness has followed an inquiry into her thinking on and use of language. I ask now, simply: is there Jewishness in Lispector’s own language? If so, what sort?
Lispector’s language is strange. Critics who have read her in Portuguese are unanimous on this point, and the work of hers I’ve read in English, the combined effort of various translators, without exception supports this fact. The strangeness of her language is in no small part why she has been a literary sensation in Brazil for the past half-century, and it is the failure of early English translators to do her justice that prompted the re-translation of her work over the past decade. In his afterword to his translation of The Hour of the Star, which inaugurated this re-translation effort, Moser quotes writer Claire Varin’s opinion that early translators of Lispector would often “pluck the spines from the cactus”; he vows to restore them. Can I pinpoint the strangeness of Lispector’s language? Can I begin to name the spines?
The unusualness seems to arise in part from an aspect of Lispector’s work I’ve already considered: its project of pressing language to its limits to name the real, the animal, and the divine. But what of the many moments in Lispector’s work in which the language’s strangeness takes a subtler form than the explicit reaches beyond sense? Accepting that these, too, play a role in her linguistic project, how can I understand their specific syntaxes?
Poet Lêdo Ivo, in the context of considering Lispector’s place in Brazilian literature, offers a key clue to naming the nature of Lispector’s linguistic idiosyncrasy that also points toward its possible Jewishness. Ivo writes:
There will probably never be a tangible and acceptable explanation for the language and style of Clarice Lispector. The foreignness of her prose is one of the most overwhelming facts of our literary history, and, even, of the history of our language. This borderland prose, of immigrants and emigrants, has nothing to do with any of our illustrious predecessors.
Even as Ivo gestures toward the impossibility of an account of Lispector, he acutely names the particular qualities of her prose: foreignness; borderland prose, of immigrants and emigrants. Lispector’s writing has the texture of an outsider’s tongue. Her speech did, too. Moser writes that Lispector “stuck out as foreign for the way she said her r’s, common to children of Jewish immigrants in Brazil.” Lispector’s Portuguese is the Portuguese of an immigrant. Its brilliance and oddness is inextricably tied up with Lispector’s not being from Brazil, nor ever ultimately of Brazil. Though Portuguese was her native tongue, Lispector spoke it with foreign r’s and wrote it in a non-native syntax. Her language is the language of the displaced, she who is at home outside of her home.
But isn’t this position—the diasporic subject, exiled and re-integrated, yet ever on the margins—a classic Jewish position? The diasporic Jew has been ejected from her homeland, and though the prospect of the messianic return haunts her—next year in Jerusalem—she has a new home. Yet her home is also always her homelessness, her outsider-ness. This paradox makes possible a peculiar outlook. Is this outlook the condition of the possibility of Lispectorian language?
The strangeness of the language in Lispector’s work, then, emblemizes a kind of Jewishness, a Jewishness without direct reference to religion or mysticism or textual tradition. Jewishness as syntax. Jewishness as lyricism. This is the sound of diasporic Jewishness, and it is, perhaps, hard to hear today in part because of the call, emanating insistently from Israel, that diasporic Jewishness is imperfect Jewishness. To immigrate to Israel is to make aliyah—ascent, which I was taught is meant to echo Moses’ journey up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. So where does that leave the rest of us
Unenlightened, at the mountain’s base. I felt this in Israel; that I would be valued, that I would be truly Jewish, if only I stayed there and assimilated. I felt this standing at the height of Masada, amidst the ruins of a mountain fortress where, in the first century, the leaders of a group of Jewish rebels killed their families and each other rather than submit to Roman rule. This site has become a locus of modern Israeli identity—for a time, Israeli soldiers were sworn in there after basic training, in a ceremony that ended with the declaration, “Masada shall not fall again”—as a symbol of the heroism of choosing death over having one’s Israeli Jewish identity compromised. But if these are the Jews who are lionized, what does that say about me, a Jew who, despite the existence of a flourishing Jewish state, chooses to live among gentiles? To the Zionist, isn’t my Jewishness compromised? Contemporary Zionism has coopted the messianic narrative of Judaism, urging Jews the world over to conflate it with the Western nationalist project of the state of Israel. For this way of thinking, the diasporic Jew is only an incomplete Israeli. The unique value of the diasporic Jew’s perspective gets lost in the logic of Zionism.
I don’t contest that the diasporic Jew is doomed to an outsider status. I don’t mean to romanticize the Jew in a non-Jewish culture or deny the horrific history of anti-Semitism that has suggested to some the impossibility of the survival of diasporic Jewishness. Lispector, after all, arrived in Brazil fleeing the same Eastern European pogroms that drove my ancestors to the United States. I mean only to suggest that there is a singular beauty in the diasporic Jewishness of Lispector’s language and that it points to the value—today contested in prominent spheres of Jewish thought—of the diasporic Jewish perspective.
Can I link Lispector’s language as a Jewish syntax to her project as Jewish mysticism? On the one hand, there is her foreign yet masterful Portuguese, which presents a Jewish relationship to language. On the other, there is her attempt to push language to its breaking point to unlock the secrets of the divine, which embodies a Jewish mystical relationship to God. The two seem unrelated: the one a question of an incidental geographic and political situation, the other a question of metaphysics. But is it possible, I wonder, to understand the two in an essential relation? To understand the liminal syntax of speaking a language as an always-foreign native as a means to or condition of speaking language to its limits to understand things as they are?
This question leads me to another. Can I understand Lispector’s Jewishness as a particular stance, as a position from which to inquire? Is there Jewishness in Lispector’s incredible openness to things? In dwelling in the midst of things but seeing them as if for the first time, as if from an outsider’s vantage? In her ability to see in an egg or a feeling or the guts of a cockroach some glimmer of the divine? In her strange and singular way of always somehow asking—whether the question looks like a sentence, or an ecstatic cry, or a full-to-bursting silence?
This notion of the question comes to the fore in Lispector’s final works. “As long as I have questions and no answers I’ll keep on writing,” writes Rodrigo S.M. in The Hour of the Star. Lispector perfects this thought in the words of the author character in A Breath of Life: “Writing as a query. It’s this: ?”
For Lispector, writing is a question. Her body of work is a question; it cracks open self and world, expands possibilities, makes a mess of common understandings, and articulates no easy answers. Lispector’s work’s Jewishness is a question—I mean both that it’s a question in what way the work is Jewish and that the work embodies Jewishness in the form of a question.
I’ve been seeking identity as an answer. Lispector helps me dwell in it as a question. I’m drawn to this formulation of Jewishness in a way I’m not to others. Now a year on from that trip to Israel, I’ve found myself ambivalent about any Jewishness that is not a Jewishness of fundamental ambivalence. I want the Jewishness that’s hard to capture, impossible to contain. That is not nothing but is not amenable to strict categories or unflinching dogma.
Lispector has little time for the simply articulable, for named conventional things; for her they are always obstructions to what’s deeper, stranger, truer. It’s fitting, then, that I’ve found in her work a questioning Jewish identity, one in a tradition of articulations of Jewishness—following Spinoza—as anti-essentialist, inquisitive, ever open to interpretation. I want and feel I’m finding assurance that ambivalence, uncertainty, and heterodoxy can be as authentically Jewish as observance, lawfulness, and orthodoxy. That I, too, can claim to be a Jew—not in the stability and certainty the noun suggests, but in the full, ambivalent question mark of the adjectival, spectral Jewish—and to claim it in an echo of Lispector’s strange, searching speech.