Anyone who talks about Clarice Lispector and psychoanalysis is likely to say something foolish, not least because psychoanalysis is a discipline of listening, not talking. And, in fact, this is a tempting place to stop.
“Coherence,” says Lispector, “I don’t want it any more. Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder. I can only guess at it through a vehement incoherence.”
Let’s talk about this single aspect of Lispector. I’m going to tell you not just why her work is so important, why I think she is so important, but how I think it, the way in which I think that thought.
We begin by discussing the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. We can say that Klein is greater than Freud.
How can we say this? The man who invented the game of baseball was a very great man, and we are in his debt, but he was not the home-run king.
Freud invented, or discovered, psychoanalysis. He answered these questions: who, what, when, where, and how.
Klein answered the question: why. Why is a different kind of question.
Freud told us what it is and how it works. But it remained for Klein to tell us why life is like this.
Why is it like this? or, Rules for consciousness in mammals.
I once saw the birth of a Vietnamese deer. Squish, plop. The little deer stood up and was ready to go.
Your birth was not like that. You were not ready to go. You exited your mother’s body helpless and still dependent on her body. You were less like a deer and more like a kangaroo. You weren’t completely cooked. You weren’t ready to perform. You needed to go back into the pouch.
Our biological nature means our initial, foundational experience is dependency on the mother’s body. Our first relationship, the relationship that tells us what a relationship is, is the relation to the mother’s body. And then, later, anything to which we relate bears the trace of the mother’s body.
I am simplifying Klein for two reasons. One, we don’t have all day, we want to talk about Lispector. And two, we all know that the less a man knows about a subject, the easier it is for him to talk about it.
“Coherence, I don’t want it any more. Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.”
Klein talks about the motion from the paranoid–schizoid position to the depressive position.
She talks about an incoherent, unmutilated oceanic unity with the All that necessarily destroys individuality, producing disintegrated self and inarticulated experience. Knowing all, but unable to communicate it, such all-knowledge being far too large to emerge from a mere human mouth. It’s like being an astronaut driven mad by the infinity of space. In space, no one can hear you scream.
Versus the “mutilated,” coherent depressive position that carves you out of symbiosis. Birth, in a word. This permits social communication with other individuals, but at the price of losing your undivided unity with that mystical wholeness. And, even though while you were in it, you were drowning, screaming, dissolved, now that you’re “mutilated” into finite order, you mourn the loss of that wholeness. There was a kind of pleasure in it: the pleasure principle that is allied to the death drive.
“Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.”
Lispector says: incoherent disorder versus mutilated coherence.
Klein says: paranoid-schizoid position versus depressive position.
Let’s do it three times.
One. There’s a place where you can go to get the good stuff, but that place is dirty and dangerous.
And then again, there’s another place that’s safe, but there’s no good stuff there. There’s nothing there. Even the place isn’t there.
The mother’s body is full of treasure. You go into it to get what you need. It’s a good object, it contains wonderful things. Why would we ever call it something as ominous as paranoid-schizoid?
It’s a good object, but because of the ambivalence of love and hate, it’s also a bad object. Because Eros is insatiable, your hunger and love when you long to devour the object invert, and it begins to devour you. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. And, if your cake eats you, then you can’t have you.
You want to escape into her, and you want to escape out of her.
There is an opposite way to think about this, the same but opposite, it doesn’t change anything. You want into her because it’s wonderful in there; but in order to go into her, you have to be out of her. It’s wonderful in there, but it’s wonderful out here, too. You don’t want to be trapped in fusion with her, do you? You also want to individuate.
The group is the mother’s body. You long for recognition as an individual, which you can only get from a group; you long to join a group, which you can only do by virtue of your standing as an individual.
If you’re coherent, you want disorder. If you’re disordered, you want coherence. Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best disorder—nice typo, I’m leaving it in—a man’s best friend; but inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.
Lispector doesn’t want out of the dog much. She says coherence is mutilation. She wants to stay inside the dog, where it’s too dark to read.
But for most of us: If you’re out, you want in. If you’re in, you want out. We spend our lives oscillating between flight and longing, as Broch has it. Or like an ordinary house cat, if you don’t want to talk about Hermann Broch. I don’t. So we’ll say you’re like a little cat.
Now. Imagine a treasure-hunt movie. You go over the mountain, into the mother’s body, to get the treasure, and then it’s a question of what can you bring back with you. Your mother is an ocean, and you are a teacup. What part of the ocean can you bring back with you in your teacup?
You may know a story called The Old Man and the Sea. The fisherman goes far, far out into the ocean, and he catches the biggest fish ever, but he can’t bring it back in his little boat. He went to the Getting Store where he asked for too much. He went too far out into the dark lunar yin, into the primal wet incoherence.
Imagine this unhappy person, searching for more. His normal hunger for meaning has become a greed for meaning, an excessive appetite which calls for an excess of meaning—for more meaning than life has to give.
Second time. “Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.”
Think about Moses and Aaron. Moses has a commitment to the unnamability of the Jewish God. He can’t even speak on non-God topics, he stammers. He’s in a languorous divine psychotic symbiotic incoherence. And he thinks coherence, which would require excluding data, is mutilation. Because God is infinite. Excluding data is not permitted. If you don’t say everything there is, you aren’t talking about God. But you can’t say everything there is.
Whereas Aaron can communicate, but Moses thinks this finite communication is blasphemous mutilation. In Moses’s view, any attempt to communicate about God necessarily limits and degrades God’s non-indicable limit-shattering infinity. You understand when I say God right now I am talking about Mother.
Moses has contempt for Aaron’s communicable, limited, finite God-communications but also envies his ability to communicate about the God to whom Moses is so dedicated.
But Aaron might say: a bird in my hand is worth two in a burning bush.
“Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.” Third time. Last pass.
Imagine a continuum. On one end, the power to know. On the other end, the power to do. The power to know, and the power to do.
On the far end, you’re inside the mother, the paranoid-schizoid position, “incoherence.” You know everything when you’re inside the mother, but you can’t do anything, because you’re inside the mother. All action is foreclosed by your omniscience, your certain knowledge of its outcome.
Let’s call this lack of lack.
George Eliot wrote a great story about this, by the way. It’s called “The Lifted Veil.” If Middlemarch is about how enlightened and groovy it can be to be sensitive, incoherent, unmutilated, and realize that every one is connected, then “The Lifted Veil” is about how painful and horrifying it can be to be sensitive and to realize that every one is connected, to be locked in involuntary incoherence, to be unable to turn off the power, to winnow out the signal from the noise. David Cronenberg made a movie called Scanners about people who are reduced to shambling wreckage due to their involuntary powers of telepathy.
You know everything when you’re inside the mother; but you can’t do anything, because you’re inside the mother. You need uncertainty to be able to act. The gratification of your desire to be incoherent, to merge with her, is a kind of death. This is what it means to say that the pleasure principle is allied to the death drive. Lack instantiates desire—how can I miss you if you never go away?—and, if you possess the object of your desire, there is, we can say, a lack of lack.
When Oedipus knows everything, he can’t do anything. Hamlet knows everything, but he can’t do anything; his knowledge is in the way.
We could even say that Yahweh, in the Old Testament, moves from ignorant omnipotence to an eventual impotent omniscience.
Knowledge is a fog, says Giuseppe Civitarese, that, when excessive, obscures the view.
And Bion, Beckett’s analyst—I leave it to you to decide if the treatment was a success—says, “The only point of importance in any session is the unknown.” “To spend time on what has been discovered is to concentrate on an irrelevance. What matters is the unknown.”
You can’t do anything from inside the mother. You’re all potential. “What good is a phone call, Mister Anderson, if you don’t have a mouth?”
That’s the power to know.
On the other far end, the power to do, the “mutilated” depressive position, you’re now orderly and coherent but you’re separated from the mother, the source of necessary things in life.
If on the one hand you had lack of lack, you didn’t have enough nothing, now all you have is nothing. You are not merely freed, but freed from existence itself: you are annihilated. You’re forgotten in space, as Voivod has it.
But, of course, life does not take place at these extremes, for the most part. Life takes place moving from near one end to near the other, back and forth.
A story, let’s say Casablanca, since we all know it, is the rediscovery of the mother’s remembered body in Ilsa, and the merger, re-membering, becoming a member of that body again; and then leaving her yet again. Being born again.
Rick moves through this continuum, into and then away from the paranoid-schizoid position of incoherent merger and knowledge, toward the mutilated depressive position, away from Moses and toward Aaron. And Rick incorporates a small part of Ilsa to bring back with him, in his little teacup-self. He doesn’t have to steal it from her, she gives it to him.
Ilsa says: I don’t know what’s right any longer. You have to think for both of us. For all of us.
And Rick says: All right, I will.
Why have I told you these things? It was to set the scene.
The motion from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position, from coherence to mutilation and back and forth across the continuum, which takes place in a story like The Old Man and the Sea or Casablanca at the level of symbolized events, takes place in Lispector at the level of the individual sentence.
Most of what we call life takes place at the level of events, not words. So someone else might say, Focus on the story, not the sentence. But in Lispector, the sentence is the story.
I said earlier, I said it several times: you know everything when you’re inside the mother, but you can’t do anything, because you’re inside the mother.
Now: What if Lispector surfs on or skates on that unstable moment between Moses and Aaron, between knowing and saying, skipping back and forth over that nub where she can still know very nearly the maximum and yet begin to be able to say it? What if she can always be being born? “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.”
Christ says to Nicodemus, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. And Nicodemus says, What? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
But what if Lispector can be born again—and again, and again?
This is the armature of my thoughts. With these ideas in mind, let’s hear Lispector speak for herself. Let’s look together at the beginning of her story, “The Egg and the Chicken.” How can it be true? You thought I was making it up. No. “The Egg and the Chicken.”
In the morning I see the egg on the kitchen table.
I take in the egg at a single glance. I immediately perceive that I cannot be seeing an egg. To see an egg never remains in the present. No sooner do I see an egg than I have seen an egg for the last three thousand years. The very instant an egg is seen, it is the memory of an egg—the only person to see the egg is someone who has already seen it.—Upon seeing the egg, it is already too late: an egg seen is an egg lost.—To see the egg is the promise of being able to see the egg one day.—A brief glance which cannot be divided; if there is any thought, there is no thought; there is the egg. Looking is the necessary instrument which, once used, I shall put aside. I shall remain with the egg.—The egg has no itself. Individually, it does not exist.
To see the egg is impossible: just as there are supersonic sounds, the egg is supervisible. No one is capable of seeing the egg. Does the dog see the egg? Only machines see the egg. The hoist sees the egg.—When I was ancient, an egg rested on my shoulder.—Love for the egg cannot be felt. Love for the egg is supersensitive. Mankind is unaware of loving the egg.—When I was ancient, I was the depositary of the egg and I walked softly to avoid disturbing the egg’s silence. When I died, they carefully removed the egg from inside me. It was still alive.—Only someone who has seen the world can see the egg. Like the world, the egg is obvious.
The egg no longer exists.
[…] The egg is a suspended thing. It never settles. When it comes to rest, it is not the egg that has come to rest. It is something that remains beneath the egg.—I look at the egg in the kitchen inattentively in order not to break it. I take the greatest care not to understand it. Since it is beyond understanding, I know that if I should understand it, it is because I am mistaken. To understand is the proof of my mistake. To understand it, is not the way to see it.—Never to think about the egg is one way to have seen it. […] What I do not know about the egg is what really matters.
[…] Egg, I love you. I love you like a thing that does not even know that it loves another thing.
The paranoid-schizoid position, inside the chicken—the chicken-egg-chicken— which we can call incoherence or disorder, oneness with the universe, a world flooded with meaning, where you drown in over-meaning; and the coherent, “mutilated” depressive position, in which the loss of infinity is mourned, ceaselessly.
The paranoid-schizoid position: where everybody’s everything, and everything is everything else, and everything is happening at the same time.
As Fred Alford writes, “Paranoia finds meaning everywhere. Paranoia is a surfeit of meaning, the world overflowing with meaning. Paranoia is the will to meaning … a last desperate attempt to flood the world with meaning. Paranoia is a defense against loss of meaning.”
Beckett, Lacan, Lispector. And the greatest of these is Lispector.
I think the work of Lispector, as a whole, is the Moby-Dick of a certain kind of femininity: the female relationship to the female body. The mother’s body is the origin, the great original mystery. Maybe only a woman could write this well, in this way.
You’ll never say it all. But I must say, in closing, that there is an ordered world elsewhere. The great genius Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel writes:
The abolition of differences prevents psychic suffering at all levels: feelings of inadequacy, [mutilation], loss, absence and death no longer exist.
It is a matter of reaching a state of complete merging, involving the modification of the order of Creation, the suppression of any notion of organization, structure, or division.
For now, though: “Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.”
“I am not an intellectual,” Lispector says, “I write with my body.” I read this sentence of hers in 1995, and she changed my life.
The body is reality, and the disciplines that control the body are the disciplines that control reality—to the extremely limited extent that reality can be controlled.
And now: on with the show.
Earlier this year, this essay was read to introduce “Selected Shorts: A Celebration of Clarice Lispector” at Symphony Space with Denis O’Hare, Lynn Cohen, Kate Burton, Carolina Ravassa, Pepe Nufrio, Idra Novey, and Porochista Khakpour.
J. D. Daniels is a 2016 Whiting Award winner. He received the 2013 Terry Southern Prize from The Paris Review. His collection The Correspondence was published in January by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.