Figurations of Immanence: Writing the Subaltern and the Feminine in Clarice Lispector

Home » Figurations of Immanence: Writing the Subaltern and the Feminine in Clarice Lispector

Adam Joseph Shellhorse
Temple University

Volume 6, 2014

Sifting through Clarice Lispector’s numerous notes, fragments, chronicles, and interviews one finds an entire archive of anti-literary statements. “Literature”, Lispector states, “is a detestable word — it’s outside the act of writing” [“é fora do ato de escrever”] (Outros escritos 165).[1] Literature, for Lispector, becomes reactionary as an institution with its system of prizes, etiquettes, and above all, reductive classificatory procedures. In a final televised interview in 1977 Lispector is asked about the role of the Brazilian writer and whether literature “alters the order of things”.[2] She seemingly brushes aside this burning question that contextualizes Brazilian literary production in the 1960s and 70s. Anchored as the question is to a repressive military dictatorship that would not falter until 1985, Lispector affirms that the writer’s role consists in “falar o menos possível” [to speak as little as possible] and that literature “não altera nada” [alters nothing]. What are we to make of Lispector’s anti-literary utterances? Are we to conclude, as many critics on the left in the 1960s and 70s, that Lispector’s writing was ultimately alienated from the political and the epochal question of engagement? And what are we to make of her final novel, A hora da estrela (1977), on which the question of writing the feminine and the subaltern configure a central problematic?

The crisis of the Brazilian state in the 1960s triggers a crisis of language. Politicized literary movements blossom throughout the country.[3] The military coup on 31 March 1964 pushes the social relevance of literature front and center, and the repressive crackdown on students, artists, and dissidents through Institutional Act V in December 1968 amplifies the problematic. In a revelatory text, “Literatura e Justiça” (1964), Lispector examines her much critiqued incapacity to approach through literary writing “a coisa social” [the social problematic] (149). The question of social justice to whose cause Lispector is committed seems for her overly obvious, while writing is only ever arduous “procura” [searching]. In the 1960s, to write, for Lispector, is not to communicate messages that organically reflect the social in its totality, but rather becomes a procedure of the sensible that restores the rights of a fragmentary mode of enunciation. Literature as process, as procura: writing, self-reflective of its limits and in antagonistic relation to abstract classificatory criteria, becomes detached from any regime or program.

With the hardening of censorship and the torture of students and dissidents, Lispector partakes in the March of 100,000 against the dictatorship. Indeed, she iconically walks at the frontline of the protest with a host of artists from Rio. And yet, in the late 60s Lispector undergoes a crisis. While producing chronicles, short-stories, newspaper columns and children’s books, she complains to close friends of having lost the desire and ability to write. Upon completing the mature, experimental novels, Água Viva (1973) and A hora da estrela (1977), Lispector confesses her distaste for her “lighter” works and the chronicle form. Lispector will have rediscovered the necessity for writing.[4]

With trepidation, Lispector delays the publication of Água Viva for three years for its lack of storyline. The central thread that runs through the novel’s fragmentary mode of expression and its series of metaliterary sketches [esboços] is perhaps best summarized in an initial utterance: “Este não é um livro porque não é assim que se escreve” [This is not a book because in this way one does not write] (Água 13). The novel’s defiance of genre, chronological ordering and flight from “reason” articulates its resounding achievement. Its self-reflexive procedure of laying bare the device and system of reader interpellations finds echo in A hora da estrela. More than this, and beyond rote comparison of tendencies, the work ushers forward an impressive meditation on an anti-literary, constructivist mode of writing and its relation to that which is non-literary and on the limits of language. Words only achieve their splendor, perceptive field, and intimate life by freeing themselves from the prison-house of language as a system of representations that imprison the forces of life. And one way to achieve such a stubborn, imageless image of writing is by making writing a fragmentary system of questions without answers, a process through which writing only reaches the non-word, transfigures itself in vision and sensation, by thinking its own limits: “é como o verdadeiro pensamento se pensa a si mesmo, esse espécie de pensamento atinge seu objetivo no próprio ato de pensar…pensamento primário” (107-108); [it is as though true thought thinks of thinking itself, this species of thought attains its objective in the proper act of thinking…primary thought] (107-108). On examining Lispector’s annotations or itinerary [roteiro] for the book’s revisions, one finds an interesting, anti-literary project: “abolir a crítica que seca tudo” [to abolish criticism which dries up everything] (Varin 186).

Lispector’s resounding fame today, in Brazil and abroad, as Benjamin Moser relates, largely rides on A hora da estrela.[5] No doubt, in revisiting such reach one cannot ignore the fact that the book in 1985 was made into a movie by Suzana Amaral that won the international prize for best actress in the 36th Berlin International Film Festival. To speak of a plot summary, as many critics inevitably do, is to run the risk of reducing a book with thirteen names, thirteen titles. More than this, a plot summary often falls within the trappings of a representational logic that interprets the subaltern protagonist, Macabéa, as a hapless victim who woefully lives a miserable existence. Lispector will maintain a far more ambitious project. In her televised interview, Lispector condenses her vision of the protagonist: “é uma história de uma moça, tão pobre que só comia cachorro-quente; mais a história não é só isso…é a história de uma innocência pisada, de uma miséria anónima” [it’s the story of a girl, so poor that she only eats hotdogs, but the story is not only this…it’s the story of a trampled innocence, of an anonymous misery]. In a manuscript note, Macabéa is described as “hardly material…in its most primary form” (Varin 96). From the figure of the impoverished girl, to an impersonal, collective landscape of misery. From anonymous misery, to the primary form of a material that knows no reason. The great problem underwriting A hora da estrela is the problem of pushing literature to its limits. It is a problem of configuring a mode of writing the subaltern as a collective, vital problematic in Brazil without “speaking for” this constitutive fissure in the nation. On finishing the novel, perhaps this is precisely what Lispector had in mind when she said that literature was a detestable word and that the Brazilian writer’s role was “speaking” as little as possible.

If one is to summarize this book of thirteen names and thirteen titles with a protagonist that defies naming and reason, then we must tread with due vigilance. A hora da estrela stages multiple events through a heterogeneous mode of expression. This mode of expression, in its singularity and becomings, is where our method finds its coordinates. I will return shortly, of necessity, to the problematic events of writing that proliferate in the novel. For now, a brief portrait of the novel’s design is in order.

A hora da estrela relates the vision of a pariah of the Brazilian lettered city, Rodrigo S.M. Configured as an unfinished work and open question to the reader, Rodrigo’s haphazard glimpse of a subaltern girl in the streets of Rio damns him on a mission to cut all ties with his former “literary” office. He becomes simultaneously transgressive narrator, outcast inventor and self-disciplining denouncer of social ills that impinge on all sides; he becomes interested, in other words, in transgressing his limits and writing the subaltern, in abandoning his hitherto unsuccessful “literature”. Rodrigo’s capacity to perceive the sensuous life of the subaltern coincides with his ability to reconfigure what he calls “the spirit of language”. No longer caught up in a regime of writing that simulates the “modernoso” and “original”, Rodrigo’s break implies a gambit: a new design for his writing that takes flight by unburdening his words through self-reflection. Through his regime of privations—which includes not shaving, and forgoing soccer and sex—Rodrigo will cultivate a zone of proximity with Macabéa, Lispector the writer, and the reader as sites for his reflections on life, reality and his very heterogeneous writing project, including the social stakes that encircle it. Through ambiguous procedures of identification, as outcasts of reason and literature, Rodrigo and Macabéa will converge over their common embrace of life. Accordingly, beyond the prevailing view that perceives Macabéa as a rote, hapless victim, she constitutes a primary character that embodies forces of life that shed light on the artificial and ruinous character of the sensible distribution of the social.[6] That is, Macabéa as a figure of life and writing immanence projects “savage” traits of expression and sensuality that exceed form and determinate reason. Her life, likened to a saint—far from subjective or personal—embodies a collective problematic. Macabéa as the woman without particularities and subjectivity, Rodrigo as the pariah of literature that cannot stop interrupting his story-vision as an impossible project, such are the contours of Lispector’s monumental anti-literary work that goes a step farther than Água Viva in its exploration of subalternity, writing immanence, and the feminine.

I. The Anti-literary and the Latin American Literary Regime

Lispector once said, “perhaps I understand the anti-story best because I am an anti-writer” [“porque sou antiescritora”] (Borelli 71). When asked of her outsider yet consecrated position with respect to the Brazilian and Latin American literary traditions, she never hesitated to mark her distance. Against professionalization and etiquettes, straying from what she called “the superficial world of literary writers”, Lispector’s constructivist approach to writing turns on problematizing the separation between writing and life (Varin 195). The consummation of her vision, what she called “a linguagem de vida” [a language of life] in A hora da estrela—the idea of a book as a stubborn question of writing the subaltern “without literature”— implies an exodus from the Latin American literary regime of representation.

I am here invoking a larger problematic and debate within Latin American cultural studies and its subalternist orientations. To speak of the subaltern is to critique a stagnant concept of culture and the historical suturing of literature and art to politics in Latin America since the nineteenth century. The impetus informing Latin American subaltern studies, in its various guises and camps, hinges on a critique of state-centered conceptions of culture. Gareth Williams, Alberto Moreiras and José Rabasa have written of the exhaustion of unitary models of analysis, and the subaltern as a relational term and epistemological limit. Like Macabéa as a “porous material” that propels Rodrigo S.M.’s writing project as a stubborn set of questions and as an initiative to “transgress his limits”, we can understand the subaltern not as mere downtrodden marginals but as a “constitutive outside”, a limit term or fissure, where the fictions of state-centered, unitary discourses become suspended (Williams 11).

Beginning in the 1990s, literature and literary criticism in Latin American studies become suspect, due in large part to a sequence of related yet divergent sources. In the wake of the debt crisis of the 1980s and the electoral defeat of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, the first source of this contrarian vision concerns the emergence of Latin American subaltern studies as a response to the sedimentation of neo-liberal models across the continent, and the crisis of Marxism and revolution (Bosteels 147). To the extent that the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group’s “Founding Statement”(1992) calls for reconceptualizing “the relation of nation, state, and “people”, it does so in order to question the then dominant conception of cultural production and, most notably, the literary understood as a representational class-based apparatus of representation that “speaks for” the subaltern (137;140).

Another source concerns the critique of Angel Rama’s cultural theory of Latin American literature as transculturation. Rama likens Latin American literature to a unified culturalist “regime”, a “system” assigned the anthropological task of mediating, representing and integrating the continent’s marginalized hybrid peoples as an act of affirmed difference and “spiritual decolonization” (20). Consider the example of Rama’s analysis of João Guimarães Rosa’s novel, Grande Sertão: Veredas (1956). Through the monologue of the countrified “letrado”, Riobaldo, which is composed through a fusion of experimental writing that incorporates popular voices, for Rama, Guimarães Rosa is able to achieve an organic, unified conception of Brazilian culture. Faced with the homogenizing tendencies of a “corrosive” modernization, Guimarães Rosa’s procedure of “neoculturation” restores an original, representative vision of a Latin American region through modern, literary coordinates (31). This is why the task of literature, according to Rama, is to “coronate” culture [“las obras literarias no están fuera de las culturas sino las coronan”], to reestablish literature’s dialogic, mediational relevance and role as spokesman for the organic roots of Latin American popular and subaltern cultures (19). However questionable Rama’s vision of literature, he places his finger on a larger historical phenomenon: the historical Latin American literary regime of representation. By the historical representational regime of Latin American literature, I refer to the interpretative, integrating and representational functions that Latin American literary writers assigned to the literary beginning in the nineteenth century and which run all the way through the twentieth to Rama’s monumental theory in 1982. In short, the literary becomes inexorably sutured to the state. And literature is assigned the task of expressing the “spirit”—however hybrid, disenfranchised or marginalized its peoples—of the nation as willed cultural difference. This brings us back to the problematic of anti-literature.

The move from “literature” to subversive invention entails making the historical distinction between the institutionalized field of literature as a habitus that conflates experimentation with identitarian description, and literary works that redistribute the encoding of social reality.[7] Against the redundancy of representations that crudely subject and reduce the immanence of both work and social field, the experimental work is always inaugural, cutting through the established hierarchical sensory, gender, and class divides. The innovative composition reveals a new capacity of language, a new image of writing at stake in the present, immanent to its subversive design-structure [linguagem], refractive and open to its very finitude, to non-language, and to non-verbal systems of communication.

To mark the distinction between the institutionalized field and the singularity of the inaugural work entails going against the grain of the Latin American literary regime of representation.[8] The Latin American literary regime of representation encodes, territorializes, and represses the revolutionary potentiality of the experimental text. Constituted through a willed cultural difference and an irrevocable class divide that informs its mode of expression, under the literary regime, as we see clearly in the example of Rama, writing becomes subsumed through an instituting discourse of identity.

Against the regime’s claims to national popular synthesis and its disavowal of composition, subversive works challenge and rearrange the sensible encoding of the real. Even so, indistinction, rife today, lies at the very origin of the Latin American literary regime. Claims to purity have led likewise to a disavowal of the literary’s power. For all of this, there is no question that the literature debate in Latin American Studies today has reached a state of impasse. Or is it that, at worst, weighed down by its critiques, literature is simply disregarded altogether as passé by a new generation of thinkers? Refusing to go this route, the regime’s stagnation summons a new horizon for reassessing the literary problematic in Latin America and its culturalist avatars: the imperative of constructing a counter-genealogy, an anti-literary line, to use Décio Pignatari’s lucid expression, an insurrectional return to the past. For anti-literature, as experimentation, constitutes a procedure of the sensible that investigates and redistributes, through its form, the social-political. Form converges with critique such that representations of the social, like the subaltern, become polyvocal and eventmental. To de-suture art from politics as specific domains sets up in Latin American Studies today an untimely and careful reconsideration of the social and political dynamics that underwrite the literary.[9] Accordingly, the task of re-grounding literature in its specific concern with the sensible calls on the need for a new framework that re-historicizes these works through their singular, heterodox enunciative procedures. For the anti-literary works precisely against the grain of the entrenched literary state model in Latin America: it does not encode things in rigid, binary, and essentialist framings but sets objects and perceptions in motion, breaks down things, bodies, and structures in their ideological moorings, and, following Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze’s thesis in Anti-Oedipus (1972), articulates flows of desire as revolutionary potentiality.

What Rancière and the philosophers of desire in Anti-Oedipus could not have seen in their postulations on the political potentiality of literature is what I conceptualize as the problematic of anti-literature, which has been so key to the political force and redistributions of the sensible in avant-garde works of Brazil and Latin America in the twentieth century. Against the disavowal of innovative composition as narcissistic, elitist, intransitive, or parodic in the narrow sense, the lens of the anti-literary reveals a new capacity of language in the work; a new design for language including its feminine dimensions. This essay theorizes the productive, feminine dimensions of Clarice Lispector’s final novel, A hora da estrela. It does so from within, through immanent critique, and by closely engaging the novel’s self-inscribed problematic centered in writing the feminine and the subaltern. It does so also importantly from without, as a gesture of affirmation of the subversive, anti-literary character of Lispector’s legacy in Latin America.

II. Writing the Feminine

What are we to make of the problem of the feminine in Lispector? It is Hélène Cixous’s achievement to have pinpointed some of the most radical dimensions of Lispector’s project. In her reading of A hora da estrela, Cixous claims that Lispector “accomplishes a form of writing that does not tell” in order “to write as closely as possible to the living” (162). For Cixous, “Lispector’s art” may therefore be seen as the antithesis of the classical novel which “gives a survey” and always “comes back to events” so as to produce “a frightening mode of enclosure of the living in verbal form” (161-162). Drawing on the work of Jacques Derrida and Jean Genet, Cixous is concerned with the ways in which A hora da estrela splinters the distinction between an inside and outside of the text, so as to suggest the stakes of a feminine libidinal economy. By feminine economy, like Luce Irigaray, Cixous is not referring to an identitarian representation and viewpoint of women and their affective states, but to a principle of “general equivalence” and “capacity to not have” (156). The feminine for Cixous constitutes the antithesis of giving the proper name and hinges on the ways in which A hora da estrela places in check the representational dimensions of writing, so as to take the reader to a barren landscape of signs, “a passage through zero”, negotiating the wordless and that without social class (143).

Cixous’s work does much to illuminate Lispector’s project.[10] And yet she does not problematize or situate the notion of writing the feminine against the larger cultural context of Lispector’s concern with creating a radical image for writing in the 1960s and 70s in Brazil. Nor does she explore, in full, the problems of identity, immanence, subaltern desire and figuration on the level of Lispector’s radical compositional plane that I hope to make clear. For that matter, Cixous rarely speaks of the political implications that follow from Lispector’s syntax.

Marta Peixoto’s influential article, “Rape and Textual Violence in Clarice Lispector” (1991), examines “the field of textual interactions charged with violence” in A hora da estrela.[11] Peixoto’s fundamental concern hinges on the modes through which Lispector constructs “an acute gaze to the exercise of personal power, to the push and pull of the strong and the weak, particularly to the dynamics of victimization” (183). Victimization becomes the lens through which Peixoto tracks “the suspect alliances of narrative with forces of mastery and domination” (184). Peixoto reads Macabéa as “a bona fide social victim”(191). This is so, according to Peixoto, insofar as “Macabéa is victimized by everything and everyone (…) while patriarchy neutralizes her sensuality and foreign stereotypes of beauty encourage her and others to despise her body and its color”(191-192). Peixoto reads this process of “beating” and “raping” of the subaltern in a double key: through the story of Macabéa’s exploitation and through “a meditation on writing the victim, a process that itself duplicates and inscribes the act of victimization” (192).

While Peixoto astutely registers the subalternization of Macabéa and the novel’s metafictional character, her argument is organized through a dialectic that does not register the problem of immanence and the event of writing which follows from Lispector’s compositional plane. To the extent that Peixoto’s reading engages the question of power, gender, and the metatextual in Lispector, it marks an important contribution. Compromising her conclusions, however, is the fact that her reading does not track the consequences of the composed character of the work, and the radical suspending mediation at play in Lispector’s novel.

Problematic, too, is Peixoto’s parabolic reading of Macabéa’s story. For the extent to which she reads Macabéa through the key of a moral is the measure by which she determines the novel’s ultimate lesson: “This hyperbolically naive, unprotected, bewildered young woman—“adrift in the unconquerable city” (HS: 80)—signifies the shared human helplessness of beings engulfed in the brutality of life” such that “Macabéa dies in utter abjection, learning nothing from her trials. The narrator finds no moral in his tale” (199-200). We are confronted with an image of writing centered in guilt whose endpoint is the victim: the “slaughter” of Macabéa as a “sacrificial rite” such that “Lispector questions, I believe, the very possibility of innocence: she enacts a guilt-ridden struggle with the mastering and violent powers of narrative” (201).

While it is clear that Lispector destroys any question of “innocence” by “implicat[ing]…all the subjects who engage in the narrative transaction” (Peixoto 194), what are we to make of the multiplying images of composition, of the constant parenthetical mirroring back of the text’s limits? Indeed, must we conclude that there is a single, unifying subject of enunciation in A hora da estrela? How are we to decipher the fact that Rodrigo, as narrator, dons a mask in the guise of the “in truth” autobiographical Clarice Lispector? Or is it the other way around? Is this not a subversion of sense once again in A hora da estrela, of the “specularization that subtends the structure of the [unified and metaphysical] subject”, and indeed, of the “necessities of self-representation of phallic desire in discourse”(Irigaray, This Sex 116; 77)? What are we to do with this first inscription in parenthesis, this curving mirror that inaugurates the novel by upsetting the problem of authority and “truth”, of literature and the social?

Figure 1. “Author’s Dedication”, A hora da estrela

Of the potential stakes of a feminine writing [écriture feminine], Luce Irigaray has stated that one never begins from zero, one starts a fundamental work on language from the middle, beginning with having “a fling with the philosopher’s discourse” (This Sex 151). Against the language of the logos, against “speaking at the level of greatest generality”, at issue for Irigaray is “the deployment of other languages, even silence” so as to construct “some other mode of exchange that might not say the same logic” (156). This “aporia of discourse” relating to the feminine as a “limit to rationality or women’s powerlessness” must be engaged through an inhabiting of philosophical practice—“to go inside the philosopher’s house”—centered in the logos as “that general repetition…as the otherness of sameness” (151-152). “The power of the philosophical logos”, Irigaray notes, “stems from its power to reduce all others to the economy of the same” (74). This “general grammar of culture” organized through a “masculine imaginary” has excluded “a place for the feminine within sexual difference” (159). Against the grain of the “proper”, appropriating the character of language and mimetic practice, how can one achieve a “non-hierarchical articulation”, Irigaray asks (161-162)?

Inspired by Gilles Deleuze’s concepts of desire, ontological difference and repetition, and the body without organs, Irigaray’s problematic is organized around the critique of the metaphysics of presence, a non-dialectical conception of desire as expression of multiplicities, and a trenchant affirmation of difference through the creation of a “dynamogenic”, feminine economy of meaning. Irigaray’s aim is to debunk all dichotomizing dualities, all modes of thinking and representing that configure the field of the “specularized subject”, the metaphysical subject of culture. By “specular economy” Irigaray invokes the staging of self-conscious representation set in motion through Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage.[12] Through a Gestaltian projection of the I in the world as an ideality, the mirror stage, for Irigaray, “authorizes a fundamental misapprehension” of the world and Being. This is so because the mirror stage fetters the phenomenal world in all its singular projections, intensities, and flows by turning them into “solids”, into ideal projective forms that refer back to “the mirage” of the “mental permanence of the I and its alienating destination” as the ground of order (114-118). The mirror stage, in sum, authorizes a dialectics of the subject that subjugates the natural world to its own image. In such a conception, there is no mutual resistance regarding “what is in excess with respect to form”, nor is there place for what Irigaray calls a “dynamogenic exchange between the one and the other” (110; 114). An excessive language of fluids would refer to that which persists in immanence outside the proper, the solid form, and the purview of the subject—to a conception of the feminine not circumscribed by the de-sexed, “castrated” image of woman in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis.

Significantly, in an engagement with Karl Marx, the specular economy also refers to the ways in which, through capitalist production, women become “objects of value” on the marketplace, or commodities of masculine speculation.[13] Just as a commodity becomes “dispossessed of [its] specific value” and “reclothed in a form that makes it more suitable to men”, so too are women “transformed into value-invested idealities” (181). Accordingly, in such a standardized order, women’s value does not flow from their bodies, their language, or their natural constitution as singular beings, but “from the fact that they mirror” man’s need for exchange. “By submitting women’s bodies to a general equivalent, to a transcendent, supernatural value”, Irigaray notes, “men have drawn the social structure into an ever greater process of abstraction, to the point where they themselves are produced in it as pure concepts” (190). In short, the specular image of thought imposes a form that organizes and duplicates experience and Being in a distribution that is dialectical and identitarian, constituting a non-dynamic language of abstract appropriation and speculation that cannot cope with fluids and the singular projectiles of Being. In her critique of psychoanalysis, Irigaray’s concept of the specular comes to signify the “distorting” mirror that allows the masculine subject to conceive of himself as an ideal subject, and to understand and utilize all of matter and nature to his ends. In order to jam the circular character of this theoretical machinery that “standardizes” signs and things in the image of man, in order to defy the law of the father, one must put on a mask, perform a theoretical masquerade by inhabiting the philosopher’s discourse, in such a way as to reflect and free up its figures of discourse (180). The feminine, in short, for Irigaray would constitute the affirmation of difference as a field of multiple singularities. These singularities would thereby be conceived not as parts of an identity to be integrated into a whole, but as a generative productivity consisting of pre-subjective, pre-substantive differential elements that are always more than one on a plane of consistency, that is, as a “body without organs” which configures the very condition of possibility of desire, discourse, sexuality and the “real”.

“We haven’t been taught or allowed”, Irigaray notes, “to express multiplicity. To do that is to speak improperly” (210). This language of the “improper”, the language of what Irigaray calls women’s “self-affection”—”two lips kissing two” in Irigaray’s poetic formulation of an affirmed difference that goes beyond identity and representation—concerns the invocation of an untimely flight from the grid of representations that cross-section, codify and constitute the subject. This is a radical appeal to movement, an opening of pleasure [jouissance] through a fracture in the lines of the representational, a nakedness and dispersion of sense that is created and simultaneously, vigilantly, tracked and critiqued so as to avoid “judging” the untimely other that always comes “from everywhere”: “We have so many voices to invent in order to express all of us everywhere…we have so many dimensions…you are there like my skin” (213-216). When Irigaray speaks of such openness and inventiveness as an affirmed exteriority that defies the dialectical, she is referring to the creation of a new mode of expression and its plane of composition centered in connections, contiguity and multiplicities so as to organize a new relation to language, sexuality and the world that is not modeled on man or the State.[14] This language of composition and connection, grounded in an untimely mode of critique and creation that defies the order of things in terms of presence, thwarts any identitarian pretense. It allows one to rethink the terms that have structured, imprisoned and deadened the categories of sexuality and language through a metaphysics of presence, for example.

Like Irigaray and Deleuze, in her writing the subaltern and the feminine, Lispector was no doubt concerned with creating a new relation to language and politics that defied the dialectical.[15] The notion of curved, distorting mirrors, wearing the male mask, performing masquerades, or having “a fling with the philosopher” certainly resonate as one reassesses A hora da estrela‘s series of parenthetical comments, multiple titles, and its always in question “in truth” authoritative voice. Beyond juxtaposition, Lispector’s text articulates itself as a problem and imperative in Brazil, as an emergent emergency (“acontece em estado de emergência”), in a public sphere in crisis [“calamidade pública”] (9-10). If it is not a politics of identity, if it is not a matter of negating the contradiction through a representation of the victim, we are beckoned by the text to consider what is the “improper” matter of the literary?

“The reflection on discourse, on language, to which I was led through linguistics”, Irigaray reflects, “enabled me to interpret the history of Western philosophy, to interrogate the particularities of its truth and its lacks. One of these is particularly evident: the small number of logical means the masculine subject has developed for communicating the present with another subject different from him, in particular with a subject of another gender” (Conversations 9). In so doing, Irigaray puts her finger on the conceptualization of a multiple, relational mode of discourse, centered in refractive mediation over representation. Such a feminine discourse powerfully connects with Lispector’s radical compositional plane. Indeed, Irigaray’s appeal to “begin in the middle”, echoes the words of Rodrigo S.M. when he begins Macabéa’s narrative: “Vou começar pelo meio dizendo que—“ [I’ll begin in the middle saying—](24). From the pun in Portuguese, “meio” (referring to “the middle” but also “medium”), Lispector constructs a whole series connected to forging self-reflexive mediations that create further connections as opposed to imposing representations and judgments on the subaltern Macabéa: void, meditation, means, middle, parenthesis—Lispector’s textual membrane that marks all forms and affects as media, means of building new relations with an undecidable, untimely figure of the subaltern. And this textual membrane, this interfacing compositionality, constitutes a matter of the literary that is no doubt historical and tied to the political stakes that informed the conjunction of vanguardism and underdevelopment in Brazil during the 1960s and 70s. What of the vanguard and Lispector?

In her conference paper in 1963, entitled, “Literatura de Vanguarda no Brasil”, Lispector reflects on the specificity and legacies of the Brazilian avant-gardes beginning with Modernismo of the 1920s, in order to articulate her own vision for the 1960s. For Lispector, the concept of the avant-garde concerns liberating writing from “stratified”, overly abstract conceptions. It concerns affirming the construction of a new “language of life” and a “reexamination of concepts” regarding Brazilian realities. She invokes the highly visible vanguard countercultural elements at play in the 1960s, on the eve of the military coup of 1964. Politics for Lispector is best understood in its immediate aspects, as Deleuze and Guattari said of Franz Kafka’s minor literature: politics as an affair of the people, as a syntactic liberation forged through a minoritarian treatment of a majoritarian language:

Pois de uma maneira geral—e agora sem falar apenas de politização—a atmosfera é de vanguarda, o nosso crescimento íntimo está forçando as comportas e rebentará com as formas inúteis de ser ou de escrever. Estou chamando de nosso progressivo autoconhecimento de vanguarda. Estou chamando de vanguarda “pensarmos” a nossa língua. Nossa língua não foi profundamente trabalhada pelo pensamento. “Pensar” a língua portuguesa do Brasil significa pensar sociologicamente, psicologicamente, filosoficamente, lingüisticamente sobre nós mesmos. Os resultados são e serão o que se chama de linguagem literária, isto é, linguagem que reflete e diz, com palavras que instantaneamente aludem a coisas que vivemos; numa linguagem real, numa linguagem que é fundo e forma, a palavra é na verdade um ideograma. É maravilhosamente difícil escrever em língua que ainda borbulha; que precisa mais do presente do que mesmo de uma tradição, em língua que, para ser trabalhada, exige que o escritor se trabalhe a si próprio como pessoa. Cada sintaxe nova é reflexo indireto de novos relacionamentos, de maior aprofundamento em nós mesmos, de uma consciência mais nítida do mundo e de nosso mundo. Cada sintaxe nova então abre pequenas liberdades…A linguagem está descobrindo o nosso pensamento, e o nosso pensamento está formando uma língua literária e que eu chamo, para maior alegria minha, de linguagem de vida.

(Outros Escritos, 105-106)

[For in a general way—and now hardly speaking just about politization—the general atmosphere is best characterized as avant-garde, and our inner intimate growth will burst asunder the useless forms of being and writing. I am calling our progressive self-knowledge avant-garde. I am calling avant-garde “thinking us” through our language. Our language has not been profoundly worked on by thought. “To think” the Portuguese language of Brazil means to think sociologically, psychologically, philosophically, linguistically about ourselves. The results are and will be what’s called literary language [linguagem], that is, a language-structure that reflects and expresses with words that instantaneously allude to things that we live; in a language-design that is real, in a language-structure that is simultaneously content and form: the word is, in truth, an ideogram. It is marvelously difficult to write in a language that gushes, foams; a language that needs more from the present than even from a tradition, in a language that, always worked on, demands of the writer that she work on herself as a person. The creation of a new syntax always articulates a direct reflection of new relationships, of a more profound examination of ourselves, of a sharper consciousness of the world and of our country’s world. The creation of new syntax thus opens new freedoms…Language [linguagem] is discovering our thought, and our thought is forming our literary language, and what I call, to my delight, a language of life].

This statement seems essential. The general vanguard atmosphere of which Lispector speaks informs Brazilian literary production in the 1960s, and is contextualized by the politics of underdevelopment and decolonization that characterized a generation of artists and activists in Latin America. In Lispector, the question of politics did not concern representing the marginal, the subaltern, or even women through literature. And it certainly did not turn on the stakes of transculturation, whereby literature, as Angel Rama would later theorize, is understood as a translation device of cultural alterity and subaltern populations through a high-modernist narrative register. Against the grain of this view of a fictive cultural synthesis and appropriation, or even of an aesthetics of “writing the victim”, for Lispector the question of politics and vanguarda concerned the creation of a new relation to syntax and the being of language.[16] This difficult “language of the real”, this new syntax that is at once a form-content and far from fictive, was to be achieved through a hard labor on language and on the modes in which one “thinks” the relation to the larger collective context of Brazil. In order to write the experimental text and so articulate a new relation to the real, a new plane of composition and image of writing were called for: one in which writing’s limits were foregrounded through the subaltern Macabéa, via an ever-refracted plane of composition that would lay bare writing’s essential yet difficult relation with non-writing and, in Alberto Moreiras’s account, the non-subject of the political: “la práctica política como práctica de no dominación” (Línea de sombra 301). For politics here concerns Lispector’s self-proclaimed passion for the real, or A hora da estrela’s incessant will to self-constitution in the present and its simultaneous flight into auto-critique: it concerns the passage of writing to non-writing as a multiple, creative yet refractive mimesis; or the touching, bending back, and re-framing of discursive limits as one thinks, writes, and engages the gaps in the calculating polis, such as Macabéa, in conjunction with our very own rationalizing procedures.

III. Literature Before Literature: Writing Life

And yet, suffice it to say that the experimental and committed compositional character of the literary, championed by writers and critics in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s began to be overlooked in the 1980s with the critique of the Boom as elitist and state-centered, with the Latin American debt crisis, and with the turn to cultural studies. In short, the literary was given a bad rap in the context of anti-institutional discussions centered on the hegemony and postmodernism debate in Latin American Studies. With the focus on what John Beverley lucidly termed “literature’s connection with the formation of the modern state”, the question of revolutionary form in the arts and in literature becomes displaced (Against Literature xiii). On one hand, scholars begin to question the impact and relevance of literature through a mélange of anti-Eurocentrism and critical regionalism. Accordingly, the subversive elements of composition, including self-referentiality and metaliterature, are challenged as elitist and narcissistic tout court.[17] On the other, discussions as impacting as Beverley’s place focus on undermining the literary’s institutional status and connection to the state, and in the process, turn to an examination of writings by subalterns such as testimonio. Composition in the literary domain, as a politics and specific procedure of the sensible, becomes an afterthought.

The critique was important, useful, and illuminating but hinged in its most basic core on the premise of a subject-object divide. Let me state clearly here so as to shift the terms of the discussion: subject and object of writing give a limited approximation to the literature and politics problematic. To think through the problematic’s lines of tension calls for a thinking of the literary otherwise. This thinking takes place in the relationship of the literary’s limits with its compositional plane. For the composition, above all, is the work of literature’s ground and genesis, which brings together all of its elements in a single gesture or plane of immanence.

If it is not a matter of representation but of laying bare representation’s very limits, reconfigured on a plane of composition that precisely refracts representation’s shadows as constructs that imprison life, what sort of thinking does the literary summon with respect to the problem of subalternity? How does one go about productively thinking the relationship of writing to non-writing in Clarice Lispector?[18] How does a thinking of the relationship of the literary with politics, in Lispector, point us to a new image and task of writing in the Brazil of the 1960s and 70s? Could not Lispector’s radical compositional procedure, which no doubt concerned the underdevelopment, cultural vanguard, and neocolonial problematic of the 60s and 70s, help us rethink and re-pose the literature problem and its maligned legacy in Latin American Studies today?

Beginning with Olga da Sá, Benedito Nunes, and Hélène Cixous in the late 1970s, critics have commented at length on A hora da estrela’s self-reflexivity.[19] And yet, as we saw in Cixous, the political stakes that follow from the work’s refractive narrative procedure have been overlooked. For the question of foregrounding “the border” in Lispector, or the limits and margins of the literary letter, is one that defers full “self-consciousness” “at the border” of reflection (Johnson 131; 139). While Macabéa’s subaltern status is tacit, so too is her constitution as a semiotic construct, as an invention of writing. Accordingly, there will be no strict identity, no representational reading of her character without taking into consideration the multiplicity of compositional variables that encircle and constitute her fundamentally duplicitous, immanent and refractive status. At issue, in my reading of Macabéa and the question of writing in Lispector that follows, is the problem of constructing a dynamic compositional plane that mediates a socially exigent present. In effect, we do well to recall that the novel begins by defamiliarizing its discursive status, as it refers to itself as “esta coisa” that “takes place” in a state of public “emergency”: “Esta história acontece em estado de emergência e de calamidade pública” (9-10); [This story unfolds in a state of emergency and public crisis].

Inscribed as a textual construct in relation to a character that refracts the writing of the novel as process, Macabéa’s name is palimpsestic with renegade valences, referring to the legendary Jewish rebel army, the Maccabees, that led a revolt against Greek rule from 174 to 134 BC.[20] Principle of minoritarian rebellion, Macabéa’s characterization centers on her uneven relation to letters and to society at large. In this sense, a brief yet necessary historical digression is called for regarding regionalist Brazilian literary production in the twentieth century: Macabéa, as a migrant from the Brazilian Northeast, marks an inflexion in the influential Brazilian regionalist paradigm, much akin to a series of backlander marginals in twentieth century Brazilian literature and art. From Euclides da Cunha, Graciliano Ramos and João Cabral de Melo Neto, to the radical vanguard experiment of Cinema Novo in Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, to the paintings of Candido Portinari, the migrant retirante’s flight to the city, an exodus trope, is cast as a problematic synecdoche of the historical divorce between the Brazilian lettered class and the subaltern.[21] It could be said that A hora da estrela articulates Lispector’s response to this legacy of experimental works and to the criticism she received throughout her lifetime for being “alienated” from the social struggles that contextualized the Brazilian dictatorship, beginning in the 1960s (Borelli 53).[22]

The novel examines this divide in terms of an impossible, untimely love. Throughout, Rodrigo S.M. relates his great affection for Macabéa as he admires her faith in life, however “miserable” its conditions: “A única coisa que queria era viver. Não sabia para quê, não se indagava” (27); [The only thing she wanted was to live. She didn’t know why, did not ask]. Rodrigo’s attraction centers on this impasse: Macabéa’s incapacity to define her environment and sensory experience makes her “matéria opaca…[com] fatos…fatos sem literatura,” [an opaque material…with facts…facts without literature], in contradistinction to Rodrigo’s verbal prowess that, in spite of his strict regime of self-reflexivity and self-imposed austerity, still turns “bread” through writing into “gold” (16; 15).

Rodrigo’s love is structured through the fracture and margins of order that Macabéa’s world illuminates. In effect, Macabéa’s perception evinces a deviant quality in “absorbing” the signs emitted by the culture industry, and presents us with a politics of the sensible as a first plane of visibility that the novel foregrounds. Images of commodities and Hollywood stars are placed at strategic junctures in the novel. During his theoretical preamble, Rodrigo alerts the reader that the text is written under the sponsorship of Coke and that reality is a matter of turning on a switch in a technocratic society (23-29). I hasten to add that, of the multiple narrative registers that Rodrigo deploys in layering Macabéa’s story—such as popular Brazilian Northeastern poetry or literatura de cordel, melodrama, aphoristic discourse, and atonal music—he states that the story is written in Technicolor.[23] All of which sets up the problem of culture and desire, the problem of what counts for reality and cultural visibility: if Macabéa desires to be Marilyn Monroe and drinks Coca-Cola, she also yearns to understand “que quer dizer cultura” [what culture means] and all the banal “facts” emitted by Radio Relógio (50). In an emblematic scene, Macabéa puts together an album of advertisements that she “reads” or “absorbs” by candlelight. And yet this plane of mass culture and of reified visibility that the novel invokes as “hoje” and “a realidade” is framed against a second plane of composition that Rodrigo sets in motion, an “exterior” reflexive history of the text that challenges the pretense of subaltern mimesis because here “the word must appear as word” (20; 23). It is a writing that proceeds through questions philosophically, asking why, what and how I am writing on every page: “Este livro é uma pergunta”, notes Rodrigo, “a palavra tem que parecer com a palavra, instrumento meu” (17; 23); [This book is a question…The word must appear as word, my instrument].[24]

While at first glance the “exterior story” seems to relate to the “banal” outside world of “facts” to which Macabéa’s world pertains, this “exterior” incessantly blends into “uma oculta linha fatal” that unworks the figurative impulse of the story, suspending it irrevocably, such that words become words in their nakedness. “E só minto na hora exata de mentir”, relates Rodrigo, “[m]as quando escrevo não minto” (18); [I only lie in the exact moment of lying. But when I write I don’t lie]. This paradoxical phrase brings the text’s surface, like a refractive membrane, to the fore. In so doing, Lispector’s text makes an important distinction with respect to its project of writing the subaltern. We are brought face to face with a simultaneous mode of writing that suspends the fictive in the exact moment of the fictive’s inscription, at the exact moment of the projection of signification proper, tracing writing’s finitude and an improper and untimely mode of inscription. The figure becomes line, surface, textual membrane, site of an exteriority related to sensation: “é verdade também que queria alcançar uma sensação fina e que esse finíssimo não se quebrasse em linha perpétua” (20); [it’s also true that I desired to attain a delicate sensation, and that this most delicate no would break in perpetual line].[25]

Regarding the place of sensation as an internal expressive register characterized as “esse finíssimo não” [this most delicate no], Rodrigo characterizes his project as a “writing with his body” (16). From the beginning, he ushers in a series of self-portraits of the writer at his craft that frame his relationship to his “opaque material”, Macabéa, in terms of affects. In effect, Rodrigo’s relation to Macabéa converges around an interface of desired objectivity and the powerful feeling he undergoes while introducing Macabéa into the world as a singular and individuated creation. Affect thus takes place in a double movement. On the one hand, Rodrigo’s flight into objectivity consists in his obsession with writing “fatos sem literatura” [facts without literature] (16).[26] Rodrigo invokes his “right” to adopt a compositional attitude that is “painfully cold”, “without piety”, because his task is organized around transcending “narrative”, “literature”, and “routine”: “Não se trata apenas de narrativa, é antes de tudo vida primária que respira, respira, respira” (13); [At stake is not just narrative, it’s above all primary life that breathes, breathes, breathes]. Objectivity in such a world is properly poetic and creational, the composition of an originating viewpoint connected to the forces of life. Far from the imposition of an ideological investment on the marginalized other, as many critics claim, the gesture concerns the self-fashioned objectivity, the unique materiality of a self-reflexive, vitalistic practice of writing as the creation of a flight from the commonplace. It concerns an affective articulation with that which lacks writing while inscribing writing’s limits in every turn of phrase: “Escrevo porque…não suporto a rotina de me ser e se não fosse a sempre novidade que é escrever, eu me morreria simbolicamente todos os dias” (21); [I write because…I can’t bare the routine of being me and if there wasn’t the always novelty that is writing, I would die symbolically every day].

But the facts and the coldness to which Rodrigo’s writing adheres, on the other hand, are dissolved in Rodrigo’s flight into figuration and composed sensations, in his writing of the dramatized storyline which includes the intensely felt drama of his writing project. For Macabéa “sticks” to his skin, and is depicted through an affective, conflicted register as “not wanting to get off my shoulders” (21-22). From “fatos” we are relayed the sensations of writing in the present. More than this, we are confronted with a sensation of “responsibility” to the undecidable figure, the “opaque material” that Macabéa’s world forces one to undergo as one picks up a pen and thinks in relational, reflexively limited terms. Following Charles Altieri, the work of sensation in A hora da estrela configures “a material of sensation that cannot be simply translated into the sign of representing some meaning” (239). Sensation becomes a structure framed both compositionally and “by the representational world dramatized” (239). If sensations transcend the figurative by revealing for Altieri “the vividness of material qualities” at play in the work, in Lispector’s A hora da estrela, the work of sensation constitutes a converging interface with the compositional plane of writing. Sensations are not figurative, are not impositions of an ideological order. As a “finíssimo não [que] se quebr[a] em linha perpétua” [a most delicate no that breaks in perpetual line], they consist in a non-determined order of affects that draw the reader’s attention to the medium of writing as that which is always at stake in Lispector. If the affect dissolves facts, it ignites an explosion of relations within the constituted order of things. The affect relates to the sensation of writing the impossible, the undecidable, what is non-writing, to the challenge and promise of finitude from which the problematic of writing the subaltern issues. Rodrigo is caught up in an affective relation to the undecidable figure that forces him to fly into objectivity in the construction of his visions, “on a perpetually breaking line”, to the very limits of words and self-reflection.

Figure 2. “Macabéa quando vem para o Rio” [Macabéa when she comes to Rio]. Manuscript note by Clarice Lispector and Olga Borelli.

Just as Rodrigo’s words must appear as words in their limits, it is important to note that Macabéa, subsisting in an “impersonal limbo” (23), resists facile encapsulation as a social type insofar as she is capable of perceiving and feeling what others fail to experience (“ela prestava atenção as coisas insignificantes como ela própria” [52]); [She paid attention to the insignificant things like herself]. The impersonal in Lispector constitutes a power and an opening to the outside. It points to desiring productivity, to the multiplicities at play in any event of desire. Indeed, Macabéa is compared to a saint who has yet to experience “êxtase” [ecstasy], paradoxical bearer of “tanta interioridade”[so much interiority], who believes [acredita] in life and prays “sem Deus” [without God] (34; 38). Without definitions, without ordering discourse, without knowing how to define the projects and rational contours that might constitute a self, Macabéa “registers” and emits a system of utterances that configure a pulsating world of subalternized desire. Macabéa’s eyes wander, as though in a deep dream, across the fringes and disintegrated detritus of capital: the weeds in the cracks of the sidewalks, the feint cawing of a stray rooster in the quay, dilapidated doors, placards, and mannequins, together with her encounters with society’s rejects. On the other hand, at an affective level it might be said that Macabéa’s turbulent interiority, her nameless sensations and “excessive sensuality”, turn on the problem of mimesis and a radical image of writing that Lispector erects with force in A hora da estrela. The site of the subaltern “interior”— the problem of desire as much as a problem of discourse— points to a zone of immanent singularities beyond representation as copy and capture: a rapture of the senses and a notion of mimetic play that could be described, following Irigaray, as an abyssal feminine alterity within the narrative structure.[27]

The fact that Macabéa’s emotions are encapsulated through the medium of a parenthetic structuring sequence of (explosions) connects us to the refractive plane of composition to which Rodrigo incessantly draws our attention, to the tracing of the text’s finitude.

Macabéa separou um monte com a mão trémula: pela primeira vez ia ter um destino. Madame Carlota (explosão) era um ponto alto na sua existência […] E eis que (explosão) de repente aconteceu: o rosto de madama se acendeu todo iluminado […] Madama tinha razão: Jesus enfim prestava atenção nela. Seus olhos estavam arregalados por uma súbita voracidade pelo futuro (explosão).

[Macabéa separated a stack of cards with a trembling hand: for the first time she was going to have a destiny. Madame Carlota (explosion) was a highpoint in her existence […] And so there you have it (explosion) of a sudden it happened: the face of Madame kindled all illuminated […] Madame was right: Jesus in the end paid attention to her. Her eyes were dressed by a sudden voracity for the future (explosion).]


Composed through free indirect discourse, as a passage of consciousness between the narrative voice and the mind of Macabéa, such a procedure is not innocent. The parenthetic sequencing of Macabéa’s emotions, connected to her newfound “voracity for the future”, inscribes a horizontality and multiplicity of textual flows that move against the grain of Rodrigo’s self-proclaimed project of “getting to the facts”. In Lispector, this non-categorizable language of the affect inscribes the imperative of subalternized desire and its virtual field, which is articulated across the “portraits” [retratos] of the subaltern Macabéa (39). In other words, the parenthesis that encircles the (sensuality) of the subaltern disrupts a dialectics of desire structured through lack, demand and identity. It ushers in, moreover, the problem of subaltern desire redoubled: as a field of (repressed) affective singularities that place in question the field of the representational. Far from imposing a form on the subaltern, and powerfully generating a rupture in the narrative flow, the explosion sequence interpellates the reader into a problematized present that had been structured hitherto in the narrative past. To the extent that the parenthesis performs a suspension of representation, it simultaneously triggers the untimely coming of critique and evaluation, the time of the present.

To the extent that the limits of discourse are framed through a series of untimely parentheses that encircle Macabéa’s affective states, we recall that Rodrigo repeatedly bemoans the difficulty he is experiencing in the act of writing. Like self-reflecting mirrors, these remarks surface throughout the work in a series of parentheses that read as aphorisms. These aphoristic remarks disrupt and evaluate the text in its course, and configure the site through which Rodrigo “theorizes” and admits the impossibility of his writing project.

Ela era calada (por não ter o que dizer) mas gostava de ruídos. […]


(É paixão minha ser o outro. No caso a outra. Estremeço esquálido igual a ela). […]


(Com excesso de desenvoltura estou usando a palavra escrita e isso estremece em mim que fico com medo de afastar da Ordem e cair no abismo povoado de gritos: o Inferno de liberdade. Mas continuarei.)



(Vejo que tentei dar a Maca uma situação minha: eu preciso de algumas horas de solidão por dia senão me muero).


(Como é chato lidar com fatos, o cotidiano me aniquila, estou com preguiça de escrever esta história que é um desabafo apenas. Vejo que escrevo aquém e além de mim. Não me responsabilizo pelo que agora escrevo.)


(Vejo que não dá para aprofundar esta história. Descrever me cansa). (33-72)

[She was quiet (for not having anything to say) but she liked noises. […]


(It is my passion to be the other. In this case, her. I shudder equally squalid like her).


(With excessive boldness I am using the written word and all this trembles inside me and I remain with the fear of distancing myself from Order and of falling into the abyss populated by howling: the Hell of freedom. But I shall continue.)



(I see that I attempted to give Maca one of my situations: I need each day a few hours of solitude, if not I die).


(How boring to deal with facts, the day-to-day annihilates me, and I’m too lazy to write this story which is a relief, and hardly that. I see that I’m writing beneath and beyond myself. I take no responsibility for what I now write.)


(I see that it’s useless to expand and deepen this story. Description tires me).]

A mechanism of suspension and the untimely, the parentheses proliferate as much as they refract, thereby drawing our attention to the text’s multiple titles. These titles are constituted as an ideogram of poetic, aphoristic fragments and are arranged through a system of ors, or reflective alterities—a paradigmatic articulation of the becoming immanent of Lispector’s syntax and authority, as her very signature constitutes an “or” title.

Figure 3. Title Page, A hora da estrela.

If, as Augusto de Campos states, the fundamental problem of the Concrete poem or poetic ideogram is one of semantic mobility and the communication of the poem’s structure, it could be said that the novel is organized as a veritable framing machine, and images a constant problematization of the appropriative powers of mimesis. Accordingly, Lispector’s text suspends the formal system of elements comprising Rodrigo’s writing system in order to extract an alternative order of things from a radical alterity on the margins of the polis—the migrant worker in the city as subaltern; a parenthetic fracture in order that beckons; a passage from figure to a poetics of immanence.

For example, the first depiction of Macabéa is a distorted mirror image. When she goes to the bathroom and stares in the mirror in shame because her boss has berated her incapacity to spell correctly as a typist, we do not see her face but that of the narrator. “Vejo a nordestina se olhando ao espelho”, Rodrigo notes, “e—um rufar do tambor—no espelho aparece o meu rosto cansado e barbudo” (22); [I see the Northeasterner gazing at herself in the mirror and—roll of the drum—in the mirror appears my gaze tired and bearded]. Far from speaking for the subaltern Lispector’s text is concerned with the movement of words, sensations, and problems related to mimesis on a plane of composition, a language of the life of writing, and the abyss in signification that subalternity presents to/in writing and art.

The image of the mirror is not innocent or Oedipal, but constitutive, contiguous, and essentially connective. It is the gesture of incessant critique that accompanies the maneuver of radical creation that A hora da estrela articulates in every single turn of phrase, in every liberated syntactical detour that comprises its refractive textual status. In its mirror series which articulates an allegory and “gradual vision” of writing as “emergência”, in the double play of emergency and emergence (12;10), A hora da estrela’s compositional plane could be seen as a relational, incessant creation/critique with respect to identitarian, representational politics.

IV. The Problem of Death and the Literary in A hora da estrela

In the preceding pages I have zeroed in on Lispector’s self-purported strategy of constructing a radical image of writing, or linguagem de vida [a language of life], against the problematic of writing the subaltern and the feminine. And yet, what are we to make of the overriding theme of death that informs the novel’s conclusion? How does death in A hora da estrela relate to the so-called “exhaustion of the literary” in the field (“Newness” Moreiras 131), or to what John Beverley has called “the discursive orientalizaton that has operated, and still operates within the Latin American ‘lettered city’” (Latinamericanism 21)? Moreover, can the stakes set out in Lispector’s mediation of death in A hora da estrela productively provide us a new, improper and untimely opening to alterity, subalternity, and the debate on the literary?

Predicated on an inversion of Madame Carlota’s prophecy, Macabéa’s death ends in melodrama. But significantly this is a far cry from the melodrama of narrative identity politics, whereby writing would endeavor to capture, map or “transculturate” the subaltern and integrate her into its representational regime.[28] This is a melodrama that defies dialectics.[29] Far from encountering her fairy tale prince, as she begins to cross the street—“moved by words”—Macabéa is run over by a yellow Mercedes (79). We next find Macabéa curled in a fetal position on the asphalt, like a question mark, but also struggling for life like a nascent embryo. Macabéa’s death reads in slow motion with enigmatic undertones. “Vou fazer o possível”, Rodrigo relates, “para que ela não morra” (81); [I’m going to do everything possible so that she doesn’t die].

Rodrigo postpones Macabéa’s death, deferring it across a sequence of self-reflections which concern his role as creator and critic of the text. Rodrigo becomes endlessly refracted across the broken body of writing’s limits; for the extent to which Rodrigo reflects on the meaning of Macabéa’s death is the constantly interrupting measure by which he questions his very own authority and limits as a writer. Indeed, death becomes the site of a fundamental transmutation of roles: Macabéa’s hour of death constitutes her “cinematic” stardom, marking the end of the protagonism of the narrator’s writing project. “Macabéa me matou”, Rodrigo states (86); [Macabéa killed me].

Enigmatic promise of closure, but also the affirmation of a new beginning, the question of death for Rodrigo constitutes the promise of “self-encounter” [“A morte é um encontro consigo”] and of “symbolic” “resurrection” (86; 83). We are broaching the promise of the present at stake in Lispector’s project; the hour of the subaltern figure’s death but also that of the narrator’s authority. Ontological interruption of the narrative universe, the present of the text is configured as a “pulsating inflexible geometry”, as a compositional plane of immanence that decomposes the representational flow of the storyline (82). Death is a self-encounter, is an event of writing in Lispector insofar as the compositional plane, painstakingly erected in her work, simultaneously decomposes and dissects its discursive elements—its protagonists, its narrator, its story, its system of symbols, figures, and narrative registers—marking them as constructs like mapped out lines on the textual surface for the reader.[30]

The problem of the reader, tied inexorably to the problem of a radical, de-ontologized present of the literary, is not simple, and it certainly does not hinge on merely making the reader active, as one is want to say regarding modernist works. With respect to the much-commented “Author’s Dedication”, Rodrigo states: “Trata-se de livro inacabado porque lhe falta a reposta. Reposta esta que espero que alguém no mundo ma dê. Vós?” (10); [This work is incomplete because it lacks a response. A response that I hope someone in the world will give me. You?].

Figures 4, 5 and 6. “Morte de Maca” [Maca’s Death]. Manuscript notes for paragraphs 483, 484 and 488, A hora da estrela. Notes by Clarice Lispector and Olga Borelli.

Previously in the “Author’s Dedication” we learn of the narrator’s passion for music, whose preferred composers such as Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and Stravinsky he compares to “profetas do presente” [prophets of the present] (9). The immanence of affect as a becoming, as an ensemble of perceptions that one undergoes in the present, in Deleuze’s lucid account of the percept in art, becomes a vehicle that sheds light here on Lispector’s multiple, literary present.[31] But this present, duplicitously inscribed through the literary, is one of self-undoing, of self-refraction, of breaking down, interruption, and undergoing as opposed to dominating.[32] Defying the logic of mastery it is properly abyssal, feminine, yet affirmative, a present that is constituted on a radical plane of composition that is always more than one; simultaneous creation and flight into auto-critique, the self-reflexive dimensions of A hora da estrela, composed in the final year of Lispector’s life, articulate a refractive “opening” to what Gaytrik Spivak calls the “undecidable figure” (72).[33]

Not an open-ended exposure to the “other”, nor a Neo-Arielist “orientalizaton”, then, but a maintenance, multiple in stature, of a tension. Alberto Moreiras has called “the exhaustion of the literary” the fundamental recognition of “the limitations of representation” and what led him and a host of critics in the field into theory, in an exodus from traditional “literary studies” in the 1980s (“Newness” 131). His overarching question for this generation is “how can recourse to cultural and civilizational elements” become non-identitarian and “freely strategic” as practices of “non-domination” (Latin American Postcolonialities). If there is an “exhaustion of the literary” this would concern the literary’s institutional, identitarian and representational integrating pretensions which have been critiqued at length (131).

While the literary may die in Clarice, and with Clarice, it is the condition of possibility for her “yes” to a radical mode of writing that she composes with force in A hora da estrela. This is where I am taking Moreiras’s lucid appeal a step further regarding the literary regime of representation, and his critique of transcendental, identitarian and teleological political ideologies that inform the study of literature and cultural systems. It involves a new image of writing at stake in Lispector, concerning not only the problem of the politics of literature, vanguardism and subalternity in the Brazil of the 1960s and 70s, but of composition, immanence, and the question of taking positions in the present. It is a legacy and a mark from within the text that begs our “reposta” today. Throughout I have conceptualized the problem of strategy in Lispector as the simultaneous affirmation of the immanent life and death of the text: a text composed and decomposed, affirmed and critiqued, on an incessantly refractive plane of composition so as to charge the reader to see the present as entirely fabricated and site of struggle, and in consequence, worthy of incessant critique and reconfiguration.[34] This is Lispector’s momentous “sim” [yes] to a new image of writing in Brazil of the 1960s and 70s, one that inaugurates her final novel as a critical enterprise to write the subaltern. She ends it in immanence as an act of affirmation, on the very limits of the literary letter, with the simultaneous death of both writer and figure. Against the “death” of writing, or any rigid modality of identitarian fixity that would claim to speak “for” the subaltern as a final inflexion of the literary regime of representation, the aesthetic dimensions of A hora da estrela articulate a “sim” to the exigency and irreducible joy of counter-constructing the present: as an act of dis-identification and collective, immanent, self-encounter.


01. All translations are mine. The interview was conducted on 20 October 1976 at the Museum of Image and Sound in Rio by writers and personal friends of Lispector, Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna and Maria Colasanti. See Lispector 2005, 137-171. 

02. The final interview, produced in February 1977 by the program Panorama Especial on TV Cultura, is widely available on the internet. For a textual transcription, see Lerner, 62-69.

03. Charles A. Perrone’s contribution on this topic remains essential, see 67-86. See also Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna’s comprehensive, Música Popular e Moderna Poesia Brasileira (1978).

04. See Marta Peixoto’s article on Lispector’s exploration of urban poverty and the subaltern in her chronicle writing, in the novel, A paixão segundo G.H. (1964), and the posthumous story, “A bela e a fera, ou a ferida grande demais”, in the compilation, Closer to the Wild Heart: Essays on Clarice Lispector (2002), 106-125.

05. For an overview of A hora da estrela and a careful consideration of its place within Lispector’s oeuvre, see Earl E. Fitz’s article, “Point of View in Clarice Lispector’s A hora da estrela“(1982), 195-208. See also his monographs, Clarice Lispector (1986) and Sexuality and Being in the Post-Structuralist Universe of Clarice LispectorThe Differánce of Desire (2001). With respect to bibliographical research, in addition to Moser, see also the insightful studies by Nádia Batella Gotlib and Teresa Cristina Montero Ferreira. 

06. It is clear that Rodrigo’s narrative modality is far from innocent, as Marta Peixoto and others have astutely noted. And yet, beyond a logic of writing centered in victimization and representational violence, I am shifting the problematic to the consequences that follow from Lispector’s radical compositional plane. That is, to the multiple, non-appropriative, and feminine events of writing that Lispector’s novel unleashes. 

07. Concerning the concept of the literary habitus or literary field, see Pierre Bourdieu, “Field of Power, Literary Field and Habitus”, 161-175. Of course, in Bourdieu’s affirmation, “the literary field is the economic world reversed” (164). The literary field’s legitimacy is structured through the construction of values based on belief, and what Bourdieu calls the literary law of “disinterestedness” (164). Unlike in the Europe of the nineteenth century, the Latin American literary field’s consolidation in the twentieth century was uneven and never fully “disinterested”. Anchored by the rationalizing, national popular project of mapping the continent and expressing regional difference vis-à-vis North America and Europe, the Latin American literary field became a regime, political in scope, of representation. On this topic, see Horacio Legrás’s Literature and Subjection: The Economy of Writing and Marginality of Latin America (2008), Julio Ramos’s Divergent Modernities: Culture and Politics in Nineteenth Century Latin America (2001), and Ángel Rama’s Transculturación narrativa en América Latina (1982) and La ciudad letrada (1984).

08. With respect to debates in the field of Latin American Studies centered in the literary as a regime aligned to the state and the problematic of subalternity, see the pioneering work of John Beverley, in particular, his Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory (1999) and Against Literature (1993); Alberto Moreiras’s Tercer espacio: literatura y duelo en América Latina (1999) and The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies (2001); Gareth Williams’s The Other Side of the Popular: Neoliberalism and Subalternity in Latin America (2002); and Bruno Bosteels’s lucid essay, “Theses on Antagonism, Hybridity, and The Subaltern in Latin America” (2005).

09. See Bruno Bosteels’s critical insights regarding the call for “un-suturing” art from politics in his essay, “Theses on Antagonism, Hybridity, and The Subaltern in Latin America” (2005). However specific their materials, literature and politics share an in-common ordering of the sensible. See Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (2010). “Politics is first of all a way of framing”, writes Rancière, “among sensory data, a specific sphere of experience”. “It is a partition of the sensible, of the visible and the sayable which allows (or does not allow) some specific data to appear; which allows or does not allow some specific subjects to designate them and speak about them”. Accordingly, “[t]he politics of literature thus means that literature as literature is involved in the partition of the visible and the sayable, in this intertwining of being, doing and saying that frames a polemical common world” (152). 

10. Concerning the relationship between poststructural thinking procedures and thinking the feminine, Earl E. Fitz’s book has been insightful, see Sexuality and Being in the Post-Structuralist Universe of Clarice Lispector: The Differánce of Desire (2001), and his co-authored, Ambiguity and Gender in the New Novel of Brazil and Spanish America (1993), with Judith A. Payne. See also, Lucia Helena’s article, “A Problematização da Narrativa em Clarice Lispector” (1992), 1164-1173. With respect to criticism of Cixous’s readings of Lispector, see Ana Klobuka, “Hélène Cixous and the Hour of Clarice Lispector”, 41-62; and, Elena Carrera’s “The Reception of Clarice Lispector via Hélène Cixous: Reading from the Whale’s Belly”, 85-100.

11. The essay was later published in Peixoto’s influential Passionate Fictions: Gender, Narrative and Violence In Clarice Lispector (1994), see 82-99.

12. See Irigaray, This Sex 106-118. “It behooves us”, she writes, “to look into the ‘exteriority’ of this form that is ‘constituent’ for the subject, into the way it serves as a screen to another outside […] into the death that it entails but in a ‘relief’ that authorizes misapprehension, into the symmetry that it consecrates (as constituent) and that will cause the ‘mirage’ of the ‘maturation of its power’ for the subject to be always tributary of an ‘inversion’, into the process of projection it puts in place—‘a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone’?—and into the phantoms that it leaves as remains […] Thus fluid is always in a relation of excess vis-à-vis unity […] That is, any definite identification” (117). 

13. Quoting from Marx’s Capital, Irigaray argues: “The value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance…Turn and examine a single commodity, by itself, as we will. Yet in so far as it remains an object of value, it seems impossible to grasp it”. The value of a woman always escapes: black continent, hole in the symbolic, breach in discourse…[…] In order to have a relative value, a commodity has to be confronted with another commodity that serves as its equivalent. Its value is never found to lie within itself…Its value is transcendent to itself, super-natural, ek-static. In other words, for the commodity there is no mirror that copies it so that it may be at once itself and its “own” reflection. One commodity cannot be mirrored in another as man is mirrored in his fellow man….The mirror that envelops and paralyzes the commodity specularizes, speculates (on) man’s labor. Commodities, women, are a mirror of value of and for man. In order to serve as such, they give up their bodies to men as the supporting material of specularization, of speculation. They yield to him their natural and social value as a locus of imprints, marks, and the mirage of his activity” (This Sex 175-177). 

14. “To achieve a gendered subjectivity is to become the whole of oneself”, Irigaray observes, “with the condition of not being the whole of the subject, of consciousness, of being, etc. In this perspective, there is no longer a negation of the negation in the Hegelian sense but the constitution of another type of subject and culture […] The problem is that the subject, historically masculine, has a tendency to apprehend the negative as oppression, as external to oneself, and not enough as a process of existing in itself/himself and necessary for the construction of interiority” (Why Different 75).

15. Pheng Cheah’s account of non-dialectical materialism in the philosophical projects of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida has been illuminating. See his, “Non-Dialectical Materialism” (2008), 143-157. 

16. In her lucid study, A escritura de Clarice Lispector (1979), Olga da Sá observes that A hora da estrela “constitui o ultimo coágulo de uma escritura toda voltada para a pesquisa a respeito das correspondências entre ser e linguagem” (216); [constitutes the ulimate inflection of a writing completely aborbed with researching the correspondences between being and language]. Invoking Roland Barthes’s Criticism and Truth (1966), da Sá conceptualizes Clarice’s writing as one of a “radical engagement with language proper” such that it questions at the same moment that it affirms: “Clarice não é um filósofo, um pensador, mas uma escritora, fundamentalmente comprometida com o ser sob linguagem; ou, melhor, com a linguagem, espessura do ser” (19); [Clarice is not a philosopher, a thinker, but a writer fundamentally engaged with being as language; or better, with language, density of being]. In the “Preface” to da Sá’s book, Haroldo de Campos makes an important observation regarding the radicality of Clarice’s project, linking it, as it were, to his own Concrete poetics that contextualize his work in the 1950s, 60s and 70s: Clarice’s work “se perfila e se desdobra como proposta questionante”(12); [profiles and unfurls as a questioning proposal]. “A literatura praticada por Clarice não é, própriamente, da índole do que caberia designar, prima facie, como ‘literatura do significante’. É antes uma “literatura do significado”, mas levada à sua fronteira extrema, à tensão conflitual com um referente volátil, à figuras de indizibilidade, e mobilizando para tanto todo um sistema de equações metafóricas […] instaurado a contrapelo do discurso lógico, mediante o qual são aproximadas ou contrastadas as regiões mais surpreendentes e imponderáveis do plano do conteúdo” (14); [Clarice’s literature is not, at first glance, what one could describe as a “literature of the signifier”. It is a “literature of the signified”, but carried to its extreme limit, to a conflictual tension with a volatile referent, to figures of anti-expressivity, and accordingly, mobilizing an entire system of metaphorical equations…against discursive logic, through which and by which, at the level of content, Clarice’s writing attains to or contrasts the most surprising and imponderable regions]. 

17. See Jean Franco’s important study, “From Modernization to Resistance: Latin American Literature 1959-1976”, 285-310. 

18. Concerning the problematic of thought and writing to non-writing, Gareth Williams has lucidly argued that the subaltern’s inscription within the socius “obliges us to commit to a thought of relationality and potential finitude. It is therefore the promise of a radical interruption within any given conceptual system, for it undoes the naturalized constitution of that system and thereby establishes the demand for other relations between critical reason and its cultural objects” (The Other Side 11). In a recent article, Luciana Namorato derives a reading from one of the novel’s thirteen titles, “Ela não sabe gritar”. For Namorato, one may read the resistant, non-verbal, affective life of Macabéa—especially in terms of its “silences” and strangeness—as generative of the novel’s writing procedure. See, “A tentação do silêncio em “Ela não sabe gritar” (ou a “A hora da estrela) de Clarice Lispector”, 50-62. See also Tace Hedrick’s reflections on the oft-flawed character of English translations of Lispector’s work, including Giovanni Pontiero’s translation of A hora da estrela. Drawing on Walter Benjamin and Gayatri Spivak, for Hedrick, by mistranslating Lispector’s “original’s mode of signification”—which would mean providing more literal translations—, readers might miss Lispector’s “constant search for ways to express, in language, what she thinks of as the extralinguistic, essential, and generative nature of such (biologically) female experiences as fecundity, pregnancy, and maternity” (56;62). 

19. For a discussion on the metatextual in Lispector, see Clarisse Fukelman, “Escreves estrelas (ora, direis)”, 7-25. See also, Benedito Nunes, “O movimento da escritura”, 150-155. An insightful overview of Lispector’s critical reception can be found in Cristina Ferreira-Pinto Bailey, “Clarice Lispector e a crítica”, 7-23. 

20. For a general reading of Lispector from a Jewish standpoint, Nelson Vieira’s contribution remains essential. See “Clarice Lispector: A Jewish Impulse and a Prophecy of Difference”, 100-150; and, Naomi Lindstrom, “The Patterns of Allusions in Clarice Lispector”, 111-121.

21. For an insightful examination of the question of the nation in the Brazilian literary tradition and in relation to A hora da estrela, see Paulo de Medeiros, 142-161. 

22. And yet, unlike Graciliano Ramos in his novel Vidas Secas (1938) and monumentalized as a pioneering film of Cinema Novo of the same title by Nelson Pereira dos Santos in 1962—where both artists cast protagonist Fabiano in illiteracy, and whose access to the lettered city would seemingly serve as a condition of possibility for enfranchisement—Macabéa is spun as a porous, refractive figure whose relation to writing beckons the reader to reflect on the compositional strategies at play on the part of the narrator. Far from an external story of social types grounded in an unbreachable subject/object divide, the problem of the letter in relation to the subaltern becomes a generative, internal path, or compositional field, that the novel stages with force. 

23. Concerning the textual layering of Macabéa’s “retratos” Lesley Feracho provides an examination of the ways in which Rodrigo’s depictions of Macabéa “reveal the stereotypes of northeastern inferiority” (94). See her “Textual Cross-Gendering”, 85-108.

24. It is clear that the narrative’s compositional plane displaces emphasis from any subject/object dialectic, that is, from any reading of Rodrigo’s writing project in the dichotomizing terms of phallocentrism and Eurocentrism. The image of writing at play in A hora da estrela becomes an impersonal force of lines in flux, of “words that appear as words”, even as they combine to narrate a story of writing over that of the representation of polarized social and gendered subjects. 

25. A hora da estrela might be productively examined in terms of the modes through which it constructs a series of lines, an “inflexible pulsating geometry”, that negotiates the limits of figuration so as to arrive at an affirmative, alternative, problematical syntax related to a distribution of singularities, sensations, and an untimely present (82). 

26. My thanks to Dru Dougherty for the apt expression “flight into objectivity”, and for introducing me to Charles Altieri’s book The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects (2003). Regarding the affect in its relation to composition, no doubt Gilles Deleuze’s work remains essential. See in particular, Proust and Signs (2000), and Essays Critical and Clinical (1997).

27. With respect to the feminine in Lispector, see the works of Lucia Helena, Nem musa nem medusa: Itinerários da escrita em Clarice Lispector (1985); María José Somerlate Barbosa, Clarice Lispector: des/fiando as teias da paixão (2001); and Lesley Feracho’s two chapters dedicated to A hora da estrela in Linking the Americas: Race, Hybrid Discourses, and the Reformulation of Feminine Identity (2005), 67-108.

28. I owe this formulation to Alberto Moreiras’s paper talk at LASA 2012 in San Francisco, “From Melodrama to Thriller”. Moreiras’s talk was part of a larger panel discussion, organized by Erin D. Graff-Zivin, on Moreiras and José Luis Villacañas’s Iberian Postcolonialities Encyclopedia Project

29. Of melodramatic consciousness, Louis Althusser writes: “[M]elodramatic consciousness can only be dialectical if it ignores its real conditions and barricades itself inside its myth. Sheltered from the world, it unleashes all the fantastic forms of a breathless conflict which can only ever find peace in the catastrophe of someone else’s fall…In it, the dialectic turns in a void, since it is only the dialectic of the void, cut off from the real world forever. This foreign consciousness, without contradicting its conditions, cannot emerge from itself by itself, by its own ‘dialectic’. It has to make a rupture — and recognize this nothingness, discover the non-dialecticity of the dialectic” (140). My thanks to Gareth Williams for this reference.

30. Referring back to the ideogrammatic title page, in the very middle, beneath Clarice Lispector’s signature, we read: .QUANTO AO FUTURO. Framed by two periods, like a subtle parenthesis that is nonetheless definite, trenchant, the fragment’s futuricity as title over sense is suspended, just as the gesture of any imposed representation in Lispector is undone at the textual surface. 

31. See Deleuze’s lucid account of the percept, affect and concept, in What is Philosophy? (1994), 163-199.

32. On the present in Lispector, Silviano Santiago has written the following statement: “O esforço da narrativa ficcional de Clarice Lispector é o de surpreender com minúcia de detalhes o acontecimento deconstruido. Ele é um quase nada que escapa e ganha corpo, é esculpido matreiramente pelos dedos da linguagem” (237); [The impetus at stake in Clarice Lispector’s narrative fiction is to astonish, with utmost detail, the deconstructed event. This event is an almost nothing that escapes and takes on a body: it is sculpted most skillfully through the fingers of language]. See his, “A Aula Inaugural de Clarice Lispector” (2004), 232-241. 

33. See Death of a Discipline (2003), 71-102. “I have suggested that literary studies must take the figure as its guide. The meaning of the figure is undecidable”, writes Spivak, “and yet we must attempt to dis-figure it […] And to learn to read is to learn to dis-figure the undecidable figure into a responsible literality, again and again” (71-72). The “undecidable figure” for Spivak is underwritten by a notion of cultural planetarity over globalization, to a process of “othering” over an identitarian, dialectical viewpoint. This radical alterity that takes place in the textual act of responsible, non-dominating dis-figuration allows one to relate, respond, and read in a non-dialectical but planetary way, to the “vast precapitalist cultures of the planet” (101). The undecidable figure would no doubt share a relation with “the immense heterogeneity of subaltern cultures of the world” (16). 

34. “For me”, notes Irigaray, “questioning the patriarchal world has been possible from the discovery of the fabricated character of my feminine identity” (Conversations 3). 

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