Lispector and the Seeds of Time

 by Michael Marder

JANUARY 26, 2015


The unclassifiable writings of Clarice Lispector—are they literary? philosophical? both? neither?—give us perhaps too much to think, despite the apparent simplicity of words, expressions, and sentence structures they resort to. What I would like to single out in Lispector’s texts is the coming into her view and under her care of the world, which is figured in vegetal terms. Running a little ahead of myself, I will also suggest that the missing third, the implicit mediator between her and this world, is time: the time of the world and of one’s own life expressed through parts of plants and through the milestones of germination, maturation, or decay. Returning to the earliest determination of temporality (concretely, as a tempo) through seasonal change, which is equally bound to the rotations of the planets and to the most appropriate periods for sowing and reaping, she transposes this seemingly archaic mode of thinking onto her own existence, which imperceptibly dissolves into the growing, flourishing, and decaying of the world.

“I am tired,” Lispector confesses in Água Viva. “My tiredness comes often because I am an extremely busy person: I look after the world. […] With my glance, I must look after thousands of plants and trees and especially the giant water lily. It’s there. And I look at her. Looking after the world also demands a lot of patience […].”[1] Not this or that plant, animal, or inanimate object, but the whole world is under her care. Indeed, it comes into its own, becoming-world, as she looks at and after it, patiently, without the desire either to dominate or to appropriate it. She does not experience the frenzy of possession but the fatigue of giving herself—to the last drop—to the world so that it would become or be what it is. That is another (ecological) way of constituting the world as such, without grasping, using, drying it up, draining its vital forces. If anything, it is Lispector who is drained by her constant, global care.

The world as such is the matter of her concern. And also a matter of time, because the world does not happen all at once, consisting as it does of multiple, heterogeneous rhythms, paces, tempos of becoming or unfolding. It requires patience in the face of not only the infinite and inexhaustible variety of the movements that transpire in it; not only the fragility of its coming into being that seems to vanish in the absence of an attentive and caring glance or a word that says what is; but also the injunction to wait for the right time—of germination, blossoming, fruition. In this awaiting, Lispector discovers both herself, as a point of intersection for the times of the world and for everything or everyone growing in it, especially plants. As she puts it in Learning to Live, what is needed is “[p]atience: to observe the flowers, imperceptibly and slowly opening.” [2] This attitude, by the way, is something Kierkegaard could not experience, according to his own ironic admission, similarly linked to the vegetal world: “I lack altogether the patience to live. I cannot see the grass grow, but since I cannot, I don’t feel at all inclined to.” [3] Is it sexual difference that accounts for these drastically opposed relations to plants, to growth, to time, and to life itself? Whatever the case, lingering with grass or with the flowers in a state of forbearance is a token for living in the eyes of the Danish philosopher and the Brazilian writer alike.

Patience, tying together the world of plants and the psychic existence of a human, demands the impossible: to accompany a rhythm of being that is radically foreign to me, slowing down to the pace of florescence and dehiscence, of germination and growth. Now, this impossibility is indispensable for life, which vibrates with its nonhuman echoes outside and within me. Lispector, again: “This is life seen by life. I may not have meaning, but it is the same lack of meaning that the pulsing vein has.” [4] All impatience is, at bottom, impatient with the meaningless. Striving to see the growth of grass is absurd, Kierkegaard implies, and, therefore, is not worth my while. But, in dismissing plant growth, the entropy of things, climate change, the instant or the moment, the inner experience of other human beings, etc., etc., as unobservable, ergo absurd, I miss out on life in its entirety. I lack altogether the patience to live. The deadly flower of nihilism does not flourish on the grounds of the absence of meaning; on the contrary, it crowns an excessive attachment to meaningfulness as an ideal, which is nowhere to be found in the growing grass, the pulsing vein, the living world here-below…

If Lispector is capable of lingering with the imperceptibly opening flowers, this is because, for her, the instant itself, every single one of them, is vegetal. “And from the instants I extract the juice of their fruits. I must deprive myself to reach the core and seed of life. The instant is living seed.” [5] The instant is, at once, fruit and seed, the end and a new beginning. Living is juicing the instant in an effort to get to its living seed, which will germinate into another one, and another… In no way does this “extraction” involve violence perpetrated against the world nor against anything in it. Rather, since the instants weave the fabric of who I am, the juicing of the fruit is the juicing of myself. To “reach the core and seed of life”, “I must deprive myself”. That is why the “small catastrophe” of taking a bite into the fruit of time is, for Lispector, always and ineluctably, gnawing on myself: “The day seems like the smooth stretched skin of a fruit that in a small catastrophe the teeth tear, its liquor drains. I’m afraid of the accursed Sunday that liquefies me.” [6]

Moistness is Lispector’s favorite coded reference to femininity throughout her works, including the emblematic The Passion According to G.H. Yet, she also plays with the tenuous balance between the wet and the desiccated, the juicy flesh of the fruit and the hard kernel, the personal and the impersonal, liquefying herself into the written word and “drying out” her work, that is, “removing its many explicit biographical references.” [7] This alternation, too, obeys the pace of living somehow, miraculously, concentrated in a fruit. Already double in itself, containing the discrete instant of the seed and the continuous flow of juices, the fruit doubles into the inner and the outer, that of the world and that of psychic life, whereby the one infinitely mirrors and passes into the other. Hence, on the one hand, the “fruit of the world,” “enormous, scarlet and heavy,” which remains whole and untouched despite her biting into it, [8] and, on the other, the fruit of her life: “In the early hours I awake full of fruit. Who will come to gather the fruit of my life?” [9]

Stated in dry—I use this word intentionally—philosophical language, the lesson of Lispector is the speculative identity between the two. The fruit of the world is the fruit of my life; the world is mine to the extent that it is entrusted to my care and attention; my life is the world’s to the extent that it is squeezed out of me, draining into everything I do and resonating with beings that are not me. Above all, what the two fruits share—are they really two?—is that each of them is, so that through being (what each of them is) they come back to the instant, retracting into the living seed they harbor. The last and the first word on this subject belongs to Lispector: “And in the instant is the is of the instant. I want to seize my is.” [10]


[1] Clarice Lispector, Água Viva, translated by Stefan Tobler (London & New York: Penguin, 2012), pp. 53, 54, 55.

[2] Clarice Lispector, Aprendendo a Viver (Rio de Janeiro: Rocco Editora, 2004), p. 28.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (London & New York: Penguin, 1992), p. 46.

[4] Lispector, Água Viva, p. 8.

[5] Lispector, Água Viva, p. 6.

[6] Lispector, Água Viva, p. 11

[7] Benjamin Moser, “Breathing together”, in Água Viva (London & New York: Penguin, 2012), pp. vii-viii.

[8] Clarice Lispector, An Apprenticeship, or the Book of Delights, translated by Richard Mazzara and Lorri Parris (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), p. 112.

[9] Lispector, Água Viva, p. 32.

[10] Lispector, Água Viva, p. 4.

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