With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst (trans Adam Morris). $12.95, 96 pp. Melville House Press.
Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst (trans John Keene). $15.95, 136 pp. Nightboat.
The Obscene Madame D. by Hilda Hilst (trans Rachel Gontijo Araújo and Nathanaël). $14.95 80pp. Nightboat.
“It’s good to be weird and old,” proclaims Tiu, the failed author and sex-crazed vagrant of Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer. An experimental writer of poetry, plays, novels and her own genre of avant-garde pornography, which she called “pornochic,” Hilst was sixty-one when she published her masterpiece Cartas de om Sedutor—brought out earlier this year as Letters from a Seducer, in a translation by John Keene. From age thirty-six until her death in 2004, Hilst lived in semi-seclusion on a rural farm sixty miles north of São Paulo, devoting herself to her writing and to the care of some hundred adopted dogs. It was there that she produced all of her fictional works and conducted her EVP experiments (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), making tape recordings of radio static in which she purported to hear the voices of the dead. She published her first collection of poetry at age twenty, but it would be twenty more years before her first novel, Fluxo-Floema, appeared in print. As a younger woman, she had been a glamorous, jet-setting socialite, as well as a celebrated poet and playwright. But now she is better remembered in her native Brazil as both an old, exceptionally weird recluse and one of the most important Portuguese-language novelists of the last century.
Hilst often expressed admiration for Joyce and Beckett, going so far as to claim: “if I wrote in English, I would be Joyce.” But now that her work is finally being rendered into Joyce’s native tongue by the most capable of translators (all gifted stylislts in their own right) there’s even greater cause to doubt Hilst’s assertion. This is not to detract from her considerable talent. On the contrary, Hilst gives herself too little credit. Her prose writings are not a rehashing of high modernist technique but belong to an extraordinary category of their own, radiating weirdness, written in a language that is at once impossibly refined and spontaneous, unrehearsed. They produce a sudden and unmistakable effect upon a reader, akin to what Professor Amós Kérés, mad protagonist of Hilst’s Com meus olhos de cão (With My Dog-Eyes), can only call “a clear-cut unhoped-for.”
Hilst dedicated both The Obscene Madame D. (translated by Nathanaël in 2012) and With My Dog-Eyes (translated this year by Adam Morris) to the Jewish American philosopher Ernest Becker, for whom she professed “unrestrained vehement and passionate admiration.” In his most famous work, The Denial of Death, Becker posits an existential paradox as the source of all human sufferings: because man is half animal, half symbolic—inhabiting both the physical world of objects and an inner symbolic world of meanings—he alone among animals is tormented by the abstract knowledge of his own death. All other creatures live freely, thoughtlessly, “in a state of dumb being.” Becker wrote extensively about the ways in which this divorce of physical being from meaning produces mental illnesses. He theorized schizophrenia as:
an attempt by the symbolic self to deny the limitations of the finite body; in doing so, the entire person is pulled off balance and destroyed. It is as though the freedom of creativity that stems from within the symbolic self cannot be contained by the body, and the person is torn apart.
Hilst’s own father was diagnosed with schizophrenia during her adolescence and her mother was later institutionalized for dementia. All her life she feared going mad. Becker’s schematization provides the thematic template for Hilst’s fictions, in which she virtualizes madness—“this rolling up this shattering of the body,” as Karl writes in Letters from a Seducer—in a language that is, like the body, always “captured by its own measure.”
Letters from a Seducer brings us directly into the work of the two fictitious writers, Karl and Stamatius (“Tiu”). We first get to know Karl—depraved “aristocrat” and widely published author—through his love letters to a distant, cloistered sister, Cordelia, in which he speculates about her implied affair with their father, supposed to have occurred when they were both teenagers and both in love with him. Suffice it to say Karl has his doubts. Prove it, he says: “Prove to me you had in your hairy cavern the big paternal cock and curls.” Karl has a seemingly endless supply of sly, poetic euphemisms for his sister’s vagina, but his best is perhaps: “your purse, your poor pussy so without pursuers”—a turn of phrase for which translator John Keene (and not Karl) actually deserves our applause. Stamatius, once Karl’s rival, is an unpublished would-be author, a garbage picker living in squalor with his lover Eulália, his only reader, who may or may not be just another aspect of himself, the “materialization” of a howl. We get to know Stamatius through his demented monologuing and short fictions, interrupted by Eulália’s readerly remarks: “Why’d the dude do it?” “I don’t understand anything.” “I’m sad.” Indeed, this is the problem with Stamatius’ fiction, insists Karl. Too abstract and too “ascetic,” it makes people sad when it ought to be getting them off:
A writer isn’t a saint, my man. The thing is inventing ballsy stuff, things to turn people on, pussies in hand, the guys want to read something that makes them forget they’re mortal and shit . . . Tiu, with your mania for infinitude who is going to read you?
Stamatius does consider that perhaps he is better suited for a life of moral perfection than he is for the sleazy poverty of writing. He entertains the possibility of becoming a saint and, inexplicably, of cutting off his “sea bream” or instead training it to simply “adjust” itself into a “flimsy little butthole.”
Hilst wrote that at age eight, attending convent school, her greatest desire was not to be a writer, but to be a saint. She was deeply impressed by the stories of Saint Margaret-Mary Alacoque, who drank large quantities of contaminated bathwater (used to wash the rotting wounds of lepers) and who also described an incommensurable joy felt after eating a sick man’s diarrhea. “I vomited every time the nuns talked about it,” Hilst wrote, “They’d say ‘you mustn’t vomit!’ For I too wanted to be a saint.” In this case, to become a saint is “to eat death’s fig,” as Stamatius writes, to perform the most obscene, unimaginable acts, which are the symbolic equivalent of death, venturing out beyond the limits of one’s own horror and distaste. For Stamatius, the penultimate act—the symbolic death that precedes bodily death—is castration: not a conquering or a transcendence of the body but rather a full, immediate knowledge of the body as such, a “package of shit,” a “heap of debris.” This experience of inescapable immanence, of being forced back into one’s body, is also articulated by Stamatius’ description of the moments that follow orgasm:
An explosion of invisibilities, a sound of glass and cracking, and afterwards a languor flowing, one that life’s for, yes I am captured by that woman like my body is captured by its own measure . . . and suddenly I know that abandoned fish, that mortal body.
In Music & Literature magazine’s roundtable on Hilst, John Keene discusses some of the ways in which certain of Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts might be “operative” in Hilst’s fiction. Here, I am thinking specifically of Brian Massumi’s qualification of Deleuze’s philosophy as “the point at which transcendental philosophy flips over into a radical immanentism.” It is at this critical point, the tipping point between transcendence (orgasm’s explosion of invisibilities) and immanence (life’s sad remainder: the abandoned fish) that Hilst’s fiction locates itself. In “The Autonomy of Affect,” Massumi describes it as the simultaneous point of emergence and vanishing of “the unclassifiable, the unassimilable, the never-yet felt, the felt for less than half a second, again for the first time—the new.”
In his own writing, Karl is plagued by a “crazy urge” to reproduce the fundamental language of Daniel Schreber as described in Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. It is, as Karl writes, the desire “to not make sense of some things, some words, of my own life.” In his memoirs, Schreber, a schizophrenic former judge, painstakingly explains, with ample footnotes, his own personal delusional system, according to which his body has been overwhelmed by “nerves of voluptuousness”—nerves which, according to Schreber, naturally occur on all surfaces of the female body but which, on the male body, remain concentrated in the genitals. The propagation of Schreber’s own nerves has effectively turned him female (“unmanned” him, as he writes). What’s more, his overabundant nerves are constantly under invasion by God’s penetrating “rays,” agitated into a state of insupportable vibration—the source of his “nervous illness.”
Schreber’s fundamental language, or nerve-language, in which Karl would aspire to write, is the vibratory language of euphemism and coded paradox through which God’s rays “speak” to Schreber’s nerves and against which Schreber’s only defense is not thinking, or more precisely, the cultivation of “not-thinking-of-anything-thoughts” through semantic satiation: he repeats words until they grow meaningless and his thoughts turn empty and mechanical. Schreber reasons that if he can cease thinking entirely he might trick God into believing him dead.
“God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter.” So begins Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes. Standing atop a hill on the campus of his university, esteemed professor of mathematics Amós Kérés suddenly feels himself invaded by an “incommensurable meaning,” “a clear-cut unhoped-for,” which silences his nerves, all those feelings: “Painful, intense, pulsing without rest, my body a tremulous throb, a continuous living mass attempting to conceal itself, there was danger in life, there was danger in father.” This moment of dumb awareness, free of “father,” is the germ for his ensuing madness. He desperately seeks to recapture it, shedding all the trappings of his former life—his job, his wife, his son, their shared house chock-full of books, toys, dresses, and all the miscellaneous, now indecipherable objects—to wander the streets like a stray dog, recognizing no one. Although it is by no means an easy undertaking, as Amós writes: “it’s such an effort to try not to understand, it’s the only way to stay alive . . . ” Like Schreber’s attempts at not-thinking, Kérés’ technique for not-understanding involves a “designifying,” as he calls it: “Designifying / I’m melting the measure / I created.”
Stamatius makes a clear distinction between consciousness as a mental or symbolic distillation of life and what he calls Bewusstsein, “much more Awareness than consciousness,” immediate and unfiltered sensation, lived intensity. As he writes, “only feeling is what has knowledge palpates kneads opens rips.” Hilst’s fiction has often been characterized as utilizing stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques, but I would contend that what her writing more often generates is something like a “stream of awareness.” Having “melted the measure” of his own language, Amós Kérés is incapable of abstract thought, he can only feel:
How do I feel? As if they’d placed two eyes on the table and said to me, I who am blind: this is that which sees. This is the material that sees. I touch the two eyes on the table. Smooth, still tepid (recently wrenched out), gelatinous. But I don’t see seeing. That’s how I feel trying to materialize in narrative the convulsions of my spirit.
If a large concern of Joyce’s writing project is the creation of linguistic textures, Hilst, by contrast, seems more interested in synthesizing new textures of feeling. Her radical immanence is not an immanence of body, but of language, or rather, of a language that is body. As Stamatius writes: “Why do I continue to sully papers trying to project my breath, my sounds, into the body of language?”
Hilst often experiments with the threshold between meaningful and meaningless language—language that is projected breath, the materialization of a howl—often deploying language as affect in such a way that it can correspond to nothing, is non-representational and so: “unassimilable to any particular, functionally anchored perspective.” This language is compact, deliberate, and even chemical in its formulations: words are the splendor, the scintillation, the powder packed into dense, capsular phrases that dissolve in a reader’s spongy awareness. It is a language that produces only fleeting sensations or intensities, that nevertheless leave their traces, their residues, upon a reader’s psyche: “and the knots were tightened, the murk duller, the diffuseness more lachrymose, the entanglement more octopus . . . ”
For Ernest Becker, schizophrenia is a failure to build up “dependable character defenses” against the reality of personal death. And since, as he argues, the denial of death is the basis of all human pursuits (work, art, love), the disorder itself is nothing if not “a failure in humanization.” Invaded by meaning and unable to forget, by force of habit, the incongruity of self and body, the schizophrenic is “pulled off balance and destroyed.” And precisely because self cannot transcend body, is always recaptured by it—held hostage by its hungers and excretions (“excreting” being, according to Becker, the most cruel, persistent reminder of man’s physicality, his “abject finitude”)—the only cure for such madness is, as both Amós and Stamatius ultimately understand, full-bodiedness. When read from this perspective, With My Dog-Eyes is not so much the chronicle of a professor’s “descent into madness,” but of his descent into body, into matter. He struggles to do away with his named, symbolic self, to attain the animal’s wholesome and untroubled Awareness:
The path without steps
The wing of a bird touches
As Stamatius also writes in Letters from a Seducer: “I will devote myself to silence, I will forget I’m human.”
To be aware but not conscious is to see the world through dog-eyes. Indeed, at the end of the professor’s wanderings, he discovers that he, Amós Kérés, is nolonger himself: having been transformed into something resembling an old dog, dying by the sea (and the sea is also no longer itself, now only a black and stirring expanse, a smell carried on the wind.) Reduced to silence, to the animal’s state of non-comprehending, of “dumb being,” Kérés is pure dog’s carcass and then deceased: only spirit, “rising like wet fog.”
It’s not unlikely that a reader of Hilst will, upon reaching the end of this novel or another, find herself in a far less exulted state of “non-comprehending.” Without prior knowledge of Hilst’s own readings, it’s very hard to understand what’s actually happening to Amós Kérés and why. Her novels are often lacking in any kind of conventional narrative progression. And this is especially true of The Obscene Madame D., in which there is no “going mad’ but only madness from start to finish. Things do not develop, they merely pass away, and this passing away produces an unsettling presentiment of loss. Letters from a Seducer, With My Dog-Eyes, and The Obscene Madame D. are all slim books and despite the experimental nature of both their form and content, they are also exceedingly “readable” books, and can be consumed in a single sitting. And still, they leave us feeling distinctly uncertain of our own intellectual powers, our ability to parse meaning from language. This is Hilst’s intended effect. It is, even, her signature. I would submit that her writing simulates in language what Brian Massumi calls affective escape: because the body is unable to consciously absorb or “assimilate” all of life’s various, simultaneous sensations, much of what we feel escapes our notice. But, Massumi observes, “actually existing structures live in and through that which escapes them,” this escape being, in itself, “nothing less than the perception of one’s own vitality.” Or as Amós writes: “it’s the only way to stay alive, trying not to understand.”
It has been suggested that the abstruseness or impenetrability of Hilst’s writing, the impression it wants to leave us with—that something has escaped our understanding, is lost to us or upon us—serves only to conceal a lack of substance. And yet, just as in The Obscene Madame D., the eponymous lady, grown old and weird, laments the “light missing at the heart of my own matter,” a reader would be well within her rights to lament that undetermined and chaotic darkness, that vacuum, around which Hilst forms the matter of her fictions. It is, after all, God: “the Unfounded,” “a Surface of Ice Anchored to Laughter.”
Christiane Craig is a writer, translator, and master’s candidate in Comparative Literature at the Paris-Sorbonne University.
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