At the height of her success, at only 46, a brush with death cost Lispector much of her famed beauty. In September 1966, she dozed off while smoking and accidently set her apartment on fire. According to her biographer Benjamin Moser, her two life-long addictions — to cigarettes and sleeping pills — “had finally caught up with her.” The accident left her with severe burns across her body and a badly maimed writing hand. After a three-month stay in the hospital and a difficult convalescence, she was drastically changed. Although still a striking figure, she suffered greatly, according to her son Paulo, from “an unconfessed disillusionment with the loss of the beauty of her youth.”
In August 1967, she started writing crônicas — free-form literary columns for the country’s most prestigious newspaper, Jornal do Brasil. “So with great pleasure I sell you a certain part of my soul — the part of Saturday conversation,” she writes of her new vocation as a cronista. In one of these chronicles, which, by her own confession, were unabashedly personal in nature, Lispector writes:
Once she started ageing she preferred to remain indoors. I am convinced she actually thought it was in bad taste to be seen out and about after reaching a certain age: the air outside was so fresh and pure, her body so repugnant with its flabbiness and wrinkles. […] Others did not mind her presence in public for everyone accepts that people grow old. But she herself found it distasteful. How anxiously she tried to restore the figure she had lost, distress written in those eyes which were still bright.
She titles this column “Non-Acceptance.”
Like Beauvoir in her midlife memoir Force of Circumstance (1963), Lispector first encounters the specter of old age in the mirror (betrayed by an involuntary glance) and erupts into “cries of horror”:
I often stop, flabbergasted, at the sight of this incredible thing that serves me as a face. […] I loathe my appearance now: the eyebrows slipping down towards the eyes, the bags underneath, the excessive fullness of the cheeks, and the air of sadness around the mouth that wrinkles always bring.
The aging body confronts itself in the mirror (of societal expectations) and is repulsed, shrinks back from its reflection, cannot identify with it. The heroine of Lispector’s story “In Search of a Dignity” (from her 1974 collection Where You Were at Night) searches her face in the mirror for any signs of her bestial, carnal feelings but encounters only the subdued, complacent “mask of a seventy-year-old woman.” From the outside, she sees a “dried up thing like a dried fig.” On the inside, invisible to all but herself, she knows she isn’t shriveled at all; she is “like moist gums, soft just like toothless gums.” There is a horror associated with the aging body and especially the aging body of a woman. “As men see it,” Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex (1949), “a woman’s purpose in life is to be an erotic object. When she grows old and ugly, she loses that place allotted to her in society: she becomes a monstrum that excites revulsion and even dread.”
This equation of old age with ugliness, with monstrosity, compounds women’s alienation from their corporeal selves as they age. “Fears of ageing,” Lynne Segal points out in her seminal work Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing (2012), “are fed almost from birth by terrifying images in myth and folktale — the hag, harridan, gorgon, witch or Medusa. Such frightening figures are not incidentally female, they are quintessentially female, seen as monstrous because of the combination of age and gender.” No wonder Lispector disavows old age in her crônicas, distancing herself through the use of the third-person pronoun.
She gives herself away, of course; the tell-tale title “Non-Acceptance” evokes the denial that accompanies the first shock of recognition. Within the fictional space of her stories, however — primarily the provocative tales gathered in Where You Were at Night and The Via Crucis of the Body (both published in 1974, three years before her death) — she confronts the “pleasures and perils” of the aging female body with startling honesty. Here, the horror of age and deformity is temporarily forgotten in moments of “gnawing hunger” that capture the stolen joys of the body (even if it is a leaky, wrinkled husk of its former glory): the “conjurings” of a “virgin widow,” the yearnings of a 77-year-old woman for a young pop star, or the secret desires of an 81-year-old, who masturbates and then cries.
Aware of the “dangerous subject” she broaches, Lispector is quick to disavow any identification with her characters. Via Crucis begins with an “Explanation,” a justification of sorts for the “indecencies in the stories.” Needless to say, says Clarice, these things didn’t happen to me or my family and friends, contradicting the comment of an unnamed character in the collection’s opening story: “I, who understand the body. And its cruel demands. I have always known the body. Its dizzying vortex. The grave body.” In “The Sound of Footsteps,” 81-year-old Mrs. Raposo goes to the doctor to find a cure for that wretched disease, “the desire for pleasure.” “Life made this old woman dizzy,” Lispector writes. Listening to Liszt and inhaling the scent of a rose only made it worse.
One agrees with Moser then that Lispector’s heroines are “avatars of herself, as tenuously fictionalized as always,” and her preoccupation in many of these stories is to confront, to humanize, without lapsing into sentimentality, the aging body of a woman. Stripped of all personality, rendered as “anonymous as a chicken,” her depictions of female decrepitude smack of black comedy. In “The Departure of the Train,” Lispector writes: “An old woman cannot be communicated.” Is “old woman,” then, an empty signifier, meaning nothing? Or is language so limited that it forecloses all possibility of self-expression in old women? In “In Search of a Dignity,” the elderly protagonist accepts with complete resignation “the absurdity of total miscommunication”: when she says “Ipanema,” the taxi driver hears “Jardim Botânico.” “[H]er life was just like that.”
In “In Search of a Dignity,” 70-year-old Senhora Jorge B. Xavier is trapped in the labyrinths of “desire out of season” for the young matinee idol Roberto Carlos, trapped in the “fatal secret of old women” — that the “desire for pleasure,” as 81-year-old Cândida Raposo finds out from her gynecologist in “The Sound of Footsteps,” “lasts until we die.” Mrs. Raposo is distraught: “So what am I supposed to do? no one wants me anymore…” “There’s no cure for it, ma’am,” says the doctor with compassion. “And … and what if I took care of it myself?” the old woman asks. “That might be a remedy,” the doctor blandly responds.
Which raises the question: Is death the only way out of the labyrinth of desire? In “The Departure of the Train,” 37-year-old Angela Pralini thinks that “there must be an exit” for “the shameless old woman” in love with a younger man, if only “the husband who’d be home the next day” or, failing that, “the intense and fruitful prayer in the face of despair.” This, however, turns out to be wishful thinking, since Angela herself is a “fugitive” from desire, hoping to escape an all-consuming love. For her part, Senhora Xavier is aware of the “deep and fatal well” of the body, “whose depths were unseen […] alive like lizards and rats.” She is aware that “her damnation was lasciviousness,” her love “cloyingly voluptuous and greedy.” She “would die secretly as she had secretly lived.”
Yet shame and resignation give way to defiance; the search for dignity culminates in an acknowledgment, however painful, of desire. To purge oneself of desire for something “unattainable,” one must first acknowledge it. “In old men she’d certainly witnessed leering glances,” Senhora Xavier thinks. “But not in old women. Out of season. And she, alive as if she were still somebody, she who wasn’t anybody.” To age with grace and dignity does not require freeing oneself from the shackles of sexuality; as Segal points out, the “situations that trigger desire are diverse and unpredictable,” and extend beyond “some particular physical action or engagement” to embrace “the full panoply of joy, hope, longing, frustration, disappointment, pain, and more.” It is thus impossible “to declare sex ‘safely’ over.” Lispector takes part in debunking the myth of the “post-sex” female body by affirming Segal’s view that “sexuality in the form of desire is an all-pervasive aspect of our physicality.” It never dies.
The enunciation of desire, for Senhora Xavier, comes with the recognition of her own individuality: “she was she.” Only by embracing her own uniqueness can she begin to articulate the mysterious “that,” the unnamable, incurable feeling — “this strange heat,” like the dark, underground tunnels of the stadium where she finds herself lost. “That,” she now acknowledges, “with no shame at all, was the gnawing hunger in her guts, hunger to be possessed by that unattainable television idol.” The pronouncement of love (“‘Robertinho Carlinhos’ […] my love” — full of renewed wonder, free of modesty or shame) is an affirmation of life, an assertion of the self against the anonymity and facelessness of the social construction of old age. For Lispector, the search for dignity culminates not in the repudiation but in the acknowledgment of desire, the staunch refusal to die before death. Elsewhere, a record of a dull day bursts into an ecstatic, celebratory declaration: “Long live me! who’s still alive.”
Aishwarya Sahi is a writer and editor from Patna, India. Her work has previously appeared in Blackbird, The Recluse, and nether Quarterly.