Triptych image: Lera Nikulina, “Grinberg Method”
FOR THE LAST SIX YEARS, I’ve been carrying around a tattered copy of the introduction to Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil. Until tonight, however, I didn’t appreciate its ironic duality: the beginning of a larger work, but at the same time, the last of a man’s life’s work. One that Becker didn’t live to see published, as he died only a few months before his 1974 magnum opus, The Denial of Death, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Nonetheless, this introduction had a profound effect when it was given to me in a literature class, by a professor who I’ve often credited for leading me into the writing life. Without knowing who Ernest Becker was — without ever seeking out another page of his writing until now — I kept this essay, with my marginal notes, folded up in a jewelry box on my dresser as I moved from room to room, city to city. Every now and then I would come across it, open it up, read it, and put it back in its place. One sentence in particular always struck me:
[M]an is first and foremost an animal moving about on a planet shining in the sun.
The lack of punctuation brings ambiguity into the image: is the planet shining, or is man? Is man’s creatureliness (Becker’s word) somehow glorious? A work of psychology and philosophy, Becker’s Escape from Evil expounds on his work in The Denial of Death, itself a groundbreaking investigation into the division between man’s animal self and his symbolic self. Becker posits that this division is the basis of man’s neuroses: that man is forever searching for meaning in the world of symbols while at the same time conscious of, and terrified of, his own inevitable “death and decay.”
This is no doubt what the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst was thinking about when she dedicated her novel The Obscene Madame D and “all future works, if there are any” to the late thinker. Hilst’s book tells the story of Hillé, a woman who, after “eating the flesh of God,” decides to live in a recess under the stairs. There, Hillé (or Madame D, for “dereliction”) reflects on her relationship with her recently deceased husband, who was perplexed by her refusal of sex and social interaction in favor of metaphysical speculations. In her solitude, Madame D confronts her relationship with God, her body, her imminent death, her society, and her identity’s dependence on language.
The Obscene Madame D is the first of Hilst’s work to become available in English, with a translation by Nathanaël in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araújo. It arrived along with several new translations of novels by Brazilian women writers last year, most notably Clarice Lispector, whose name appears in both blurbs on the back of The Obscene Madame D. Tempting though it may be to consider Hilst alongside Lispector, however, as both were Brazilian women writing experimentally, on similar subjects and around the same period, it would be doing Hilst a disservice not to consider her independently.
Hilst’s work ranges from theater to poetry to fiction and nonfiction, changing focus several times and often blurring the lines between genres. She collected multiple literary prizes over 40 years, the last in 2002, two years before she succumbed to an infection at Casa do Sol, her country estate near Campinas.
Her father suffered from schizophrenia and, for long periods throughout his life, lived in mental institutions. Hilst visited him in her childhood city of Jaú in 1946, and this encounter, as well as cases of mental illness among other family members, would have a profound effect on her work. Studying law at the Faculty of Law at the University of São Paulo, she met the writer Lygia Fagundes Telles (whose novel The Girl in the Photograph became available from Dalkey Archive Press in September), with whom she shared a close, lifelong friendship. In 1966, two years after the coup d’état that launched an 11-year military dictatorship in Brazil, she moved to Casa do Sol.
Though she wrote for many years under the military dictatorship, Hilst was mostly protected from its harshest effects thanks to her relative seclusion. Her work shows an interest in existential issues, science, mysticism, and themes of transformation. In the early 1970s (as Fagundes Telles was writing her highly political The Girl in the Photograph) Hilst was mourning the death of her mother and finding inspiration in the work of Friedrich Jürgenson, a Swedish researcher of the paranormal, whose writing about what is now termed EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomenon, led Hilst to experiment for several years with capturing and transcribing, by means of a tape recorder, voices with origins unexplained by science.
Written in shifting tenses and voices that blend in and out of one another, The Obscene Madame D features a protagonist wracked by mental instability, tortured by her inability to reciprocate her husband’s sexual invitations. She tells us that she is “I in search of light, sixty years in silent blindness, spent seeking the sense of things,” and proceeds to introduce a series of memories written in stream-of-consciousness prose that, at times, resembles poetry. In this way, Hillé confronts her human limitations, her corporeal existence. Her husband, Ehud, is dead; her father is dead. She is no longer able to deny the ghastly reality of her own body. This is where Ernest Becker’s influence becomes obvious: Hillé knows that her body — its desire, its filth, its inevitable death — is keeping her from fully existing in the world of symbols.
“[Man’s] body is strange and fallible and has a definite ascendancy over him by its demands and needs,” says Becker. “Try as he may to take the greatest flights of fancy, he must always come back to it.” The body is the only means through which one can possibly know anything, but man strives to escape his death and find meaning for his life in the world of symbols, in their cultural synthesis. (For it is culture that imposes upon man his identity, his purpose, his sense of self and his superego: “Our whole world of right and wrong, good and bad, our name, precisely who we are, is grafted into us.”)
But Hillé has eaten the body of God. She’s seen how this striving for bodilessness is folly, how our God, too, is bodily, and can die. She can no longer use God or culture to deny her creatureliness. This theme resonates as well in Hilst’s poems, including one recently translated by Caroline Aguiar, which includes the lines:
For a God, what a singular pleasure.
To be the owner of bones, the owner of flesh
To be the Lord of a brief Nothing: man:
Attempting likeness with you, Executo(ione)r.
“This is one aspect of the basic human predicament,” says Becker, “that we are simultaneously worms and gods.”
But men aren’t built to be gods. A god can take in the whole matter of the world unfiltered. A god doesn’t need what Becker calls a causa-sui project — an “energetic fantasy that covers over the rumbling of man’s fundamental creatureliness.” Man’s neuroses stem from his need to filter the world, to take in a chosen part of its information. In other words: to deny the truth of existence. Those who cannot do this are paralyzed; they cannot function. However, Becker argues, artists and psychotics take in the world in much the same way: completely, the only difference being artists’ ability to channel the information of the world into creations. This becomes their causa-sui project, their stab at immortality. Hilst shows us the problem with this. Inhabiting the space under the stairs, Hillé fashions fish out of paper that disintegrates in water, a godlike activity that nonetheless depicts the transience of all bodies.
The Obscene Madame D is ostensibly narrated from the present, yet time is nonetheless slippery, and the unattributed dialogue contributes to the feeling of disorientation. Voices of neighbors, real or remembered, drift in from offstage — in the rafters, in the wings — calling Hillé crazy, labeling her perceived insanity, her self-imposed isolation, contagious. This unreliable narration nonetheless leaves truth to question: is she really insane, or is she, with her recently acquired ingestion of the truth, perhaps the only one who is actually sane? A hint at the autobiographical comes to a head at the end of the novel, when Hillé is seen with Ehud at the bedside of her dying father who says to Ehud, “Don’t let her ask the same questions I asked”:
[s]he dives, wise, heavy, toward the bank of shells, she wants to open them, she believes she’ll find pearls and she may find some but, I’ll slip this to your ear, she won’t be able to stand it, do you understand? there’s nothing inside
inside the pearls, Ehud, nothing, empty, you understand?
A warning, but Ehud’s presence in the scene tells us this memory is distant, that it is already too late for Hillé. Even before Ehud’s death, she had isolated herself, withdrawn from culture, sought truth by means of her personal dereliction. She has been “subjected to the terrifying paradox of the human condition” and can no longer live the lies she must in order to integrate with her culture. But is this the definition of sanity, or, rather, of insanity? Certainly, truth and sanity aren’t synonymous.
Becker built on the psychoanalytic idea of transference to explain man’s tendency to yield to a superordinate authority, to transfer our fears onto someone or something that can sustain us beyond the threat of death. As children, this is our parents; as adults, it may be our culture, our religion, our lovers, or our government. The death of Hillé’s father, her failed sexual relationship with Ehud, her spiritual disillusionment, and her relationship with language can all be seen in the context of her struggle against, or with, transference.
While the political situation in Brazil doesn’t often appear at the forefront of Hilst’s work, it does figure into her work thematically, and in the way she uses language. The experimental prose of The Obscene Madame D especially “can definitely be understood in the context of the military regime's waning, and all the possibilities that this opened up,” says Bruno Carvalho, a Brazilian literature scholar at Princeton and a participant in the Hilda Hilst panel held at Poets House when the translation was released. In the sense that language is a cultural and political construct, Hilst breaks that construct, and in doing so, asking us to hear life’s eventual silence.
Regarding the translation of The Obscene Madame D, Nathanaël says that the great challenge was “to maintain [Hilst’s] idiosyncratic punctuation and word order; there is a sense of something broken and at the same time highly rigorous about her prose.” Not a fluent speaker of Portuguese, Nathanaël translated the novel instead from the French, bringing it afterward into collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araújo, her Brazilian publisher at A Bolha Editora, who partnered with Nightboat Books on the edition. The result was “a disintegrative process that unmoors the languages in question from their perceived bases,” a process, I suspect, Hilst would have appreciated, as one who was ever-conscious of the fact that writing is a bodily act. It’s no surprise that she spent the early 1990s writing works that were largely considered pornography: a collection of poems and three novels, including one narrated by an eight-year-old girl. More like de Sade than E.L. James, these works push the limits of taste, of what can and should titillate. It’s no surprise that they brought her considerable notoriety, even among her peers, and especially among members of the literary establishment. “Hilst's work is flesh and blood and bones and that is it,” says Araújo, who founded A Bolha Editora to publish writers like Hilst. “It is body,” and bodies decompose, like the last pages of The Obscene Madame D, which fray into jagged lines of dialogue. Until now, Hillé has spoken of the Porcine Child as a kind of savior figure — at times like God, at other times like Jesus. Now, he enters the scene as a man:
what is your name?
I’m called the Porcine Child.
Because I like pigs. I also like people.