“Love” by Clarice Lispector
There are times, when one has dropped one’s guard, that the world slips in through the cracks. Staggered suddenly, we are overwhelmed by the pain and suffering about us. We see it as if for the first time—gaudy, garish, profane. It incriminates us; it makes us feel angry and helpless; it shakes our convictions, our certainties; it fills us with longing, with dread. The triggers vary—a song, an illness, a blind man chewing gum. Even everyday exhaustion does the trick. Yet for most of us such occasions, such flashes of insight, are woefully rare. By the time we are adults we’ve become so adept at keeping the world and its agonies at bay that we are hardly aware we are doing it—and with such vigilance, such energy, reflexively numbing (with video, with drugs and alcohol, with the daily violence of routine), if not blocking altogether, those precious sensors in our brains that allow us to sympathize, even to empathize, with the people around us, to feel this life truly, to see and sense it as it is.
W. H. Auden, in his famous poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” writes,
About human suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…
These lines might very well have been the prompt, the inspiration, for Brazilian author Clarice Lispector’s astonishingly trenchant short story, “Love”. While not an Old Master, she was certainly a Modern One, a writer with an exquisitely refined sense of the pain and anguish of others. The premise of the story is simple: a relatively happy, self-satisfied housewife is on her way home from buying groceries when she spots a blind man from the window of the tram, a grim, if normally prosaic detail that somehow penetrates her defenses and shakes her to her core. Suddenly the safe, cozy bubble she has made of her life is burst. She puzzles,
But what else was there about him that made Anna sit up in distrust? Something disquieting was happening. Then she discovered what it was: the blind man was chewing gum…a blind man chewing gum. Anna still had time to reflect for a second that her brothers were coming to dinner—her heart pounding at regular intervals. Leaning forward, she studied the blind man intently, as one observes something incapable of returning our gaze. Relaxed, and with open eyes, he was chewing gum in the failing light. The facial movements of his chewing made him appear to smile then suddenly stop smiling, to smile and stop smiling. Anna stared at him as if he had insulted her. And anyone watching would have received the impression of a woman filled with hatred… A second signal from the conductor and the tram moved off with another jerk… The tram was rattling on the rails and the blind man chewing gum had remained behind for ever. But the damage had been done.
The story itself is like the blind man chewing gum; it is a perfect example of what art does best, interrupting the expected narrative of our daily lives, giving us pause, even stopping us dead in our tracks. Rumi once said that “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Of course the ‘wound’ he speaks of is what all great literature is about—making us vulnerable to others, keeping us susceptible to the world in which we live.
“Love” is one of the many remarkable stories included in the collection, Clarice Lispector: Complete Stories, published by New Directions.
Peter Adam Nash