The Materialist Mysticism of Clarice Lispector, Jamming, 11/12/2014

This week, I finished reading a novel that depicts serious spiritual ecstasy without any religion whatsoever. Let me set the context first.

You know what bugs me about the “New Atheists” that too many people find impressive? I mean, aside from all their racism. It’s the sheer reductive blandness of their ideas. They commit the juvenile error of believing in a vision of science as a perfect system of knowledge that discovers only absolute and perfect truths about the world, which is bad enough. 

But even beyond this, the New Atheist picture of the world is as a place of pure, simple existence. The only events in the world are the trivial and mundane. Scientists tell us how the world works, and it’s the simple collisions of billiard balls. Anything more profound than that is an expression of their hated religion. For Dawkins, Maher, Harris, et al, understanding your identity through any kind of conception of the divine is a sign of idiocy.* They’re the kinds of dunderheaded atheists that unfortunately arise in an era where moronic Biblical literacy is more popular than it’s ever been before.

* Even here, I’m tactfully leaving aside their contention that anyone who steps inside a mosque is a mass-murdering child rapist. 

If you read Lispector's The Passion According to G. H.,
and I strongly recommend you do, it seriously helps to
imagine the narrator as a Brazilian Lucille Bluth.
Religion is most profoundly about frameworks to develop your identity through dialogue with the divinity of existence. This ethical dynamic accepts (like all sane religious thinking) pluralism of religious tradition and belief. How each person understands divinity in existence is unique to each person. Both oppressive religious institutions and New Atheists understand religion only as a series of doctrines for the masses to swallow whole for the sake of social and political conformity. Understanding the divinity of life is a more mystical path.

I recently finished reading a landmark novel of Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G. H., a short, dense work that consists entirely of an interior monologue of a mystical experience in the most unlikely place. The G. H. of the title is a wealthy woman on the cusp of middle age who lives in Rio de Janeiro. I already felt happy to read an existentialist story whose "generic human" was a different kind of person than an early-middle aged white male. She begins the story in a typical moment of self-absorption, annoyed at having to clean her apartment herself for the first time in a while. Her live-in maid, whose name she has trouble remembering, has left her job and moved out. She’s stuck cleaning her room.

G. H. realized, on discovering a large wall-drawing, that her maid hated her. When she discovers a cockroach crawling out of an armoire and collapses, she spirals into an experience that I can only call a communion with matter itself. The cockroach’s empty black eye reflects its entire species’ history. She understands how disgusting living matter, indeed the very nature of even being alive, is. Squishy, moist, and oozing. 

Everything is pardoned because everything is alive, and life requires the consumption of other life to continue. The inevitability of death and grotesque violence is a casual revelation. She crushes the cockroach in the door, and through the long moment of its death, she begins to experience what feels like hours in seconds. Death is inevitable, a fact that deserves neither blame nor punishment. Reality is, in Lispector’s words, neutral, and the universe is a profound indifference to both suffering and joy. 

As a toddler, Clarice Lispector fled
Ukrainian pogroms with her family
to Brazil, where she grew into one
of her country's greatest writers.
We are interdependent bodies that eat and are eaten, are consumed to be reformed in a new form. This is a world without fear, because nothing is ever truly destroyed. The world is a vast and complicated continuity of change, its renewal a constant now. Humanity is a sad over-complication of reality, creating angst and terror from the egocentric songs of self-consciousness. Even the nature of our existence as individuals separate from the world around us is a mistaken perception, an error in judgment resulting from our over-complicated nervous systems. If there is a hell, says Lispector’s G. H., it’s an all-too-human life of constant worry and fear.

All of us will die eventually, and dying will be a relief from our anxiousness. Existence as dirt and rocks lets us experience slow, calm attitudes, the relaxed existence of simple bodies. Humans have so many ways to be irritated that everything in the world constantly annoys us. Death, simplifying our material, is a welcome calm after the continual busyness of organic living. 

“The world interdepended with me – that was the confidence I had reached . . . Life is itself for me . . . And therefore, I adore.”

I don’t really think my spoilers tag was appropriate for that.

Lispector’s Passion should be read if you ever feel yourself agreeing too much with a Richard Dawkins or a Bill Maher. Instead of an atheism that’s moronic and simple, Lispector can give you the foundation of an atheism that delivers all the profundity of religion at its best, even as popular religion falls into the idiocy of literalism. Biblical literalists and New Atheists deserve each other, and in my more resentful moments, I'll be glad to watch them can snipe each other to death for my amusement.

I’ll be with the mystics.


  1. They commit the juvenile error of believing in a vision of science as a perfect system of knowledge that discovers only absolute and perfect truths about the world, which is bad enough.

    But even beyond this, the New Atheist picture of the world is as a place of pure, simple existence. The only events in the world are the trivial and mundane.

    I suppose it's possible that Bill Maher and Sam Harris feel this way about science and life -- I'm not that familiar with their positions on those subjects.

    But I think it's unlikely that Richard Dawkins is as naive about science as you're painting him to be. It's been a while since I read The Selfish Gene, but as I recall it takes a pretty reasonable and professional view of science: it's all about creating models to explain observed phenomena, and those models are almost never perfect and absolute but subject to reevaluation and reexamination. I don't meet too many people who actually work in the sciences -- as opposed to just running photoblogs with captions -- who subscribe to the view of science you're describing.

    Similarly, though I admit I haven't read either book (yet -- I do own the second one), I can't imagine someone titling a book The Magic of Reality or The Greatest Show on Earth without having at least some sense of wonder about events. I doubt he thinks what he's writing about in those books is "trivial and mundane."

    This is not to say Richard Dawkins is a wonderful human being. He's frequently obnoxious enough in public that he can be difficult to want to defend. But I think that it's all too easy for people to caricature his views, and to conflate "New Atheists" with atheists in general, or views about science (a process of inquiry) with views about the nature of reality, and so on.

    Which is why I'm glad you haven't (entirely) done so here, and recommended a book I intend to sample as soon as I have a chance. I doubt I'll ever consider myself a mystic, but I do have enough interest in the kinds of experiences and perceptual shifts you're describing here that this book sounds worth checking out.

    1. You're right that when it comes to New Atheism, Dawkins is an exception when it comes to understanding materialist wonder, although his understanding of that sense of wonder is a little artificial compared to other philosophical traditions and fiction writers. He's one of the most famous New Atheists, and he does espouse their stereotypical view of religion as malevolent superstition.

      But none of the other major figures in that camp (Hitchens, Harris, Maher) share his background in the sciences. So they, ironically enough, think about science in the same kind of superstitious manner that they snark at when it's about divinities and spirituality. So they dominate the tone of New Atheism as its popularly received and perceived. The reasonable sense that Dawkins has of science is drowned out by the more ignorant views of his colleagues, and his own most publicized recent pronouncements has been his statements of crotchety racism about Muslims.

      That ignorant image of science is a superstition with a respectable pedigree in how Robert Boyle promoted the first science propaganda in the generations after the English Civil War. But that's a long story.

    2. I also don't like it when people conflate all atheists to the hostility of the New Atheist camp, whether it's the pretentious dismissal of Hitchens, the crotchety bile of Dawkins, or the moronic snark of Maher. I've identified as an atheist for many years, and that doesn't mean I don't believe in the divine, or think that some contexts in which people experience the divinity of existence are best suited to being called experiences of God.

      It's a conception of materialist divinity that was clearest in the works of Spinoza, which is quite similar to a historicist interpretation of the human experience of divinity that emerged from the Jewish theological tradition. The underlying ontology is in Spinoza (God is all that exists, Deus sive Natura), and Martin Buber's works explore how the human experience of the divine changes depending on our social and psychological capabilities (how the divine manifests for us depends on our capacities to imagine and understand what it is to be divine).

    3. At first I was going to say that you seem to be suggesting that scientists don't experience wonder the way other people do. But then I read your second comment, and you seem to be narrowing down "other people" to those who are in some sense trained to experience it (philosophers and fiction writers?).

      As you say, it's a long story. But it does seem to end with the stereotypical view of scientists as shallow people with hollow lives. I can't imagine that's what you intended, so I must have misunderstood you.

    4. New Atheists would be the shallow people with hollow understandings of the universe. Scientists tend to have a better idea of the profound nature of existence because they understand how scientific knowledge works. Writers like Spinoza and Lispector can understand divinity in an atheist sense much better than contemporary New Atheists, and Buber shows how much grey area there is between ideas that have been called atheist in the past and conceptions of God.

    5. Looks like I have some reading to do! Thanks. :)