Indiana University Bloomington

Pulling the Self Together in “The Passion According to G.H.”

Rachel Carpenter, folklore and mythology, English literature, religious studies

Written for REL-R389: Religious Relationships

Instructor: Prof. Constance Furey


The Passion According to G.H. is a 1964 novel by Brazilian author and essayist, Clarice Lispector, depicting the plight of a sculptress who, encountering a cockroach in her maid’s quarters, spins into an existential crisis of self-identity and transformation. Lispector, a notoriously difficult writer, offers us a dangerous literary journey of self-discovery and revelation. For my paper, I will focus on one scene in particular wherein Lispector’s protagonist, G.H., contemplates this cockroach and what her emotional and bodily reactions to it could mean for her own identity. For Clarice Lispector, language can oft become insufficient for understanding the psychic, cosmic, and ontological locality of the self. As she twists and turns language to the point of breaking in her novel we see unfolding a complex and nearly incomprehensible navigation of narrative layers, the process of offering, and the intricacies of defining selfhood. Lispector’s writing can evade intellectual analysis in that it offers no explanations, but rather illustrations that unravel our preconceived notions of selfhood. She offers us a sensory, contradictory, difficult account of attempting to recognize one’s existential selfhood in relation to the divine and the earthly. Through a largely descriptive process, Lispector’s work withholds as much explanation as she reveals in concrete details. It is through these gaps, devoid of clarity or summation, that we can begin to ponder how she understands her selfhood in relation to God and in relation to the primal, earthly cockroach before her. Some of the most perplexing aspects of her description appear within her use of pronouns—parts of speech we expect to identify beings that here fracture them into complicated layers. Because of the complexity of her work, I will analyze Lispector’s writing alongside Henry Suso’s understanding of self-transformation and identity. By bringing Lispector’s tangled selfhood into conversation with Henry Suso’s work, The Exemplar, I will seek to better understand differing notions of not only the identity of the self, but how that self might be understood in relation to the divine and to earth, forming a Trinitarian relationality that tests the singularity and substance of selfhood. Where Lispector’s fragmented narrative engages a self that experiences self-loss unwillingly and that attempts to regain its boundedness, Suso insists that the ultimate goal of the self should be transcendence into a nothingness that is one with God.

Lispector’s use of language undermines the self through attention to goals of self-transcendence akin to those of mystical Christian theologians such as Henry Suso. For Suso, the self must always work toward achieving an existence of recognized nothingness, an oneness with God and the universe that transcends the boundaries of the preconceived and contained “self.” This attention to self-transcendence forms an important connection to Lispector’s writing, but there are some noteworthy differences between the two. Suso provides two conceptual frameworks that are especially helpful to understanding Lispector better: Firstly and significantly, he insists on the simultaneity of unity and distinction. All humans, he says are one with God even as they are split from God into their earthly form. Suso says, “All creatures eternally in God are God and have there no basic difference… But after their issuing forth, when they take on their own being, each has its own special being distinguished by its own form which gives it its natural being,” (Suso 311). This concept is key in parsing the multiple identities Lispector’s character attempts to reconcile. Suso’s perspective reframes the different connections between the identities of G.H. as both a unified whole and a diverse collectivity. Second, Suso posits a corollary: one must lose oneself, he says, in order to reestablish this connection with Christ and with God. What is the process of loss or reinvention of the self that alters it to become closer to God? For Henry Suso, it is a matter of recognizing the “nothingness of his own self,” (Suso 313). This recognition, while unable to be sustained experientially, lingers in the memory—it becomes the things perpetually striven for, as it is sought, gained, lost and sought once more. Suso’s self is a self that must be constantly pushed away, denied—against the overwhelming forces of self-boundedness. The self becomes viscous, unwillingly to be separated and in such is constantly moving magnetically toward a boundedness. Thus, Suso’s cyclical process, humanity’s ability to be brought into the nothingness and a closer relation with God, is transient and ephemeral at best.

For Lispector, then, we begin to wonder at this question of a transformed relationality. As her character, G.H., is confronted with the figure of the cockroach, she begins to lose the boundedness of her selfhood. Her pronouns referring to herself, to God, and to the cockroach intermix to the point at which G.H. loses a definite locality to her selfhood. Where does she begin and where does she end? This loss of self differs from Suso’s as it is not a goal to be reached so much as a perpetual process. Lispector’s self is also not a viscous one. It does not want to stay bounded. Where Suso’s self seeks ultimate melding into a cosmic collectivity, Lispector’s self fights against that unity, but experiences its loss all the more for her resistance. For G.H., it is not the desire to lose oneself in a beautiful and divine oblivion, but rather the struggle to desperately retain the fast-disappearing shards of her previously bounded selfhood. G.H.’s trial is an act of never-ending self re-gathering—in vain and with immense existential duress.

In order to locate G.H., we must ask where, on a spectrum of God and earth—here represented as a cockroach—Lispector places her character, G.H.? As G.H. herself works to answer this question, however, the spectrum begins to bend into a triangular, Trinitarian shape as the perceived distance between God and cockroach lessens until the direction of her transformation is troubled. Where does her change lead? Were having formed the Trinitarian structure of God, cockroach, and G.H. enough to understand the transformation and dislocation G.H. undergoes within the novel, we might end here with the comfortable recognition of G.H.’s relationality to God and roach in equal measure. Instead, however, Lispector further complicates the existential transformation of G.H. by multiplying her individual selfhood into selfhoods. G.H. is undergoing a transformation of self to self in a way that is inextricable from the Trinitarian connection to God and roach, but rather within it. Perhaps, then, the most intriguing question is where does Lispector place G.H. in relation to G.H. herself? How does her self-reconceptualization and realization alter these positions of relationality? Unlike Suso’s idea of an idealized finite nothingness, Lispector’s relationality takes one step further the movement to nothingness. It is not only divine, singular nothingness that she approaches but also utter, earthly selfhood. Her interrogation of how one might confront their earthly confines necessarily examines the painfully disorienting sensation one must undergo in the process of self-exploration. She becomes a self not singularly herself, but rather simultaneously a Trinity of self, cockroach, and God—with identities so completely related linguistically and existentially as to blur the boundaries of selfhood.

Within the novel, Lispector’s character, G.H., falls into an existential crisis as she is confronted with a cockroach emerging from the dresser of her maid’s room. Deeply afraid and transfixed by the insect, G.H. feels a sob “being born inside me,” something she frames as “that of my life splitting in order to procreate me,” (The Passion According to G.H. 136). We are witnessing a moment of reflection. This reflection is a narration of her actions, framed as sacrifice in hopes of self-growth. This sob sparks problems of self-creation and identification in the form of exchange with the subsequent question, “What was I offering? what could I offer of myself—I, who was being the desert, I, who had asked and had?” (136). On a very basic level, Lispector here provides us with a question, pondering—perhaps to no one in particular—G.H.’s actions and reactions. The sob born inside her is “my life splitting in order to procreate me,” a consequential effect of the sob, but also a description of the nature of it. The sob is part of her life that is born within her. It is her life splitting within herself. G.H. goes on to say this splitting birth is in some way wholly procreative in that it is “splitting in order to procreate me.” She is about to be created by the biological and metaphorical diffusion of herself. It is this “about to be” that is key here. She is not born of the sob. She is intended to be, possibly even is able to be, but she is not yet procreated. For Henry Suso, the intent and aim toward unfolding is an escape from the earthly self. It is then all the more important that G.H. exists in a formless, liminal state, on the verge of re-creation but frozen in the act of splitting. If “form gives being,” as Suso says, this state of non-being or nameless, not-yet-being, allows G.H. a glimpse, perhaps, of nothingness (Suso 311).

The subsequent question of offering that follows this introduction to birth reveals in its syntax the primacy of offering—“What was I offering” instead of “I was offering what?” This allows the unknown subject being offered to be the leading object of the sentence moreso than the “I.” Where the speaker—“I”—would normally hold greater importance in the mere fact of its having the power of voice in the sentence, we see the thing being offered as being more important, more powerful than the “I.” This syntactical primacy allows the unknown subject to be capitalized and emphasized, again bestowing it with heightened importance and power over the “I.” In such, Lispector shows a difference between the capitalized “What” of “What was I offering?” and the subsequent lowercase “what could I offer of myself,” of the following sentence. The unknown subject is diminished slightly in uncertainty. It is a distinction drawn between a question of fact—“What was”—and possibility, potential—“what could.” Though an offering, it is not readily apparent with whom she is exchanging, nor what she is exchanging. She is not directly asking “Thou,” a figure who appears in the following paragraph, but rather herself.

Throughout, this exchange process is framed a self-sacrifice. For Lispector and G.H., sacrifice is understood as the giving up of self in order to create something new. The sacrifice is a necessary step for the exchange here, one that culminates in a creation of a self that is both the same as before and entirely different.

It is worthwhile to understand, then, that Henry Suso’s conception of a self-sacrifice posits change to be one of exiting the selfhood. Suso’s sacrifice is when “(One surrenders oneself) in happiness or suffering, in action or omission in such a way that one loses oneself completely and utterly, withdrawing from oneself irreversibly and becoming one in unity with Christ,” (Suso 313-4).

Suso’s understanding of self-sacrifice, in many ways, aligns with Lispector’s in that unity and wholeness is born of surrender and withdrawal. Loss and intentional incompletion brings about eventual, divine completion. Suso’s loss of selfhood is a kind of self-exit from the earth and earthliness—which is to say, bodilyness—to a more transcendent, divine unity. It is “irreversible” and complete. It is also importantly goal-oriented. You must surrender yourself in order to gain unity.

For G.H., the cockroach provokes the change. When she contemplates this sacrifice that must be made in order to form herself, the sob is both the effect of the shock of seeing the roach and the catalyst to her transformation. She describes the sounds of her sobs as “my life splitting in order to procreate me,” because the sobs are the sound of process and that which alert G.H. to the process of self-procreation (Lispector 136). The sob is an indicator of the change she is undergoing, a change that positions her as a dainty “first shy offering.” But, an offering of what? “I was offering the sob,” G.H. says.

The offering of the sob, the thing that is of her and is the sound of her life splitting in order to birth her, is a kind of exchange. “Exchange,” in its etymological root, is to change out or utterly. It is not solely a loss. It is not a transmutation. It is economically framed. G.H.’s problem of “what could I offer of myself?” is one of exchange. It is a matter of possession in that she seeks something of herself and seeks to attain it by giving up—or offering—something equally of herself, the sob. While sacrifices are assumedly external—giving up something of the self to appease the need or wants of the other, the not-self—Lispector depicts a sacrifice that is rooted in the self. It is a sacrifice in the sense of intentionally losing, offering up something of oneself to a collectivity of selves that are all a part of G.H., but that allows for movement and development within her singular collectivity. In other words, by sacrificing G.H.’s self to herself, Lispector shows us a way in which the self can be plural and, in such, have the room for such an exchange. With room, there is still loss, still gain, and still transformation—all aspects typically necessary for one to consider an exchange to be a sacrifice.

In Suso’s conceptualization of the self, sacrifice leads to losing the self and ultimately being subsumed into Christ’s oneness. For Lispector, it is more complicated in that the exchange occurs between and within the self. It is a paradoxical matter of offering of yourself to yourself in order that your life can split itself and procreate yourself. Because of this, offering and sacrifice become at once experiential and in-process. G.H. is experiencing, instigating, directing, and providing the materials for this sacrifice. In such, there seems to be no clear movement away from the self. She is not sacrificing something to something else in a manner wherein the loss would be evident. With Lispector’s procreation, we see G.H. as simultaneously the parent, the process of conception and gestation, and the child—all in one form, a form ushered in through the process of offering. The exchange seems bottomless and in such evades the more defined boundaries of Suso’s sacrifice. Instead of G.H. moving beyond selfhood to attain a nothingness that is oneness, she is, in a sense, trying to retain herself. But, through this process of exchange, she dissolves the boundaries of the self in a series of re-creations and reveals. She becomes process and nothingness, boundaryless and cyclical.

The closer one looks and parses the intricacies of Lispector’s process of reflection and identity, the more language ceases to impute meaning in the sense of explanation and “herself” melts into alien sound, unfamiliar. The repetition of words causes them to be pulled away and estranged from their signification. It is like Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” wherein words alter their signification through repetition. The more the words are repeated, the more the understood signification is divorced from the sounds that make up the word. The word is then recognized, but not necessarily understood.

Looking at Suso, this is an important quality. Language, to him, is a kind of necessary evil. “If one is to speak of how unsurpassable or above comprehension something is,” he says, “one still has to create names for it,” (Suso 309). It is important to note that Suso sees the creation of boundaries—or, words and terms—as necessary for the comprehension and, more significantly, articulation of the thing. There is a need to limit the ineffable in order to articulate it. As Suso emphasizes an overall move away from a bounded selfhood, language becomes a necessary step within the larger production, a move toward the goal of transcending materiality.

A similar process occurs for G.H.’s selfhood, wherein language is necessarily distorted from its predictable semiotic meaning in order to best encapsulate the message needed. While Suso saw this linguistic twisting as a means to an end of transcendence, Lispector’s character uses language as an attempt to evade or escape this loss of self. In such, the linguistic limitations and entanglements evident in the forms of Lispector’s pronouns and offering reveal the experiential nature of her narrative. She is not working toward a goal, but rather treading the waters of self-identification. The process of offering is a re-creation, for which G.H. attempts to contemplate exchanging herself for herself. The distortion of language comes into play as we wonder if it really is an exchange to offer oneself for oneself. And, as Lispector illustrates, there is a change of self-substance and self-identity—all of which constitutes both a loss and rebirth of selfhood. Further confusion comes into play in that G.H. is not asking us to consider a new-self, but a before-self that was hidden by the current-self she now feels peeling away as her life splits open. It is not transformation in the sense of addition or alteration so much as regression. But regression, too, does not quite articulate this exchange. Instead, it is the same self her self cannot admit nor see exist. It is recognition of a selfhood latent within herself. The “regression,” then, is not a reversion of form at all, but a reversion to awareness. As we trek through the murky mire of her twisting argumentation, we are left wondering if she even has a selfhood extricable from this cycle of exchange. Is she necessarily linked to process? Suso would argue yes. We are never fully removed from the process of self re-creation so long as we are still within our earthly, material selves. The question remains, however, if you fully immerse yourself in a quest to find yourself, does there come a point where, unable to see anything but this goal, this self-in-the-making, the distinction between self and not-self, is destroyed? I argue that, for Suso, this point would be the goal. It would be to surrender oneself to “[receive] all things in unity and [view] all things in this unity,” (Suso 313-4). For Lispector, however, the melding of all things into one another brings her into as close communion with the cockroach as it would to God. It would be to admit a unity with the earth as much as with the heavens.

G.H.’s identity, however, is not only internally disputed, but extends outward to the grammatical figures of “I,” “Thou,” and “me.” Lispector offers us the illusion of distinction. Each word is separate but can be equated and likened to another. She says, “I was offering the sob. I was finally crying inside my hell. I use and sweat the wings of blackness, and was using them and sweating them for me—which art Thou, thou, flash of silence. I am not Thou, but me art Thou. Only for that I shall never be able to feel Thee directly: because Thou art me” (136).

There is a blurring between the terms regardless of their actual distinction as separate words. “I,” “me,” and “Thou” are not the same word, but they are positioned as being synonymous with each other in specific ways. “Me,” for instance is “Thou” as “Thou” is “me,” but “I” is not “Thou.” This is a separation here, making us wonder perhaps if “I” and “me” are the same person as we might assume them to be. By especially exploring the process of exchange between the self “I” and the Other “Thou”—two figures that, initially, problematize what may be an offering and to whom that offering should be made—Lispector fractures the assumed identity of “I” versus “Thou” into a tripartite exchange between “me,” “I,” and “Thou.” It is important to note here that “Thou” is unidentified. This “Thou” could be God, the cockroach, or even G.H.. In her use of these pronouns, Lispector creates a distinct sameness between this trio and does two specific things: Firstly, she takes the separated “I” and “me,” and hinges them upon their distance to “Thou.” “Thou” is linked first with “me,” the word which provokes the parsing of these terms. “Me—which art Thou, thou, flash of silence,” she says (136). She later states: “I am not Thou, but me art Thou,” (136). It is a mixture of separate parts on the verge of fusion.

I want to break down the uses of these terms to better understand how they are functioning. What is the distinction between “I” and “me,” and what do they communicate differently in relation to this “Thou”? “I,” like “me” is a pronoun, referring back to the self in a sentence. “Me,” however, is a pronoun that makes the self the object of the verb or preposition. Is G.H. claiming that only as an object she is closer to “Thou”? Only in so far as she is subject to another force—an action or an impetus—she is able to be “Thou.” Whereas, when an independent “I,” she is unable to be close to “Thou.” Connection can only be born of submission and incompleteness here, returning us once again to the realm of Suso’s sacrifice. In order to gain completeness and unity with Christ, one must sacrifice oneself, a lessening of the self’s own wholeness into a wholeness that is greater than the self. It would be like erasing the drawn outline of your figure to extend yourself into all the space surrounding it. You lose your individual selfhood but gain unity with all things. For Suso this is the unity of oneself and God. For Lispector, it is a unity with not only God but also the earthly cockroach G.H. grows more and more afraid of seeing herself in. Being “Thou” becomes all the more confusing when considering that “Thou” is placed in the position of either being a separate character named “Thou,” or an address, a heightened way of saying “you.”  As an invented figure, this “Thou”/”you” is at once created by and recognized as a part of G.H. Her incompleteness is an incompleteness of self, wherein herself is the fractured, submissive part—submissive, however, to herself.

As G.H. struggles through this process, however, the boundaries between “Thou,” “me,” and “I,” and form and feeling, begin to melt, fusing into one another. The effect is a linguistic blur through which G.H.’s panic is poeticized. But the scope of G.H.’s confusion does not remain within the page alone. As we see her detangling the identities and exchange politics within the narrative layers, so, too, does our reading experience begin to mutate until the boundaries of reader and speaker are complicated. As Lispector supplies us with the distinctions between “me,” “I,” and “Thou,” the surface signification implies that these words should not be so disentangled from one another. “I” and “me” are first-person pronouns that should refer back to the same self. Thus, “I” and “me” should have all the same attributes as they have the same referent. That they do not have the same qualities makes the very definitions of “I” and “me” suspect. It becomes precisely her specific distinctions that cause the boundaries of signified selfhood to be troubled. As readers, we, too, begin to lose hold of the separations between all these figures. The placement of Lispector’s audience is undetermined—is G.H. speaking to us when she is working through her problems of self-identity? Are we, as readers, also included in this “Thou,” this “you”? If this is true, we are both a part of her but also the receiver of the sounds of her birth, her existential rupturing. We become part and parcel to her transformation. If we are her confidant, are these words she utters—“what could I offer of myself?”—confessional, revealing to us the secret circumstance of her encounter with the cockroach, or a soliloquy? Is she asking us or is it simply a rhetorical question? The ambiguous role of the audience is key here. It adds to the disjunction of what the words are communicating and how they are performing and operating within the sentence.

In reading Clarice Lispector, the words themselves often elude semiotic comprehensibility, giving way, instead, to a sensory reading experience. In effect, what is revealed is a kind of self re-creation process that brings together the earthly and the divine. With her conceptualization of an offering that is cannibalistic in its material recycling of the self bearing another self, Lispector moves away from the narrative of self-progression and evolution that Suso articulates. It is not about a complete overcoming of the self in order to be an enlightened being via withdrawal and surrender. Rather, it is about the disorienting instigation of an unfolding of the self from within some cultural shell-self that excludes neither heaven nor earth and, in fact, needs both. In this way, unlike Suso’s more definite, goal-oriented self-transcendence, Lispector bends the spectrum of the earthly and the divine in order to understand the self as a form of being that cannot be extricated from life—an intermixing of heaven and earth.

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