Antecedents

by craigepplin

I spent the summer reading great authors of nonhumanity that are otherwise not connected to the corpus I’m working with: Henri Michaux, Franz Kafka, J.M. Coetzee, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Clarice Lispector. Of all of them, that last name is the most significant to me. Reading The Hour of the Star or The Stream of Life, I really don’t know why I ever read anyone else. That’s an extreme statement, but you get my drift.

My favorite extract from Lispector is the first couple pages of The Hour of the Star. Her opening sentences begin with the birth of life and, indeed, of everything else: “Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born.” Echoes of Lucretius resound in this fragment. The universe, he explains in On the Nature of Things, is made of atoms, and its movement originates in their raining down through the void—or more precisely in a small deviation from their course:

We wish thee also well aware of this:
The atoms, as their own weight bears them down
Plumb through the void, at scarce determined times,
In scarce determined places, from their course
Decline a little—call it, so to speak,
Mere changed trend. For were it not their wont
Thuswise to swerve, down would they fall, each one,
Like drops of rain, through the unbottomed void;
And then collisions ne’er could be nor blows
Among the primal elements; and thus
Nature would never have created aught.

Were it not for this slight declination, this swerve, nothing would exist but that monotonous stream of elementary, featureless particles. Lucretius’s swerve, in other words, is Lispector’s yes. But hers is also distinct. Her particles are molecules, not atoms. Before the swerve, before the yes, there was already an coupling. The world did not begin with one, but rather with at least two. And thus the temporality of her narrative is messier than that of On the Nature of Things. She continues: “But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but I do know that the universe never began.” The beginning is thrust ever further back in time, to the point that it recedes from view. The universe never began because the yes was always there. All that exists is the coupling that produces and is produced by that affirmation.

This story of origins, which denies the possibility of an origin, reads well alongside “Five Days in Brasilia,” one of Lispector’s chronicles from among those collected in The Foreign Legion. There she also invokes creation:

Brasilia is built on the line of the horizon. —Brasilia is artificial. As artificial as the world must have been when it was created. When the world was created, it was necessary to create a human being especially for that world. We are all deformed through adapting to God’s freedom. We cannot say how we might have turned out if we had been created first, and the world had been deformed afterwards to meet our needs.

The temporality of creation again stands out. The world precedes the arrival of the human, just as in Genesis. Humans, however, did not emerge organically from the world, but were rather “deformed through adapting to God’s freedom.” Like Sutpen’s Hundred, the plantation in Absalom, Absalom!, the human emerges “violently out of the soundless Nothing,” clapped down “like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm immobile and pontific.” God’s freedom manifests the ill fit between humans and the environment. Humans, like Brasilia, are artificial. But the interesting part is that the world is also artificial. It “must have been” so. Lispector thus posits a world that is thoroughly natural from the point of view of the earliest humans and yet also thoroughly artificial, an artifice of God’s freedom just like the human that comes to inhabit it.

The two creation stories thus each incur in paradox, or rather in the impossibility of thinking the origin. The first one names an event that gave rise to everything, but it occurred at no point in history. The second collapses the distinction between the artificial and the natural. Here we might attempt a synthesis of the two and suppose that what was always there was an assemblage. An assemblage is a construct that is neither natural nor artificial, and it has no beginning and no end. It is, in this way, a monstrosity: “How does one start at the beginning, if things happen before they already happen? If before the pre-prehistory there already existed apocalyptic monsters?” This is why Lispector chooses the molecule instead of the atom as her elementary particle: because the molecule is already an assemblage of atoms. The molecule is itself the “apocalyptic monster” whose beginning is equal to its end. And this is why Lispector is a brilliant theorist of nonhumanity: she denies not only the centrality of the human within her vision, but also the capacity of an anthropomorphic god to differentiate between the artificial and the natural.