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Hilda Hilst has died. Long live Hilda Hilst!

The loss of the writer is a good moment to reflect upon the depth of her poetic works

ALCIR PECORA | Edition 97 - March 2004

The death of Hilda Hilst (1930-2004) still finds the studying of Hilda Hilst’s literature moving at a slow pace. Although the author had attained great personal notoriety, due to her uncommon intelligence, of a temperament that was truly exuberant and of a readiness of spirit capable of surprising the banal interviews, her works, of rare extension and variety, are still largely unknown. Formally, she never obtained a single critique which can be considered completely thorough and enlightening, despite having had well-made readings of one or other of her private texts. The most was to attribute to her what was widely confirmed on the announcement of her death: a daring woman, original, advanced for her times, refined madness, explosive etc.

A hypothesis may well be raised for the construction of this scenario, in which the public image of the artist as an eccentric person, largely predominated over any knowledge of her work: the liberal behavior of Hilda in the face of the accepted moral standards during certain times and social places; the dazzling beauty of the author; the distance her work is kept from the modernistic values predominant in Brazil and mainly in Sao Paulo: above all in the aspects related to the question of “national” content, which simply is not put to Hilda; the difficulty of the basic reading of her texts, given to the need for literary, philosophic and even scientific erudition, which ends up generating the use of a “final vocabulary” highly idiosyncratic; her radical withdrawal from the centers of intellectual conviviality predominant in the country, living, since 1960 practically as a recluse in a country house close to the city of Campinas in the state of São Paulo; the scandalous strategy of drawing attention to her work by the supposed use of a pornographic register, which evidently would run contrary to academic chastity  and to hierarchical order in force of the literary genres; the prolific and erratic production between literary genres clearly diverse and at the same time a mixture without precedence of all of them in the interior of each text; the publication of practically all of her work in artisan editions, in general very beautiful, produced by  artists who were her friends, but without any range of distribution; the disinterest of the author with respect to the contractual aspects of the editions; in short, there is no need to go further. It is perfectly clear that many are the possible explanations for the shortage of critique and the sparse public knowledge concerning the works of Hilda Hilst. But none of this can justify the complete ignorance that therefore results, explained or not.

Thus, more relevant than relating these hypotheses regarding why the reading of Hilda’s works have ended up not happening, it would perhaps be better to refer to productive aspects that may be explored through hypotheses directed henceforth to the work, strategically leaving the artist more in the background. This means, in other words, that the main  effort in the critique of Hilda Hilst, today, is in fact to forget about, though only strategically, the extraordinary person (and adorable friend, if the reader will permit me a personal word) that she was during all of her life and even more so throughout her difficult final years —, which is when one can most judge the value of character; according to a 17th century final battle belief, depending on how one loses, one needs to lose in order to win.

Having guaranteed the prevalence of the textual articulations over the biographic ones, one can then raise an agenda, none too small, of aspects of her  great works such as, for example, the question of the various uses of obscene language or the question of the anarchy of genres, a feature of her texts of whatever genre. To this last aspect, one might consider that the texts of Hilda Hilst as exercises of style, that is to say, they do or say what is proper to themselves starting from the use of canonical matrixes in the different genres of tradition, such as, for example, the biblical chants, the Galician-Portuguese song, the Petrarchian song , the mystical Spanish poetry, the arcadian idyll, the libertine epistolary short story etc. This old-fashioned imitation, nevertheless, is never practiced with archaeological purism, but much to the contrary is submitted to the mediation of decisive authors of the 20th century: the sublime image making of Rilke; the conscience flow of Joyce, the minimalist scene of Beckett, the sensationalism of Pessoa, just to refer to a group of writers easily recognizable in  her writing. Besides this extensive range of influences, Hilda Hilst blends all of her genres in a single text, as she did in an exemplary manner in A obscena senhora D [The Obscene Mrs. D]: a lyrical poem (whether it be for the inclusion of verses in the narrative or for imprinting rhythm into the prose, which then acquires her very own particular diction), theater (making, for example, the so called flow of conscience take on a dialogue form) and even chronic (by inserting into the fiction commentaries of events or known historical personalities).

There are other questions that are immediately relevant to study: the question of schematics of the narrative situations (which come from polarized situations, almost Manichean, and evolve in the direction of imploding the two opposition points) and of the incompletion of the characters (who proliferate with strange and improbable names, the majority beginning with an H, without acquiring, in themselves, a single type of psychological depth). Items such as these are all recurring in the production of Hilda Hilst and need to be investigated in detail. To exemplify, I briefly present some crystallized issues related to the first point on the list, that of obscenity.

It seems fair to apply some notion of obscenity to the works of Hilda Hilst, and not only to the trilogy stated as pornographic, in prose, to which one can add the priceless poem of Bufólicas. But the first point to make clear is that this notion had little or nothing in common with the idea of erotic literature, contrary to what on many occasions has been published. As matter of fact, this obscene tetralogy, is most certainly the part least erotic of all of her writing. The idea of eroticism would not go down badly, for example, if applied to books such as Júbilo, memória, noviciado da paixão( Bliss, memory, novice of passion,    Cantares de perda e predileção ( Songs of loss and Preference or Da morte ( Of Death) , if adjusted to a conception of eroticism built upon traditional mystic matrixes, such as the poems named Sor Juana Inés, San Juan de La Cruz or Santa Teresa, but it is frankly preposterous to apply it to O caderno rosa de Lory Lambi ( The pink notebook of Lori Lambi , Cartas de um sedutor( Letter so of a seducer), or  Contos d’escárnio ( Tales of mockery).  That is to say that there is certainly eroticism in the poetic production of the highest entry in which Hilda makes a deliberate imitation of the old-fashioned manner. The movement that is then described, articulated between the sublime and the disgraced, establishes the boundaries of a desire for a metaphysical aspiration, which emulates poetic models of eroticism to the divine, as in the biblical chants and the 17th century mystical poetry of the Iberian Peninsula. But there is no way to seriously propose eroticism in the obscene trilogy (or tetrology) after one has truly read it and not just dwelt on the platitudes of the commentaries with respect to the “insanities” of Hilda.

Strictly speaking, the suggestion of pornography must as well be dismissed as improper, since the crudeness of the texts in question never has as its purpose the exciting of the reader as, unless one is dealing with (as I attempted to image once) a lexical degenerate, an onanistic book reader – the type of eccentric person that, I fear, exists because the texts of Hilda Hilst stated as pornographic revert on themselves and on the innovative literature that they produce, all of the time. They are narratives filled with a strong essayist bias, that perversely ferret out the intervals between the invention of the author and the interests of the others, whose sign is the common reader or the non-reader, who, in the demanding literature of Hilda, ends up being exactly the same. The concept of obscenity, herein, basically applies to the forced identification between the creation and its banal market orientated fruition, or the inconsequential perception of invention, without searching or living a radical experience of destruction and catastrophe that the texts appear to presuppose in genuine creation.

Therefore, it can be said that the obscene texts display the confrontation between art and their normalization in the world, which can happen on account of both the low expectations of the readers, the accounts of editors uninterested for all but accounts of editors, and also the very own ridicules of the author, a conceited monkey in herself. Now in this case it is inevitable to recognize that this basic scenario is not exclusive to the books classed as pornographic, contrary to what many times is said by apologetic critics of Hilda, who judge it possible to isolate the pornography of the tetrology from the remainder of her serious work. Nothing is more improbable. The ostensibly obscene writings only manifest, with the crudeness of slang, of sarcasm, of nonsense or of bestiality, a strong nucleus that runs through all of Hilda’s texts like a type of obstacle to signification. The omnipresent incestuousness of the father in her literature, for example, would render a lot more if read in this meta-linguistic and existential key than in terms of biographical revelations.

Furthermore, what is being called an obstacle to signification, taking in mind the concept of obscenity discussed by Georges Bataille, shows itself in the work of Hilda Hilst as an ostensive trait of cruelty, which first effect is the grin with pain, the satirical smile whose aim is to offend and to hurt, and not the mannerly and pedagogical smile of the Aristotelian comedy. It aggressively stings all that one understands as aggressively stupid, petty and narrow, thereby making up a decorum of disproportionate proportions. For example, smiling malevolently on the sanctimonious and authoritarian moral, amplified up to the nonsense of a world irremediably gross and idiotic. Seen from the other point of view, the brutal attack to galloping and generalized idiotism proclaims a species of good-humored resistance of invention and of self-creation, which does not admit renouncing the search for autonomy and independence in the worst of worlds.

This also is to say that, even though the tone of these obscene writings sometimes is of maladroit hilarity, of a frenetic imagination that feeds itself on bad taste and bravado, it never reached the point of turning itself truly triumphal. In Bufólicas, for example, the most delicately witty writing that can be found in the books of Hilda Hilst, the moral of the reinvented fables always ends in the formulation of another: that the freedom of one is the certainty of odious vengeance of others. In the agonizing descriptions of the world made through her texts, basic obscenity is visible, in this maladjustment of the root between the most sincere, creative and generous desires on the one side, and the voluntarily adopted practices by the community of man on the other. Men simply do not combine with themselves, not in personal terms or collectively. There only remains the hope of God, but in general it does not show, save but in the stigma or in painful ecstasy, in which the evil and the villain are the most evident divine attributes. For their turn, when men are thought of in common, nothing appears more common in them than the lowness they emulate: the neighbor is always horrendous; authority is arbitrary and stupid; when not an assassin, the revolutionary is boorishly wrong about his intention, about the ideology that he defends, and about the effect of his action. As well, in relation to the world of books, the picture is no better: the editor is labeled a thief; the artist in general is a swindler, vain and venal, and for this very reason lives in an environment of dependence. Now there is in the most firmly obscene texts, a nihilistic bruising existentialism, which, however, does not crystallize in a hegemonic or exclusive manner either, since it is tempered by a political spirit and a metaphysical and mystique restlessness of rare intensity within the Brazilian literature of the last quarter of the 20th century. With all that has been said, my point is that the death of Hilda Hilst is only the start of her long life.

I come from old times 

God can be
The great dark night
And the dessert
The flambéed cherry ice cream.
God ? A surface of ice
Anchored in laughter.
I come from old times.
Long names:
Vaz Cardoso, Almeida Prado
Dubayelle Hilst… events.
I come from your roots, breaths of you.
And I love you exhausted now, blood, wine
Unreal cups corroded by time.
I love you as if there were
The more and straying.
As if we stepped on silver ferns
And they screamed, victims of us both:
Timeless, vehement.
I love you, minute as if I wanted MORE
As one who all guesses:
Wolf, moon, fox and ancestors
And you say of me: You are mine.

Alcir Pécora is a Professor of Literary Theory at the Language Studies Institute of the State University of Campinas, and is responsible for the organization of the complete work of the author for the publisher Editora Globo

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