Where You Were at Night (Onde Estivestes de Noite) by Clarice Lispector, 1974

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WHERE YOU WERE AT NIGHT (Onde estivestes de noite)
by Clarice Lispector, 1974

Clarice Lispector's later fiction defies most efforts to classify or interpret it by traditional standards. Beyond the consensus on her difficult style, few readers speculate on what Alexis Levitin has called Lispector's "artistic-spiritual stance." The intensity of the voice in the stories translated by Levitin in Soulstrom (1989) suggests that such a stance drives these multigeneric experimental pieces, not all of which can properly be called fiction. Each clue that would lead to a general tone or mood or theme undoes itself in the motion of the prose.

"Where You Were at Night" ("Onde estivestes de noite"), the title story of Lispector's 1974 collection, creates a night world that resembles a photographic negative of day and of life itself. An androgynous being, alternately the "She-he" and the "He-she," summons a group of unnamed humans to its mountain dwelling. There, in a world beyond time and life, the being fills the travelers' minds with new powers and thoughts. Moving in and out of human emotions and bodily sensations, the people resist and then succumb to the spell of this "He-She-without-name." Milk is black, pain is ecstasy, and the scent of roses is stifling. Fear and terror attract the travelers to the omnipotent being, who can fill them with orgasmic waves or freeze them in a fixed position as punishment for touching her-him. Those who do not respond to the call of the night suffer "without anesthesia, the terror of being alive."

The travelers, including a Jew, a hunchbacked dwarf, a boy, a journalist, a priest, a millionaire, a perfect student, a masturbator, and an old disheveled woman, receive the thoughts of the He-she without being connected among themselves. The being suggests to them such thoughts as "You will eat your brother" and it is "vitriolic about their not disturbing one another in their slow metamorphosis." These gestures produce a sense that the people live isolated yet parallel lives, an echo of more clearly articulated themes from Lispector's earlier fiction. The story then pushes the boundaries of the failure of communication to the level of horror. When the millionaire finds a voice with which to shout, the disheveled woman responds with hostility. Others speak silently or only to themselves.

Operating outside human time, the journey does not follow a narrative pattern. Chaotic and anecdotal, the account flows from an ever moving point of perception—at one moment looking down upon the She-he and the people, then moving to "what the cat saw," and thereafter panning in and out of various individual minds. For the most part the ebb and flow of oppositions propel the story along. In one such shift dawn obliterates the night, and the nighttime travelers appear in their beds. The earlier scenes are thus revealed as dreams, each with a different relation to the conscious mind of its host.

The butcher, we are told, is alone in carrying the night into the day. He is shown in his shop "drunk with pleasure at the smell of flesh, raw meat, raw and bloody." Yet a number of other nighttime images resound in the minds of the now awakened people. The journalist, for instance, wakes up inspired with an idea for a book on black magic, an echo of an unconscious association with The Exorcist given to him at night. Jubileu de Almeida, one of the few characters named during the night portion, wakes up longing to hear a Strauss waltz suggested by the He-she. Ironically, the waltz is "The Freethinker." A white woman gives birth to a black baby, and the narrative voice asks, "Son of the demon of the night?" Another woman grows angry at the milk on the stove that will not boil. She suspects that, like death, the milk will reach up and grab her without notice.

Although the story seems to mock and mimic religious beliefs through the sexually oriented rituals of the She-he, the narrative is eventually funneled into the discourse of religion. As the story concludes, Father Jacinto is blessing the communion wine. An irreverent exclamation of "Wow, good wine" notwithstanding, the scene confirms the existence of God through the fragrance of a flower. The He-she, we are told, has disappeared some time ago. Capitalized words appear in a list ("AMEN" "AMEN" "GOD" "THE END"), as if the story itself has been a prayer. The speaker of the epilogue confirms her religious beliefs, alluding to a "universal mind" that has guided her and suppressed thoughts of the night world "for the love of God."

The ending seems to offer two opposing interpretive choices. The story can be read as a fall into temptation followed by salvation in the Christian faith. In a slight variation, however, sleep and the unconscious mind can symbolize the temptation that lurks beneath the surface of the disciplined mind. Read with attention to Lispector's more existential, religiously doubtful fiction, there is also the possibility of an apocalyptic interpretation. The nightly wrestle with darkness, which is portrayed through vivid sensory images, suggests itself as the permanent state of the human soul.

—Rebecca Stephens