Clarice Lispector and Love’s Apprentice

A man and a woman standing in a grassy forest

Cincinnati Art Museum/Bequest of Mary E. Johnston/Bridgeman Images

Vincent van Gogh: Undergrowth with Two Figures, 1890

A human being is a creature who is lost, who is singular, who merges with and is like everything in existence, who knows and doesn’t know God, who has been steeped in pain and who is afraid to love and wants to love and be loved by another person more than anything else in the world. That is the quest of Clarice Lispector’s An Apprenticeship: to love and be loved. But in order to truly love and be loved, one must first find one’s way to the most difficult thing, which is a joyful relationship with “the mightiness of life.” And while most love stories do away with this requirement and don’t even recognize it—just have the lovers hurtling toward each other—this love story is a question about this requirement, and can it even be achieved?

Who is this man, this Ulisses, who asks of Lóri that she become somehow different before they come together in love? Who is this Lóri, who accepts this demand, and sets off down the road toward it? Who are these bizarre creatures, who ask of each other what no two people who are suffering from desire have perhaps ever asked of the other one? How does Ulisses know that Lóri hasn’t yet become the full expression of herself? How does he know that she is someone who exists only through pain and suffering, and not through gladness and joy? How does he know, right from the start, that she “wasn’t up to enjoying a man”?

We are brought into the story only after Ulisses has determined these things—after all this knowledge has already been won.


Before I start reading a book by Clarice Lispector, I always go off somewhere I can be alone, and I don’t check my phone or do anything else until the final page. I prefer to read her from start to finish, without interruption. Her novels are something I want to undergo, like a spiritual exercise. Just as Lóri both loses and finds herself in the salty sea with its “unlimited cold that without rage roars,” I feel, when reading her books, as if I am submerged in a vastness just as deep, in the great soul of a great writer who has access to all of Nature unvarnished. I feel “a dizzying sea smell that stirs [me] from the sleep of ages,” wakened by her philosophical mind, which seems to have grasped the deepest structure and meaning of the greatest mysteries of life. Yet twinned with her esoteric knowledge is so much insecurity and doubt. This at first feels surprising—then it does not. In fact, it comes to seem outrageous that we had not known all along that, of course, the wisest among us would also worry about how to enter a party without showing others how vulnerable we feel.

As spiritually profound as Lispector’s writings are, they are also sensually grounded in the things of the world and the pettiest aspects of life as a human—and as a woman, specifically. But that all these things are important to the same mind makes the pettinesses seem profound, or at least inseparable from our lives here on earth.

That true love involves waiting for one’s love is something we might guess from all the world’s love stories, but I have never before seen the trial of this waiting so transparently formulated as a spiritual discipline through which one comes to win that love and deserve it.

Each of the two lovers in An Apprenticeship holds all of the power, and each holds none. Each has total dominion over the other, and each is completely flattened beneath the other one’s heel. Although we only see the affair from Lóri’s perspective, it is easy enough to suffer alongside Ulisses, when Lóri doesn’t show up to their meetings, or even touch his hand.

In reading Lispector’s books, I learn about the structure of the relationship between a human and God, between a human and herself, and between a human and the other; in this case, both the other who is just another person one has slept with and lost desire for, and the Other who holds your life’s happiness in their hands. This second Other is the elemental force that drives the life of the loving one, while the other other has no power at all and might as well not even exist. Why is life like this? How can so much importance (for the one who loves) be concentrated in a random, other, singular individual, while diffused among the rest is nothing, and we are able to stride past them with complete indifference?


What is this Other capable of that the other other could never achieve? In one sense (unhappy as this is to write), the Other is the one who circumscribes our limits. With the choice of who to love, we end up in a city, with a side of the bed on which to sleep, and a certain set of friends (growing farther apart from those who are not invited over because one’s partner does not like them). We watch certain shows, not others. And the Other circumscribes our limits metaphysically, too. Maybe this procedure is necessary, in order for our lives to have a form. Just as the art-impulse must take a certain form—a sculpture, a play, a novel, a dance—so does the election of a specific Other shape our blobbish life-impulse into a specific form. I am now thinking of the part of the novel where Clarice writes: “Lóri had a kind of dread going, as if she could go too far—in what direction? Which was making it hard to go…. There was a certain fear of her own capability, large or small, maybe because she didn’t know her own limits. Were the limits of a human divine? They were.” And so we choose a man or woman to confer some needed limits.

In An Apprenticeship, both Lóri and Ulisses “are attractive as man and woman.” He is a man with whom women easily fall in love, and she is a woman who surpasses everyone in the room, “in educational skills, in intuitive understanding, and even in feminine charm.” Their magnetism is a gift from the gods: she is that rare woman “who hasn’t broken from the lineage of women down through time,” and he, “from the perspective of strictly masculine beauty… saw there was in him a calm virility.” She knows what she is doing in bed—you only have to glance at her to see it. And he has the ability to seduce. It’s like any Hollywood movie: the leading man must be attractive, and so must the leading lady, so we understand why she desires him (because we do, too), and why he desires her (because we do, too). And so Lispector makes them both desirable—or tells us that they are. (Because, of course, Ulisses is not! I mean, he has the manly virtue of self-restraint, but apart from that, what? Wouldn’t I throw down my napkin in disgust onto the elegant tablecloth of the room we were sitting in if he spoke to me as he does her?—but he wouldn’t want me.)

So what locks her in?

Lóri has the twinned feminine virtue and vice of radical self-doubt, which makes one susceptible to other people, sometimes to a dangerous degree. That Ulisses resists her sexual charms seems to be all she needs to know that he’s the one to whom she must surrender. He can resist her, so he must be above her. And because she is below him, she is ready to make him her teacher. What does he hope to teach her? How to be worthy of him. Which is also how to be worthy of life itself—to be like rain, “without gratitude or ingratitude.”

This is an incredibly difficult task. It takes a great deal of patience for her to bring herself to that place, and she undergoes a lot of suffering—but also gains more illumination than many people find in a lifetime. Isn’t it horrible? What a plot! Yet can I say that Lispector is wrong? It is always tempting to try to make oneself worthy of someone who has put themselves above you (or whom you have put above you), and nothing is more humiliating than to fail to perform this task well. Anyway, it is a story that should be told.

(I have also tried to look at waiting for love as a spiritual discipline—even in its smallest expression: like trying not to destroy myself over the pain of being a human who knows she has sent a bad email to someone she admires, from whom she believes she won’t—and actually doesn’t—hear back. That feeling is just a speck of what Clarice Lispector is writing about here, as one of the most important things we grapple with: how to assure ourselves that we are worthy of being loved—and to actually be worthy of being loved.)

All love stories must have their obstacles: religion, parents, a stone wall. The obstacle in this book is that we may be unfit for love, plain and simple, because we haven’t lived in such a way that we have let ourselves be fit for it, because we haven’t even lived in such a way that we have made ourselves fit for life. For God. For sex. For anything! We slack off on the spiritual level, always. We guess no one’s going to see it. Who’s looking? Even we are not. Then someone like Ulisses comes along and says, You cannot have me until you do the difficult work that you have been putting off. (And inwardly, the man says to himself, I am also not worthy of her, and cannot have her until I make myself fit for love, too.)


Is this book a fantasy, in a way? While some writers might fantasize about a man coming along who will shower a woman in diamonds and install her in a penthouse, Clarice Lispector, the great mystic, spins a fantasy of having an explicit reason for doing the most difficult labor a person is capable of: the work of becoming an actual human being in this world. Here, the motive to do the work is to win the love of a man. (But a man is not just some guy; he represents one of the elemental forces of the universe—the masculine force that sets the difficult task in motion—of impelling the feminine force, which would otherwise sit, roundly, alone. What woman has not felt that unfortunate thing, that some man, not yet won, was “like the border between the past and whatever was to come”? Yet, in a way, isn’t Ulisses asking Lóri to find the masculine force within herself, before coming to him? Or to find it in herself so she doesn’t come to him seeking it, then get bored of what she’s found, like any woman who goes from man to man, never satisfied because she’s mistaken about what she is looking for, really? Yes. Any woman wanting any sort of lasting happiness has to realize that she can—and must—be the impelling force that moves herself through the world.)

The end point of all this spiritual labor isn’t a lasting happiness. Then what is the prize of the work of becoming human (work that anyone worthy of our love makes us twist ourselves up in order to achieve—or else never achieve, which they will never cease to remind us of)? Is the prize simply a few private moments between ourselves and the universe, which are so magnificent—moments of true grace—such as Lóri encounters on the way to her man? Or is the prize of all that spiritual effort just hearing the words, and being able to honestly say them oneself, I love you? Is it a marriage in which one’s spouse is going to be working on a long essay, leaving one alone a lot? Or is the prize being interrupted mid-sentence by the person one loves, in bed? The struggle toward love is presented as an apprenticeship—but an apprenticeship in what? An ordinary kind of marriage? And after an apprenticeship, we supposedly become masters—but of what? Loving? Living?

No, never masters, for the master understands her craft—whether it’s an art form, or the craft of life, or of love—while the apprentice does not. As Lispector writes, “not-understanding” would always be better than “understanding,” for not-understanding “had no frontiers and led to the infinite, to the God.” Lóri, Ulisses, we, Clarice, remain apprentices, always—apprentices in everything—because apprentices feel more, think more, struggle more, and win more than the master, who has already arrived, ever can.

Adapted from the afterword to Clarice Lispector’s An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures, published by New Directions.

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