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Essay: Lispector’s ‘Hour of the Star’ (1977) and Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ (1939)

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  • Lispector’s ‘Hour of the Star’ (1977) and Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ (1939)
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In Lispector’s ‘Hour of the Star’ (1977) and Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ (1939) the psychological effect of modernity is portrayed in a variety of similar and contrasting ways. Through a plethora of literary techniques both authors highlight how their respective protagonists are affected by the process of modernity. This can be seen most prevalently by both protagonist’s deep sense of isolation and sense of ‘being out of place’. Both Lispector and Porter chose female protagonists for their respective novels and through this an interesting analysis can be made of the female experience of modernity and how both characters react to it. The stories of Macabéa and Miranda are very different but in some ways all too similar. Both are young women navigating their way through twentieth century life while enduring hardship and strife. They both work in an overtly patriarchal office setting and both are heavily influenced by the male love interest in their lives. Despite being set in different continents and set decades apart the struggles they face are similar and so is the psychological impact. Through this we see how the process of modernity happens across the world from Colorado to the Nordeste region of Brazil. The modern world seems to conspire against both women at every turn and only build them up so to let them drop from a greater height. The two tragic tales highlight a struggle against a world of which they feel disconnected from and fragmented.

The structure of both texts is interesting when analysing the psychological impact of modernity. Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ is set during the 1918 influenza epidemic that ravaged the post Great War world infecting up to 500 million people (then one third of the world’s population) and killing an estimated 50 million, 675,000 of whom were in the United States . To keep up morale during the final year of the war the extent of the outbreak was hidden by the government and the press leading to a general suppression of its representation in forms of media compared with the World Wars that occurred either side of it. It would have been likely that almost every person on the planet would have either been infected or have known someone who had been infected yet the trauma they experienced was buried deep. The wish of Porter to display her experiences of the epidemic where she herself was infected is clear to see in the structure of the text. Due to the ‘quasi-autobiographical’ (Cuiba, 55) nature of Miranda the use of pronouns is incredibly fluid with Porter regularly switching between ‘me’ and ‘I’ as well as ‘Miranda’. This highlights the psychological impact on Porter as she is attempting to highlight her horrific experiences of surviving influenza as well as having to live in silence for years after. In her writing there is a true sense of mourning and bereavement as well as a deep-rooted sense of isolation. The harrowing lyrics of ‘Pale horse, pale rider, done taken my lover away’ (Lispector, 349) encapsulates the psychological scar on not only Porter and the character of Miranda but also those who suffered. The song itself can be read as a response to grieving process and its psychological impact. Cuiba stated that the ‘repetitions of stanzas create a sense of artistic order amid the disorder of death’. This is a classic method of trying to deal with bereavement and would have been especially poignant in the terror and confusion of the influenza epidemic. During this period there was mass panic as doctors were yet to find any meaningful cure and were prescribing things like ‘orange juice and ice cream’ and there were very few available hospital beds. There was also mass panic within the population about getting sick as highlighted by the reaction of Miss Hobbe ‘crying shrilly’ that they must come for Miranda immediately or she’ll ‘put her on the sidewalk’. This is further reinforced with the foreshadowing statement by Miranda that ‘Death always leaves one singer to mourn’. In this a comparison can, be made to the plight of Macabéa who is first diagnosed with tuberculosis and then later mowed down by a speeding car. While the story of Miranda is undoubtedly tragic, she survives the ordeal and is loved by another. She has to take the emotional burden of grief and then the psychological impact of not being able to mourn properly, but she is still alive. Death leaves nobody to mourn Macabéa. Modernity picks her up and swallows her whole. In the city she becomes anonymous, just another soul in a seething mass of people clambering to move up the social ladder like Olympico. In this ruthless world Macabéa is psychologically beaten into submission and forgotten. When reading the two texts, the structure that Lispector employs makes the psychological impact of modernity far more visceral. While it can be argued that the semi-autobiographical nature of Porter’s text makes the portrayal of the psychological impact of modernity far more real to the reader, I believe that the structure of Lispector’s novel is far more harrowing. By imagining herself as a writer struggling to create the character of Macabéa, it reinforces the ephemeral nature of the character. She is not the literary representation of a famous author. She is just another soul lost to the chaos of modernity. Through this structure we see the creation of Macabéa and due to this we know her whole life. She only exists on the page but represents much more.

The hallucinogenic fever dreams that constitute a large part of Porter’s novel are crucial to the structure of the text and highlight an interesting portrayal of the psychological impact of modernity. The dream of Adam’s death by arrows is a perfect example of this. The dream see’s Adam hit by flights of arrows in a cycle of ‘perpetual death and resurrection’ (Porter, 350) only to be killed when ‘she interposed between him and the arrow’ (Porter, 350). This can be read as Miranda being at fault for Adam’s death as if she had not got ‘in his way’ and infected him he would have continued with his fate to fight in the war and survived. This dream is of course a premonition to Adams death and her survival at the end of the text leaving her to grieve. As this is semi-autobiographical, Porter is writing this far after the fact and can thus give these premonitions and highlight the psychological impact on her. This feeling of guilt for the death of a loved one is a common reaction to bereavement even if it cannot be her fault. Miranda compares herself to a selfish child that ‘cheated in a game’ (Porter, 350) further emphasising her belief that she is to blame for his death despite it being his choice to look after her. This example of survivor guilt is common in those who survive near death experiences such as car crashes or terror attacks especially when a loved one is lost as the survivor feels they have cheated someone out of surviving by surviving themselves. In the same sense of guilt, Macabéa feels like she doesn’t deserve any kind of luxury in her life.

The appearance of the two women plays a large part in the psychological impact of modernity upon them, especially in the case of Macabéa. The writer asks whether Macabéa is ashamed ‘because she’s modest or because she’s ugly’ (Lispector, 18). She is described as having blotchy skin and poor hygiene with an abusive aunt. Olympico then leaves her for her co-worker Gloria on the basis of her appearance, with Gloria even asking her ‘does being ugly hurt’ (Lispector, 53) to which Macabéa replied ‘it hurts a little’ (Lispector, 53). The lack of resistance that she puts up to Olympico’s abuse can be seen as a psychological impact of a society that refuse to appreciate her for anything else than her appearance and see her than nothing more than ‘a dispensable cog’ (Lispector, 21) in a technical society. Interestingly the appearance of Miranda is rarely brought up, in fact it is her that comments that she thinks that Adam is ‘very beautiful’ (Porter, 347). This difference can be seen as modernity affecting different peoples at different times in different places.

The way in which Macabéa is brutally killed by a Mercedes at the end of ‘Hour of the Star’ highlights the psychological impact of modernity on the poor of Brazil’s Nordeste region and perhaps more widely the world. The ‘Mercedes’ can be read as a two layered metaphor for modernity. Firstly, the automobile is a representation of the modernisation of the 20th century and by a car killing Macabéa it represents how the modernisation process has smashed the poor and the forgotten to the curb and let the rich drive further away. The fact it is a Mercedes, a German brand, could be representative of the globalisation process and how that has also smashed aside the poor to allow the rich to get richer. The driver is also is also described as ‘blond and foreign’ (Lispector, 70) further elaborating the globalisation metaphor. In this sense the ending of ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ is far more optimistic for the future with Miranda making some sort of peace with Adam and having the option to go back into and war and plague free world. However, she will always be marked by her experiences of the influenza epidemic. Miranda describes herself as being ‘not quite dead now’ and having ‘one foot in either world’ (Porter, 362), this again is a common reaction to a near death experience and would likely be felt by much of her readership as almost every person would’ve either served in the war or been close to the epidemic.

The representation of the two male love interests are very different in the two texts but the effect on the two female protagonists is similar. In Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ the character of Adam is portrayed to be honest and good towards Miranda. His character is also full of religious imagery; his name ‘Adam’ is of course the first human that God created and that all of humanity descends from. He is also presented as a pseudo-Messiah character as he cares for Miranda whilst wearing a ‘tunic’ and the fire is said to illuminate ‘him from the back’ (Porter, 347) resembling a halo. He also obviously sacrifices himself in caring for her. In her essay ‘The Pattern of Allusions in Clarice Lispector’, Lindstrom notes that Lispector’s ‘early contact with Jewish culture’ influenced her work with use of ‘Hebraic poems’ and ‘mysticism’ thus explaining the religious imagery. Interestingly the name Miranda is derived from the Latin ‘mirandus’ meaning wonderful or admirable. These are two qualities that the Miranda seems to have little self-identification with preferring to think of herself as selfish and worthy of very little. As an almost opposite to Adam, ‘Hour of the Star’ has Olympico de Jesus. He is often abusive to Macabéa constantly belittling her opinions by stating all she says, ‘is crap’ (Lispector, 40) and demeaning her appearance as ‘all dirt’ (Lispector, 43) before leaving her for Gloria. Despite this chasm between the way in which the two men treat their respective partners they hold the same respect and love from them. In the case Macabéa the love and respect she has for him comes from the worthlessness and sense of lacking place she feels as a result of modernity. Miranda is much the same, before she meets Adam, she is cynical of the world around her and doesn’t feel like she fits into the world around her. However, he seems to give her purpose and thus she attaches herself to him quickly. The way in which much of the narrative is interwoven around Adam is testament to the psychological impact that he has had on her. ‘Indian arrows’ (Lispector 330) from a museum visit with Adam eventually strike him down in a fever dream and description of him as a pure ‘sacrificial lamb’ (Lispector, 340) later comes to fruition highlighting how from the beginning Adam psychological impact on the author has been felt. Through this we get a key feature of modernity which is a sense of time always being out of joint.

Interestingly both Miranda and Macabéa put forward different ideas about the impact of modernity directly upon them and their insignificance. Macabéa worries about being one of seven billion after hearing that figure on the radio but comforts herself with the idea that’s seven billion people to help you. It is also said by the writer that she doesn’t realise that ‘she lived in a technical society in which she was a dispensable cog’ (Lispector, 27). Alternatively, Miranda regularly questions the modern world and her role in it. This is best highlighted with her scathing view on modern capitalist life when she questions of a crowd ‘What did I ever know about them? There must be a great many of them here who think as I do, and we dare not say a word to each other of our desperation, we are speechless animals letting ourselves be destroyed, and why? Does anybody here believe the things we say to each other?’ In this we see a crucial difference between the portrayal of the psychological impact of modernity in the two texts and the two characters.

Berman defined modernism as ‘any attempt by modern man and woman to become subjects as well as objects of modernisation, to get a grip in the modern world and makes themselves at home in it. In the portrayal of the psychological impact on Miranda we see far more agency from her to become a subject as she acknowledges her situation and tries to fight it by pointing out its flaws such as the injustice of war. Macabéa never really fights against her situation and the portrayal of the psychological impact of modernity upon her is one of acceptance. Her trip to Madame Carlotta is not one of real agency either as she is going to be told her fate, something she cannot change.

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