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Hilda Hilst's Pornographic or Obscene Trilogy, composed of the novels O caderno rosa de Lori Lamby (1990), Contos d'escárnio/textos grotescos (1990), and Cartas de um sedutor (1991), were deemed by many to be a scandalous offense for their explicit (and comic) representations of sexuality, particularly for their treatment of sexual taboos. Hilst regarded the novels as part of a larger effort to gain more attention after years of relative obscurity. In this essay, I argue that the trilogy signifies an important change in the philosophical concerns that characterize her poetry, theatre, and fiction. If in other works by Hilst, one finds a certainty in the ability of thought and language to represent the real, whose condition of possibility assumes the presence of a divine figure, the Pornographic Trilogy marks the absence or death of God. As a result, the novels trouble notions of a centered individual and collective subject. This shift in the ontological assumptions that underlie Hilst's work is evoked in varying figures of limit and transgression that inform the novels' enumeration of sexual taboos, as well as a recurrent tension between three images of writing. I show that the novels consider the death of God as it relates to writing, particularly as it concerns narrative voice, authorship, and genre. Finally, I contend that it is through the decidedly comic mode of the trilogy that the novels signal the attempt to think of self as singular being and community as a sharing of the condition of human finitude.

A Trilogia Pornográfica de Hilda Hilst, composta pelos romances O caderno rosa de Lori Lamby (1990), Contos d'escárnio/textos grotescos (1990), e Cartas de um sedutor (1991), foi recebida como uma ofensa devido às representaςoes explícitas (e cômicas) da sexualidade, particularmente em relação ao tratamento de tabus sexuais. Hilst contemplava os romances como parte de um esforço de chamar atenção ao seu trabalho após anos de relativa obscuridade. Neste ensaio, meu argumento é que a trilogia significa uma mudança importante nas questões filosóficas que caracterizam a poesia, o teatro e a [End Page 64] ficção de Hilst. Se em outros trabalhos percebe-se claramente uma certeza da habilidade linguística ao representar o real, cuja condição de possibilidade pressupõe a presença de uma figura divina, a Trilogia Pornográfica marca a falta ou morte de Deus. Como resultado, os romances problematizam noções de um sujeito individual e coletivo centralizado. A mudança nas pressuposições ontológicas que dão base ao seu trabalho é evocada em várias figuras de limite e transgressão que informam a listagem de tabus sexuais em seus romances, tanto quanto a tensão recorrente entre três imagens da escrita. Demonstro que os romances consideram a morte de Deus a partir de sua relação com a escrita, especialmente no que se refere à voz narrativa, à autoria, e ao gênero. Finalmente, afirmo que é por meio da decidida comicidade da trilogia que tais obras sinalizam a tentativa de pensar em si como num ser singular e a comunidade como sendo parte da condição da finitude humana.

Hilda Hilst (1930–2004) led a varied career as a poet, playwright, and novelist. She turned to fiction later in life, publishing her first book of novellas, Fluxo Floema, in 1970. Though Hilst has not received wide recognition of her work among the Brazilian reading public, she is perhaps best known for a series of novels that she wrote in the 1990s, which critics have called the Obscene or Pornographic Trilogy. The trilogy will be the focus of this essay and is composed of the novels O caderno rosa de Lori Lamby (1990), Contos d'escárnio/textos grotescos (1990), and Cartas de um sedutor (1991).1 These novels received this label for their explicit and often obscene descriptions of sex. Hilst explains the motives for writing these novels variously as a marketing ploy (Fico 139), a diversion at a difficult moment in her life (Fico 140), and as a political act (Hilst qtd. in Destri 33). These explanations are similar to what Hilst said about her decision to write novels. She claimed to write commercially-minded work that would make her more accessible to a wider reading public. One may detect irony in Hilst's declarations, given that her fiction demonstrates an affinity for a hermetic literary modernism and often directs its satirical humor at popular genres and the readers who consume them. Rather than attempting to be more accessible to the public, then, it seems that Hilst demanded that readers make a greater effort to understand her work. In fact, when one interviewer asked whether she would like to be read by more people, Hilst responded: "Olha, realmente não. Hoje, não. Não quero ser lida por pessoas que não me compreendem" (Fico 169).

The theme of sexuality throughout the pornographic trilogy and Hilst's other work has received a good deal of critical attention. Mechthild Blumberg [End Page 65] situates Hilst's fiction in erotic literature, as an affirmation of female sexuality (121–123). Similarly, Luciana Borges attributes the lack of readers of the trilogy, in part, to a will to subvert the passive female sexuality that is supposed in mainstream erotic literature (218, 222). For Eliane Robert Moraes, the pornographic in the trilogy signifies an effort to regain the transgressive power of sexuality in the face of its banalization in Brazilian society ("Topografia" 414). It is also in response to a tendency in Brazilian literature of the 1980s that privileged the perspective of white, middle-class, heterosexual males ("Topografia" 415). Differing with these interpretations, Alcir Pécora states that the erotic and pornographic in Hilst's trilogy form a part of a political satire and points to a recurring epithet that denominates political organization in Brazil as a pornocracy (19–20, 28). The critic Sonia Purceno agrees with this assessment, situating Hilst's work in the political situation in Brazil at the time of the publication of the Pornographic Trilogy (90). In Hilst's novel O caderno rosa de Lori Lamby, for example, Purceno points out that the novel relates the problems of the political situation to underlying assumptions regarding notions of a collective subject and as a result directs its obscene content towards "os pontos de referência de uma pretensa identidade social" (92). I contend that these aspects play a role throughout the novels and are assembled around philosophical concerns. Indeed, Hilst's claims to write popular fiction belie an engagement with philosophical thought throughout her work.

The philosophical content in Hilst's work has not gone unremarked by critics, many of whom discuss Hilst in relation to the thought of the French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille (1897–1962). Critics have focused their attention on the relation between Hilst and Bataille's work around the erotic, the obscene, or the grotesque and its relation to the sacred. There are indices in Hilst's work of an interest in the thought of Bataille that include epigraphs in several of her novels, as well as intertextual references in the narratives themselves. Furthermore, Bataille's works form a part of Hilst's private library in Casa do Sol, the home where she lived from 1966 until the end of her life. These critical analyses draw primarily on Bataille's work Eroticism in which he develops the provocative idea that the ostensibly separate realms of religious experience and sexual eroticism are intimately related. Though Bataille does not seem concerned with the existence of a divine figure, critics of Hilst's fiction have drawn on Bataille's insight regarding the association between the sacred and the profane realms. For Bataille, physical as well as religious eroticism produce an experience in which humans momentarily recover a sense of plenitude or continuity that has been lost and for which humans long (15). For these critics of Hilst's work, the sacred relates to the ability or failure of humans to achieve communion with God.2 They argue, in fact, that God is central to the work of Hilst. This critical angle [End Page 66] is encouraged by Hilst herself. In one instance, she relates the erotic to blasphemy as a means to provoke God to be present to Hilst (Fico 91). And in another interview, she explains that the central preoccupation in her work concerns God: "Posso blasfemar muito, mas o meu negócio é o sagrado. É Deus mesmo, meu negócio é com Deus" (qtd. in dos Santos Santana, 84).

If the work from Hilst's oeuvre that these critics discuss evinces a concern with the relation between humans and the transcendental realm, the Pornographic Trilogy signifies a definitive break with any effort to achieve communication with the divine. Eliane Robert Moraes identifies three periods in Hilst's poetry, theatre, and fiction that signal this change. According to Robert Moraes, in Hilst's early poetry, one finds an attention to an immaterial sublime, which includes the figure of God: "não é de estranhar que essa busca do sublime tenha se orientado com frequência na direção de um Deus eterno . . ." ("Da medida" 4). When Hilst begins writing fiction, however, this interest in the sublime loses its primacy. An exploration in Hilst's fiction of what Robert Moraes calls the low or the material world gives way to a second phase, producing an impasse that puts human access to the transcendental in doubt ("Da medida" 5–6). What comes of this impasse is a third phase, characterized by the death or absence of God ("Da medida" 8). Here, Robert Moraes indicates not so much successive periods as currents that continue throughout Hilst's work.3 There are two directions: in the first we find the anguish in the face of an absent God that the critics above discuss; and in the other, there is what Robert Moraes calls an exit into tragicomedy, which is exemplified in works like the Pornographic Trilogy ("Da medida" 8). Robert Moraes explains that the absence of God produces a void that reveals the essential finitude of human existence ("Da medida" 6).4

In this essay, I focus on this last tendency in Hilst's work and the ways in which the novels of the Pornographic Trilogy turn to the earthly realm, specifically to think about the experience of self and community following the death of God. One finds in the novels a change in the ontological coordinates as they relate to the understanding of the finite and the infinite. The death of God gives way to an awareness of the essential finitude of human existence. Coextensive with these irreducible limits the infinite exists, but in place of a divine figure as the origin that confers meaning to which humans have access, there is an originary difference whose only end is interminable becoming. This becoming brings about an understanding of self as a singularity that will not give way to a present or future transparency between thought, language, and the real. Moreover, the absence of a centered origin signifies the lack of any predetermined destiny or work towards which human existence is in the process of achieving. This lack of telos troubles the idea of community understood as a group that realizes a communion, promised at some moment in the future. The novels attempt to think through this condition [End Page 67] by way of a relation between limits and transgression whose dynamics are central to the thematic and formal elements of the novels.

In his essay on the thought of Georges Bataille, "A Preface to Transgression," Michel Foucault explains that limits and transgression are related to eroticism. The experience of eroticism makes us aware of our limited condition. It is that "which marks the limit within us and designates us as a limit" (30). Through eroticism we momentarily sense a lost continuity and thus become aware of our limited condition. Limit and transgression entail a paradoxical relationship in which "the limit and transgression depend on each other for whatever density of being they possess: a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows" (34). Foucault hastens to point out that the relation of limits and transgression in Bataille does not involve a movement towards some final synthesis: "transgression is neither violence in a divided world (in an ethical world) nor a victory over limits (in a dialectical or revolutionary world)" (35). In fact, this experience is resistant to dialectical explanations: "no form of dialectical movement, no analysis of constitutions and of their transcendental ground can serve as support for thinking about such an experience or even as access to this experience" (37). How, then, to think about this relationship? Foucault calls for a form of thought that is similar to Maurice Blanchot's notion of contestation, which Foucault calls a "nonpositive affirmation" that is attuned to the movement of transgression and limits. He explains that "contestation does not imply a generalized negation, but an affirmation that affirms nothing, a radical break of transitivity. Rather than being a process of thought for denying existences or values, contestation is the act which carries them all to their limits . . ." (36). In the same essay, he states that it is "a form of thought in which the interrogation of the limit replaces the search for totality and the act of transgression replaces the movement of contradictions" (50).

This decidedly non-dialectical, deconstructive form of thought is what we find in the Pornographic Trilogy. In the remainder of the essay, I will trace the attention to limits and transgression that drives the formal and thematic elements in the novels. In the first part, I show this gesture at work in the pornographic representations of transgressions of sexual taboos in the three novels. I then proceed to discuss two images of writing in these novels, both of which are eschewed. In their place another writing practice emerges, perceptible in the formal elements of the Trilogy itself, which unwork notions of narrative voice, authorship and genre. The death of God does not lead to tragedy but to the comic in Hilst's novels. To conclude, I will turn my attention to the comic, an element that characterizes much of the deconstructive mode in the Trilogy. I argue that the comic signals an effort to rethink the relation between self and community following the death of God. [End Page 68]

The inscription of Hilst's Trilogy in pornographic literature is not merely an attention-grabbing tactic to garner more readers, as Hilst insisted. Though there is little agreement as to what constitutes pornography, for the sake of my argument I will limit the scope of my definition to what Susan Sontag describes as "a minor but interesting modality or convention within the arts" (205). In pornographic literature, Sontag explains, sexuality is an experience that divides the self: "What pornographic literature does is precisely to drive a wedge between one's existence as a full human being and one's existence as a sexual being—while in ordinary life a healthy person is one who prevents such a gap from opening up" (222–223). The Pornographic Trilogy drives a similar wedge in its explicit representations of sexuality and a willful enumeration of transgressions of sexual taboos. As a result, Hilst's novels are not so much interested in arousing its readers as calling attention to an excess that disrupts the putatively natural limits of social order. In Hilst's literary world, manifestations of language in the realms of economics, law, politics, and morality belie efforts to reckon with and regulate sexuality, rather than a language that would communicate transcendental laws.

The attention in the novels to genitalia and the anus are central taboos around which the novels displace notions of a heterosexual, masculine subject and is marked by a certain parodic representation of psychoanalytic theory. On the lexical level, the importance of these figures is expressed in the abundance of names for genitalia and the anus, as Pécora points out (20–21). In Cartas de um sedutor, there is a fixation on the anus in particular. The first half of the novel includes a series of twenty letters that belongs to the aristocratic writer of popular fiction, Karl. The letters are addressed to his sister Cordelia, whose responses are filtered through Karl's readings. With a combination of fondness and jealousy, Karl's correspondence recounts the incestuous love affairs that have taken place in his family in which oedipal dynamics play themselves out in comic exaggeration between the siblings and between the children and their parents. When the novel begins, Cordelia has cloistered herself and her son—whose father may be Cordelia's father—in a convent. Karl is attempting to convince her to live with him and resume their love affair.

Explicit allusions to Freud in Karl's letters include multiple references to Daniel Paul Schreber (21–22, 27–28, 32, 59–60). Schreber was a German judge who was committed to an asylum on two occasions and wrote a memoir, which was an object of analysis for Freud, contributing to the development of his notion of the oedipal complex and the phenomena of paranoia. Schreber is an emblematic figure in the pornographic trilogy for several reasons. In his memoir, he claims to possess knowledge of God and the world that has been hidden from humans. Schreber refers to this as a fundamental language that would close the gap between language and the world, which evokes a central [End Page 69] philosophical preoccupation of Hilst's Trilogy. The anus plays an essential role in Schreber's privileged position, as God transmitted this language through sunbeams that reached Schreber through his anus. But more important, Freud attributes Schreber's illness to a latent homosexuality, which is tied to psychosexual dynamics between Schreber, his brother, and their father. In Cartas this configuration is analogical, forming a triangle between Karl, Cordelia, and their father. Besides seducing his sister, Karl recounts his relations with a female servant in his household. But his enthusiasm in the letters is reserved for his conquest of a heterosexual mechanic named Alberto, which Karl recounts to Cordelia with cynical relish.

Karl also narrates to Cordelia the sexual adventures (or misadventures) of his friends in which the anus is a sexual fetish. The fetishist is female in this case, challenging assumptions in psychoanalytic theory that only men possess fetishes, and one of several instances that foreground the taboo of female sexuality throughout Hilst's Trilogy. Karl tells Cordelia about his friend Krauss and his lover Amanda, who Karl refers to as the "little butthole," due to her insistence on licking Kraus's anus. Kraus reacts to her demands with laughter and rebuffs her advances. Fed up with Kraus's refusals, Amanda traps Kraus in a room and attempts to pin him down, provoking the death of Kraus by excessive laughter. Kraus's former polo teammates seek to avenge his death by forcing Amanda to lick their anuses immediately following a match. The sexual violence of the team exerted on Amanda gives way to an unexpected outcome: Amanda is only too happy to comply with her punishment. Incredulous, Karl reports to his sister: "Acreditas que ela saiu sorrindo? Assim como se estivesse embriagada. Tomou um porre de pregas!" (56). In Hilst's novel, the female character is punished for her putative sexual deviance, but neither dies nor repents of her transgressions and is one of several figures whose characterization places them on the margins of the norms that inform subjectivities within a particular social order.

The attention to the anus persists in Cartas with Karl's rival, Stamatius, or Tiu. Karl and Tiu attended the same boarding school and were on friendly but antagonistic terms. As with Karl, Tiu lived a comfortable life until he abandoned his family and his home to become a writer. When the novel begins, he and his lover Eulália live on a beach and survive by gathering castoffs and food scraps from trash bins. His decision to write was not inspired by some exalted image of writing, but rather begins with a sort of realization that comes to him while he was dining with Karl in his home and looking at a painting of Karl's family. Tiu explains: "Eu comia as lagostas, olhava a aquarela e pensava: e pensar que tudo vai ser esfrangalhado pela minha rodela" (101, 102). Later he expresses the same awareness of this peculiar position of humans, this movement between the heavens and earth: "Penso em todas as tripas. Na cloaca deste embrulho que é o corpo. Bela máquina, [End Page 70] dizem os fantasistas. E aí te lembras do pacote de merda que é o teu corpo. Do entulhaςo. Do fétido de estar vivo" (101). For Tiu, this is not a defeatist position leading to passivity, but the starting point of an ethical commitment following the death of God. Tiu muses to Eulália: "se todo mundo lembrasse do que lhe sai pelo cu, todo mundo seria mais generoso, mais solidário, mais . . ." (136).

Similar to the figure of the anus, there is an obsessive focus on the taboo of describing genitalia in the Pornographic Trilogy. It is in Contos d'escárnio that this attention is most evident, and to comic effect. The first section of the novel is a type of sexual bildungsroman as told by the middle-aged narrator, Crasso. He recalls his experiences with several lovers but one of them in particular, Clodia, effectively becomes a protagonist of the narrative. Crasso and Clodia meet in a church, where Crasso takes refuge to repent of his promiscuity. Crasso learns that Clodia is a painter whose sole subject is vaginas. In one particular passage that takes the form of an enumerative ekphrasis, Crasso marvels bemusedly over Clodia's various paintings, transgressing the taboo of describing female genitalia:

As pinturas de Clódia eram vaginas imensas, algumas, de densidade espessa, outras transparentes, algumas de um rubi-carmim enegrecido mas tênue, vaginas estendidas sobre as mesas, sobre colunas barrocas, vaginas dentro de caixas, dentro dos troncos das árvores, os grandes lábios estufados iguais à seda esticada, urnas feito fornalhas, algumas tristes, pendentes, pentelhos aguados, ou iguais a caracóis, de um escuro nobre.


This attention to genitalia is repeated in the narrative, as when Clodia asks a writer friend, Hans Haekl, to give titles to her paintings: "pomba-ladina, pomba-aquosa, pomba-dementada, columba trevosa, columba vivace, pomba carnívora, pomba-luz, pomba-geena, molto trepidante, molto dormideira etc." (38). Clodia becomes obsessed with painting penises after Crasso poses for her. In fact, her introduction to the narrative takes the form of a cautionary apostrophe to the reader in which men and women are warned of Clodia's habit of asking them to present their genitalia to her when she meets them for the first time. This custom eventually leads to an encounter with the police when they catch her making her request to a mendicant in the street and subsequently commit her to a mental hospital. Clodia's experience in the institution does not entail regulation of her sexuality but its irrepressible flourishing in the company of her fellow female patients.

Clodia's fixation on penises is expressed in theatre now, as we find in a play that Clodia and the other patients stage, which continues to foreground the taboo of female desire and satirizes the notion of a Brazilian national identity. The narrative assumes the form of a playscript that bears a resemblance to Aristophanes' play Lysistrata and concerns a town in which the [End Page 71] men have left for a battle and the women patients, who adopt names such as Jocasta and Lucrecia, are sexually deprived.5 In the play, an oracle predicts the birth of a new country called Brazil whose advent will be announced by the gods with disembodied penises, as big as manioc ("doces mandiocas nascidas no areal"), falling from the sky and offered freely to the women so that they may pleasure themselves (64–67). The oracle then presents the women with a vision of this new country, evoking a delirious spectacle that draws from a repertoire of standard figures and objects of a putative Brazilian national culture, which is made clear in a stage direction note that describes the scene: "(Começa a descer do alto do palco uma grande roda de carroça igual a uma bandeja. Ao redor da roda, cacetas como luminárias. No centro da roda, garrafas de cachaça. E lindas mulatas. Sambando, naturalmente)" (66). A further direction note bolsters this allusion to modern Brazil: "As mulatas descem da bandeja, invadem o palco aos gritos de "Viva o Brasil" várias vezes. O palco está em festa. Seleção de futebol, samba, música muito frenética" (67). In a final number, sung by all the women, the lyrics make the triumphant claim that their country has the hardest phallus on the planet, which elicits shouts of "long live Brazil" (67). This scene plays out a symbolic reversal in which women are at the center of the founding of Brazil while men are reduced to objectified bodies, foregrounding the patriarchal sexual politics that inform modern imaginaries of nation. National culture here is not the manifestation of essential qualities but rather the product of gendered and racialized discursive articulations.

Sexuality and the sociopolitical are also taken up in the first novel of the Pornographic Trilogy, O caderno rosa de Lori Lamby. The novel is told in the first-person by an eight-year-old girl whose parents prostitute her to older men, uncomfortably bringing into relief the taboo of pedophilia. What is more disturbing is that Lori enjoys her sexual encounters and writes in explicit detail in the language of a child about these encounters in a diary, the pink notebook referred to in the title of the novel. The novel is also a frame story to a short narrative that includes bestiality between a mule and an adolescent girl. What is the function of limit and transgression here? The novel may be read as a critique of consumerism and hyper-sexualization. Lori not only enjoys her encounters, but she is also happy because she gets paid for them, which will allow her to buy the things that she sees on television, including a Xoxa doll and everything that Lori sees on Xoxa's television program (14). She is entranced with what she sees on television and writes to one of her customers that she has drawn figures of He-Man and Xoxa on the cover of her notebook (57). The references to cartoons and Xoxa allude to the actress and model Xuxa, who hosted a popular children's television show during the 1980s and 1990s. Xoxa serves as a metonymic figure of the market in the novel. In what may be a moralizing gesture, the relation between an [End Page 72] amoral market logic and sexuality produces monstrous results, as is the case with Lori.

Towards the end of the novel, however, the reader learns that Lori appears to have been copying text from a notebook that her writer father is keeping. She also confesses to watching the pornographic videos and reading pornographic magazines that her father is using to research a novel that his editor is pressuring him to write. Similar to Hilst, Lori's father is a writer who is respected by critics and fellow writers but lacks a substantial readership. This turn in the circumstances of the characters allows for an alternative reading, such as that advanced by Carlos Alexandre da Silva Rocha, who argues that the relation between literature and the market is thematized throughout the trilogy and suggests Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's critique of what they term the culture industry in which the content and style of literary works are reduced to the homogenizing dynamics of the market.6 In this way, the novel argues that readership is not so much ensured by notions of genius or other ideal images of writing, but more on base and contingent circumstances. One way in which the novels illustrate this dynamic is through the characterization of the reading public as comically obsessed with sex and incapable of reckoning with the experience of limits and transgression, being and finitude. Lori's father is an increasingly marginalized writer who attempts to assimilate his work to what his editor thinks will gain him a wider readership by writing pornographic literature. In a questionable and hyperbolic turn in the narrative, Lori's diary entries are the result of the fiction of Lori's father, who, we are meant to understand, is the true prostitute who is being pimped out by his editor Tio Lalau.

The case of Lori's father is one instance of a recurring element throughout the novels in which the writer protagonists of the Trilogy represent two images of writing that are in tension throughout Hilst's novels. The first image is that of the best-seller novel. Tio Lalau in Caderno and other editors without names hover over the writer protagonists, alternately cajoling and haranguing them to get in line with the demands of the market for products with predictable and entertaining stories. One editor reminds Tiu in Cartas that readers may tolerate characters that think, as long as they do not stray too far from the prurient: "'pode pensamentear um pouco, negão, mas sempre contornando a sacanagem'" (114). The first image of writing is embodied in the pornographic trilogy by Lori in Caderno, Karl in Cartas, and Crasso in Contos. Similar to Tiu's editor, Karl explains the formula for this first type of writing, which serves to distract readers from a sense of finitude: "O negócio é inventar escroteria, tesudices, xotas na mão, os caras querem ler um troςo que os faςa esquecer que são mortais e estrume" (111). Karl expresses his contempt for serious writers as marginal figures, perversely at odds with the demands of the market: "Com pouquíssimas exceςoes, os escritores em geral são nojentos!" (15) [End Page 73]

In Hilst's novels, this first image of writing is ascendant. At the beginning of Contos, Crasso explains why he decided to try his hand at writing: "sempre sonhei ser escritor. Mas tinha tal respeito pela literatura que jamais ousei. (. . .) É tanta bestagem em letra de forma que pensei, por que não posso escrever a minha?" (10). We find that Crasso, like Karl in Cartas, becomes a well-known author. By the end of Contos, Crasso is travelling between Europe and North America to promote his work. The eight-year-old Lori in Caderno inspires Tio Lalau's approbation and reasons to her father that writing is a part of a common-sense transaction: "Eu só queria muito te ajudar a ganhar dinheirinho, porque dinheirinho é bom, né papi?" (78).

But Hilst's novel do not oppose this first image of writing with another that assumes an author figure as the solitary genius, unbeholden to the demands of the market; nor do they recall some idyllic period, prior to the neoliberal state-to-market phenomena, in which writers were shielded from the exigencies of supply and demand by the patronage of the national popular state. Tiu in Cartas, Lori's father in Caderno and Hans Haekel in Contos are anti-heroes who persevere in squalor and neglect and bear witness in their writing to the impossible, that is, "what can't be grasped in any way, what we can't reach without dissolving ourselves, what's slavishly called God" (Bataille qtd. in Boting, 10). At one point Tiu in Cartas explains this task, "Minha vida tem sido um sair de todos os buracos (. . .) e eu tentando apenas inventar palavras, eu tentando apenas dizer o impossível" (99). The second image of writing testifies to the existence of limits of language without the possibility of any heroic overcoming of these limits. The writers attempt to reach for transcendence and fail. The character of Tiu dramatizes this condition well. In each of these cases, the second writing ends in silence, not more writing but less. Tiu writes towards the end of the novel, "Vou me devotar ao silêncio" (100).

There is a third image of writing that emerges in the trilogy's formal elements, which effectively perform or embody a writing practice that reckons with the implications of the death of God. Blanchot's thought on the absence of the book is fruitful to understand the relation between limits and transgression as it relates to the aesthetics of Hilst's novels. According to Blanchot, the book as a work of writing assumes the transparency between thought, language, and the real. In other words, the idea of the book presupposes "the presence of something that is virtually present and always immediately accessible." More specifically, this signifies "the presence of a content or a signified; and, on a higher level, the presence of a form, of something that signifies or operates; and, on a still higher level, the development of a system of relations that is always already there, if only as a possibility to come" (423). Hilst's trilogy, however, foregrounds that which in writing the book precludes or unworks the assumptions of presence. Blanchot refers to this as "the attraction of (pure) exteriority" that forms the counter-law of the book [End Page 74] and is found at the heart of writing (426). In this unworking of the book, writing signals an originary difference, what in one part of the essay Blanchot calls the "primoriality of difference" (433). Writing in Hilst's Trilogy points to this difference, not as an alterity that can be named, thus achieving closure in the form of absolute knowledge. Instead, there is a relation of limit and transgression between the book and this exteriority that inheres in the writing of the book and gives way to an impersonal or neutral quality. In Hilst's writing, there is a recurring movement that unworks the elements of narrative voice, authorship, and genre, all of which form important elements assumed in the understanding of the book, as described by Blanchot.

The condition of beings-in-language, in which language is not a reflection of the world, calls into question notions of expression, particularly around the first-person author-narrators that characterize the three novels. In various ways, each of the narratives begin with what appears to be an identifiable voice that subsequently becomes ambivalent as the story proceeds. We find that the narrators do not so much wield language as an expression of self as much as they are articulated by the various discourses, registers, and genres found in the novels. The I of the first-person narration in each of the novels comes to signify not a unique, centered locus of expression but a functional symbol in an impersonal system of language. Caderno is an exemplary instance of this movement in which the certainty of voice erodes as the narrative progresses. Towards the end of the novel, it is revealed that Lori is not the author of the diary entries that we have been reading. After Lori's parents discover her pink notebook and decamp to a sanatorium to recover from the shock, she writes them a letter in which she explains that what we have been reading until this point has been copied by Lori from a notebook, labeled "shit" in which her father had been taking notes for his new novel. Must we, then, modify our assumptions regarding the narrator, from the first-person voice of Lori to a fictive narrator, created by Lori's father, who nonetheless perversely appears to have named the protagonist after his own daughter? It is not this simple, as we read in Lori's tortuous mea culpa that tacks between revealing and then revising her account of her writing process, thus rendering the narrative voice that we have been reading impossible to identify.

Lori writes that she snuck into her father's office and read his notebook. Unable to resist taking some credit for the writing, she explains that she only copied certain parts of the story of the protagonist and wrote most of the narrative herself. But several sentences later she admits that she made some changes to those selected parts from her father's notebook, claiming to have improved upon the original text by making it more realistic, since her father was writing about a child of the same age as Lori: "fiz mais diferente, mais como eu achava que podia ser se era comigo" (79). The reader is unable to distinguish where the two voices begin and end, particularly since we do not [End Page 75] have access to her father's notebook. Following this claim, Lori backtracks and explains that most of what is contained in her notebook is derived from her own imagination and that she only copied the letters that the protagonist writes in her father's novel in progress. Lori maintains that she invented the character of Abel, the receiver of the letters. This character was included in her notebook not to fill a gap in the narrative, but simply because she liked the name: "Porque Caim e Abel é um nome do catecismo que gostei" (79). Later Lori confesses that she also copied the story in the black notebook, but then clarifies that she transcribed it from memory, since she could only read the notebook in short periods of time during her furtive trips to her father's office.

In either case, Lori demonstrates that she understands little of what she is writing but is rather skillful at deciphering the conventions of a genre to create the story. She explains that she learned how to write the pornographic story not only from her father's notebook but through the erotic novels that she finds on her father's bookshelves—"o Henry, e aquele da moςa e do jardineiro da floresta, e o Batalha que eu li o Olho e A mãe" (81). She also gathers information from the pornographic magazines and videos that her father consults for the writing of his novel. The editor Lalau reads Lori's notebooks and professes his admiration: "Isto sim é que é uma doce e terna e perversa bandalheira!" (81). Lori makes a note to herself to look in a dictionary for the definition of the word "perverse." These asides regarding the meanings of the words that she encounters and overhears are recurrent throughout the narrative. In the end, the shocking content of the novel becomes not an expression from either Lori or her father but an impersonal cobbling together of conventions and clichés. In this way, the figure of the narrator and the author moves to the edges of the narrative and loses expressive authority.

Equally, in Cartas de um sedutor, the question of the assumed narrator becomes ambivalent as the narrative progresses. The novel ostensibly concerns the story of two writers, Karl and Tiu, who were once friends but are now rivals. There are several elements that indicate Tiu to be the narrator-author of the story. The novel begins with a short preamble in which we are introduced to Tiu and Eulália. In the scene, Tiu is experiencing writer's block and Eulália suggests that he write about her life, ideal material for a social realist narrative, thus fulfilling an archetypal Brazilian writer-figure and all of the assumptions regarding language that this genre entails: "escreve de mim, da minha vida antes de eu te econtrar, da surra que o Zeca me deu, da doenςa que ele me passou, da minha mãe que morreu de dó do meu pai quando ele pôs o fígado inteirinho pra fora, do nenê que eu perdi, do Brasil ué!" (9). In another satirizing swipe at national culture, Tiu whistles the Brazilian national anthem and thinks to himself as he and Eulália are having sex, "sou um escritor brasileiro, coisa de macho, negona. Vamos lá" (10). Karl's letters immediately follow this passage. [End Page 76]

As with the introduction to Karl's letters, the section that includes the letters ends unexpectedly. The first lines following Karl's narration intimate that what we have been reading was written by Tiu, who is a writer expressing his frustration with one of his characters: "Eu, Stamatius digo: vou engolindo, Eulália, vou me demitindo desse Karl nojoso" (72). The narrative then moves away from Karl and alternates between Tiu's short fiction stories and what appears to be an objective narration in the present tense of everyday life of Tiu and Eulália. Late in the novel, however, the devil appears to Tiu and the readers' assumptions regarding the authority of Tiu's narration are thrown into doubt. Quoting William Blake, the devil delivers a reading of Tiu's writing in which he explains that Eulália is in fact a fictional character that Tiu has created and constitutes both a form of an ego ideal and an object of the male gaze. The limits between Tiu's fiction and his supposed objective narration are blurred. Additionally, the notion of voice as an expression of a centered self is impugned, as fictional creations are attributed to the work of desire and the unconscious: "Tu achas que Eulália tem cara de ganido? Undoubtedly. Materializaste o teu ganido da vida e é tão pungente que nasceu mulher. E nasceu como querias ser: pobre de espírito. E como te vês: uma sensualidade cristalina. E certa piedade, certo deboche, e finezas no coito porque no fundo tens medo que tudo descambe para a morte" (116).

Following the devil's estimation of Tiu's writing, Tiu admits to the reader that Eulália is fictional and even congratulates himself on his characterization of her: "Penso: verdade que construí meu ganido-mulher-diante-da-vida de um jeito pungente e delicado, submisso e paciente" (119). Might Tiu be an unreliable narrator who is possibly going mad? At the end of the penultimate section of the novel Tiu writes: "vou engolindo Eulália. Vou me demitindo. E vou ficando muito mais sozinho. Restarão meus ossos. Devo polir meus ossos antes de sumir" (119). This passage suggests not an unreliable narrator but speaks to the experience of writing in which Tiu's ostensible voice as the author-narrator disappears into the impersonality of language. This passage brings to mind Roland Barthes' estimation that "writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing" (142).

The title of the last section of Cartas, "Novos antropofágicos," indicates this condition. Though this refers to the taboo of cannibalism in the stories that follow, the repeated metaphors of eating and digesting also signify the overdetermined ways that a novel is informed by the work of other writers, troubling the criteria through which we understand literature that include notions of originality and authorship, all of which presuppose the centered subject of the author.7 The narrative evokes the increasing effacement of the author-narrator, indicated by the absence of markers that signal titles or [End Page 77] authorship, in contrast to the previous stories that make up the narrative, whose titles and authors were clearly stated. Moreover, the last chapter of the novel is composed of a similarly anonymous poem whose link to the rest of the novel in terms of form and content is undecidable, as it adopts another literary genre and since the voice is not readily identifiable with any of the characters in the novel. This apparent lack of connection between the poem and the novel points to notions of a work conceived of as an organic unity, tied to an identifiable author and genre or genres, which is thematized in Contos d'escárnio/textos grotescos.

Contos begins with the narration of Crasso, who announces that he is writing a memoir about his amorous adventures. When Clodia is sent to a mental hospital, however, the novel effectively shifts from the perspective of the narrator-author to a combination of stories, genres, and authors, several of whom are anonymous. One of the narrative strands that marks the second part of the novel is concerned with the character Hans Haeckel, a writer and friend of Clodia and Crasso, who commits suicide because, according to Clodia, he insisted on writing serious literature that nobody read. In an effort to help his deceased friend gain some recognition, Crasso sets off for the distant town where Hans grew up in order to recover his unpublished manuscripts. We find that Crasso's motives for his trip may be motivated more by a sense of jealousy and inadequacy, when Clodia announces, upon returning from the asylum, that she wishes to be in an open relationship and duly takes up with another man. The reader finds five stories by Hans transcribed into the text of Contos. Interspersed among these stories, there are two stories by Crasso and letters to Clodia in which he details his stay in Haekel's hometown. It is unclear what Crasso plans to do with the manuscripts. Is he an editor, or is he merely organizing the texts? At one point he laments Hans's death and explains that his friend attempted to write a pornographic children's story that was rejected by various editors. Immediately following the letter is a story attributed to Crasso in which a mother and her young son carry on an incestuous relationship that seems to resemble the story written by Haeckel. The reader is uncertain about whether Crasso is taking credit for Hans's work. To be sure, the novel contains stories that are authored by Hans. But perhaps Crasso makes certain changes that he believes would bring Hans's texts some fame, as Lori does with her father's novel. Rather than merely organizing his friend's manuscripts, Crasso is a scribe or an overbearing editor who takes liberties: emending here, suppressing there, all without the dead author's interference.

Similarly, Contos troubles modern notions of authorship and the work. In the second part of the novel, we find the inclusion of a number of texts, some of which are announced with titles and authors, and several lack any indicator, suggesting anonymous authorship. In fact, taken together the novel resembles more a miscellany book than a novel, Crasso's narration forming [End Page 78] just one piece among many disparate texts. The first of these texts that begins the second part of the novel is a recipe book entitled "Pequenas sugestões e receitas de espanto-anti tédio para senhores e donas de casa" with an anonymous author (46–53). Following the recipe book is the play, also without a clear author since Crasso is not present at the staging of the play and the playscript is not included in one of Clodia's letters to Crasso, which also make up a group of texts. There are two other theatre pieces written by residents of the mental hospital.

In addition to the questions of voice and authorship, we find that the novels employ what Pécora calls an "anarchy of genres" in which various genres appear alongside each other in the same text (10, 24). This characteristic is most evident in Contos. Pécora enumerates the generic forms found in the second novel of the Pornographic Trilogy:

se compõe sucessivamente como romance memorialístico; diálogos soltos intercalados à história; imitação de certames poéticos à moda das antigas academias; apóstrofes aos leitores, maltratados como ignorantões; apóstrofes aos órgãos sexuais personificados, como apropriações bizarras de lugares-comuns do discurso pornográfico; contos e minicontos com autoría distribuída a diferentes personagens do livro; crónica políticas; comentários etimológicos e eruditos; crítica literária etc.


Pécora's list makes clear the challenge of classifying the trilogy as novels. Given the variety of conventions in the individual text, the generic designation of novel for Hilst's Trilogy appears to be merely an expedient that complies with legal and economic ends that at the same time frustrates the classificatory mechanisms of the marketplace and national canon formation. This play of genres in Hilst's novels suggests the relation between what Jacques Derrida calls the law of genre and the counter-law of genre, and in this way embodies the experience of limit and transgression following the death of God in the formal elements of the novels themselves. Derrida explains that genre is a necessary aspect of writing: "every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text" (212). He poses a question, however, that puts the notion of genre as a category with clear demarcations in doubt: "what if there were, lodged within the heart of the law itself, a law of impurity or a principle of contamination?" (204) This aspect forms a paradoxical counter-law that is essential to the law, as it "constitutes this very law, renders it possible, conditions it and thereby renders it impossible" (205). In other words, the aspects of a particular genre are determined by a differential relationship with another genre or genres that constitute a limit and a trace, "a participation without belonging," within genre that allows for their articulation, but shows them at the same time to be a function of language rather than the representation of a natural order (206). [End Page 79]

Hilst's work makes the trace of the impure explicit. The novels of the Trilogy intensify what occurs in every text by contaminating the novel with other genres that work to indicate the limits of the novel. The novel and other genres are at tension throughout the Trilogy, as when the boundaries between fiction and the ostensible objective narrations blur in Cartas de um sedutor and O caderno rosa de Lori Lamby. Moreover, in Hilst's Trilogy the genre of the literary novel is contaminated by so-called low or popular genres, particularly when the writer protagonists of high literature attempt to write what they believe to be popular fiction, as I discussed previously. Equally, the writers of the best-sellers, like Karl and Crasso, inevitably bring into their texts references or aspects of what is considered high literature, as in Karl's discussion of Daniel Paul Schreber. And finally, the presence of sexual taboos and their transgression that appear in the generic inscriptions of the epistolary or diary genres foregrounds the sexual and gender politics that inform the conventions of the genres, often making visible that which is present in its very exclusion or marginalization.

The proliferation of genres calls attention to the comic in Hilst's trilogy found, for example, in the incongruity produced by the juxtaposition of high and low genres. What to make of the comic in these novels, which in other instances seeks to elicit laughter from the comic treatment of taboos like pedophilia? Critics describe the comic in the novels as a reaction to the absence or death of God. Blumberg, for instance, considers the comic an escape-valve that mitigates the disappointment in the face of the death of God (125). Similarly, Reginaldo Oliveira Silva calls the "buffoonery" of this last phase a refuge in a world bereft of the presence of the divine (121). And Robert Moraes characterizes the comic turn in Hilst's work somewhat ambivalently as an exit ("Da medida" 8). This evaluation, however, separates the comic from the very philosophical questions raised throughout Hilst's Trilogy. I contend that the comic is not an escape but rather it is the principal way through which the novels unwork notions of the centered individual and collective subject. The comic is apt, as it foregrounds the singular condition of self and its relation to order, that is, the ways in which singularity interrupts or suspends limits. Alenka Zupančič argues that the comic is a form of realism, since it represents the "incongruence of the reality of desires and drives with all those outlines that determine our supposedly realistic reality. The realism of comedy is the realism of this incongruence" (218). In this way, the comic embodies the paradoxical back and forth movement between limits and transgression, which denaturalizes limits and at the same time denies any ideal order that is on its way to realizing itself.

The attempt to think through the implications for human existence in the face of the death of God could assume a tragic sense in the novels. Hilst's [End Page 80] trilogy, however, is decidedly marked by the comic and as a result suggests not a tragic fall into silence and passivity, nor an attempt to overcome this condition, but an acknowledgement of a finite condition. As Simon Critchley reasons, "humor recalls us to the modesty and limitedness of the human condition, a limitedness that calls not for tragic affirmation but comic acknowledgement, not heroic authenticity but a laughable inauthenticity" (113). It is a truism to point out the social nature of the comic, but I contend that the comic in Hilst evokes both relation and a condition of finitude. In this acknowledgement of a limited condition, there is an attempt to articulate an understanding of self and community that negates neither singularity nor the possibility of togetherness in a sharing of a common finitude. If Hilst laments the inexistence of the transcendental realm in other work, there is something affirmative that can be read in the trilogy in its attempts to reckon with the dissolution of the centered individual and collective subject that is coextensive with the death of God. Perhaps what Hilst had in mind with her wish to be read by more people were readers who shared this comic attunement to human existence in its finite existence. [End Page 81]

Derek Beaudry

Derek Beaudry holds a PhD in Hispanic and Portuguese Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include 20th- and 21st-century Latin American literature and film, with a particular focus on Brazil and Mexico, as well as on the intersections of literature and continental philosophy. His work has been published in The Latin American Literary Review and CR: The New Centennial Review. He is a Lecturer at the University of North Georgia.


1. These novels have also been referred to as the Pornographic or Obscene Tetralogy, since a book of Hilst's poems, Bufólicas (1992), has at times been considered a part of a pornographic period in Hilst's writing. In a recent omnibus edition titled Porno Chic (2014), the novels are referred to as the Obscene Trilogy, while the book of poems is included in the edition, along with a previously unpublished fragment, under the title "other porno texts."

2. See for example, Jo A-mi, Patricia dos Santos Santana, and Higor Sampaio.

3. This preoccupation with the limits of language can be seen as early as Hilst's first published work of fiction, Fluxo e foema. See for example, Willian Andre's essay on Hilst's story "O unicórnio"; Tatiana Rodrigues Franca points out similar themes in Hilst's novel A obscena senhora D.

4. In a more recent work, Reginaldo Silva Oliveira closely follows Roberts Moraes's periodization of Hilst's work. See especially, pp. 118–125.

5. Greco-Roman names are a motif, particularly in Contos and Caderno. At the beginning of Contos, Crasso explains how his mother chose his name after reading a popular history of Rome, one more instance of the satirizing of popular genres: "Minha mãe me deu tal nome porque tinha mania de ler História das Civilizações. E se impressionou muito quando leu que Crasso, um homem muito rico, romano, foi degolado e teve a cabeça entupida de ouro derretido por algum adversário de batalha e conceitos" (9). In the novels, there is a network of allusions that serves as a cipher for Hilst's inscription of the Trilogy in a comic tradition. In Contos, we find the reference to the comic playwright Aristophanes, as well as to the name Clodia. In Caderno, Lori's father makes a reference to the Roman poet Catullus, many of whose poems are dedicated to a Lesbia, believed to be the pseudonym for his married lover, Clodia (63). As with Hilst's novels, Catullus's work is known for its humor. The same passage contains a reference to the Roman poet Martial whose Epigrams offer biting satirical commentary on life in the Rome of his time, much in the way that Hilst's novels are directed towards modern Brazil.

6. For Adorno and Horkheimer's argument, see especially "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception."

7. Similarly, the title of this section invites allusions to Oswald de Andrade's "Anthropophagy Manifesto," often read as an effort to articulate a national identity that is able to account for the influence of both the local and the foreign. Instead, I argue that this can be related to the troubling of a centered, autonomous individual and collective subject. Hilst, along with de Andrade and Mário de Andrade, form part of what Haroldo de Campos calls an anti-tradition, opposed to "ontological nationalism" (243). Referring to Mário de Andrade's Macunaíma but germane to Hilst's work, he states that in this anti-tradition we find "o des-caráter, ao invés do caráter; a ruptura, em lugar do traςado linear" (237); for a recent and trenchant analysis of the "Anthropophagy Manifesto" along these lines, see Adam Joseph Shellhorse's Anti-Literature, especially chapter 3.

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