In Favor of Fear, by Clarice LispectorTranslated by Margaret Jull CostaRobin Patterson

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From an essay that originally appeared in Jornal do Brasil in 1967 and is included in Too Much of Life, which will be published this month by New Directions. Translated from the Portuguese.

I am convinced that during the Stone Age I must have been wounded by the love of some man, because a certain secret fear of mine dates from that time.

Be that as it may, one warm night, I was sitting and chatting politely with a civilized gentleman who was wearing a dark suit and had very correct fingernails. I was, as the writer Sérgio Porto would say, feeling perfectly at ease, and eating some guava. Then the man says: “Shall we go for a little ride?”

No. I am going to tell the naked truth. What he said was: “Shall we go for a paseíto?

I didn’t have time to find out the nature of that paseíto, because I immediately heard, coming from thousands of centuries ago, the rumble of the first stone in an avalanche: my heart. Who was it? Who, in the Stone Age, took me out for a paseíto from which I never returned, because I’m still there?

I don’t know what hidden terror lies in the monstrous delicacy of that word paseíto.

Once my first heart had rumbled through the centuries, and I had golloped down another little guava—I felt absurdly alarmed by what was a most improbable danger.

I say “improbable” now, reassured as I am by nice manners, by a particularly ruthless police force, and by my own self, which is as slippery as the most mimetic of eels. But I would really love to know what I would have said back then in the Stone Age, when they shook me down from my leafy tree—when I was still almost at the monkey stage. Ah, those were the days. I really must spend more time in the country.

Anyway, once I had golloped down my little guava, I turned pale, color draining from my cheeks in an appropriately civilized fashion; my fear was far too vertical in time to leave any trace on the surface. Besides, it wasn’t fear. It was sheer terror. The collapse of my entire future. The man, my equal, who had murdered me for love, and yet that is what people call love, and it is love.

A paseíto? That’s what they must have said to Little Red Riding Hood, who only later on took care to take care of herself. “I’m going to play it safe and, just in case, hide under these leaves.” Where did that little jingle come from? I don’t know, but they do say that Pernambucans never lie.

I hope the Man who may perhaps recognize himself in this tale of fear will forgive me. Let him be in no doubt that, as they say, “it’s entirely my problem.” Let him be in no doubt that I should have taken his invitation for what it really was, tantamount to him sending me a bunch of roses: a courtesy, it was a warm night, his car was parked outside. And let him be in no doubt either that—in the simplistic division between good and evil imposed on me by the centuries—I know he’s the good man in the cave next door, only five wives, never beats any of them, all very happy. And I hope he understands—I appeal to his good nature—that I am perfectly aware that a man like him from the Brazilian-Argentinian border uses the word paseíto quite innocently, while for me it carried within it the terrible threat of a caress. I thank him for using precisely that word, which, being new to me, gave me a real shock.

I explained to the Man that, being a refined young woman, I could not go for a paseíto. Having undergone centuries of training, I am now the most refined of the refined, and, however unnecessarily, I will hide under these leaves just in case.

The Man in question did not insist, although I can’t say he was pleased. We looked at each other for less than a fraction of a second—over the centuries, the Man and I have come to understand each other very well, and all it takes now is a fraction of a second—and my spluttered-out “No” echoed scandalously around the walls of the cave that had always favored the Man’s desires.

After the Man’s hasty retreat, here I am safe, but still frightened. Had I escaped by the skin of my teeth a paseíto where I could have lost my life? Nowadays, people always lose their lives so randomly.

Once the Man had gone, I realized that I felt joyful and revivified. Oh, not because of that invitation to go for a paseíto, we women have spent millennia being invited out for paseítos, we’re used to it and are quite contented; we rarely get whipped for it. I was happy and radically changed—by fear.

Because I am all in favor of fear, or certain fears—not the mean little ones, but those with ineradicable roots, which have provided me with my most incomprehensible reality. I am delighted by the illogicality of my fears, which lend me an almost embarrassing aura. Beneath my veneer of cheerful modesty, I can barely conceal my great talent for succumbing to fears.

But in the case of this particular fear, I again wonder what could possibly have happened to me in the Stone Age. It can’t have been anything natural, or I would not to this day preserve that nervous sidelong look, and would not have made myself so discreetly invisible, sneakily taking on the colors of the shadows and of the greenery, always keeping close to the wall on sidewalks, while affecting a brisk, businesslike pace. It can’t have been anything natural, since I am, whether I like it or not, a natural being, so nothing natural would have frightened me. Or did I even then—in the age of caves which are still my secret homes—did I even then become neurotically fixated on the naturalness or otherwise of a paseíto?

Yes, but having a slightly skewed heart has its advantages: it means I have a good nose for things, a sense of which way the wind is blowing, wisdom, keen instincts, experience of deaths, an ability to read the future in a pool of water, as well as being happily maladapted—for maladaptation, I find, has proved to be my wellspring. For I know when heavy rain is coming because the mosquitoes tell me so, and that cutting my hair when it’s a new moon will make it grow stronger, that saying a name I dare not say will bring delay and great misfortune, and that tethering the devil to the table leg with some red thread has at least tied up some of my own demons. And I know—with my heart, which having always avoided the spotlight, lurks in the shadows to the left—I know that the Man is a stranger to himself, but his very innocence means that he is also natural.

No, my oblique heart is absolutely right, even if the facts openly contradict me. A paseíto means certain death, and the victim’s horrified face gazes up, glassy-eyed, at the full, full-of-itself moon.


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