Tabula Rasa

I came across an old piece of writing on the topic of consciousness that I wanted to share.

Clarice Lispector’s unorthodox novel, The Passion According to G.H., articulates the mental processes of a successful, young woman—G.H.—after she crushes a cockroach between the doors of a wardrobe. The juxtaposition between her and the cockroach laid the foundation for her fore coming existential crisis: a human that has drastically evolved over the past twenty centuries versus a creature who “for three hundred and fifty million years, has been replicating itself without being transformed” (40). Humans are born with a dense historical and cultural consciousness well before they have the opportunity to form their own consciousness. Societal norms and mores converge on the human consciousness as it forms, predisposing one to a particular set of thoughts that form the philosophy of the individual. Though these are largely external factors, they nonetheless become integrated into consciousness as to be primarily indistinguishable from the factors that influence our thinking. A blank slate—referred to in Latin as tabula rasa— means “someone or something that is still in an original state and that has not yet been changed by people, experiences, etc.[1]” Through the analysis of G.H.’s exploration of self, it is evident that there is no such a thing as a “blank slate” due to the social and historical connotations with gender, race, and social class. Focusing on Lispector’s themes of gender and classism, I will analyze the different ways in which we are marked by our historical consciousness and explore the effects of G.H.’s newfound self-awareness.

John Locke, a British philosopher of the 1600’s, held that the mind is indeed blank “until experiences in the form of sensation and reflection provide the basic materials—simple ideas—out of which most of our complex knowledge is constructed.[2]” As far as pure mental blankness goes, this is an adoptable outlook on the human mind. However, to be a truly blank slate, I would argue that there must be no markings anywhere on the slate, regardless of the source. While race, gender, class, etc. may initially appear to be issues that arise after birth, it is important to acknowledge the weight of these elements that is formed from the moment of conception; without consent, we are marked by the representation of our characteristics throughout society. G.H. represents what her society believes to be a white person, a successful person, and a woman.

At the outset of the novel, G.H. identifies herself only by the initials on her luggage. “I exude the calm that comes from reaching the point of being G.H. even on my suitcases. Also for my so-called inner life I’d subconsciously adopted my reputation: I treat myself as others treat me, I am whatever others see of me (18). This acknowledgement of the permeability of the self lends itself to a question raised in The Pragmatists[3]: “Was I created only to be something through which the stream of existence could flow, without ever stopping even for a second? . . . There are two ways out:  either to be what flows, or to be the screen on which the flowing creates a fleeting image.  Which is more significant?[4]”By the same token, G.H. begins to realize that her life has acted more as a screen on which her reality is played, rather than her own projections. “When I open the door to an unexpected visitor, what I catch in the face of the person seeing me at the door is that they’ve just surprised in me my light pre-climax. What others get from me is then reflected back onto me, and forms the atmosphere called: “I.” The pre-climax was perhaps until now my existence” (19). Generally speaking, people are not cognizant of their decision to represent this social consciousness, but it is merely a safety net that we are born into: “Until now, finding myself was already having an idea of a person and fitting myself into it: I’d incarnate myself into this organized person, and didn’t even feel the great effort of construction that is living” (4). We begin to go through a process of socialization—often by way of daycare, preschool, or primary school—which teaches us the social norms of behavior, clothing, and language. Whether or not we adopt these norms may be our decision, but their role in our lives is inevitable.

Markedly, G.H. experiences discordance between her outward, feminine appearance, and her inner, masculine tendencies: “As for men and women, what was I? I’ve always had extremely warm admiration for masculine habits and ways, and I had an unurgent pleasure in being female, being feminine was also a gift” (21). Although she feels neither here nor there, she lives in a society that intuitively assumes her to maintain certain characteristics attributed to females. By being born into a certain society, she automatically represents their archetypical female, prematurely marking her slate. Moving forward, every move will either accept or reject this social mold, thus further marking her slate.

Furthermore, G.H.’s position as a financially successful, single woman living in a penthouse only satisfied her superficially. She found herself being more independent than her female peers, but wasn’t championed like a successful male would be either. Fitting with her social role, she decorated her penthouse and kept her made as anyone in her position might do. She describes her décor as a replica of another life: “imitating a life probably gave me assurance precisely because that life wasn’t my own: it wasn’t a responsibility of mine” (p. 22). To evade a sense of true ownership over one’s characteristics is to be responsible for both successes and failures. By allowing our different social marks to act as the scapegoat for our actions, we are giving part of our individuality back to society.

After her transformation, G.H. catches herself having a cigarette. When she tosses the lit butt out the window, she quickly moves out of sight from passersby. She then writes: “Then, carefully, I stuck out just my head, and looked…Was I there thinking [of nothing]?…Or maybe about whether some neighbor had seen me commit that forbidden act, which above all didn’t match the polite woman I am, which made me smile” (28). It’s as if her instinct to remove herself from the unladylike act was quickly met with her newfangled appreciation of her unadulterated self, but wasn’t entirely sure who that self was.

Likening her loss of identity to the loss of the tri-pod-like stability offered by a third leg, G.H. articulates the extent of her vulnerability:

                        I went back to being a person I never was. I went back to having something I never had: just two legs. I know I can only walk with two legs. But I feel the useless absence of that third leg and it scares me, it was the leg that made me                                  something findable by myself, and without even having to look for myself. (4)

The security offered by knowing what it means to be a young woman without ever having to devote any thought to it is something that is often taken for granted. In the aftermath of her epiphany, she finds herself feeling both free of that useless limb and equally hindered by the recent instability.

Coupled with the recent acknowledgment of her ancient markings and the extent of all she has blindly represented in her society thus far, G.H. is now in a profound position to move forward with great intention. “If I have the courage, I’ll let myself stay lost. But I’m afraid of newness and I’m afraid of living whatever I don’t understand—I always want to be sure to at least think I understand, and I don’t know how to give myself over to disorientation” (p. 5). To both recognize and reject something so innately human is to also, in essence, to attempt to erase what has been imprinted on her slates by society.

In the pursuit of following the different threads of her mind, it becomes clear that the underlying theme is her desire to strip herself of all that she has accumulated both from her own life and from her predecessors and return to a blank slate. Meditating on the lovemaking of two cockroaches on a rock, G.H. asserts: “The quivering of an entirely mute rattling in the rock; and we, who made it to today, are still quivering with it” (117). In that quivering aftermath of all that has preceded us, how do we find stillness? How do we remove ourselves from the cookie-cutter molds that society delicately baked us in from the moment of conception?

 

 “But, precisely this slow accumulation of centuries automatically piling atop each              other was what, without anybody noticing, was making the construction in the air                                     very heavy: it was getting saturated with itself: getting more compact, instead of                             getting more fragile. The accumulation of living in a super-structure was getting                          increasingly heavy to stay up in the air” (Lispector 64).

 

 

 

** The formatting got a bit weird when copying it over from Word **

 

Works Cited

“Blank Slate.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Tabula Rasa (philosophy).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.

Lispector, Clarice, Idra Novey, and Benjamin Moser. The Passion According to G.H. New York: New Directions, 2012. Print.

Uzgalis, William. “John Locke.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 02 Sept. 2001. Web. 09 Mar. 2014.

[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition for “Blank Slate”
[2] From Book II of The Essay—See section 2.2: Uzgalis, William. “John Locke.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 02 Sept. 2001. Web. 09 Mar. 2014.
[3] The Pragmatists:  1919 play by Polish poet and playwright (among other Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz
[4] Beginning of Act One of The Pragmatists spoken by Plasfodor Mimecker.

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