“On Laughter, Joy, and Spiritual Transcendence: Laughing with Clarice Lispector”

Rex Nielson
Brigham Young University

The work of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector does not typically fall into the category of the humorous. Arresting, lyrical, existential, introspective, philosophical, enigmatic, complex, abstract, poetic, and even sensuous. But humorous? comical? funny? Not really. And on a related point, given the topic of this symposium, is her work religious? Or spiritual? Clarice’s relationship to religion is complex. She was born into a Jewish family who had emigrated to Brazil in the 1920s due to the violence of the pogroms in Ukraine. Her father was a mostly unsuccessful businessman in Brazil but he was himself deeply spiritual, and Clarice inherited a disposition, or at least an acclivity, towards matters of spirit. Her work is rarely characterized as religious, certainly not in any traditional sense, but it is spiritual, considering her interests in existential questions, human consciousness, and the search for meaning. So on what grounds then does Clarice’s fiction belong in a symposium like this? Well, as I said, her work may not be religious in conventional ways, but it is spiritual. She is interested in transcendence, metaphysics, the spiritual beyond material world. She takes spirituality seriously. And while her work may not be humorous, again, certainly not in predictable ways, it is not devoid of laughter and it is certainly not devoid of joy.

This paper will explore the role of laughter and the experience of joy in moments of spiritual transcendence. I will examine in particular the story “The Smallest Woman in the World” and, time permitting, short passages from the novels Near to the Wild Heart and The Passion According to GH.