In 1990, the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst—a prolific writer of experimental poems, plays, and fiction, beloved by initiates and completely unknown to the broader public—declared herself fed up with the punishing obscurity of high art and started writing smut for money and fame.1 Really filthy stuff, like a pornographic memoir narrated by a nine-year-old girl. The literary critics, those few but loyal readers, were left baffled and betrayed. “I think money delicious,” Hilst explained, chain-smoking her way through interviews that accompanied the celebrity with which she was instantly rewarded. She said the idea came to her after witnessing the international success of The Blue Bicycle, a hugely popular erotic French novel—Fifty Shades of Gray for the 1980s. She figured she could make a buck the same way.
Or, at least, that’s one of the versions of events that Hilst slyly propagated. In fact, the bizarre series of obscene books she wrote in the early ’90s—three novels and one collection of poetry—is far from possessing broad popular appeal; the stunt brought Hilst more recognition as a personality than as a writer, and she never got to taste much money. The second installment, Contos d’escárnio / Textos grotescos—here excerpted under the title “Crassus Agonicus,” in English-language translation for the first time—has more in common with the work of Ariana Reines and Helen DeWitt than that of E. L. James. Disguising a work of art as a trashy potboiler is a special sort of perversity for an author, and Hilst’s forcefully, grotesquely avant-garde novels are as devious as they are unsavory. What they do best is not titillate but muddy the customary distinctions between pornography and art, between the pulpy best seller and the literary novel.
In this regard, Hilst’s Obscene Tetralogy, as it became known, was an affront to the vulgar demands of the mass market and likewise to the values of the surprisingly prudish Brazilian literary scene. “Crassus Agonicus” in particular is a “fuck you” to both kinds of readers, but also a veiled love letter—a contradictory expression befitting the great passion Hilst felt for the audience she courted. As she insisted: “I wanted to be consumed before I died.” And by breeding her own style of transgressive, erotic literature with the seedier conventions of pornography (bestiality, infantile sexuality, and incest), she succeeded in making something so controversial it could not be ignored.
In a farce of pornographic repetition, our narrator, Crasso, recounts one sexcapade after another, as he goes about assembling a best seller. “I always dreamed of being a writer,” he explains. “But I had such respect for literature that I never dared.” Crasso—whose mother died just after naming him for a corrupt Roman general, whose father died “atop a whore,” whose uncle died getting head from a choirboy—is finally inspired by the incompetence of writers and the ignorance of readers. “With so much pap in print I thought, why can’t I write my own?” he asks. But his project is derailed when he discovers the whimsically bleak stories of his friend Hans, an uncompromising artist who has died from lack of recognition. The conflict between Crasso’s pulp and Hans’s high art at first appears to reveal a straightforward satire of the publishing business. But since the author and her project can be so obviously identified in both characters, it's impossible to take sides.
The ability of “Crassus Agonicus” to disturb readers two decades after the publication of Contos d’escárnio / Textos grotescos, in another language and another hemisphere, may have to do with questions of taste. Distinctions between taste and tastelessness remain dear in the United States and in Brazil. In both countries, despite idealized notions of equality, culture is constructed along socioeconomic lines, and the word class (classe in Portuguese) can be used just as well to mean “caste” as to indicate a quality of elegance. Taste—good taste—tends to be marked by the exclusion of mass culture, low culture, the lower body parts. At a certain point, though, it becomes difficult to distinguish between “naive” tastelessness—an ignorance of high culture’s standards—and the artful violation of taste that is one of the imperatives of a traditionally antibourgeois avant-garde. Hilst leads us into this murky territory. One of her primary intentions is to baffle and repulse, by way of style as much as content; of course, by even naming that intention here, we’ve undermined it. Therefore, to keep the spirit of Hilst’s work alive, as you read you must continually ask yourself (as one of the characters in “Crassus Agonicus” does): “Is it metaphysical or a big fuck fest?”
—Julia Powers and Lívia Drummond
AH, WOMEN! HOW SENSITIVE AND SWEET, how wily, imaginative, lucid, and vile. Women! I became the lover of Clódia, “lioness of the sycamores.” I called her that because it seemed to me her true name. The sycamores go on account of the sonority of the word. I also called her “beloved slut,” which was even more fitting. She had certain Nordic qualities: health, youthful enthusiasm. And a weakness for using diminutives in German: Liebling, Herzchen, and Bärchen. German, of all tongues, which has always seemed to me to be exactly what it’s already been called: the language of horses, because when I found out that poontang in German is Schenkelbürste, I immediately thought of a mare. She had black qualities, too: swaying hips, white teeth, fleshiness, a perfect ass, candor. And she loved blacks. And skinny nymphets, eyes radiant and starry. My life was transformed into laughs, colors, adorable follies. Clódia lived in a sunlit studio, with windows looking out onto a square where flowers were sold in striped tents and where boceteiras2 (Careful! They’re street vendors selling odds and ends.) would pass by offering lacework and little tiny velvet hearts pierced with pins. She would get up at eight, drink a glass of orchid juice (She said that orchids nourished the tongue, making it elastic and vibratile. She was visibly insane.) eat toast with thin slices of cucumber, fresh Minas cheese and grapes. Clódia’s paintings were of immense vaginas, some of thickish density, others transparent, some in a blackened yet ethereal ruby-crimson, vaginas spread out on tables, on baroque columns, vaginas in boxes, inside the trunks of trees, the great lips distended like stretched silk, some made furnaces, some sad, hanging, pubes wispy, or like snails, with that noble darkness. The variety of clitorises was unparalleled: small ones, the texture of shiny taffeta, tiny and spiked with infinitesimal prickles, or large ones, the size of pinky fingers, hard with sensuality and vigor. She would paint fingers touching clitorises. Or sad isolated fingers on beds. Or a single finger touching a clitoris-finger. She used to say she’d been inspired by God’s finger in the Sistine Chapel. The one on the ceiling.
why not paint dicks, huh Clódia?
ach, du süsser Bimmel… it’s very complicated.
you mean the dick in itself, das Ding in sich?
the thing in itself, the cock is what’s complicated to paint?
because it seems to me a lot less complicated than those cunni there.
how silly you are, du süsser Crassinho. A dick without an erection is fatal for paints. Look: a vagina at rest is all life, drive, color. A dick at rest is but a dead worm. What sort of paint do you use to paint a dead worm?
oh darling, don’t be like that, I can try to paint yours at rest, come on, pull down your pants.
I did. Clódia asked me to sit on a high stool. I sit. She gets a small canvas. She looks sadly at my cock.
She grabs a tube of yellow paint. Not yellow, Clódia, there’s no way my cock is yellow.
I sat posing two hours for the first portrait of a dick at rest. Once in a while she would give me a kiss on my cock. It rumbled (!)
Clódia: oh, you’ll spoil everything, darling, stay wormy, stay.
My dick materialized yellowly upon the canvas. A certain autumnal light encircled it where it lay among a sketch of pears.
but why pears, Clódia?
they’re illations, my dear.
She is serious. She squints. She steps back. Now the doorbell rings. I put on my pants. It’s our writer-friend Hans Haeckel. He looks at the canvas with a nauseated expression.
what is this? a worm!
no, it’s my dick, I say
I can’t believe it. Like that, was it?
I pull out my dick. Of course not. She’s crazy.
Hans: let us give the painting a name: “Crasso’s falus agonicus between autumn pears.”
Clódia thought it divine. I, not so much.
Hans Haeckel was a serious writer, the poor wretch. He adored Clódia. He considered her to be the cleanest and simplest of women. He was a middle-aged man, tall, rather hunched and very mild. He had written a really beautiful novel, a retelling of Lazarus. The critics ignored him, the reviewers insisted he didn’t exist, his little colleagues would smile enviously when someone mentioned him now and then. It was he who gave names to the painted vaginas: sly-kitty, aqua-kitty, demented-kitty, darksome pussy, pussy vivace, carnivorous kitty, light-kitty, gehenna-kitty, molto trepidant, molto sleepiness, etc. I used to say to him:
Hans, nobody wants anything to do with Lazarus, especially this one of yours, some leprous guy and dead on top of that. But he rose again, Crasso, he rose again! But it’s the devil’s world, Hans, let’s write a saturnalian score for four hands, let’s invent a pornocracy, Brazil my dear, let’s follow Clódia’s example and exalt the land of the pornographers, of the rakes, of the rascals, of the creeps
I can’t. To me literature is passion. Truth. Knowledge.
He killed himself soon after. An unsteady shot, judging by the unlikely trajectory: just grazing the bridge of his nose but hitting him right in the left eye. Clódia in her despair decided to make a portrait of Hans, or better yet, of Lazarus risen from the grave with the face of Hans, and Jesus at his side, all bright and pretty, very mannered, with a pink tunic. I commented that the thing was a disaster and that according to the laboratory at NASA which reconstructed the face of Jesus using the Shroud of Turin as a point of departure, the man Jesus was a real beauty but a male.
I can’t believe he was only that.
what do you mean only that? he was a man, Clódia!
he was a man and a woman in a single creature.
but in your painting he’s a preachy lunatic woman.
One afternoon, looking through Clódia’s drawers for a receipt stub to give to the buyer of the “demented kitty” vagina (because once in a while a perv bought a vagina), I found a story by Hans Haeckel. Clódia told me she never read Hans’s work “because, liebchen, I want to go on living, you know?” I here transcribe it for my reader. If you want to go on living, skip this section.
The pension in the big city was miserable. The pompous name: Palace Pension. I was attending my second year of law school. My father was the supervisor of a farm and he sent all his savings to me so that I could complete my studies. Since childhood I heard him say: I want the boy to look at the world through a different hole than the one I looked through. I never understood whether it was the world that would be different or if the hole would be another hole or if the world would be new when seen through a different hole. The phrase was too complex and ambiguous for me, such a little child. Well. The pension had few guests and they all seemed sad to me. Or was it only an impression? One of them fascinated me. Short, thin, pale eyes behind fine-rimmed glasses, his hair wooly and blond. Why did he fascinate me? Something desperate and infantile radiated from the man. He was the owner of a small and docile she-monkey: Lisa. He seemed very fond of the little animal. Once I heard him tell the lady who owned the pension that a gang of boys captured the monkey and wanted to kill her and eat her. He gave the boys quite a bit of money and saved the little beast. During the day, Lisa would stay in the modest yard behind the house, in the guava tree. In the afternoon she would get restless and then around five o’clock she would go and station herself by the door to her owner’s room. Everyone knew that it was five o’clock and that the man should not be long. He would arrive, and she would climb up his legs, reach his shoulders, give a screech, and scratch his blond wool. One night in the hallway I heard groans and I became curious.
Between my room and the man’s room, there was a vacant chamber where the owner of the pension kept old chairs, cracked marble tabletops, a very tall, narrow clock and various gadgets. The woman showed me the room once upon my arrival “so you don’t think that there’s some boyfriend of mine hiding in here,” she said with a loud laugh. The door remained locked; no one had any interest in the junk piled up there. The day after hearing the strange groans, I bought a screwdriver, and a few days later, hearing them once again, I determined that they were coming from the man’s room and with great caution I opened the door to the storage room, excited in the stupidity of my nineteen years.
A bluish light came through the cracks around the other door adjoining the man’s room. Then I saw: the man naked, lying down, and Lisa caressing his sex in her dark little delicate hands. Between small groans and weak sobs the man was saying: my beloved, my darling Lisa, we have only each other, it’s just us two in this sordid world of darkness and suffering. Lisa was looking alternately at the man’s face and his sex. When at last he ejaculated, she slowly curled herself up at the foot of the bed. He turned out the light. I heard him add: “thank you, my friend.”
I stayed for a long time leaning against that door. Never did the world seem to me so sad, so terrifying, so Godless. The next day I wrote to my father telling him that I no longer had the patience for studying, that I wanted to return to the country. He found it very strange. He never asked me a thing, and I wouldn’t even have known how to explain to him the pathos, the laceration of what I had seen, I wouldn’t even have known how to tell myself the reason I had abandoned my studies. My father died many months later. I heard him say to my mother, before he was forever dead: “Keep an eye on the boy, he’s not the same as he was.” He was right. I was the never the same again.
CLÓDIA, AS SOON AS SHE FINISHED painting my cock on the canvas, said the same thing that the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said when he first saw the dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex in the museum such and such: “I have just discovered my life’s occupation.” It got to be very inconvenient because as soon as she was introduced to someone she would ask: may I see your dick? She painted dicks of all sizes and expressions. There were some so solitary, so feeble that they could move one to pity. Others affected, pedantic. There were some adrift, as if begging for their own existence. Some ostentatious, big cocky dicks. Some very, very happy. Above these last ones, Clódia felt like painting garlands of pansies. Others dramatic, almost panting. My dick, for example, on Clódia’s canvas. Listen to this, Clódia, see if you like it:
The dragon stretched his narrow tongue into the adolescent cunnus, slowly at first, as one who scribbles. A hypothetical dusk of bluish hues grew, encircling my lowered eyelids. My cold eyelids. So that was your dream? A real dragon? Yes. A dream dragon. Stretch out your tongue. Lick here. Did it have scales? Lovely purple ones. Did it have a mustache? Ah ah ah. No. Ah ah. It was then she began to come. The man buried his shaft in her vagina. (Oh! ah! Oh!). Then he opened his eyes. He looked at the narrow face, angular and agonized, of the adolescent woman. He whispered to himself: death must have the same face.
how dreadful liebling, you’ve been reading Hans, how depressing!
but let me read you one more
no, no and no!
if you let me read it, I’ll warm some radishes for your little hole
and after that I’ll warm my poker for your big hole
He stretched twine between the two trees. He hung his rags. Then he put his hands on his hips and said: “Well. Now I have a house.” He had neither roof nor dog nor wife nor pots. Much less children. He had (soon thereafter) the black sky and stars. Days later, he took some time (excessive time perhaps) looking at the trees and hung himself. That one is by Hans.
Clódia: is that all?
Crasso: but I can continue it for him.
Clódia: God help me. Only if you remember to put someone’s tongue in the middle of all this or another dragon who knows.
Crasso: a dragon that screws him in the ass for example.
Clódia: before or after he hangs himself? (pause) Crassinho, please, make a woman appear or a sluttish teenager, perverted, nice and hot. What’s the matter huh, Crasso?
Crasso: but Hans only wanted to write that sort of thing above.
Clódia: ok fine. Look I’m going to call up Rubito.
Crasso: you still haven’t tired of sucking his fingers?
Clódia: I’m depressed.
Crasso: you don’t want a chocolate popsicle?
Rubito arrived. Soon he was taking off his pants, his shirt. His drawers were red. He didn’t take them off. He looked like a coal about to catch fire. He got himself a whisky. Stretched out on the rug. Crasso’s sad, said Clódia. So you suck his knob and I’ll stick my tongue in your cooter. How ’bout it, Crasso?
no thanks, Rubito, I said.
whoa. he really is sad.
you need to read the little story he read to me. By Hans.
is it metaphysical or a big fuck fest? Anyhow I don’t want to read it. I want you to know, Crasso, that I saw a black anthurium. It’s gorgeous. Something Japanese. I’m crazy about the Japanese. They’re tender and cruel.
a black anthurium is something cruel, Rubito.
it’s like seeing the palate of God.
only if he smoked a lot right, liebling? Bite me here, go on. Here on my cunnus.
and the radishes?
and me, guys? what about me? said Rubito.
I TRAVELED BECAUSE I WANTED Hans’s unpublished works. Clódia gave me his mother’s address. We found out that he had left everything there a few days before killing himself. The city is called Muiabé, in the municipality of Cantão da Vila. Muiabé is so isolated they call it an island. I’m going. Who knows, maybe I’ll start gradually preparing a list of these scumbag publishers. Maybe on the island I’ll discover my swine. Because each one of us, Clódia, has to find his own swine. (Careful not to confuse it with sinew.) Swine, everybody, swine—sinew turned inside out.
Dear Clódia: I have some things to tell you from my self-imposed exile here. For example: when I die, instead of those little wads of cotton they usually put in the corpse’s nostrils, I want you to arrange for little wads of virgins’ pubic hair. I know it will be an arduous task because, first of all: there are no virgins. Second: those who would be virgins are prepubescent and therefore lacking pubic hair, glabrous. Keep all that in mind. Another important thing: paint a vagina on the inside of an egg shell, with nuances of black and bleu foncé, and once I’m dead, slip the little canvas in the pocket of my trousers. On the right side. As you slip it in, gently stroke my lifeless dick (the one that I now stroke as I write to you and which is completely turgid, hard, aroused, aquiver, pulsating, tumid), at the same time making sure none of my friends gathered around the casket notice, so it’s not embarrassing for me, you know? And why, you will ask me. And why, kleine little bear, little golden beetle, you will say. As for the virgins’ pubic hairs, because I want to feel them tickling my nose and sneeze if I’m not dead. If I am, because I want to smell the aroma of those hairs. You will say: but you’re dead. Who knows, my dear? I say. Because I may be simply absent. Indifferent. Impassive. Or I may be dead in the dimension of the living and alive among the former, and your gesture will have the tenderness, the caring, the sweetness, the unmistakability of a last goodbye. On the right side because it will be easier for me (if I’m not dead) to touch the tiny black and bleu foncé vagina, and if I am dead it will serve as a passport, I mean a more precise identification for where I would like to travel. To the hideaways of pleasure, my dear, to the core of celestial debauchery. Another thing: trim your nails if you happen to have a fetish for sticking your finger in the asshole of a dead man. Not even dead can I bear your hard, pointy nail in my hole. For that matter, why do you insist on not trimming at least the nail on that finger that I don’t know what it’s called anymore, I can only remember the ring finger? Clódia, how I miss you. It’s horrible, this island. But I’m on it. I vomit everyday when I think about me, when I dwell on myself. Someone needs to invent some kind of contraption that can be placed into the brains of the unborn to prevent men from having deleterious thoughts. Knowing about your own death, for example, is a real hassle. The profusion of worms and wings that will sprout and burst in my body-heap. The contraption installed in my brain would not let me think about this. The word death extracted from the brain. We’d look at a dead man and it would be like looking at a platter of lettuce. Eating the dead man would be even better than knowing he was dead. It was very rash this business of my having come here to catalog all of Hans Haeckel’s unpublished work. Clódia, if you only saw Hans’s unpublished work! The one with Lisa is the most cheerful. There are agonies without end, men and women leaning out over Nothingness, the End, hate, hopelessness. And if you met Hans’s mother, you would find her intolerable. She is a hateful old woman. Miserly to her pubes. They say she has fifty houses rented out and when the guy doesn’t pay she stands on the unfortunate soul’s doorstep until nightfall and comes back everyday. When I went to look for our friend’s unpublished writing, she said to me: “You can keep all that garbage.”
Heavy, varicose, her breasts like a great skein of yarn bumping about her waist. She asked me to accompany her shopping, to the market in this little village. She spent about fifteen minutes arguing with the guy about the bread.
but ma’am, I’m not the one to blame for the price of the bread
if you don’t lower the price I’m not buying
And it was with all this lower-not-lower that the man ended up lowering his pants and showing her his prick (you’d like this one, it has black warts on the tip). She left without the bread. She went along the street collecting everything she could find; nail, margarine lid, bottlecap, cardboard. They say she built a house selling these bits of junk. When I came across a dog turd, I asked her: that won’t do, will it? She growled. Her name is Sara. At the store they told me she fries cockroaches and pulls the mustaches off the poor little things before eating them. What is it with these mothers, huh, Clódia? Poor Hans. A genius with this woman for a mother! And what’s with genetics, huh, Clódia? Men know nothing about DNA, nothing! Nothing! Please, send me one of your vaginas, that one spattered with purple, drooping around edges. The one Hans called: pussy-buona. I want to be reminded of some kind old ladies. Otherwise I’ll start going around killing mothers all over the place.
He touched the immeasurability of God. It gushed blood and black semen. He woke up panting and sweaty. His sore fingers burned. He went to the bathroom. Filth and disorder. How everything had changed since his father’s death. His mother was always a demented woman. Today he would still have to finish the translation of S. An-Sky, “The Dybbuk.” What a house! The sofa falling to pieces, the table covered in stains, the papers that had to be hidden away because she insisted on crumpling them up and throwing them in the trash. How could he have been born the son of such a mother? How was it possible that his father, a fine, delicate man, fell in love with that coarse woman, her eyes hard and frightening as razor edges.
but she wasn’t always that way son, he would have said one day.
What would she have been like then? What was the other one like, before, nice and young?
beautiful, son, beautiful. Unbelievable. The son only remembered her as she was. That dream was unbelievable too. He touched the phallus of God. And the phallus gushed blood and black semen. He felt a hint of nausea eating breakfast. His mother, sitting in the dark armchair, was moving her empty hands as though she were knitting. Absent, mute, ferocious. The Dybbuk. S. An-Sky once wrote: “I have neither wife nor children, nor home, not even a house or furniture. … The only thing that binds me to these concepts is the nation.” He too had not wife, children, home, and where he was couldn’t be called a house with furniture … as for the nation, his feelings were ones of revolt, pain, absurdity, because to be Brazilian is to be no one, to be destitute and grotesque before oneself and the world. He pushed away his cup of coffee and tried to continue the translation from the night before. He no longer had a typewriter. He had sold it months ago. It was difficult to hold a pencil with those aching fingers. He started to smile. God’s phallus. What madness. There was no such thing. He was perplexed when his mother began to sing: Du bist wie eine Blume, so hold und schön und rein? You are like a flower, so sweet and pretty and clean. How many years had it been since the old woman said a word, let alone sang? What is it, mother? The answer was an ever higher and more strident singing. “Stop mother, that’s enough, stop.” She stopped and said with an alien voice: “Question yourself no more, look no further.” Then the old woman continued her habitual and phantasmagorical knitting.
CLÓDIA, THESE ARE THE FIRST LINES of a posthumous story by Hans. In the notes he says that the word dybbuk is the name of a dead man’s spirit. And he says further: “The story is a tragedy of the translator, a man who perceives the irreversibility of evil and goes mad.” I didn’t find the continuation. For the time being, only the notes. Just look how loony our friend was. God’s dick. That’s what you would really like to paint. You’d use your red and black paints and you’d paint the divine cock ejaculating like mad. Hans was wise, Clódia. He knew that it was not for us to question ourselves much, that life is only viable when lived on the surface, in the tints, in the watercolors. Now watercolor is dangerous, too. There are some extremely sad and sinister watercolors. He knew that, but resolved to keep watercoloring. Clódia, don’t ever paint watercolors, not even the landscape out your window. Everything tends to come undone in an instant, when we linger over it. What is seen comes undone, only to form a new landscape. The singular landscape of the one who paints. All the better, my beloved slut, that you paint vaginas and schlongs. Not much transcendence there. Listen: I met a delectable girl by the gazebo in the square here. Joseli. She’s a typist. Her tail sags and she’s somewhat pearish, but what a mouth. We would have such a happy time together, the three of us, but the girly appears to be uncorrupted, she has a mother and a little sister. My intention is to bring some sweets for her mama tomorrow night. The mother might be better. Joseli is only eighteen little years old. Don’t get jealous now, your cunnus is eternal, the one and only. Expect news.