Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

"In Search of the Thing Itself": Animals and Africans in the Art of Three Jewish Women: Maya Deren (1917-1961), Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) and Helene Cixous (1937-)

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

"In Search of the Thing Itself": Animals and Africans in the Art of Three Jewish Women: Maya Deren (1917-1961), Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) and Helene Cixous (1937-)

Article excerpt

When I began to research the work of these three artists, I discovered many surprising and striking confluences in their creative imaginations. The reasons I decided to focus on animals and Africans in this paper are twofold. First, since my Lebanese housemate moved in with her two huge cats, everything I've written has concerned cats to some extent, and secondly because I wanted to tell this story:

   In 2002 I was directing my first year acting students at the
   University of Ghana, West Africa, in Jean Genet's The Blacks. It's
   a difficult play, designed to be performed by an all black cast to
   an all white audience, about the repeated ritualised rape and
   murder of a white woman by a black man. I can't say I understood it
   that well, let alone my poor students who did not speak great
   English. Flummoxed, I started to get annoyed with their passivity
   and said, "At least ask me for the definition of words you don't
   understand, or you can't blame me for getting grumpy." Then, in an
   attempt to ignite enthusiasm, I started haranguing them about who
   else we could put in this basket marked "blacks." It was meant to
   be a group discussion, but really it was just me yelling out,
   "Homosexuals! animals! gypsies! foreigners! disabled people! Jews!
   women!" But my passion must have impressed them to some extent and
   when I finished my tirade one of my best students garnered the
   courage to raise his hand and say, "Please Madam, what is
   'grumpy'?" ... Obviously I had a bit to learn about communication
   with the "other."

"In search of the thing itself" (Moser 2009:267). That is the title Clarice Lispector said she would have given her life. And the search is certainly evident in her work, as it is in the work of Deren and Cixous. It is a metaphysical quest that could have been attempted within the world of Jewish thought. All three women were brought up with a strong awareness of their Jewishness, and were very aware of the status of 'other' this gave them in the countries in which they were living. However, though Jewish influences can be found in their thinking, they were all pulled in directions contrary to traditional Jewish forms. In searching for 'the thing itself, they have attempted to understand the breadth of reality by most closely approaching what is most distant from themselves. This is a paradoxical undertaking--feeling 'other' themselves, they derive insights by trying to understand what is their most 'other'. All three found that their creative imaginings of animals and Africans drew them to greater insights of the world.

Lispector's oft stated regret at not having been born an animal partly springs from her idea that "An animal never substitutes one thing for another ..." (Lispector 1992 "Animals (l)":436). That is, unlike humans, an animal will not fool itself about reality. She writes: "... sometimes I tremble all over when I look at animals. On occasion I can even sense that primeval cry buried inside me when I am with them. It is almost as if I no longer know who is more animal, me or the animal" (438).

In a divided and racist country, an African is also an "other." When Lispector visited Guinea-Bissau in Portuguese West Africa, seeing people treated with the "utmost cruelty," she asked,

Is it really necessary to treat them as if they were animals? He argued that it was the only way to get them to work. I remained lost in thought: Mysterious Africa How I should love to be able to do something to help her. But my only weapon is the written word. And even then, only sometimes (Lispector 1992 "A Trip to Bolama in Africa", 464-65).


To return to cats, Maya Deren had many, often named after African gods. Deren was born in Ukraine in 1917. Escaping horrific pogroms, her family emigrated to the US when she was five. She is regarded as one of America's most influential avant-garde film makers. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.