Maria Manuel Lisboa

University of Cambridge



Esta leitura de alguns dos contos de Lygia Fagundes Telles procura abordar

os temas da maternidade e da violência na obra da autora através de uma

interpretação que situa a sua preocupação com o papel da mulher enquanto

mãe em sociedades patriarcais como o eixo da sua escrita. O ponto de vista

defendido propõe ser a visão de Lygia Fagundes Telles uma escrita de

reacção às opções restritas que o ideal politica e ideologicamente

fundamentado da maternidade enquanto instituição facultam à mulher.



This reading of selected short stories by Lygia Fagundes Telles seeks to

analyse the themes of maternity and violence in the work of this writer

through an interpretative perspective which situates her preocupation with

the role of the woman as mother within patriarchal social arrangements as

being central to her work. This paper argues that Lygia Fagundes Telles's

short stories constitute a reactive body of work against the restricted

options which the ideological and political conscription of the institution

of motherhood open to women.

In Portuguese we have a saying: "mãe há só uma" which approximately translates as "there is only ever one mother." Like much received wisdom, this particular nugget immediately elicits a multiplicity of reactions. First, for example, it may be true that there is only ever one mother, but, as I shall be arguing, a mother can be many things. Second, if some of those things are, in real life, anything like the stuff of which the average mother in Lygia Fagundes Telles is made, it only remains to be said that one must be thankful for small mercies and in particular, in this writer's case, for the uniqueness in one's life of that species of parent. In the narrative fiction of Lygia Fagundes Telles, including both short stories and novels, the figure of the mother, contradictorily appears as both multi-facetedly various and uniformly dangerous.

Maternity as an event intrinsic to womanhood, itself, as I shall be arguing, a conviction at once old and old-fashioned, both in a Brazilian social context and in a wider Western Judaeo-Christian cosmogony, is, it will be seen, radically revised by Lygia Fagundes Telles in her highly idiosyncratic rendering of the mothering phenomenon. To this purpose, her female protagonists almost without exception compound their kinship bonds and social ties as sisters, daughters, wives, lovers and cousins of men with the added dimension of a motherliness which in the very moment of being established is revealed to be as pernicious -- to the men -- as was the disobedient action of the first Biblical mother in Genesis to mankind. In this context, one may wish to inquire whether when Eve nibbled a piece from the apple, she bit off more than God could chew. The Judaeo-Christian contemplation of the consequences of humankind's banishment by God-the-Father from the prelapsarian non-womb of male Creation has on the whole tended to forget that in refusing the law of the Divine Progenitor and partaking of the fruit of the tree, Eve in effect rejects the idea of humanity as God intended it and originates in its place her own alternative, albeit flawed species, in a reversal of fortunes which surreptitiously restores demiurgic power to the female womb, and restores also in some measure the female-centred mysticisms which preceeded the masculine monotheisms and were toppled by them.[0]

The medieval anti-manichean purges, in seeking to root out enchroaching heterodoxies, overlooked the primordial alternative creator resident at the heart of the paradigmatic biblical text, Eve, mother of ungodly demiurges one and all, the condemnation of whose dangerously disobedient womb paradoxically relocates it, by enhancing its parabolic importance, at the centre of the invitingly deconstructible vision that proscribes that womb, in the very moment of that proscription. The reactive, antidotal virginal womb of Mary herself, whose holiness, by means of a casuistic sleight of hand, reconceives Original Sin as the 'Blessed Fall' which served as the pretext for her redemptory coming into being, is crucial to Christian theology. In the words of one ancient hymn:


Ne had the apple taken been,

The apple taken been,

Ne had never our lady

A-been heavenè queen.


Blessèd be the time

That apple taken was.

Therefore we moun singen

Deo gracias! [1]


Nonetheless, Mary's womb, too, rapidly began to prove worrying for a doctrine which from early on has been compelled to purge it of its essential quality, the gift of procreation, and to reduce it to the status, however glorious, nonetheless subordinate, of empty vessel, subject from the moment of its inception to the occupancy of the Father and the tenancy of the Son as the sole active agents of gestation:


Mother and maiden

Was never none but she;

Well may such a lady

Godès mother be. [2]


The separation of Mary from all other women, furthermore, and her installation as the agent of a double bind that chains the latter to an iconography they are urged to emulate while told that, as daughters of Eve, they can never do so ('Mother and maiden/ Was never none but she'), is one of the discursive feats that defines emptiness as in fact at the heart of a theology officially filled by Godly presence.[3]

Be that as it may, what is certain is that the moment of expulsion from the Garden, east of Eden, is in Judaeo-Christianity the second moment of othering, of schism, in this instance between the realms of the godly and of the human, but a second moment so directly the consequence of the first one, of gendering or gender separation, between man and woman, as to be intrinsic to and dependent on it, resulting in a chain of prohibition or of deferral of reunion with the God-head, but also with the maternal womb of Eve, there and then declared culpable for the edict that condemns us never to go home again.

Motherhood, pondered from a proto-Freudian stance, is also at the heart of a contradiction which, arising with the arrival of Romanticism in Brazil has, in the almost two centuries that have followed, bedevilled multifarious facets of the Brazilian search for an autonomous cultural expression parallel to its political independence from Portugal in 1822. It is through Romanticism's articulation that fantasies of birth, death and rebirth, at once national and individual, secular and Edenic, find voice in Brazil as the foundation tropes of an imagination in search of a homeland.

I do not think it is necessarily specious to attempt a link between the authorial position of individual writers and the plight of a country such as Brazil from its political inception plagued by the contradictory pulls of local colour and European intellectual imports, nationalism and an enduring cultural subordination to overseas ideas, and internally, after the mid-nineteenth century, by the dilemma of a proclaimed liberalism in the face of ongoing slavery, and of race, class and gender enmity.

June Hahner has referred to Brazil as a "country without a memory,"[4] a problem she links to the difficulties faced by historians seeking to document a variety of phenomena in the history of the nation, in her case, more specifically, women-oriented historiography. What her detailed account of the struggle for women's rights in the period between 1850 and the 1980's finds, however, is, at the heart of a war that bore many faces, an obsession with the figure of the mother as the origin and creator of self and country. The mother becomes, in any attempt to understand the gender struggle in Brazil over the last century, a crucial signifying icon, variously invoked either by those who point to her traditional role as the safeguard and guarantor of a conservative perpetuity, or by those who, while paying lip-service to a conventional understanding of the institution of motherhood, invoked her importance as first educator of the nation's sons, as the pretext for the expansion of all women's rights to equality in education, employment, marriage and under every aspect of the law.[5]

At the core of this battle of conflicting ideologies and aims, the figure of the mother becomes increasingly shrouded in a confusion of contradictory needs and desires that insistently cast her as that which most directly furthers the particular interests being promoted. The mother is both all-powerful in the home and infinitely manipulable, omnipotent and powerless, adored and hated, everlasting reference and anathemic outcast. She is always dangerous. The following rhyme, popular in Brazil, speaks volumes:

Menina que sabe muito,

É menina atrapalhada,

Para ser mãe de família,

Saiba pouco ou saiba nada.[6]


The universally conflicting feeling towards the mother which this refrain discloses becomes even more problematic in a country like Brazil, where, throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century the Phillipine Code's influence on the legislative system decreed women to be perpetual minors, dependent upon the husband's permission for access to employment, property, inheritance, a pension or even a bank account.[7] Well into the twentieth century, the agitated political history of Brazil, in particular the dictatorships of Getúlio Vargas lasting from 1937 to 1945 and the military dictatorship of the late 1960's and early 1970's, led to serious moments of backlash in earlier achievements by various women's movements in Brazil. The role of the Roman Catholic Church both in its conservative and progressive factions evidently also had a heavy input into the process of reformulation or reification of women's roles in Brazil throughout most of this century. The attempt to revise the old Portuguese dictate that a virtuous woman only leaves her home on three occasions -- to be baptized, married and buried -- faced opposition on the part of the Catholic conservative faction, as well as its refusal to allow any link to be formulated between women's oppression and motherhood.[8] Similarly, throughout the 1970's and 80's fear of offending the more progressive faction of the Church prevented or hindered the feminist lobby, within which Lygia Fagundes Telles has been a self-declared activist, from addressing radical issues such as birth control, abortion and the concept of a woman's exclusive rights over her own body.[9]

The female body that visibly engenders life, in any case, has never ceased to be seen as problematic, a perplexity not specific to Brazil but generally prevalent in the Western psyche. The scars that have ensued upon attempts to claim or reclaim it constitute the very texture of the writing of authors such as Lygia Fagundes Telles, but like her, within and outside Brazil, the innumerable fictional and non-fictional voices in literature, theory, sociology, history, psychiatry and medicine which have understood the process of motherhood to encompass both the moment of origin of a status quo and the moment when its obliteration first becomes possible to articulate.

In one of the essays in Literature and Evil, Georges Bataille argues, possibly anti-intuitively but nonetheless persuasively that sexuality and reproduction, entailing as they do the reproduction of the single into the multiple, the giving of one's body to the making of an other, or others, gesture not towards immortality but towards death, as the loss of self in its uniqueness.[10] God may succeed in being both single and infinite but the transition from one to many, or one to infinity, in the realm of the human, nonetheless is, according to Anne Marie Schimmel the move away from innocence to perdition, from unity with the singleness of the Godhead and immortality to the dispersion of excommunication and dissolution.[11] Never more so, possibly, than in the multiplication act inherent at the heart of mothering.

Here is a conundrum. A gun holds six bullets. Playing Russian roulette with one bullet in the cartridge offers a one in six possibility of dying. Until antibiotics became widely available to combat infection in the second half of this century, an estimated one woman in every three or four, depending on the statistical source, died in childbirth.[12] Sometimes it was worse: according to one source, for example, 'in the French province of Lombardy in one year no single woman survived childbirth.'[13] It follows that historically and until as recently as fifty years ago, it was safer to play Russian roulette than to be a sexually active woman of childbearing age.

The implications of this for family dynamics are not negligible. Previous to the advent of customarily practised medical hygiene, contraceptives and antibiotics, every time a woman had sex she contemplated pregnancy and death. One woman in every three or four in the general population gestated inside her own body her potential murderer; one man in every three or four lived out the larger part of his adulthood in the consciousness of having exacted pleasure at the price of another's death. One person in every three or four lived an entire conscious existence in the awareness of having attained life at the price of that of another, and that other, one's mother. For a girl, the atonement for the involuntary matricide might lie in the subsequent surrender of life, in her turn, to a reproductive imperative patriarchal and patrilinear in many of its aspects. For a boy, the original unintended kinslaying became an additional factor in a complex conglomeration of psychic phenomena which together constitute the male dread and guilt of being of woman born.

In this century, an understanding of family dynamics cannot omit reference to a Freudian formula which comprehends as one of its givens the oedipal discarding by both sexes of the mother and the identification, albeit, in the late Freudian view, an acknowledgedly asymmetrical identification, of each sex with the father.[14] The Freudian formula has of course given rise to a variety of revisions, among the most influential of which, if we exclude those which themselves originated schools of thought in their own right (Melanie Klein, Karen Horney, Nancy Chodorow[15]), is the work of Jacques Lacan who himself brought into existence not only a highly influential body of conceptual thought and terminology, but furthermore elicited the reactive corpus of much psychoanalytic French and Anglo-American feminist theory. According to Lacan, the oedipal crisis precipitates the end of the dominance of the Imaginary (the pre-oedipal fusion with the body of the mother), and the entry into the Symbolic, the realm of the masculine with which is associated the acquisition of language. During the oedipal crisis the father disrupts the dyadic unity between mother and child and forbids access to the mother's body. The loss of the mother and the desire for her, pertaining as they do to a new consciousness of the phallus, are repressed and metonymically represented by the acquisition and usage of a language under whose auspices the capacity to say "I" is indistinguishable from the body of the mother.[16]

The child in possession of language, therefore, is the child who has resigned itself to, and repressed, the loss of the mother, and who accepted the phallus as the representative of the power of the Law of the Father. The entry into the Symbolic is the acceptance (repression) of the loss of the mother or of a state before self, before identity, and the concommitant assimilation of a concept of self, of language, of culture and of community or society, which together constitute the Order of the Symbolic. The refusal of entry into the Symbolic is the refusal of socialization and the affirmation of self-exclusion, fragmentation of identity and psychosis.

Largely departing from Freud and to a lesser extent from Lacan, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Nancy Chodorow and other psychoanalytic revisionists see as central to both the conflict with the father and the final identification with him a much more fundamental and instinctive need for escape from the mother, who represents not just a threat to freedom but to the very integrity of the self.[17] According to Dinnerstein, psychically, the dominion of the father will become apparent as after all a less ominous alternative and therefore preferable to the fundamental danger the mother embodies.

The central opportunity for self-deception [...] that lies in the shift from dependence on female authority to dependence on male, patriarchal authority is seized by both sexes. [...] the revolt is not against a father but against a mother. What makes it possible to replace that deposed sovereign with another and still feel triumphant is that the new sovereign is of a new gender.[18]


The departure point for post-Freudian feminist revisionism, consequently, is located where mainstream Freudianism, having hinted at the mother as the real source of psychic menace abandons her to concentrate on the figure of the father: revisionist psychoanalytic feminist thought, on the other hand, works backward from this to reinstate the maternal as the focus of its analysis. Margaret Mead suggested that the more obviously procreative function of the woman, more obvious because more visible to the naked eye in its external signs, such as pregnancy and labour, endows her with an aura of pre-historically mysterious, and therefore feared power,[19] and transforms her, in Adrienne Rich's words, into "an object of mistrust, suspicion, misogyny in both overt and insidious forms",[20] requiring vigilance and confinement. Nancy Chodorow, Dorothy Dinnerstein, and Patricia Waugh[21] variously describe how in a culture in which the care of the children falls almost exclusively to the woman, the mother is simultaneously the first love, the first witness and the first source of frustration of the child. The mother holds absolute power of life or death over the infant, a fact which will not only lie at the heart of the nature of relations between the sexes in adulthood, but will also underpin certain contradictions inherent in the subsequently acquired conscience that the supposedly all-powerful mother is after all disempowered under patriarchy.

Be that as it may, for the newly-born child the mother, omnipotent mediator between the infant and all that is external to it, is the source of all that the latter experiences as good, but also all that is experienced as bad, her power gradually becoming comprehensible as the bounty of life but, additionally, as the terror of finite life, or death. The consciousness of this dual presence will persist in post-infancy stages and through into adult consciousness, as the divided desire for but dread of a return to the Nirvana-like womb which signals both binding pleasure and boundless dissolution. And the mother, herself, as the site of that dangerous womb, triggers also the knowledge of the finiteness of life and the inevitability of death for all those for whom she signals the only available beginning.

Men have never tired of fashioning expressions for the violent force by which man feels himself drawn to the woman, and side by side with his longing, the dread that through her he might die and be undone.[22]

The mother who reminds us of the pre-self state of utter disempowerment, the Lacanian Imaginary or the Kristevan Semiotic, all the more dangerous because bewitching as the last occasion of absolute psychic self-abandon, is, as post-Freudian theory clarifies, identified according to Freud as that which needs to be jettisoned,[23] as the price of being granted access to the rational safety of the Symbolic Order. The mother signifies regression, lack of autonomy, the opposite of all that the Symbolic defines as the very essence of personhood.

Absence, lack, inchoateness, insatiability, nothingness: it is a monstrous image of the feminine, yet it is also, astoundingly, the normative view presented in Freud (the castration complex), Lacan [...]. Thus distance, separateness, objectivity, and rationality are the haven and 'escape' of masculinity.[24]

The return to the maternal, therefore, is both a feared danger and a crime perpetrated against the Law of the Father, a crime simultaneously characterized by, and punished with, a disintegration or loss of the self which, paradoxically, may also appear as the very essence of the Imaginary Nirvana of lost fusion in infancy.

The terrible assault to masculine identity which inheres in the recognition of the originating body of the mother was given utterance in Antiquity by the outraged shout of Orestes - am I of my mother's [blood]?[25] - and has been echoed subsequently by the many men - Jesus, Buddha, Plato, Quetzalcoatl, Montezuma and Ghenghis Khan - all of whom have sought to exorcise the haunting power of the maternal through the old fantasy of a virgin birth, and of the womb as an empty vessel for the paternal seed.[26]

When, being all these things and nothing the mother refuses to continue being the object, not subject of the plethora of definitions of herself in which she bears no agency, she becomes synonymous with the possibility of both pleasure and dissolution for those upon whom, as the only available point of beginning, she bestowed both the gift of a life qualified by finiteness and therefore, cruelly, the inevitability of ultimate death. And when those are the sons of the nation, the mother, rather than archetypal originator becomes instead possibly the purveyor of cultural annihilation.

Against this background of phantasmic and fantastic motherhood I shall seek to arrive at an understanding of the narrative fiction of Lygia Fagundes Telles, a prose troubled by an obsession with insistent figures of mothers who go about their mothering with malice aforethought. An insight into the murderous nature of motherhood in this writer's work, moreover, extends further into what arguably amounts to a gender agenda operative through desecration, since almost everyone of Fagundes Telles' female protagonists in one way or another, through symbolic but more often real murder (real although sometimes muffled through the devices of allegory, or horror, or the fantastic), commits a crime which has threefold implications: murder itself, of course transgressive, is compounded by gender aggression, since the female invariably murders the male; and is further aggravated by its kinslaying dimension, since the murderesses of husbands and lovers are always, after a fashion, also the metaphorical mothers of these men who are invariably infantilized and emasculated by a variety of means, abducted from the Symbolic Order and snatched into a non-speaking regressive, or filial, or infantile dependency there and then revealed as lethal.

An understanding of the dynamic relation connecting issues of language, gender and procreation must be invoked here. If following Lacan the position of the subject in the realm of the Father is assumed through language, it follows that the entry into the Symbolic must be different for the two sexes, the possession of subjectivity being different for he who has a phallus and for she who does not. Since the father represents not simply authority but the cultural and social whole, the acquisition of the civilized state requires, in Lacan, identification with the father, the latter, according to Freud, being accessible to the son but not to the daughter. If the entry into the Symbolic demands the sacrifice of unity with the mother, therefore, within it men attain the compensation of power and self-definition, while women are debarred from true recognition. In order to identify herself permanently with the mother, the daughter must accept the absence of the phallus in herself as a permanent loss. If the phallus as signified has a central position in language, as it must do if language embodies the law of patriarchal culture, it follows that the access of the daughter to the Symbolic and to language as metonymies of culture and society must always be tainted by negativity, or at least characterized by difference. Through the acquisition of language we are transformed into social beings but it is also through language, itself implicated in the Law of the Father, that the restrictions which society imposes upon women are articulated. Language belongs to the Symbolic Order which itself encompasses the abstract relations of a given social network.[27] "Each time we speak we are also spoken."[28] Thus women, faced with a language which voices the loss of that which within the Symbolic articulates the relations of power, the phallus, realize that language may belong to them by virtue of their human status, but it does not belong to them by virtue of their sex. And, still according to this rationale, "women either remain in the dyad of the mother-infant bond, accepting madness or invisibility, or allow their identification within the symbolic order and 'masquerade' within the terms of an alien rationality".[29]

The male monotheisms understand the begetting of voice as akin to the male begetting of a son as an affirmation of sexual prowess and audibility, and linked to the possession of a male libido.[30] My Father's house has many mansions but none may be truly my own. The usurpation of the procreative monopoly by men has arguably born upon the oscillations of gender power since female-centered cosmologies were toppled by male monotheisms.[31] In the aftermath of the rise of God-the-Father and God-the-Son, the rise of the phallus over the womb, women speak on sufferance as an act of wary transgression against an injunction to silence, and come into voice as what one critic denominates 'thieves of language,'[32] cannibalizing that order which grants them no willing membership. The demarcation of the limits of the confidence trick which enables a male monopoly over voice but also over procreation, therefore, the staking of the procreative territory as the inaugural act of hostilities, may offer one opening into the understanding of a writer such as Lygia Fagundes Telles, and with her, a plethora of women writers worldwide, Angela Carter, Fay Weldon and Margaret Atwood, all in different ways spokeswomen for the act of writing as a frightening, thoughtful, programmatic loss of control.

In the writing of Lygia Fagundes Telles we face an onslaught against, among other targets, her audiences, whom she robs of a comfortable positioning vis à vis role identifications all of which, whether those of the victims or of the perpetrators as made available through her narratives, can only be adopted with unease. When the masks of deceptive acceptability are snatched away from the mothers and wives and cousins and lovers and namoradas of stories such as 'O Jardim Selvagem' ('The Wild Garden'), 'Herbarium' ('Herbarium'), 'A Estrutura da Bolha de Sabão' ('The Structure of the Soap Bubble'), and 'Apenas um Saxofone' ('Just a Saxophone'),[33] the process Baudrillard has described as the murder of the real by its simulacrum,[34] or, elsewhere, as the viral attack perpetrated against, for want of a better term 'a modern context', by a set of more 'archaic' terms, the latter the speakers of the 'evil' which, according to Baudrillard that modern orthodoxy can no longer voice,[35] is exhibited in its achieved finality.

This return of the repressed is broached by Kristeva, in Powers of Horror, as 'the site of the Other,'[36] and what she terms 'abjection' is, in Georges Bataille's definition, which she draws upon, 'the inability to assume with sufficient strength the imperative act of excluding abject things', or otherness, an act which if achieved 'establishes the foundations of collective existence.'[37] Kristeva sees the prohibition of the abject, and the attitude of abjection (which is the Bataillian consciousness of the weakness of that prohibition, indicative of the frailty of the Symbolic Order) as key to an understanding of the relationship with the mother:[38]

The symbolic "exclusory prohibition" that, as a matter of fact, constitutes collective existence does not seem to have, in such cases, sufficient strength to dam up the abject or demoniacal potential of the feminine. The latter, precisely on account of its power, does not succeed in differentiating itself as other but threatens one's own and clean self, which is the underpinning of any organization constituted by exclusions and hierarchies. (original italics)[39]

She takes as one of her examples that instance of mutually murderous and desiring mother-son vortex, the Oedipus-Jocasta dyad, which 'sums up and displaces the mythical defilement that situates impurity on the untouchable 'other side' constituted by the other sex, [...] within the mother woman (original italics).[40] If, as Kristeva suggests, by becoming himself a knowing being of abjectness, a scapegoat, Oedipus freed the city from defilement, as she goes on to add, the real threshold that demarcates the clean from the unclean lies not between king and city, or between man and woman, or between woman and son, but between woman as desiring/speaking being and woman as mother. If so, then the transgression of that necessary threshold, necessary if the Symbolic Order is to remain intact, the abolition of the lawful demarcation that separates mothers from lovers, ushers in, necessarily, cultural annihilation. In Lygia Fagundes Telles, repeatedly, the woman, being not unconsciously, unavoidably and blamelessly incestuous mother-lover but so by choice, driven to transfigure herself into a new Jocasta figure by a transgressive imperative which becomes absolutely disruptive, first mothers and then kills her emasculated, sickly, fragilized child-husband or vulnerable father. And so wholly seditious is this act that, not surprisingly, its ripples extend outside that which pertains purely to gender and procreation, into the spheres of orthodoxy, logic and realism or science, all of which find that the immediate impact of that first moment is upon language, and upon the power of utterance from which they are now debarred. According to Rosemary Jackson,[41] in fantasy the discourse of the non-mainstream finds ample room for manoeuvre. If fantasy as understood by Jackson is the natural milieu of the voice of the Kristevian abject, fantasy re-hijacked as the subgenre of horror is reclaimed by Lygia Fagundes Telles, in stories such as 'As Formigas' ('The Ants') [42] and 'A Caçada' ('The Hunt') [43] as her chosen terrain of battle from which to begin to contest binaries of male presence and female absence. In the agenda that structures the encounter between male and female, and, more particularly, between mother and son, throughout her narratives, there are, on the part of her female protagonists, no apologies for presence but merely a disruptive insistence upon that presence, here and now.

And because, of all possible insurrections, interference with the expected cycles of reproduction, whether biological or social, whether through incest or murder or both, is the most virulent, the hijacking and perversion of the maternal function becomes literally the unutterable, that which however can be granted an extra dimension of horror through the insistence upon uttering it. Fantasy, disorder and horror replace orthodoxy, logic and science in Lygia Fagundes Telles' virtual reality, and she offers us instead perturbingly modified fairy tales which inform the startled reader that at the end of the story Snow White and Cinderella, having stayed out all night, will not return to topple wickedness and reassuringly reinstate the status quo. In these writers' narratives the old murder the young, children as agents of evil destroy innocent adults and women newly-cast as mothers embark upon the genocide of men reinvented as infants.[44]

Post-Freudian theory has rescued the mother from her Freudian relegation to the pre-Oedipal stage. In Lygia Fagundes Telles, the incorporation of the limitations of the Freudian formula as well as of the revisions which throw upon it the light of an understanding of its dread of the maternal, is refracted through the prism of an older underpinning Judaeo-Christian misogyny. In 'Natal na Barca' ('Christmas on the Boat'), one of her most infamous short stories, a first-person narrator, only belatedly disclosed as female, travels on a mysterious barge over an unexplained, purgatorial stretch of water, with a demonic madonna figure who, holding her baby in her arms, spooks the mesmerized narrator with the tale of the death of her first child, here hijacked as the thematic propellant of her own murderous story-telling creative impetus.[45] As fear escalates, the narrator realizes that the child in the arms of the story-teller is also dead. The catastrophe of the second death, not birth, of this second Child on an improbably gory Christmas Eve, is not remedied by the awareness on the part of the narrator, at the end, that she has made a mistake and that the second child in this uncannily re-scripted Nativity is after all alive. Temporarily.

Infanticide by the mother, in any case, is an old nightmare. In Jewish apocrypha Adam had a first wife, before Eve, by name Lillith. Lillith refused God's injunction that she submit to Adam and be his helpmate, and as a consequence of her mutiny she was banished to the edge of the Dead Sea, where she dwells in a cave to this day, consorting with demons and devouring her male offspring in recidivist insurrection against her husband and his Creator.[46] The second spouse hardly fared better, and while both Adam and Eve underwent punishments as a consequence of the latter's misdemeanour, in Genesis Eve, and all her female successors, suffered a further few, specific to the female arch-culprit, which included menstruation, childbirth in pain and breast-feeding, all sanctions accruing to the onset of motherhood. Motherhood, according to Margaret Mead the trigger of the first instance of gender (and specifically womb) envy,[47] the cause of the first quarrel between the sexes, as male-centered theologies jealous of the reproductive prerogative wrested it from the sphere of the more obviously involved female, has always at its heart the potential for insubordination and disruption. Insubordination against the artificial status of a paternity whose truth can never be certain, whereas that of maternity, for obvious reasons always is. And disruption, since the first Mother in Judaeo-Christianity gave birth to the murderous, masculinely self-destructive rather than self-affirming brotherhood of Cain and Abel.

The consequences of Eve's emergence as a reproductive, knowing woman are seen to be so grave as to require an absolute reversal, disempowerment through the subsequent re-writing of the theft of the apple as the 'Blessed Fall,' theologically sanitized in the Virgin cult as the welcome pretext for the cosmetic advent of Mary, mother of a Father's Son and herself the incubator of a Trinity which pointedly excludes her as its third term, declaring her to be more ghostly even than the preferred alternative of the archetypal Dove, and thus instigating the reinstatement of a boys-only club.[48] The only and profoundly unacceptable role model alternative to Mary's womanhood, at the opposite extreme of the continuum, is Lillith, ever peckish for male flesh, and it is Lillith, therefore, not entirely surprisingly, who embodies the possibility of liberation from Marian amorphousness. Lillith, murderess, murderess of males, and worst of all murderess of her own male issue, itself the supposed Freudian compensation for the lack of a penis which she apparently does not envy but does eat, is in effect the originator of two lines of descendancy: one male, finite and devoured; the other female, infinite and devouring. And the infinite, as referred earlier, being associated with the many rather than with the single, is antithetical to the Oneness of God, and carries menace, as well as stigma.[49] As punishment for this latter, unputdownable female lineage, therefore, Lillith is declared unspeakable, is unwritten or pro-scribed (proscripted?) from Scripture, erased and relegated to apocrypha.

In Powers of Horror Kristeva offers a reading of the biblical preoccupation with the identification and exclusion of impurities as rooted in the awareness that the heterodox can operate as an autonomous force threatening to divine agency. Its classification as an abomination logicizes the manner in which it departs from the Symbolic and thus prevents it from being actualized as demonic evil (90-91). Where, as is arguably the case in a narrative such as "Natal na Barca," the logicizing mechanisms fail and the line separating Mary from Lillith ceases to prevail, the maternal becomes demonic, and by implication annihilatory.

Biblically, furthermore, the moment of criminal motherhood, whether that of Lillith or of Eve, is preceeded by equally dangerous desecration. In the Garden of Eden, the prohibition applied to the fruit of two trees: that of Knowledge and that of Life. When Adam and Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of Knowledge, they were banished from Paradise lest they should proceed to eat of the fruit of the tree of Life and become immortal too. The Judaeo-Christian God demarcates the boundaries between Himself (knowing and immortal), and his creatures (ignorant and mortal). The purloined knowledge enclosed in the apple represented the achievement by Eve of a then unaccomplished full transgression, which failed to attain also the theft of immortality. Narratively, the fantasy of death-wielding powers, which is the power of immortality and Lillith's fantasy, has become a familiar trope of a series of women writers. The Uruguyan writer Armonía Somers, for example, in a remarkable short story, "The Fall,"[50] conjures up the image of an unbridled, vicious Virgin Mary embarked on a mission of destruction reminiscent of the holocaust scenarios offered by Angela Carter in The Passion of New Eve,[51] and, more humourously but no less earnestly, by Fay Weldon in her tale of a revised Genesis, Life and Loves of a She-Devil.[52] These are only a few examples of the kind of thematic lineage within which I would include the murderous narratives of Lygia Fagundes Telles, a murderousness, nonetheless, with undeniablye method to its madness, since the woman who wields death with impunity, narratively or in practice, usurps the divine prerogative to do so, and becomes, therefore immortal, the recipient of male sacrifice, and herself god-like albeit demonic rather than divine. In Fagundes Telles, as in Armonía Somers, the mother does so, furthermore, by becoming the mother-lover who biblically -- but not now -- traditionally appeared as the scapegoat for a series of transgressions and divine reaffirmations, and as such suffered death, concrete or metaphoric.

Thus monotheism is forced to surrender to manicheanism, the prophanity of dual creation, God but also mother, Creator but also annihilator, not male but female. The rise of the murderous mother simulates the rise of God-the-Father, but since the latter's permanence requires exclusivity, which is the rule of the single Law, and since the simulacrum of motherly as opposed to Godly creation introduces the heresy of the slightly different, which is also the possibility of an alternative, it renders itself utterly heretical, and makes the monotheistic paternity profoundly imperilled. When, in Lygia Fagundes Telles monotheism gives way to manichean heresy the demiurgic logic that is found to prevail signifies that the murder of sons and lovers becomes consecrated as sacrifice to and within a new order. Kristeva argues that biblically, abjection, the mere exclusion of the other, gradually tempered and replaced the necessity for blood sacrifice, which disposed of that other in death. In Lygia Fagundes Telles, however, an economy of sacrifice is reinstated and the sacrificial lamb, newly identified as the male son, becomes not the reaffirmation of the single Law, but the pretext for a new utterance with a heretical difference, whose consequences for the established order may be truly apocalyptic.

Since Lillith worried the keepers of the canon, the process of pondering the mystery of the female killer has consistently found itself at a loss for words. Whether in consideration of what unsurprisingly is a still-growing corpus of 'murderous' writing by women, or of big box-office films (Black Widow, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fatal Attraction, Thelma and Louise, Extremities),[53] or of real-life crime (Myra Hindley, Lindy Chamberlain, Rosemary West,[54] a variety of women terrorists[55]), two things stand out: first, greater difficulty seems to afflict attempted explanations or even descriptions of a woman who kills; and second, the impression persists that once a woman metamorphoses into a taker of life (and nothing short of metamorphosis seems to suffice as the half-way house explanation for that inexplicable act), no power can destroy her except her own (for example by going once too far), or another woman's. Helen Birch, considering the case of Myra Hindley's peculiarly horrific status -- peculiar, that is, when contrasted with the lesser horror perceived to attach to male serial killers more easily forgotten -- locates her at the heart of what she describes as a 'totemic' storm between the forces of good and evil, as an escapee from an overdetermined definition of acceptable femininity, polarized as its antithesis, the bad 'mother', the horrible dark face of femininity perverted from its 'natural' course.[56] Following Birch, there is no language for what Myra Hindley (but not Ian Brady) did, and, with her, other women who kill, in particular if the victims are children, more diabolically even, their own children. The case of Lindy Chamberlain and the infamous alleged baby-snatching dingo in Australia illustrates this.[57] Similarly, the verdict of a court and of writing posterity on Rosemary West, the alleged Gloucester serial killer whose roll of victims allegedly included her own daughter, has yet to be reached,[58] but in her case, presumably, more so even than in that of Hindley, the sheer horror of what confronts us, whether eventually proven or merely speculated upon, will entail, at the centre of journalistic hyper-coverage, an even more profound explanatory silence. How could such a thing ever happen? How could a woman ever do it? The silence is possibly the consequence not of not knowing what to say but of always having known, and of having wished not to, that the mother who gives can also take life, that the life-force, literally the be-all of the infant, can also be its end-all, and that at the heart of the maternal there might lie violent dissolution.

If even the Virginal Madonna can become a killer, and, in 'Natal na Barca' ('Christmas on the Boat'), a speaking killer, a mother turned author on the theme of her offspring's death, we have only a vocabulary of insanity, or of evil and of the lynchmob to respond to these phenomena. But what that Nativity story, more explicitly than others (but speaking in the same voice) requires us to do is to ask ourselves whose son is killed, whose divine Child, whose inheriting offspring. When, in Lygia Fagundes Telles, women turn themselves into mothers of sons, and, less frequently but still conspicuously into daughters of fathers, before they kill them, and while still loving them, they go out of their way (astray?) to commit the abominations of kinslaying and incest which under both Greek and Judaeo-Christian ethics have never gone unpunished. Almost never. But in the case of this writer they remain unpunished. Almost always.

Her writing utters the prophane, the transgressive, the desecratory, and through her Lillith-like onslaughts upon the male she at once aborts, castrates and kills, all actions which prematurely terminate life and pleasure. Abortion is the wrecking of the possibility of life. Castration is the wrecking of the possibility of pleasure. And murder is the wrecking of the possibility of ongoing life, or immortality. But all of them are merely premature wreckages, untimely anticipations of the death which in any case is inherent in the moment when the mother, in giving life, gives finite life, life without the promise of perpetuity or eternity or immortality, a life that is therefore poisoned, initiated by a birth quantitatively but not qualitatively different from its deformed avatars of abortion, castration and murder, to which it is linked by the common denominator of inescapable death. And at the origin of this horrible truth, whether she be murderous or simply motherly, we find the mother. Mãe há só uma.

In his trips down psychic and mythical memory lane Freud curiously ommitted all mention of one destiny undoubtedly as striking, certainly more disturbing than that of Oedipus. I refer to Euripides' Medea, witch, sorceress, demon-woman and finally child-killer and kinslayer.[59] Having destroyed her children in order to wreak revenge upon their father, and in particular upon his lineage, Medea exits with impunity to go and live in peace, of all places in Athens, the seat of masculinely conceived Justice. Aristotle admired Euripides as the most tragic of the Greek poets, because purveyor of the unhappiest endings.[60] He was certainly the most controversial, an unholy ghost in the great trinity of classic tragedians, and reviled by his contemporaries, for example Aristophanes,[61] or dismissed by them, as attested by the comparative rarity of his triumphs at the Dyonisiac festivals. Euripides sympathetically portrays that most unsympathetic of roles, the unspeakably bad mother, and by arguably denying his audience the catharsis of retribution he allows the effects of disruption to endure.

The woman who kills children, let alone her own, let alone her own children who are also Freudianly or within the parametres of Greek Antiquity her lovers, unsettles the boundary of what is knowable about femininity as the 'guarantor of idealism, nurturance and nature,' and invites instead a glimpse into its abysmal antithesis.[62] What is unhinged in the process, ultimately, is knowledge, the knowledge that was thought to be had and which since Eve desecrated the tree has always been the real target of onslaught. Admitedly, even in murderous writing such as that of Lygia Fagundes Telles there are moments of backlash, such as for example the caging, by a hard-done-by young man, in 'Venha Ver o Pôr-do-Sol' ('Come See the Sunset'), of his jilting lover.[63] Lured and trapped into his family vault in an abandoned cemetery, she is left there to die as the grotesque punishment for a desertion which, by rejecting him as lover, husband and procreative male, imperilled his masculine perpetuity and must be punished by the abolition of the possibility of hers. Nonetheless, overwhelmingly throughout this writer's fiction, the limits of female gnosis encompass not the consciousness of the mortality of self and other, but the more portentous knowledge of how to kill with impunity. Fagundes Telles inaugurates a permanent suspension of the Law of the Father and variously enacts replicas of a variety of erstwhile sacred rituals with a small heretical difference: boastful confession without contrition, triumphalist evil rather than repenting sin, "the joy of [...] dissipation set into signs,"[64] the path that stays "within horror but at a very slight distance -- an infinitesimal and tremendous one [...] writing as sublimation."[65] It is writing as indefinite catharsis,[66] or as an act of aesthetic coitus interruptus, which as everyone knows dislocates a number of orthodoxies, fertilizing, reproductive, proprietorial, pleasurable and other.

If as Edward Said maintains, inherent at the heart of the concept of authoring is the concept of authoritative fathering,[67] Lygia Fagundes Telles, writing as a woman in a country, Brazil, whose problematic birth lies in any case in the rapacious expansionism of at least one, probably several European mothers, androgynous "pátrias" or "mátrias," appears as the mother, certainly not father, of terrifying texts which disclose a dual impetus toward at once enlightenment and indictment. Enlightenment, commensurate with the consciousness of death, the final encounter which, literarilly and concretely, has been Semiotically longed for and Symbolically foregone. And indictment, resident in the insistence, which is also a lament, that, for the moment, at the heart of a female voice, of this female voice, there lies the imperative, and the limitation, of being compelled to peer into the vacuum of the soul, and from there to extract the only available measure of lyricism, which must be evil recollected in tranquility.



[0] For a discussion of the rise and fall of the goddess-centred religions consult Rosalind Miles, The Women's History of the World (London: Paladin, 1989). Retorna ao texto

[1] "Adam lay ybounden"(Music by Peter Warlock). The Oxford Book of Carols. London: Oxford University Press (1974). Retorna ao texto

[2] "I sing of a maiden" (Anon., music by Lennox Berkeley). Chester Book of Carols. London: Chester [n.d.]. Retorna ao texto

[3] For a discussion of Mary's evolution in Christian iconography and her separateness from womankind as emerging from catholic doctrine on the subject consult Marina Warner, Alone of All her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Picador,1976). Retorna ao texto

[4] June E. Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex: The Struggle for Women's Rights in Brazil, 1850-1940 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990), xii. Retorna ao texto

[5] Ibid., 42-96. Retorna ao texto

[6] Ibid., 230. Retorna ao texto

[7] Ibid., 81-82. Retorna ao texto

[8] Ibid., 154. Retorna ao texto

[9] Ibid., 197-204. Retorna ao texto

[10] Georges Bataille, "Emily Brontë" in Literature and Evil. Alastair Hamilton (trans.) (London and New York: Marion Boyars Ltd., 1985), Pp.13-31. Retorna ao texto

[11] Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers (New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993), 13-14. Retorna ao texto

[12] Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991), 10:627:2b. Retorna ao texto

[13] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London, Virago Press Ltd., 1992), 151. Retorna ao texto

[14] The framework first developed in Three Essays on Sexuality was subsequently revised throughout the post-1925 writings. For example, "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes," Standard Edition, Vol.19 (London: Hogarth Press, 1961). Also "Female Sexuality," Standard Edition, Vol.21 (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), and "Femininity," Standard Edition, Vol.22 (London: Hogarth Press, 1964). Retorna ao texto

[15] Melanie Klein, The Psychoanalysis of Children (London, Virago Press Ltd., 1989),

Karen Horney, "The Dread of Woman" in Feminine Psychology (New York and London: W.

W. Norton and Company, 1993).

Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender.

(Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, The University of California Press, 1979).

Nancy Chodorow, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1989). Retorna ao texto

[16] Jacques Lacan - Écrits: A Selection (London: Routledge, 1985). Four Fundamental Principles of Psychoanalysis (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1977). Retorna ao texto

[17] Dorothy Dinnerstein - The Rocking of the Cradle and the Ruling of the World (London, The Women's Press, 1987).

Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, op.cit. Retorna ao texto

[18] The Rocking of the Cradle, op.cit., P.189. Retorna ao texto

[19] Margaret Mead - Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1962). Retorna ao texto

[20] Adrienne Rich - Of Woman Born, op.cit., 127. Retorna ao texto

[21] The Reproduction of Mothering, op.cit.

The Rocking of the Craddle, op.cit.

Patricial Waugh, Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern (London and New York, Routledge, 1989). Retorna ao texto

[22] Karen Horney, op.cit., 134. Retorna ao texto

[23] See for example Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London, Picador, 1988),501-42. Retorna ao texto

[24] Patricia Waugh, op.cit., 71. Retorna ao texto

[25] Aeschyllus, The Eumenides (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985), 168 [608]. Retorna ao texto

[26] Rosalind Miles, The Women's History of the World, op.cit., 98. Retorna ao texto

[27] Lacan, Écrits, op.cit. Retorna ao texto

[28] Cora Kaplan - Sea Changes: Culture and Feminism (London: Methuen, 1986), P.73. Retorna ao texto

[29] Patricia Waugh - "Psychoanalysis, Gender and Fiction: Alternative 'Selves'" in Feminine Fictions, op.cit., 61. Retorna ao texto

[30] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (London and New Haven, Yale University Press, 1984), 3-44. Retorna ao texto

[31] Rosalind Miles, op.cit., 36-102. Also Julia Kristeva, "About Chinese Women" in Toril Moi (ed.) The Kristeva Reader (Oxford, UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell, 1993), Pp.139-45. Retorna ao texto

[32] Alicia Ostriker, "The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking" in Elaine Showalter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory (London, Virago, 1986), 314-38. Retorna ao texto

[33] Lygia Fagundes Telles, "O Jardim Selvagem" in Mistérios (Rio de Janeiro, Editora Nova Fronteira, 1981), 47-56. "Herbarium" in Seminário dos Ratos (Rio de Janeiro, Editora Nova Fronteira, 1984), 41-49. "Apenas um Saxofone" and "A Estrutura da Bolha de Sabão" in Os Melhores Contos de Lygia Fagundes Telles (São Paulo, Global Editora, 1984), 21-29, 131-135. Retorna ao texto

[34] Jean Baudrillard, "Simulacra and Simulations" in Mark Poster, ed., Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (Cambridge and Oxford, Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell, 1989), 166-84. Retorna ao texto

[35] Jean Baudrillard, "Whatever Happened to Evil?" in The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena (London and New York, Verso, 1993), 81-88. Retorna ao texto

[36] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror (New York and Oxford, Columbia University Press, 1982), 54. Retorna ao texto

[37] Georges Bataille, quoted in Kristeva, op.cit., 56. Retorna ao texto

[38] Powers of Horror, op.cit., 64-69. Retorna ao texto

[39] Ibid., 64-65. Retorna ao texto

[40] Ibid., 83. Retorna ao texto

[41] Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Suversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1993). Retorna ao texto

[42] Lygia Fagundes Telles, "As Formigas" in Os Melhores Contos, op.cit., 143-49. Retorna ao texto

[43] Lygia Fagundes Telles, "A Caçada" in Os Melhores Contos, op.cit., 137-42. Retorna ao texto

[44] Lygia Fagundes Telles, "A Presença" in Seminário dos Ratos, op.cit., 131-37. "Herbarium," op.cit. "Os Objectos," "O Jardim Selvagem," "As Pérolas," "O Menino" in Antes do Baile Verde (Rio de Janeiro, Editora Nova Fronteira, 1986), 11-19, 125-34, 183-94, 195-205. Retorna ao texto

[45] Lygia Fagundes Telles, "Natal na Barca" in Antes do Baile Verde, op.cit., 135-41. Retorna ao texto

[46] Consult Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, op.cit., P.35. Also Julia Kristeva, "About Chinese Women," op.cit., P.140. Retorna ao texto

[47] Margaret Mead, op.cit. Retorna ao texto

[48] For a discussion of the concept of the "Blessed Fall" and of the historically changing image of Mary in catholic doctrine, consult Alone of All Her Sex, op.cit. Retorna ao texto

[49] Annemarie Schimmel, op.cit. Retorna ao texto

[50] Armonía Somers, "The Fall" in Alberto Manguel (ed.)Other Fires: Stories from the Women of Latin America (London: Picador, 1986). Retorna ao texto

[51] Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve (London: Virago Press Ltd., 1987). Retorna ao texto

[52] Fay Weldon, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988). Retorna ao texto

[53] Black Widow, Bob Rafaelson, dir. Mark, Americent and American Entertainment, 1987. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Jon Avnet, dir. Universal and Act III, 1991. Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne, dir. Paramount, 1987. Thelma and Louise, Ridley Scott, dir. Pathe and Main, 1991. Extremities, Robert M. Young, dir. Atlantic, 1986. Retorna ao texto

[54] Helen Birch, ed., Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation (London, Virago Press Ltd., 1993). Retorna ao texto

[55] Eileen MacDonald, Shoot the Women First (London, Fourth Estate, 1991). Retorna ao texto

[56] Helen Birch, op.cit., 34-35. Retorna ao texto

[57] Briar Wood, "The Trials of Motherhood: The Case of Azaria and Lindy Chamberlain" in Helen Birch, ed., Moving Targets, op.cit., 62-94. Retorna ao texto

[58] At time of going to press, October 1995. Retorna ao texto

[59] Euripides, Medea (London, Penguin, 1963). Retorna ao texto

[60] Aristotle, On the Art of Poetry (London, Penguin Classics, 1965), chapter 13, 48-49. Retorna ao texto

[61] For example, Aristophanes, The Frogs . Kenneth Dover, ed. (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993). Retorna ao texto

[62] Helen Birch, op.cit., 53. Retorna ao texto

[63] Lygia Fagundes Telles, "Venha Ver o Pôr-do-sol" in Antes do Baile Verde, op.cit., 159-69. Retorna ao texto

[64] Powers of Horror, op.cit., 131. Retorna ao texto

[65] Ibid., 144. Retorna ao texto

[66] Ibid., 208. Retorna ao texto

[67] For a discussion of this see Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, op.cit., 3-4. Retorna ao texto

* A shorter version of this paper was previously published in Catherine Davies and Jane Whetnall (eds.). Hers Ancient and Modern: Women's Writing in Spain and Brazil (University of Manchester:Department of Spanish and Portuguese, 1996), 111-29.

Maria Manuel Lisboa é Professora Titular de Literaturas Portuguesa, Brasileira e Africanas de Expressão Portuguesa na Universidade de Cambridge, Inglaterra. Publicações incluem um livro sobre Machado de Assis (Machado de Assis and Feminism: Re-reading the Heart of the Companion, Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), e artigos sobre autores portugueses e brasileiros dos séculos XIX e XX, incluindo Machado de Assis, Manuel Bandeira, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Eça de Queirós, Miguel Torga, José Régio e Maria Judite de Carvalho.

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