What is the tempo of “It” in Clarice Lispector’s Aqua Viva?

What is the tempo of “It” in Clarice Lispector’s Aqua Viva?

Stafford Wood
St. John’s College
Lispector Preceptorial
December 2023

What is the tempo of “It” in Clarice Lispector’s Aqua Viva?

Throughout Aqua Viva, Clarice Lispector changes the pace of her writing with punctuation and paragraph marks which can feel to the reader like a lyrical ode, rather than a novel. She writes in a mélange of poetry and prose in a stream of unconsciousness that mimics the subject of her reflections—the “It.” The words she uses to describe the “It,” come from metaphor and narrative to surround the “It” with sensorial evidence of the existence of “It” and the form or shape of “It.” What defines “It” is the major subject of the work. All subjects of any work or experience have a number of qualities including time and space. The “instant” nature of the “It” is obviously a consideration, but Lispector describes “It” with language from music and other rhythms that invokes a paced quality to the time before and after this instant. Additionally, her extended metaphors for “it” including a cat giving birth (¶87) and painting a fresco (¶148) are activities that take a considerable amount of time. If these longform actions can be “it” then “it” can clearly be longer than an instant-now.

There are broad ranges of tempo that will be considered: (1) time slowed down and the sort of meditative state from Eastern religions, (2) the basic pace of human biology, or (3) faster than these. Considering the phenomena she describes as representing “It” and the way in which she writes the work, this paper will explore the differing tempos suggested throughout the work as “it” or “it-adjacent” with an attempt to settle on something that can answer the question: “What is the tempo of It?”  


The word “tempo” comes from the Latin word “tempus” meaning time and was first applied as “tempo” in music in the 17th Century. A tempo in music is denoted as an Italian word that defines the range of number of beats per minute and the rate or speed at which a musical work should be played. Defined by music scholars, tempo is “time; the rate of speed ranging from the slowest to the fastest; rhythm; or beat.”[1] If a piece were scored with a “Largo” tempo (60 beats per minute), it would be one beat per second and the musician could keep time with a clock. Allegro is the most frequently used at 120-168 beats per minute. A fast symphony is usually Presto (200 beats a minute). Generally, a musician starts learning the piece at a slow tempo and then speeds up to the appropriate time. Changing the pace of the piece for performance is at the musician’s discretion or he can adhere to the intention of the composer.

Tempo is not the rhythm or pattern of the music, but the pattern can affect the pace, as a long-short-long is slower than a short-short-short. Quite simply, tempo is how fast or slow something happens.

When the “It” is not an instant, Lispector uses a number of metaphors to describe this passing of time including heartbeats, breaths, musical terms and the style of her writing itself.


To start this exploration, Lispector references the first evidence of life—the heartbeat. “The only concrete thing in music is the instrument. Far beyond thought I have a musical background. But even farther beyond there is the beating heart. Therefore the most profound thought is a beating heart. (¶166)” While she does not directly associate the heartbeat to the “it,” by using the term “the most profound thought,” she is at least placing a heartbeat as “it-adjacent.” But, if the “it” is the center of existence and the root of all thought, then the heartbeat is the root of its tempo.

The tempo of a normal resting heart rate is 60-100 times per minute. Tachycardia is a rapid heartrate of more than 100 beats per minute, but can become fatal near 200 beats per minute. In all of these cases, the rate is steady in a healthy person. Arrhythmia, fibrillation and flutters are all errors in the heart’s regular function. While survivable and many people live with them for a long time, they are atypical of a healthy person.  Therefore, a certain number between 40 and 200 regular beats per minute are a typical tempo of the heart.

Lispecter’s epistolary character describes herself as a heartbeat directly with the line “I am a heart beating in the world.” (¶118) In theory, this first tempo metaphor is 60-100 beats per minute.


Like a heartbeat, breathing is typically in a consistent rhythm with a breath in followed by a breath out of approximately equal time. When the breath in is faster, the breath out will typically be so, too. The normal adult respiratory rate at rest is 12 to 18 breaths per minute. A respiration rate under 12 or over 25 breaths per minute while resting is abnormal. Breaths and heartbeat rates always coincide with 5 to 5.5 heart beats per breath being typical regardless of the speed of either. The cardiovascular system works in tandem and keeps the same tempo in both organs.

 She references breath in two other passages: “Birth and death. Birth. Death. Birth and—like a breathing of the world.” (¶133) and “The world has no visible order and all I have is the order of my breath.” (¶49) They are not necessarily describing the “it” but they are talking about rhythm of life that surrounds her and lives within her.


Lispector includes direct references to rhythm itself throughout the work. “Am I one of the weak? A weak woman possessed by incessant and mad rhythm? If I were solid and strong would I even have heard the rhythm? (¶ 38)” This idea that a solid and strong woman would not have even heard the rhythm, much less be possessed by it connotates that the rhythm is part of a flaw in her character. She is degrading berself for hearing, acknowledging and accepting the rhythm.  

Lispector uses phrases that associate the “it” with a regular rhythm in several places such as “I am pure *it that was pulsing rhythmically (¶ 134)” and “I’m being the incessant hammering in me.” (¶ 32)  Both of these indicate a consistent, regular beat as being part of her experience.


At the very beginning of the work, Lispector introduces music as a key part of her expression of herself. “I see that I’ve never told you how I listen to music—I gently rest my hand on the record player and my hand vibrates, sending waves through my whole body: and so I listen to the electricity of the vibrations, the last substratum of reality’s realm, and the world trembles inside my hands.” (¶6) Music is nothing more than vibration and yet to describe it as “the last substratum of reality’s realm” is to give music a profound place in existence. She layers life on top of this vibration and the “it” must also be connected to vibration and music.

Throughout the work she references different rhythms, as well as tempos, and musically, these rhythms have a defined and expected tempo. There are at least eight direct musical references: Gregorian chant, jazz, adagio, fugue, lament, lullaby, canticle and fugue. While there are not necessarily direct references to “it” in each of these sections, they are used to describe her experience of life, her writing and how she feels the world when she is attentive to what is happening around her. 

The first rhythm mentioned is the Gregorian Chant. “And so I realize that I want the vibrating substratum of the repeated word sung in Gregorian chant….I’m struggling with the last vibration.” (¶7) Gregorian chants were so-named by the preferred musical form of Pope Gregory I, the 7th Century leader of the Roman Catholic Church who dictated that this liturgical musical form should be codified as part of the mass. When you imagine a Priest singing the words of the mass, with the congregation echoing his forms, that is the essence of a Gregorian chant. “The so-called Gregorian chant or song is diatonic, without definite rhythm, the words dictate the metre, and keeping to Church modes.”[2] Often referred to as ”freetime” which means ”unrestrained, not according to strict rule. Free time is a type of musical anti-meter free from musical time and time signature. It is used when a piece of music has no discernible beat. Instead, the rhythm is intuitive and free-flowing.” [3]

Gregorian chants are meant to be sung as they would be spoken. The typical speaking voice is 68 beats per minute, and the typical Gregorian chant is usually labeled as this tempo, though the piece can vary according to the words being sung. When words are short, the tempo slows. A Gregorian chant is sung, usually a Capella and so the tempo cannot move faster than the human voice.

The second form of music she mentions is jazz, also a freetime structure, the antithesis of the order and stately flow of the Gregorian chant. “I know what I am doing here: I’m improvising. But what’s wrong with that? improvising as in jazz they improvise music, jazz in fury, improvising in front of the crowd.” (¶46). Jazz musicians in seeking to adapt a familiar piece of music to the jazz form often double the tempo or more. They will speed up a few bars of a melody to develop an unnerving frenzy of sound that sweeps the listener away enveloping him in a cacophony of sounds and time. While syncopated rhythms are certainly used in slow, methodical movements, the most frequent concept of jazz aligns with her word choice of “frenzy” defined as “a state of wild activity or panic” and “a violent agitation of the mind approaching madness; rage.”[4]

Adagio is the only musical tempo that Lispector refers directly to in the text, the other musical terms being associated with a tempo, not the actual name of the tempo itself. In Italian, adagio means “at ease.” Adagios are drifting and paced to make it easy for the singer to breathe between phrases and never require a measured breath during a word. Adagio is “slow, slower than andante (“walking pace”), not so slow as lento.”[5] An adagio is typically slow with great expression at 44–68 beats per minute, so on the low end of a resting heart rate. The pace you might feel as you are falling asleep or just when you wake up naturally at the end of a REM cycle. Adagio is comfortable to sing, gentle to dance to and pleasant to the ear. If you ask someone their favorite classical music, it is likely to be an adagio like Moonlight Sonata, Barber’s Adagio for Strings or Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

“I’m going to make an adagio. Read slowly and with peace. It’s a wide fresco.” (¶148) While she is not talking about the “it,” she is referring to her writing. A fresco is a long process of short intervals. One lays the plaster down on the surface, paints it and allows the plaster and paint to dry together. Unlike a typical oil painting, you cannot come back and edit the work after it has dried. You have to lay down new plaster and paint on top of it. The great masters of Italian painting often had layers and layers of fresco made over weeks and months of time. For instance, the Sistine Chapel is a fresco and Michaelangelo spent more than four years painting it. He overpainted so many times that it was like he painted the entire ceiling four times over. The tempo of this painting technique is different than typical oil or acrylic on canvas. This pace of painting is like a fugue—lay down the plaster, answer with paint, lay down the plaster, answer with paint. Colors have to be mixed and remixed. It is a slow process to make the whole painting, but each layer is quick.

Next, she turns her attention to the “lament,” “an old name for songs of pathos.”[6] They are generally slow and methodical played at “lento” (50-60 beats per minute) speed in order to convey sadness, regret and longing. A lament is sorrowful and slow like the dreary exhaustion that comes as you drift off crying yourself to sleep.

 “There’s a love song of theirs that also says monotonously the lament I make my own: why do I love you if you don’t return my love? I send messengers in vain; when I greet you, you hide your face from me; why do I love you if you don’t even notice me?” (¶152) To contain the love song and the lament in one phrase is a connection not frequently made.

“I am African: a thread of a sad and wide and sylvan lament runs through my voice that sings to you.” (¶152) Bringing in the African and sylvan language, Lispector references nature connected to music, as another pace of experience. This is not like the drumming from the next door (¶31) that is wild and frenzied and not referred to as connected to the “it.”

Intermingled with the reference to a lament is the term lullaby. “There is also a lullaby for elephants who go bathe in the river.” (¶152) A lullaby is almost always 60 beats a minute, but sometimes slower at the same basic pace as lament. Lullabies have generally loving and soothing lyrics designed to slow the listener’s heart rate and pace the singer’s breath towards sleep. They are unlike the sadness of laments, but both lullabies and laments are set at the same tempo.

Like chants, lullabies and laments, another musical form for singers that she references is the canticle. A canticle is “a sacred chant with scriptural text.” [7] It is not unlike a Gregorian chant, but the lyrics are held to be directly from the Christian scripture and is more like a traditional song with verses and refrains, less likely to be repetitive.

 “I am so broad. I am coherent—my canticle is profound. Slow. But rising. Rising still. If it rises much more it will become full moon and silence, and phantasmagoric lunar soil. On the lookout for the time that stops.” (¶156) Unlike the typical modern song set at 120 beats per minute, a canticle is usually set between 60-68 beats per minute, a little faster than a lament, but still at the pace of a speaking voice. It allows the singer to breathe naturally in time and not rush words or phrases beyond the pace of what people typically listen to in a speaking voice.

“I am improvising and the beauty of what I improvise is a fugue.” (¶168)

A fugue is Latin for “a flight whose subject move in contrary directions.”[8] In music it means “in similar motion, the answer conforming to the ascent and descent of the subject.”[9] A fugue is often heard as a question and an answer or a phrase of music and a reflection of it back. It is usually 60-88 beats per minute in a regular rhythm, although it can contain free time and irregular rhythms. When free time is used in a Fugue in music, it is ”an independent part added to fill up the harmony.”[10]


Aqua Viva itself is a lesson in pacing. Chock full of content, yet brief and concisely stated, each paragraph is a poem yet the long form nature of the work is neither an ode nor an epic. Each line seems quickly created in the moment, and deeply profound. It seems to want to be read this way, as well. Throughout the work, but especially in these lines, her choices around punctuation create a rhythm for reading the work from paragraphs 63-66:

63. But the most important word in the language has but two letters: (it-)is. (It-)Is. 

64. I am located in the core of the (It-)Is. 

65. I still am. 

66. I am located in the living and soft center of the (It-)Is. 

These short sentences offer a full stop between these thoughts with periods creating short paragraphs. The punctuation and formatting tell the reader to move slowly through these thoughts rather than swiftly, if she had used one paragraph or a long run-on sentence.

She repeats this pattern like this of one sentence paragraphs throughout the work:

78. Now it is an instant.

79. Here is another now. [11]

With short paragraphs of one sentence only, she encourages the reader to stop between instants separating them one from another.


The musical terms that Lispector references are entirely within the range of biological human experience. There are terms for music which are used for instrumental compositions only that are faster than 200 beats a minute and slower than 40 beats a minute, but she does not reference any of these. She chooses only musical time that could be replicated by a resting or active heart or meditative or panting breaths. Essentially, these esoteric musical terms have a temporal meaning that may not be consciously chosen by the author or rationally understood by the reader, and yet, align with the true meaning of “It” as I understand it.

No where does she describe “it” with a musical or rhythmic term that can’t be produced by the human body. And oftentimes, she is vacillating between the fastest heartbeats and breaths to the slowest.

The number of tempos that are mentioned throughout the work have varying paces and differing rhythms. Some are directly associated with the “it” and some are associated with the epistolary character, other subjects and various metaphors for the “it.” Nonetheless, I believe that each of these is an expression of the “it” as experienced by Clarice Lispector. She is using the phenomena of sound to let us know that the “it” is repetitive, even as it is a “now.”

Reference TempoBeats per minuteNotes
Resting Heart Rate40-100 
Active Heart Rate95-160 
Resting Breathing Rate7212 breaths per minute x 3 counts in and out
Active Breathing Rate9616 breaths per minute x 3 counts in and out
Reference TempoBeats per minuteNotes
Gregorian Chant68Exclusively sung
Jazz40–150Fast jazz is referred to as “double time”
Lullabies, laments50-60 
Canticle60-68Exclusively sung

Most of the rhythms she references in music are slower and tied to the rate of a resting heartbeat or a calm breathing pattern. So, all of the terms she uses for tempos are within the biological time keeping of the cardio-vascular system at rest, except for jazz which can be across the entire range of biological timekeepers.

The tempo of “it” is always within the range of the tempo of a living human body. Man makes machines and musical instruments that can move faster or slower than these referenced tempos. But the human body itself always operates inside the ranges she references. We speak at the tempo of It. We breathe at the tempo of It. And our heart beats at the tempo of It. And so the music she references is at the tempo of It with the point of intersection of all of these times at 60 beats per minute.

There does not appear to be an intention of this intersection. Lispector may be completely unaware of this description of “it,” but it seems to be a valid assumption that she is expressing something without intending to—It is connected to human life and the pace of our biological rhythms.

[1] Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia, compiled by Rupert Hughes, Academic text used in colleges and universities for decades, 1939 Edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, Springfied, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam, 1913.

[5] Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia, compiled by Rupert Hughes, Academic text used in colleges and universities for decades, 1939 Edition.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Aqua Viva, ¶78 and ¶79

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