Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning

Sylvia Plath wrote intensely and died immensely. Her poems constructed stunning psychological landscapes and exhibited a verbal complexity rare in twentieth-century poetry. In death she achieved an iconic status usually reserved for celebrity suicides, political assassinations, and royal car crashes. Her texts and her death helped to shape private and public mourning in her time, and they continue to do so today Now Christina Britzolakis has written an important new book that attempts to make sense of textual patterns in Plath’s writing while steering clear of the sensational life story.
That her book is nonetheless drawn toward that story reveals not simply the continuing power of Plath as a cultural figure but also a crisis in critical theory as it attempts to separate its operations from those of its suppressed double, biography

Emphasizing the rhetoricity and self-reflexivity of Plath’s writing, Britzolakis convincingly argues that the texts reflect a sophisticated awareness of audience, literary tradition, and the cultural authority of poetic discourse. These features, however, have not been as “neglected” as she suggests. Britzolakis does not actually blaze a trail here but proceeds down a path cut by numerous critics before her. Nevertheless, she does chart the territory in detailed and perceptive ways. She tells us at the outset that “the difficulty for Plath’s critics is one of finding a critical language which does justice to her exploration of gender, subjectivity, and the unconscious, without reinscribing her within a poetics of unmediated expressivity”. That sentence vividly evokes the crisis in theory that animates this book. Old-fashioned expressivism could not admit the degree to which writing is artificial, whereas poststructuralism cannot find an adequate language in which to register the relations between writing and subject. How can the scholar inscribe a poetics of mediated expressivity without slighting either the mediation or the expressivity?

Britzolakis argues that Plath’s “construction of the speaking subject displaces familiar distinctions between poet and persona” because the location of the textual `T’ is “unstable and duplicitous”. She wishes to describe a Plath who, instead of expressing anguished authenticity, harnesses “the expressive conventions of the lyric cry for a language of elaborate inauthenticity”. Thus, she argues, Plath’s poems enact a theatrical performance rather than a sincere expression of mourning. Plath’s self-reflexivity “continually complicates and interferes with the possibility of a psychoanalytic reading” because she “interrogates psychoanalysis at the very moment when it purports to interrogate her”. Within its limits, this sort of analysis is very fine and helpful. The theatrical, allegorical, self-reflexive, and downright opaque aspects of Plath’s texts have long been acknowledged, but this book studies them in an admirably sustained and focused manner. Conceding that the power of the texts “can never be entirely disentangled from the narrative of her life and death,” the book nevertheless maintains that this power “exceeds the personalizations of biography”.

Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning continues this tense push-pull struggle with biography throughout its pages. It wants to slight the allurements of biography, and yet it cannot keep itself away from those allurements for very long. We witness here not simply the internal conflict of this particular book but that of most Plath critique over the last quarter century. Plath study, as a critical genre, brings to the surface a tension latent in critical theory: its trouble with human life, its almost theological desire to make discursivity a self-reflexive space, thereby rejecting John Dewey’s position in Art as Experience that “art is ... prefigured in the very processes of living.” Perhaps we must return to Plath so obsessively because we need to see her throwing a monkey wrench into our critical machinery. Without her, the machinery persuasively hums the reassuring message that our project is different from—and more significant than—mere individuals and their feelings. Plath’s writings warn us that this is not entirely so. We don’t want to hear that message, and yet we do want to hear it too.

Britzolakis tells us that “the autobiographical trope ... posits the fantasy of a recognizable face mirrored and authenticated by the text”. She works diligently to dispel that fantasy But our current disciplines of reading actually have no hesitancy in bracketing, problematizing, or dispensing with that fantasy The more serious problem for our critical practice is precisely the opposite: the fantasy that there is no recognizable face in the textual mirror. It is this critical fantasy that Plath’s texts disrupt. Britzolakis writes that “Plath reinvents the lyric as the vehicle for a crisis of subjectivity which cannot be confined to a biographical narrative”. The problem that her book both evades and highlights is that the subjectivity in Plath’s texts cannot be confined from biographical narrative either. Biography explicitly haunts Plath criticism, including this synecdochic example, just as it implicitly haunts the entire critical enterprise as a specter of positivism. We want to believe that the subject’s proper name is unreadable so as to liberate our reading strategies. Our difficulty occurs when, despite our wishes, we do begin to read that name, that signature in the corner.

Britzolakis rightly observes that Plath’s varying self-representations are “repeatedly confronting the reader with the rifts and discontinuities upon which narratives of selfhood are constructed”. Plath’s writings “collectively root writing in a lack, estrangement, or disintegration of selfhood”. Thus does Britzolakis herself get drawn into the problematics integral to Plath studies and to textual critique generally: the vexed relations between the world of bodies, motives, objects, and events and the world of words. The latter world is indubitably other, and yet, as Melville wrote in The Confidence Man, it is one to which we feel the tie. One can neither “identify the speaker with the biographical Sylvia Plath”, as Britzolakis is quick to recognize, nor can one easily disidentify the speaker from the biographical Sylvia Plath, a point Britzolakis is uncomfortable with but too honest or driven to deny for long. Here we find ourselves at the heart of the current crisis: there is surely no way of going back to the old and simple ways of conceiving the relations of text and author, and there is no clear way of going forward with our present conceptions.

In a chapter on “Legacies and Dispossessions,” Britzolakis suggests that “the figure of autobiography in the Plath canon may be seen as an aspect of her self-conscious rewriting of the cultural, familial, and sexual narratives available to her”. She thinks that Plath’s poetry does not so much mythologize autobiographical details as put into question the notion of an autobiographical origin, “as itself a `myth’ which must be endlessly reconstructed”. In a chapter entitled “Tending the Oracle,” she argues that the many encounters with an oracle in Plath’s texts indicate a quest for poetic authority The poet’s struggle for voice is enacted through eroticized scenes of instruction. And in a chapter on “Gothic Subjectivity,” Britzolakis studies the methods by which Plath reinvents “a psychic landscape” (not “her psychic landscape”) as a “theatre of mourning”. In such poems as “Elm” and “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” Plath deploys gothicism, irony, theatricalization, impersonation, and mimicry as ways of disabling readings that try to discover empirical correlatives for textual phenomena. Every aspect of every poem, that is, reveals itself as rhetorical.

In perhaps the most important chapter of all, entitled “The Spectacle of Femininity,” Britzolakis exposes the rhetoricity and the performativity of the feminine position in Plath’s work. The poems cross “Orphic myths of the inspired poet with an ironic deployment of stereotypes of alienated or objectified femininity”. Their ironic self-reflexivity is, at least in part, an effect of “a culture of consumption in which images of women circulate as commodities”. Britzolakis relates Plath’s ironic and hyperbolic feminine imagery to intellectual arguments about popular culture raging in the 1950s and to images in popular films and magazines themselves. In this view, “Lady Lazarus” primarily becomes a theatrical parody of feminine archetypes.

In the last two chapters, Britzolakis emphasizes the historicity and oppositionality of Plath’s poems. Again these ideas are not new, but the critic elaborates them interestingly Plath’s celebrated later poems acknowledge the blow struck by World War II against Enlightenment ideals of rationality, and they express a revulsion against the extremes of Cold War ideology. They refract “a collective history through rituals of private mourning”. Such poems as “Ariel” complicitly and ambiguously critique racism, sexism, and violence. They point to a “madness within reason itself”.

This densely compacted book at times resembles a machine of signifiers. It provides hard and, frankly, impersonal reading. Britzolakis does not so much write theoretical discourse as allow it to write her, making herself, as an author, little more than an effect of high theory. She has produced a rather chilly book, in the same sense that Hath wrote chilly poetry: chilly not as the opposite of hot but of warm. Moreover, Britzolakis seems to present every one of her ideas as novel, though many of them are expanded versions of ideas present in previous studies. Reading this book one senses a struggle, perhaps unconscious, with belatedness as well as with voice.

Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning is, despite its limitations, a very concentrated, intelligent, and knowledgeable book. And it is a highly useful one. It reveals a variety of writing strategies by which Plath achieved her distinctive poetic power, and it models some reading strategies one can use to gauge that power. It exposes the paradox that Plath’s texts cannot be read through biography and cannot be read apart from it. The book thus suggests something of the cultural, emotional, and linguistic vitality and the conceptual tensions that have made Plath such a central writer for the last half century. Taken all in all, this is probably the most penetrating analysis of Plath since Jacqueline Rose’s The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991) and Susan Van Dyne’s Revising Life (1993). It belongs on the expanding shelf of essential Hath commentary. All Plath scholars will want to know it and to grapple with its insights and its contradictions.

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