Dying to Live:
The Dilemma of Irigaray's Plural Woman in
This Sex Which is Not One
San Francisco State University
The aim of all life is death.
----Sigmund Freud (Beyond the Pleasure Principle 46)
A confessional poet, an extremist poet, a post-romantic poet, a pre-feminist poet, a suicidal poet -- all these terms have been used (and are still being used) in attempts to define and explain Sylvia Plath's writing . . . I find it impossible to accept any of these glib definitions, these reductions and over simplifications of a complex personality and multi-faceted writer. Her writing simply does not fit into these easy categories.
----Susan Bassnett (117)
In her essay,
This Sex Which is Not One, Luce Irigaray argues that the female sex is never reducible to one, but is only constructed as such. Opening with a discussion of the differences between male and female autoeroticism, she says:
In order to touch himself, man needs an instrument: his hand, a woman's body, language . . . And this self-caressing requires at least a minimum of activity. As for a woman, she touches herself in and of herself without any need for mediation, and before there is any way to distinguish activity from passivity. Woman 'touches herself' all the time, and moreover no one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact. Thus, with herself, she is already two--but not divisible into one(s)--that caress each other. (Irigaray 363) In this way, Woman is depicted as more independent than men because She does not need external forces in order to generate pleasure; She is multiple. Naturally, she may practice onanism without the need for external assistance. Her multiplied body does the work for her.
Later, she argues that the reason Woman has remained underprivileged for so long is because She has constantly been compared to Man, in relation to her body's irreducibility:
She is neither one nor two. Rigorously speaking, she cannot be identified either as one person. She resists all adequate definition. Further, she has no 'proper' name. And her sexual organ, which is not one organ, is counted as none. The negative, the underside, the reverse of the only visible and morphologically designable organ . . . the penis. (365) In other words, Woman has historically been discriminated against because her body is indefinable. Because her body is indefinable, She can only be categorized as none, nothing, or possibly a species existing outside the known realm of men, who are the true bearers of power. Here, then,
lack of sex or penis is considered by men as something more comprehensible than a number which resists numerical value, something more potent than the male figure, which only represents one; not having a calculable sex is to be Woman. Consequently, Woman experiences alienation because Man does not comprehend her. He projects hatred toward her because he fears her. Like a gorgon, she becomes something to be murdered or slaughtered upon sight, lest he immediately be turned to stone. As long as her number is not one, which is man's number according to Irigaray (in reference to the visually linear depiction of the penis in her essay), she does not conform to society; she cannot acclimate under such conditions. As Irigaray states, the more she
strays too far from that proximity [the singularity associated with oneness, man], she breaks off and starts over at 'zero' (366). In other words, she must dissemble her plural sex in order to fit in. Woman must create a space within Man's world by becoming a man, by embracing singularity.
Feminists, such as Judith Fetterley, have labeled this form of behavior as
immasculation. According to these feminists,
women are taught to think as men, to identify with a male point of view, and to accept as normal and legitimate a male system of values, one of whose central principles is misogyny (Fetterley 569). Yet, in spite of these degrading cultural institutions, Irigaray argues that woman must resist giving into the privileged; Woman must learn to embrace who she is:
Perhaps it is time to return to that repressed entity, the female imaginary. So woman does not have a sex organ? She has at least two of them, but they are not identifiable as ones. Indeed, she has many more. Her sexuality, always at least double, goes even further: it is plural. (366)Woman must return to the plural entity dwelling deep inside of her.
But what is most troubling about her essay is that it fails to provide examples of how a woman can achieve plural identity. Her essay does not provide a solution to the problem she acknowledges. How does a woman regain her plurality? How can she make it seen? The answer to these questions, though not to be so easily reduced, can perhaps be alluded to when one closely examines representations of suicide in art and literature. For instance, how do these representations of suicide function? What do they reveal about cultural assumptions and gender roles? What insight might the subject of suicide provide about Woman embodying plurality and multiplicity?
In what follows, I will examine representations of voluntary death (suicide) in the late poetry of Sylvia Plath, an American, and Pablo Neruda, a Chilean, in hopes of exploring these questions. By doing so, I hope to elaborate on Irigaray's claim that Woman is polymorphous and that She is irreducible. I will argue that the suicidal subject in Plath's poem manages to construct a female body, expressing ambivalence, inner-brokenness, and depictions of being torn apart, whereas the suicidal subject in Neruda's poetry remains focused; that, for the suicidal subject in Neruda's poem, there is a single purpose in mind: he wants to lay down his burden of living. In particular, the poems I will analyze will be
Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath (first published in 1963) and
Walking Around by Pablo Neruda (first published in 1924), a title originally written in English. The rationale for choosing these particular poems, I believe, is largely in part due to their
iconic representation of suicide. That is to say, each poem shares a deeply human portrayal of a wish to die and each poem offers a sincere attempt to commit voluntary death (suicide). And lastly, by looking at these poems critically, I feel that we can obtain some understanding of the dilemma of Woman's plurality.
Lady Lazarus and Her Plurality of Death
I have done it again
One year in every ten
I manage it---- (ll. 1-3)
In the opening lines of Plath's
Lady Lazarus, the female speaker of the poem notifies the reader of a repetitive act--committing suicide. Instantaneously, the female speaker signals that she is familiar with death. In fact, we know that she has already overcome it multiple times:
One year in every ten. Yet what is most surprising in these opening lines is the way in which this death affects her. The female speaker gains pleasure from undergoing the death process. She proudly proclaims:
And I am a smiling woman.
Here, worth noting is the significance of the
I am only thirty.
And like a cat I have nine times to die. (ll. 21-23)
smiling face. In his Three Essays on The Theory of Sexuality, Freud claims:
No one who has seen a baby sinking back satiated from the breast and falling asleep with flushed cheeks and a blissful smile can escape the reflection that
this picture persists as a prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction in later life. (Freud 48)In other words, the smile that a child gives after obtaining satisfaction is comparable to the one an adult spasms after reaching sexual fruition. In this vein, the female speaker's smile, after surviving death, I would suggest, is almost akin to the smile to which Freud alludes, sexual satisfaction. The female speaker of the poem gains sexual satisfaction from the kiss of death, from enduring its wrath. Surviving suicide, then, is a mode of dominating death. Death pleases her because she is able to exert power over it by walking away from it, by escaping its permanence; not being afflicted by death feeds the female speaker in a manner that exudes eroticism. Yet herein lies the conundrum. While the female speaker gains pride and pleasure from mastering death and suicide, she also finds herself enslaved by death and suicide. For in order to truly live satisfactorily, she must repeatedly conquer death; she must taste death in order to gain satisfaction from overcoming it; that is say, she must touch the side of the non-living in order to experience satisfaction from defeating suicide. Were the female speaker unable to overcome suicide, a problem she would face would be the loss of her prestigious name. According to Christianity, Lazarus is supposed to refer to someone who has risen from the dead; consequently, adopting the name of Lazarus is supposed to provide her with a sense of pleasure by means of deeming her as someone who survived death--her goal. In this way, she gains recognition, and hence pleasure, from others who call the speaker by her name,
Lady Lazarus, for it bears in mind her accomplishments. Consequently, through the retention of her name's significance, the female speaker's strength is reaffirmed; others acknowledge her capacity to overcome death via suicide through the significance of her name. However, her inability to survive suicide, then, would result in making her
name irrelevant, unheroic, ultimately unworthy of recognition; her loss of a noteworthy name would result in a loss of status. And were the status of her name lost, she would lose a personal emblem, a signifier through which she assumes the status of
Lady Lazarus, one that re-awakens from the dead.
Yet herein lies the conundrum. While the female speaker gains pride and pleasure from mastering death and suicide, she also finds herself enslaved by death and suicide. For in order to truly live satisfactorily, she must repeatedly conquer death; she must taste death in order to gain satisfaction from overcoming it; that is say, she must touch the side of the non-living in order to experience satisfaction from defeating suicide. Were the female speaker unable to overcome suicide, a problem she would face would be the loss of her prestigious name. According to Christianity, Lazarus is supposed to refer to someone who has risen from the dead; consequently, adopting the name of Lazarus is supposed to provide her with a sense of pleasure by means of deeming her as someone who survived death--her goal. In this way, she gains recognition, and hence pleasure, from others who call the speaker by her name,
Lady Lazarus, for it bears in mind her accomplishments. Consequently, through the retention of her name's significance, the female speaker's strength is reaffirmed; others acknowledge her capacity to overcome death via suicide through the significance of her name. However, her inability to survive suicide, then, would result in making her name irrelevant, unheroic, ultimately unworthy of recognition; her loss of a noteworthy name would result in a loss of status. And were the status of her name lost, she would lose a personal emblem, a signifier through which she assumes the status of
Lady Lazarus, one that re-awakens from the dead.
Thus, the female speaker cannot experience pleasure without death; she cannot have one without the other. Instead, she must live while carrying her death around with her. She must die in order to live. In this way, death defines her. The speaker's life stands in relation to death at all times. Her strength is reliant upon the image of death looming somewhere in the hinterlands of her identity. Notwithstanding her possessing the ability to outlive death, to thwart its destruction, she remains confined to its presence. As a consequence, death, in a way, dominates the female speaker inasmuch as she dominates death. Therefore, I would suggest, in Plath's poem, there cannot be a stable self,
Lady Lazarus, without an
other— death. Though the female speaker suggests her ability to overcome death, she is always inextricably bound by death's presence. The self in which she resides is always in threat of extermination, both figuratively and literally.
Furthermore, the female speaker's relationship with suicide not only provides her with a sense of pleasure, but provides her with a sense of satisfaction that is not therapeutic, generative, or nourishing. Moreover, this source of pleasure provides a perverted form of desirable satisfaction. Most psychoanalysts would argue that when satisfaction is sought, the primary aim is to reach the ultimate level of pleasure, eternal gratification that ceases the need for further desire, jouissance. The problem with the desire to overcome suicide, however, is that death serves as the ultimate breaching point of obtaining satisfaction. She must eat death in order to fully master death. Yet, living after dying, the female speaker admits to merely tasting it, never chewing it; she savors it, but does not consume it. If the female speaker manages to fully digest suicide, she would die. In this way, literally having to re-cross the boundary that separates life and death, then, can be seen as a failure to permanently gain satisfaction. For this reason, the female speaker's suicidal fetish is never fully satisfied. Rather, the female speaker may only gain temporary satisfaction through the brief visitation of a non-living world--by returning to life. The female speaker never fully colonizes the world of death, for she can only remain a tourist when occupying its lands. As a result, the female speaker is always left wanting more, because the grade of satiation is never pure. Though she hungers for the ferociousness of death's potent vigor and vim, all she can do is continue poking at it with her dulled, uneven fork.
Consequently, it is significant that the female speaker describes herself
like a cat because she considers herself to be like an animal, like a beast; through desiring this act of suicide, she reduces herself to something instinctual. Note, however, that this is not to suggest that suicide is inhuman; rather, that it suggests that her
bestial instincts are precisely human, especially her suicidal instinct. For, as historian Georges Minois points out in his book, The History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture:
Animal In other words, suicide is an expression of human agency. But what is further telling about the female speaker's use of simile is that she likens her drive for death to a feline instinct. Similar to how the female speaker claims to cross the boundaries separating life from death, she also uses her language in order to cross metaphorical boundaries within the animal kingdom. By implying that suicide is instinctual, and hence animalistic, the female speaker creates an alternate means of crossing boundaries, via species; the female speaker recuperates from the fact that she can never adequately conquer death, by means of grappling with it in an inhuman way. The female speaker constructs an alternate scenario in which she is able to fulfill her fantasy of crossing borders by creating a linguistic phenomenon. In this way,
suicides are in the realm of myth; humankind alone is capable of reflecting on its own existence and deciding to prolong life or put an end to it. Humanity has existed thus far because humans have found sufficient reason to remain alive, but nonetheless a certain number of individuals decide that life is no longer worth living and prefer to depart voluntarily before being sent on their way by illness, old age, or war. (2)
like a cat, then, serves much more than a mere simile but rather a linguistic process which affords the female speaker a vehicle to transform her body from a human into a cat; it affords her a means by which she can cross from one body to another, almost like crossing from life to death.
The female speaker continues to describe the reception of her undead body in a rather sardonic fashion:
The peanut-crunching crowd
What is obvious about the female speaker's position is how she addresses herself to the audience. In a very sexual way, she allures the crowd by encouraging a fetishization of her undead body; that is to say, the coroners unveiling of her undead body stages the analogy of a
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot----
The big strip tease.
These are my hands,
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman. (ll. 25-33)
big strip tease. The female speaker entices the bystanders to witness her body much in the same way that an exhibitionist would. She wants the bystanders to watch her rebirth, i.e. the
peanut-crunching crowd, but never participate in her death. For death is her own private
art, a beauty that everyone wants to possess, but can never have. Her suicide is not theirs; it is hers; nobody can take this away from her. But at the same time, the female speaker's call to exhibitionism, the pleasure of being watched, can also be interpreted as a dominating act; it can be interpreted as a command. In this instance, therefore, the female speaker is not only watched, but is watching herself being watched, assuring that her command to be watched is honored by the audience. As a result, she takes on two roles and not just one: she not only takes the position of an exhibitionist being watched, but also the voyeur watching the audience watching her. She becomes both the watcher as well as the watched. This display of exhibitionistic voyeurism takes on a double valence. On this subject of duality in relations to sexual pleasure, Freud claims:
Whenever we find in the unconscious an instinct of this sort which is capable of being paid off with an opposite one, this second instinct will regularly be found in operation as well. Every active perversion is thus accompanied by its passive counterpart: anyone who is an exhibitionist in his unconscious is at the same time a voyeur; in anyone who suffers from the consequences of repressed sadistic impulses there is sure to be another determinant of his symptoms which has its source in masochistic inclinations. (Three Essays 33)In other words, one instinct always refers to its opposite, its binary opposition. The implications for such a claim is that one instinct is always in relation to another; one instinct always is one particular instinct, because it is not another. An instinct gains its identity from another instinct.
In the most famous lines of the poem, the female speaker eventually concludes that:
In these two stanzas, the female speaker finally claims her
is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call. (ll. 46-51)
call, which is that she is skilled in the art of surviving suicide. But what is most complex about these two stanzas is the ambivalent attitude towards her own source of power. On the one hand, she does it
exceptionally well; on the other hand, she does it
so it feels like hell. In other words, suicide depletes her as much as it rejuvenates her. And, when I say rejuvenation, I do not mean it in terms of restoration, but in terms of rebirth. That is to say, by surviving suicide, the female speaker remembers her
call; she remembers which obligation or duty she owns. The female speaker must fulfill a sense of duty and obligation, but through the experience of pain. Here, fulfillment comes with a cost. Every time she commits suicide and lives, she succeeds in the art she does so
exceptionally well, while experiencing a pain that feels like
hell. Yet, this
hell, I would suggest, is the only form of
art that seems
real because for the female speaker, this
art (suicide and death) is the epitome of life.
As a consequence, the female speaker in Plath's poem embraces a mode of plurality and polymorphousness by way of sharing a dynamic relationship with Death. The female speaker is never merely in one position, when faced in opposition with Death; instead, she takes on many roles. She is never one person, but many, like the many folds of Woman.
Walking Around as a Singular Phenomenon
In the opening lines of Neruda's
Walking Around, the male speaker approaches the reader in a straightforward and honest fashion:
Sucede que me canso de ser hombre.
The male speaker does not hesitate to admit that he is exhausted; nor is he ashamed to imply that he is emotional and eager to escape from the traumas of everyday life:
Sucede que entro en las sastrerías y en los cines
marchito, impenetrable, como un cisne de fieltro
navegando en un agua de origen y ceniza. (Neruda 42-45; ll. 1-4)
(Comes a time I'm tired of being a man.
Comes a time I check out the tailor's or the movies
Shriveled, impenetrable, like a felt swan
Launched into waters of origin and ashes.)
(trans. Forrest Gander)
El olor de las peluquerías me hace llorar a gritos.
Instead, the male speaker wants to shut down and
Sólo quiero un descanso de piedras o de lana,
sólo quiero no ver establecimientos ni jardines,
ni mercaderías, ni anteojos, ni ascensores. (ll. 5-8)
(A whiff from the barber shops has me wailing
All I want is a break from rocks and wool,
all I want is to see neither buildings nor gardens,
no shopping centers, no bifocals, no elevators.)
break free from internal and external captivity, where there are neither
ascensores (buildings, gardens, shopping centers, bifocals, elevators). What this suggests is that the male speaker has already given up. He cannot bear living in his own body any longer:
Sucede que me canso de mis pies y mis uñas
That is to say, the male speaker suggests a longing to detach from his body. He does not want to remain connected to his
y mi pelo y mi sombra.
Sucede que me canso de ser hombre. (ll.9-11)
(Comes a time I'm tired of my feet and my fingernails
and my hair and my shadow.
Comes a time I'm tired of being a man.)
pelo, or even
sombra (feet, fingernails, hair, shadow); the mere thought of his body as origin reminds him that he is tired of being an
hombre (man), for being a man implies exhaustion; having to be a man implies the a sense of enfeeblement, a sense of deterioration and degradation over time. This is also why the male speaker quickly states
sucede que me canso de ser hombre (Comes a time I'm tired of being a man) immediately after he states how he is tired of his body. By visually reverting to this line after discussing his desire to reject his own body, the male speaker implies dissolution, both emotional and physical. From these verses, the male speaker conveys that he is reminded of death because he must take his body with him everywhere he walks; wherever he goes, his body follows, and, hence, the wish to die. Here, the exhaustion of his body is directly linked to his wish to die.
Yet this desire to die, to commit suicide, is also not a mere hemorrhaging of angst; rather it is also a death wish that is intended to be productive. In other words, this death wish is supposed to produce a larger effect:
Sin embargo sería delicioso
The male speaker wants his death to be powerful, to exert force. Almost in a heroic sense, the male speaker wants his death to impact the rest of the living world; he wants to shock the living or cause a scene that will be remembered forever. Historically, such an idealization of one's suicide is not entirely new, as suicidologists still point out today:
asustar a un notario con un lirio cortado
o dar muerte a una monja con un golpe de oreja.
ir por las calles con un cuchillo verde
y dando gritos hasta morir de frío. (ll. 12-17)
(Yet how delicious it would be
to shock a notary with a cut lily
or to kill off a nun with a blow to the ear.
to run through the streets with a green knife,
howling until I die of cold.)
In Greek society, the Stoics and Epicureans viewed suicide as not only acceptable but especially relevant for escaping the problems with pain and old age (Steffens and Blazer 459). Thus, what the speaker of the poem suggests is an intense idealization.
In the following two stanzas of the poem, the male speaker finally admits to what he does want; rather than stating what exhausts and repels him, being an
hombre, (man), the male speaker creates a focus. The speaker does not want to die passively like the other unnamed bodies, he wants to die shamelessly:
No quiero seguir siendo raíz en las tinieblas,
Ultimately, what the male speaker of the poem proposes is a desired outcome. The male speaker has no regrets, nor does he question the possibility for a better outcome. The male speaker does not require sympathy, nor would he want it. In this way, it is significant that the poem is entitled
vacilante, extendido, tiritando de sueño,
hacia abajo, en las tripas mojadas de la tierra,
absorbiendo y pensando, comiendo cada día.
No quiero para mí tantas desgracias.
No quiero continuar de raz y de tumba,
de subterráneo solo, de bodega con muertos
ateridos, muriéndome de pena. (ll.18-25)
(I don't want to go on like a root in the shadows,
hesitating, feeling forward, trembling with dream,
down down into the dank guts of the earth,
soaking it up and thinking, eating every day.
I don't want for myself so many misfortunes.
I don't want to keep on as root and tomb,
alone, subterranean, in a vault stuffed with corpses,
frozen stiff, dying of shame.)
Walking Around because this is all the male speaker does while he is alive--walk around. Thus, he is a fláneur--an idling person aimlessly walking around in order to try to visually absorb the death around him. Yet, as the fláneur, the male speaker does not gain any pleasure; he does not gain any new knowledge. All he gains is the stronger wish to die.
As I have illustrated, representations of suicide come in many forms. By creating a staged interaction between the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Pablo Neruda, we see that there is some truth to the way in which representations of suicide may function under the guise of Irigaray's essay. In Plath's poem, the speaker never fully dominates death but is always simultaneously dominated by it; she is always the dominatrix as well as the dominated. The speaker is never merely an exhibitionist, but also the voyeur; she is both the observed as well as the observer. She is always in-between life and death, between two worlds, never stepping solely on one piece of land. Her suicide encapsulates a plurality of death. In Neruda's poem, however, the speaker holds on to a death wish in a way that differs from Plath's speaker. Whereas, Plath's speaker maintains a love-hate relationship with death, Neruda's speaker embraces it wholeheartedly. Neruda's speaker does not hesitate to fantasize about death. Furthermore, he does not provide any visible descriptors of himself; unlike the speaker of Plath's poem, he does not grant the reader the possibility of deciphering his name or appearance. He not only lacks a name, but a physical marker by which to distinguish him. Yet, for the reader, this is what the male speaker wants. This is why he has no image; he has no face; he lacks a name and a word to deem as his own. All he wants the reader to know is that he wishes to die; all he wants is for the reader to know that he wishes to lay down his burden of living. Whereas Plath's speaker expresses contrariness and oppositionality, Neruda's speaker is so focused on dying that he cannot see any other means of connection; he does not want anyone's attention, lest it be the acknowledgement of his death; he only wants to die. Thus, when situated together, these two poems help explicate Irigaray's essay
This Sex is Not One under the scope of suicide in a way that can only be represented in literature and art.
And, lastly, by looking at the ways in which these two poems differ, we gain a glimpse at the questions raised earlier: How does woman regain her plurality? How can she return to her truly Womanly body? The answer to these questions is, sadly, through death--voluntary death. In other words, Woman must undergo a form of death in order to make her plurality and polymorphousness seen. Only by establishing residence outside the bounds of Man's law can She return to the
female imaginary, her true essence, her plurality (Irigaray 163). Woman cannot embrace her plural identity without first committing self-murder.
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