1In his work L’Autobiographie en France, Philippe Lejeune famously declared that autobiography could only be found in prose:
L’autobiographie est un récit en prose. (…) [U]ne des données fondamentales de l’autobiographie (…), c’est que son auteur a l’intention de dire “la vérité" (opposée à la fiction); nous savons bien que cette “vérité”, il la dit avec tous les moyens de la fiction. Mais il faut que le lecteur puisse avoir l’impression de vraisemblance, de témoignage, qui est le propre du récit en prose, qu’il soit autobiographique ou non, alors que le récit en vers porte déjà à la simple lecture les “signes extérieurs” de la fiction et de l’art, du moins pour un lecteur de l’époque moderne, et empêche le lecteur d’entrer dans le jeu autobiographique. (21)
2Confessional poetry as practised by American poets in the 1960s, however, seems to give the lie to Lejeune’s somewhat peremptory assertion. Rejecting modernism’s imperative of impersonality, Robert Lowell, W.S. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath turned poetry into a place of self-exploration, dramatizing unresolved conflicts and drawing upon highly intimate matters in first person poems.
3If, as Leigh Gilmore writes, autobiography does not draw its social authority simply from “a privileged relation to real life” but rather from its “proximity to the rhetoric of truth telling: the confession” (“Policing truth: Confession, Gender, and Autobiographical Authority” 57), then confessional poetry revives autobiography’s most direct source. Authenticity has indeed often been seen as a prime characteristic of this movement:
“The poets? The poets lie too much,” Nietzsche said. Since 1959, however, there have been a number of American poets determined not to lie in verse. Whatever the cost in public exposure or private anguish, their subjects are most often themselves and always the things they most intimately know. The emotions that they portray are true to their own feelings. And the opinions they express are born of deep personal conviction, not currency of literary fashion. These poets have been called “confessional.” (Philips The Confessional Poets 1)
4These poets’ relentless self-exploration was both encouraged and framed by psychoanalysis. In spite of their constant efforts to develop an individual, highly personal voice meant to resist oppressive structures, the language of their confession is not entirely their own. Any unveiling process is guided, as Gilmore has shown, by a normative discourse bound up with the cultural context of its enunciation (56). Psychoanalysis provides the epistemological and rhetorical background of the confessional poets’ quest for self.
- 1 For further details about cultural contexts, see Lynda K. Bundtzen, “Plath and Psychoanalysis: Unc (...)
5The influence of this discourse is linked to both cultural and personal factors. Plath wrote at a time when psychoanalytical theory pervaded every aspect of American culture, ranging form Hitchcock’s films to sentimental literature or self-help guides.1 The confessional poets’ personal experience of depression also explains their familiarity with Freudian concepts. Most of them suffered nervous breakdowns, were hospitalized and underwent psychoanalytical therapy. Plath’s depression, her suicide attempt and her gradual recovery are recorded in The Bell Jar. First-hand experience of psychiatric institutions and theoretical knowledge encouraged the confessional poets to apply these theories to themselves. Psychoanalysis became the instance which authorized the poets’ discourse, fully grounding their claim to authenticity. In her Journals, Plath revealingly alludes to her appointments with her therapist as her “Sunday confession” (468).
- 2 The abbreviations CP and J refer to Plath’s Complete Poems (1981) and to her Journals (2000).
6Not surprisingly, the confessional poets’ indebtedness to Freud has in turn given rise to psychoanalytical and biographical interpretations. Plath’s work, in particular, has elicited countless readings of that type. The indebtedness of her poems to Freudian theory should not be taken for granted however. Plath uses psychoanalysis both as a tool of self-analysis and as a literary device. The result is a highly theatrical psychodrama in which autobiography and fiction are closely intertwined. This essay will focus on “Daddy”, “Medusa” and their textual margins—manuscripts and authorial commentaries—to highlight the ambiguous way Plath uses psychoanalysis to construct a discourse about the self.2
7Psychoanalysis’s explanatory power accounts for its attraction. The Freudian pattern of the family romance offers a map of self-reading, a narrative which provides a way of locating the self through its relations to others. In the female child’s version of the Oedipus complex, the father is figured as a law-giving instance and as an inaccessible object of desire, whereas the mother is regarded as an obstacle. The central role Freudianism assigns to parents explains why the “I” of Plath’s poems is defined above all by its position within the family. As a result, the speaker tries to assert her identity by establishing firm boundaries between self and other.
8The ambiguity lies in the fact that the discourse which should allow the speaker to understand herself becomes a way of refashioning the narrative of her life. The literary origin of psychoanalytical concepts endows them with a fundamental instability which Plath fully exploits, artfully moving from the scientific side to the theatrical one. This is why the “you” of Plath’s poems is a highly unstable entity. The speaker recreates herself and the persons she addresses, turning them into mythological or theatrical characters at the very moment when she claims to be deciphering, exposing their true nature. The Freudian family romance offers the script for a fantasmatic rewriting of the poet’s biography, turning the “I” and its addressees into allegorical figures.
9The Journals shed light on this refashioning process, making clear the fictional nature of the characters staged in the poems. Reflecting on her relationship with her mother, Plath appropriates and amplifies Freud’s image of a “drained ego” to turn it into a gothic motif:
Read Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” this morning after Ted left for the library. An almost exact description of my feelings and reasons for suicide: a transferred murderous impulse from my mother onto myself: the “vampire” metaphor Freud uses, “draining the ego”: that is exactly the feeling I have getting in the way of my writing: mother’s clutch. (447)
10Analysis imperceptibly gives way to metaphorical recreation in this passage. The device is even more striking in the pages devoted to Plath’s sessions with her therapist. In these entries, Plath reflects on the conclusions of her discussions with Ruth Beuscher. Yet, far from offering neutral, detached pieces of self-analysis, these pages are a place of literary experimentation in which psychic data feed the creative process and a highly questionable rewriting of her biography. Self-analysis and literary creation become oddly entangled as psychoanalytical concepts give way to metaphors. While claiming to uncover the author’s psychic history, the text actually elaborates a personal myth which draws upon Freud’s Oedipus complex, gothic literature and Greek myths. The “I” undergoes a process of allegorisation and becomes “the Daughter”. Her grandparents’ identity similarly vanishes, as indicated by the use of definite articles meant to sever links with biographical reality: ‘‘the grandfather”, “the grandmother” (430) The author is turned into a fictional character while the various members of the family become archetypal figures: personal history enters the realm of literature and of myth.
11The transformation is even more radical when Plath writes about her parents. Father and mother alike are submitted to a striking process of fictionalisation: Otto Plath is described as ‘‘an oger [sic]” (431) who secretely worshipped Hitler (430). But it is Aurelia Plath who is given pride of place in Plath’s theatrical rewriting of her family romance. She is described as “a walking vampire” and a murderess: “My mother killed the only man who’d love me steady through life: came in one morning with tears of nobility in her eyes and told me he was gone for good. I hate her for that.” (431); “She is a murderess of maleness.” (433); “She’s a killer. Watch out. She’s deadly as a cobra under that shiny greengold hood.” (433) The mother as she appears in the poem is not a real person but an imaginary creature, a vampire or a snake, Clytemnestra or Gertrud, in other words, a literary character ready to step on the scene of a novel or a poem.
12The confusion of self-analysis and literary creation is emphasized by the stylistic sophistication of the passage. It appears clearly that the Journals are not so much a place of self-clarification as one of stylistic experimentation which paves the way for Ariel. Repetitions, terse sentences, sarcastic tone and biting irony are central features of Plath’s poems of 1962 which are present as early as 1958 in the Journals: “On top of all she’s all smarmy nice: (…) why should they make her worry worry worry?” (429); “He didn’t leave hardly enough money to bury him because he lost on the stocks, just like his own father did, and wasn’t it awful. Men men men.” (430); “Get a nice little, safe little, sweet little loving imitation man who’ll give you babies and bread and a secure roof and a green lawn and money money money every month. Compromise. A smart girl can’t have everything she wants. Take second best. (…) Be sure he’s nice nice nice.” (431) Repetitions reveal the haunting power of a voice which Plath seems to be trying to exorcise by taking up her mother’s idiom and emptying it out of its meaning. One of the passages deserves particular attention: an embryonic dramatic monologue, it gives voice to the persona of the mother: “I am bloody bloody bloody. Look what they do to me. I have ulcers, see how I bleed. My husband whom I hate is in the hospital with gangrene and diabetes and a beard and they cut his leg off and he disgusts me and he may live a cripple and wouldn’t I hate that.” (430) It would only take a change of lay-out to turn this piece of prose into a poem. The insistent, clipped rhythm of the first three sentences, the internal rhymes (bloody / me; bleed / beard), the haunting repetition of the word “bloody” and “and” strikingly look forward to the poems composed in October 1962.
13“Medusa” can be read as the outcome of this literary reworking of psychic material. The form of the dramatic monologue appears as the logical consequence of Plath’s play on the theatrical origin of psychoanalytical concepts and of her use of these concepts to refashion herself and her addressee. The result is a contradictory portrayal of Aurelia Plath as Medusa and the Virgin Mary. This central ambiguity is amplified as each central image gives rise to a flurry of secondary identifications and descriptive details. Punning on her mother’s first name, ‘Aurelia’, which also refers to a type of jellyfish, (Quinn “Medusan Imagery in Sylvia Plath” 98) Plath conjures up a nightmarish seascape. Body-images reducing the mother to her womb constitute the second set of images derived from the word “Medusa”. The Virgin Mary side of the mother also gives rise to a wealth of religious images. Plath intertwines the mythological, zoological, biological and christian networks of images, turning the text in a dizzying flicker of shifting identifications: “stony mouth-plugs” “unnerving head” “God-ball”, “Lens of mercies” “red stigmata” “Jesus hair” “old barnacled umbilicus”, “placenta”, “cobra light”, “Communion wafer” “Blubbery Mary” “bottle”, “Ghastly Vatican” “eely tentacle” etc. (CP 224-6). This whirligig of metaphors highlights the failure of the author to locate the mother figure. A highly unstable construct, she vanishes behind mythical and metaphorical representations. The mother is described in the same text as a constricting, smothering figure, and as a meek, self-denying one. She appears both as an encroaching body and as a transfigured, spiritual one. The conflation of two archetypal figures, one drawn from Greek mythology, the other from Christian iconography, suggests that Plath is not so much portraying her own mother as recycling fixed, ready-made, culturally manufactured images of motherhood. Plath’s portrayal draws in fact on a multiplicity of conflicting but firmly entrenched representations of motherhood.
14Her poem carries echoes of Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers. This highly influential essay steeped in Freudianism blamed the decline of American culture on mothers’ emasculating influence. Published in 1943, the book was a best-seller throughout the 1940s and the 1950s, and the word ‘Momism’, which encapsulates the book’s central argument, soon gained currency. It can reasonably be assumed that Plath had read it, as she mentions it in her poem ‘The Baby-Sitters’ (CP 174-5). In Wylie’s book, religious imagery is repeatedly associated to motherhood, as shown by the following excerpt which, interestingly for our study, also mentions Medusa: “I give you mom. I give you the destroying mother. (…) I give you Medusa and Stheno and Euryale. I give you the harpies and the witches and the Fates. I give you the woman in pants, and the new religion: she-popery.” (Wylie 203; my italics) Plath’s “blubbering Mary”, “ghastly Vatican” and “Medusa” may be late offsprings of Wylie’s ‘mom’.
15The medusan facet may also derive from what MacPherson has called “cold war maternalism” (43), an ideology which considered family life and motherhood in particular as the cornerstone of national security. Women’s role was to produce “useful, well-adjusted citizens,” to quote one of the staunchest defenders of this ideology (Spock 460). The pressure put on the home as a place of production of norm resulted in a feeling of “claustrophobia,” MacPherson notes, “of which mothers themselves became the causes in the therapeutic and popular culture stereotypes of the smothering mother.” (43).
16The portrayal of the smothering mother dovetails with the opposite and complementary stereotype of the selfless woman utterly dedicated to her family. Such a model of femininity was no less frightening than the previous one for ambitious women of Plath’s generation. Rich analyzes the concept of “matrophobia” as a reaction to the image of the self-denying mother: “‘Matrophobia’ […] is the fear not of one’s mother or of motherhood but of becoming one’s mother […] The mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr.” (Of Woman Born 237-8) Deleted lines in the manuscript of “Medusa” bring Plath’s horror of the mother-as-victim and her fear of contamination into sharp focus:
That martyr’s smile!
Who do you think you are?
A Communion wafer? Blubbery mary?
I am no pieta.I refuse to be.
Pulse by, pulse by!
(“Medusa” MSS, folder 1, sheet 2, my italics)
17The poem’s hateful tone can therefore be read as an attempt to perform what Rich calls “radical surgery” (238) in order to establish firm boundaries with the mother.
18Drawing both on psychoanalytical discourse and on a multiplicity of cultural diagnoses which are themselves often indebted to Freudianism, Plath’s poem recasts Aurelia Plath both as a smothering mother who threatens to engulf her, and as a wound, a ‘red stigmata’ which calls for complete annihilation through cannibalism: “I shall take no bite of your body”. The reversibility of images of engulfment and devoration points to their fantasmatic origin. Revealingly, Plath crossed out the word “Mum” in her first version of the title, “Mum: Medusa” (“Medusa” MSS, folder 1, sheet 1), thus highlighting the poem’s complex negotiation with biographical data and the erasure of biographical traces which underlies all creation. This emptiness leaves room for projections, allowing the mother to become a repository of cultural anxieties.
19Although Plath repeatedly endeavours to conjure up the figure of her father through writing, the latter seems to resist representation, thus imperilling the autobiographical project. “Daddy” follows the pattern of the Freudian cure, but with a twist. Explaining his method, Freud wrote: “Là où il y a un symptôme, il y a aussi une amnésie, un vide, une lacune dans le souvenir, et, si l’on réussit à combler cette lacune, on supprime par là même le symptôme.” (Cinq Leçons sur la Psychanalyse 24). The problem is that reminiscence seems to fail in Plath’s case. The “Polish town / Scraped flat by the roller/ Of wars, wars, wars” (CP 222) offers an apt equivalent of the daughter’s ruined memory.
20The description of the photograph of the father suggests that the latter is only accessible as a reflection and that the speaker is dealing with deceptive images which are subjective re-elaborations of an elusive referent:
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in you chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two. (CP 223-4)
21The cleft in the chin can be read as a metaphoric cut and therefore as an incription of loss. The result is a proliferation of fantasmatic projections which attempt to fill this void. The poem enacts a dizzying process of metaphoric substitution and deferral which is the very opposite of any form of unveiling. The father is successively compared to a “a bag full of god”, a gigantic statue, Hitler, a “black man”, a “devil”, an ogre and a “vampire”. The reader is given the impression that there is always something behind the father figure. The poem’s hyperbolic rhetoric piles image upon image,turning the word “Daddy” into an unstable signifier, a word with a shifting meaning referring to the author’s biological father, to a petrified literary tradition, to patriarchal ideology, and to history in its most dehumanizing form. Signifiers lead to more signifiers but no ultimate meaning is revealed.
22The logic of substitution which governs the style of the poem also presides over the narrative of the speaker’s life. The inability to clarify the past leads to the “compulsion to repeat” (Freud “Au delà du principe de plaisir” 64) as the husband becomes a reincarnation of the father: “I made a model of you / A man in black with a Meinkampf look / And a love of the rack and the screw” (CP 224). The father’s very inaccessibility keeps generating images, distorted reflections which point toward a lost origin without giving access to it. The obsessive repetition of the vowel /u:/—“do”, “achoo”, “blue”, “du”, “two”, “true”, “through”, “who”, (CP 222-4)—an echo of the aural matrix provided by the pronoun ‘you’, can thus be read as ghostly sound-image of the father reverberating throughout the poem.
23The elusiveness of the father figure reveals the limits of Plath’s faith in psychoanalysis. The Freudian pattern on which the poem is modelled is therefore overlaid by by a multiplicity of other potential plots. This interweaving of literary, mythical, and historical references suggests that the father cannot find his place in a coherent narrative. He is a dark cipher whose resistance to interpretation is underscored by his position at the intersection of several discourses.
24The elusiveness of the addressee raises the question of the status of the speaker. If the father figure keeps receding in the distance, how could the “I” of the poem be more reliable and refer to a definite person? In other words, should “Daddy” be read as an autobiographical poem or not? While some critics have been outraged at Plath’s infuriated rhetoric, her shameless exhibitionism and her appropriation of the Holocaust (Howe “The Plath Celebration: A Partial Dissent” 231-3), others, such as Susan Van Dyne, taking their cue from Plath’s own comments on the poem, have been careful to draw a line between author and speaker (Revising Life 48). Asked by the BBC about the meaning of “Daddy”, Plath indeed answered as follows:
Here is a poem spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyse each other—she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it. (CP 293)
25Plath starts by denying any connection between herself and the speaker, to whom she refers as “a girl”. She then puts on the mask of the analyst to diagnose a psychiatric case and finally resumes the voice of the poet by turning a Freudian concept into a literary trope: the girl’s traumatic past is an “allegory”. The word “act out” is located at the intersection of these two discourses as its refers both to the necessary reenactment of a painful episode and to the poem’s theatrical qualities. The acting out of rage is thus sealed off by the voice of the author, framed within the limits of literary and psychoanalytical discourses. The “I” of the poem has nothing to do with the “I” of the author, Plath claims.
26Yet, reading this commentary as a lucid account explaining away the complexities of the poem would be a mistake. There is something slightly disturbing about Plath’s emphatic effort to draw a line between herself and a persona who obviously shares so many characteristics with her. The wonderful poise of the commentator, which stands in sharp contrast to the infuriated tone of the poem, is one of the many voices which Plath has at her disposal. At the very moment when she seems to be giving the key to a poem in which she appears as the analysand, the author is actually donning yet another mask, that of the analyst. This metatextual commentary has a postmodern flavour, adding as it does a further layer of meaning which does not clarify but complicates the poem. It is located within, rather than outside the theatrical space conjured up by the text.
27The relationship between author and persona must therefore be reconsidered. Autobiography for Plath is not so much a portrayal of an existing self as an attempt to discard this self and bring another one into being. Self-allegorisation is a fiction thanks to which the author endeavors to regain control over experience by distancing herself from a past self which is figured in a hyperbolic form. This process of self-distanciation does not take place merely within the compass of the poem however. It actually starts with the selection of writing material. The walls Plath strives to erect between herself and her persona are part and parcel of a strategy of self-distanciation which is confirmed by the manuscripts. Plath composed “Daddy” on handwritten rough drafts of Hughes’s play The Calm, and on a typed review by the latter of a play by Wesker (“Daddy” MSS). The act of composition takes the form of a physical confrontation meant to free the author of both father and husband. Interestingly, most of the drafts Plath selected are handwritten ones, as if she was looking for material permeated with her husband’s bodily presence in order to enact a symbolic killing with her own handwriting. Impersonation is the second step of this quest for another self. The selection of material related to drama looks forward to the theatricality of the poem, in which Plath stages the self she wants to get rid of. The title of the play, The Calm, which stands in ironic contrast to the tone of the poem, suggests that the ultimate aim of writing and impersonation is the release of the author. The ritual of composition is thus integral to a strategy of self-distanciation which underlies not only Plath’s commentary for the BBC, but also her recording of the poem. Plath’s reading of “Daddy” baffles the reader indeed: it is playful, ironic and devoid of anger. Her vocal performance, which deliberately ignores the highly personal content of the poem, can thus be said to offer yet another layer of theatricality.
28It is actually an ambiguous subject which is staged in Plath’s poem, a voice poised between self-revelation and self-fictionalisation. The poem and its abundant textual margins, manuscripts, commentary and recording, chart a painful, not entirely successful attempt to move away from biography, to kill off one facet of the self. As Dominique Combe suggests, “Le sujet lyrique apparaîtrait comme un sujet autobiographique “fictionnalisé” ou du moins en voie de “fictionnalisation” - et, réciproquement, un sujet “fictif”, réinscrit dans la réalité empirique, selon un mouvement pendulaire”. (“La référence dédoublée” 55-6) “Daddy” invites us to read Plath’s autobiographical refashioning as a process, something the author aims at, rather than a definite, closed object.
29This definition of the autobiographical poem as a process rather than a product precludes any form of closure. The curative virtues of the poem (“she has to act out the awful little allegory before she is free of it”) must therefore be questioned. Confessional poetry’s cathartic power has too often been taken for granted: “All confessional art, whether poetry or not, is a means of killing the beasts which are within us, those dreadful dragons of dreams and experiences that must be hunted down, cornered and exposed in order to be destroyed” (Philips 2). “[I]ts goal is self-therapy and a certain purgation” (8). Poetry, if we are to believe this critic, is but an artistic version of the talking cure.
30Whether “Daddy” actually results in the speaker’s psychic release is unclear however. The vocal dimension of the poem and the acting out of rage are undeniably reminiscent of the cathartic method but nothing indicates that the daughter is free at the end of the poem. As shown above, the father figure remains inaccessible. Moreover, the final words, “I’m through”, are highly ambiguous, suggesting as they do that the daughter is done with her father, but also that she is exhausted, that her verbal explosion has killed her. The outcome of the poem thus gives the lie to the closure imposed by the commentary onto the text.
31“Medusa” also bears witness to Plath’s ambivalence about the curative virtues of poetry. The poem is alive with a binary movement which reflects the intricate relationship between mother and daughter. Pairs of adjectives—“dazzling and grateful”, “touching and sucking”, “fat and red”, “dead and moneyless”—, internal rhymes—“you steamed to me over the sea” “my mind winds to you”, “touching and sucking”—, as well as repetitions—“nevertheless, nevertheless”, “I never called you / I never called you at all”—reflect not only the inescapable mirror relationship between mother and daughter, but also the pulsating movement of attraction and repulsion between them, the daughter’s movement away from, and back to the mother. There is no solution to this paradoxical relationship, as revealed by the ambiguous last line—“There is nothing between us” (CP 226)—which hints both at separation and fusion.
32Both poems actually remain strikingly inconclusive, revealing the incapacity of the daughter to free herself from her parents’ images. Anne Sexton’s skeptical assessment of the therapeutic value of literature could easily be applied to Plath: “You don’t solve problems in writing. They’re still there. I’ve heard psychiatrists say, “See, you’ve forgiven your father. There it is in your poem.” But I haven’t forgiven my father. I just wrote that I did.” (Craft Interview 11)
33Plath’s ambiguous use of psychoanalytical theory invites us to reassess the connections established by critics between confessional poetry and psychoanalysis. The opacity of self and other as well as the limits of the talking cure are brought to the fore in poems which, read superficially, merely seem to illustrate Freud’s theories. This crisis of confidence may be part of a wider cultural evolution. In Psychoanalyticisms, Ingrid Hotz-Davies points out that, while between 1940 and 1960 psychoanalysis was established “as a non-problematized frame of reference” whose “promises and authority remain[ed] largely unchallenged”, in the early 1960s however, “this confidence seems suddenly to have been shaken” (29).
34But Plath does not use psychoanalysis merely to probe the depth of her unconscious. The presence of this discourse bears witness to her lifelong interest in patterns and ready-made narratives as a way of structuring the self. The numerous references to myths, fairy-tales and folklore in poems otherwise firmly grounded in psychoanalytical theory suggest that the latter is but one of many narrative forms on which Plath draws to model the image of her psyche. It provides her with an array of characters and narrative embryos which she uses as starting points, bending Freudian concepts to her own purposes. Psychoanalysis is turned on its head as Plath’s mock-hermeneutics sets off a whirl of metaphors and distorting identifications which do not give access to the other but turn him or her into a literary creation.
35Self-reading is in fact inseparable from self-refashioning in her work. Plath does not try so much to delineate an existing self as to bring one into being by freeing herself from her past. The scene of the poem dramatizes her attempt to rid herself of one or several facets of her identity. Autobiography is therefore a process rather than a definite form of writing. It is bound up with theatricality, but also, more disturbingly, with a dis-identification which verges on self-erasure.