Giving Birth to Ourselves
by Zsófia Székely
April 24, 2011
This paper presents concepts about women’s self development, closely connected to the issues of time, and also demonstrates these women’s issues through certain poems of Sylvia Plath (Lady Lazarus and Tulips). It is discussing birth-giving – also the time before and after – as being real milestones on our way, literally ’crucial points’. These experiences in one’s life should be called initiation. Internal time and timelessness are very important for women. Women have to ask themselves – when to develop, how to map out my time, where am I, where to go? How women, fairy-tales, modern myths and psychoanalysis could be connected in the light of the former questions? This could be familiar from fairy tales – it is like Cinderella picking and choosing seeds. It is familiar from modern biographies – Sylvia fighting in the kitchen with the meat and timelessness.
Women and time are exceptionally attached to each other. Internal time and timelessness are interacting real time – personal lifetime and the time of civilization. Women’s history is strongly connected to time – it does matter in what century, or even what decade lives a woman. In the times of a society, there are always certain groups where all problems or tensions are being exposed, emblematically dramatized. Women and women’s body are usually shows us what is “wrong” at a time – see hysteria at the end of the XIX. Century or its heritage: eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia) in our time in the XX-XXI. Century (Csabai –Eros, 2000).
Every single woman has to ask herself in her personal lifetime – when to develop, how to map out her time, where is she going, where can she go to?
We know that timing of self-development is appearing symbolic form in fairy tales – it is like Cinderella picking and choosing seeds; or the poor girl working at Aunt Holle (Grimm, 2009). Modern biographies (let us say – real women’s actual lives) can also show us something to learn: see Sylvia Plath fighting in the kitchen with the meat and timelessness.
In this paper I present some ideas about women’s self development, closely connected to the issues of time, and I also demonstrate women issues through poems of Sylvia Plath.
I have chosen to analyze Lady Lazarus (1962) and Tulips (1961). My concept is not based directly or cited classic feminist critics, or literature, although there is no doubt I think and write in a kind of feminist way about women.
Women and self-development
Fairy tales are usually representing a developmental process – an individual, or collective; at the end of the story, through turns and transformations, the hero/heroine stands changed before us. He or she has to fight various enemies, accomplish countless deeds. Fairy tales are hiding meta-stories mediated by symbols, bearing meanings of life – an ontological message (Csabai – Csörsz – Szonyi, 1997).
We can also recognize that in fairy tales, women have different tasks from men. It follows that self-development in women differs from in men. This phenomenon is well known in itself. Women’s journey to their self is not the kind of a heroic journey to overpower evil enemies – as it is with men; but it is the kind of special issues: helping, holding, feeding and maintaining nature’s values (von Franz, 1995).
We can look for these differences easily in fairy tales – a good example is Cinderella, where at first glance, the girl looks like a victim of her environment, but if we look through the lines, we can see a little witch (planting a magic tree, summoning birds to help her), who is really knowing when to suffering silently (or crying gently), and when to summon magic power learned from her mother. The original Grimm fairy tales does not contain a fairy aunt, but a mother who teaches every important thing to get on well (Grimm, 2009).
Fusion and Union
Lívia Mohás (1998) concerned about women’s self development speaks about the creative woman and the desire for union. There are two basic, but opposite tendencies in the process of individuation. One tendency is to differ, in this case we are wishing (consciously or unconsciously) to specialize ourself, to differ from others. This is the tendency of separation. The other is the opposite: it is the desire for union (Jung calls it coniunction), for women the latter can be very dangerous, it can easily happen to fusion with the other, instead of unite. In this case women easily loose their original identity, their boundaries of personality are loosening. The woman is losing her autonomy as taking any points of views, ideas or opinions from the other entity. This is a regressive process, selves are thinning, but in case of union – selves are growing. It is a feminine feature to accept, taking in things, which could be “infusion” without any sorting or critics in this case. Obviously, this fusion is most destroying for creative women – they are loosing the most important element of themselves – their originality. It is the Animus (using a Jungian term – the masculine part of a woman’s soul) which enhances creativity, it wants to fertilize, create, dynamic, active, and so on. These qualities are helping grow creativity in women, especially in growth and maintenance (classic feminine fields of creativity), e. g. arts and crafts, or gardening.
We can use mythological identities also to explain special issues in women’s self development. In our western patriarchal society women are left with only one powerful (archaic and significant) feminine idol: Virgin Mary. It is easily understandable that it is far too simple for everyone, not to mention it is only one way to live. Women who are not religious are even lack of this single idol. But naturally, women who choose this idol (being mild, gentle mothers and wives, who wants only to give and satisfy) to follow, are in trouble nowadays. Maybe not as powerful as Virgin Mary, but at least troubling enough new idols are coming on us: scientist and hardworking women, perfect bodies and perfect lovers – these are only examples of the high and controversial standards holding up for ourselves. Modern women are desperately looking for explanations on their lives, on their aims or creation. It is very useful to bring back ancient knowledge, feminine archetypes. I picked two of them: Lilith and Demeter – both connected to independence and motherhood.
Lilith, the first woman is associated with creativity, authenticity and equality. She is the opposite of Eve, she had chosen detachment to avoid submission. She is frequently depicted as the seductive snake made Eve to eat the apple. She appears as a negative archetype where the woman’s originality, developmental potential, separateness are in danger. If we forget her, Lilith becomes dangerous and destructive demon, take revenge on disrespectful women. She is the one who is mentioned as succubus or incubus (the demon stealing men’s soul by making love with them) also; and the murderer of children (Traugott, 1999).
Another symbolic phenomenon is crying Demeter – it is also introduced by Livia Mohás. Demeter was a mother goddess of the ancient Greek, personalizing the nurturing and nourishing nature, but she is giving death also when she does not want to give life. She is a wild goddess, natural, passionate and independent, lady of life and death. Nowadays it is very hard to be an altruist, self-sacrificing mother – we feel betrayed and silenced, cannot get on well with Demeter inside us. It is a consequential choice to melt in motherhood, without any personality, the idol of self-sacrificing mother cornering us both from inside and outside.
Demeter could give power us, but we are not able to use it. It is far from certainty that motherhood is for all women, or it is making all women happy. But it is sure that motherhood doesn’t heal automatically all the sufferings and wounds of birth-giving – the invisible tear where forces of Demeter leaking away (Mohás, 1998).
Women, time and birth-giving
Women’s body is subject to Zeitgeist, it is very vulnerable for the symptoms of society. Fear of women is a constant phenomenon in patriarchal societies. The mystic and unknown feminine body is threatening – just think about menstruation or changes of the pregnant body. The young and defenceless body of women displays most significantly the problems of the time (Eros-Csabai, 2000).
So I think it does matter when you live. Every now and then there are women, who sacrifice themselves to show everybody what is the problem with the world. For example, as I mentioned earlier in Introduction, hysteria in its time was an emblematic symptom of that era. On of these emblematic fates was Sylvia Plath’s. Her life explains or shows something, which is common nowadays, so it is not easy to understand why it was a big deal at that time.
As Brain (2001) says (cit. Monaco, 2010): „Plath’s writing is concerned with the relationship between human beings and this world that is around them, however painful that relationship, and powerful the temptation to deny it, may sometimes be”. And Monaco (2010) adds something more to it: „Plath’s writing is concerned with the relationship between human beings and with the relationship between human beings and this world that is around them (more specifically, the political, historical, cultural, economic, and so on, details of the world around them)”. If I can put it the other way around: the time, the era, the Zeitgeist (among other themes) she writes about.
Considering meaning of time for women – it is another aspect when self development is seen as a timeless task, keeping values enduring time, nurturing eternal treasures. Being out of the linear (and patriarchal) time can be the development itself. Our time for development can be the timeless deeds of giving birth and raising children – we know that time counts somehow differently besides small children. Somehow we are very far from the natural initiation – a chance to grow spiritually, we are giving birth in cold medicalized environment, and the feminine body is medicalized. In this case we cannot easily give birth to ourselves; we are not in the time for self-development (Kitzinger, 2008). The event of birth giving offers evidently a connnection to nature and body, and through this: self. It is obviously a developmental opportunity, not only in an ordinary way, but can be a spiritual challenge also.
Deeds besides children – mean a different dimension of development. It is like in fairy tale Aunt Holle – where the girl jumps into a well, finds herself in another dimension, where she has to help immediately some miraculous creatures (Grimm, 2009). Helping immediately without any plans for the next step – it is like being in the time of a little child, satisfying his or her needs. It is a real fusion with something symbolic – being available or usable, living through the deeds. It really melts personality somehow (consider the deep well, where a completely different world is existing), but at the end the girl is coming back with lots of treasures – she is richer than ever. And I mean by this rich in soul, she grew in self, naturally. We have to realize that she works well, and she can come back. In the ‘other world’ these are the most intricate questions: Am I doing it right? When it is ending?
Discussing Sylvia Plath and her poems
About the biography
Sylvia Plath was a remarkable woman of her time – and she is, in our time. She is the most important for us also, as showing being out of time, out of her time – how she was not able to place herself in her time – to be with her children, her nature.
The Sylvia Plath phenomenon is very well analyzed: her biography, her works, the depression and suicide, the confessional poetry…Here I only sign up to write about my ideas about her poems, and I consciously did not consider many of her writings and critics about them. I think it is the most reassuring when you feel sense and understand values in a single poem – that means it is a great work. As I have mentioned above, her biography and its connections to her work are deeply analyzed, so here I only emphasize some events which I think are important in discussing the poems Lady Lazarus and Tulips (based on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Plath ).
She was showing talent in a very early age – eight-year-old Plath published her first poem in the Boston Herald's children's section. In addition to writing, she showed early promise as an artist, winning an award for her paintings from The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in 1947.
It is well published that she had more than one suicide attempts, and after one of these attempts, Plath was briefly committed to a mental institution where she received electroconvulsive therapy (1955). She seemed to make a good recovery, and in June 1955 graduated from Smith with honors. One year later she had married to Ted Hughes.
After travelling in the US, the couple moved back to the United Kingdom in December 1959. Plath and Hughes lived in London. Their daughter Frieda was born on 1 April 1960 and in October, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. In February 1961, Plath's second pregnancy ended in miscarriage; a number of her poems address this event. In August she finished her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and immediately after this, the family moved to the small market town of North Tawton in Devon. Nicholas was born in January 1962.
Plath's marriage to Hughes was fraught with difficulties, particularly surrounding his affair with Plath's good friend Assia Wevill, which she discovered in July. In June Plath had had a car accident which she described as one of many suicide attempts and in September the couple split. From October, Plath experienced a great burst of creativity and wrote most of the poems on which her reputation now rests, writing at least 26 poems of her posthumous collection Ariel during this time. In December 1962, she returned alone to London with their children, and rented a flat. The winter of 1962 was one of the coldest in 100 years; the pipes froze, the children—now two years old and nine months—were often sick, and the house had no telephone. Her depression returned but she completed the rest of her poetry collection which would be published after her death (1965 in the Uk, 1966 in the US). Her only novel The Bell Jar came out in January 1963, published under the pen name Victoria Lucas. Al Alvarez, a poet, editor and literary champion of Hughes and Plath, spoke, in a BBC interview in March 2000, about his failure to recognize Plath's depression. Alvarez says he regretted his inability to offer emotional support to Plath: "I failed her on that level. I was 30 years old and stupid. What did I know about chronic clinical depression? [...] She kind of needed someone to take care of her. And that was not something I could do.” In his 1971 book on suicide, he claimed that Plath's suicide was an unanswered cry for help ( also based on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Plath ).
Plath's semi-autobiographical novel was published in 1963 and in the US in 1971, which her mother wished to block. Describing the compilation of the book to her mother, she wrote, "What I've done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour- it's a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown.... I've tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen though the distorting lens of a bell jar". She described her novel as "an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past"
In the last decade a number of scholars have begun to argue that reading Plath's work biographically limits its power. The cited above Tracy Brain's volume The Other Sylvia Plath(2001) argue forcefully for an expansion of critical interpretations. So too did the publication of Dan Monaco (2010), which examined the poem ’Lady Lazarus’ in the context of twentieth century politics and culture. So he says: „To treat Plath’s writing in this way is to belittle her work, for the implication of such an exercise is that Sylvia Plath was too unimaginative to make anything up, or too self-obsessed to consider anything of larger historical or cultural importance” (Monaco, 2010, paragraph I). And Monaco goes further: „…it is perhaps impossible to wholly separate the Plath biography from considerations of her work. To the great extent that it is possible, however, it ought to be pursued. For Plath’s writing has too long been subservient to her biography, which, in turn, has been made to tirelessly perform errands that have ruthlessly restricted her work’s power and reach” (Monaco, 2010, paragraph I, emphasis in the original) (also based on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Plath ).
Bitzolkais successfully lightens what it means to confess in a poet’s life: “The central instance of the 'confessional' in her writing is usually taken to be 'Lady Lazarus'. M. L. Rosenthal uses the poem to validate the generic category: (…) Sylvia Plath's 'Lady Lazarus' is a true example of 'confessional' poetry because it puts the speaker herself at the centre of the poem in such a way as to make her psychological shame and vulnerability an embodiment of his civilization.' The confessional reading of the poem is usually underpinned by the recourse to biography, which correlates the speaker's cultivation of the 'art of dying' with Plath's suicidal career. Although Plath is indeed, at one level, mythologizing her personal history, the motif of suicide in 'Lady Lazarus' operates less as self-revelation than as a theatrical tour de force, a music-hall routine” (Bitzolkais, 1999, cit. at http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/plath/lazarus.htm ). I dont really agree with this, because for me this poem is strong with passion and I have the feeling that it is exaggerrated only because of despair to communicate. It has deep and serious messages, under the skin of words or the skin of confession – it is the reality inside a suffering woman. It is very reassuring to hear this poem read by the poet herself. Sylvia Plath’s voice is full of tension, full of passion – and, of course there is the wish to shock listeners /readers. You can listen to this here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxft6nxU3KI (or sound file attached).
“Lady Lazarus stages the spectacle of herself, assuming the familiar threefold guise of actress, prostitute, and mechanical woman. The myth of the eternally recurring feminine finds its fulfilment in the worship and 'martyrdom' of the film or pop star, a cult vehicle of male fantasy who induces mass hysteria and vampiric hunger for 'confessional' revelations. Lady Lazarus reminds her audience that 'there is a charge, a very large charge | For a word or a touch | Or a bit of blood | Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.' The proliferation of intertextual ironies also affects the concluding transformation of 'Lady Lazarus' into the phoenix-like, man-eating demon, who rises 'out of the ash' with her 'red hair'.
for Plath the female body, far from serving as expiatory metaphor for the ravages of modernity, itself becomes a sign whose cultural meanings are in crisis.” (Bitzolkais, 1999, cit. at http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/plath/lazarus.htm, emphasis in the original). It reminds us Monaco’s opinion about Plath is concerned with the world around her, concerned with the desperation to communicate. It is like being under the bell jar – so hard to really hear what she wants us to hear.
Let us see another critic from Jon Rosenblatt which is taking us a different way of understanding the poem: “Using the phoenix myth of resurrection as a basis, Plath imagines a woman who has become pure spirit rising against the imprisoning others around her: gods, doctor, men, and Nazis. This translation of the self into spirit, after an ordeal of mutilation, torture, and immolation, stamps the poem as the dramatization of the basic initiatory process.”
(Rosenblatt, 1979 cit. at http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/plath/lazarus.htm).
It seems to me that this initiation (which is much like a resurrection of the body instead of a rebirth of the self) can be interpreted as the process of the birth-giving also. Birth-giving is a kind of resurrection – losing an old self and body, receiving a new one. In a safe environment it can be an initiation, a development in life. But probably she could not use her actual birth-givings as initiations – it was a medicalized event to survive, like other hospital surgeries, distant from her own body. From this poem (and Tulips are very similar in this way) I think flesh and blood are unbearable – it is associated with aggression and detachment or distance, instead of identification and acceptance.
Lady Lazarus is also about masculinity for me. Not because of the subordination of the speaker, but because it is about war – killing, suffering, meaningless pain and humiliation. It is about a body in war – blood and wounds exposed to us. It is like a distortion of birth-giving (which is also a body exposure, and is about blood and wounds), or maybe identification with men’s envy for motherhood: men (patriarchal values) are often devalving women’s ability to give life to hide their envy. In short: men are making war instead of love (Horney, 1996). The difference between resurrection and rebirthing is exactly the same as war and birth-giving, or as suicide and loosing self.
The poem is masculine also because it is totally lack of any hint of the mother. There is no any level of motherhood – her real mother, or her being a mother, or motherhood generally – mentioned here. It seems to be a total identification with the father; even problems with this identification can be expressed, unlike any issues about her mother.
In hungarian folk tradition (especially in songs and fairy tales) tulips are the symbols of the feminine (more precisely, from the resemblance of the shape, the feminine organs), everything associated with women can be symbolized by tulips – love, virginity (and loosing virginity), birth-giving, menstruation (Hoppál, mtsai, 1999). As an archetype it is universal, also. These tulips in the poem are red, bright, offensive flowers in a sterile, black and white life – it is unbearable to be with this so lively color, that is to say, so intensive feelings or so strong bondings. It is only natural to associate to blood – menstruation, birth-giving, feeling and touching nature are also some issue here. „Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds” – she writes – we do not know why the speaker is in hospital, but these wounds can be feminine, even from birth-giving (or miscarriage). Nevertheless, being feminine hurts.
The paradoxon and tragedy is that this lively feminine, which is giving life, is suffocating and stealing life from the speaker in this case (remember Lilith when forgotten). It is again being in the bell jar – even real loving and touching and attaching people cannot pull her out of her own misery.
I do not want to say that there were not any positive feelings and bonding in Sylvia towards her family, but she could not keep it or build on it. She had to escape mother(hood) because it swallowed her, she could not keep her integrity in this field. I assume it is consequentional to identify with her father, in a high distant spiritual life, as I have mentioned. Anger and hostility towards the mother cannot be expressed, so it is directed outside (‘shadow’ in Jungian concept, or ‘projection’ in Freudian concept) and personalized by men.
Writing poems in itself means the woman cannot stand being a mother, she cannot undertake challenges – but feels the urge to speak, to labour her self out. It is a different dimension, which is useful for the self maybe – but not at this time, but, from the children’s point of view, their mother is unavailable. Motherhood swallows the poet, she cannot use it constructively – it melts her self, she cannot find herself in these activities. It is hard to be in the ‘here and now’. Biological creativity (raising children) and spiritual creativity (writing poems) somehow exclude each other, these are two different mental states, different consciousnesses.
Plath’s fate is similar to Laura Brown’s (in the movie The Hours, Daldry, 2002, played by Julianne Moore). Both women have extraordinary inner life – one of them can overpower self-destroying and suicide, one of them cannot. All the circumstances are against both Sylvia’s and Laura’s authentic life, but somehow Sylvia (although she knows exactly what she needs) get swallowed by this negative mother archetype. In her novel The Bell Jar, she writes about the perfect therapist, which description is about being totally accepted by a fatherly and motherly, kind, understanding person. Beside this therapist, she can be herself without any fear of distorting her own reality (Plath, 1977, p. 121). No one around her was able to let her be as she was. It was a real trauma; we can call it rape on a soul. I have to mention at this point, that therapists can easily manifold the original trauma, by acting the same way as did the aggressor – e. g. not taking seriously the child’s / patient’s feelings, leaving him/her alone with his/her suffering (Ferenczi, 1971).
I think tragedy of Sylvia Plath’s life is that she couldnot be herself, despite of being a creative and brilliant poet and writer, and probably a sensitive enough mother – she couldn’t take on herself (as her environment helplessly tried and couldn’t support either). With the words of Jon Rosenblatt: “It is as if Plath is using the Marilyn Monroe figure to travesty Poe's dictum in 'The Philosophy of Composition' (1846) that 'the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world'.” (Rosenblatt, 1979, op. cit)
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Received: April 24, 2011, Published: April 24, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Zsófia Székely