The Ruin of Madness
When exploring the ruins of castles and churches throughout western Ireland, I began to place a roof over the common dining area, reassemble the shattered altar, paint the open wall that faced the endless green pasture. I became a co-architect in the reconstructing of lost and forgotten spaces. C.D. Wright evaluates muses in Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil: “An atmosphere of depression will arouse artists’ attention over an atmosphere of prosperity nearly every time. Also true, ruins are beautiful to us; blues make us feel good; it is through the wound that we perceive the body as alive” (Wright 19). The ruins asked something of me, to co-create a new reality; yet ruins ask this of all viewers, which is one of the reasons people visit decrepit, aging spaces. The lyric poem asks the same of its reader; it asks for empathy and creative unity in the emotional ruin of experience.
The force of the poem against white space, as determined by any formal quality, creates a tension for the unsaid to exist within. In her essay “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence” Louise Glück, like Wright, explores the dual creation between the poet and the reader. This communication, to make a poem a living thing, is created by what the poem neglects to put forth or erases into white space. Glück says of the unsaid, “It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts” (Gioia 378). The unsaid is an erasure of the definite, creating the open end. The unsaid of a poem leads to the communication between the poem and the reader to ‘allude,’ as Glück notes, to a larger concept—an experience. The unsaid communicates with the imagination. The poem is a ruin that asks the reader to join in the reconstruction of words and white space, a new, joint-created ‘living thing.’
Glück and Wright used the image of ruins to depict the unsaid; one viewing the ruins would become part of creation by piecing together what was ‘missing.’ In this same way, the reader becomes part creator of the poem depending on the erasure. The erasure, the unsaid, is a counterpart to poetic tension. Formal elements guide the words across the white space to create tension and the erasure creates the space for the reader. This dual creation, in the tension of the poem, leads to new naming, new beings, and new concepts.
The poets Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath lived in an epoch when being named mad determined the way in which their physical beings were interacted with. During the mid-twentieth century, gender roles were suffocating and madness was treated violently within the medical community. Lowell, Sexton, and Plath asked something very specific of the reader: their lyric poetry was a ruin of the named mad body and it asked the reader to fill in the lost and forgotten spaces.
Much like any other time, ideologies held the body captive to the naming process. Louis Althusser explored the idea of individuals as consistent subjects to ideology due to humanity’s intrinsic dependency on language to define existence. Althusser, also, proposed that humanity is born into language ideology because of the names individuals inherit and the repetitive ideology to define by naming. According to Althusser, by the mere acknowledgment to a name, an individual becomes subject to the language that will define them:
I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects … and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’ … the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’. (118)
We are named therefore we are. Althusser defines ideology as “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (162). The imaginary ideologies, created theories that govern experience, are often made into real experiences for the body and the mind.
Ideology exists from the use of language and from the desire to name and define the surrounding conditions. It is a repetitive process; language and ideology are interconnected just as tension to erasure, just as ruins to the imagination. It is important to note that there is always a subject in the act of naming. Whoever hails to the name is subject and whoever names the subject holds the hierarchical power often associated with naming.
Juan Valverde de Amusco, Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano, 1560.
Lowell, Sexton, and Plath were on the subject side of being—their bodies and existence were named mad. This loss of the body to an ideological system was explored deeply inside their collected poetry. Adrienne Rich said of the job of the poet, “A poem may be written in a moment but it does its work in time … made in and from the material of language, poetry is continually wrestling with its own medium” (“Facts” xv). In Rich’s view, language could contain the world in a limiting way; in turn it was the job of the poet to wrestle with the medium of language to allow words into new meanings—to help the reader fill in the lyrical ruin. The speakers of Robert Lowell’s, Anne Sexton’s, and Sylvia Plath’s poetry are consistently driven to madness due to ideological medical language that contained the body. Their lyrical poems, as Rich said was the job of poetry, ask the reader to co-create a new naming of the body in order to free it of containment. The erasure of the body was tension, the lyric poem a mirror of a body in ruins.
To grasp the fluidity of the term madness for these confessional poets, the explorations of the history of madness and its medicalization in Michel Foucault’s writings are key. Foucault writes, “We owe the invention of the arts to deranged imaginations; the Caprice of painters, poets, and musicians is only a name moderated in civility to express their madness” (“Madness” 29). Foucault examines the birth, or cultural construction, of ‘the madness disease’ in the West from 1500 to 1800 as a direct result of the birth of ‘reason.’ Ideological discourse attempted to define and conceptualize madness. Foucault aimed to prove that the concept of madness was a social construction and to create a language of which to discuss this ideological conception: “As for a common language, there is no such thing, or rather, there is no such thing any longer; the constitution of madness as a mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, affords the evidence of a broken dialogue” (“Madness” x).
The porches of the 1890s Allison Buildings, St. Elizabeths, 1910. National Archives and Records Administration/National Building Museum.
The social construction of madness is important when discussing the works of the poets Lowell, Sexton, and Plath, as they were victim to the system of ‘treatment’ for madness: institutionalization, electroshock therapy, insulin shock treatment, over medicating, fragmentation of the body through the medical gaze, etc. (“The Birth” 14). Foucault argues that this confining of madness in asylums, institutions, and clinics is a result of fear over ‘the madman’ that was created and recreated over time, beginning in the 1500s: “a new incarnation of disease, another grimace of terror, renewed rites of purification and exclusion” (“Madness” 3). ‘Purification’ and confinement becomes justified because naming one as mad creates them as other: “Madness is … a commonplace spectacle for the foreign spectator” of the “insane being, halfway between animal and thing,” such that the public felt justified to lock the animals away and use “ritual exiles” to elicit public fear (“Madness” 10, 19, 20).
The speaker of the poem in Plath’s infamous “Lady Lazarus” explores the mad body as spectacle. A female speaker attempts to reclaim her body in the lyrical poem. The voice of “Lady Lazarus” demands the reader view her as in control of her death, her attempts at dying, and most importantly in control of her body that has become a spectacle in the clinic:
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. (15)
The mad body in “Lady Lazarus” has become a representation of the ideology of madness. Power and subject become questionable halfway into the poem as the familiar story of objectifying madness arises:
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip tease.
These are my hands
My knees.” (15)
Madness, the other in society, becomes a strip tease for the medical gaze. The speaker of the poem recounts her suicide attempts:
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it—
…And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.
…The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.” (15)
The return from these attempts is ‘a miracle’ that the crowd fills in to see. In the attempt to profit from the ‘strip tease,’ the speaker desires to become the “opus” and “valuable, pure gold baby” (Plath 16).
The lyric asks the reader to fill in the ruins of the body to reclaim its ownership, naming it into a new and ‘valuable’ being. In this attempt, there is a charge for the viewing of the mad body:
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart—
…And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood. (16)
This charge could be a shift in the naming power structure, the tension of the question looms into the white space, a visual column of thought on the page. As Foucault discusses ‘ritual exiles,’ “Lady Lazarus” is Sylvia Plath’s discussion of the torment of treatment for mental illness and confinement in the clinic. The show in “Lady Lazarus” serves a type of ritual exile in which the speaker of the poem attempts to regain ownership of the body. The Age of Reason desired the order of ‘things’ and created an ideology of what order looked like: to work, marry, and produce more workers. Any individual that lived outside of the ideology of reason is other: “Madness is the purest, most total form of qui pro quo; it takes the false for the true, death for life, man for woman” (“Madness” 33). In other words, according to Foucault, madness is the inversion of socially constructed ideologies.
Like “Lady Lazarus,” Anne Sexton’s “The Sun” is a lyrical exploration portraying madness as the inversion to the normalized medical gaze. “The Sun” begins with animals’ bodies drying out:
I have heard of fish
coming up from the sun
…all their proud spots and solitudes
sucked out of them.
I think of flies
…neither bird nor acrobat
they will dry out like small black shoes. (96-97)
The animals are proud in their body until life effaces them to death. The speaker of the poem then begins to explore her body under the pressure of the medical gaze:
I am an identical being.
Diseased by the cold and the smell of the house
I undress under the burning magnifying glass.
My skin flattens out like sea water.
O yellow eye,
let me be sick with your heart …
Now I am utterly given.
I am your daughter, your sweet-meat,
your priest, your mouth and your bird …
until I am laid away forever…. (97)
Once the speaker of the poem gives power to the medical gaze, her body effaces itself toward death. The ‘smell of the house’ and the ideology of what it was to be a ‘woman of the house’ diseased the speaker. Once the medical gaze scrutinizes the body, under the ‘burning magnifying glass,’ it becomes the lyrical ruin of the body. The sick ‘yellow eye’ then guides the speaker to death, ‘laid away forever.’ This is an inversion in the poem: madness did not kill the speaker but the ‘yellow eye’ led the speaker to death.
Antony Gormley, Feeling Material, 2003-2008.
Foucault suggests in Madness and Civilization that they who are ‘mad’ is not other, though they see the world through a different lens. This view of the world goes outside of reason and ideologies of naming and hailing to certain names. He suggests part of the view of the madman is to see existence as a mask and the ability to clearly see the signs of death:
Madness is the déjá-lá of death. But it is also its vanquished presence, evaded in those everyday signs which, announcing that death reigns already, indicate that its prey will be a sorry prize indeed. What death unmasks was never more than a mask; to discover the grin of the skeleton, one need only lift off something that was neither beauty nor truth, but only plaster and tinsel face…. But when the madman laughs, he already laughs with the laugh of death; the lunatic, anticipating the macabre, has disarmed it. (“Madness” 16)
Death and madness are kindred spirits; the man of reason fears death and fears the madman’s reflection of death. In Sexton’s “The Sun,” the speaker of the poem is a mirror to death—the body has to be ‘utterly given’ away to reason.
Madness is also twined to confinement. According to Foucault, the concept of confinement means that those confined become something othered and in turn become ‘nothing’ (“Madness” 115-116). The body of nothingness becomes gifted to the medical gaze, as it should no longer belong to the mad but to science (“Madness” 115-116). Once the medical gaze has ownership of the body, the body then becomes the ‘disease’ of which it hosts; the body then becomes a medical map for treatment of said disease (“Birth” 3). However, the ideological terminology associated with the name ‘disease’ becomes fluid in time and culture. This malleability is obvious in such historical treatments as a nineteenth-century physician inducing ‘paroxysms’ (orgasms) for women suffering from named ‘hysteria.’
Similarly, in Robert Lowell’s poem “Home After Three Months Away,” the speaker explores the concept of confinement for the mentally ill. The title implies the time inside confinement, confinement that is subjected to the ideological power of the medical gaze. The speaker of the poem uses a moment with his daughter to explore the changes that occurred domestically and physically while he was being ‘cured’: “Three months, three months! / Is Richard now himself again?” (88). The speaker of the poem acknowledges his one-year old daughter is the same as when he left her, and still asks of him what she asked of him prior to his confinement, “After thirteen weeks / my child still dabs her cheeks / to start me shaving” (88). Despite his being named ‘other,’ the child sees no change in him and the nature of the house has gone amuck while he was away:
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; now no one need
distinguish them from weed. (89)
Because of the confinement of the mad body, nature has resorted to chaos and a child notices no differences due to ‘treatment.’ By the end of the poem, the reader questions if confinement made any difference in the ‘mad’ body: “I keep no rank nor station. / Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small” (99). If the body is weak in its being ‘stale and small,’ nature is ruined by the madman’s time away to be cured. Since the child observes no difference, is the ideology of the mad ‘other’ real? The lyrical ruin of lost time asks the reader to fill in the gaps that the three months in confinement demolished, the time that became “nothing.” Another mirror for death is the erasure of time.
Foucault notes that in the first naming of mental illness, the disease was ‘savage’ and the ‘medical gaze’ was the savior that was protected by the state to pursue treatment under the concept of ‘Good Medicine’; therefore, the mad body was named into being and the medical community had ownership of said body (“Birth” 14-20). Medical science history, like all other histories, is an idea-based history that is subject to the fluidity of language ideology in culture and time (“Birth” 195). Foucault’s argument is not that sexual desires and mental illness are not realities, rather the focus is on the strange happenings in the ideological naming process of anything that pertains to moralizing the body due to cultural belief systems. In relation to Althussuer, the conditions of existence in ideologies are ‘real.’ Madness is neither good nor bad, nor moral or immoral. Madness is a counter language to reason where “language and delirium interlace” (“Madness” 285). There is not doubt that the “delirium” can torture the mind, a kind of helpless torture that forces its victims to seek solace or help. Yet these ideological creations, namely surrounding diagnosis and treatment, have very real implications on bodies, as Lowell, Plath, and Sexton each call to the attention of their readers through the act of co-creating the ruins left behind from the ideological process.
Readers of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazurus,” Anne Sexton’s “The Sun,” and Robert Lowell’s “Home After Three Months Away” are left with a lyric that asks if ideology named the speakers into death by removing ownership of the body. If the ruin reveals that truth, it is startling to consider a body’s similarities to a decaying structure: “The moment when, together, the work of art and madness are born and fulfilled is the beginning of the time when the world finds itself arranged by that work of art and responsible before it for what it is” (“Madness” 289). The tension of the unsaid propels the reader to engage in reimagining experience. The white space leaves space for questions to rename the bodies, to recount time and experience. Readers are responsible for creating, and recreating, madness and the fragmented body. This is the communication set forth through the erasure of the poems, the erasure of the language.
The white space is full of possibility and open-ended questions. What is the reader’s responsibility when staring at the lyrical ruin of the body? Can the ‘mad artist’ ever reach the freedom that the speaker of “Lady Lazarus” found? Is Plath’s example of ‘free’ to be trusted or is it just delirium? From the ash of the ruin arises a new creation, by writer and reader, a phoenix alluding to the larger context, free of confinement:
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—
…Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air. (17)
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and the State.” Lenin and Philosophies and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The Birth Of the Clinic. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Madness & Civilization. New York: Vintage Books, 1988. Print.
Gioia, Dana, and David Mason, and Meg Schoerke. Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Glück, Louise. “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence.” Tate, Allen. “Tension in Poetry.” New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. Print.
Lowell, Robert. Life Studies and For the Union Dead. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose. New York: W.W. Norton &Company, 1986. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. The Facts of a Doorframe. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. Print.
Wright, C.D. Cooling Time: An American Poetry Virgil. Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2005. Print.