‘One in a million’

trapped-womanSylvia Plath’s character, Esther Greenwood, in The Bell Jar is a wonderful example of genre pressure. Esther lives in the American 60’s under conventional genre expectations; she is a good student in a female college and, of course, she is supposed to marry after that. Good student, good wife and good mother is a typical sequence for a young woman in the 20th century. It is curious how it was expected from a clever woman no claim about such situation, even more curious is the fact of being surprised when it happened.

Esther lives under pressure because ‘it is expected’ from her as a woman, especially as a physical or sexualised woman. The social expectations have to do with her being married and have children, as well as with her sexual behaviour, but not with her feelings or own longings as a whole person. Esther wants to be a writer and travel all around Europe; her former concerns have nothing to do with sex or men or her social status. However, the recognised roles a woman can display in the social realm do not include her idea. She is allowed to marry or allowed to have multiple sexual partners.  The two models of woman which are brought to her just enclosed her mind in an anxious representation of reality. The two possibilities represent the gaze of the other, whoever it may be, which conforms reality in such a way and imposes it upon Esther. What does it mean to marry and to live sex freely is not decided by herself: married women are X and not married women are Y. It is an institutionalised statement.Esther becomes mad because she refuses a marriage proposal and because her sexual experiences are not especially desirables. She becomes mad because she finds herself trying to fit in some of the two accepted views of what is a woman. Her obsession with losing her virginity is just an attempt of trying to avoid gender pressure. It is her rebellion against marriage which she does not want for herself. But when her first sexual act takes place, Esther cannot stop bleeding; a very rare situation, as the doctor points out, ‘you’re one in a million’. In fact, her body reacts probably in accordance to her soul. It is a very disgusting situation increased by the unknown man with whom she has the experience.

Esther is victim both of a genre-fixed perspective and of sexual thoughtless experiences. She cannot go on living as she likes, acting naturally until she realises where this pressure comes from. Just then, in the act of self-reflecting becomes free of the institutionalised society. And maybe she is indeed one in a million and that is the reason she ends in a sanatorium, but that is also the reason why Sylvia Plath never stopped writing.

The Encounter with Beauty and the Self

IMG_3645_2The large tradition of Confession in the Western culture is developed by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality from a very challenging approach as he usually does. According to him, the confessional pattern goes from a religious practice to a medical one highly developed in the 19th century. Sexuality has always been one of the main victims of these two methods becoming thus scrutinise until the minimum point. Narratives of sex have been usually presented as “confessions” of intimate experiences, not because the narrator could feel himself as a sinner or deprived -in psychoanalytical terms- but because of the strong powerful tradition of confessing something unusual which is attached to the will of knowledge.

The structure of confessional narrative can be seen as well in works such as Frankenstein or The Turn of the Screw, where a story is explained inside the story in an epistolary form. There is something there which should be told, which cannot remain as an individual experience. It is the necessity of confession detached of its religious aims but still surviving as a path towards knowledge. The same kind of narrative is presented in The Immoralist by André Gide; in this case it is a sexual one, which links the text again with Foucault’s theory.

In this short novel, Michel encounters his best male friends to confess his truly self, that is, his homosexuality. The novel was published in 1902, its themes are indeed very modernist ones. Together with homosexuality, the importance of the body and sensuality as paths towards self-knowledge, beauty and art, are some of the topics one can encounter in it. In fact, homosexuality is not explicitly expressed until the very last sentence of the novel. What arouses in Michel in his twenties is the apprehension of beauty. While he is extremely sick, he finds out in Africa beauty, something that he had not discovered earlier. It is through the beauty of healthy manly bodies that he experiments a strong desire for life. The setting in this part of the novel, Africa, evokes colour, smells, sounds, all what can be perceived by the senses, and it is in fact through them that Michel experiments life. The body thus becomes a medium for knowledge, it is what is first experimented. The importance of the body is present along the novel as far as it expresses the inner state of Michel. He is in fact sick until he is able to find beauty around him, and this beauty is primary found in men. As he discovers himself, his healthy situation improves. In Freudian terms, the body and its sickness work as a metaphor of the self and express it.

In Chopin’s  The Awakening, sensuality is also a path towards self-awareness. Edna discovers her body and its sensuality and beauty when she begins to realise of her own identity apart from social conventions; it is a similar experience of that of Michel’s.

In this kind of self-realizations, the importance of nature as something which calls for the sensual impressions is crucial. The self is in relation with the whole at the moment of its own encounter. Nature and beauty are close to each other and the last one is especially crucial to relieve one self.

The Other and My-self

Poe_william_wilson_byam_shawYou have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead – dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist – and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself. That’s the ending of “William Wilson” (1839) by Allan Poe, a short story which shows the dreadful life of someone who introduces himself as William Wilson, and who is horrified by the presence of someone identical to him. This “other” has his same name and appearance and, according to the narrator – which is William Wilson-, his objective seems to be that of interfering with all what William attempts to do. The terrible whispering of the “other” tortures William every time it suddenly appears along his life, since he’s a child. Indeed, the “other” seems to become the whispering which actually unmasks every unfair action William pretends to achieve. While the weary presence of the “other” increases, William’s dreadful desires do too. He escapes all through Europe (Oxford, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, etc.) from the tormenting whispering however impossible it results to be.

This disturbing presence in fact reminds Sartre’s theory of the Other in Being and Nothingness (1943). William Wilson becomes catch by the “other” every time he tries to achieve a goal by suspicious means; he is shamed by the presence of the “other”, who, moreover, interferes with his will. Both William and the “other” incarnate a fight to impose their respective wills on each other:

Thus far I had succumbed supinely to this imperious domination. The sentiment of deep awe with which I habitually regarded the elevated character, the majestic wisdom, the apparent omnipresence and omnipotence of Wilson, added to a feeling of even terror, with which certain other traits in his nature and assumptions inspired me, had operated, hitherto, to impress me with an idea of my own utter weakness and helplessness, and to suggest an implicit, although bitterly reluctant submission to his arbitrary will (…) I began to murmur, -to hesitate,- to resist. And was it only fancy which induced me to believe that, with the increase of my own firmness, that of my tormentor underwent a proportional diminution? Be this as it may, I now began to feel the inspiration of a burning hope, and at length nurtured in my secret thoughts a stern and desperate resolution that I would submit no longer to be enslaved.

The dialectical relation “master-slave” is explained by Sartre, among others, to argue that the encounter with the Other takes place in terms of competition among different personal interests; just one will can win. That seems very likely to the relation William expresses regarding the “other” which in this case is “his other”. And it adds a challenging point as in Poe’s story the disappearance of one seems to imply that of the other, or the other’s, that of the one’s. This fact brings back again the importance of the “other’s look” in Sartre. It could be argued that William needs to be looked at in order to exist, as the “other” tells him to be living in the other’s self. So William can just survive in relation to the Other, acquiring a position regarding the Other, which turns him in the other’s object.

In William’s case this dialectic is enhanced by the ambiguous fact of the other’s identity; at the same time, it’s very nicely presented as a metaphor of the double or the split self which is presented as the own’s other. It gives a wide range for interpretation together with Sartre.