wound be my word'
SELF-INJURY IN LITERATURE SINCE 1960
(c) Leanne Stott 2003
Self-injury: the commission of deliberate harm to one's own body. The injury is done to oneself, without the aid of another person, and the injury is severe enough for tissue damage (such as scarring) to result. Acts that are committed with conscious suicidal intent or are associated with sexual arousal are excluded. (1)
Self-injury is one of society's most unusual taboos. Unusual not being applied to the act itself, but with regards its status as a taboo. It is most certainly not an uncommon activity - an estimated one in every 130 people are active self-injurers. Nor is it difficult to find culturally sanctioned parallels - tattoos and body-piercing - or more acceptable self-injurious behaviour: smoking and alcoholism to name but a couple. Perhaps many find the concept disturbing because they perceive it, mistakenly, as a new phenomenon. This belief is enhanced by the topic's proliferation within popular culture, spear-headed by music groups such as the Manic Street Preachers, whose lyrics speak of 'dignity in self-abuse' and celebrities such as Angelina Jolie: an outspoken self-injurer who has the Latin 'quod me nutrit me distruit' (what nourishes me also destroys me) tattooed across her abdomen. Indeed though pop culture rarely carries much kudos with the intellectual establishment; the topic's acceptance amongst these creative artists has meant their work often displays a real appreciation, however crudely, of self-injury's cultural and historical roots. Although self-injury has a marked presence in some of the earliest literature, it is only recently, with the impetus of popular culture, new approaches to psychiatry and time in the loosest sense have the works begun to emerge, which treat the subject with a liberal creativity.
Though this study is primarily occurred with self-injury (SI) in literature post 1960, it is important to recognise self-injury's place in humanity's cultural and historical heritage. Mutilative images are central to many disparate religions and biblical literature is a disturbingly rich tapestry of such images, including the central iconography of Christ's passion where sacrifice, suffering and redemption are crucial. The fourteenth century saw the rise of the flagellant cults and sixteenth century reformation art, such a Lucas Cranach's, clearly drew on these ideas. Major acts of self-injury, a definition that describes infrequent acts where body tissue is significantly destroyed - for example limb amputation; have been reportedly motivated by Matthew 18 (2). 'Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet and to be cast into everlasting fire'. The bible also provides us with one of the first recorded incidents of stereotypical and superficial self-injury (3). 'Legion' a man with 'an unclean spirit' is described in Mark 5 as 'always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying and cutting himself with stones'. What is important, and startling at first to notice, is the concurrence between modern reports from self-injurers and these biblical references. Legion - 'we are many' - a man with no stable sense of self, exiled from a society that fears him and his suffering; Christ, whose bodily suffering is described so vividly in the scriptures, expiating perceived sins with the letting of blood; the survival of these similarities suggests an inherent and persistent disorder. The root of this disorder remains obscure, though through the relevant literature of the last decades it is possible to identify a careful and fruitful exploration, which results not only in deepening our understanding of the disorder but also of just why it appears to be an inherent element of our psychological make-up.
One of the most important elements to recognise, not merely because it expatiates any misunderstandings but because it is the most notoriously drawn upon by relevant writers, is that superficial self-injurers do not harm themselves arbitrarily. They consistently report a relief of symptoms, however temporarily, such as anxiety, guilt and depression. Favazza discusses the most common sensations experienced by self-injurers but summarises these as follows: 'They deliberately harm themselves to feel better, to get rapid respite from distressing thoughts and emotions, and to regain a sense of self-control' (4). To self-injurers the act is far from destructive, as it actually is, it is rather a form a self-healing and an act closer to creative than destructive. Myths of creation have the common theme of the world being created through some sacrifice and some mutilation of a primordial being. In the Scandinavian Prose Edda the giant Ymir was mutilated by the gods to form the world - his blood becoming the seas and lakes, his flesh the earth, his bones the mountains, his skull the sky and his teeth the rocks (5). The body in creation mythology becomes a microcosm of the vaster cosmos, self-injury can represent a re-enactment of these myths were chaos is subdued beneath a new order born of sacrifice (6). Mutilation in Scandinavian mythology is even more common than other cultures, with various gods mutilating themselves to gain some poetically appropriate advantage. For example the god Loki destroyed his mouth to regain the power of speech and Odin sacrificed his eye to gain otherworldly sight. This was a theme that J.R.R Tolkein, who was greatly influenced by Scandinavian and Norse mythology, used frequently in The Silmarillion - his creation myth for Middle Earth. Some injury is usually the catalyst for greater power and wisdom, the elf Maedhros for example, who loses his hand 'lived to wield his sword with left hand more deadly than his right had been' (7). The gaining of power from self-injury is actively practiced in Shamanism where it is used as a stepping-stone in the development of the capacity to heal oneself a belief, which finds its western equivalent in the practice of blood letting as a medical cure for a variety of diseases.
Blood and the customs that surround it have always been able to conjure powerful emotions because of its psychological and symbolic resonance. Blood bonds and pacts were a primitive method of drawing upon the blood's ability to foster loyalty and union amongst members of a social network. There is an intrinsic communicative power in the symbolism of blood; it is able to express without the requirement of frequently inadequate words the concept of suffering. The communicative function of self-injury has been noted both by psychologists and authors alike; the latter often more profitably than the former due to the natural polarity formed between literature as primarily a linguistically based medium, though aware of its own limitations in language and the concept of self-injury as somehow transcending verbal expression, though equally aware of its own inadequacies. Speech, and by connection language, represents a direct method of externalising the internal self in the world it finds itself surrounded by and similarly the letting of blood symbolically represents the crossing of the self's life into that external world: the boundary of skin being broken so self and other can be reconciled. This breaking of boundary between self and world is symbolically a restorative act, primitive and lately conceived of as unconscious, these symbolic pacts are sealed in the emotive form of blood and often a transitory appeasement of the self which perceives itself at odds with its world.
AND THE UNIVERSE SLIDE FROM MY SIDE
The 'I' of Sylvia Plath's poetry is, in many ways, synonymous with suffering. Undoubtedly an artful construction, the 'I' is a tragic figure functioning as the slippery centre to a classical drama, with a limited vision and god-like ego. However a poet both creates and is created by his art, the 'I' of lyric poetry does achieve autonomy from the personal life of the poet (and from the collection of poems it is a part of) but it's also true that the source of all poetry is ultimately to be located within the poet's own self. A poet may take on voices, 'speak from depths [they] do not understand', but ultimately they draw on resources from within (8). Separating the myth of Plath from her creative works has always been a tentative task, and never more so than in discussing Plath in relation to self-injury. Plath was certainly not a self-injurer in the sense of repetitive and consistent acts of self-inflicted harm, but she did frequently engage in self-injurious behaviour.
Wherever images of destruction to the body occur in Plath's poetry, and they do so practically every other page in her collected poems, there also occurs an expression of having lost an unnameable something. In Three Women it is a direct question 'What is it I miss?/ Shall I ever find it, whatever it is?' placed amongst images of a passive body, bleeding 'white as wax', of the self as a bandaged wound and, most strikingly, of life being stitched onto the body by the speaker (9). There is also the familiar reversal of the creative and destructive, the setting a maternity ward, the prominent theme the diseased and dying self, and the prominent sentiment the alienation of 'I'.
Though images of self-harm, and the desire for that harm, persist within the poems' forceful and candid language; the self is always passively under threat of annihilation from others. However, often the other which the self is under threat from is more ambiguous than is first apparent, dividing lines blur and the antagonist morphs the more the poem is read. Even in Daddy the speaker who equates to the Jewish victim, her 'pretty red heart' bit in two, is herself murderous. The Other utilises simple diction and couplets, and yet it's Plath at her knottiest, one group of threads untangling only to twist into another. The other of the title is ambiguous (cat-like it may even be the speaker herself) though this is essentially unimportant, it's threatening presence and the reaction it provokes from the speaker is blatant.
Cold glass, how you insert yourself
Between myself and myself.
I scratch like a cat.
The blood that runs is dark fruit - An effect, a cosmetic.
No, it is not fatal. (10)
Yet whilst the reaction is blatant, just whom the speaker is directing her violence against is not clear. It could be directed towards the ambiguous other, but the preceding line suggests it is against herself. The blood's description as 'cosmetic' is interesting as it suggests the speaker is experiencing a sense of unreality. This sense of detachment is another common sensory experience reported by self-injurers. The poem ends with an enigmatic darkness, the reader being left with the other's self-satisfied smile: is the other smiling because he already knew the speaker's act was not fatal, or does that smile fade on the reception of that knowledge? It is a haunting, and strangely apt description of the emotional response to an act of self-harm.
It is crucial to note that the 'I' within Plath's poetry locates herself not through identification with, but its distinctness from all outside the self - the ambivalent other, that however mundane (sheep or tulips for example) her self willingly dissolves before. In A Birthday Present there is a contented beauty, a willed conclusion, to the final image - where once again creation and destruction are confused.
There would be nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter
Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side. (11)
The 'I' of Plath's poetry calls harm upon herself, but the harm called is couched in language that suggests its healing and creative nature. In A Birthday Present the knife cuts as an act of cosmic birth, it is a 'pure' act with 'nobility' as in Lady Lazarus where the suicide rises in the famous phoenix image. This inversion of creative and destructive acts was a common theme in Plath's friend and rival Anne Sexton's work, another poet whose work abounds with images of self-harm. The line on which the whole of the brilliantly succinct Wanting to Die, a poem that offers an explanation of that unnameable lust for death, turns is 'Like carpenters they want to know which tools./ They never ask why build'. Carpentry an act of creation, an invitation to experience the inverted world of Thanatos so casually and artfully evoked by Sexton's poem.
It is important to touch upon Sexton's work, which displays a preoccupation with communicating the incomprehensible and showing the reader their own dark reflection in the mirror of inadequate words. Frequently words, counter posed against some image of silence, emerge from a mouth imaged as a wound. In As it was written the moon 'falls out of the sky each night,/ with its hungry red mouth/ to suck at my scars' bears witness to a Plath-like passive devouring, but also has further power when viewed in line with similar images from Sexton's works. The kiss in the poem of that title may imbue the speaker with new life, but it is a fragile life darkly intertwined with the coming presence of harm as illustrated through the juxtaposing of the first and last lines.
My mouth blooms like a cut.
...Where there was silence
the drums, the strings are incurably playing. You did this.
Pure genius at work. Darling, the composer has stepped
into fire. (12)
The presence of 'incurably' is partly responsible for the resonance of 'fire', which seems to consume negatively rather than remain a passive image of warmth, growth and life. The precision of Sexton's diction demands the careful attention of a reader, often inviting fuller understanding of irrational drives but only after twisting and nauseously inverting traditional polarities. The poem Wanting to Die, as already mentioned, is the clearest example of this but of more relevance is the association of words and blood. Silence is associated with death in The Silence, poetry with life, but words communicate through a destructive image the poet 'filling the room/ with the words from my pen./ Words leak out of it like a miscarriage'. In Alvarez' study of suicide The Savage God the author makes a passing reference to Dante's placing of 'the violent against themselves' in Circle 7 of The Inferno (13). What is interesting is that here also words and blood are associated; the souls encased in trees are fed upon by the Harpies and from their wounds come words and blood together. Only as long as the blood flows may the souls speak. It is an extremely complex, self-perpetuating association of ideas and concepts found in much of the literature relevant to this study. Sexton's and Plath's understanding of the creative influence exemplified in their works echoes Michael Backunin's famous assertion 'The passion for destruction is also a creative passion' (14). The desire to communicate on one level and the need to re-create the self are inextricably tied to self-injury ideations; and are equally essential for many of the more recent confessional poets. If Sexton and Plath never consciously classified themselves as self-injurers, then they were certainly aware of its concept at a primitive and perceptive level.
Plath's poem Cut does not describe a deliberate act of self-harm, but it does describe an emotional reaction to an accidental injury, which mirrors a self-injurer's. The poem describes an unhealthy sequence of emotional progression in the immediate aftermath of an injury: The initial detached excitement at successfully causing harm, the dark humour welling up to threaten the temporary delight and the intensifying sense of self-disgust. This analysis explores the poem specifically in relation to the concept of self-injury and how the poem shows a remarkable understanding of it. This understanding accesses fundamental, regressive emotions, which are given (consciously by the poet) impetus through the accompanying images drawn from history.
The opening approaches the injury with the unseemly frivolity of a self-injurer - who places the emotional release of the act above the danger of physical harm. 'What a thrill - / My thumb instead of an onion' is shocking because of its colloquial phrasing, expressing an inappropriate reaction to injury and because it is initially an amusing image. The reader is thus immediately caught out and made to feel a guilt, which intensifies their emotional involvement. It pre-figures the inevitable and motherly chastisement the speaker offers herself at the poem's conclusion - 'Dirty girl'.
The poem performs a cinematic zoom, personifying the blood with a disquieting fascination. It is a readily identifiable reaction, accounting for it's unsettling quality, the shocked and fascinated detachment at the sight of blood. Rudolf Steiner specifically explores the significance of the blood to Plath in this poem, suggesting a number of useful points (15). Steiner posits the blood is the contact point between the self and the outer world, and the injury a testing of that barrier by the self - the very same idea explored from a psychological standpoint by Favazza (16). The images of ancestral conflict - Indian and pilgrim, the War of Independence, the Kamikaze pilots of the Second World War and the racial war suggested by the Ku Klux Klan - all place the emphasis on antagonistic meetings. Meetings where each party perceives the other as fundamentally different and opposed to their beliefs; boundaries that cannot be crossed. For the self sealed-off speaker this testing is akin to the pilgrims' tentative colonisation; their subsequent scalping by the hostile natives a commentary on the rejection of the speaker by the outer world and the outer world by the speaker. Interestingly Joyce Carol Oates' poem Passing an Afternoon has a similar exploration of the meeting of self and other through the resulting blood from an act of self-harm, except in this case the self is united with its physical surroundings through the apparent kinship of blood and water. For both poets the physical sensation is deceptively transformative, in that the initial fascination gives way to self-negation.
Blood transforms the warm bath water
and, in it, I see weakly
that this was a mistake.
The razor's cut is not deep, nevertheless
the blood rushes out happily in the warm
water as if kin to it, the same
a new person
transformed with an icy
sense of error
As in Oates poem where the sight of the blood initiates self-chastisement, Plath's poem turns on the microcosmic metaphor of the blood as soldiers, with the immediate sensory experience being quickly overridden by self-analysis. The temporary relief is part of a destructive circle, intended to turn thoughts outward they return inward with greater repulsion. The questioning of the soldier's allegiance indicates the doubt of the self's motivation in finding the act a cause for 'Celebration': the crude 'pink fizz' suggesting the tawdry nature of the pleasure. The emotional undulations of this section reach the self-destructive heart of self-injury, that the act may offer temporary relief but ultimately only serves to re-focus and intensify the exploration of negative thoughts.
In the next stanza the thumb stump seems to become the addressed. It is distanced from the speaker's self, and predictably, becomes the other that the self must distance itself from. The formerly celebrated wound and thumb, assume a masculine identity, an identity innately negative in Plath's poetry. Reduced to a lifeless manikin, it is blamed as a 'saboteu'r, possibly of the former pleasurable response. The masochistic quality has clearly been recognised and this is followed by a powerfully bitter set of allusions building into the closing rebuke.
The stain on your
Gauze Ku Klux Klan
Darkens and tarnishes...
However there is a similar uncertainty in the closing emotional resonance, similar to that in Tulips, the poem refusing to fix itself to a set of definite qualities. The thumb stump is both a lifeless manikin and an animated replica of a Russian peasant wrapped in its' gauze like a scarf. The ultimate rebuke is not as strong as the preceding images suggest it should be, it is a pat on the back of the hand and suggests the rebellious smirk of the opening half of the poem. It is a refusal to renounce that part of the ego which, took a guilty pleasure in the accident, the scolded child who will play with matches despite and perhaps because she knows better. It is the emotional crucible every self-harmer knows all too well.
As already stated this analysis is not intended to psychoanalyse or diagnose Plath, rather to locate within her poetry themes, trends and concepts that relate to self-injury. Even if Plath had no conception of self-injury, Cut has found new cultural significance among the modern SI community. More importantly it makes the motivations behind self-injury accessible at a basic level. The poem, and this is also true of her poetry generally, is disturbing because it calls forth in the reader regressive fantasies we reject in daily life. The experience can feel almost cathartic, the purging of emotions which though we recognise as accurately evoked by Plath, we also recognise as flawed. The speaker of Plath's poetry verbalises the most atavistic, engrained desires, desires of an identity which feels confusingly out of place in its' surroundings. Plath's poetry so often criticised for its self-conscious and circular explorations of a limited ego, is culturally relevant because of this - rarely do people view themselves as integrated within the universe they inhabit. The definition of 'I' occurs when the self is perceived as distinct to all that surrounds it. Plath's poetry is a socially committed art because Plath accesses a world which most reject, but all can identify with. For the SI community Plath's poetry inhabits a world where the most elusive of feelings are allowed to be just that, but coaxed into the cathartic form of words.
THESE WOUNDS ARE MY HISTORY, A BOOK OF STORIES
The Dinner Party is truly a critically neglected work of post-modernist literature. So many of the novel's central themes reach into the chest of modern western society coolly twanging the strings it finds there, and leaving the reader decidedly unsettled. However, reviewers who cannot see past the surface play of violence and morbid humour to the underlying authorial intent have misconstrued the reason for this sense of unease. One way of describing the layers of emotional reaction is to compare the novel with Nickolai Gogol's The Overcoat. Gogol artfully encourages a reader to mock the protagonist, only later to accumulate a call upon the reader's sympathy, leaving the reader consumed with disabling guilt and self-criticism. In The Dinner Party Houghton manipulates the reader in a similar fashion. The murder around which the narrative is structured is predictable and has a cheap shock value, but this is intended, because the murder is not what the novel is about. The novel is about moral relativism.
To continue the allusions to Russian literature the character of Felix Fly finds his origins in Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment protagonist. Like Raskolnikov, Felix creates his own set of arbitrary moral standards, which are unacceptable to wider society. His belief systems are based solely on what he can locate within his self, his experiences and his ideas. He has his own rituals, his own sacred objects and taboos, his own rules about correct behaviour; and he has an explanation for his origins, and methods for protecting himself against an uncertain future. Essentially he is self-mythologizing, creating a religion with his self at the centre and, like the very systems of belief which left the void he fills with that self, the centre indeed cannot hold. Once again a seemingly protective, creative act has become its antithesis.
From its' first page The Dinner Party is self-conscious. Its utilisation of the confessional form, the audio dictation of the narrative, enhances this style's effects and imbues the novel with the comfortable feel of perfect candour. 'Let's be honest', it begins and this might as well be the novel's watch word - honesty to Felix is an extreme version of post-modernist honesty, that is a relative honesty (18). Felix lives a secret life, he hides his true nature and true emotions, and yet is brutally honest with himself - he knows he desires the comfort of allowing another person into his world, yet fears misunderstanding, rejection and alienation. Thus we have the moral relativism, an extreme reaction to perceived rejection by the world. After all what motivates the confessional form if not a desire to provoke understanding and be reconciled? Fear of rejection by a hostile world has turned Felix inward into a self, which desperately needs understanding. The result is the self-destructive personality which is tempted to fail the test of acceptance, that dares the world as Plath's poetry does at times, with snide humour, to acknowledge just how alienated that personality is (19).
Self-injury plays a key, and somewhat controversial role in the novel. It does little to improve the public image of self-injury; though we can feel some sympathy for Felix he ultimately commits a grizzly murder. For those readers who already misunderstand what self-injury is, and what kind of people suffer from it, this sends the worst kind of message possible. In fact, for those who have a better understanding of self-injury, The Dinner Party demonstrates not only a comprehensive and perceptive knowledge of self-injury, but also the nerve to utilise that knowledge creatively.
The importance of ritual, both as an origin and in the practice of self-injury, has been well documented in psychiatric studies such as Favazza's Bodies Under Siege. What Houghton does is embellish the ritualistic elements of self-injury in order to emphasise his commentary on man's need for significance. Felix can only locate significance within his own self, and as a record of his significant history he carves symbols onto his body, which he describes in artistic and religious terms.
So. I'm holding the Scalpel between the thumb and forefinger of my left hand, as I did all those years ago during the first Rite. I feel now as I did then. With this instrument in my grasp I am artist and canvas, a sculptor of skin, a drawer of blood. I am high priest and sacrifice. I am my own altar. This is not merely a blade: it carries the ceremonial weight of history, the memory of a hundred similar blades, each one cutting flesh, carving it own mark on the past. (20)
Quite literally he has become his own reference book, unwilling to trust anything outside the self he has turned history, religion and art inward. One of the cathartic conclusions that the narrator lights upon is the fallibility of seeking any kind of significance, and especially the danger of locating the self as the centre of significance. The dark, quirky humour that Felix utilises does much to make him a sympathetic character, but more importantly it suggests that Felix has been very aware of his actions' fallibility and underlines that his rituals are, above all, defensive.
I said something about a need to do it, to release the pressure. My body - my mind - was like a pressure cooker. And it was like the blood was all the anger and anguish inside, and when I released it, when I opened the valve in the skin, the bad blood and the tension escaped, and everything returned to normal, and I could be normal... (21)
The artistic rhetoric falls away, and Felix is left with the reality that he is not priest, artist or even pariah, but merely someone who has suffered traumatic experiences and allowed a coping mechanism to reach dangerous levels of control in his life. He knows this, Houghton couches even the more high-flown descriptions of the Rite in enough daily emotion to underline this, but Felix simply cannot retract himself from his own augury. The Rite, as he sees it, is his self; there is no escaping it: again the juxtaposition and inversion of the concepts of creativity and destruction.
There are scars covering almost all of my body. These wounds are my history, a book of stories, some more interesting than others, all varying length, shape and style, all unique. Some are deep and white and run from my neck down to my groin and beyond, carved in moments of great anguish and self-doubt, or during the closing moments of an important ceremony. Some are cut to create unusual shapes, such as the bicycle on my right calf just below the knee; or in Significant places, such as the flames that ripple along my left arm from the elbow to the shoulder, which come alive when my biceps are flexed. Most are small, seemingly inconsequential scratches, apparently without meaning; but these incisions are the essential background without which the great flourishes would have no context or merit. They are the result of year upon year of meticulous attention to the demands of the Rite of Cutting. Whenever I step into the bath and immerse myself in its uterine serenity, the agony of these scars reminds me of what I have done, what I have been. (22)
Gordon Houghton's willingness to deal creatively, and often light heartedly, with self-injury might be looked upon as a turning point in the issue's understanding, however the rare and often hostile reviews (Houghton joked that most reviewers wouldn't touch the novel with a barge pole) offer in turn a rather bleak commentary on current popular opinion.
TOO SOON THE KNIFE/ TOO LATE THE WORDS
'Language is a holy thing, the best tool we have for articulating rage' (23). For Patrick Jones, poet and playwright, the inability to articulate rage is at the heart of a modern society that has become its own malaise. His works are certainly products of the Trainspotting era, but their raw poignancy is balanced by a cultured intellect and accomplished style. His words rant, shock and haunt but they do so with an original finesse and painful adherence to truth. Elements of nihilism there may be, but this is not the concluding focus of his poems and plays. Everything Must Go may be his first play's title, but its raison d'etre is 'something must grow' (24). In the same breath of denunciation it pulses forth with affirmation, it's not oblivious rebellion it's life, art, protest, thought and meaning. Oblivious rebellion is antithetical to Jones' striving for emotional articulation. Jones' Welsh heritage is clearly a central locus for his works, he's been hailed as 'doing for Welsh theatre what the Manics and Catatonia have done for its music', but this is not central to this study. What is, is his emotional exploration of what produces the pressure cooker of rage within the voices' that populate his poems and plays. For Jones' self-injury proliferates within a society that has created false needs, dreams and people who cannot express what they intuitively know - that this is how not to live.
The axis of every poem in Fuse is a memorable aphoristic phrase or phrases, modern, fluid and crafted. Jones has the ability to pack more into phrases than should be linguistically possible; his words are superficially concrete and yet elastically enclose vast areas and concepts of thought. He makes frequent use of the discrepancy between words' cognitive and emotional meanings, which leads him to arrange his poems on the page in ways that recall e.e.cummings. These are tendencies he's had to moderate slightly for his dramatic ventures, where the rhetoric does occasionally threaten the drama, but essentially his style is consistent through both genres.
The presence of self-injury within Jones' work is both palpable and discreet, there is not one single poem in the collection that does not contain some reference and yet there is not one poem that is dedicated solely to the topic. It occurs with most force where Jones' focuses on his most prevalent theme, the inexpressible rage that must be expressed, and he explores the link between the two by meshing SI images and images of speech together. Most simply he says in Sanctorum number one, 'too soon the knife/ too late the words' though it is the same thought concept as that of 'delirium in white silence':
dragging itself from the hook
to parry thoughts
words blaze in unspokened arteries (25)
'Unspokened' is a perfect example of how the poet meshes the two ideas together; words are the defence and the alternative. There is the characteristic rage, 'the prozac ain't no bandage to this much blood' lines which border maudlin and accusation at each pole of reasoning, but there are lines that are darkly beautiful with hope which comes only from the keenest insight. memoria offers what many of the poems conclude with, that 'there is springtime in death...as even in choking there is breath' and takes as a central image the crucifixion of Christ - which as already discussed has psychological connections to SI. The same reversal of life and death, harm and healing, which is so central to SI is present but Jones' darkens his vision only to blaze into light at the end. He tears the temple down only to rebuild.
blood within wound / flesh over nails/ sky above man/ weep into
placenta through death
in memory/ in hope/ in hurt/ in plea/
there are seeds planted daily
even though then is pain
shall have a tomorrow
there is springtime in death
there is prayer in sorrow
though yesterday burns
today shall have a tomorrow (26)
Though Jones is capable of the dark affirming psyche of the self-injurer, the aggressive rage that defends the act, it is rare that this is indulged without some crippling counter awareness. let wound be my word asserts 'carelines' but the poem finds its home in the final two lines spaced far apart on a page all of their own: 'the memories that crack us/ are the scars that make us - ' (27). Though the poems ultimately reject SI they pass through temporary endorsements in areas that are common to the other works within this study. 'The bled artery/ healing/ the Stanley knife/ cutting/ the decaying marrow from this existence' balances itself upon the inversion of harm and healing, but the line arrangement adds doubt, the isolation of healing and cutting on their own lines separates the thought concepts and magnifies their importance (28).
Everything Must Go and Unprotected Sex are plays' about emotional consequences. Unprotected Sex is about the dangers inherent in the modern male, who represses cardinal emotions, and Everything Must Go is a picture of exactly what have and have-not can mean. Of course there is much more to these theatrical works, more than can be effectively conveyed merely by words, and Everything Must Go almost suffers from being too thematically rich. It's dramatic set piece casts the play in the revenge tragedy mould, but the loss of hope that taints each of the main characters' lives - Cindy, Pip, Jim, Curtis and A - is what motivates their internal dramas. They speak for a generation that has no voice, consistently the pro-noun is we, and they do so through lyrics, poetry and colloquial slang set to the background of popular music. The voice of the self-injurer is found in the sensitive Cindy, who resorts to SI when she can no longer deal with her intense despair at the poverty and urbanisation that surrounds her. She expresses in the stammering eloquence so typical of Jones', the contradictions of SI, the pushing away and the pulling towards, the healing and harming; that makes the disorder so difficult to abandon.
My scars remind me that I'm alive...
...SCARS. i love them i hate them i feel safe i feel shattered in them like no-one can touch me - all orange and red like - it's all too fucking fragile... (29)
The play progressively becomes more an oratory, the verbal quick fires more a performance poem; and Cindy more symbolic than personal: 'I am your sacrifice we we are your sacrifice' (30). The turning point for her character is in the blood ritual she performs with a Welsh doll, a representation of purification that allows growth. Her monologue, that so clearly draws upon the emotional resonance of T.S Eliot, precedes and acts as a companion to the direct action A takes in murdering the factory boss: 'BOOM/ we are a living exhibition of how not to be/ BOOM/ one day we are gonna find our voice/ BOOM/ We are nothing and should be everything'. Though the ominous power of the group incantations has more force, Cindy is the striking counterpoint, her most poignant moments springing from the sheer truth and simplicity of her phrasing. Her tripartite address to self-injury as 'my friend my safety my belonging' is a mantra that rests easier in memory than her ultimate assertion of hope 'No more bleeding, this is my beginning' (31).
There is that quality in Jones' work, which is always reaching beyond the verbal; appealing to something, which must remain protectively unarticulated and yet will continually strive to find a voice the more pressure is culturally laid upon it. Self-injury is both a parallel and symptom of this condition. Cindy's candid, primitive emoting rests uneasy in memory precisely because her expression crosses an unspoken barrier into the verbal. Self-injury is part of that primitive, pre-verbal and distasteful heritage we would rather repress, it is an 'unsaid' disorder on so many levels and Jones' is in a position to exploit this fully in his literature. There is something so elementally simple to his poem entitled the unsaid that it is easy to underestimate just what he has succeeded in accessing, to dismiss the palpable and concrete effect achieved. It is an innately modern tableau, uniquely effective and appropriate for the self-injurer of the last decade. Isolated, secretive, enclosed, struggling to articulate and desperately aware of how little can be conveyed or known through language, which they substitute with what they 'embroider into [their] flesh' (32).
the bloodshot eye
at the orangelit glow of
THE BODY SAYS WHAT WORDS CANNOT
The advancement in the psychological understanding of self-injury has been rapid since the surge of interest in the 1960s. Freud's subsuming of all mutilative activity into suicidal ideation has been overwritten, starting with Karl Menninger in 1938 who was the first psychiatrist to posit self-mutilation as a form of self-healing, in that a person may avert total self-destruction by substituting the destruction of the body in a non-fatal manner (34). 'In this sense it represents a victory, even though sometimes a costly one, of the life instinct over the death instinct' (35). This substitution theory still associates the act with suicide, and the most recent psychiatric studies take great care to delineate the two acts. Interestingly in the works of Plath and Sexton, in comparison to the most recent poet in this study Patrick Jones, it is far harder to separate the two acts: though perhaps this should not be so surprising as both female poets where acquainted and influenced by Freud's works. The concept of destroying something in the self through physical damage is a fairly common element of literature concerned in some way with self-injury. The more recent confessional novels like that of Caroline Kettlewell Skin Game where the protagonist avers 'I needed to kill something in me, this awful feeling like worms tunnelling along my nerves' are particularly direct in their expressions of this concept (and indeed of other such concepts) and have less of an artful construction to them (36). Another recurrent association, which has already been partly discussed, is the image of self-injurer as an artist engaged in transforming the body and self into an artistic object. An artful fantasy, with albeit more commonplace cultural connections to tattooing and scarification, which has the purpose of allowing the author and self-injurer the distance needed to analyse and understand the suffering self. Elizabeth Wurtzel in Prozac Nation describes her body as 'A perfect clean canvas' which echoes directly already discussed images from Jones and Houghton (37). This dissociation from the self, to give it its scientific name, explains the literary presentation of the act in creative terms. It also compliments the idea of self-injury as communicative, except that the communicative interaction is imaged between the self and the self constructed other:
My situation was that I was in pain and nobody knew it; even I had trouble knowing it. So I told myself, over and over, You are in pain. It was the only way I could get through to myself ("counteract feelings of 'numbness'"). I was demonstrating, externally and irrefutably, an inward condition. (38)
'The body says what words cannot', to place the choreographer Martha Graham's comments in a completely unintended context. Necessarily then the task of the writer who wishes to wrestle the concept of self-injury into the written form is made doubly difficult. It creates a self-perpetuating problem - if words are not an adequate expression of pain for the self-injurer then how is the writer to place this experience in words, since such a resort has been categorically rejected as inadequate? Indeed what then is to be made of the self-injuring poet? Very little in reality, because it is crucial to recognise both creative acts as necessarily deceptive illusions and separate to the actual, physical self.
Alvarez in The Savage God talks of how partial every scientific explanation of suicide must necessarily be, reductive and objective by requirement there can be no compensation for what is achieved in understanding through the creative activity of authorship. Literature is, by its very nature, concerned with what Pavese termed 'this business of living'; its purpose if we are to acknowledge the need for one, is to further our understanding of what exactly this business entails (39). It is becoming clear, after so many thousands of years, that self-injury is very much part of this business and its increase in frequency requires understanding and acceptance. This is not to stipulate a necessity for a socially committed art whenever self-injury is included, far from it as its very inclusion and use in an original and creative fashion, both initiates and signals the very achievements desired by those involved with the treatment of this disorder. There is nothing more alienating than the exclusion of an individual's experience from the realm of creative literature. Literature, if it is to be granted no other acknowledgement by the critical establishment, is a profound method of connecting people to each other, to knowledge and ultimately to their selves.
If the purpose of self-harm for the sufferer is as Linda Katherine Cutting in Memory Slips asserts 'making the invisible somehow visible... making themselves and all they've been through disappear' then engraining their experiences and perceptions in creative literature preserves understanding and alleviates false shame. Making the experience visible and externalised, in the healing form of words completes a process and subverts any requisite for the symbolism of blood. Every individual must inscribe their identity in some form, the creation of a self and the understanding of that self are a necessary requirement for individuality. The Dinner Party shows the devastation of such a process gone wrong, the identity inscribed falsely through The Rite of Cutting and the folly of attempting to utilise the inscribed self as a substitute for all other forms of significance. The connection between the creative and expressive purpose of self-injury is quite clearly emphasised by the works discussed in this study. In Jones' language occupies the paradoxical, yet psychologically accurate position of being both the polar opposite of self-harm and the non-verbal equivalent. To express with the tool of language, to master its use, is to overcome the silence and incapacity that characterises the malaise of modern existence. This is why for Jones' there is even 'eloquence in screaming', however primal, any expressive sound is preferable to the silence which devours and destroys.
Anne Sexton referred to suicide as the opposite of the poem, a comment that although certainly easy to intellectually appreciate is not quite carried through by her poetry or indeed the poetry of Plath. The presence of some threatening element, some disturbance within the self, which calls harm upon that self and equally calls up the inspiration for protective words cast in the form of poetry says something deeply powerful about the psyche of the self-injurer. The perceptive power that both poets seem to have over areas of life that encapsulate the motivation towards self-harm are both positive and productive for understanding the inherent quality of the disorder. Humanity's very drive to survive can become irrational and twisted under strong enough influences, that the source of these conflicting drives was one and the same is one of the most unsettling and atavistic sensations found in Sexton and Plath's work.
The foundation for the most recent and intriguing literary explorations of self-injury have been the works where the founding principle is not 'let wound be my word' but rather let wound become word. Though the act may be a resort for those disillusioned by the inadequacies of language, for the writer the concept must be transformed into something communicable and accessible. Ultimately to let wound become word is to empower and transfigure an act which masquerades as creative into something that actually is. As a source of creativity self-injury is an entirely, as of yet, unexploited area of literature a fact which, in itself is indeed surprising considering its conspicuous historical presence across time and cultures. To utilise Jones' words something must surely grow from these first hesitant literary steps, as the definitive text seems yet to be written. The foundations and thematic networks have been prepared, all that is required is the architect unafraid to break new ground - however relatively uncharted the territory must seem.
Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.
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A.Alvarez, The Savage God, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1971
Armando R. Favazza, Bodies Under Siege, The John Hopkins University Press, London, 1996
Gordon Houghton, The Dinner Party, Anchor fiction, London,1998
Elizabeth Jennings, Selected Poems, Carcanet, Exeter, 1985
Patrick Jones, Fuse, Parthian Books, 2001, Cardiff
Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted, Virago, 1995, London
Caroline Kettlewell, Skin Game, Griffin Trade Paperback, New York, 2000
Karl Menninger, A Psychiatrist's World, Viking Press, New York, 1959
Joyce Carol Oates, Love and Derangements, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1970
Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, London, 1981
Anne Sexton, The selected poems, Virago, London, 1991
M. Strong, A bright red scream, San Francisco Focus, Dec 1993, 58-144
J.R.R Tolkein, The Silmarillion, HarperCollins, London, 1999
Winchel RM and Stanley M, Self-injurious behaviour, A review of the behaviour and biology of self-mutilation, Am J Psychiatry 148, New York, 1991, 306-17
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation, Quartet
Books, 1995, London
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D. Martinson, Secret Shame, http://www.selfharm.net/
Rudolf Steiner, The Occult Significance of the Blood, http://www.dreamwater.net/redego/cut.html
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1 Winchel RM and Stanley M, Self-injurious
behaviour, A review of the behaviour and biology of self-mutilation, Am
J Psychiatry 148, New York, 1991, 306-17
2 Armando R. Favazza, Bodies Under Siege, The John Hopkins University Press, London, 1996,103
3 Stereotypical self-injury refers to monotonously repetitive acts. Superficial refers to cutting and burning - the most frequent forms. Ibid, 237.
4 Ibid, 243
5 Ibid, 24.
7 J.R.R Tolkein, The Silmarillion, HarperCollins, London, 1999, 125
8 Elizabeth Jennings, About these things, Selected Poems, Carcanet, Exeter, 1985, 80
9 Sylvia Plath, Three Women, Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, London, 1981, 176
10 Ibid, The Other, 201
11 Ibid, A Birthday Present, 206
12 Anne Sexton, The Kiss, The selected poems, Virago, London, 1991, 62
13 A. Alvarez, The Savage God, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1971, 120
14 Ibid, 4
15 Rudolf Steiner, The Occult Significance of the Blood, http://www.dreamwater.net/redego/cut.html
16 Armando R. Favazza, Bodies Under Siege, The John Hopkins University Press, London, 1996, 156
17 Joyce Carol Oates, Passing an Afternoon, Love and Derangements, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1970, 67
18 Gordon Houghton, The Dinner Party, Anchor fiction, 1998, London, 9
19 Ibid, 153
20 Ibid, 65
21 ibid, 186
22 Ibid, 27
23 The Guardian, February 25th 1999
24 Patrick Jones, Everything Must Go, Fuse, Parthian Books, 2001, Cardiff
25 Patrick Jones, delirium in white silence, Fuse, Parthian Books, 2001, Cardiff, 107
26 Ibid, memoria, 44
27 Ibid, carelines, 121
28 Ibid, the daylight of the fading, 101
29 Ibid, 156
30 Ibid, 176
31 Ibid, 157 and 204
32 Ibid, scardust, 82
33 Ibid, the unsaid, 75
34 Armando R. Favazza, Bodies Under Siege, The John Hopkins University Press, London, 1996, 270
35 Karl Menninger, A Psychiatrist's World, Viking Press, New York, 1959, 285
36 Caroline Kettlewell, Skin Game, Griffin Trade Paperback, New York, 2000, 189
37 Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation, Quartet Books, 1995, London, 41
38 Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted, Virago, 1995, London, 153
39 A. Alvarez, The Savage God, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1971, 4
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