Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Milk, Blood, Ink: Mansfield's Liquids and the Abject

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Milk, Blood, Ink: Mansfield's Liquids and the Abject

Article excerpt

These three liquids-milk, blood and ink-are recurring motifs in Mansfield's work and might usefully be seen as symbols of the way in which she thought about life (milk), death (blood) and an afterlife (ink); perhaps an afterlife of the sort she imagined might be possible after Fontainebleau, where she longed 'to get the dying over [...] and then all hands to the business of being reborn again'.1 Two of them, milk and blood, are also representative of that psychoanalytical concept defined by Julia Kristeva as the 'abject'. Abjection refers to that which is 'cast off', or that which disturbs identity; Kristeva defines it as the human reaction of horror to a threatened breakdown in meaning, caused by the loss of distinction between self and other. The corpse is the primary object that elicits horror; the lifeless body threatens the meaning of life, of our own bodily lives, since it has, indeed, jettisoned life. Other objects which have been cast off, primarily by the body, can also provoke horror: filth, faeces, blood or the open wound, even 'that skin on the surface of milk'.2 Mansfield's movement towards understanding and accepting her own death, following that of her brother, and the way in which she interrogated the meaningless waste of young lives lost on the dual battlefields of war and disease with pen and ink, can be considered in the evolution of these liquid images in her writing.

An examination of these liquid substances also furthers the deeply entwined connections between the life-writing and the art-writings of Katherine Mansfield. As surely as we struggle to organise, categorise and taxonomise her writings, Mansfield herself continues to resist the borders and boundaries suggested by these divisions. Her varied and various writings insist upon their own fluid dealings with art and life. We have the journals, the diary entries, the lists, the notebooks, the letters-all writings of the life; and we have the stories: the words wrought into art, finished and unfinished. What we like to call the 'New Zealand stories' could as justifiably be called life-writings in that they were written, albeit in fictionalised form, to record the shared childhood of Kathleen and Leslie Beauchamp; indeed it is hard to categorise just which stories are the New Zealand ones, when geographical and biographical details, disguised or overt, are enmeshed in so many. Memory and dream, ellipsis and dash, awareness of the conscious and the unconscious figure in all.

We do know that from 1915 onwards, Mansfield was on a mission: a mission to live, to write, to record the memories of the childhood she shared with her brother, to fulfil the sacred debt she felt she owed him after his early death in WW1-to write their lives. This mission, bookended, for the most part, by 'Prelude' (begun as 'The Aloe') and 'At the Bay', is completed in the (almost) final story, 'The Fly', a perfectly synchronised dual account of their deaths: one that took place in Belgium six years previously, the other foreshadowed to take place almost a year later in January 1923, 'next door' in France. It is also the perfect embodiment of her avowal of their twinned existence, the feeling that they were still walking hand in hand, that they were 'almost like one child', as she recorded in her memories of their conversations shortly before his death.3 This story becomes, sadly, the cumulative point and effective end, apart from a very few small stories, of her writing life-because she had achieved what she had set out to do, at almost the exact moment when she was no longer capable of doing more. No matter what, she would have written differently after Gurdjieff, as she wrote differently after Ploegsteert, had she been 'reborn' through this always impossible, last-ditch 'cure'. But despite her love of life, her conviction that the life lived was superior to anything written about it, like Keats and Shakespeare before her, she too was to rely, in the end, on the written word to record and memorialise her unique experience of the world, her perception of and response to the life lived. …

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