'White/ Godiva, I Unpeel': Destructive Jouissance in Sylvia Plath's 'Ariel'

By Mitchell, Paul | PSYART, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

'White/ Godiva, I Unpeel': Destructive Jouissance in Sylvia Plath's 'Ariel'


Mitchell, Paul, PSYART


In this essay I offer a reading of Sylvia Plath's 'Ariel' in terms of how it subverts signification through the instability of the 'I' persona. Taking the notion of jouissance (as a destructive excess beyond language), I explore how 'Ariel' and other poems written in October 1962 begin to unravel the signifying network and, thus, the critic him/herself is faced with a profoundly difficult task in understanding them. Rather than trying to do so, I outline how, by replacing a focus on signification (the stable transmission of meaning) with the process of the text (its use of phonology, repetition and syntactic fragmentation) the critic can maintain the poems' crucial ambiguity. They do not mean, therefore, in the usual sense of the word; rather, they mean only in an ambiguous, unstable and shifting manner, one that evades the critical desire to impose a certainty of interpretation upon them.

keywords: Sylvia Plath, 'Ariel', Signification, Jouissance

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2009_mitchell01.shtml

Despite Janice Markey's recognition that 'Ariel' is 'highly complex', [1] I will argue in this article that Plath's poem actually presents the critic with a far more profound difficulty than she, or indeed many critics to date, have acknowledged. Indeed, the text of 'Ariel' can be thought of as a site of resistance and, thus, to read it is to be confronted with a fundamental crisis of interpretation. 'Ariel' marks a point in Plath's poetics at which the unsignifiable (or that which may be thought of as jouissance)[2] becomes a more prevalent - and, thus, destructive - a-textual force. As a result, it represents the manner in which speaking subjectivity (as the imposition of the signifier 'I' and its concomitant structuring via the signifier-signified relation) begins to unravel, the dissolution of the 'I' through phonetic repetition and syntactic fragmentation - a destabilisation that would achieve its ultimate manifestation, as I have argued elsewhere,[3] in Plath's last poems. Responding to 'Ariel' is, in consequence, highly problematic as to do so necessitates an outlook that ambiguous (and irresolvable) polysemy in the poem is an inevitable aspect of its effect, a situation that many critics have been unwilling to accept. For example, the repetition of 'I' which features so prominently as an important lexical and phonemic element of the text has frequently been regarded as signalling an intensification of Plath's (mythic/sexual) identity. Thus, Leonard Sanazaro suggests 'Ariel' details 'transfiguration, the birth of the new self', Pamela J. Annas argues that it negotiates 'what stands in the way of the possibility of rebirth for the self', while, for Judith Kroll, Plath's 'lioness' persona represents the 'true self'.[4] Yet, such viewpoints are clearly predicated upon a humanist understanding that the (poetic) subject has a unitary stability, a viewpoint that positions Plath's actual (rather than textual) body as a signifier whose corresponding signified may be understood as the critic's desire for 'an eradication of difference'.[5] As a defensive strategy against the loss of (textual/critical) meaning, therefore, the poetic speaker becomes fetishistic, the embodiment of Plath's authorial identity.

'Ariel' is often regarded as an important achievement in Plath's oeuvre. Anne Stevenson believes that it is 'supreme [...] a quintessential statement of all that had meaning for her' and, along with 'Poppies in October' (a poem that was written on the same day), a 'perfect lyric' (p.271) - a phrase that is also repeated by Paul Alexander.[6] Linda Wagner-Martin has described 'Ariel' as 'Plath at her metaphysical best' and, even more impressively for Mary Lynn Broe, it displays 'perfected structural, thematic, and technical unities'.[7] Yet, despite such praise, the poem's problematic ambiguity is frequently mentioned in the secondary literature. For example, Linda Wagner-Martin describes 'Ariel' as 'a riddle of mystery' (p. …

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