Susan Gubar

Susan Gubar: On "Portrait of Georgia"

In one of the short, imagistic poems he included in Cane (1923). Toomer linked America's racechange imperative "Make white!" to lynching. Through its grotesque personification of those who perpetrate racial violence, "Portrait in Georgia" hints that the hurt inflicted on victims boomerangs to damage the victimizers:


Hair--braided chestnut,

    coiled like a lyncher's rope,


Lips--old scars, or the first red blisters,

Breath--the last sweet scent of cane,

And her slim body, white as the ash

    of black flesh after flame.


Brilliantly collapsing several planes of meaning, Toomer presents a woman (with hair, eyes, lips, breath, and a slim body catalogued as in a love sonnet), an illness much like advanced stages of syphilis (scars, red blisters); and lynching (a coiled rope, fagots to fuel the flame). The pathologized portrait of Georgia that emerges is a sexchanged personification of the character Anne Spencer called the "ghoul," here a murderous femme fatale. Like a syphilitic whore, this deathly dame demands the sacrifice of the black man who undergoes a racechange from black flesh into white ash because of a fiery consummation in "flame[s]" that invoke the hot passion of the miscegenation used to justify such scapegoating but also the whole burnt offering of the sacrificed body, which is the literal meaning of the word holocaust. To fall from the primacy of color into whiteness is to be excoriated, a word connoting condemnation that literally means being stripped of one's skin. In the shocking protests of Spencer and Toomer, whiteness emerges as simply the fantastic, destructive belief in superiority Du Bois had analyzed in "The Souls of White Folk." White ash is all that remains of black flesh after flame. For, as Walter Benn Michaels notes, "whiteness is produced by (rather than produces) the burning of black flesh" in a poem that turns out to be a "narrative of the origins of racial difference, a narrative in which white bodies are depicted as the consequence of violence against black bodies."

Susan Gubar: On "White Things"

What is the basic relationship of blackness to whiteness and why is it that has been dominated by white? The first stanza of Anne Spencer's "White Things"--which appeared in a 1923 issue of The Crisis--strikingly disentangles preponderance from power, majority from might, in its meditation on these questions.

Beginning with black human beings, Spencer's poem subversively locates whiteness as an aberration. Most of the earth and its inhabitants are colored so where did the whites come from and why, asks the poet, is the white race "free"?

Unlike black men in Spencer's poem, whose color complements the green plains, golden stars, red hills, darkened pines, and ruby rose of nature, the white race appears unnatural: Whiteness is represented by "things," rather than beings, things which are "rare" and alien, as if from a "silvered" world elsewhere. Interlopers on the earth, the whites steal (creep out) into the world of sky, earth, and sea so as to steal (appropriate) it by steeling for warfare. Indeed, the first stanza ends with a cluster of images of destruction: "white feathers of cowardice," used throughout World War I to encourage men to volunteer for the front and almost certain death; the "wand of power" as a magical, magisterial phallus or weapon; the blood drained from the bleached, blanched "white poppy-flower." Rare, expensive, silver white things have devolved by the end of the stanza to "poor" white things, for the "wand" of white power blanches or bleaches, leaching color from the earth.

In the second and final stanza of "White Things," the stealing of the whites moves beyond pilfering and pillaging to the systematic murdering of a lynch mob. When the fire of the pyre changes black into white, life turns into death, burnt flesh and skin become ashes, heads revert to glistening skulls. In this nightmare conclusion, a ghoulish "young one" swings such a skull "In the face of God" and demands that this deity "make" the world and its inhabitants "white" or, in James Weldon Johnson's term, "ex-coloured." Spencer concludes her poem, then, with a scene of lugubrious drollery reminiscent of the fates of Gus and Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation. Her ghastly Descartes/Kurtz responds to the jungle as a suitable setting for a scapegoating ritual from a theater of cruelty not unlike the lynchers dancing "round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee" at the end of Claude McKay's sonnet "The Lynching" (1920).

As a statement about the psychology of racism, Spencer's poem suggests that the marginalization of whites, their insecurity at being a minority, their guilt at appropriating a world in which they feel alien, their envy of a natural beauty not their own, all these factors combine to cause the murderous mastery of imperialist violence. Here whiteness resembles cowardice or fear and its reaction-formation, domination.

. . .

Reversing normative ethical and spiritual valuations of color, Spencer hints that the white race should be associated with evil. For the "ghoul" who swears "by the hell that sired him" utters not a pious prayer but a daemonic curse that God "make white," and "white" rhymes here with "might." The only hope the poem holds out persists in the quotation marks of the last line which contain the possibility that the God who made (black) men (not white ghouls) is a deity of color who will refuse to hear or heed the deadly malediction.

A powerful protest poem, "White Things" illustrates exactly how extraordinary a cultural moment occurred during the Harlem Renaissance because this poem traverses normative stories about race. By starting with a "colorful" world peopled by "Black men," Spencer topples the usual view of beginnings offered by traditional myths of racial origin.

. . .

Unlike most earlier speculations, Spencer's poem operates under the radical assumption that black people are the "first" race in the sense that they are the originatory, natural people inhabiting a landscape of their own; the whites--Promethean and Satanic--are second-comers, sly and destructive thieves. She therefore attributes racism to white belatedness, the anxieties of whites about entering a world of green, gold, red, dark, and ruby rose colors, all of which are born and born alive, while whiteness is produced by and through death. At its most gruesome Spencer's poem implies that, though colors simply exist, whiteness must be manufactured out of sacrificed black bodies. If blacks turn white only in death, perhaps white men are dead men, ghoulish ghosts in a silvered world of Unbeing. As so often in satiric portrayals of lynching, whites are the savages who engage in cannibalism, the human sacrifice of pyring a race. The poet therefore sees the advancing, colonizing culture of whiteness as one grotesquely committed to transforming black into white and in the process murdeing nature, killing colorful lives into ashen, blanched things. According to Spencer, then, white culture dedicates itself to genocidal race-change, reducing black heads to white skulls, for no other reason than the need of whites to assert dominion.

Susan Gubar: On "Lady Lazarus"

[NB. Prosopopoeia: a rhetorical figure involving the adoption of the voices of the imagined, absent dead.]

If identification with the victims who could not disidentify with their tormentors constitutes the trap of prosopopoeia in "Daddy," the trope functions as a trip in "Lady Lazarus." What does it mean to think of the imperilled Jews as—to borrow a phrase Maurice Blanchot used to approach the complex subject of Holocaust-related suicides—fetishized "masters of un-mastery"? The wronged speaker here can only liberate herself from "Herr Doktor" or "Herr Enemy" by wresting the power of persecution from him and turning it against herself. We know that the ongoingness of the torments of the Shoah perpetuated postwar suicides, but did those casualties mutate into mystic scapegoats whose envied status as paradigmatic victims would in turn generate ersatz survivor-celebrities? This is one way to grasp the shock of "Lady Lazarus," for the narcissistic and masochistic speaker has become obsessed with dying, relates to it as "a call." With her skin "Bright as a Nazi lampshade," her foot "A paperweight," and her face "featureless, fine / Jew linen," Lady Lazarus puts her damage on theatrical display through her scandalous suicide artistry (244). Have Jews been made to perform the Trauerspiel for a "peanut-crunching crowd" at the movies and on TV, like the striptease entertainer through whom Plath speaks? Does Lady Lazarus's "charge" at making death feel "real" and at "the theatrical / / Comeback" anticipate a contemporary theatricalization of the Holocaust? Certainly, her vengeful warning that "there is a charge / for the hearing of my heart" evokes the charge—the cheap thrill and the financial price and the emotional cost—of installations, novels, testimonials, college courses, critical essays, and museums dedicated to the six million.

The commodification of Lady Lazarus's exhibitionism issues in spectators paying "For a word or a touch / Or a bit of blood / / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes"; she brags about her expertise at the art of dying: "I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real" (245, emphasis mine). The spectacular quality of Plath's figure adumbrates the notorious celebrity of a writer like Benjamin Wilkomirski, whose gruesome bestseller Fragments (about a child's experiences in the camps) was praised as "free of literary artifice of any kind" before it was judged to be a fraud. In remarks that gloss Plath's suicide-performer's pandering to her audience, Daniel Ganzfried argued that Wilkomirski's suicide would be read as an authentication of his identity as a victim: "These people talking about suicide will suggest it to him. . . . Some of his supporters would love him dead because then it looks like proof that he's Wilkomirski." Plath's poetry broods upon—just as Ganzfried's argument reiterates—the contamination of the very idea of the genuine. As Blanchot cautions, " If there is, among all words, one that is inauthentic, then surely it is the word 'authentic."' To the extent that the impresario of Plath's stage, "Herr God" / "Herr Lucifer," has reduced Lady Lazarus from a person to an "opus" or a "valuable," the poem hints that even reverential post-Shoah remembrances may be always-already defiled by the Nazi perpetrators—that prosopopoeia will not enable the poet to transcend the tarnished uses to which the past has been, can be, will be put. In the voice of a denizen of disaster, Plath mocks the frisson stimulated by the cultural industry she herself helped to spawn.

Revolted by her own dehumanization, Lady Lazarus then imagines triumphing over the murderous Nazis by turning vengeful herself, if only in the incendiary afterlife conferred by the oven:

Ash, ash— 

You poke and stir. 

Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—


A cake of soap, 

A wedding ring, 

A gold filling.


Herr God. Herr Lucifer 




Out of the ash 

I rise with my red hair 

And I eat men like air.

As it feeds on "men like air"—predatory psychic dictators but also perhaps men turned to smoke—the red rage that rises out of the ashes only fuels self-combustion, debunking the idea of transcendence or rebirth at the end of the poem. With its ironic echo of the conclusion of Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn"—"Beware, beware, his flashing eyes, his floating hair"—"Lady Lazarus" repudiates Romantic wonder at the power of the artist, replacing the magical "pleasure dome" of his artifice with the detritus to which the Jewish people were reduced. The poem's speech act amounts to a caustic assessment of the aesthetic sellout, the disaster-imposter luminary: "there is nothing there—." That no consensus exists among contemporary historians over whether the Nazis made cakes of soap out of their victims (though they certainly did "manufacture" hair and skin, rings and fillings and bones) drives home the bitter irony that propels the poem, namely that imaginative approaches to the Shoah may distort, rather than safeguard, the dreadful but shredded historical record. Reenactments of the calamity, including her own, are indicted, even as Plath issues a warning that they will take their toll.

Will the figure of prosopopoeia, so seductive for poets from Jarrell and Plath to Simic and Rich, outlive its functions as the Holocaust and its atrocities recede into a past to which no one alive can provide firsthand testimony? Or will the imperatives of "post-memory" imbue this rhetorical strategy—which insists on returning to the unbearable rupture of suffering—with newfound resonance once the Shoah can no longer be personally recalled? Given the passage of time as well as the flood of depictions of the catastrophe, the very vacuity of the desecrated (buried alive, incinerated, unburied, dismembered) bodies that licensed the personifications of prosopopoeia may make verse epitaphs seem shoddily inadequate. Plath's taunting sneer—"I turn and burn. / Do not think I underestimate your great concern" (246)—chronologically preceded the highly profitable entertainment industry the Holocaust business has so recently become. However, besides forecasting it, "Lady Lazarus" offers up a chilling warning about the fetishization of suffering with which the figure of prosopopoeia flirts. Indeed, Plath's verse uncannily stages the bases for accusations of exploitation, larceny, masochism, and sensationalism that would increasingly accrue around Holocaust remembrance. In addition, her impersonation of the real victims invariably generates awareness of the spurious representation put in the place of the absence of evidence. Calling attention to what Geoffrey Hartman and Jean Baudrillard term our propensity to adopt a "necrospective," poems deploying prosopopoeia draw us closer to an event that is, simultaneously, distanced by their debased status as merely simulated and recycled image-substitutions.

From "Prosopopoeia and Holocaust Poetry in English: Sylvia Plath and Her Contemporaries." Yale Journal of Criticism (2001)

Susan Gubar: On "Daddy"

[NB. Prosopopoeia: a rhetorical figure involving the adoption of the voices of the imagined, absent dead.]

. . . surprisingly, no poet has been more scathingly critical of the figure of prosopopoeia than Sylvia Plath. Even as she exploited the trope in the Holocaust context, Plath emphasized her awareness that imaginative identification with the victims could constitute either a life-threatening trap for the poet or a sinister trip for the poet's readers, as "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" demonstrate. In "Daddy," Plath considers what her identification might mean, rather than simply assuming that identification: "I think I may well be a Jew" (emphasis mine). In this, Plath's self-conscious method sustains this distance in a more sustained way than Anne Sexton does in the (probably) influential line from "My Friend, My Friend": "I think it would be better to be a Jew." Plath's line echoes Sexton's, but with a difference: Plath maintains a definitively post-war perspective on her own deployment of the voice of the victims. Similarly, Plath's is a more self-consciously fictive and qualified identification than John Berryman's effort to see himself as an "imaginary Jew." Plath illuminates not merely the psychological scenarios which most critics examine but also offers brilliant insights into a debilitating sexual politics at work in fascist anti-Semitism. From this perspective, "Daddy" reads less like a confessional elegy about Plath's grief and anger at the loss of her father, more like a depiction of Jewish melancholia—the primitive, suicidal grieving Freud associated with loss over a love object perceived as part of the self—and thus a meditation on an attachment to Germany in particular, and to Western civilization in general, that many European Jews found not only inevitable but galling as well.

Although numerous readers have noted that Plath anathematizes Naziism as patriarchalism pure and simple, they have failed to understand how the dependencies of a damaged and damaging femininity shape her analysis of genocide. A "bag full of God," a "Ghastly statue," an "Aryan" blue-eyed "Panzer-man" with a "neat mustache," Daddy deploys all the regalia of the fascist father against those robbed of selfhood, citizenship, and language, for the speaker's stuttering tongue is "stuck in a barb wire snare. / Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak." The daughter confronts a symbolic order in which the relationship between the fragile "ich" and the overpowering national and linguistic authority of Daddy frustrates any autonomous self=definition. That, as Jacqueline Rose points out, the English "you do not do" can be heard as the German "you du not du" (226) heightens awareness of a confluence between the daughter's vulnerable and blurred ego boundaries, her ardent responsiveness to the lethally proximate society that constructed her, and the European Jew's conflicted but nevertheless adoring address. Standing "at the blackboard," the fascist represents the irrational power of rationality, of the arts and the sciences, of culture in the Fatherland. According to Plath, the Jews chuffed off "to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen" suffered the horror of impending extermination along with a crippling consciousness of complicity, if only the collusion of those doomed by a long history of intimacy to love and respect a force dead set against them.

For, through a rhetorical strategy itself implicated in the calculus of colonization, the poem dares to confront the daughter-speaker's induction into revering Daddy and his charismatic power: "Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you" (223). The daughter's subsequent decision to make and marry "a model" of Daddy (224) suggests how difficult it may be for a consciousness captivated by the inimical source which shaped it to escape self-destructive forms of thralldom that refigure bonds saturated with the only pattern of attachment known—lexicons of emotion devised by the dead Daddy. Vampiric, the phantom father and his constructed surrogate, the husband who loves "the rack and the screw," have drained the speaker of her creative talents, her currency, her autonomy. Depleted. the daughter rages against her appalled feelings of radical insufficiency, which bespeak a blurring of boundaries between Jewishness and Germanness that many German-Jews lamented before, during, and after the Shoah. Since this tiny percentage of the German population played a relatively important role in business, finance, journalism, medicine, law, and the arts in the twenties and thirties, many German-Jews felt shocked at the betrayal of a culture to which they had vowed what Saul Friedlander calls "ever-renewed and ever-unrequited love." When Leo Baeck, the famous Berlin Rabbi, sat down to pay his electric bill moments before the SS dragged him off to Theresienstadt, Hyam Maccoby thinks his act exemplified not passivity but instead many Jews' inability to believe that "this Germany; which they loved, felt obligations toward . . . , felt gratitude toward" could have dedicated itself to their annihilation (emphasis mine). The forfeiture of a beloved language and a revered homeland, the loss of a citizenship that had signified and certified professional status and security: such grief reeks of the narcissistic wound Plath's daughterly speaker suffers after she tries to commit suicide, only to find herself instead "pulled . . . out of the sack" and stuck together "with glue."

As the Mother Goose rhymes on "you," "du," "Jew," "glue," "screw," "gobbledygoo," "shoe" accumulate, the poem goose steps toward the concluding "I'm finally through" that proclaims a victory over the spectral afterlife of the fascist, but only at the cost of the daughter's own life. At the very moment Plath declares she is "through" with her father, the final line intimates that she herself is also and thereby "through." No longer supported by the fragile hyphen between German and Jew, the outraged daughter knows her "gipsy ancestress" and her "Taroc pack" only confirm her status as a pariah, even decades after the catastrophic engagement with Daddy. Plath's scandalizing feminization of Europe's Jews suggests just how appalling, how shameful would seem, would be, the emasculation of often intensely patriarchal communities. Just as Plath's speaker asks herself who she can possibly be without Daddy, European Jewish men and women might well have asked themselves who they could possibly be after the Shoah definitively estranged them from their fathers' lands, their mother tongue, their neighbors' customs, their compatriots' heritage or so the ghastly number of post-war suicides of survivors-who-did-not-survive intimates. Without in any way conflating the different motives and circumstances of Walter Benjamin, Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Peter Szondi, Jean Amery, Bruno Bettelheim, Jerzy Kosinsky, Piotr Rawicz, Tadeusz Boroswki, and Andrzej Munk, this frightful list of suicides attests to the devastating on-goingness of the Shoah.

From "Prosopopoeia and Holocaust Poetry in English: Sylvia Plath and Her Contemporaries." Yale Journal of Criticism (2001)