Catharsis, Amnesia and Imagination: Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath

Everybody has its own reasons for forgetting the past. When past experiences are unpleasant and hurtful, nobody wants to remember them. At those hurtful times, amnesia turns into a pain reliever to our souls and spirit. Nobody wants to be melancholic, lamenting the unfairness of life. For people around, it is difficult to live with the complaining grouchy. If constant lamenting often bothers people, keeping bad feelings inside intoxicate those who suffered a traumatic experience. Thus, writing becomes a good way to deal with these intoxicating feelings. It generally leads to a cure. This expurgation of hurtful feelings and memories is called catharsis.

Catharsis is a concept that comes from the Greek philosophy. It is a process of releasing strong or repressed emotions. It is a moment of purification or a purgation of your sadness through art. A catharsis is an act of cleansing, exorcising your ghosts, releasing your emotions. This purgation of the dark side that sometimes oppresses and depress someone provides a cure. Repressed emotions may cause nervous diseases, such as depression, anxiety, and neurosis, phobia, and paranoia generally related to some unreleased sentiments. Poetry is like a medicine or a therapy. Through poetic lines, you will be able to represent everything you want, even the moments of forgetting or amnesia. People who go through moments of terror and suffering, such as political prisoners during periods of dictatorships, Jews during the Nazi regime, or apartheid regime of segregation, may resort on poetry to relieve their anguish. However, forgetting is part and parcel of the process of attempting to express traumatic experiences.

Amnesia and forgetting may be represented through ambiguities which often reveal a state of mind. Writing poetry is a process of revealing and hiding, covering and uncovering, remembering and forgetting. It is possible to represent in your poetry your moments of amnesia. That is when imagination becomes the most important element in your process of creation. By combining autobiographical memories with imagination, one is able to represent memory’s gaps of silence. Silence is also represented through poetry.

Pain – has an element of blank (650), Emily Dickinson

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not. 

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem the pain becomes the main element of these poems, the poet expresses the impossibility to access memories which lie in the abyss of her mind. By turning her forgetting into poetry, Dickinson decides to write about the wound in her soul which causes the pain. She does not recall explicitly a memory, but she tells the reader about her need to write as a way of releasing this pain. For the poet, the pain gradually consumes the self, throwing her into the abyss. When memory comes from a remote area of her mind, it is so hurtful that causes stupor a state of near-unconsciousness. The poem represents the state of forgetfulness and the silence of a mind which resists remembering a hurtful event. As she is not able to recall the episodes, the poems describe this pain and the melancholy from someone who writes from a chasm. Dickinson does not give details of any episode, but we can listen to the solemn tone of her poem. The poet also transmits the lapses in her memory with fragments of sentences which demonstrate an ambivalence of someone who tries a process of catharsis but does not have the force to recount a traumatic episode.

Another poem which represents the poet’s attempt to deal with hurtful memories is Sylvia Plath’s Daddy. In this autobiographical poem, Plath brings to light the memories of her father.

Daddy ( Sylvia Plath)

You do not do, you do not do

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

You died before I had time——

Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic

Where it pours bean green over blue

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.

My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.

So I never could tell where you

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.

And the language obscene

An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna

Are not very pure or true.

With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.

Every woman adores a Fascist,

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

But no less a devil for that, no not

Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,

And they stuck me together with glue.

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I’m finally through.

The black telephone’s off at the root,

The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——

The vampire who said he was you

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Plath’s father died when she was a child. In the first verses, she says that her father was a respectable university professor. She has his photo posing next to a blackboard. Gradually, she unveils other aspects of his life, He has a swastika in his wall. By comparing the father to a vampire, the poem serves as an instrument to expurgate bitterness and shame. By comparing the daddy to the devil, she is free to kill him metaphorically, staking the black heart. Nobody can ever know the ways in which the poet draws an invisible frontier between imagination and memories in Plath’s poem, therefore, she takes courage to express her feelings about the Nazis in America. Some critics agree that this poem resonates with Plath’s personal life and she really had a German father who worked as a university professor and died when she was eight years old. A few critics believe that the poem is an exercise of imagination. As the poem states, she really tried to commit suicide a couple of times before ending with her life at the age of 36. If she had a Nazi daddy, she had the opportunity to deconstruct him in the verses of her poetry. The poem deals with a shameful memory. Her poem is a cathartic moment to say that she rejects her father. In the end, she kills the metaphorical image of the father she constructed through the verses of her poem.

 

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