Self-identity in Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” by Daniel E. Blackston
The notion that there is a self-identity that exists beyond the reach of narrative construction and language is essential to Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself. To some extent, Butler regards the emergence of the individual and a functioning ontological perspective as being based on a reference of self to the social whole. In other words, for Butler, the construction of self-identity is very much centered on the context of community and social interaction.
At the same time, Butler fully acknowledges that there is an “I” behind the socially oriented I. It is unclear, and perhaps unimportant, to understand why there is a division between the social “I” and the preontological self. What is certain is that this preontological self is essential to any model of the human psyche. The following examination will provide an explication of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Tulips” in an endeavor to show that the preontological self that may exist need not be wholly non-narratable as indicated by Butler, nor need it be an expression of the “not-whole” status of women as offered by Lacan.
Instead, the preontological self is an expression of wholeness and completeness that is rooted in a spiritual or religious impulse. Before launching into an explication of the poem itself, a few important things must be noted. First, while the concept of a preontological self will be referenced, it should be understood more as a post-social self. This means that it is a self that has social identify but is attempting to strip it away in order to discover the preontological self "beneath" the social persona. The next important thing to keep in mind is that the theme of Plath’s poem, “Tulips” is just as readily found in any number of poems, or for that matter, any number of works of art in any given genre.
Lastly, the preontological self that is envisioned by Plath and by many other artists, mystics, and religious aspirants is very similar to Jung’s concept of the abyss.
The states of emptiness or nothingness that are symbolized in Plath’s poem are not strictly, or even meaningfully, limited to Freud’s death wish concept. Instead, death in these symbolist expressions and specifically in “Tulips” refers to an ego-death. The ego-death in mystical terms always precedes an encounter with the sacred or the Divine. Since the current paper lacks the space to deeply probe any of these matters, it is best to simply assume that the idea of ego-death as opposed to death wish is basically self-evident.
With that in mind, Butler’s ideas can be looked at in order to provide a framework for the analysis of Plath’s poem. Butler notes that the self that is supposed to exist prior to the development of the social self is a particularly unquantifiable state of being. This means that any self which exists beyond that which has formed a primary “impingement” is not yet immersed in the world of persons and things. There is still, presumably, some kind of experience that takes place, but it is basically indescribable and non-referential by way of common language and cognition.
There is nothing in Butler’s assumptions to prohibit a non-linguistic construction of self that exists prior to the development of the social self. That is to say, there may well be a preontological self that has narratable experience and qualities. These experiences and qualities may simply be inexpressible through the social self that is taken, on the whole, to comprise the primary expression of “I.” Leaving aside any deep debate for the moment on this next point, let us simply assume that the primary and most fundamental qualifier of the social self is language.
It is only at the point at which the self becomes capable of articulating an identity to the social community that the “I” that psychoanalysis focuses on is developed. At this point, the experiences of the preontological self are not lost, precisely, but they remain inexpressible by common language. They continue to operate as sub-lingual, symbolic expressions of consciousness that manifest in emotions, dreams, and even desires. The language of this preontological self is symbolic. This means that symbols, rather than language, are the means by which the narrative and experiential aspects of the preontological self can be accessed.
It is the position of the current discussion that this preontological self is analogous to Jung’s abyss, but also analogous to the Divine and sacred realms referenced by mystics (as well as by countless regular people.)
Butler notes that once the “I” of social norms is created, there is a loss that comes with this construction. That loss is precisely the kind of preontological experience cited above. Butler writes: “Giving an account of oneself comes at a price not only because the ‘‘I’’ that I present cannot present many of the conditions of its own formation but because the ‘‘I’’ that yields to narration cannot comprise many dimensions of itself”1 . The description of the self as an “I” with an inability to comprise dimensions of itself is an imprecise description. This “I” is incapable of linguistically expressing its preontological awareness, but it is still influenced by them.
This is also a point of error for Lacan when he notes that women define their sense of joy and pleasure (and even power) in being “not-whole.” By measuring the female sexual response against the “perverted” phallic driven desire of men, Lacan concludes that it is men (who are not homosexual) that “approach” women and define sexuality by imposing their desire. The non-phallic response of women leaves them “not-whole.” Lacan writes: “The act of love is the male’s polymorphous perversion.” 2 He goes on to note that, in being the subject of this perversion, women are left comparing their response to phallic pleasure. Lacan notes that “any speaking being whatsoever situates itself under the banner “women” it is on the basis of the following – that it grounds itself as being not-whole situated in the phallic function.” 3 In fact, as the explication of Plath’s poem will show, the preontological – and therefore unconscious – drives that exist in all individual are comprised of wholeness. It is, in fact, only the social “I” that experiences a fragmented ontology.
An essential aspect of the social “I” that is extremely germane to Plath’s "Tulips" is responsibility. It is the orientation of the social self to ground itself in a sense of responsibility. Butler writes: “the response to the demand to give an account of oneself is a matter of fathoming at once the formation of the subject (self, ego, moi, first-person perspective) and its relation to responsibility.”4 Clearly, this sense of responsibility is necessary to create a functioning community or social order. However, it is not, strictly speaking, necessary to formulate a conception of self, or to have ontological experience. What is necessary for the ontological self is participation in community and for this reason, it is participation in community that shapes the social “I.”
Any attempt to reach the preontological/post-social self will require releasing all social bonds, including those that are attached to deeply personal experiences such as family and personal identity. This is exactly the process described in Plath’s poem. However, there is one very important caveat to keep in mind as we proceed to the explication of “Tulips.” That important factor is that the poem describes the awakening will toward an ego death that will reveal the sacred preontological/post-social self.
It does not directly describe this self, nor does it document a full rejection of the social self. This point is of considerable significance because it could, obviously, be used to validate Lacan’s original point about “not whole” and that is a troubling objection. However, a careful look at the symbolism of the poem indicates that there is, indeed, a wholeness that resides in the preontological and post-social self that is not expressed in the social “I” and does not, directly, participate in society.
Whether or not this preontological self should or even could participate directly in society is a matter for another essay. Or series of them. What is quite clear is that the preontological or post-social self does influence society through many means. In fact, many of these means manifest as well-documented effects of the unconscious. So, whether or not the preontological self is available to the conscious mind through language, it is certainly available to it through dreams, fantasies, symbols, and creative expression.
Butler notes that “to take responsibility for oneself is to avow the limits of any self-understanding, and to establish these limits not only as a condition for the subject but as the predicament of the human community.” 5 The vision that the preontological self and social “I” are separate in fact simply due to the difference in linguistic and narrative type is a flaw in much of psychoanalytic theory as well as in many of the everyday assumptions of modern life.
It is only by accepting this dichotomy as false that Plath’s “Tulips” can be read as anything more substantial than a death-wish articulated precisely on the type of grounds forwarded by Freud and Lacan. Even when the dichotomy is rejected, there is no direct expression of the wholeness that Jung associates with the psyche and that the present paper holds is an aspect of the preontological self. Instead, the poem describes them process of stripping away the social “I” and revealing the emerging post-social self that is rooted in the preontological self. This emerging process is shown through language and more or less conventional narrative, but the indications of the wholeness and sacredness of the post-social self are conveyed in symbols.
In fact, it is essential that the entire poem be read symbolically in order to fully grasp its expression of the preontological self. A complete explication of every symbolic connection would require a book. Therefore, the following explication will simply point out the most important points.
The first important point of symbolism is that the poem takes place in a hospital. This means that the poet is seemingly admitting Lacan’s state of “not-whole” from the very outset. However, there is one very important thing that makes the setting strange. That is the fact that the efforts of the doctors and nurses seem to be absolutely meaningless in regard to making the narrator well or whole. Instead, there efforts simply put the narrator in a (potentially drug induced) state of prolonged self-reflection where she begins to discover her preontological or post-social self. In doing so, she realizes that the ego self or the social “I” is actually the source of her sickness and that there is a determinant wholeness that lies beneath the surface of conscious experience.
In the first stanza, the speaker states: “Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in. / I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly / As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.” 6 Symbolically, the lines show purity and peace and the promise of wisdom and understanding. The next lines show why such a sacred or holy space has emerged. It is because the ego or social self is being discarded. The speaker of the poem is about to undergo an ego-death through which the preontological and post-social self can be experienced.
The next lines of the poem make this perfectly clear. Plath writes: “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions./ I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses /And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons”7. The process of dissolving the social self has begun. The speaker of the poem is symbolically undergoing an ego death losing, one by one, everything that would define her ontological self and social identity. There is a distinct and profound difference between what is being described here and a death-wish. The main difference is that, nowhere in the poem does the speaker express the desire to die.
In fact, just the opposite is shown. The speaker of the poem desired to enter into a harmonious relationship with nature and life, it is her ego and social “I” that prevent this from taking place. Plath states “Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——/ My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,/ My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;/ Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.” 8 The word “sick” informs the reader that it is indeed the speaker’s life that is the cause of her sickness.
Not life but her social “I.” The speaker goes on to describe how the nurses and doctors are good for only one thing: that is giving her the peace of mind she needs to rediscover herself. She is gratefully taken out of her social life and given a chance to reconnect with the self that exists beyond the ego. This self is sacred and exists beyond material associations or even specific emotional attachments. The speaker states “I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat / stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.”9 She then describes how she gives up her personal associations: “I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books /Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head./ I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.”10 The purity that the speaker experiences rises in direct relation to the degree to which she is able to relinquish the associations of the social “I.”
Still, nothing in the poem indicates that the speaker wants to die. She is happy to submit to the actions of the doctors and nurses who are presumably going to bring her back to life. What she wants to avoid is life in terms of her social and community associations. She wants to experience the life that resides in the post-social self.
Throughout the poem, the tulips are described as being in an antagonistic or even threatening position to the speaker. This is because the tulips represent two big threats to the speaker’s hoped-for sacred encounter with the preontological self. The first threat is that they are a gift from friends and family that want her to come back to her ego life. The second is they represent society's unbalanced relationship with nature. The flowers are in touch with the sacred space the speaker wants to immerse in, but are symbolic captives of the very ego world that prevents such a sacred union from taking place.
Their antagonism is meant to alert the speaker of the poem to the vibrant life that exists in nature as opposed to the ego life of the social “I.” They have actually come to complete the job for the speaker. She states “The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;/ They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,/ And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes /Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me”11. These lines are not ironic; they represent the speaker beginning to feel the presence of a love and life that exists beyond the confines of social and ego existence. It is the precise wholeness that Lacan associates with unachievable desire. It is the preontological wholeness of being that is beyond the capacity of expression through common language and analytic reasoning.
The final proof that this is the case is shown in the poem’s closing lines. Plath writes: “The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea, /And comes from a country far away as health.” 12 The sea is an obvious symbol of both the unconscious and the wholeness that Jung associated with the self, not to mention deep femininity. The country that is “far away as health” is meant to reiterate that the speaker’s sickness is not physical. It is clear that the speaker will recover from their physical sickness. It is in fact suggested through the poem’s narration that the speaker may be discharged relatively soon.
So the “as far away as health” line is meant to imply that the speaker knows that she is not yet able to reach this “country” of sacred preontological experience. The post-social self cannot be fully born because of the limitations and prejudices that attempt to confine experience to the social “I.” Closing the poem on the word “health” certainly shows that the poem is not concerned with a death wish. It is a life wish.
As such, the poem not only comprises a strong rebuttal of Lacan’s “not-whole” presumptions about feminine psychological experience, it forms a more or less interesting validation of Jung’s ideas regarding art and the unconscious. These associations are, unfortunately, far beyond the current argument but would, if detailed, provide additional support for the ideas sketched out above.