At two in the morning one summer day in 1983, in Cambridge, Frank Bidart asked me to telephone the nearby Seven-Eleven to order a grinder, and just tell them it was for Frank. I don’t recall what kind of grinder that turned out to be, except that it consisted of some nondescript meat covered in onions and peppers. It reminded me of something you might get in a parking lot during a Red Sox game–if you were crazy about the Red Sox. Even then I was impressed by the implications here: a. that whoever was at the Seven Eleven knew which ‘Frank’ this would be who called at 2 a.m. to ask for a grinder; b. that Frank knew the guy would know him; c. that both of them knew what sort of grinder was called for. There were no questions asked on either side. It meant, of course, that Frank ate like this, at this hour, all the time.
The moment boosted Frank even higher in my esteem than he already had ascended. Here I was spooning at my careful, homemade yogurt, while Frank was tucking into his meal with old school enthusiasm–and with an omnivorous strength of mind that I associated with the quality of his imagination as a poet.
I was in his condominium at that hour, on that morning, to interview him for a video series of interviews of contemporary poets–which as a series never was completed, for reasons that don’t belong in this introduction. Boring. Nonetheless, he and I were talking on camera about vampires–specifically about his inclination at the time to write a long poem featuring a vampire protagonist. I was thinking to myself that if anyone could write a successful poem about a vampire, it would be Frank–who was actually living close enough to the fabled life-style of vampires to have real insight. For instance, we were taping, at his preference, from about midnight until 4 a.m. on two successive nights. He came alive in the wee morning hours.
By summer 1983 he had published two startling books: Golden State (1973) and The Book of the Body (1977). By the Fall 1983, his third was out: The Sacrifice. He has never written about a vampire, however. The heart of his first three books centered on the several long dramatic monologues he composed for each, using actual historical people as the personae through which the poetry was spoken, very much in the spirit of Robert Browning, or perhaps Robert Frost in North of Boston–although neither of these earlier poets assumed real and well-known characters to use as masks for their art. Nor did either chose for personae the tormented insane, or the criminally psychotic people Frank was fond of. He writes of Herbert White (a child murderer and necrophiliac), Ellen West (a pseudonymous patient of Ludwig Binswanger), and Vaslav Nijinsky(the Polish ballet dancer and choreographer), among others.
A vampire would add nicely, I would have thought, to his cabinet of the damned: those people who are tortured by the difficulties that bodies make. They induce so many kinds of appetite to be negotiated. Frank Bidart’s personae are neither grotesque nor freakish in their heart’s desire–though they become both as they pursue their perplexities to heart-breaking extremes.
The Sin of the Body: Frank Bidart’s Human Bondage
“When I hit her on the head, it was good,/and then I did it to her a couple of times,–“. With these words Frank Bidart introduces us to Herbert White, the first of his several personas to be inspired by an extraordinary disgust for the human body. Though White, an avowed child molester, murderer and necrophiliac, is the only one of the poet’s characters to date whose disaffection is criminal, nevertheless the extremity of his repugnance is an appropriate prologue to the subsequent confessions. The unnamed spokesman of “The Arc,” a recent amputee, admits he is obsessed with his lost arm and discontented by his homosexuality. Ellen West (“Ellen West”), an anorexic and suicide, acknowledges her distress over her body’s meaty health and its intractable appetites, both the sexual and the alimentary. Arranged between these two confessants in The Book of the Body are the poet’s own cancer-ridden mother (“Elegy”), who had “rather die than let them/take off a breast,” and the poet himself (“The Book of the Body”)-, whose aversion is the index for that of his other, dramatic personas.
The pathology of this repugnance is likely to disguise the genius of it–its animating spirit–which is not merely a crazed morbidity. Rather, the characters peopling Bidart’s imagination are tormented by a moral ambivalence toward the conditions of human embodiment. They are motivated at heart by ethics, not by disease, which accounts for their seeming duty to confess their sins and disappointments. They each admit their guilt; some even do so institutionally: Herbert White to his lawyer or perhaps to the jury that is trying him; Ellen West to her therapists. In their obligations to disclose their disaffections, they voice a Promethean revolt against the physical and metaphysical circumstances to which they are subject. The protest comes at their own expense. Just as the mythical Titan refused to condone divine injustice, and was imprisoned for his mutiny, so do Bidart’s people refuse to cower before the givens of their experience. And they too are suitably punished; the retribution is administered in that moral accommodation reserved for all sinners, Hell. “–Hell came when I saw/MYSELF…,” Herbert White admits, “and couldn’t stand what I see….”
We should note White’s internalization of his guilt, which muddies the moral categories that are so distinct in the Greek myth. When Zeus chains Prometheus to his rock and ordains that his liver be clawed daily from his chest by an eagle, the culpability is all God’s, the justice all Prometheus’. But White is both the inquisitor (Zeus) and the victim (Prometheus), both the accuser and the accused. He acts in his poem as a moral detective who ferrets out the murderer:
and I saw,
under me, a little girl was just lying there in the mud:
and I knew I couldn’t have done that,– somebody else had to have done that,–
The solution to the crime resolves, at least temporarily, the schizophrenic disintegration of his personality: “‘That’s you standing there./You’re…/just you.'” The product of that resolution is at once a self healed of its disorders, and Hell. White comes to know who he is, and condemns the guilty self that he recognizes: “I hope I fry.”
What White comes to recognize in his self-condemnation is a version–Bidart’s particular version–of original sin: original because White himself authors it. The self comes to know itself as the originator of evil, which is to say that the mode of self-knowledge is guilt. Such a formulation, equating selfhood with culpability, is a familiar theme in literary history, two expressions of which I want briefly to survey in order to clarify Bidart’s “radical disaffection/from the very possibilities/ of human life.” The first is the Biblical story of the Fall, from which extends the poet’s moral tone, if not his moral definition (“When did I begin to substitute/insight for prayer?” he asks himself. As we shall see, the nature of the preferred “insight” is philosophical.). In Genesis we learn that the creation and government of the universe is the work of an omniscient, omnipotent God. Eden reveals an a priori harmony among created things, a world of humane bounty that subsides, as a consequence of human disobedience, into an apparent physical disorder. So chaos is the moral dirty work of the archetypal man and woman, the proof of whose guilt is the human condition itself: a short life of labor and misery relieved only by death. That is, release from the consequences of original evil entails the resolution of humanity. The body is left in death, and the suffering spirit that was incarnated within it is freed to renew itself within the heavenly presence.
Bidart’s particular association of the self with primordial sin preserves something of the original Adamic sorrow, especially in its disapprobation of the flesh. But it also takes its definition from a second–and principal–source: the modern philosophical mind, whose coordinates originate in Descartes’ epistemological skepticism. Cartesian doubt does not lament a flawed moral nature, which seems to be the reproach in Genesis, but regrets instead the fallibility of the bodily senses that mediate sensation. Descartes and his descendants are not penitents; indeed, they would ask for more of that apple plucked from the forbidden tree. Their aim is to offset the sensual mediation that separates the self from certainty and, as Descartes can imagine it, introduces the possibility of permanent hallucination. He can worry that “some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me.” The appropriate response to the deceit is, according to the Cartesian method, to discover what can be known with absolute certainty by first amputating what can be doubted. The quest for certainty begins in uncertainty. In this latter category he lumps “the heavens, the earth, colours, figures, sound and all other external things,” among which he includes the body. One’s physical substance is external to the self, which does the thinking in his cogito and so is the one thing that is self-evident. To interrogate the self is to restore it.
There is no similar interrogation that can so restore either the body or “the heavens, the earth…and all other external things.” The cogito aggravates the self’s separation from all that is outside its sanctuary first by placing everything but the self in doubt, and then by defining the members of that doubtful world as objects of the self’s thought. The body is merely another of those objects. Descartes’ reification treats the body as a manifold of sensation, an instrument for the will, by which the will introduces itself into the world of action. Such use made of the body is meant to rehabilitate it, to resolve one’s doubt about its capacities by controlling its life processes, reducing its affections to a known chemistry, stating its mechanics according to a set of mathematical axioms. These are the formulae by which the mind attempts to repossess its material self, and thus moderate both its deceptions and its passions.
The attempt does not salve, but rather irritates the separation. In so reifying the body in the name of rehabilitation, we exchange the terms of a life as it has been given for those we imagine for ourselves. We trade a natural life for an artificial one defined by–perhaps one day eugenically created by–our life sciences. We already boast of “test tube” babies, cloned mice and genetic splicing. Such materialism cannot integrate the body with the self. Indeed, in perfecting the body’s objectivity as it perfects its plasticity, scientific materialism construes not only as desirable, but as logical the ultimate divorce of body and self. Since it evidently lacks all intrinsic integrity, rather than save the dying animal, why not have done with it altogether? Emily Dickinson can entertain such sentiments, despising “this sordid Flesh” that clogs her spirit: “How little work it be–,” she writes, “To put off filaments like this/ for immortality.”
That it is a trifling work is precisely what disturbs Bidart’s amputee in “The Arc.” A chance swerve from one’s routines is all it takes to “put off” a limb of the body and so reveal the severances inherent in the self’s relation to it. What of the self has been touched by the accident? How can the self repossess its arm? Not since Emily Dickinson has an American poet been so willing to concentrate on the significance of the body’s unmanageability. But unlike the New England poet, Bidart does not have recourse to “immortality.” His people are not religious (“I wanted to be a priest,” he explains, but his mother tried “to save me from the Church.” Notice the irony of the infinitive “to save.”), but live by their nihilism, a philosophy inherited as an extension of that separation of the self from all that can be doubted. The separation isolates the self in its spiritual poverty. For God too becomes an object of thought the same as any other, which occasions a loss of spiritual orientation. The ground of value disappears when consciousness–even as it is alienated from God, nature, human community and its own material being–nevertheless becomes the foundation of it all. In such case the worth of a thing is determined as it is assimilated by the mind into the ego. Morality and desire are synonomous; evil is a matter of frustrated longing, for which the body is chiefly responsible.
For the self’s alienation from the body does not preclude its dependence upon it: the flesh still introduces the spirit to death, decay and labor–to the torment, in short, of the human condition. But what a reduction we have suffered in the scope of human ethics. Bidart’s people are not complicit, as were our original progenitors, in a divine morality play that exalts the soul and properly mortifies the flesh in death. Rather, their lives are constrained by grim organic curves, arcing from nativity through senility and ruin, that are unrelieved by access to primordial meaning. For Adam, the human form is the badge of sin and imperfection. For Bidart and his offspring, it is no badge at all but the cause of solitude. Not sorrow but nihilistic disappointment characterizes their incarnation: bodily limits can neither be explained nor redeemed. The sole remedy for them is an absurd annihilation sweetened occasionally by nostalgias for a spiritual purity that is in fact no longer conceivable.
The seductions of nihilism might best be examined in the confessions of Bidart’s eponymous persona, Ellen West, whose disease–anorexia nervosa–is the expression of her will to heal the breach between the self and the body. Her psychic nature is to be noted for its ethical drive, its intelligence and its confusion. Indeed, West is confused precisely because she is smart enough to recognize the contradictions of personal identity, the compromises of moral excellence, the descents from aesthetic perfection–to all of which her body subjects her. These are not insignificant disappointments. Nor are they to be dismissed as merely the demons of a neurotic personality–much as Nietzsche’s philosophic conclusions are sometimes attributed to syphilitic insanity and so safely trivialized. West’s disease is not the source of her torment, but, is her imagined solution to it. She will not rationalize her monistic ideal, but will identify, she says, her “true self” that is masked otherwise by her temporal selves, by the contradictory forms of her personality, by the flux of her bodily appetites that intrude upon her desire for placidity.
“–My doctors tell me I must give up/this ideal,” she admits, and if you haven’t guessed in the first 8 lines that she is medically disturbed, the mention in the 9th of her “doctors”–medical and psychiatric–relieves the suspense. It also identifies her antagonists in the fight for the terms of her life. Who in our materialist culture are better suited as spokesmen for that materialism than doctors, whose profession it is to insure the repose of our minds and bodies? The good health they assure us is more than physical comfort, more than a simple freedom from pain. Health is also a moral good, a requisite for the pursuit of happiness and a sign of the culturally elect. Doctors are the moral arbiters who adjust our sexual malaises, repair our dysfunctions, remove and replace our faulty parts. So the torment that wastes Ellen West is not only an appeal to their technology–even the common cold invites technology. But her malady, particularly because it is self-willed by its victim, is a challenge as well to their ethical natures.
It is a challenge they fail. Bidart quotes–I presume from the actual case study from which his poem was partially derived–the doctors’ unanimous decision to release West from the hospital: “Result of consultation: Both gentlemen agree completely with my prognosis and doubt any therapeutic usefulness of commitment even more emphatically than I…We therefore resolve to give in to the patient’s demand for discharge.” We should note the inadvertent irony of the wording that escapes the doctor’s professional vigilance. He admits they are “giving in” to the patient’s demand, which, baldly stated, is capitulation and not a cure. He doubts “any therapeutic usefulness of commitment,” though he does not suggest that she is restored to mental and physical soundness. Rather, he is knowingly releasing her to her death, which follows on her third day home when she swallows a mortal dose of poison.
In so defeating her doctors she has, as she hoped, “defeat[ed] ‘Nature,'” which is the ground of their materialist doctrine. From her point of view, her physicians’ desire to reduce the friction that abrades her self–and the body it separately inhabits–merely tampers with the symptoms of her despair. Indeed, the treatment actually irritates the source of her anorexia, for its methods not only objectify her body but what’s worse, reify her selfhood as well. Her therapist incriminates himself: “it is not a case of obsessional neurosis and not one of manic-depressive psychosis….” Notice that she is not even granted the appropriate personal pronoun, but is relegated to an impersonal “it.” As neither a description nor a definition of the self does this clinical summary reveal a humanizing understanding or sympathy. “Only to my husband,” she says in disgust, “I’m not simply a ‘case.'” Since she escapes the terms by which the doctors seek to know her, she similarly escapes any “aid” they could think to offer. They rightly conclude “that no definitely. reliable therapy is possible.”
Yet in escaping from their failure, she does not flee toward a true health, but ironically discloses what she has unexpectedly had in common with her physicians all along: a contempt and distrust for uncontrolled natural processes, and a willingness to apply force to correct them. West does not mistake the terms of the doctors’ humanitarianism, which disguises an aggression that bears very particularly against its patient. No one would deny, for example, the danger or the abuse of surgery on the human body, whatever the ultimate value of its correctives. And psychological diseases encourage a similar assault. West herself is institutionalized, her psyche is therapeutically attacked, and portions of it sterilized, by definition, against her will. Nevertheless, though she can lament her alienation, which she feels ever more acutely the more intently her medical examiners scrutinize her, yet she wields the very same scapel–and with a ferocity her doctors wouldn’t hope to equal. They would claim to reify the body, rightly or wrongly, only in order to isolate the diseased portions of it that threaten the whole organism. Like the old Darwinian cliche, they are a little bit cruel to be a lot kind. Their “defeat” of Nature is partial, they would claim, and ultimately restorative.
West, on the other hand, imagines a total conquest. She would–and indeed does–excise the body entirely, for it, and not portions of it, is the disease that afflicts the soul. In her Cartesianism she has over her physicians the advantage of logical purity. Disease does indeed handicap the self, compelling it to function under adverse and painfully restricting circumstances. The restrictions can range immensely from the distractions of headaches to the trauma of major injury. But poor health is merely a subset of one’s health in general, which is itself merely one of several means by which the human body conditions the self. West is quick to seize another significant condition: her gender. “Why am I a girl?” she asks her doctors, pointing out that “it has such/implications–,” not all of them necessarily favorable.
The doctors’ response–“they tell me they/don’t know, that it is just ‘given'”–is more to the point than they realize. For the body is the manifold of givens, the means by which the self is conditioned in time and space: its gender, its health, its age, its very materiality have profound social, sexual, economic and ethical consequences. And to all of them is Ellen West contingent. Here is the heart of her loathing for the flesh, for the “meat” that her “foolish” husband married instead of the wife he intended: the incidental contingency of her body to which the self is liable. Her identity–her “true self,” which she wants to define as an original self-presence–is subject to a material nature that is alien to it, that imprisons it by establishing the conditions under which it may thrive, and that demeans it with its hungers: “The piece fell to the floor… how I wanted/to reach out,/and as if invisible/shove it in my mouth–.” The self, in short, is dependent; it is neither sovereign nor separate enough.
So it is in the interest of freeing her true self that she assaults the body’s appetites by dictating what she will eat, under what circumstances she will eat it, and in what quantities:
I’d turn down
dinner invitations, so I could eat alone;
I’d allow myself two pieces of bread, with butter, at the beginning, and three scoops of vanilla ice cream, at the end,-‑
Though real, her pleasure in eating lies neither in an aesthetic appreciation of her meal, nor in a sensory gratification of her metabolic requirements. Nor is she merely oblivious. In fact, she eats with the self-consciousness of a dieter, of one whose concern is, in the interest of improved health and appearance, to reduce one’s caloric intake without sacrificing proper nutrition. Yet her incentives for such self-consciousness are not at all nutritional, for she paradoxically combines with her care the indiscriminate appetite of the chronically obese. All that bread, butter and ice cream belies an interest either in trimming her excess fat or in suitable nourishment.
No, the source of her obvious satisfaction is the exercise of her power: she can indulge or frustrate her hunger as she chooses. And in so doing she reestablishes the self’s sovereignty over the body. In neither case–starving or gormandizing–does she allow the body to settle its own limits to its appetites. The point of the meal is to frustrate “natural” responsibilities by usurping the body’s offices, compelling them to be responsible instead to her will. If she prefers starvation, finally, to gluttony, the preference reveals the nature of her true self, which “is thin, all profile/and effortless gestures, the sort of blond/elegant girl whose/body is the image of her soul.” She turns the tables on her material condition by grounding it within her consciousness. In the struggle for dominance, the self is victor, and so secures the conditions of the surrender under which the body is either to function or not.
She prefers it not to function. Her urge for subversion extends beyond a control of her alimentary activities to embrace a similar defeat of aging itself. If she is disgusted by her bodily status quo, she is revolted by her bodily decay:
Even as a child,
I saw that the “natural” process of aging
is for one’s middle to thicken– one’s skin to blotch;
as happened to my mother.
And her mother.
I loathed “Nature.”
We should note here the distinction between aging and death, which are not synonymous. What West desires in her bodily subversion is a realignment that will position the physical within the metaphysical. Aging is hated because it is a sign of mutability, of her descent from spiritual perfection into the ugly ambiguities of deteriorating forms. To subvert aging is to transcend falsehood.
Death is a corollary of this transcendence, which is the separation of the self from the givens of its material experience. The separation cannot be partial. She cannot divorce herself from mutability, from a few select givens without divorcing herself from the ground of them ail. She either grows old, which she loathes, or she dies young–the attraction of which, beyond the escape from bodily decay, is that it avoids compromise. The self will either be expressed perfectly, or not expressed at all–a statement of alternatives that West, with her careful logic, collapses into one proposition. For the self to be voiced without ambiguity, to be perfectly identified, it must not be historical. In reflecting upon the career of Maria Callas, in whom she believes she recognizes a kindred soul, West explains:
The voice too then was enormous–
healthy; robust; subtle; but capable of crude effects, even vulgar,
almost out of high spirits, too much health…
But soon she felt that she must lose weight, — that all she was trying to express
was obliterated by her body, buried in flesh–.
Her soul is that obliterated thing that Callas was trying to express in a voice, as West describes it, enormous, healthy, robust, subtle, crude and vulgar. Such a voice is inappropriate to its genius: the soul is not healthy because it is eternal, to which health is a spurious concept; not robust, but delicate; not subtle, but absolute; not crude or vulgar, but pure and refined
“How her soul,” West continues,
must have loved eating the flesh from her bones,
revealing this extraordinarily mercurial; fragile; masterly creature…
The poles of her dichotomy–soul and flesh–have an ethical tenor reminiscent of Shakespeare’s in his Sonnet 146: “Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss, /And let that pine to aggregate thy store,…/So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men, And death, once dead, there’s no more dying then.” The pleasure to be had in both poems by eroding the flesh lies in clarifying the inverse relation between subject and form–between self and body, soul and voice. Just as Shakespeare’s soul will batten on the body’s decrease, so does West justify for Callas her loss of weight and ruined voice: both were requisites of the soul’s proper manifestation. The degree to which the body is eroded is precisely the degree to which the soul is freed of its obliterating disguises, and so can stand as the mercurial, fragile and masterly creature that it truly is. If to incarnate the self is to falsify it by imprisoning it within an inappropriate mode of expression, then style will be an adulteration: “–I wonder what she feels, now,/listening to her recordings./For they have already, within a few years,/begun to date….”
What Callas is thought to want is the perfect immanence of her soul: an indwelling of self that is uniformly, simultaneously present, not divided and temporized in styles of expression and bodily nature, both of which decay. What is wanted is an intrinsic, not an extrinsic, form. But no immanence can be made eminent without being temporized in an external shape. Like an insect, the soul is invertebrate, the skeletal cuticle outside of the spiritual body. So West can imagine Callas’ soul concluding, appropriately, that “The only way/to escape/the History of Styles/is not to have a body.” Lacking substance, it will lack all the givens entailed by material nature. The soul will be uniform, universal, eternal as an idea. It will be Godly, possessing no attributes but simply abiding as an indivisible self.
The difficulty of such proud status is that its universality might preclude identity:
without a body, who can
know himself at all?
acting; choosing; rejecting; have I
discovered who and what Ellen can be
The question is, will individual sentience persist after the individualizing body is abandoned? Though a loss of individuality does not necessarily preclude a loss, of one’s uniqueness, which West believes is the nature of human sentience, nevertheless the universality of one’s eternal condition precludes there being alternatives among which to choose or reject. Lacking the possibility of realizing its elements through choice and action–through will, in other words–does West in death lack a self?
She concludes, consistently, if desperately, that she will not. Because the self is prior to its incarnation, she can retreat from her earthly existence into her purer former condition.
This I is anterior to name; gender; action;
The self precedes history and all material conditions, to both of which it is alien. To slip from the adulterations of style and form, therefore, is the ultimate ethical consummation. Death rectifies the illusions of matter, secures self-certainty, justifies self-integrity. It is the appropriate flight from compromise, the release from vitiation into perfect self-possession, from which state the self is absolved of all relations whatsoever: those with her husband, those with her “fellow patient to whom she had become so attached,” and particularly those with her own body, which is the source of evil multiplicity. Whereas death is morally enlivening, intimacy is deadening, and life is untenable.
The consummation of her moral vision is appropriately matched by a new self-understanding, which belies, incidentally, the easy psychiatric assumption that self-knowledge is the equivalent of mental health. “I am crippled,” she writes, crippled because she cannot tolerate, in her Cartesian purity, the compromises of human relations:
–How eager I have been
to compromise, to kill this refuser — but each compromise, each attempt
to poison an ideal
which often seemed to me sterile and unreal,
heightens my hunger.
To compromise, which is to poison the ideal, is to frustrate her desire for that ideal and so to intensify her hunger. What she never tries to imagine is a different ideal entirely. So long as her compromises are less attractive than her isolationist purity, West will not desire them. Even as she admits the sterility of her idealized nihilism, she continues to judge its compromises not as valid adjustments, not as justifiable intermediacies, but as capitulations to the givens of an entailed condition. They are an unethical surrender to her humanity. She can love those people who have loved her only when she is sure she has perfected her separation from them. The poem concludes with her suicide letter, which concludes her short-lived concern:
Will you greet with anger, or happiness,
the news which might well reach you before this letter?