Goth, Anachronism, The Cure, Stunted Sexuality

by on Dec.14, 2010

Robert Smith stars in the new Crystal Castles song, “Not In Love,” which I have been listening to non-stop over the past week or so. Mostly I wrote this an excuse to post this songs.

This song came up in my mind when I read Joyelle’s post about Let the Right One In (here’s my post from exoskeleton about the movie in the context of immigration and the welfare state, a not-unrelated-topic to this post).

Gothic art (The Cure for example) is often described in terms of femininity or androgony, and that’s certainly true. Judith Halberstam has a really good book called Skin Shows which is about gender-bending in the gothic, which shows for example how gothic art already in the 19th century was associated with women and prostitution (as opposed to serious, adult, masculine art).

You can see this quite obviously in The Cure and Robert Smith: the lipstick and smeared mascara, the effete/dandy-ish manners, and perhaps most importantly the over-emotionalism of the songs. Too much affect is of course feminine.

But I think you can also see the anachronism Joyelle evokes in her post. Their whole image seems a strange, monstrous mash-up of past eras: the make-up and haircut of Dr Caligari and German Expressionism/Die Neue Sachlichkeit, goofy weimarism (“lovecats” etc), the lipstick and hollywood-orientalism of Jack Smith etc. But also the childish basketball sneakers left without tied shoe strings. And referring to himself as a “boy” in “Boys Don’t Cry.”

And too much affect is of course also childish, immature. Plath is goth poetry for teenage girls: too hysterical, too much affect, too much confusion about the difference between the speaker of the poems and the poet who wrote the poems. All around, not enough adult distance. The way pro-Plath critics have tried to make her palatable: by emphasizing her craft and de-emphasizing her life.

Of course Kate Durbin makes this connection in her now legendary essay about teenage girls:

“A Teenage Girl Speaks As A Melodramatic, Hysterical Demon

The coffin lid lifts. A teenage girl opens her black painted mouth, and out issues the gravelly voice of an old man:

Say teenage girls are attention whores—fashion fanatics, shopaholics, sex crazed, shit-talkers, bulimics, classless gum crackers, & Plath addicts. Loitering between the dress-play innocence of childhood and the plain-clothed penance of womanhood, they parade in shopping malls, movie houses, & back bedrooms, as seething, sequinned receptacles of excessive emotions, hormones, desire.”

In a recent article for Huffington Post, after doing a good job of pointing out the absurdity of American poets constantly worrying about the threats of various kinds to american poets, Wayne Miller writes that one of the things he is worried about is that poets are too childish:

“• Childishness. I understand that poems written in the whiny idiom of a 15-year-old about Barbies and action figures and teenagery romance are, at their best, intended to approach seriousness through the back door. But, come on: we’re adults. We don’t need to apologize for having adult concerns. And if we haven’t stumbled upon them by the time we’re in our mid to late twenties, we should go looking for them. Call me stodgy.”

I can’t help but hear yet another person threatened by “gurlesque” writing in this quote. And this ties in perfectly for me with the other attempts to quarantine the gurlesque: that it’s not progressive (doesn’t “move us forward” as someone wrote) and that it is not properly “new.” It is stunted.

As Calinescu observes in Five Faces of Modernism, there is a direct tie between decadence, gothic and kitsch. Perhaps “anachronism” is part of the string that connects these. Miller invokes a number of “threats” that have been identified to American poetry (decadence, quietism, dadaism etc); what connects these is that they are attacked through the meants of anti-kitsch rhetoric.

In Anachronism and its Other, which Joyelle quotes in her post, Valerie Rohy writes about the connections between blackness, homoeroticism and “atavism” – how these have formed a kind of idea of the “stunted” development by the kind of progress-oriented, positivist thinking that Lee Edelman has called “reproductive futurism”. All these figures are linked to anachronism because they are stunted, undeveloped.

One interesting case: Rohy analyzes Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, pointing out that one of his arguments is that the gothic story (the 19th century story, the kind of writing DH Lawrence loved) – with its incest, homosexuality and interracial romances – interferes with the ability of the american novel to deal with adult romance and concerns.

Rohy writes: “Elaborating the dualistic structure of its title, Love and Death makes all love heterosexual: queer relations turn out not to be love at all, but instead another kind of death, for even when unconsummated, homosexuality joins gothic morbidity at the nether pole of this literary topography.” (17)

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26 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I also think the word “gothic” in itself suggests a kind of stunted-ness – pre-renaissance, not enlightened, “atavistic.”

  2. Josef Horáček

    I recently had my advanced composition class at LSU read Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” With a bit of gentle nudging, they were able to go beyond the “morbid and depressing” surface to see the jarringly irreverent tone and the overly theatrical self-display. I was unable to make them take the next step and consider the possibility that the speaker engaged in self-mockery. Instead, they firmly concluded that the persona/poet’s sole aim was to grab attention at any cost, even if it meant poking fun at suicide and the holocaust. My 20-year-olds were unable to identify with such a “sick and immature” impulse.

    Just an anecdote. Do with it what you will.

  3. adam strauss

    I find the idea (the students’) that “Lady Lazarus” is immature a bit odd: that poem strikes me as being a virtuoso piece, and virtuosity makes me think other terms way before I get to the term immature. Plath strikes me as haute couture a la John Galliano: wild, flamboyant, but also very, very controlled, such that the phrase first-class prosodist, or someone who is a master of cutting, makes more sense than stunted, off, etc.

    I hope all’s well!

  4. Johannes

    Precise is not the opposite of stunted. Galliano is often invoked as a stunted designer – not for the market place, just fanciful (as happened in the last project runway finale).


  5. Johannes

    Also, about Plath: the proof is in the pudding.


  6. adam strauss

    Ok, that may be—but they’re not necessarily synonyms! If stunted and immature are linked terms, can’t they be seen as not likely in the vicinity of precision; maybe it’s just me but precision seems like a mature quality, connoting awareness/an ability to gauge what “works” etc. The Galliano critiques you cite seem, to me, to mistake a difference in aesthetics for stunted: his gowns are gorgeous monsters which–yes–I don’t think work like 90s Versace but they are masterful/displaying beautiful making, stunning fabrics etc.

    I’m confused about Plath and Pudding.

  7. Johannes


    The whole point is to critique this way of thinking and criticizing poetry: some things “work” because they are precise, other things don’t “work” because they’re childish, the point is to think about this anxiety about “arrested development” etc. You’re calling his dresses “monsters” – that’s another motif – “grotesque” – linked to stunted, irresponsible etc. I remember having a discussion with you a while back where you referred to Plath’s use of the term “niggerberries” as tasteless or too sensationalistic – you argued she should have just used “blackberries” – that critique is part of the rhetoric I’m talking about. It seems fashion is almost always on the verge of being ridiculous and immature – as is poetry (in society at large). So is Beauty.

    About “proof is in the pudding” – that means, it’s there, it’s obvious, Plath gets ripped on for this all the time, it’s like people claiming they’ve never heard about MFA students being ripped on – the proof is in the pudding – it’s not up for debate, it’s so obvious.


  8. adam strauss

    Pudding: “blood sweet moutfuls”–am I making this up or is that a line, or in a line, or its break, from Plath?

    Who are some stunted precisionists? Would that–from a perspective antonymic to mine–be like Stein, Bishop, Guy Davenport, Wallace Stevens after Harmonium (seems everyone likes that book and the rest is disputable)? Robert Creeley? Or is it more a matter of minorness, overdoing it, rendering and rendering fold after fold to no cosmos-expanding dynamic–something a la Sontag citing art noveau (yah Victor Horta!)as camp.

    In response to other posting: fakes as strong poetry–yesyesyes! I think Perloff might have made a similar point regarding Yasusada.

    I hope all’s well

  9. Johannes

    I’ve never heard Bishop or Stevens referred to as stunted… But I’m not looking to create a group of poets, more analyzing rhetoric and motifs in art and art reception.

    If I remember Sontag’s “against interpretation” correctly, she think art noveau is “manneristic” -ie too much style! – and that might be part of this rhetoric.


  10. Lucas

    I love that whole Crystal Castles album, but especially this remix because it’s so nostalgic. Robert Smith as teenage hipster. It’s like he’s performing the maladjustment to adulthood Svetlana Boym writes about in the Future of Nostalgia.

    The Wayne Miller quote is so annoying that it’s motivating.


  11. adam strauss

    “Nigger eye berries/Cast dark hooks”–not so much tasteless as dubious regarding racial politics; well, yes, bad taste is an issue: racism that doesn’t even make literal sense seems slightly more unfortunate than dubiousness which is at-least corresponding to a tangible; Arial is a superb poem tho, that I don’t doubt. Plath may be disparaged, but she’s also totally mainstream and with a very, rightfully, solid reputation.

    Gorgeous monster strikes me as a term of endearment!

    “the point is to think about this anxiety about “arrested development”–ok, fair enough, but that doesn’t automatically render an interest in “precision,” finish, superb execution, pointless; I mean Plath fits these criterion to a T!

    I wonder if you are thinking of Sandra Simmonds regarding the berries/eye issue? She has blogged on that line too, and stated how if she substitutes the word jew for nigger she definitely gets why one could be frustrated.

  12. Johannes

    I think you’re trying to make this discussion more clear-cut than it is. Sure Plath is uber-canonical but she’s also troubling to a lot of people (as this comment suggests) for a variety of reasons, and she’s often used as a negative, as an example of what students should stay away from. A term like “mainstream” is really imprecise to me: it doesn’t say who reads it, how they read it, how they write about it, how they (do or don’t ) teach it etc.

    I think your comment about precision is very relevant in this way: the way it does totally refute a common conception that to be Plath-y is to be childish and thus imprecise,vague etc. Often people who are discussed as atavistic are very concerned with form.

    But I don’t know if I want to create a group of stunted writers and a group of unstunted writers etc. See what I’m saying?

    No, I was thinking about an email you sent me a while back. I don’t remember the context for it.


  13. adam strauss

    Sontag does not diss art noveau; she “simply” cites it as a strata of camp.

  14. Johannes

    I’m pretty sure she disses it in “against interpretation” as “mannerism”; or it might be pre-raphealites. Can’t remember.


  15. Johannes

    And yes, gorgeous monster seems a term of endearment to me too, but nonetheless participates in a certain rhetoric that is interesting to think about.


  16. adam strauss

    I agree about Plath and Mainstreamism: mainstreamed, or some more verby word, may be apter; it’s totally true that at the same time that she’s been a part of English class syllabi and anthos and essays, there’s also discomfort: Heaney’s qualm with “Daddy” and its holocaust troping etc; his appreciation of “Elm” I quite like tho—and that poem is I think amazing.

    “precision is very relevant in this way: the way it does totally refute a common conception that to be Plath-y is to be childish and thus imprecise,vague etc”—yes, this is exactly what I was hoping to get at.

    I am with you on not wanting stunted/unstunted as a category; if nothing else, it seems too organic a metaphor to me.

    Something I tbhink that’s so interesting about some later Plath is the fact that there’s simultaneously a raggedness and a sumptuousness; “Lady Lazarus” almost seems to flirt with terza rima, but then the line-lengths are variable etc, so there’s a kind of skeletal spare quality paired to a soundstructure echoing uber “high art.” I could easily be way off, but it almost seems akin to Galliano and his 90,000 dollar dresses with trash printed on it which made some people mad. One of these days I’d like to touch some couture, or be close enough to it to really take a look at the stitches etc.

    I hope all’s well!

  17. Josef Horáček

    Going back to what was said earlier in this thread, virtuosity is a rather unhappy term to use in this context, I think. Sure, we can redefine it for our contemporary situation, just like we redefined “poetry,” “author,” “mimesis,” etc. Those terms simply don’t mean the same thing they did two hundred years ago. But I’m not sure what the payoff for reviving virtuosity would be. For me, it conjures up images of glib crowd-pleasers, people like Mozart. (A pertinent counterexample to Plath, in fact. A child prodigy, that is, an immature artist displaying the trappings of maturity. Plath, on the other hand, is often seen as an adult who refused to grow up, to go back to Johannes’ post). For me, virtuosity is too closely tied to notions of mastery and perfection (not the same thing as precision, mind you). In that line of thinking, Mozart is a virtuoso and Plath is a failure. She failed both as a confessional poet and as a dramatic personae poet. Sure, we can call this virtuosity in the modern era, but what’s the point?

  18. Johannes

    Yes, I think this is why I get troubled by the way some people have tried to recuperate Plath as a master craftsperson, stressing the formal aspect and trying to rid her of all the “problems”- sensationalism, “confessionalism”, the grotesque, the holocaust kitsch etc.


  19. Josef Horáček

    What I mean to say is that Plath failed to master established forms and genres. And I don’t mean that as a critique.

  20. adam strauss

    Virtuosity can afford pleasure would be my vote in favor of it, but I guess that could be in line with crowd pleasing which is apparently not good: this mystifies me somewhat, as yah in a duh political sense crowd-pleasing can be very yikes-yikes, but I feel like “One Art” (for example) is workin’ a different pleasure/different crowd. Too, rigorous, or rigourusly messed with, form can be a great means of making the words of a poem spark and shimmy and do all sorts of hot moves would be one reason I am a yaysayer for virtuosity…Plath as failed dramatic personae baffles me; her dramatic poems strike me as tour de forces…I guess my sense of her words/the concept of virtuosity is off/esoteric/personal. Oh well and I hope all’s well.

  21. Johannes

    I don’t think anyone is saying she’s not great. This is about the way she is talked about.


  22. adam strauss

    Is the failure as a confessional poet in large part due to her being a dramatic personae poet? If anything I’d argue that her huge aplomb with DP is why she could be seen as failing as a confessional; except that’s not a clear failure!

    Ok, I should shut-up.

  23. adam strauss

    I agree–but I’m unclear on what makes her great if one takes away her massive skill as a words worker; if she’s not a virtuoso, and fails at set forms (disputable) and being confessional and being a dramtic personae, then where does the greatness emanate from? Verve, sass, audacity–sure, but that strikes me as inextricable from her composition.

    On a different note: are you still interested in trying out a collaborative look at Warsaw Bikini?

    I hope all’s well!

  24. Johannes

    Adam, it’s about the connotations of “virtuosity.” It’s not that she’s not an interesting poet.

  25. adam strauss

    I’m guessing “interesting” is meant as not excluding form?

    Somewhat different note–somewhat not; do you like the poems of Daphne Gottlieb? I recently read her book Final Girl (Or is it Last Girl?) and love(d) it and very much recommend it.

  26. Johannes

    Havne’t read that, but I’ve read the Carol Clover book in which she coined the term Final Girl. It’s about horror movies. I’ll check it out.