Citizens of the Necropastoral: Lady Lazarus and Kubla Kahn

by on Jan.20, 2011

This pose post is a continuation of my thinking about necropastoral and Plath, with a shout out to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I use the term necropastoral to highlight the fact that the pastoral is always unnatural in all the senses of that word (artificial, perverse). In its classical form, the pastoral is a kind of membrane on the urban, an artificial, counterfeit, impossible, anachronistic version of an alternative world that is actually the urban’s double, contiguous, and thus both contaminatory and ripe for contamination, a membrane which, famously, Death (and Art) can easily traverse (Hence, Et in Arcadia Ego).

The famous poem “Lady Lazarus” theatrically demonstrates the fact that Death is both a reversible, traversable membrane and the point at which the body is revealed to be not so much animated by the soul but diabolically re-animated, as the successive stunt-deaths of Lady Lazarus make clear. Rather than natural, the body is an Artwork, and so, famously, is “Dying.” The addressees should “Beware” Lady Lazarus not only because she “eat[s] men like air” but because she represents unnatural Art, Art outside natural laws, Art as total artifice. The repetition of “Beware” is a direct illusion to the kind of Art-Ban conceived at the end of Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn”:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

In this passage, we see the contagious nature of Art, and how it makes a membrane of material and presses through from Artist to Artist. The speaker conceives of himself as reanimating the corpse of Art within him, of being possessed by it. The “deep delight” this reanimation a la Lady Lazarus would cause would press through him into music conceived as a kind of excess, “loud and long” which, with diabolic synesthesia, would allow him to make an art object whose description is itself surfeited with exclamation: “That sunny dome! those caves of ice!”. Here Art would suffer another double medial transformation, back into music and then back into a structure: “All who heard should see them there.” Importantly, this compulsive transfer of Art from medium to medium makes mediums of Artists themselves, “her”, “me”, and “all.” The “all” receive the impulse of art and respond both with exclamation, a direct transfer of Art’s excess into excess, “Beware!Beware!” and the ejaculatory production of a new image of the speaker, “His flashing eyes, his floating hair!” which has not yet entered the poem. Finally they conceive of an Art Ban, but importantly, even this Ban or Hex is an Art performance: “weave a circle round him thrice/And close your eyes with holy dread”. This plague-dance is supposed to keep the plague of Art away, but clearly the participants have already been infected with Art’s drive, Art’s compulsion.

This ban is necessary because the ejaculatory contagion of “his” Art proves that he has already been infected by crossing into the afterlife and taking the materials of the afterlife into his body: “he on honey-dew hath fed/And drunk the milk of Paradise.” This taking into the body directly recoups the taking into the body of Art: “could I revive within me/her symphony and song”. So compelling is this fluxing motion of Art from body to body, form to form, that the reader is likely to forget that the entire sentence is subjunctive: “Could I […]/ I would.” Art’s subjunctive quality, it’s there/not there quality, “I’m no more your mother”, “I’m no more your mother/than”, is its duplicitous quality, its diabolical quality, the ability of fantasy to seek, like a virus, host media, to continually amplify and ejaculate itself from one man to “all”. Such Art is synonymous with deathliness; such motion is indeed traffic with the dead.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    This also remind me of Breton’s automatic writing with its decidedly female character (Lady Automaton might be another name for Plath’s stunt speaker).


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