Susan Gubar: On "Lady Lazarus"
[NB. Prosopopoeia: a rhetorical figure involving the adoption of the voices of the imagined, absent dead.]
If identification with the victims who could not disidentify with their tormentors constitutes the trap of prosopopoeia in "Daddy," the trope functions as a trip in "Lady Lazarus." What does it mean to think of the imperilled Jews as—to borrow a phrase Maurice Blanchot used to approach the complex subject of Holocaust-related suicides—fetishized "masters of un-mastery"? The wronged speaker here can only liberate herself from "Herr Doktor" or "Herr Enemy" by wresting the power of persecution from him and turning it against herself. We know that the ongoingness of the torments of the Shoah perpetuated postwar suicides, but did those casualties mutate into mystic scapegoats whose envied status as paradigmatic victims would in turn generate ersatz survivor-celebrities? This is one way to grasp the shock of "Lady Lazarus," for the narcissistic and masochistic speaker has become obsessed with dying, relates to it as "a call." With her skin "Bright as a Nazi lampshade," her foot "A paperweight," and her face "featureless, fine / Jew linen," Lady Lazarus puts her damage on theatrical display through her scandalous suicide artistry (244). Have Jews been made to perform the Trauerspiel for a "peanut-crunching crowd" at the movies and on TV, like the striptease entertainer through whom Plath speaks? Does Lady Lazarus's "charge" at making death feel "real" and at "the theatrical / / Comeback" anticipate a contemporary theatricalization of the Holocaust? Certainly, her vengeful warning that "there is a charge / for the hearing of my heart" evokes the charge—the cheap thrill and the financial price and the emotional cost—of installations, novels, testimonials, college courses, critical essays, and museums dedicated to the six million.
The commodification of Lady Lazarus's exhibitionism issues in spectators paying "For a word or a touch / Or a bit of blood / / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes"; she brags about her expertise at the art of dying: "I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real" (245, emphasis mine). The spectacular quality of Plath's figure adumbrates the notorious celebrity of a writer like Benjamin Wilkomirski, whose gruesome bestseller Fragments (about a child's experiences in the camps) was praised as "free of literary artifice of any kind" before it was judged to be a fraud. In remarks that gloss Plath's suicide-performer's pandering to her audience, Daniel Ganzfried argued that Wilkomirski's suicide would be read as an authentication of his identity as a victim: "These people talking about suicide will suggest it to him. . . . Some of his supporters would love him dead because then it looks like proof that he's Wilkomirski." Plath's poetry broods upon—just as Ganzfried's argument reiterates—the contamination of the very idea of the genuine. As Blanchot cautions, " If there is, among all words, one that is inauthentic, then surely it is the word 'authentic."' To the extent that the impresario of Plath's stage, "Herr God" / "Herr Lucifer," has reduced Lady Lazarus from a person to an "opus" or a "valuable," the poem hints that even reverential post-Shoah remembrances may be always-already defiled by the Nazi perpetrators—that prosopopoeia will not enable the poet to transcend the tarnished uses to which the past has been, can be, will be put. In the voice of a denizen of disaster, Plath mocks the frisson stimulated by the cultural industry she herself helped to spawn.
Revolted by her own dehumanization, Lady Lazarus then imagines triumphing over the murderous Nazis by turning vengeful herself, if only in the incendiary afterlife conferred by the oven:
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.
Herr God. Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
As it feeds on "men like air"—predatory psychic dictators but also perhaps men turned to smoke—the red rage that rises out of the ashes only fuels self-combustion, debunking the idea of transcendence or rebirth at the end of the poem. With its ironic echo of the conclusion of Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn"—"Beware, beware, his flashing eyes, his floating hair"—"Lady Lazarus" repudiates Romantic wonder at the power of the artist, replacing the magical "pleasure dome" of his artifice with the detritus to which the Jewish people were reduced. The poem's speech act amounts to a caustic assessment of the aesthetic sellout, the disaster-imposter luminary: "there is nothing there—." That no consensus exists among contemporary historians over whether the Nazis made cakes of soap out of their victims (though they certainly did "manufacture" hair and skin, rings and fillings and bones) drives home the bitter irony that propels the poem, namely that imaginative approaches to the Shoah may distort, rather than safeguard, the dreadful but shredded historical record. Reenactments of the calamity, including her own, are indicted, even as Plath issues a warning that they will take their toll.
Will the figure of prosopopoeia, so seductive for poets from Jarrell and Plath to Simic and Rich, outlive its functions as the Holocaust and its atrocities recede into a past to which no one alive can provide firsthand testimony? Or will the imperatives of "post-memory" imbue this rhetorical strategy—which insists on returning to the unbearable rupture of suffering—with newfound resonance once the Shoah can no longer be personally recalled? Given the passage of time as well as the flood of depictions of the catastrophe, the very vacuity of the desecrated (buried alive, incinerated, unburied, dismembered) bodies that licensed the personifications of prosopopoeia may make verse epitaphs seem shoddily inadequate. Plath's taunting sneer—"I turn and burn. / Do not think I underestimate your great concern" (246)—chronologically preceded the highly profitable entertainment industry the Holocaust business has so recently become. However, besides forecasting it, "Lady Lazarus" offers up a chilling warning about the fetishization of suffering with which the figure of prosopopoeia flirts. Indeed, Plath's verse uncannily stages the bases for accusations of exploitation, larceny, masochism, and sensationalism that would increasingly accrue around Holocaust remembrance. In addition, her impersonation of the real victims invariably generates awareness of the spurious representation put in the place of the absence of evidence. Calling attention to what Geoffrey Hartman and Jean Baudrillard term our propensity to adopt a "necrospective," poems deploying prosopopoeia draw us closer to an event that is, simultaneously, distanced by their debased status as merely simulated and recycled image-substitutions.
From "Prosopopoeia and Holocaust Poetry in English: Sylvia Plath and Her Contemporaries." Yale Journal of Criticism (2001)