Posts Tagged ‘Mark Anspach’

The shadow of her father: an anthropologist’s take on Sylvia Plath

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018


Getting “back, back, back to you”: Sylvia Plath with her parents.

The publication of Sylvia Plath’s last letters to her psychiatrist and other letters, too, has put the controversial Plath, one of the top American poets of the twentieth century, back in the news.

We’ve published a couple guest posts from anthropologist Mark Anspach (here and here), and one Q&A about his new book, Vengeance in Reverse. Mark had thoughts about the Plath legend – with a Girardian twist. He has given us permission to publish his words: 

The death of her father when she was eight left Sylvia Plath – in the words of her poem “The Colossus” – “married to shadow.” On February 11, 1963, Plath widowed her estranged husband, poet Ted Hughes, by committing suicide at age 30.

Many blamed Hughes for his wife’s death. At the time, he was having an affair with a mutual friend who went on to commit suicide herself. Why did the women who were drawn to him take their own life?

“Every woman adores a Fascist,” Plath wrote in one of her most famous poems. “The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you.” To his accusers, Hughes was a brute who kissed the girls and made them die. But Plath’s suicide likely had much deeper roots.

Death as sequel

In Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson asserts that she had already tried to cut her throat when she was ten years old. Earlier biographies and the poems themselves suggest that she was traumatized at a tender age by her father’s death.

In fact, the line “Every woman adores a Fascist” comes from the poem “Daddy.” Her father is the jack-booted brute who bit her “pretty red heart in two,” the “panzer-man” who scared her with his “neat moustache” and “Aryan eye,” his Luftwaffe and swastika. At least that is what the narrator says in this deliberately over-the-top poem.

In The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath, biographer Ronald Hayman suggests that she had actually worshipped her father when she was a little girl, doting on his praise. A hard-working, studious blacksmith’s son who immigrated to America as a teenager and forged an academic career teaching German and biology, Otto Plath was not a Nazi.

But he was an iron-willed domestic tyrant who subjugated Sylvia’s mother – a bright former student twenty-one years his junior – and may well have had a sadistic streak. To show off his disdain for the conventional prejudices that govern human behavior, Hayman writes, “he used to skin a rat, cook it and eat it in front of his students.”

The most brutal thing Otto did in Sylvia’s eyes was to abandon her by dying early. “Daddy” presents her first famous suicide attempt – the one described in her novel The Bell Jar – as an effort to be reunited with him. But after the doctors “stuck me together with glue,” she writes, “then I knew what to do”:

I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.

The man in black with the Meinkampf look was Ted Hughes, perennially decked out in his bohemian poet’s uniform: a regulation black sweater and black pants. She knew of his sadistic streak when she married him, confiding to a horrified mentor about his habit of “bashing people around.” But that didn’t stop her from saying “I do.”

Or rather “I do, I do” – as if she were wedding two men: not just Ted, but Daddy. For a poet who could write “I dream that I am Oedipus” (“The Eye-mote”) and blithely address her father as “bridegroom” (“The Beekeeper’s Daughter”), psychoanalyzing herself was easy – maybe too easy.

When she tells her father “I made a model of you,” she seems to mean that Ted was a stand-in for the man she really desired, the way a model train is a replica of the original. But the words “I made a model of you” may have a broader scope. Sylvia could easily have taken Otto’s premature death as a model for her own suicidal behavior, as the following lines from “Daddy” hint:

I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.

By saying she was ten rather than eight, Plath conflates the year of her father’s death and that of her own first suicidal gesture as revealed in Andrew Wilson’s book – although in “Lady Lazarus” she would allude obliquely to this “first time” as “an accident.”

Yet both poems put the emphasis on repetition: “I have done it again./One year in every ten,” she announces in “Lady Lazarus,” prefiguring her ultimate suicide at age 30. “Daddy” allows us to see her three attempts to end her own life – at ten, twenty, and thirty – as three efforts to get “back, back, back” to her father.

But if the repetition is rooted in imitation – if she made a model of her father – then she did not just want to go back to him; she wanted to do the same thing he did. “Though he didn’t quite kill himself,” Ronald Hayman notes, “he had set a suicidal example.” At age 50, when he developed symptoms similar to those of a friend who was dying of cancer, Otto Plath stubbornly refused to see a doctor.

His friend had undergone several futile operations, and Otto, who prided himself on his independent-mindedness, was determined to avoid unnecessary surgery. He had diagnosed his own cancer and did not want to put himself in the hands of doctors. If he was destined to die of cancer, so be it. He would accept his fate like a man.

Except that he did not have cancer at all, but diabetes. The condition could have been treated with insulin if only it had been caught in time. Four years later, when he complained of a stubbed foot, his wife saw that the toes were black, with red streaks going up the ankle. His gangrenous leg had to be amputated. A few weeks later he was dead.

According to Hayman, Sylvia regarded her father’s death as suicidal and “started to think about her own death as the unavoidable sequel to his.” This suggests that Sylvia Plath’s death wish was what the late Stanford theorist René Girard would call a mimetic desire – one imitated from somebody else.

He knew.

In his classic work Violence and the Sacred, Girard says the objects we crave most are prized less for their intrinsic value than for the importance conferred on them by an admired model: “If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being.”

When Sylvia was a little girl, she looked up to her father as the most formidable man she knew. Because of his early death, that is the way he remained forever fixed in her memory – as the giant of the poem “Colossus.”

Nothing could be less intrinsically desirable than death. But if her father, that forbidding giant of a man, willingly embraced it, then death might well have appeared to Sylvia as the only object capable of conferring on her the greater plenitude that in her deep unhappiness she felt she lacked.

“Lynching Qaddafi”: an anthropologist’s p.o.v.

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Mark Anspach is an anthropologist and author of  Vengeance in Reverse. The Book Haven recently published a Q&A about the book here. We also posted about an earlier piece he wrote on mass murderer Anders Behring Brevik here. Mark is the editor of Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire by René Girard (Stanford, 2004). He is a contributor to Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, edited by Scott R. Garrels (MSU, 2011). 

The story Mark tells here is new and old. It was originally published online in November 2011, but disappeared. We had hoped to republish it here in 2016, but held off in the upheaval after the elections. The story of lynching, however, is “evergreen” – and so we publish it today:

An on-camera lynching

“I’m good at killing people,” President Obama said. While claiming a proficiency at targeted assassinations is not the usual boast of a Nobel peace prize winner, it signals a change.  “We came, we saw, he died,” said Hillary Clinton at the death of Muammar Qaddafi. 

With everyone agreeing Qaddafi was a monster, the outcry over the way he died caught the Libyan rebels by surprise. A member of the National Transitional Council shrugged off criticism. “They beat him very harshly and then they killed him,” he said. “This is a war.”1

When videos showed rebels brutalizing their dazed and bloody prey, Libya’s new rulers bowed to demands for an investigation, but the impression remained that they didn’t really grasp what all the fuss was about.

Call it a cultural misunderstanding. Is it the Libyans’ fault if they don’t see what’s wrong with an old-fashioned lynching? Maybe we should turn the question around and ask why the images of Qaddafi’s final moments make us so uneasy.

A comment from the first Western journalist on the scene holds a hidden clue.  Describing cell phone footage of Qaddafi’s capture on the outskirts of Sirte, he wrote that the aging dictator who had once dreamed of uniting Africa “no longer bore any resemblance to a self-styled ‘king of kings’.”2

At first glance, this assertion seems self-evidently true. But is it?

Mark on mic

 Let’s forget Libya for a moment and imagine the following scene. Soldiers swarm around a prisoner, strip him of his clothes, mock and torment him and finally put him to death. The victim of the execution is a pitiable figure, bloodied and helpless to resist his captors – and yet, 2000 years later, his followers still call him the King of Kings.

The centrality of this story in our culture has trained us to be suspicious whenever we see someone treated the way Jesus was at the hands of Roman soldiers. That is true no matter who the victim is or what he may have done to deserve his fate.

Obviously, no one would mistake Muammar Qaddafi for a Prince of Peace, but that’s not the point. The very fact of lynching, in and of itself, is what we find unacceptable. As cultural theorist René Girard has long contended that the crucifixion of Jesus gave lynching a bad name.

That is not to say that Western societies have been immune to mob violence – far from it. We know that in our own country, between the late 1800’s and the 1960’s, thousands of black citizens were lynched. And we have been culpably silent today in the face of persistent reports from Libya that blacks have been attacked by rebel mobs.3

Nevertheless, in our culture, the crucifixion story is there to serve as a template for opposition to any kind of lynching. African-American writer Gwendolyn Brooks expresses this idea forcefully in the closing lines of her poem “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock – Fall, 1957”:

The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.
The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.

In younger days, 1970s (Photo: Stevan Kragujevic)

The rest of the poem emphasizes the disarming ordinariness of the people in a Southern town where black children faced racist violence when they tried to attend a white school. For the visiting reporter from a Northern black newspaper, this ordinariness is a “puzzle”:

The biggest News I do not dare
Telegraph to the Editor’s chair:
“They are like people everywhere.”

Throughout history, people everywhere have been prone to outbursts of violence like those that have marked the civil war in Libya. The real puzzle, perhaps, is how the human race ever managed to survive at all.

For René Girard, the answer lies in the paradoxical capacity of violence itself to reconcile people by bringing them together in a joint assault on a common victim or scapegoat. The cathartic elimination of an individual thought to embody all the evils afflicting the group temporarily restores unity and makes possible the founding of a new order.

“All the evils have vanished from this beloved country,” proclaimed transitional premier Mahmoud Jibril upon announcing the killing of Qaddafi. “It’s time to start a new Libya, a united Libya, one people, one future.”5

However much evil Qaddafi may have wrought, he cannot have been the only wrongdoer in the country. To claim otherwise is to make a scapegoat of him. In fact, despite what one might think, a scapegoat doesn’t have to be innocent. On the contrary, the guiltier he is, the more convincingly he can stand in for all other guilty parties and be sacrificed in their stead.

“It is important to cultivate the future victim’s supposed potential for evil, to transform him into a monster of iniquity,” writes Girard. This explains certain mysterious African royal rituals where the future king must commit forbidden sexual acts or violent crimes: the ruler himself is being set up as a scapegoat who must appear “worthy” of punishment.

In later days, 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)

The scapegoat king unites his subjects around him by uniting them against him. Insulted by the crowd during the installation ceremony, he may even face a mock attack by the royal army. Although he is not actually killed at the beginning of his rule, he often is killed at the end. Originally, the “king reigns only by virtue of his future death,” Girard writes. He is “no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice.”6

In an earlier article on the Arab revolts, we argued that the fall of rulers like Mubarak restores them to the immemorial role of scapegoat kings. The photograph illustrating our text showed a placard in Tahrir Square that depicted Mubarak, Qaddafi and other Arab dictators as sheep awaiting sacrifice.

In the case of the Libyan leader, the photo proved prophetic. Through a chance twist of fate, Qaddafi was ultimately tracked down in a culvert that “opened next to a clutch of empty sheep pens.”7 By treating him like a sacrificial lamb,8 his captors briefly returned him to the central position he had gradually lost in the course of the war.

After his shirtless corpse was put on display in Misurata, thousands of Libyans from near and far made the pilgrimage to the rebel stronghold. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Richard II, they were eager to see “undecked the pompous body of a king” – and to capture the image on their cell phones, carrying it away with them as the high-tech equivalent of a holy relic.

For four days, the endless procession of onlookers filed past Qaddafi’s mortal remains. One reporter called the scene “a grim parody of the lying in state typically accorded to deceased leaders.”9 Even when Qaddafi’s one-time subjects came to curse him, it was hard to avoid the thought that they were also paying him a perverse kind of homage.

He figured it out.

The ambiguity of the situation is rooted in the dual nature of the scapegoat. If his death seems to make every evil vanish, then he has performed a miracle for which the people can only be grateful. By drawing all hatred to himself, he has become a mystical source of unity. For this reason, Girard suggests, we should not be surprised to find him transformed into “a sort of cult object” and “surrounded by a quasi-religious aura of veneration.”10

The owner of a house where Qaddafi’s body was exhibited like a cult object said, “This was the opportunity of my life. If I die tomorrow, I’m happy.”11 But knowledgeable observers fear the joy of Libyans will be short-lived. Their homeland is “shot through with rivalries, jealousies and blood debts,” notes Tarak Barkawi of Cambridge University. “Now it has lost the one thing that united much of the country: hatred of Colonel Gaddafi and his regime.”12

Already, the problem of how to dispose of the Colonel’s body caused unseemly bickering behind the scenes. In the end, the solution found was straight out of Leviticus: like the biblical scapegoat, the dead dictator was sent away into the desert. But he can hardly have taken the country’s ills with him.

Today the would-be “king of kings” rests peaceably in an unmarked grave. Yet the deep-seated conflicts that divide Libya – between East and West, between rival tribes, between Arabs and blacks – are likely to come roaring back. They will not be so easy to bury under the sand.

Footnotes below the fold…


“Vengeance in Reverse”: exchanging pleasantries instead of punches

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

I met anthropologist Mark Anspach on the internet a few years ago, when I was looking for someone to offer some online insight into the mind and motives of Anders Behring Breivik, the man who murdered nearly eighty young people in Norway in 2011. I posted about it in “Anders Behring Breivik: The Victim of Nobody” here

Mark and I have been penpals ever since, and have even met on a few occasions, for he has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, and still retains connections here – one of them our mutual regard for René Girard, who has been influential on Mark’s  thinking. He is now affiliated with the Institut Marcel Mauss at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. 

His new book intrigued me: Vengeance in Reverse plays on René’s theories about the inevitability of reciprocity. Although violent mimetic behavior (e.g., I hit you, you hit me) gets a bad name, René points out it is still essentially rooted in an impulse that is positive, because it pulls us out of ourselves and towards others: “It is everything. It can be rivalrous; but it is also the basis of heroism, others, and everything,” he has said, in a quote I include in my imminent Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard“But whether you exchange compliments, niceties, greetings, or insinuations, indifference, meanness, bullets, atom bombs, it’s always an exchange. You always give to the other guy what he’s giving to you, or you try to do so.”

Mark is considered “one of today’s most important figures in French social theory and cultural anthropology,” according to Mark Cladis of Brown University. So, a few questions to Mark about his new book:

Vengeance in reverse.” Provocative title – can you tell us what it means?

The urge to strike back is very basic, but vengeance is only the negative form of a more general phenomenon: reciprocity. In a blood feud, one side takes a life, then the other side takes a life in return. In positive reciprocity, one side gives something of value, then the other side gives in return. Reciprocal giving is the cornerstone of human interaction.

Mark in action.

As Marcel Mauss showed in The Gift, social life in premodern cultures revolves around gift exchange. I argue that gift exchange is like vengeance in reverse. It’s not just that one is the opposite of the other. There is an actual reversal in orientation. When people trade blows, each looks back to a previous event: you hit me because I hit you before that. With giving, each can look forward to what comes next.

That is, if I give you a gift, I can look forward to receiving a return gift. Right?

Right, whereas nobody looks forward to receiving a return blow! In vengeance, people are not looking to get a return – each side views its action as final, conclusive. Yet each action does provoke a return, so that everyone hurtles on in the wrong direction. Making a gift is a way to reverse course. This is a case where seeing into the future is not so difficult. It doesn’t take a crystal ball.

We know there is a tendency for any act, good or bad, to be reciprocated, so why not take advantage of that? Initiating a sequence of positive reciprocity gives everyone something to look forward to.

Revenge: it didn’t do much for Romeo and Juliet.

Who goes first, though? Someone is sending you anthrax — you reply with chocolates? Isn’t it dangerous to go first?

Whoever struck the last blow has to go first. In a blood feud, the murderer must make an offering to the victim’s group. The same principle holds in everyday life. If someone offends you, they’re the ones who need to send chocolates! People can get caught up in petty feuds over trifles. Often a small gesture will turn things around, and there is usually little to lose by showing oneself to be generous. But you are absolutely right that in a violent conflict, taking the initiative to seek peace can be dangerous. Let me tell you a true story from contemporary Albania.

A young man tried to rape a girl. Her brothers saved her just in time, but the family wanted to take revenge — and I don’t mean by shaming the offender with a nasty tweet! They were going to come after him. But he let a friend tie him up and stand him in a field in front of the girl’s assembled relatives. The friend said, “If you want to kill him, kill him. But then his family will come and kill one of you.” The man whose life was on the line had to be nervous, but in this instance going first worked. Both sides knew that once blood is spilled, the ensuing feud can last indefinitely. Post-communist Albania has seen a resurgence of the kind of vendetta described by Ismail Kadare in his historical novel Broken April.

He figured it out.

I’ve just written a review in the New York Times Book Review about Kadare, so naturally I’m pleased that you use Gjorg from Broken April in your first chapter.

Kadare’s novel was a key source of inspiration for me. Gjorg is a tragic figure. He has no taste for killing, but when his brother is murdered, he must avenge the family honor and become a killer himself. The ancient code of the Albanian blood feud leaves him no choice. Yet killing the killer does not bring closure; it merely triggers a new cycle of revenge. Gjorg’s fate is to be killed by his victim’s kin. When, as custom demands, he attends the funeral meal for the man he killed, he cannot stop looking ahead to the next funeral meal — the one that will be held for him. Gjorg knows very well what will happen next, but he is helpless to change course. Kadare’s protagonists cannot escape the framework of negative reciprocity. Moving from violence to peaceful exchange is extremely tricky.

Like Kadare, you also find precedents in the ancient Greeks, for example, in Homer’s Iliad.

Don’t forget!

Homer offers an example where the framework of the interaction changes. Two enemy warriors, Diomedes and Glaukos, meet in the thick of battle to engage in single combat. When they discover that their forebears had exchanged gifts long ago, a new context is born. Not only do the two warriors decide not to fight, they seal their own friendship by trading coats of armor right there on the battlefield!

The role of gift exchange in peacemaking could not be clearer. The speech Diomedes makes is just as interesting. He doesn’t merely invoke the past; he conjures up a peaceful vision of the future by announcing that he and Glaukos will take turns extending hospitality to each other in years to come. In effect, he says they’re going to be exchange partners tomorrow, so they can’t kill each other today! It’s a gambit that works through impeccably circular reasoning.

It’s a tangled loop, then.

Exactly! Negative and positive reciprocity are equally loopy phenomena. Violence is a vicious circle; peaceful exchange is a virtuous one. There’s no getting away from circularity, but we can do our best to shape the circles in which we find ourselves.

Postscript: On the other hand, given human nature, sometimes even positive reciprocity can backfire.

Anders Behring Breivik: the “victim of nobody”

Monday, March 5th, 2012

I remember reading about the Norway massacres as the story unfolded on Twitter last July.  First suspicion focused on Islamic terrorist groups that had (it was supposed) made good on their stated threats. Then the drift of the tweets began to turn, like a river rounding a bend, toward a different perp. Finally the murderer had a name, and it was someone unknown, a misfit named Anders Behring Breivik.  I wrote about it here, wondering if, perhaps, Breivik wasn’t insane after all, as so many had immediately assumed:

Perhaps we are dealing with a new psychology, a new class of criminal – aided and abetted by technology and mass communication – and none of our usual boxes fit.  Perhaps psychology itself doesn’t fit.  As [Jean-Marie] Apostolidès said, some in this growing class of murderers are more than willing to kill brutally to promote their ideas.

A scary thought, and apparently a contagious one.  Each atrocity attempts to outdo the other in scope and depravity.  It seems like we are trapped, globally, in an irreversible spiral of imitated violence.  Violence, as René Girard notes, spreads mimetically like a fever over the planet.

Someone else has picked up on the René Girard theme. Anthropologist Mark Anspach at Imitatio (the foundation launched to promote and study René’s ideas) describes Breivik as “a hopeless nebbish,” yet a dangerous one: “being taken for a nobody filled him with murderous rage. He was bent on venting that rage in a way that would make people finally remember his name.” Anspach discussed what we’ve learned from the recently released police tapes, after Breivik telephoned the police following his first round of murders.

The call began smoothly enough. “Hello,” he said, “my name is Commander Anders Behring Breivik of the Norwegian Anti-Communist Resistance. I am in Utoeya at the moment. I want to hand myself in.” Clearly, he had rehearsed those words many times and managed to recite them with only a slight catch in his voice.

Camus's antihero gets another look

But the policeman didn’t stick to the script in Breivik’s head. He asked a question that stumped the self-styled resistance commander. “What number are you calling from?”

Breivik was using a phone he had picked up off the ground. He had no idea what number he was calling from. Like a pupil caught unprepared by a pop quiz, he tried to finesse the question. “I am calling from a cell phone,” he said.

But the policeman wouldn’t let him off so easily. “You’re calling from your cell…?”

“It’s not mine,” Breivik explained helplessly. “It’s another phone.” The conversation must have bewildered him. Why did it matter what phone he was using when he had just mowed down scores of young people with an automatic weapon?

Didn’t the policeman understand that he, Commander Anders Behring Breivik of the Norwegian Anti-Communist Resistance, had just carried off the biggest terrorist operation in his country’s postwar history?

The policeman’s next question was crushing. “What was your name again?”

That was the last straw. Breivik hung up and went back to killing unarmed civilians.

Anspach says that with the dissolution of traditional bonds of families and communities, some fall through the cracks: “They are the victims of nobody in particular and of everybody in general,” he says.  Anspach cites French-Canadian philosopher Paul Dumouchel‘s recent book, Le Sacrifice inutile,  which calls this new class of people “victims of nobody, individuals against whom no one has committed any offense.” According to Dumouchel, they are “the victims of generalized indifference. An indifference that must not be construed as a psychological disposition of certain agents, but as a new institutional arrangement.”

Anspach also cites René’s discussion of Albert Camus‘s L’Etranger in his essay, “Camus’s Stranger Retried,” in which René argues that the antihero “prefers to be persecuted rather than ignored.”

Read the rest here. It’s fascinating.