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A Reading: Robert Lowell's 'Life Studies'

BY: p.suresh kumar R.panneerselvam | Category: Others | Submitted: 2012-04-16 09:07:37
 
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The poems in Life Studies were revolutionary in their frankly autobiographical content and prosaic style. In that volume Lowell turned away from the tightly structured and symbolic poetry of his early work and toward a new mode which would be more in touch with his direct experience. This change was related to the personal experience he underwent at that time. During the 1950s, Lowell was in an artistic and psychological crisis. He recollected his private experience and projected it upon contemporary American culture. Especially, he extended his mental breakdown to American life of his age: He created the myth of " an American(and a contemporary civilization generally ) whose history and present predicament are embodied in those of his own family ad epitomized in his own psychological experience "(Rosenthal 1967) Lowell sought his self last within time by recalling memories embedded in his childhood, and transported them to a national level. The 1950s was the age of the cold War and conformity represented by the names of Senator McCarthy and President Eisenhower. In such a time the integrity of the individual self was under deep threat from governmental agencies and ominous social institutions. Lowell's reaction to this situation was to explore the deepest reaches and the most extremes experiences of private being and, concomitantly, to read in his own personal experience the lesson of the age generally, so that his mental breakdown became the mental breakdown of contemporary American civilization.

Lowell himself commented of the years prior to Life studies: "Life Studies was a windfall It was after sic or seven years ineptitude--a Slack of eternity. I remember a cousin proving to someone that I was finished--at only thirty-nine! Five messy poems in five years" (Robert Lowe4ll: Interviews and Memories 156). At the same time, he tried to work on an autobiographical memoir, but he regarded it as something of failure. Lowell has described this memoir as follows: "The prose was an awful job to do. It took a long time and I think it could be less concentrated with more stings or something like that" (Robert Lowell: Interviews and memories 80).
He finally published the first version of 91 Revere Street in the Partisan Review in 1956.

It was during the 1950s that Lowell first suffered from manic takes which lasted throughout the rest of his life. In August, 1952, he was taken to an Army hospital in Munich because of a manic attack. "A Mad Negro Solider Confined at Munich" was derived from this experience. The manic attack in April of 1954 was more severe than the previous one. After that, Lowell was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Life studies emerged from Lowell's psychiatric treatment. In a letter to Elizabeth Bishop of an earlier date, Lowell said that "psycho-therapy is rather amazing-something like stirring the bottom of an aquarium-chunks of the past coming up at unfamiliar angles, distinct and then indistinct." Lowell began writing the autobiographical memoir that was to become "91 Revere Street" in 1954 and later he experimented with transforming his prose lines onto poetry in Life Studies.

In Life Studies, Lowell traced his self to its origin by remembering and disclosing his private past, including his family's humiliation and his own mental breakdown. He peered into his personal past and connects his own vulnerability with a cultural condition. Rosenthal has commented on the nature of confessional poetry as follows: " Lowell's 'Stunk Hour' and Sylvia Plath's Lady Lazarus' were true examples[of confessional verse] because they put the speaker himself at the center of the poem in such a way as to make his psychological vulnerability and shame an embodiment of his civilization:" Robert girouc.,1987.). Lowell's vulnerable self becomes the symbol of his age. Instead of seeking the external beyond this world, he sought for the nature of human life in this world. He explored his personal self lost on time by remembering his personal past. Lowell descended to his own unconscious and relived his painful childhood to recover his lost self.

Life Studies is the process out of which Lowell's life is recalled and his self is reconstructed. This is much like a process of free association which brings content from the unconscious into consciousness. There exist two selves in Life Studies: that of the remembered past and that of the remembering present. Their relation is the same as that of the patient and the analyst in a psychoanalytic process. While the remembered past self recounts fragment pf his past memories, the present self plays the role of the analyst watching the process of remembering. Katherine Wallingford mentions the split ego of the poet in Lowell's poetry: the observing ego and the experiencing self. This split has a dual function:" It permits the rational 'observing ego' to observe the experiencing self, and to shape the materials of the experience into art" (Katherine Wallingford., 1986) Terri Witek also regards Lagan's idea of the spilt subject as a useful frame to elucidate Lowell's problematic position:" "the human subject is not an entity with an identity, but a being created in the fissure of a radical spilt" (Terri Witek-1993) (16). Witek attributes the sense of loss in Life Studies to a side effect of language. As in Laconia and other recent models of the constitution of the subject, Lowell's recreated self is culturally dominated and constituted for he is reconstituted within language.

Lacan's essay "The Mirror Stage" (Jacqueslacaqn-1977) Present the fundamental characteristics of human subject. Lacan argues that the child recognizes itself as a unified whole through its own image in the mirror. As a reflected image, the first self identification is based on the mirror experience is the basis of the meconnaissance or misconnection characterizing the ego. The mirror stage comes to an end when child links itself to "socially elaborated situations"(Jacques Lacan-1977). When the child enters into language, the child's desire must be mediated by language whose laws govern human desire. Human subject is caught in the web of the signifying chains of language rather than being autonomous. The creation of self in Lowell's life-writing refers to the idea that the self is not given but reconstructed in the course of remembering. Truth and fiction are necessarily involved in an attempt to narrate the materials of a life history. In the Lacanian perspective, the autobiographical act can be understood as a mode of self-creation in which the fictions becomes an ineluctable fact of a life history.

Discussion:

Maurice Halbwahs shows that collective memory is "a socially constructed notion" (Maurice Halbwachs., 1992.). According to him," collective frameworks are the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the Predominant thoughts of the society" (Maurice Halbwachs.,1992.).He stresses that ' the conceptions of the past are affected by the mental images we employee to solve present problems, so that collective memory is a reconstruction of trhe past in the light of the present" (Maurice Halbwachs.,1992.). Halbwach's idea that collective memory is reconstructed seems to illustrate how autobiographical memories may be selected and rearranged in autobiography autobiographical poems. In Metaphors of Self, James Olney also regards autobiographical as an act of fictional creation. The autobiographical writer does not transcribe his or her original experience: "Man creates, in fact, by the very act of seeking, that order that he would have" (James Olney.,1972.).Fictionalizing is the process of rearranging the original experience in which every memory engages.
However, this does not weaken the truthfulness or authenticity which the poet seeks to maintain. Lowell belies that "real poetry came, not from fierce confessions, but form something almost meaningless but imagined" ("On 'Skunk Hour'"228).

Work Cited:
Alvarez, A. "Robert Lowell in Conversation" Robert Lowell: Interviews and memories Ed. Jeffrey Meyers. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan p, 1988. 79-83.
Bartlett, F.C. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.
Cooper, Philip. The Autobiographical Myth of Robert Lowell. Chapel Hill:
U of North Carolina P,1970.
Haibwachs, Maurice, On Collection Memory. Trans. Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: P,1992.
Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York: Random,1982.
Lacan, Jacques. "The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I." Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.1-7.
--"On' Skunk Hour.'" Robert Lowell: Collected Prose. ED. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, 1987.225-29.
Olney, James. Metaphors of Self: the meaning of autobiography. Princeton: Princeton Up, 1972.
Rosenthal, M.L. "Robert Lowell and 'Confessional' Poetry." The New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War 2.New York: Oxford
UP, 967.25-78.
Wallingford, Katherine." Robert Lowell and Free Association."Mosaic (1986). 121-32.
Witek. Terri. Robert Lowell and life Studies. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1993.s

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