Does “Black Womb” have a pharmakon?

Of all my many – many – distractions, nothing distracts me quite like school: because really, nothing should. I have a very busy schedule: Engen eats up a fair bit of both my work and play time, not to mention school and my day job. And fun. What’s that again? Hell if I remember.

In any event, school distracts me more than anything else because — unlike, say, my day job — it doesn’t get left behind when I go home and sit down at my computer. The things I learn about at school stay with me. Now that’s a good thing and a credit to the many fine professors of Memorial University, and it is a very good thing when it comes to, say. anthropology courses that broaden my horizons about the world and give me ideas for better fiction. Where it decidedly stops being okay is when these lingering thoughts from the classroom bleed into my work in a way that distracts me from or prevents me from, writing.

This is often the case when it comes to the higher-level English courses. You’d think English would be the birth of more creativity when it comes to fiction written in the English language, but in my particular case you’d be mistaken.

See, when I say “higher level English courses,” I’m speaking specifically to Lit Theory. Now Lit Theory is a glorious thing: it can bring us new ways of looking at literature and, through it, the world around it. I’m partial to Freudian analysis myself, wherein one finds what bothered them most about a story, attempts to figure out why that bothered them, and then uses that to extrapolate what the story is about. It is an exceptionally personal method of reviewing literature, and one deeply rooted in the psyche of the reader. It is far more about you — the reader — than it is about the author and his or her intent.

Where this all falls apart for me is when I think about these theories too far into my own work and start to analyze my own work far too much. And it depends on the work, because (in my mind) I think Infinity truly has something to say about our lives and the way we live it… Black Womb? Not so much. Black Womb was written by my much younger self, and works mostly in terms of entertainment. It’s not meant to be dissected and reviewed using literary theory: it’s meant to be read and enjoyed, or perhaps read and not enjoyed, should you be among the few in that camp. In the same way some of my favorite movies are summer blockbusters that can’t hold a candle when stacked against Citizen Kane or The Shawshank Redemption, that it how I feel about theorizing about Black Womb.

For those of you who haven’t studied Lit Theory: you lucky devils. A “pharmakon” was discussed in Jacques Derrida’s Plato’s Pharmacy. It uses the Egyptian myth of Thoth’s creation of writing to illustrate its point: As the story goes, Thoth presents his invention to the god-king of Upper Egypt for judgment. Upon its presentation, Thoth offers script as a pharmakon for the Egyptian people. The Greek word pharmakon poses a quandary for translators- it is both a remedy and a poison. In the proffering of a pharmakon, Thoth presents it as its true meaning- a harm and benefit. The god-king, however, refuses the invention. Through various reasonings, he determines the pharmakon of writing to be a bad thing for the Egyptian people. The pharmakon, the undecidable, has been returned decided. The problem, as Derrida reasons, is this: since the word pharmakon, in the original Greek, means both a remedy and a poison, it cannot be determined as fully remedy or fully poison (paraphrased from Wikipedia).

Did that all make your head hurt? Mine too. It’s a little simpler in practice. Basically the pharmakon is a McGuffin word for the item in a story — and according to this theory, every story has one — a pharmakon is something within the story, something artificial that comes from the outside, and can never be truly beneficial. That’s the main component: it has to be both a cure and a poison — like radiation treatment. Every text will have a pharmakon. It is the seed of its own deconstruction and destruction.

Once you have identified that item in the story, you start attaching it to the binaries within the story. Binaries are opposites, like life|death. That “|” symbol between them? That’s the pharmakon. The thing wedged perfectly between them, affecting them both, destroying them both, creating them both.

Within the story, find the binary. Within the binary, find the “thing” in the story that has elements of both and changes the view of both. This is the pharmakon. Pharmakon’s are trouble. They disturb the balance. Think of Anakin / Darth Vader as being the “pharmakon” of the entire Star Wars universe thus far: both good and evil, a part of both sides of the Jedi|Sith binary. I cannot believe I just used Star Wars to illustrate a point on literary criticism, but there it is.

And the thing with this sort of criticism: there is no one answer, and you’re never done. You have to keep looking for binaries, and keep applying your pharmakon to it. What about the father|son relationship in the Star Wars mythos, does Vader also destabilize that? Yes he does. Nature | Industrialism? Yep, his cyborg nature destabilizes that too. You have to keep working it until you feel you’ve proven your point. And to find the pharmakon, it has to destabilize all the binaries you can find. If you find a binary that it doesn’t (let’s use one that I don’t see in the Star Wars Universe: femininity  masculinity). If that binary did exist in Star Wars and Vader didn’t destabilize it, then he wouldn’t be the pharmakon. All your other work will have been for nothing, you have to go back and look for the one thing that destabilizes all the binaries. Maybe R2-D2.

Let’s pull back with a more literary reference.

The House on Mango StreetThe House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So when we’re talking about binaries, there are few as big and as universal as hope | despair. That’s what this story is ostensively about: the moment when the narrator’s view of the future is exchanged from an optimistic one, to one resigned to the reality of circumstance. It is a story about this: “|”.

The pharmakon, the thing that triggered this radical shift in the narrator’s outlook on life. In this case, “this” is the titular House on Mango Street.

As concepts, Hope and Despair are big, big issues that can mean just about anything. They’re almost so vague that they could apply to any story, the way we discussed that the binary of life versus death can apply to just about any story. But in the case of this story, what is culturally at stake with this binary is the ability for the family to do better. It is a story about class struggle.

In this story, the class of the narrator and her family are represented by the house they live in. The house is the outward expression of the family’s class and status: it is something that everyone can see and judge and use to identify and categorize. Anything else is hidden within the house or non-physical, such as positions or possessions or paychecks and yearly incomes. The House is their status, their place in the world laid naked for all to see.

This nudity is articulated for the narrator when they still live in the House on Loomis Street. Here, a Nun that works at her school approaches her as she plays in front of a Laundromat with boarded-up windows and asks her where she lives. When told, she points to the apartment above the Laundromat and says “You live there?”

The stress on the word “there,” and the judgement implied by it, is a trans-formative moment for the narrator. She “sees” her home, for the first time, through the eyes of another, and understands that the gaze and finger-point of the Nun pigeon-holes her. “You live there” in this way is faintly accusatory. It is far too similar to “You are that.”

Loomis was the last in a long line of Homes that the family rented, at least three that the narrator remembers. But the repetitiveness of this cycle of “moving, hoping for better, moving again” doesn’t affect the narrator the same way that the transition from Loomis to Mango Street does, partially because the incident with the Nun occurred at the Loomis House, but mostly because the House on Mango Street represents a transition from rented to owned. In many ways, the family is “owning” their place in the world: this is where you live. This, is what you are.

The reason that this shift from the leased Loomis apartment to the owned Mango House is so inextricably linked to the hope and despair of the narrator is that her parents have long held up the notion of “their OWN house” like some kind of mystical future talisman.

The House on Mango Street exists on both sides of the hope / despair binary. On the one hand, its status as the first house that the family owned makes it the avatar of everything the narrator hoped for prior to Mango Street.

The narrator’s parents would tell her that they would “someday own a house of their own,” a “real” house with “real” stairs. When her parents tell her this, she believes them. The hope in the fantasy of a better house and a better life is real to her, and the word “real” is used twice in its description. They’ve turned a fantasy, something that is unreal and may be unrealistic to think of as real, into something that is accepted by the narrator as the fact of the future. The first house they own will be “real,” like the ones on television.

In the same way, the reality of the House on Mango Street as something less than ideal and perfect, and even possibly a downgrade of the living conditions they had previously, creates in her the despair and hopelessness in which she tells the story. The reality of this, the first house her family owned, is so distant from the fairy-tale image with spiraling staircases and three bathrooms that she had been told about that it changes her ability to hope for such things.

In the final paragraph, when her parents are again telling her that the House on Mango Street is just a temporary fixture, she responds with pessimism instead of hopeful optimism: “I know how these things go.“

Containing both elements of hope and despair, fantasy and reality, reality and unreality, the Mango Street House belongs completely to neither side of either of those binaries, but destabilizes and destroys them both.

The stakes for the narrator, more than the rise and fall of her family`s social and class status, is her self-worth.

When she learns for the first time that others examine and judge her based on where she lives, she also begins to judge herself based on those same criteria. Her self-esteem comes to hinge on the house they live in, and the only thing preventing her from resigning herself to her lower-middle-class position is the presence of Hope. The Nun has made her aware of the judgement of others, and the Mango Street House makes her accept that judgement as eternal.

Much as the House on Mango Street is the pharmakon around which everything else in the story, including the binaries at play in it, rotate, the conversation with the Nun acts as a Mirror Stage in concert with that fact. The young narrator isn`t aware that she is judged by more than just herself and who she is. Just as a child before the Mirror Stage doesn`t conceptualize the desperate parts of its body as a whole, the narrator doesn`t see that herself, her family, the clothes she wears, the part of the city they live in, and the House they live in all contribute to the outside world`s perspective of who and what she is. The moment when the Nun points to the House and says: “You live there“` is akin to the moment in The Mirror Stage when somebody says “There You Are.“ In the same moment, the narrator becomes aware of herself as a whole and realizes that she is judged negatively by it.

The House on Mango Street`s existence as a pharmakon (a positive and a negative, a cure and a poison) twists and rends every part of the story it is in. Nothing can be truly hopeful or truly desperate, good or bad. In the second paragraph the narrator lists all of the things good about the Mango Street House: they don’t have to pay rent, they don’t have to share their yard, or be careful not to make too much noise. But no matter what it is, it is not and cannot be everything she’d hoped it would be: the majestic building they’d seen on the TV.

Can reality ever compare with fantasy? Doesn’t expecting life to live up to the lies our parents told us guarantee despair? For the narrator is the House on Mango Street what Santa Clause is for many of us: simultaneously representative of a hopeful dream as well as a disappointing lie?

The disruption of the binary disrupts everything. In many ways, there is no reason the House should be the death of all hope of a better life: as the narrator says, it was acquired quickly, as a necessity after the water pipes burst at the Loomis House. Despite having every reason to remain hopeful, she doesn’t. Her parents had promised that someday they would live in their own house and that things would be different, but now they do and things are not.

It is as though the narrator is now aware that something will always come up. Be it a broken water pipe, a septic tank replacement, or a roof repair: forces outside her family’s control will conspire to keep them from advancing and keep them in their place. That the class system they are in is operating much more like a caste system in practice, with societal forces conspiring to make them take three steps back for every one step forward.

In fact, there is evidence within the story that the Mango Street House represents a regression in status for them. The narrator implies that each move prior to the one to Mango was accompanied by a birth and a need for more space. Now, despite owning their family home, they are reduced to one bedroom for a six-member family.

If moving to a newer, bigger house represents birth, life, and hope; then moving to a smaller house is death, despair, and regression.

That’s what I have to say, I think I made my point.

And in fact, that is how this sort of literary analysis has to end: with a shrug, and the critic simply stating that they’ve said all they needed to say.

All this leads to the question I started with: does Black Womb have a pharmakon? Is there one thing that divides the binaries in it? What are the binaries in it? These thoughts keep me up at night, and sadly, the last person equipped to answer them are the author. Critique is the one thing the author cannot, under any circumstances, do.

Doesn’t stop thoughts on it from distracting me, though.

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