Cult of the Literary Sad Woman
The first time I read Jean Rhys’s “Good Morning, Midnight,” I was 22 and deeply committed to a life of volcanic feeling: doomed love affairs, binge drinking and other tentatively self-destructive hobbies. I needed blueprints for my epic sadness, and no one captured epic sadness as well as Jean Rhys, especially — and unapologetically — in her 1939 novel, “Good Morning, Midnight.” The novel’s antiheroine, Sasha, tries to drink herself to death in a cheap Paris hotel room — haunted by her lost youth, her botched romances and the ghost of her infant son, who died at 5 weeks old. As soon as I read the first scene, in which a stranger chides Sasha for crying at a bar (“Sometimes I’m just as unhappy as you are. But that’s not to say that I let everybody see it”), I knew which team I was on: Team Sasha, Team Rhys, Team Drunk-Crying-in-Public.
The novel drew a three-part equation between sadness, intensity and profundity, and I was all in, fully committed to its vision of truth as something dark and broken. Sasha seemed hungry for suffering, perhaps because she didn’t eat much else. “Food? I don’t want any food now,” she says. “I want more of this feeling — fire and wings.” Amen to that, I thought. I didn’t want dinner; I wanted the sustenance of affliction. I wanted more of that feeling. More feeling, period. Fire and wings.
Sasha is the consummate literary sad woman, the superlative embodiment of an alluring silhouette: a woman contoured and whittled by her suffering, self-destructive and utterly destroyed. Even as the novel portrays Sasha’s drunken crying as unseemly, its cultish popularity testifies to the enduring appeal of the afflicted woman — especially the young, beautiful, white afflicted woman: our favorite tragic victim, our repository of rarefied, elegiac sadness. This aesthetic of suffering reached a fever pitch in Alexander McQueen’s infamous 1995 “Highland Rape” runway show — bloodied models strutting down the catwalk with rips in their lace dresses and tartans — and his 2006 “Widows of Culloden” collection, featuring women in funeral-like shrouds. (“I find beauty in melancholy,” McQueen said in an interview.) A recent spread in Spanish Glamour devoted to fashion inspired by Sylvia Plath included, alongside Gucci loafers and a herringbone tweed trenchcoat, a bubblegum-pink gas oven — visual testimony to the ways in which her suicide wasn’t a rupture in her legacy, but one of its anchors. This glint of suicide chic harked back to a 2013 Vice fashion spread featuring models dressed up as female authors who had committed suicide: Virginia Woolf looking regal in a high-collared white dress in a sunlight-dappled river, the Taiwanese author Sanmao about to hang herself with a pair of stockings (the tights were credited as product) and, of course, Plath herself, kneeling in a pleated schoolgirl dress before an open oven.
The ghost of Plath is the godmother of the afflicted woman trope, haunting us from the poems written before her suicide: “Dying / is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well … I guess you could say I’ve a call.” Then there is Joan Didion, whose heroines wear affliction like an elegant cocktail dress — as if their pain had been plucked from the runways — especially Maria Wyeth of “Play It as It Lays,” who cries at night and wakes with swollen eyes to drive the Los Angeles freeways, picturing rattlesnakes in baby playpens and remembering “the bad season … when she had done nothing but walk and cry and lose so much weight that the agency had refused to book her.” It’s all there: the tears, the aftertaste of soured glamour, the waif-y anguish and the distinctly female quality of it all. Affliction even subtly shapes the journalistic persona Didion crafts for herself in her canonical essays: a rigorously unsentimental reporter writing about senseless violence and serial killers, picking apart the hollow promises of the American dream, but still facing all this darkness with a beguiling female fragility, plagued by migraines and existential angst, packing her own size 2 black cocktail dresses when she hits the road.
I built my own career on a collection of essays that simultaneously interrogated the trope of the afflicted woman and enacted it, presenting a narrator who drank too much and starved herself, got heart surgery, got an abortion, got hit in the street. The book seemed to strike a chord. You really made yourself vulnerable, people would tell me. I admire that. Yet there was also a critic who wrote that the book “portrayed women as inherently vulnerable,” and that this made her so angry she ended up shouting, “Oh go [expletive] yourself, lady!” into her empty apartment. She went on, “I worry about making pain a ticket to gain entry into the women’s club.” Her ire tapped into my deepening anxiety that calling a woman “vulnerable” in relation to her writing was a way of praising her not for her artistry but for her exposure — for her willingness to make her fragility a public commodity.
When I returned to “Good Morning, Midnight” at the end of my 20s — newly sober, less enchanted by sadness — the novel almost nauseated me. I felt sickened by everything Sasha embodied: her weepy passivity, her adamant hopelessness. She was not only oozing self-pity, she also seemed self-righteous about it — convinced that her unhappiness held far more truth than the pretenses other people hid behind. Now I understood Sasha’s sadness as an exceptionality complex — as if she believed herself to be the only person who had ever known crippling despair. It wasn’t that I no longer saw myself in Sasha, it was that I hated the parts of myself I saw in her: perpetually reclining into a solipsistic relationship to her own affliction, as if leaning back onto a fainting couch. My time in 12-step recovery was offering the radical (to me) idea that profundity wasn’t predicated solely on dysfunction — that there could be just as much meaning, just as much truth, in the simple act of getting through each day, summoning yourself to show up for other people and their problems, recognizing that their spirits were also fettered by weights you couldn’t fathom.
I found myself increasingly drawn to Susan Sontag as a psychic opposite to the sad-lady sirens I’d worshiped. Sontag was rigorously impersonal in her approach, stubbornly un-fragile, stoic in her persona on the page. She’d written an entire book about cancer (“Illness as Metaphor,” 1978) without once mentioning she’d had it. Her restraint — her refusal to display her intellect through the portals of her wounds — loomed large in my mind as a kind of stylistic superego, reprimanding me for relying on the easy crutch of vulnerability, for peddling the soft tissue of the personal: Sometimes I’m just as unhappy as you are. But that’s not to say that I let everybody see it.
Female affliction is inevitably tangled up with politics. In her 2015 memoir “Negroland,” Margo Jefferson writes eloquently about the implicit emotional curriculum of growing up black in the 1950s and ’60s, when she had been “denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering.” In her 2004 book-length poem “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” Claudia Rankine often trains her gaze on sadness, but she refuses to grant it the prison or the refuge of privacy. It’s always in relation: to the television, to the news cycle, to the neighbors, to the nation. Rankine depicts pain as part of a collective social body, as a force simultaneously communal and contagious, impossible to articulate precisely and also impossible to stop vocalizing. “I’m thinking as if trying to weep,” her narrator explains to a New York cabdriver in the aftermath of 9/11. She describes the physical pain of witnessing the suffering of others: clutching her stomach while watching a television interview with Abner Louima, whom police officers sodomized with a broken broomstick, or reaching for a bottle of Tylenol when she watches a mother crying on television after her teenage son is sentenced to life in prison.
In “Citizen,” Rankine’s 2014 best-selling book-length prose poem about the intricate daily dynamics of race in America, she questions the boundaries of the “I” entirely: “the pronoun barely holding the person together.” She’s not just challenging our vision of affliction as something private, but the privacy of the afflicted subject herself: Her “I” is less wholly sculpted by its own emotions because it cannot claim to own them.
In “Heart Berries,” her 2018 breakout memoir, Terese Marie Mailhot constructs a narrator deeply aware of the perils of being a Native woman narrating her own trauma. (Mailhot is Salish, raised on the Seabird Island First Nation reservation.) Her memoir opens with the line “My story was maltreated … I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle.” Though Mailhot is not willing to abandon pain as a subject — when a professor says he doesn’t want her to write about abortions or car wrecks, she thinks, “You’re going to know about my abortion in detail (if only there had been a car crash that same day)” — she refuses to deliver female sadness packaged in its familiar archetypes. During her pregnancy, she gives her lover a black eye, polluting the quasi-holy state of pregnancy with an act of violence. She won’t pander to the collective appetite for the spectacle of a woman enduring harm that has no stomach for the sight of her causing it.
Just as it’s liberating to watch female sadness granted the dignity of complexity on the page — to watch it get angry, get petty, get public — it’s thrilling to witness a surge of books portraying other states of feeling entirely: female narrators contoured less by affliction and more by joy, pleasure, curiosity, surprise, delight. Chris Kraus documents her narrator taking pleasure in the intoxicating (and generative) force of an unrequited crush in “I Love Dick” (1997) and Kathleen Stewart explores daily sources of relief in “Ordinary Affects” (2007) — one car paying for the toll of the car behind; sleepy strangers gathered around the free breakfast buffet at an airport hotel. In “Wade in the Water” — the titular poem of her 2018 collection, dedicated to the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters — the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith writes about the ecstasy of confronting other women creating beauty with their bodies: “One of the women greeted me. / I love you, she said. She didn’t / Know me, but I believed her … / I love you, throughout / The performance, in every / Handclap, every stomp.”
If sadness once struck me as terminally hip, then I’ve arrived on the far side of 35 with a deepening appreciation for the ways pleasure and satisfaction can become structuring forces of identity as well. Perhaps no book has done more in recent history to make happiness seem cool than Maggie Nelson’s best-selling “The Argonauts” (2015), a genre-bending account of her relationship with the gender-fluid performance artist Harry Dodge and the family they build that pays unvarnished attention to positive emotional states: care, intimacy, tenderness. The book manages gorgeously precise evocations of the pockets of makeshift grace that accompany the trust-fall of forging a shared life: Nelson and Dodge getting married at a wedding chapel on Santa Monica Boulevard in the final days before Proposition 8 temporarily overturned gay marriage in California, weeping at their vows and clutching two heart-shaped lollipops in the aftermath, wary of sentimental institutions but simultaneously moved by them, or at least within them; then coming home that night to sit on the porch of their new house, wrapped in sleeping bags and eating chocolate pudding with Harry’s son Lenny.
The first paragraph of “The Argonauts” is anchored by a simple question: “What’s your pleasure?” It’s directed at the narrator by Harry, during one of their early nights together, and the answer in that moment is, literally, concrete — “my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad” — and suffused with the intoxication of early romance: “You had ‘Molloy’ by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better?” Does it get any better? It’s a rhetorical question meant to evoke a particular kind of peak experience — the early stages of infatuation, that blinding bliss — but the question also plays out across the arc of the book, as that initial thrill gives way to enduring intimacy. What’s your pleasure? The text keeps circling back to this question, not answering so much as expanding it: Where do we find pleasure? How do we share it with others? How do we find language for it? How do we create narratives that hold the kinds of happiness that exist not in superlative moments but across longer durations: “The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion.”
When describing the illness of her infant son, Iggy, Nelson refuses to narrate that pain. “I am not going to write anything here about Iggy’s time with the toxin,” she writes. “It is not precious or rich to me.” But then she does write about it, if only for the space of a long sentence: “All I will say is that there is still a loop of time, or there is still a part of me, that is removing the side of a raised hospital crib in the morning light and climbing into it beside him, unwilling to move or let go or keep living until he lifted his head, until he gave any sign that he would make it out.” Nelson has already declared that she is turning away from this pain as her primary subject. Instead, she will attempt to find precise language for gratitude and the exaltation of ordinary health, for happiness that is enduring rather than momentary: “When Iggy had the toxin and we lay with him in his hospital crib, I knew — in a flood of fear and panic — what I know now, in our blessed return to the land of health, which is that my time with him has been the happiest time of my life. Its happiness has been of a more palpable and undeniable and unmitigated quality than any I’ve ever known. For it isn’t just moments of happiness, which is all I thought we got. It’s a happiness that spreads.”
This rumination on happiness points toward the vast range of aesthetic alternatives to sadness as a default narrative posture. It acts as an invocation — or, at least, an invitation — to think of happiness as something that might sharpen our thinking into focus, rather than blunting it. It suggests that What’s your pleasure? is a question that might direct us toward as much profundity as What’s your damage? It suggests that depictions of intimacy, delight and satisfaction might hold a different dialect of nuance than the drunken ramblings of Sasha at the Parisian bar; might offer even richer ways of bringing consciousness to the page.
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