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“The masks continued to pile on him”: Interrogating Faces of Identity in Malachi Edwin Vethamani’s Poems through Lacanian Lens

 


“The masks continued to pile on him”: Interrogating Faces of Identity in Malachi Edwin Vethamani’s Poems through Lacanian Lens

Ivan Ling Chen Chuen

Universiti Malaya

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Abstract:

Malachi Edwin Vethamani is a prominent literary voice within the Indian diaspora in Malaysia, having published several collections of poems and short stories. His fifth poetry collection, Rambutan Kisses (2022), navigates a labyrinth of issues—exploring gender, race, culture, and much more. By analysing three of Vethamani’s poems, “Sanctuary Slayed,” “A Man of Many Faces,” and “Skin,” this article seeks to uncover the notion of identity through Jacques Lacan’s theory of psychoanalysis. In Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton (1983), Lacan’s renowned ‘mirror-stage’ is described as “a small child contemplating itself in a mirror,” propagating the concept of “the child’s first development… of an integrated self-image” (164). This realm of the ‘imaginary’ lacks a “defined centre of self,” to which the “self” then passes into objects, finally creating an implicit understanding (164). Eagleton further clarifies Lacan’s “imaginary” to be the place where construction of “identifications” takes place, but in the process misrepresentation of self may occur (165). Sub-categorising each of the chosen poems in Vethamani’s collection into personal, racial, and gender and cultural identities, the article provides a detailed examination of these aforementioned ‘misrepresentations.’ Every poem highlights the complexities of identity formation and reflection of a self—be it a child, younger boy, or even as an adult.

Keywords: Identity, Lacan, Psychoanalysis, Self, Gender, Culture, Race, Personal

Introduction:

A well-known literary figure within the Indian diaspora in Malaysia, Malachi Edwin Vethamani has published a series of collections ranging from poetry to short stories. His writing in English contributes to the growing literary tradition, Malaysian Literature in English. The main contributors to this literary tradition were initially Malaysian writers of the Indian and Chinese diasporas but more Malay (indigenous race in Malaysia) writers now write in the English language. His fifth poetry collection, Rambutan Kisses (2022), is one that navigates a labyrinth of issues—exploring gender, race, culture, and much more. By looking at three of his poems, “Sanctuary Slayed,” “A Man of Many Faces,” and “Skin,” this article seeks to illustrate the complexities of identity through a Lacanian lens.

Lacan and Understanding Identities:

In order to analyse the masked identities hidden behind Vethamani’s poetry, this article utilise Jacques Lacan’s theory of psychoanalysis. The French psychoanalyst is renowned for his ‘mirror stage’ method of understanding identity. In Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton (1983), Lacan noted the impossibility of a “clear distinction between subject and object, itself and the external world,” therefore proposing the concept of the ‘mirror stage’(164). According to Lacan, this stage is described as “a small child contemplating itself in a mirror,” propagating the concept of “the child’s first development… of an integrated self-image” (164). He labels this as being the realm of the ‘imaginary,’ and because the ‘imaginary’ lacks a “defined centre of self,” it then passes into an “object or person in the world,” finally creating a mutual ‘understanding’—or even the reflection—of the self (164). However, Eagleton does clarify Lacan’s “imaginary” to be a place where the construction of an identity may take place, but in its process misrepresentation of self may also occur (165). To Lacan, this ‘misrepresentation’ is a “narcissistic process” aimed to “bolster up a fictive sense of unitary selfhood” (165). I find his last statement contestable, and I will explain why in a later paragraph.

An important work by Robert Burden (1998) discusses how poetry can be read from a Lacanian lens, provides vital assistance in my analysis of Vethamani’s poems in this article. Burden begins by introducing how Lacan has influenced ideas of literary criticism by:

[providing] literary criticism with a way to get beyond the transparency and reductionism of early Freudian criticism: the poetic may now be read symptomatically; analytical material may be read textually. This methodological affinity between psychoanalysis and literature at the level of tropes—metaphor and metonymy—has been significant in the continuing search for the most productive fit between the psychoanalytic methodology and its literary object. (91)

At the same time, Burden introduces the concept of “condensation,” a “process of the poetic metaphor” (93). Metaphors play an important role in Burden’s argument solely due to their function to “[reattach] the subject to its attributes… [creating] new imaginary relations between the subject and the world” (94). Condensation is intriguing because of its resistance to “transparent reading,” allowing implicit meanings to remain hidden behind its metaphor.

I would like to conjoin the findings of Eagleton and Burden, therefore forming my own method of utilising the Lacanian lens. First, Burden highlights how a Lacanian lens can be applied towards poetry, by observing its metaphors then associating it in relation to its representation—in this case, identity. This relationship between “psychoanalytic methodology” and “literary objects” is important within the context of this article because only by dissecting each line will there be an instance of the said ‘representation of self.’ On the other hand, while I mostly agree with Eagleton on Lacan’s realm of the ‘imaginary,’ it is the final point about “a fictive sense of unitary selfhood” that I would like to provide a different angle on. In the poems that will be discussed, the presence of the ‘imagined’ continues to linger but in “A Man of Many Faces,” there is no self for the persona—not even a fictitious one. This will be discussed in the later paragraphs. Hence, my approach towards the poems in this article would be to analyse their metaphors in their ‘imaginary’ states, then documenting how these factors influence their (the personae in question) state of self-identification.

“Sanctuary Slayed” and a Return to Childhood:

The first poem, “Sanctuary Slayed” deals with the personal identity. It represents a process of acquiring a sense of awareness or sentience. The poem is split into two parts: recollection, which encompasses the first three stanzas, and reflection, the final three. “Sanctuary Slayed” begins with “When I was a child/ the thunder was a distance away,/ the lightning was a brief flash” (4). Immediately, the first line (also repeated in the second and third stanzas) indicates the participation of a child, whose details are, and remain, unknown. However, from the child’s observation, there is a sense of fear and awe emanating from the young persona’s reaction towards the presence of natural elements such as “thunder” and “lightning.” Bringing to light the juxtaposition between the two elements, there is a difference in terms of temporal and spatial distance; the “thunder” being “a distance away,” the other “a brief flash.” Yet, if one takes notice, these are only superficial descriptions—there is a lack of depth in the child’s perception towards nature. The relationship between child and nature echoes Habib (2008), who explains how Lacan’s “imaginary phase is one of unity (between the child and its surroundings)” (91). The difference here being there is not a defined “unity,” but rather a superficial one, evidenced by the emotional detachment the persona feels by recalling this particular memory. Even so, this opening stanza represents the first step to achieving a sentient understanding in terms of personal identification.

In the second stanza, the persona begins to see past superficiality, inching closer to the ‘mirror stage.’ Once again, the first line points to the perspective of the young child, but this time “the trees stood firm” and “the winds blew dead leaves” (4).Compared to the first stanza, there are layers within the lines, evidenced by a more prominent usage of vocabulary. From the imagery that belies this stanza, it can be observed that the persona is slowly becoming more aware of the life around him. For example, in the third line of the stanza, “the winds blew dead leaves” highlights the presence of a maturing nostalgia, indicating some form of personal growth. The mirror phase in Lacanian psychoanalysis is identified as a “the point at which the child can recognise itself and its environment in the mirror” (Habib 92). Therefore, it is without a doubt the child is moving towards reality, towards the understanding of his own identity, as he has become aware of these new sensations (sentience and nostalgia).

Weaving the image of a realist child, the lines in the third stanza are as follows: “When I was a child,/ the rains came in their time,/ the fruits in their seasons” (4). This might indicate that the child has grown old enough to perceive beyond the “elements” as how they were represented in the first stanza. Realising “the rains” came as they wanted to, while “fruits” bore during their respective seasons, emphasises how the persona has begun to look at nature from a different perspective now. At the same time, in contrast to the aforementioned notion of a maturing nostalgia, the child has now developed a sense of nostalgia towards nature. It is amazing how the child has actually begun to become aware and understand the finer details of life­—how nature can be interpreted as one would like it to be. However, this then brings up the question: is this a representation of peak childhood? Through Lacan, this process of maturation reflects a “passing from the imaginary to the symbolic” and it is here where the child will search for a “unity, security, [and of] ultimate meaning”—an identity (92).

The next three stanzas will evolve into stanzas of reflection, whereby moments of introspection and self-reflection by the author occur. Earlier in the literature review, there was a mention of how the ‘imaginary’ lacks a “defined centre of self,” and how that ‘self’ transfers into “objects.” The fourth and fifth stanza exemplifies this concept:

Now, I’m a grown man,

and I fear the elements.

Thunderclap rattles my home,

lightning sears across the skies,

rainstorms turn roads into rivers. (4)

The persona has now grown up and one would expect a cultivated sense of maturity within the adult’s self. It is, however, intriguing to note how fear resonates from the persona’s narration. Previously, there was a development of the persona’s sentience or awareness towards his surroundings. By achieving that level of awareness, one would also correlate that to acquiring a new world of knowledge. Even so, that does not seem to be the case from this stanza onwards, as there is, in its place, a dread about the destructive aspect of nature as the persona gains this sentient understanding. Natural destruction in itself would be a proper topic to segue into, considering how much it is also emphasised within the second last stanza:

Now, I’m a grown man,

and I have lost my sanctuary.

The waves rise and sweep us away,

the ground opens and swallows us,

the howling winds cry death. (5)

The introduction of “my sanctuary” is a curious one, raising questions in regards to what it represents to the persona, and even perhaps, what was it built on. For instance, is this “sanctuary” a physical or psychological manifestation of the landscape? After all, the persona is no more a child taking its first steps into the world but rather an adult who is capable of making his own judgements. According to Klages (2017), “the process of becoming an adult… is the process of trying to fix, to stabilise, to stop the chain of signifiers” in order to uncover the “I” (51). This does not seem to be the case here, as the adult persona is, ironically, losing control instead.

In the final stanza of “Sanctuary Slayed,” it begins with “All has gone awry,” possibly indicating there were some plans that had been set up. Perhaps it was talking about the presupposed serenity of nature and how it has not ‘acted’ the way it should be. Perhaps it was the persona. It is obvious that there was something taking place during the chronological period of this poem, demonstrated by the lines: “the earth strikes back,/ what a terrible vengeance,/ the price for our avarice” (5). From this poem then, it can be said that when the persona was small, there was a sense of amazement towards nature, which later became a greed to be satisfied—from an intellectual point of view—as the persona grew up. The final four lines, on the other hand, emphasises how identity will ultimately return to a child’s perspective, with the difference being: to obtain a sentience laced with “dread” and “despair” (5).

Racial Imposition in “A Man of Many Faces”:

“A Man of Many Faces” represents the second poem of discussion within this article, and is one work which focuses on the concept of identity through racial perspectives. In this poem, one will note how there is a constant performative act to ‘unconsciously’ switch identities, or to fabricate the identity of self, to blend into the surrounding. The opening couplet already provides us with a very clear problem: “The many masks thrust upon him,/ led to a life of varied incognitos” (46). Although it is a parallel to the last stanza, this couplet provides hints towards an ambivalence or ambiguity in identity, with the persona in reference unable to determine who he truly is. At the crossroad of cultures, it is implied there are various racial views or perceptions that continue to be “thrust upon” the persona to accommodate for their lack of racial awareness. However, the effects of this process are detrimental to the identification of the self because instead of being exposed to the multiplicity of races (viewed in a positive manner), it creates a reverse effect—leading to a suppression of self. The lines below represent the second stanza, which provides more context to the suppression of identity:

His English boyfriend’s father

mistook him for a Pakistani taxi driver.

His Chinese boyfriend’s mother

preferred to think of him as the landlord.

His Malay boyfriend’s brother

told everyone he was his patron.

His Indian boyfriend’s uncle

wanted to sleep with him. (46)

One message is made clear, there is a form of racial profiling occurring within these lines as well as an interrogation towards racial assimilation and acceptance. Each racial identity has its own presumptuous stance, which severely affects the psychological constitution of the persona. The question arises: how does each race represent its obstacle towards self-identification? From the stanza above, there is a misunderstanding, denial, inability to accept and perversion that underlies identity ambivalence. An example, could it be that the “English boyfriend’s father” was influenced by imperialist tendencies, therefore assuming the persona to be of a lower working class? The persona in discussion here is fitted with multiple identities that do not belong to him—and according to Chaitin (1988), these ‘identifications’ could represent a form of “linguistic imposition,” further alienating the persona from who he truly is (39).

They all saw him as it suited them.

His partners’ silence

cut deeper than anything said. (46)

A pertaining issue within the stanza above would be whether identity is inflexible or ambiguous. The stanza echoes the earlier argument made about the suppression of a self-identity. By implying how the people, who the persona have met, constantly tried to fit an identity unto the persona like a puzzle piece, it goes to show that there is a need to submit to unseen racial narratives—especially to be accepted by others. It is disheartening to realise that the persona’s only pillar of support, which would be the persona’s partners, had all remained silent throughout his tiring ordeal of forced racial identification. Without a “cut deeper than anything” one could feel, the persona must have felt alone and alienated from the only source of comfort he really had. On a side note, it would be worthwhile to make a study to understand the effects of this abandonment towards the psychological construction of the persona’s identity.

“The masks continued to pile on him./ None saw the beloved that he was” (46). As mentioned before at the beginning of the analysis of this poem, the first and last stanzas are parallels to each other. Yet, what this couplet offers is a continuous process of forced racial identification, as evidenced in the first line, for the stacking of racial identities on the persona only harms his discovery for who he truly is. This is indicated in the final line of this poem, with nobody seeing the “beloved” side of the persona. In contrast to the previous poem, whereby there was an attempt to understand the self, “A Man of Many Faces” does not—the persona is forever stuck in a space of racial disputes, ambiguity, and identities.

Facets of Identity in “Skin”:

“Skin” is the final poem of discussion in this article, and covers aspects of gender and cultural identity. This poem is examined in four minor categories, as the poem branches into various themes: family, love, children, and the individual. At the beginning of this poem, it follows the journey of a child as he grows up:

As a young child

I knew of all that was family.

As I grew a little more

My school was my community. (64)

These lines seem to suggest a portrait of the young persona—especially of one that remains untainted or unblemished. It is also understood that the first two lines serve as an introduction to the self to understand that one’s reflection within the family is the first point of identification—a blurry face of oneself. In Line 3, the question of identity arises, because even though the persona “grew a little more,” was it growth in a physical or psychological sense? As the topic of interest in this article, it is crucial to know that each manner stated constitutes different implications towards identity construction. A physical identity growth would imply physical appearance and mannerisms, while psychological growth could determine the state of maturity, for example. I am of the opinion that there is a growth in both manners because after all, as humans we will continue to age, and through age comes experience—or, at least, that is the expectation during adulthood.

The poem seems to dive into the familial theme in the following stanza: “Those in my family were not quite the same/ as those I befriended at school./ They only seemed fairer skinned” (64). By putting forth the idea of dissimilarity, it relates back to the idea of awareness and sentience—discussed in the two previous poems. What does the young persona mean to say by describing the differences between his family members and his friends? How the persona is reflected within these two scenarios is also an interesting question. The ambivalent usage of “they” makes it difficult to pin down who exactly is “fairer skinned,” as it could signify the physical nature of one’s skin colour, or it might even allude to the psyche behind being fair-skinned.

My first love

was to be the boy

not of my skin colour.

It was so hidden

no one saw us.

 

The only woman

I would love

was not of my skin colour.

It was what others saw,

never me. (64)

These two stanzas highlight the narration of gendered first loves from the narrator’s perspective. Yet, there is a connection between these loves, with the both of them “not of [his] skin colour.” Therefore, a multicultural romance exists within the lines of this poem—in contrast to the strict cultural requirements and identifications which were prevalent within all three poems discussed. The concept of “first love” remains a strong, powerful emotion that requires self-reflection and courage to act upon it, to admit one’s own true feelings. This begs the question: was this a form of identity cultivation and by whom? It is also interesting to note in the second stanza how “only” is emphasised for the female sex. To answer the earlier question, the occurrences of the “only woman” and “the boy” alludes to the idea that the persona has been aware of his homosexuality, which then indicates that the “love” in reference of the opposite sex might not be of romance, but could be of respect and admiration.

The stigma of homosexual romance and love continues to persist and pervade societal normativities, as evidenced by: “It was so hidden/ no one saw us.” What this does then is to create an unconscious suppression of one’s emotions as well as sexuality. Therefore, to acknowledge the existence of these emotions and to understand, realistically, what they entail, is a form of breaking the mirror stage which Lacan proposes. It can also be noted in the line: “It was what others saw,/ never me” implies that there is a difference between perspectives. A comparison occurs as “others,” which might be an allusion to the persona’s family, perceives the persona’s “woman” to be culturally dissimilar to them. Again, for Chaitin, language represents “the instrument… to impose [society’s] own collective, repressive code,” especially towards those of the gendered minority (39).Though, this judgement is purely superficial because as the persona declares it was “never [him],” it indicates that the persona understands both her and him are similar on a deeper level.

In the following two stanzas, they will be approaching the subject matter of childhood and the persona’s children’s perception towards cultural discourse:

My sons’ skin colour

only adds to this confusion

to those who see skin colour

and give names to races.

 

I like it that my sons see

their miscegenation

and call themselves chindian

(Though I would prefer indchin). (65)

Diverging from the narrative of acquiring an identity from the persona’s perspective, the mirror of identification has been passed down, temporarily, to his sons. From the stanzas, it is understood his sons are of a different “skin colour” confusing the people around them, but what does it represent? It could be due to an underlying cultural narrative and perception towards hybrid cultures or identities. The notion of racial stereotyping is evident within “those who see skin colour,” proving that the normative approach to culture still remains biased. Normally, this would have been detrimental for individuals who yearn to seek out their own identities but such is not the case for the persona’s children.

Instead, the young boys are more attuned to their hybrid identity than their father could ever be—an impressive feat considering they are only so young, and completely disrupting the normal approach to Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ theory. The children are more accepting of who they ‘see’ in the mirror, holding no sense of malice. The final two lines of this section highlight the existence of a hybrid identity in the persona’s sons. It is interesting to note the difference in cultural dominance between “chindian” and “indchin.” To the young boys, they might not be too acutely aware of the idea of cultural precedence, thus their constructed identities continue to remain salient throughout.

I see people,

not races,

but the constant pounding

has left a dent in my brain.

Now, I see what they see. (65)

The narrative switches back into the persona’s point of view in the final stanza of this poem. From these lines, there is a sense that the persona has already matured in terms of thought and identifying people based on who they are, rather than what. However, he mentions of “the constant pounding,” which, from the context of this poem, might point to a reinforcement of cultural stereotyping when the persona was younger. Hence, although the persona has matured, he is not able to break out of stereotyping.

Conclusion:

This article sought to uncover the concept of identity within three poems: “Sanctuary Slayed,” “A Man of Many Faces,” and “Skin.” Each poem had focused on one aspect of identity, be it from a personal, racial, or cultural and gendered perspective. It was also found that a Lacanian lens could be applied when dissecting these poems, showing glimpses of self-identification through an understanding of Lacan’s state of the ‘imaginary’ and poetic metaphors and imagery.

Nonetheless, the conceptualisation of an identity remains ambiguous and ambivalent, continuously affected by societal expectations and normative discourses—be it from one’s surroundings or from one’s close circle. At least, in Vethamani’s poetry, there is hope to uncover the secrets behind what it means to carry an identity, and where it can be found.

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