Image: Alejandra Pizarnik in a public park in Buenos Aires, photographed by Sara Facio.
Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness has a loaded title: “Extracting the stone” (it’s the same in Spanish: Extracción de la piedra de locura) is a visceral image evoking childbirth. Assimilating an artist’s work to offspring, and the creative process to giving birth, is common, but this title has a physicality that reconnects this metaphor with actual childbirth—and one that brings forth not a new life but something hard and painful (a stone) associated with unhappiness and disease (madness). Through this title, Pizarnik concisely alludes to the torments of artistic creation through the depiction of suffering that is specific to the female body. In bringing these two central themes of Pizarnik’s to the fore, the title also foreshadows how her work would be received after her death. The few critics who engage with her oeuvre praise its bleak brilliance. Why is it, then, that she occupies a marginal place in the canon when compared with her male contemporaries?
Pizarnik fit the profile of the tortured artist, or the poète maudit. She was born in 1936 to Jewish parents in Argentina, where she never felt fully at home. She began a degree in philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires but didn’t finish it, and studied painting but abandoned it for poetry—an art she struggled with, describing it as “scrabbling through language like a madwoman.” In the 1960s, she lived in Paris for several years, during which she came to know Julio Cortázar, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, and other literary talents. She translated the mad theorist Antonin Artaud and others into Spanish. Throughout her life, she experienced depression, and in 1970 she attempted suicide and entered a psychiatric facility. She ended her life two years later.
Pizarnik’s struggle with mental illness is apparent in her body of work. But so is her capacity for intense passion. Eros and Thanatos intertwine within her poems, much as they do in the work of Octavio Paz, with whom she was friends. His poem “Acabar con todo” (“Ending it all”) resonates with what one critic called Pizarnik’s literary suicide note, “El deseo de la palabra” (“The desire for the word”).
While Paz would go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1990, Pizarnik’s work has remained obscure outside of her native Argentina. Her case is the rule rather than the exception for women writers from the region who are not Clarice Lispector or Isabel Allende. In general, translated fiction by women is doubly overlooked, and the subject matter and tenor of Pizarnik’s work has, perhaps, caused her to be triply overlooked. Had she been a man, it is much more likely that she would be counted among history’s poètes maudits alongside Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, or would have been considered a peer of Gérard de Nerval, who lived under the sign of the “black sun of melancholy.” And her imaginative and vivid forays into surrealism should have earned her a place in the Surrealist pantheon with Guillaume Apollinaire and his irrepressible postwar successor Jacques Prévert.
Perhaps the hive mind that creates the literary canon found it uncomfortable to read a woman writing about her dark impulses, about sex and death and the interplay between the two, just as Baudelaire and the Decadents had done, but without paring down her voice, making it so sparse, detached, and technical—so rational—as to be unassailable. She bared her soul without regard for whether institutions would approve of what she felt and how she expressed it, like so many poets. But her confessional writing was not rewarded like that of her male peers. The themes that she explored—exile, disaffection, and depression—are code for literary glamour and gravitas when they proceed from the male experience. Consider the mystique of Albert Camus or Ernest Hemingway, or the many stories in which a forlorn white man need only display signs of alcoholism, depression, or violent antisocial behavior to be categorized as an antihero. Solipsism and navel-gazing are evidence of thoughtfulness in a man and self-indulgence in a woman. Male artists with mental illnesses are “troubled” and their art is seen as more meaningful for being informed by their struggles, whereas women artists are “troubling,” their mental illnesses regarded as blemishes or afflictions that hindered them in their work.
Edgar Allan Poe, a poet just as infatuated with death as Pizarnik and Baudelaire, mused in “The Philosophy of Composition” that “the death . . . of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Except, the world might add, if the woman writes the poem herself.