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CHAPTER SEVEN

CLEANING LADIES:
THE POETICS OF ABJECTION

But of all this daily drama of the body there is no


record [] let the sufferer try to describe a pain
and language at once runs dry.
(On Being Ill, Woolf 2002, 5, 7)

The main purpose of this chapter is to present further an already


mentioned methodological approach to the analysis of the body in literary
texts, where the focus is on the notion of abjection. Drawing on the theory
of Julia Kristeva and her commentators, I show ways in which the abject
body appears and is used in literary texts. In the interpretative part of this
chapter, I concentrate on the short story by Olga Tokarczuk entitled
Room Numbers (Numery) from the collection Szafa (Wardrobe,
1998), in order to demonstrate one possible way of reading the text from
the perspective of what I call ruined embodiment. This implies the
representation of bodies and elements connected with them, when they
become objects of disgust and revulsion. Taken together with the theory of
abjection, these representations constitute a specific theoretical tool, which
I called already in the previous chapter the ruined body. Interestingly,
Elaine Scarry, further to what we mentioned earlier, observes that the
physical pain [] brings about an immediate reversion to a state anterior
to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language
is learned (Fraser 2004, 324). Following this reasoning, and the theory of
abjection, which understands pain as a moment when identity is disturbed
and when order, a given system and its rules are violated (Kristeva 1982),
I show moments when human corporeal and painful embodiment openly
confront language, negotiating possible ways of naming what has not been
previously named. Hence in order to name such moments I introduce the
notion of painful embodiment which I call the ruined body. I find its
literary representation especially vivid in my reading of Tokarczuks short
story, Room Numbers. This story shows how the theme of the body and
the pain attached to it (as well as its fragility) can be employed as the main

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structure of interpretation. Written in 1998, it contains direct references to


the social, political or cultural paratextual circumstances of posttransformation Poland: the question of a woman as a writer, her migration
and working abroad, and the figure of the cleaning lady. The main focus of
the current chapter is to show how the ruined body may be present in a
literary text and what the consequences may be for its emergence.

The Abject
Abjection is a very curious concept that is openly negative, yet invites us
to rethink the binary valuation of good and bad within such categories as
open/closed, white/black, solid/fluid. As Elizabeth Grosz notes:
The expulsion of the abject is one of the preconditions of the symbolic; and
it is also the by-product or excessive residue left untapped by symbolic
functioning. It is, as it were, the unspoken of a stable speaking position, an
abyss at the very borders of the subjects identity, a hole into which the
subject may fall. (Grosz 1990, 87)

The quotation refers directly to Julia Kristevas theory of abjection.


The abject body, according to Julia Kristeva, her commentators and
followers,1 is beyond the normative closed body, which functions as a
symbol of the harmonious human organism, clean and pure, bearing on its
surface the rationality of the subject.2 The abject body is the reverse of
stability (it is fluidity); it is beyond language, and belongs to the prelinguistic sphere of human experiencethe semiotic. The abject
represents to the symbolic order the slipperiness of subjectivity; it brings
the danger of transgression, while the loss of the subject is balanced by its
rootedness into the flesh. This is because the abject reminds the subject
about its corporeal existence, the material dimension of every deed and the
inevitable death of the very materiality of the subject. Mary Douglas, in
1

The theme of abjection and the love of the impure was introduced by Freud in
his Totem and Taboo and Civilization and its Discontents, where he describes the
need for the sacrifice of incestuous attachments to parental love objects. Kristeva,
as Elizabeth Grosz explains in her article The Body of Signification, shows that
this repression is never fully achieved. For example, the experience of the threat of
death through bodily wasteas an experience of abjectionis a reminder of the
primal connection with and love for the mother (the semiotic).
2
Mary Russo makes an opposition between the classical and grotesque bodies:
The classical body is transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self-contained,
symmetrical and sleek [] [while] the grotesque body is open. Protruding,
irregular, secreting, multiple and changing (Russo 1994, 8).

Cleaning Ladies: The Poetics of Abjection

167

Purity and Danger (1969), the book which was the inspiration for Julia
Kristevas essay on abjection (1982), constructs a theory of defilement that
revolves around the idea of separating, purifying, demarcating and
punishing transgressions (Douglas 1969, 5). Douglas shows how we see
in the body a symbol of society (ibid., 142), and how, while building the
theory of a clean society, we construct the idea of the body without filth,
dirt, waste, through the classification of the proper and improper fluids and
waste of the body (such as tears, sperm, excrement covered by taboos, or
menstrual blood). To create categories of classification is a positive
attempt to impose system on an inherently untidy experience, to make
unity from the chaotic jumble of existence (ibid., 3, 5, 201). This
classification is followed by the practice of prohibition, while [t]he
construction of patterns of prohibition, of borders, boundaries and binaries
of behaviour, is essentially to define the identity (Hunt 2007, 14). Identity
becomes visible only by creating order and this is achieved by dismissing
the abjection, by exaggerating the difference between within and without,
above and below, male and female, with and against (Douglas 1969, 2).
Bodily waste and the pain connected with it reach beyond the order of the
symbolic system. Abjection points to the margins, the boundaries of the
body. Abjection leads to the border grounds between the subject and the
object, and opens up the body to its most disgusting, sensitive, painful and
material side. It opens up to the something that is left untapped by
symbolic functioning, as Elizabeth Grosz observes, and introduces the
danger of the subjects fall, the direct danger of the loss of identity, since
the place of the abject is the place where memory collapses, the place
where I am not. The abject threatens life; it must be radically excluded
(Kristeva 1982, 2). To accept the dangerous move of knowing abjection is
to allow the possibility of understanding corporeal experience, and what
follows from this: it is to allow the understanding of pain as an inseparable
part of our abject existencean existence which is founded on constant
confrontation with the painful loss of the body and the threat of death. This
is why the experience of the abject body, the body in ruins, has still to be
mapped. Yet, to allow this abject is also to oscillate on the thin line
between sanity and insanity, between language and melancholy silence.

The Transparent Body


Abjection is related to the first, primitive connection with the mother, and
with language, which is based on the Law of the Father (a metaphorical
figure for the acquisition of language as the symbolic order). The
symbolic, however, as Kristeva shows in her Powers of Horror, is not

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strong enough to guarantee the separation from pre-linguistic existence,


from belonging to the semiotic or the first connection with the mother. As
Kristeva puts it:
Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of the pre-objectal
relationship, in the immemorial violence with which the body becomes
separated from another body in order to bemaintaining that night in
which the outline of the signified thing vanishes and where only the
imponderable affect is carried out. (Kristeva 1982, 10)

The experience of the abject allows the subject to slip back towards
this primitive, pre-ordered world one once was in. Abjection works as a
flashback to the childs first movement against the unity with its mother
in order to constitute the separate self. To reach the necessary position of
the subject and self, the child must object to the corporeal claustrophobia
of the maternal entity with which it is entwined and, in this way, must
necessarily abject a part of itselfas Hunt recalls Kristevas standpoint
(Hunt 2007, 24). The rituals of cleanliness, toilet training, feelings of
shame towards the body, eating habits, which are oppressive to the body,
must then regulate the break with the semiotic connection. The mother and
the shamelessness of the corporeal associated with her must be forgotten
and replaced by sets of regulations which oppress the body, reshape the
body, and erase the body from filthy, stinking and sticky corporeality. The
body becomes transparent. Its parts, sufferings, filth and pains become
rather the function of the mind, the psychological state of the self rather
than particular material phenomena.

The Poetics of Abjection: Saving from Pain


Room Numbers (Numery), the short story by Olga Tokarczuk, was
published in 1998 as one of a collection of three included in the volume
Wardrobe (Szafa), the first of which is the story that then gives its title to
the whole collection; the second is entitled Deus Ex.
Wardrobe consists of literary sketches with a surreal element, telling
the story of a couple who buy a new wardrobe which then tempts them
with its interiors as if with a new reality, both exotic and somehow known:
In Wardrobe my femininity does not differ at all from the masculinity of R.
It did not matter if something was smooth or rough, round or pointy,
distant or close, foreign or known. There was a smell of other places and
other times from the closet; the time which was strange to me. My God, the
smell nevertheless brought something to my mind, it had something so

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