“In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.”
In 1834, Robert Browning wrote ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ which is an objective study in morbid psychology. In the above lines from the poem, the lover describes in horrifying detail, his act of murdering his lover, Porphyria. Browning described his work as “Action in character, rather than character in action.” This phrase accurately describes the dramatic monologue witnessed in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ (published 1836). The strictly linear narrative and aesthetic perfection in the title and the structure suggests the insane orderliness of a paranoid mind. This perfection of the dramatic monologue cracks along with the speaker. Phrases such as “murmuring how she loved me”, “put my arm about her waist” and “when no voice replied” suggest that her strangulation is seen by the lover as a tender act of love which silences her forever. His desire to freeze this exquisite moment, to bind her loveliness, tenderness and sexual warmth to him shows his extreme passion, progressing toward perversion. This perversion of desire is what lead to his obsession which is why it is possible that he derived sadistic pleasure in her strangulation. Jaques Lacan introduces unconscious desire which in this context implies that the speaker was impulsive in his actions as he “found a thing to do”. His building up frustration over her being “Too weak” or her unattainable regal figure, in a moment of hatred, perhaps resulted in his Instinct of Thanatos. Lacan also makes it possible to view the anonymity of the lover as a ‘Lack’. The lover seems to be so afraid of loss or abandonment (or Lack), that he actually kills the woman in order to possess her forever. This also highlights the Victorian ideology of commodifying women. The lover’s fear can be compared to King Lear’s “vulnerability as a human masked by his rash behaviour and unjust decisions”, in the words of Jessica Dunckel in The Necessity of Reasonable Madness in King Lear, from Shakespeare’s King Lear (published 1608). Another reading of the poem is in relation with identity politics. Since the lover’s identity is supplemented by his beloved, his erotic, sadistic fantasy is fulfilled at the point of her death. So he remains anonymous in the beginning of the poem and becomes her lover by killing her because he tries to attain the unattainable. The school of deconstruction developed by Jacques Derrida allows for all of these readings to coexist.
A master-slave relationship emerges when the speaker says, “Porphyria worshipped me”, implying a complete authority over her essence and existence. He justifies the murder by suggesting that he’s fulfilling her desires by fulfilling his own, as she loves him. This idea can be compared to the idea that the Lady of Shalott was redeemed in her death, from Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’. His Impulse leads to a defence mechanism in which he tries to rationalise his actions, “No pain felt she”. He refuses to acknowledge her death as an end of her emotional and physical life, “Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss”, and depicts the greatest of denials. He suggests that she is happy in her death and united in their cause and wanted to stay with him forever. The speaker also shows Sublimation as he uses external sources for the justification, hence God remains silent at the end of the poem. He says, “And yet God has not said a word!” The word “yet” connotes that in spite of his criminal actions God has not said a word yet, however he might. So, until he is certain that this divine silence equals divine approval, he will repeat this narrative again and again. It is like a loop in his mind; he believes that since he led her to her death, death cannot take her from him, which is why he sees her smiling in her death. In this we see Projection, the third stage of the Defence Mechanism. Thus we witness the lover rationalising and reasoning his madness. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.” These words explain the extremity of love. Maybe, the madness in love is only madness to those who cannot love intensely. Similarly, that which is unacceptable to society is perhaps perceived as madness. Comparably, the Holocaust was madness but seen as rational because the state infused reason into it. These interpretations seem possible in Nietzche’s concept of Perspectivism. The phrase “reason in madness” is reminiscent of Edgar from Shakespeare’s King Lear, “O, matter and impertinency mix’d! Reason in madness!” (4.6)
We see a psyche parallel to the lover’s in Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from Tom Tykwer’s film, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006). The movie is a postmodernist saga which uses Nietzche’s concept of Ubermensnch to create a protagonist who is a ‘Superman’. Grenouille’s extraordinary sense of smell segregates him from the common man. Grenouille finds that virgins have the purest essence as there is no intermingling of smell. He kills a girl, not fully aware of his actions, much like the speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. With her dead body, he tries to capture her scent. Thus the lover and Grenouille both share the Instinct of Thanatos as well as the obsession to preserve. The fact that he is aware of good and bad smells and of the hierarchy of smells proves that he has inhibitions. Thus he realises that the purpose of his life is to create the perfect scent when he discovers that unlike the young girl, he does not have any body odour. For his purpose, he willingly kills 13 virgins. Such extreme devotion to his cause is perfectly reasonable to him but to others it is a grotesque, almost deranged thought. There is madness in his reason. At a psychological level he is driven by obsession, therefore his desire has also undergone perversion like the lover’s. The perfect scent that he successfully creates gives the impression of an Edenic space in a prelapsarian world. This is evidenced in the reaction of the people who had gathered to witness his hanging. On smelling the perfume, they entered a paradisiacal mental frame and indulged in an orgy because they were free from societal boundaries in that state. This can also be perceived as madness but on the other hand, it can be simply argued as the effect of a perfume. The effect was so powerful that the father of Grenouille’s final victim called him his son. After fulfilling the purpose of his life, Grenouille was left with no desire to continue living. This was so because he is not a common human being and is thus incapable of being loved, as love is a universal human concept. He then decides to go back to the fish market where he was born and pours the magical/powerful perfume upon himself so as to be loved. The people around satiate their desire for him by consuming him. This aspect can be compared with ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. The lover transcends all barriers of life by finding a way to stay with his beloved for ever. This signifies a consummation in death as well. This is much like the people who transcend all barriers and participate in an orgy and the people who indulge in cannibalism.
The poem and the movie both allow multiple readings and interpretations. Their actions can be argued in the terms of psychoanalysis or passion, reality or fantasy. There is hence ‘reason in madness’ and ‘madness in reason’. But as Derrida and Nietzsche suggest, it is all subject to perception.