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A Thesis: Two Ways

May 9, 2013—As a double major in French and English, Kylie Sago (C’13) wrote not one but two honors theses.

Next year, Sago is bound for Harvard University’s doctoral program in French literature, but she found her foundation as a researcher in her majors at Georgetown. “Working as a researcher on these two projects really affirmed my career goal of going on to graduate studies in French literature,” Sago said.

Each thesis addresses the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire. “I think the subjects are fairly different. They both deal with the figuration of the woman, but in very different ways,” she continued.

In her French thesis, Sago analyzes three poems from Baudelaire’s collection of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). In each of the three poems—“La Beauté,” “Le Masque,” and “A Une Madonne”—the woman is represented as a sculpture. “I was looking at the reaction that the spectator poet has when he looks on these women as art. A lot of times there’s this element of shock, surprise, or even violence that shows up in the poems,” she said.

According to Sago, these shocks represent depictions of trauma in poetry, which led to the focus of her thesis. “There’s this idea that trauma is unrepresentable to the self. But what I wanted to look at in my thesis was the way that these three poems affirm poetry’s ability to represent and depict trauma,” she explained. In “La Beauté,” the poet discovers the shock that language is insufficient to capture certain ideas and emotions. In “Le Masque,” she found the idea that life itself is a trauma, and in the third poem, a poet experiences trauma through a divided self.

“In ‘A Une Madonne,’ the poet becomes a sculptor of a metaphoric statute, creating a grotto-like space deep within himself and adorning the Madonna with his verses, jealousy, suspicion, tears, and respect—before plunging seven knives into her bleeding heart,” she said.

The poem explores the idea of a divided self—“self that contains at once self and other”— so the pain the sculptor poet inflicts upon the statute, he also inflicts upon himself. “One of the things I talk about in my thesis is the way that depicting trauma in poetry creates a network of witnesses and testimonies to the trauma,” she explained. “I think that by depicting a statute, the poet is creating another witness to his trauma. The statute can also be that on which the poet projects his trauma to express it.”

For her English thesis, Sago wanted to do a project that closely compared two authors, “with a particular interest in presentations of the woman coming back from the grave and fetishes,” she explained.

Comparing Baudelaire’s poems with short stories by Poe was a natural fit. “Baudelaire actually translated Edgar Allan Poe into French. He was the one who introduced France to Poe so the literary heritage was already established between the two,” she explained.

Although both research projects looked at works by Baudelaire, her English thesis examined the control that a male poet has over representations of women in his work, in light of theories by Freud, Nietzsche, and Simone de Beauvoir and theories of poetic language.

“I created this interplay of theories to show that even though the poet exerts this enormous amount of control over the figure of the woman in his writing, his attempt to possess the woman in poetic language is doomed to fail,” she said. However, she finds that this futile chase to possess the woman is fulfilling enough for the poet to come back to subject “again and again” in his writing.

Sago cautions readers to view these emotionally charged poems and stories with an understanding that they represent only a portion of the author’s overall work. “The woman is a tool of the poet or author to evoke certain feelings of himself,” she explained. “You have to nuance arguments. You can’t characterize one author’s treatment of the woman under one description.”

Sago’s thesis projects have not only been a culminating experience of her studies at Georgetown but also placed her a path for after graduation.

“I can’t tell you how much intellectual growth has come from these projects for me. I found it to be an incredibly creative and fulfilling process, where I’m working toward my intellectual potential and that is the most amazing feeling in the world.”

—Elizabeth Wilson