Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Plath’

The shadow of her father: an anthropologist’s take on Sylvia Plath

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018
Share

 

Getting “back, back, back to you”: Sylvia Plath with her parents.

The publication of Sylvia Plath’s last letters to her psychiatrist and other letters, too, has put the controversial Plath, one of the top American poets of the twentieth century, back in the news.

We’ve published a couple guest posts from anthropologist Mark Anspach (here and here), and one Q&A about his new book, Vengeance in Reverse. Mark had thoughts about the Plath legend – with a Girardian twist. He has given us permission to publish his words: 

The death of her father when she was eight left Sylvia Plath – in the words of her poem “The Colossus” – “married to shadow.” On February 11, 1963, Plath widowed her estranged husband, poet Ted Hughes, by committing suicide at age 30.

Many blamed Hughes for his wife’s death. At the time, he was having an affair with a mutual friend who went on to commit suicide herself. Why did the women who were drawn to him take their own life?

“Every woman adores a Fascist,” Plath wrote in one of her most famous poems. “The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you.” To his accusers, Hughes was a brute who kissed the girls and made them die. But Plath’s suicide likely had much deeper roots.

Death as sequel

In Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson asserts that she had already tried to cut her throat when she was ten years old. Earlier biographies and the poems themselves suggest that she was traumatized at a tender age by her father’s death.

In fact, the line “Every woman adores a Fascist” comes from the poem “Daddy.” Her father is the jack-booted brute who bit her “pretty red heart in two,” the “panzer-man” who scared her with his “neat moustache” and “Aryan eye,” his Luftwaffe and swastika. At least that is what the narrator says in this deliberately over-the-top poem.

In The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath, biographer Ronald Hayman suggests that she had actually worshipped her father when she was a little girl, doting on his praise. A hard-working, studious blacksmith’s son who immigrated to America as a teenager and forged an academic career teaching German and biology, Otto Plath was not a Nazi.

But he was an iron-willed domestic tyrant who subjugated Sylvia’s mother – a bright former student twenty-one years his junior – and may well have had a sadistic streak. To show off his disdain for the conventional prejudices that govern human behavior, Hayman writes, “he used to skin a rat, cook it and eat it in front of his students.”

The most brutal thing Otto did in Sylvia’s eyes was to abandon her by dying early. “Daddy” presents her first famous suicide attempt – the one described in her novel The Bell Jar – as an effort to be reunited with him. But after the doctors “stuck me together with glue,” she writes, “then I knew what to do”:

I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.

The man in black with the Meinkampf look was Ted Hughes, perennially decked out in his bohemian poet’s uniform: a regulation black sweater and black pants. She knew of his sadistic streak when she married him, confiding to a horrified mentor about his habit of “bashing people around.” But that didn’t stop her from saying “I do.”

Or rather “I do, I do” – as if she were wedding two men: not just Ted, but Daddy. For a poet who could write “I dream that I am Oedipus” (“The Eye-mote”) and blithely address her father as “bridegroom” (“The Beekeeper’s Daughter”), psychoanalyzing herself was easy – maybe too easy.

When she tells her father “I made a model of you,” she seems to mean that Ted was a stand-in for the man she really desired, the way a model train is a replica of the original. But the words “I made a model of you” may have a broader scope. Sylvia could easily have taken Otto’s premature death as a model for her own suicidal behavior, as the following lines from “Daddy” hint:

I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.

By saying she was ten rather than eight, Plath conflates the year of her father’s death and that of her own first suicidal gesture as revealed in Andrew Wilson’s book – although in “Lady Lazarus” she would allude obliquely to this “first time” as “an accident.”

Yet both poems put the emphasis on repetition: “I have done it again./One year in every ten,” she announces in “Lady Lazarus,” prefiguring her ultimate suicide at age 30. “Daddy” allows us to see her three attempts to end her own life – at ten, twenty, and thirty – as three efforts to get “back, back, back” to her father.

But if the repetition is rooted in imitation – if she made a model of her father – then she did not just want to go back to him; she wanted to do the same thing he did. “Though he didn’t quite kill himself,” Ronald Hayman notes, “he had set a suicidal example.” At age 50, when he developed symptoms similar to those of a friend who was dying of cancer, Otto Plath stubbornly refused to see a doctor.

His friend had undergone several futile operations, and Otto, who prided himself on his independent-mindedness, was determined to avoid unnecessary surgery. He had diagnosed his own cancer and did not want to put himself in the hands of doctors. If he was destined to die of cancer, so be it. He would accept his fate like a man.

Except that he did not have cancer at all, but diabetes. The condition could have been treated with insulin if only it had been caught in time. Four years later, when he complained of a stubbed foot, his wife saw that the toes were black, with red streaks going up the ankle. His gangrenous leg had to be amputated. A few weeks later he was dead.

According to Hayman, Sylvia regarded her father’s death as suicidal and “started to think about her own death as the unavoidable sequel to his.” This suggests that Sylvia Plath’s death wish was what the late Stanford theorist René Girard would call a mimetic desire – one imitated from somebody else.

He knew.

In his classic work Violence and the Sacred, Girard says the objects we crave most are prized less for their intrinsic value than for the importance conferred on them by an admired model: “If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being.”

When Sylvia was a little girl, she looked up to her father as the most formidable man she knew. Because of his early death, that is the way he remained forever fixed in her memory – as the giant of the poem “Colossus.”

Nothing could be less intrinsically desirable than death. But if her father, that forbidding giant of a man, willingly embraced it, then death might well have appeared to Sylvia as the only object capable of conferring on her the greater plenitude that in her deep unhappiness she felt she lacked.

“Sylvia Plath’s voice comes down to us like the will of Hera.”

Monday, January 15th, 2018
Share

Anwen Crawford‘s article in New Yorker, “The Letters of Sylvia Plath and the Transformation of the Poet’s Voice,” will be reassuring to many. Like the rest of us, Plath’s early work was “awful.” Moreover, her letters were boring. Now we know that for sure, thanks to the 1,300 or so pages of unexpurgated correspondence recently published in The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1, 1940–1956, There’s lots about boys and studies and food, and much of it is dull.  To wit: “Last night I had three big helpings of potatoes (mashed) and carrots for supper and a scant helping of meatloaf as well as 2 pieces of bread and butter, 2 apricots & a glass of milk.”

As the editors of the collection, Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, note in their foreword: “Plath wrote and typed to the very edges of her paper.” As for the awful early work, it is clear that it wasn’t just talent, or even primarily talent, that made Plath an innovative poet, but discipline, will, application, and an indefatigable  refusal to give in to limitation.

And a couple powerful paragraphs from the piece may reframe our discussion of Plath forever:

The belief among many of Plath’s devotees seems to be that if we can get clear of other people’s fingerprints on her texts, allowing Plath to “fully narrate her own autobiography,” as the editors here describe it, we will at last solve the riddle of her. The extremities of her poetry will balance against the circumstances of her life; the latter will equal the former.

But her griefs were ordinary; it is what she did with them that wasn’t. Plath turned her common sorrows—dead father, mental illness, cheating husband—into something like an origin story for pain itself, as if her own pain preceded the world. The moon was her witness, an elm tree spoke to her, or through her. Her poetry speeds beyond the facts of her life and becomes Olympian in its fury. “I am too pure for you or anyone,” she writes in “Fever 103,” from 1962, “Your body / Hurts me as the world hurts God.” What a thrill, to have honed within oneself such contempt for the living world, and then to unleash it. Plath’s voice comes down to us like the will of Hera.

And, amid the imperiousness, a tenderness, too, just as worked at, and as breathtaking. It was directed at her children, also turned into archetypes, as if they were the first children who had ever been. “Love set you going like a fat gold watch,” she writes in “Morning Song,” the poem that opens “Ariel.” “The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry / Took its place among the elements.” Few poets before Plath wrote of motherhood with such attention, or, rather, few that we know of; who can guess how many other mothers wrote but were never read? Plath’s work survives, which is why we have needed her. If only she had, too.

Read the whole thing here.

Poet R.S. Gwynn on Ted Hughes: “Mysticism and hormones are a deadly combination.”

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017
Share

Sam the Man.

After my post a few days ago, “Was Sylvia Plath a Battered Wife?” discussing new revelations, or interpretations of revelations, about poet Sylvia Plath –  thanks to a new article at Lit Hub by Emily Van Duyne – my friend R.S. “Sam” Gwynn and I exchanged a few messages on the subject. The first was a comment on the post itself, then we messaged each other on Facebook.

We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I find his views refreshingly level-headed, on this and many other subjects. And our conversation turned also to our mutual friend, the poet Anne Stevenson, who called Plath “the fiercest poet of our time,” and author of a controversial biography of Plath. From Sam:

I recently read Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes. He was a fairly despicable man and, after his first two books, not much of a poet–England’s James Dickey. But to take Plath at her word in letters to her former therapist raises other questions. Plath’s letters to her mother, collected many years ago in Letters Home, are full of proven exaggerations, omissions, and outright lies. Thus, I doubt that we will ever find out what exactly went on in that torturous marriage. Still, if Emily Van Duyne thinks that Hughes was “knighted by the Queen,” her credentials as a biographical commentator are definitely not “beyond dispute.”

Anne, a pretty good poet herself.

He said that he burned one volume of her journals, written during the last months of her life, so that their children would not see them; I don’t blame him for that, especially after a poem like “Edge.” He also claimed that another volume had been lost; perhaps it will eventually turn up, perhaps not. He edited the poems for Ariel in such a way that Plath, who was relatively unknown at her death, became posthumously famous; this did no permanent harm as Ariel was later re-edited along the lines of Plath’s own manuscript. I would not say that his point-of-view has prevailed; Van Duyne’s article is just one of many examples of the “pro-Plath” side, and defenders of Hughes have become increasingly rare. Rough Magic, which I found fairly bizarre, is one example of a biography that sets the blame on him. He seems at heart (if you can call him that) an increasingly silly mystic as he aged. He also had way too much testosterone. Mysticism and hormones are a deadly combination.

I think I’ve read most of the biographies of both of them – a morbid fascination. I think Anne [Stevenson]’s the best of the batch, even if it was heavily overseen by Olwyn Hughes.

We had a couple of long chats (very difficult with her hearing at the time) but I decided to leave Plath as the elephant in the room; I’m sure she’d had enough questions about the bio. Plath was what we used to call a “curve-wrecker”– the perfect student who did everything by the book to end up in first place. She was about as sexually liberated as one could be before the pill and could stand her ground with any of the boys she knew before Ted. I think it was a classic case of both meeting their match at first, but the complications of marriage and children fell more heavily on her, as it did on many women of her time. Portraying her as helpless in any way except as a victim of her mental problems is probably a mistake. I’m sure she could give as much as take in a relationship.

There is a strange contradiction in many women critics of Plath. On the one hand, they see her as the vengeful spirit of “Lady Lazarus” but on the other as victimized. Maybe you can have both, but they’re hard to reconcile.
.

Was Sylvia Plath a battered wife?

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017
Share

The fiercest poet of our times

The short answer? Yes.

Over at Literary Hub, a persuasive and passionate argument by Emily Van Duyne. In a nutshell:

To anyone as familiar as I am with Plath’s life and work, the fact that Ted Hughes was likely abusive—emotionally and physically—is not news. In fact, the only way we can discount the certainty of that abuse is if we choose to disbelieve Plath at her repeated word in her journals, reports to friends and family, and now, it seems, letters to Dr. Ruth Barnhouse, Plath’s therapist-turned-confidante. Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic contains a dramatic account of Hughes attempting to strangle Plath on their honeymoon in Benidorm, Spain—a grim tale supposedly told to the author by Aurelia Schober Plath, Sylvia’s mother, who allowed herself to be interviewed for the book. Plath’s Unabridged Journals, published in America in fall 2000, and edited by Karen V. Kukil, who curates the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Plath’s alma mater, Smith College, are peppered with references to her violent relationship with Hughes.

If Van Duyne’s article has taken the literary world by storm, perhaps it’s because of its obviousness. Didn’t we know it all along? “Why, for instance, did Plath meet Hughes one night at a party, bite him on the cheek when he kissed her, flee to Paris to see another boyfriend with barely a mention of Hughes’s name, and then marry him with no further commentary three months later? What had happened in between?” asks Van Duyne, who is writing a book about Plath.

Yet Van Duyne glosses over that legendary meeting at a party, which is well-known and often recounted. Here’s Maria Popova‘s summary over at Brain Pickings, quoting Plath’s account:

Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face. As Plath bit deep into his skin, she thought about the battle to the death that Hughes had described in “Law in the Country of the Cats” and the perpetrator’s admission of the crime: “I did it, I.” Hughes carried the “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for the next month or so, while he admitted that the encounter and the woman remained branded on his self “for good.”

To talk only about what he did to her is to bathe her in victimhood, which, I think, would have appalled her. We’re tiptoeing around the mysterious link between sex and aggression, sex and violence. I have no special insight to put on the table, but offer the subject for reflection. Plath was clearly familiar with this nexus. It is a delicate topic, given the violence towards women in this culture – any culture, really. Yet whole masses of people have formed in bondage clubs, and S&M clubs – Fifty Shades of Grey had women swooning across the nation. What’s up with that? Who wants to open that can of worms? (A woman once told me, her eyes sparkling with excitement, that when she was attracted to a man she wanted to slap him. Again, what’s up with that?)

The reaction in the days since Van Duyne’s article was published has been telling. Comments on the social media have lamented Plath’s vulnerability, how she was helpless, “sick,” at his mercy. I am offended by the portrayals of Plath as a weepy victim, a basket case, a social liability. She was by many reports lively and smart and witty and a helluva lot of fun to be around – when she wasn’t on the downside of her bipolar swings. The flipside of these comments portray the patient Hughes who put up with this anchor on his career – when, in fact, she taught Hughes discipline and determination, typing his manuscripts and goading him into submissions.

This part of Van Duyne’s argument is well worth reflection and in my opinion beyond dispute:

I want to point out the cultural bias against women’s voices and the domestic truths of women’s lives and the deep role this has played in painting Plath as both a pathetic victim and a Cassandra-like, genius freak. It is only in a culture where these two things be claimed simultaneously that Hughes, a known philanderer and violent partner, can spend forty years botching the editing of, or outright destroying, his estranged, now dead wife’s work, then win every conceivable literary prize and be knighted by the Queen. It is only in this culture that Plath can tell of his abuse, in print, for the better part of the same 40 years, only to have the same reports in a handful of letters recognized as “shocking.” And it is only in this culture that unseen letters detailing abuses as dreadful as a miscarriage induced by beating, and the expressed desire that one’s wife was dead, be described, without irony, as “tantalising.”

Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that she was “the fiercest poet of our time.” I just discovered her poem “Mushrooms” at the West Chester Poetry Conference last month. Read it here.

Syrian author Iman Al Ghafari: “I did not want to leave my country forever!”

Sunday, August 28th, 2016
Share
iman

Larsmo, Ghafari, and Linderman at the Sigtuna Literary Festival. (Photo courtesy Sigtuna)

“I did not want to leave my country forever,” said Syrian author Iman Al Ghafari. When she left her homeland in 2012, she had hoped to recharge her batteries and return to fight for gender issues. Now she knows she cannot go back. Most recently, she worked at the Amsterdam Research Centre for Gender and Sexuality, as well as a stint as a guest writer in Utrecht.

Now Ghafari is the Sigtuna literary center’s newest sanctuary writer, a guest in Sweden for the next two years. Sigtuna itself is one of nearly sixty International Cities of Refuge (ICORN), an independent organization of cities and regions offering shelter to writers and artists at risk, advancing freedom of expression, defending democratic values, and promoting international solidarity.

Ghafari spoke at a Sigtuna Literary Festival event yesterday about the plight of feminist and lesbian writers who wish to discuss the issues that concern them in the public sphere. She was joined by author Ola Larsmo, president of the Swedish PEN, and Sigtuna Foundation director Alf Linderman in a conversation about the freedoms we so often take for granted in the West.

iman3

Sigtuna’s newest guest writer

She has a doctorate in English literature from Cairo University; her dissertation was on the poet Sylvia Plath. “There was a feeling of anxiety in Syria, a feeling of being excluded in my own country,” she said. “I was not able to appear in public or express my opinion.”

“Then the situation became unsafe in general – every day explosions and bombs,” she recalled. She left the Syria and has been an exile ever since.

The authorities gave other reasons for her marginalization – she said that to admit the truth “would have been a confession.” Or rather, they gave no reason at all. She insisted she had not resigned from her faculty post, but her university said it no longer wanted her. “Before I left, I was involved in a personal war in Syria. I was not allowed to get an income or leave.” She felt like she was a hostage in her own country and an exile even while living in it.

PEN’s Larsmo said that writers and journalists have a special position within society. When waves of people are fleeing a dangerous situation, they are heading in the opposite direction: “Journalists, truth-finders, those are the people who are trying to tell us what is happening there. They are heading in that direction as others flee,” he said.

He noted that the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie provided a model for the way these people are denigrated and held in suspicion by the very people who should be protecting them. He cited four commonplace accusations they face: 1) The threatened artist is “artistically bad,” he said. Hence, Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses is condemned for being a “lousy novel.”  2) The threatened artist was deliberately provocative to get fame and money. 3) The threatened artist is putting other, innocent people in danger – for example, publishers, illustrators, or bookstore personnel. 4) The threatened writer or journalist is fundamentally “a bad person,” or unhinged and unstable. In keeping with the blaming-the-victim mentality, Ghafari recalled fellow Syrians blaming her, asking her, “Why do you put yourself at risk? Stay on safe subjects. Keep quiet. Don’t create problems for yourself.”

Larsmo recalled an incident where asylum was denied to a Bangladeshi blogger for fear he might overstay his welcome in his potential host country. Instead, he was murdered in his own. “I get furious still when I think about this,” said Larsmo. “In spite of the world situation, you have to keep your decency.”

In the absence of free speech, governments exploit divisions among people and persecute writers. “Turkey is now literally a prison for writers and journalists,” said Larsmo. “Erdogan wants to emphasize polarization. Who knows where Turkey will be in five years?”

Linderman asked Ghafari to look in her to make a few near-term predictions. “I’m not optimistic,” she said. “I see more restrictions on freedom of speech moving to the Western world.”

 

Yes, David Foster Wallace read Ulysses… how do I know? Update: Scammed!

Saturday, May 17th, 2014
Share

ulysses

Sylvia Plath reportedly went ballistic when someone marked books in any way whatsoever.  I, myself, have been known to lightly pencil brackets or little stars in the margin with a very soft #2 – and sometimes a single word, such as “Phooey!” But take a look at what David Foster Wallace did to James Joyce‘s Ulysses.  (Hat tip Cal Doyle; this is making the rounds on Tumblr.)

mitchumUpdate:  We’ve been had!  The photo was posted on the respectable Housing Works Bookstore in NYC here – so we weren’t alone in thinking it was legit, even though the words aren’t readable on the page. However, several people, including Christine in the comments section below, and on a Facebook comment thread on our friend Mikhail Iossel‘s page, have identified the text as Lee Server‘s biography of Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care. The words “Robert Mitchum” are in the lefthand page header, and the chapter heading “Phantom Years” on the right. The plot thickens: why would anyone feel the need to annotate a biography of movie star so heavily?  As one Facebook commenter noted, David Foster Wallace’s obsessiveness about his writing, his writing about his writing, and others’ writing about his writing is well known. But Mitchum? Said another commenter:  “I’m sure many writers could confess that Robert Mitchum was a bigger influence on them than Joyce.”