Friday, February 17, 2012

From Melancholia: Sylvia Plath Post-Mortem

[T]he point of anguish at which my mother killed herself was taken over by strangers, possessed and reshaped by them… It was as if the clay from her poetic energy was taken up and versions of my mother made out of it, invented to reflect only the inventors, as if they could possess my real, actual mother, now a woman who has ceased to resemble herself in those other minds. Frieda Hughes
The violence and fury in Plath's later poetry seemed unnerving and unladylike to many of her editors in 1963. Before the decade ended, it would find a ready audience among angry young feminists striving to cast off patriarchal limitations. Plath's suicide became the defining moment of her life: the Ariel poems became incantations written in her blood, verses which simultaneously captured and drove her to self-immolation. Many of her devotees saw Hughes as a male oppressor who had callously driven her to her end: his editing of her poetry and tight control over her journals after her death was seen as a final betrayal by a black-hearted scoundrel.

Her mythology has inspired scholarly attention as much as her poetry. After studying the lives of over 2,000 creative luminaries, psychologist James Kaufman found that female poets had a particularly elevated risk of mental illness, psychiatric hospitalization and suicide attempts: he dubbed this "the Sylvia Plath effect." (Other researchers have pointed to problems with this and similar studies, noting issues with selection bias, controls that are not blinded, reliance on biographies that might play up mental illness, retrospective designs and unclear definitions of creativity). Like Goethe's young Werther and Chateaubriand's René, Plath has become an icon of the brilliant but tormented soul too delicate for this world. But while Werther and René were fictional (or thinly fictionalized) creations, Plath was a flesh-and-blood person whose death left behind a legacy and a family.

It is tempting to see the final Ariel poems as the cause and product of her self-immolation. Perhaps the real tragedy is that Plath died at the height of her creative powers. What might she have created had she been been able to pull herself through that miserable London winter and gone on to write poems not about her self-destruction but about her survival? Instead of romanticizing what her depression gave us, we might do better to mourn what it took away.

Plath had little tolerance for "beats" and alternative lifestyles and strove (however uncomfortably) to fulfill her society's expectations as a wife and mother. Would she have become an icon if she and Hughes had reconciled and she spent the rest of her life writing about family and motherhood from a British suburb? Alas, we will never know the answers to these questions. With his death Otto Plath became a "colossus" to his daughter, a broken statue she could only try fruitlessly to mend. Her suicide has made her a colossus to us, simultaneously unreachable and inescapable.