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Jul 09 2013

Enthralled by the details of her suicide

The cult of Sylvia Plath has always been creepy, you have to admit. Now this year is the [sharp intake of breath] 50th anniversary of that time she stuck her head in the oven, so the cult has to get even creepier. (Why? I mean, why? Fifty years; so what? Why is that more significant than 49 or 51? Humans are so stupid sometimes. Honestly.)

Terry Castle thinks it’s stupid too. Terry Castle is right.

A clutch of new biographies (including the two reviewed here) are likewise among the morbid tie-ins. “Sylvia Plath may be the most fascinating literary figure of the twentieth century”—so the publisher’s copy for one of them gushes. “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide and her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes.” Such ambulance-chasing fans no doubt also dote on Frida Kahlo’s near-fatal impaling by the tram rail.

Seriously? “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide…”? Well get over it. Jesus.

It will come as no surprise that I’m one of those who will always be turning away from Plath. Or trying to. I find her tasteless, grisly—unbearable, in fact—precisely because, even five decades after her suicide, she and her corpse-infested verses hold on with such ghoulish tenacity.

Yeah.

25 comments

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  1. 1
    Nathaniel Frein

    I appreciate Sylvia Plath’s work. I understand (and regret) the anti-woman and anti-mental health attitudes that pushed her into her downward spiral.

    But to fawn over her suicide like this is…morbid…

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    Morbid, grisly, safely dead and with a cult following – how long until Sylvia Plath achieves official sainthood?

  3. 3
    Gretchen Robinson

    John Keats wrote in “To a Nightingale” of being “half in love with easeful death.”
    ….”The weariness, the fever, and the fret
    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
    Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 25
    Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;”

    Better to die young than die old and feeble, so says the
    romantic from that most romantic era. Nowadays, anti-depressants
    and treatment for manic-depression (lithium) save many lives.
    Or blame Ted Hughes and/or the responsibilities of two young
    children on one so fragile.

    It’s a form of entertainment really, imagining that one’s death could
    cause such a stir, like winning the lottery. Psychiatry has made progress
    but not nearly enough.
    Poetry is “The Language of Life” says Bill Moyers (which I recommend).
    If you have poetry in your life, you don’t need emotional self-indulgence
    such as some teens embrace when they read the Bell Jar.

    In the 18th Century women who struck out on their own all
    ended up dead. That little trope kept many good women
    in stutifying marriages and boring domesticity.

  4. 4
    Gretchen Robinson

    oops I meant in the 19th Century, novels about women who struck
    out on their own featured heroines who ended up dead.

  5. 5
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    The “peanut munching crowd” from ‘Lady Lazarus’ * – still at it, it seems, even now. Wonder what she’d think about this?**

    * http://poetry.rapgenius.com/Sylvia-plath-lady-lazarus-lyrics#note-1409098

    One very powerfully memorable poem.

    ** I really doubt she’d be surprised.

  6. 6
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Interesting that of the female poets aside from the first famous one Sappho of Lesbos (yes, really) the first ones to come to mind are Emily Dickinson** and Sylvia Plath all of whose works are notably, well, morbid.

    Maybe that’s me and my education (was taught some poetry in English at high school), maybe not? Not sure what it says about well anything much really but still.

    ** “Because I would not stop for death he kindly stopped for me ..”

  7. 7
    Gregory in Seattle

    According to the Wikipedia, Plath’s husband set aside one of her journals and a collection of her papers with orders that they not be released until 2013, the 50th anniversary of her death.

  8. 8
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Arrrgh! Make that : “Because I could not stop for Death.”

  9. 9
    WithinThisMind

    The fact that ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ is written in ballad meter, meaning it can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island, has made it very difficult for me to study Dickinson’s work.

  10. 10
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Gretchen Robinson;
    When Keats said he was “half in love with easeful death” he knew he had T.B. and would die soon and unpleasantly anyway. He was describing a temptation to be resisted- to slump into inertia and wait for the end. The odes themselves are part of his resistance.

    in the 19th Century, novels about women who struck
    out on their own featured heroines who ended up dead.
    The obvious disproof of that is the work of George Eliot- unless you mean we all end up dead anyway.

    StevoR: again, there are quite a few famous female poets who aren’t morbid: obvious candidates are Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Bishop, Jean Ingelow, Sylvia Townsend Warner…One- Dorothy Parker- decided “You might as well live”.
    The interesting thing is the emphasis on Plath and Dickinson and the narrow interpretation of their work that is so common now..

  11. 11
    Stacy

    StevoR, don’t take this personally because I understand why you wrote what you wrote. But your comment together with the OP touched a nerve. It’s true that Dickinson’s most famous poems include several about death. Emily Dickinson wrote over 1,700 poems. She wrote about death among many, many other things. You might as well call Shakespeare morbid–there’s a lot of death in his work, too.

    She was one of the two greatest poets America has produced, and her scope is not narrow. To anyone who’s interested in exploring her complete work, I highly recommend The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson.

    I’m sensitive to dismissals of women artists. It’s happened a lot and it still happens (for discussions of how it happens and who gets overlooked, see Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing and Tillie Olsen’s Silences). Almost 40 years ago, Cynthia Ozick had her college students read an excerpt from a writer named Flannery O’Connor and describe “his” writing; when she revealed the author was a woman, one student backpedaled:

    “But I could tell she was a woman,” she insisted. “Her sentences are a woman’s sentences.” I asked her what she meant and how she could tell. “Because they’re sentimental,” she said, “they’re not concrete like a man’s.” I pointed out whole paragraphs, pages even, of unsentimental, so-called tough prose. “But she sounds like a woman—she has to sound that way because she is.” . . . [I]t rapidly developed that the whole class now declared that it too, even while ignorant of the author’s sex, had nevertheless intuited all along that this was a woman’s prose; it had to be, since Flannery was a she.

    *

    I haven’t read a lot of Plath, but I like what I’ve read. Yes, she had a troubled life and apparently suffered from depression. She wrote some good poems and an interesting roman a clef. It’s unfortunate her death has overshadowed her work.

    * I can’t find Ozick’s essay (Previsions of the Demise of the Dancing Dog) online, but I did find Francine Prose’s wonderful essay Scent of a Woman’s Ink. I took the paragraph from Ozick’s essay from Prose’s piece, which refers to it.

    http://harpers.org/archive/1998/06/scent-of-a-womans-ink/1/

  12. 12
    Kate

    I normally agree with you, Ophelia, but something about this post just really rubbed me the wrong way. Granted, I’m a fan of Sylvia Plath’s work (I first read The Bell Jar at a certain time in my life and it became an important book to me), so I guess I’m biased. Maybe it’s the implication that being interested in the circumstances surrounding one’s death is automatically the same as fapping over and romanticizing it?

  13. 13
    Minot

    There is definitely a morbid fringe who obsess about Plath and her romantic history, but this is a bit harsh. The main reason Plath is remembered is because she was an exceptionally fine poet, and shaping up to be an even better one. There aren’t so many fine poets of her class after all. I tend to agree with Martin Amis on this: ‘no writer is unjustly remembered’.

  14. 14
    Minot

    And, wow, the misogyny that bubbles up through that review! He really hates those nasty women ungrads, doesn’t he?

  15. 15
    jose

    The cult is to blame here, right? Not the writer herself? In “Chapters in a Mythology”, Judith Kroll makes this disclaimer explicitly. The book was originally her dissertation and she seeked to explain why Plath matters as a writer regardless of gossip and morbid interest. She has an introduction talking about how most commentary of Plath was about how the writing relates to her marriage and death and she wanted to take the poems at face value and evaluate their merits in terms of literature for a change.

    That’s definitely what sells, though. I can’t find a nice edition of the collected works, but man, can I find unabridged journals, secret diaries, annotated original versions and similar gossipy stuff.

  16. 16
    Marcus Ranum

    Whenever I read about someone killing themselves, I almost always dig into the details. I file it under “morbid curiousity” probably inspired by curiousity about my own eventual death. To me, the way people who choose to die do it says – something – about them. I guess I search for symbolism in it; it’s probably a result of being too steeped in Japanese death-culture when I was a kid. I guess it’s just me feeding my imagination with various scenarios.

    I admit that as soon as I read this, I went and researched how Plath killed herself (I didn’t know) And, as usual, I found it interesting. Not fascinating, just interesting.

  17. 17
    Kate

    Minot: I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt that the review would have been a little different if Sylvia Plath had been Silvio Plath instead.

  18. 18
    noxiousnan

    I was one of those students, did a term paper about her some 30 years ago. I’d never heard of Sylvia Plath, and picked her from a list because it seemed a more challenging topic than the others on the list. I liked her work and went on to read some of her husband’s and just to expose myself more to poetry in general.

    At the time, I didn’t come across any speculation along the lines of what I was thinking about her death, and I wonder if any of these biographies since then have. Sylvia Plath was on anti deppresants, which she stopped taking about ten days before she killed herself. I think she stopped them because she felt they interfered with her creativity, but going from hazy memory here. I believe she went into one of those side-effect spirals from stopping the anti-depressants without medical supervision.

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    There is discussion of that in at least one of the biographies. I think it’s pretty much agreed that she needed meds and would have been ok if she’d gotten them in time. There was a lot of bad luck in play – a weekend or holiday or both interfering with her ability to get medical help, that kind of thing.

  20. 20
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    The whole article is so hateful, I can’t believe we’ve read the same thing.

    Is the author as frustrated with fans of Franz Kafka? He was one weird, morbid man, but I guess it’s the suicide that’s bothering the author and Kafka didn’t commit that particular sin.

    Gah, that article leaves me furious, and I’m not even a fan of Plath. The contempt for Sylvia Plath and contempt for her fans are completely mixed, the contempt for the brouhaha around her suicide is made into another motivation to despise Plath.
    And that last paragraph, part of which you quoted? Here’s the rest of it:

    She seems never to tire of creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave. That the infant “Nick” addressed in those final poems from Devon, the very poems cited as “nature poems” by the kindly Boland, hanged himself in 2009 seems only the latest malignant turn of the Plathian screw. A respected fisheries biologist—he taught at a university in Alaska—Nicholas Hughes had apparently done everything possible to distance himself geographically and psychically from his parents’ cursed history. (Most of the people who worked with him knew nothing of his family story.) Yet Lady Lazarus caught up with him at last. He was said afterward to have been “lonely” much of his life and depressed by his failure to find love. His mother was by then long dead—he had never had any memory of her—yet even so I couldn’t help wanting to kill her.

    Oh do shit on people who commit suicide while pretending to care.

  21. 21
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    That last sentence of mine, about shitting on people who commit suicide, was referring to Terry Castle, the author of the article, not Ophelia.

  22. 22
    Dave Ricks

    At first I was especially pleased that this is the fiftieth Gibbs lecture, because 50 is so special in our number system. This is because it is the product of the number of fingers on one hand multiplied by the number of fingers on two hands. But from this point of view, 50 is not a dimensionless number, since it has the dimensions of (fingers per hand) squared. Therefore, its numerical value depends upon the choice of units, so it has no intrinsic significance. This is a reminder that it is only dimensionless numbers which we can regard as large or small, as in the asymptotic analysis I am going to discuss later.

    – Joseph B. Keller delivering the fiftieth Josiah Willard Gibbs Lecture at the 83rd Annual Meeting of the American Mathematical Society, 1977.

  23. 23
    Minot

    “That’s definitely what sells, though. I can’t find a nice edition of the collected works, but man, can I find unabridged journals, secret diaries, annotated original versions and similar gossipy stuff.”

    See here:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Collected-Poems-Sylvia-Plath/dp/0571118380/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1373531736&sr=8-1&keywords=plath+collected#

    Here:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sylvia-Plath-Selected-Poems-Poetry/dp/0571135862/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1373531736&sr=8-3&keywords=plath+collected

    Or here:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sylvia-Plath-Poems-Chosen-Carol/dp/0571290434/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1373531736&sr=8-4&keywords=plath+collected

    Not hard to find really.

  24. 24
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @11. Stacy :

    I’m sensitive to dismissals of women artists. It’s happened a lot and it still happens (for discussions of how it happens and who gets overlooked, see Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing and Tillie Olsen’s Silences).

    Fair enough, I agree with that and thanks.

  25. 25
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    (Pressed submit instead of preview durnnit it. Sorry.)

    You might as well call Shakespeare morbid–there’s a lot of death in his work, too.

    Very true. Shakespeare and Brecht (Waiting for Godot) and Wilfred Owen (WWI poet) and, well, so many others.

    Death is a key a part of life (so to speak!) and has a morbid fascination for an awful lot of people. Its something we all face and most of us fear and confronting it in any and every form of art from painting to poetry is common and understandable and in many cases good.

    She (Emily Dickinson -ed.) was one of the two greatest poets America has produced, and her scope is not narrow. To anyone who’s interested in exploring her complete work, I highly recommend The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson.

    Her scope wasn’t narrow -but sometimes the choices of poems that get taught in classrooms are – I was talking about what poems of hers I heard and ones that which I remember now from decades ago so I’;m quite willing to admit I’m likely suffering from selection bias here.

    Thanks for that reference and your other ones – hopefully I’ll have enough time to find and read them because I’d like to do that.

    Ditto for #10.

    StevoR: again, there are quite a few famous female poets who aren’t morbid: obvious candidates are Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Bishop, Jean Ingelow, Sylvia Townsend Warner…One- Dorothy Parker- decided “You might as well live”.
    The interesting thing is the emphasis on Plath and Dickinson and the narrow interpretation of their work that is so common now..

    Yep.

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