BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 18, 2000
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
edited by Karen V. Kukil
(Anchor Books, 732 pp., $18)
Saturday exhausted, nerves frayed. Sleepless.
Threw you, book, down, punched with fist.
Kicked, punched. Violence seethed. Joy to
murder someone, pure scapegoat. But pacified
during necessity to work. ... Baked a lemon
meringue pie, cooled lemon custard and crust
on cold bathroom windowsill, stirring in black
night and stars. Set table, candles, glasses
sparkling crystal barred crystal on yellow
woven cloth ... Shaping a meal, people, I grew
back to joy.
One of the less expected motifs of Sylvia Plath's journals is her intense and abiding appreciation of food. The journals are frequently casual, even scribbly, in style. But on those occasions when Plath bothers to summon up a little technique, it is remarkable how often it is food--as comforter, as redeemer--that prompts the effort. The rain will be falling, Ted's greasy hair and ragged nails will be getting on her nerves, Mommy and Daddy will be banging away on the cellar door, and, lo, along will come "fat lucent bacon on cracked wheat toast," or "good corn-thickened soup and tuna salad lush with mayonnaise," or "slick rubbery white crescents" of hardboiled egg "cradling the brilliant yellow powdery yolk," or the "scraggly-lace, blue-eyed peacock shells" of raw oysters, to make the world temporarily right again.
We have had intimations of this delight in mealtimes from other sources. Plath's appetite seems to have excited a certain irritated amazement among her female acquaintance. In her infamously bitchy essay "Vessel of Wrath," Dido Merwin, a passionate Tedista, describes Plath on holiday in France, wolfing down foie gras "as though it were 'Aunt Dot's meat loaf'" and eating a large dinner with gusto despite having packed away a "Pantagruelian triple lunch." Anne Stevenson, in whose biography Merwin's account appears, notes that Plath's appetite remained robust, even in her grim final days. "At dinner, Jillian was surprised to see Sylvia eat her steak with enormous relish...However distraught she was at other times, she always appeared dressed for meals, ate extremely well and was warmly appreciative of the food Jillian served." The condemned woman ate a hearty meal.
There is something comic about the pursed-lipped "surprise" elicited by the doomed poet's unseemly interest in steak. For these observers, Plath's pleasure in food is a symptom of her selfishness and her rapacity--an "acting out" of the Lady Lazarus persona who ate men like air. But Plath herself seems to have understood it as quite the opposite: a reprieve from, rather than an extension of, her broiling inner drama. In the strange, private symbolism of the journals, preparing and eating food, along with various other banal rituals of domestic life, represent rare and valuable moments of escape from herself--brief connections with a material reality outside her fevered head. "I long to permeate the matter of this world," she writes at the age of twenty-three, "to become anchored to life by laundry and lilacs, daily bread and fried eggs and a man, the dark-eyed stranger who eats my food and my body and my love and goes around the world all day and comes back to find solace with me at night." Three years later she is reminding herself, "How dusting, washing daily dishes, talking to people who are not mad and dust and wash and feel life is as it should be, helps. ... I need a flow of life on the outside, a child, a job, a community I know from preacher to baker. Not this drift of fairytales."
Those interested in understanding Plath as an archetype of oppressed female creativity have tended to pass over her paeans to fried eggs and dusting, or to dismiss them as "not the real Sylvia"--the last, florid vestiges of a fake, Ladies Home Journal Sylvia that had to fall away before she could realize her authentic self. The significant lines for this audience are the ones that Plath wrote to a woman friend when she and Hughes had parted, and she was experiencing the great writing jag that produced the Ariel poems: "Psychologically, Ruth, I am fascinated by the polarities of muse-poet and mother housewife. When I was 'happy' domestically I felt a gag in my throat. Now that my domestic life. ... is chaos, I am ... producing free stuff I had locked in me for years."
But the victorious feminist parable that Plath is attempting here to extract from her situation (the "anchor" of domesticity turns out to be a shackle, after all) has to be measured against the fact of her imminent suicide. Just a few months after writing this letter, the liberated artist would put her head in a gas oven. The relative calm of married life may indeed have blocked or gagged Plath's poetic gift; but, as she repeatedly attests in the journals, it also helped to keep her alive.
In an entry in her journal in 1959, made while she and Hughes were staying at the writer's colony at Yaddo, Plath alludes to "a great, stark, bloody play acting itself out over and over again behind the sunny facade of our daily rituals, birth, marriage, death, behind parents and schools and beds and tables of food: the dark, cruel, murderous shades, the demon-animals, the Hungers." This is an epiphany of sorts--a summation of her true poetic subject; but it is also a tacit acknowledgment of the deadly threat that the subject poses. In the end, the journals do not depict a put-upon housewife struggling to free herself from the yoke of her husband or from the burden of "false consciousness." The woman who emerges in these pages is someone who recognizes the perilous interconnectedness of her creative and suicidal drives, and shrewdly pursues conventional domestic happiness--or "sunny facades"--as a means of tethering herself to sanity.
Plath seems to have understood the need to evade her demon-animals at a very young age. In her earliest journal entries, written as an undergraduate at Smith, the accounts of 1950s college life--dates and dances, tense necking sessions in cars, and so on--are interspersed with fretful rebukes to her own fatal inwardness. "It seems to me more than ever that I am a victim of introspection. If I have not the power to put myself in the place of other people, I shall never be the magnanimous, creative person I wish to be." (The reader feels some sympathy for Plath's dates, those callow young Yale men smooching with her on doorsteps, oblivious of the elaborate mental machinery whirring away beneath her demure coed exterior.) Significantly, the first stirrings of concern about her self-absorption coincide with her identification of prose fiction as the artistic holy grail. Poems are all very well, she tells herself, but it is stories--stories about "other people"--that represent the apex of writerly achievement. In the course of the journals, the peculiar urgency of Plath's desire to "conquer" fiction becomes a kind of metaphor for the life-and-death fight against solipsism.
It is a heroic fight. Plath was a fanatical self-improver, who filled her journals with stern injunctions to do better, get up earlier, study harder, "work on her femininity," learn German, French, horseback riding, and put more philosophy into her poems so as not to "lag behind Adrienne Rich." She seemed to believe that she could also flay herself into acquiring empathy. Every year she churns and churns away at her stories, willing herself, unsuccessfully, to believe in subjectivities other than her own.
She pores over other people's fiction for tips, wonders hopefully whether having children will "humanize" her. In 1959, when she gets a part-time job typing patient records at a psychiatric clinic in Boston, she is briefly optimistic that exposure to all those case histories will "deepen and enrich" her understanding of people. But still the stories do not come, or if they come they turn out "mad, self-centered." In 1961, Plath wrings a novel out of herself, but that doesn't count. The Bell Jar is just "a potboiler" after all, and besides it is all about her. "Always myself, myself," she laments.
It has been suggested, most notably by Janet Malcolm, that Plath, had she lived, would have gone on to become a fine novelist. But the journals are not a good advertisement for that theory. They tend, on the contrary, to support Plath's own suspicion that she is "at bottom uninterested in people." Even allowing for the egotism inherent in the form, the authorial spirit that presides over these pages is preternaturally void of caritas. We read Plath in 1958, wishing languidly for a nasty accident or incident to pique her imagination--"a child crushed by a car, a house on fire, someone thrown into a tree by a horse"--and we think: all right, a little flint is a necessary component of the writer's heart. But in 1962 she gets her wish--a real dying man in the house right next to hers in Devon!--and the chill disgust of her ensuing observations leads us to wonder whether flint is all there is. "His eyes showed through partly open lids like dissolved soaps or a clotted pus. I was very sick at this and had a bad migraine over my left eye for the rest of the day. The end, of even so marginal a man, a horror."
Here is what Plath calls her "ice-eye"--the merciless scalpel-vision, that feeds on the grotesque and "will kill ... anyone who is weak, false, sickly in soul." One of the chief boasts of this unabridged edition of the journals--a transcription of twenty-three manuscripts that begin in 1950, just before Plath leaves home for Smith College and end in July 1962, a year before she kills herself at the age of thirty--is to have restored all the ice-eye passages--"the nasty bits"--that Frances McCullough, the editor of the original 1982 edition, chose to excise. Now we can enjoy the full extent of Plath's vituperative gift. Here, for the first time, are the luridly matricidal meditations inspired by Plath's therapy sessions with the psychiatrist Ruth Buescher in the late 1950s:
So how do I express my hatred for my mother?
In my deepest emotions I think of her as an enemy:
someboday who "killed"my father, my first male ally
in the world. She is a murderess of maleness.
What to do with her, with the hostility, undying,
which I feel for her? I want, as ever, to grab my life
out from under her hot itchy hands. ... She's a killer.
Watch Out. She's deadly as a cobra underthat shiny
greengold hood. ... I'll have my own husband, thank
you. You won't kill him the way you killed my father.
He has a soul, he has sex strong as it comes. He isn't
going to die so soon. So keep out. Your breath stinks
worse than Undertaker's Basement when it comes to
trying to rear a soul in its perfect freedom.
Here, too, are a host of more fleeting, but hardly less hostile, dissections of friends, neighbors and colleagues. Despite her avowed interest in souls, it is physical imperfection rather than spiritual imperfection that tends to inspire Plath's finest flights: the hair of her friend Paul Roche, "like pampered and crimped wheat"; the "queerly warted" face of the fat invalid who lives downstairs from her in Boston and smells of "old lady sweat"; the pale hands of one of the women professors at Smith, "like air-borne, white bellied flounder backs, freckled, gesturing, stub nails enameled with gilt paint." (My personal favorite in this group appears in an entry for 1953, in which Plath dismisses one of her suitors on the grounds that he is too short and thin and that sex with him would be like "being raped by a humming, entranced insect.") "She has the rarity of being, in her work at least, never `a nice person'" Elizabeth Hardwick has written of Plath. Yet that deficit of niceness was clearly not for want of trying. Plath strove--quite desperately--to become nice, to be the sort of person who felt other people's pain. Compared to the vivid stuff in her own dream-bank, however, the suffering that went on elsewhere was always hopelessly abstract. She couldn't get a purchase on it. There is a wonderful moment in one of her stentorian To Do list entries for 1959, when she orders herself to "Write another NYorker story" and to "Look up German concentration, I mean American detention camps." Tomato, tomahto, as it were.
She got the hang of the difference in the end, of course: German concentration camps gave her the imagery of her most famous poems. Much has been written about the dubious ethics of conjoining the abominations of the Nazis with the perceived malevolence of a dead father--of using the camps as a metaphor for mental pain. In forging these connections, Plath was coming as close to sympathy as the grimly centripetal force of her imagination would let her. It was a part of her tragedy as a woman and a poet that even when confronted with the Holocaust, all her ice-eye could seize upon was an objective correlative for her own condition.
Why do we read the journals? Almost every aspect of Plath's posthumous publishing history has given rise to some manner of controversy, but the value of the journals--the worthiness of Ted Hughes's decision to make them public--has never been contested. The only objections have been to their incompleteness (two volumes covering Plath's last three years were, respectively, burned and "lost" by Hughes after her death) and to the bowdlerized form in which they originally appeared.
Nobody, so far as I know, argues for the importance of the journals on grounds of their inherent literary merit. Notwithstanding the odd zingy sentence and lushly depressive passage, they do not achieve, or indeed aspire, to the status of, say, Keats's letters or Virginia Woolf's diaries. And nobody is quite prepared to say that they are useful for what gossipy details they furnish for a famous literary "case."
Officially, it seems, Plath's journals are valued for what they tell us about the poetry and the processes that brought it into being. In his foreword to the first edition of the journals, Ted Hughes argued that they provided an unusually lucid diagram of Plath's "root system"--a diagram that would be helpful in clearing up "certain evident confusions" provoked by Plath's later poems. "'Ariel' is dramatic speech of a kind," he wrote. "But to what persona and to what drama is it to be fitted? The poems don't seem to supply enough evidence of the definitive sort."
Don't they? It would seem a rather damning indictment of a poem to say that it is strictly incomprehensible unless it is read in tandem with the poet's diaries. "Ariel" is full of allusions to a private and not perfectly explained mythology of grief and travail; but surely its poetic effects are not dependent on extra biographical information. If they are, can they really be said to be poetic effects?
Hughes seemed to recognize the problem here. He went on to note that the enigmatic quality of the poems "might have been no bad thing, if a riddle fertile in hypotheses is a good one." But the circumstances of Plath's death, he explained, along with various "errant" versions of her biography and the publication of Letters Home (a selection of the cheery, slightly twee letters that Plath wrote to her mother between 1950 to 1963) had given rise to hypotheses that were wrong. So while the journals were not necessary for intrinsically literary reasons, they had become necessary, as a means of combating, or silencing, faulty readings.
Given how ungenerous and even slanderous many of those readings were in regard to Hughes himself, one can hardly blame him for wishing to defend his own interpretation of "Ariel"--his own interpretation of Plath--by whatever means available. But there was something a little naive, or perhaps just old-fashioned, about Hughes's belief that any text--even a text written by the author herself--would provide an ultimate answer, an interpretive authority. Needless to say, the journals have not quashed speculation and debate about the meanings of the poems, or the meanings of Plath's life. They have simply given the speculation a large chunk of new matter to gnaw on.
And in doing so, one cannot help feeling, they have helped to thicken the obfuscating cult around the writer. From the moment that Plath committed suicide, the notion of reading the poems "innocently" became an impossibility. Her death is the prism through which her work is doomed to be regarded. But the journals, precisely because they are the writer's own words--precisely because they promise to tell us "what she was really like"--can only aggravate the problem. Hughes was not wrong about the wealth of "evidence" that they provide. They adumbrate Plath's poetic themes--the filial loathing, the "deaths" and "resurrections," the warring selves--and identify the biographical provenance of these themes with a fastidious, even sinister clarity, almost as if Plath had been intentionally composing a Cliffs Notes for her future readers. But the critical interest that such diagrams tend to arouse is all in the wrong direction. It is an interest that transforms the poems into little more than glorified clues--verse conduits to the tragic "real life." Or worse, religious souvenirs of whatever feminist or sentimental moral that the life is deemed to represent.
Ted Hughes once complained, in a letter to Anne Stevenson, that what motivated most of the scholarly interest in Plath was mere curiosity--"curiosity of quite a low order, the ordinary village kind, the bloodsport kind." This is the sort of righteous sentiment that elicits automatic head-nodding. Still, it is interesting to keep Hughes's indignant phrase in mind when making one's way through this volume. Perhaps high-minded literary scholarship is never quite as distinct from the low, bloodsport kind as Hughes seemed to think it was. But if there is such a thing as a pure literary interest, devoid of base, village inquisitiveness, Plath's journals are surely not the document one would hope to inspire it.
Zoe Heller's novel Everything You Know will be published in paperback by Pocket Books in February.
By Zoe Heller