In a review of two recent biographies of Sylvia Plath, Stanford University professor Terry Castle judges the poet with uncommon harshness, calling Plath’s life “short and appalling.” Short, of course, but “appalling”? Castle concludes:
“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. 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.”
A really nauseous sentiment.
The late Diane Middlebrook ends her book on Sylvia Plath with this sentence: “The only thing the living can give the magical dead: empathetic but pitiless attention.” I understand that it can be difficult to empathize with the mentally ill – or with those who have taken their own lives – but one must try, as a part of one’s spiritual hygiene.
Years ago, after the suicide of Elliott Smith, I wrote, perhaps too optimistically, that “People are beginning to understand that suicide often is ‘death by depression’ [how Middlebrook described Plath’s demise]. Of course things are happening in and around a depressed person — ‘in’ as in drugs or alcohol abuse, ‘around’ as in self-destructive or very unhappy relationships — but it is fallacious to say that these elements drive one to suicide. Depression is both the train and the track, as far as I am concerned. Everything else is just buzzing by the windows. … Depression, like homosexuality, is an animated identity that’s invisible … until it’s enunciated by the one whose life it defines. That is why by some people depression is regarded as a capricious and irresponsible choice: It seems to be brought into being by the spoken words of the suffering individual, who seemed not to suffer when silent – when in the closet, as it were.”
As I have gotten older, I’ve become less attracted the the work of artists (like Plath) who seem to have seen their lives primarily as material to be transmuted into pictures & poems. That said, these are people I nonetheless need as teachers, of art, and of life and death. They are giving us something.