Escape from God: Sylvia Plath’s Journey Through Suicide

On the flight to New York this morning, I was able to read some more from Sylvia Plath’s journals, continuing through her junior year at Smith to her “nervous breakdown.”  I was struck by the transition as the light in this luminescent young woman gradually burns out.  Plath is aware of her changing perspective and sees it as a reflection on the nature of truth.

For a time I was lulled in the arms of a blind optimism with breasts full of champagne and nipples made of caviar.  I thought she was true, and that the true was the beautiful.  But the true is the ugly mixed up everywhere, like a peck of dirt scattered through your life.

Plath, like so many Modernists, doesn’t believe there is a God beyond this world.  Ironically, she continues to call on this God in whom she doesn’t believe, crying out for clarity, vision, and beauty.

God, let me think clearly and brightly; let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences…

She prays in vain, however.  So, she tries to will herself to believe.

Believe in some beneficent force beyond your own limited self.  God, god, god: where are you?  I want you, need you: the belief in you and love and mankind.  You must not seek escape like this.  You must think.

It is unclear to me whether Plath directs these last two sentences at God or herself.  Herself, I think.  She is the one desperately seeking escape – a “return to the womb” (as she expressed it earlier).  She is the one frantically trying to think, to come up with a reason to live.

There is a huge gap in Plath’s journals after these words.  The editor’s note indicates she attempted suicide.  After treatment, she returned to graduate from Smith.  She didn’t keep a journal her senior year.  Her next entries pick up during her post-graduate work.

These later entries reveal a more disjointed, jaded, perhaps resigned perspective.  God makes an appearance – only to note His absence.

God is on vacation with the pure transcendent sun and the searing heat that turns the flawed white body of our love to glass.

Plath went on to produce some masterpieces of poetry and literature (including The Bell Jar), and it is worth noting that she excelled academically even after being aggressively treated with electro-shock.  In her journals, however, she seems to lose (at least temporarily) the ability to engage in deep self-reflection spiritually, psychologically, and intellectually.  She also seems to lose even the glimmer of hope she once had for something (or Someone) eternal.

“SYLVIA PLATH” from T. Shahrizan T. Mustapha in Caricatures

Luxuriating in the Feel of Words: The Writing Life of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s journals detail, among other things, her love affair with words.  She expresses great passion in her writing, yet also a grave sense that it does not yet measure up, that it is too self-absorbed.

What I have written here so far is rather poor, rather unsatisfactory.  It is the product of an unimaginative girl, preoccupied with herself, and continually splashing about in the shallow waters of her own narrow psyche.

Plath, from an early age has a keen sense of what makes for great literature, yet like Van Gogh copying the masters in his early work, she sees herself lacking originality.

Do I create? No, I reproduce.  I have no imagination. I am submerged in circling ego.  I listen, God knows why.  I say I am interested in people. Am I rationalizing?

At 19, she has much to learn, and she is aware of this.

Technically, I suppose the visual appearance and sound of words, taken alive, may be much like the mechanics of music… or the color and texture of a painting.  However, uneducated as I am in this field, I can only guess and experiment.

At times, the young Plath’s lack of wisdom causes her great frustration.  She desperately wants more time – an eternity – to learn all there is to know (in all realms of knowledge) so she can produce good writing.  Occasionally, though, she hits on poetic expressions that bring her great joy.  After writing a poem she entitled “Sonnet: To Spring”, she writes –

Luxuriating in the feel and music of the words.  I chose and rechose, singling out the color, the assonance, the dissonance and musical effects I wished – lulling myself by supple “I”s and blend long “a”s and “o”s.  God, I am happy – it’s the first thing I’ve written for a year that has tasted wholly good to my eyes, ears, and intellect.

Sylvia Plath would go on to write many poems, as well as the novel “The Bell Jar”, that would taste “wholly good” to the eyes, ears, and intellects of many people – in her own generation and for generations to come.  Yet, she would not find ultimate satisfaction in this.  Rather, she slipped into such despair that she opted to end her own life at the age of 30.

In many ways, this was an abrupt, tragic end to what was shaping up to be a brilliant literary career.  In other ways, it was the culmination of a struggle that lasted over a decade.   On November 3, 1951, Plath wrote in her journal –

God, if ever I have come close to waiting to commit suicide, it is now, with the groggy sleepless blood dragging through my veins, and the air thick and gray with rain and the damn little men across the street pounding in the roof with picks and axes and chisels, and the acrid hellish stench of tar.

Yet, it was not the unpleasantness around her that caused her the most trouble, but the unsettledness within.

I am afraid.  I am not solid, but hollow.  I feel behind my eyes a numb, paralyzed cavern, a pit of hell, a mimicking nothingness.  I never thought, I never wrote, I never suffered.  I want to kill myself, to escape from responsibility, to crawl back abjectly into the womb.

The Grimness of Atheism: Theological Perspectives from a Young Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath doesn’t reflect much on God in her early journals, but when she goes to provide child care for a Christian Science family, we see a developing theology which, though unorthodox, she articulates well.  She finds some common ground with Christian Science, in the value placed on the importance of thought (Mind).  But she differs in her perspective on the basis of this Mind.

Now that I ponder over it, I do see a sudden neat edifice of logic, and I do agree with some of their generalizations in spite of the fact that I am philosophically at the other end of the pole, – a “matter worshipper”.

Yet, Plath is more complex than a simple “Material Girl”.

I believe that there is a realm (abstractly, hypothetically, of course) of absolute fact.  Something IS.  And that, in our poor human lingo, would be the “truth”.

No sooner does she assert some eternal verity (however hypothetical) than she retreats to relativism.

We all live in [our] own dream-world and make and re-make our own personal realities with tender and loving care.  And my dream world – how much more valid, how much nearer to the truth is it than that of these people?  Valid for me – perhaps – even though it is not metaphysical.

As much as she wants to will herself to validate her hosts’ “mind over matter” perspective, she can’t help but find it humorous.

I turn to hide irreverent laughter when Susan, constipated, gets a lesson instead of a laxative.

Later in the journals, Plath reflects in a letter on the accidental death of a friend (Sandy Lynn) and rejects the conventional theology of diving sovereignty.

… if it was god’s will it is a very stupid arbitrary blood thirsty god, and I do not like him or believe in him or respect him because he is more foolish and mean than we are and has no sense of proportion of what people are good for living and what people are unfit.

Free of the moral restraint gained through a theology of God’s sovereignty, Plath is able to construct her own morality.

The ways to hell on earth are easy, and one can always cross out hell and scribble in heaven.  So much sweeter that way.

Yet, this freedom provides her little satisfaction.  She continues to call on “God” (in words that sound more like a prayer than taking God’s name in vain).

You, God, whom I invoke without belief, only I can choose, and only I am responsible.  (Oh, the grimness of atheism!)

Quotes from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. 

For more reflections from Plath’s Journals, see –

Beauty Out of Sorrow

Being a Writer or Becoming a Wife

Ricocheting Madly In-Between

Luxuriating in the Feel of Words

(photo of Sylvia Plath from Carrie Paris in Clear Inquiry)

Ricocheting Madly In-Between: The Emotional Perspective of a Young Sylvia Plath

At 19, Sylvia Plath was a top scholarship student at a prestigious college, a published (for pay) author, as well a vibrant blond beauty with many suitors.  Yet, all was not well within her.  She writes in her journal –

I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad.

Rather than talk to someone about it (a friend advised her to see a psychiatrist), she tries some encouraging self-talk, and she is able to “pick herself up by her own bootstraps” (or saddle shoes, as the case may be) –

I have started on the rise upward after bouncing around a little on rock bottom.  I know I am capable of getting good marks: I know I am capable of attracting males.  All I need to do is keep my judgment, sense of balance and philosophic sense of humor, and I’ll be fine, no matter what happens.

Yet, her very next journal entry reveals the benefits of this self-therapy are short-lived.  She hits another rock bottom.

Now I know what loneliness is, I think.  Momentary loneliness, anyway.  It comes from a vague core of the self — like a disease of the blood, dispersed throughout the body so that one cannot locate the matrix, the spot of contagion.

Plath, however, does not let this “disease of the blood” incapacitate her.   She continues to write, to go to classes, to go out on dates.  But inside, she is dying on the vine.

God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of parties with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear.

Plath talks very little about her family in her journals.  One entry, however, does reveal her mother’s concern for her emotional health – a concern not well received by Sylvia.

My enemies are those who care about me most.  First, my mother.  Her pitiful wish that I “be happy.”  Happy!  That is indefinable as far as states of being.

While Sylvia perceives happiness as unattainable, she does believe behavioral choices contribute to emotional states.

I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad.  Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.

At 19, however, Plath saw life as very much worth living.

For all my despair, for all my ideal, for all that — I love life.  But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.

Quotes from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. 

For more reflections on Plath’s journals, see –

Beauty Out of Sorrow

Being a Writer or Becoming a Wife

The Grimness of Atheism

Luxuriating in the Feel of Words

(photo of Sylvia Plath from Erna Peters in Writers)

Beauty Out of Sorrow: Reflections of a Young Sylvia Plath

I’ve been reading through The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath and thoroughly enjoying it.  I am enjoying it so much, I keep going back to re-read portions of it that really speak to me and may never finish it.  Oh well.

The journals begin the summer of Plath’s 18th year, as she is working on the family farm and awaiting entrance to Smith College in the fall.  She writes the first entry after a day in the strawberry fields.  It is a wonderful celebration of life from the perspective of youth (yet with wisdom beyond her years).

I may never be happy, but tonight I am content… When one is tired at the end of the day one must sleep, and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth.  At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more…

Yet, the simplicity of life on the farm (and particularly the demands of domestic chores) fail to capture Plath’s vibrant imagination.  She is torn between the tediousness of daily living and the roller-coaster ride of her moods (and cries out to a God in whom she doesn’t believe).

God, if this is all it is, the ricocheting down the corridor of laughter and tears?  Of self-worship and self-loathing?  Of glory and disgust?

She finds bittersweet joy in the exuberance of youth.  After a group of children place flowers in her hair, she later reflects –

And all my hurts were smoothed away.  Something about the frank, guileless  blue eyes, the beautiful young bodies, the brief scent of the dying flowers smote me like the clean quick cut of a knife.  And the blood of love welled up in my heart with a slow pain.

Plath’s musings reveal much deeper thought and feeling than typical teenage angst (though it may be she is simply better at expressing it).  Yet, she wonders if just this depth of thought and emotion (as well as a curse of estrogen) robs her of happiness.

If I didn’t think, I’d be much happier.  If I didn’t have any sex organs, I wouldn’t waver on the brink of nervous emotions and tears all the time.

It is through artistic expression, particularly writing, that Plath finds relief.  It does not guarantee her happiness (though sometimes it thrills her), but it gives her meaning.

I am justifying my life, my keen emotion, my feeling, by turning it into print.

There is a redemptive quality in her writing.  In it, her pain finds purpose.

Perhaps some day I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated.  But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.

Quotes from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. 

For more reflections from Plath’s journals, see –

Being a Writer or Becoming a Wife

Ricocheting Madly In-Between

The Grimness of Atheism

Luxuriating in the Feel of Words

(photo of Sylvia Plath from Yves Deligne in Portraits B)

My Bipolar Book Buying and Borrowing Binge

The cutest man at a local bookstore

The past two days, I have been to three bookstores and two libraries and have, for a very reasonable price, bought and borrowed a good many books I’ll be reflecting on in “The Study” chapter of my spiritual memoir.  These include –

21 Essential American Short Stories (edited by Leslie M. Pockell).  This has the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlott Perkins Gillman in it.  Gillman’s story depicts a woman’s descent into postpartum psychosis.  This was recommended by several readers.

Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra (translated by Walter Starkie).  An all-time classic I read in college.  I bought this not so much to view Don Quixote’s visions as “delusions of grandeur” as to re-live the thrill of going to battle against windmill dragons with a faithful Sancho Panza by my side.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen.  Kaysen describes her experience as 18-year old psychiatric patient at the famous McLean Hospital (where Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles also received treatment).

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester.  W.C. Minor submitted more than ten thousand definitions to the Oxford English Dictionary while he was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters.  This oversized art book contains many of Van Gogh’s classic paintings as well as excerpts of his letters about them.

Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh edited by Irving Stone. “These letters reveal… a desperate man whose quest for love became a flight into madness for whom every day was a ‘fight for life.'”

Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.  “Naifeh and Smith have re-created Van Gogh’s life with an astounding vividness and psychological acuity that bring a completely new and sympathetic understanding to this unique artistic genius.”

Sylvia Plath: A Biography by Connie Ann Kirk.  In this slender volume, Kirk traces Plath’s productive yet turbulent life and career.

Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words by Steven Gould Axelrod.  I picked this up mainly because I loved the title.  The jacket liner describes it as a “biography of the imagination, an inner narrative of the poet’s life and work.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962  edited by Karen V. Kukil.  This covers the period from when she was 18, until shortly before her death.

I’ve also ordered a used (first-edition) copy of Plath’s The Bell Jar, which should be in within a week.

I’ve managed to collect all these resources for around $50 (including the cost of gas.  Not bad.  (Now if I just had the room to store them.)

My plans are, in the next two weeks to read everything I can on Van Gogh and Plath and then compose three essays (one on each of them and one on Kay Redfield Jamison) by May 31.  Beyond that, I will steadily add one paragraph reviews of other resources to the “On the Shelf” section of “The Study”.

Again, thanks to all who have submitted recommendations for books, movies, stories, music, and art work depicting mental illness (especially Bip0lar).  If you think of more, keep them coming.  I plan to be working on this for some time.

(image above “The cutest man at a local bookstore” from Rachel Roy in Rachel’s Spain Travel Diary – Launch of RRR in Spain!)

The Companionable Ills of Sylvia Plath

sylvia plath

The nose that twitches, the old

imperfections —

tolerable now as the nose on the face

Put up with until chagrin gives place

To a wry complaisance —

Dug in first as God’s spurs

To start the spirit out of the mud

It stabled in, long-used, became well loved

Bedfellows of the spirit’s debauch, fond masters.

“The Companionable Ills” from The Colossus: And Other Poems by Sylvia Plath

The 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death has come and gone and I’ve done nothing to recognize it.  It’s probably just as well.  It’s rather morbid to celebrate the anniversary of a death, especially a suicide.  But I thought it would be good to reflect a little on Plath’s poetry, looking particularly at “The Companionable Ills” and what it might say to those of us who struggle with chronic illness.

First, the poem…

The Apostle Paul, who struggles with a mysterious “thorn in the flesh” throughout his life, wrote of how he prayed repeatedly to be relieved of this ailment.  Instead of being healed, he received the word from the Lord — “my grace is sufficient for you.”  He finds a measure of peace to continue pressing forward.

The poet here, however, does not find peace in “old imperfections”, but comes to find them “tolerable”, familiar as the nose of her face.  Over time, the distress of chagrin is replaced by a “wry complaisance”, or ironic acceptance.  In spite of herself, she learns to live with it.

When illness first strikes us, we may, like the poet here perceive it as a painful stab from “God’s spurs”.  While the Apostle Paul didn’t blame God for his “thorn in the flesh”, he did see it as a way to keep him spiritually humble.  In essence, his illness was redeemed by the grace of God.

“The Companionable Ills” suggests, however, that chronic illness leads the poet to impurity, being in bed with the wicked intent of “the spirit’s debauch”.  There is no peace or redemption to be found within the bounds of the poem.

So, what does this say to us?

On the one hand, “The Companionable Ills” is a very realistic perspective on chronic illness, particularly illness that effects the mind and the spirit as much as (or more than) the body.   People with serious mental disorders: clinical depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and the like can easily give up and give in to their illness.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  By the grace of God, we can embrace the faith (like Paul).  Faith may not produce physical healing.  But faith does bring spiritual peace, in Christ.  And Christ is a much better companion for us than our ills.

(photo of Sylvia Plath from Katherine Noble in books & people who write)