Sylvia Plath, Modern-ish Postmodernist
In a letter to Olive Higgins Prouty, her benefactress, in 1955, Sylvia Plath named the ability to accept the necessity of tragedy and conflict as the constant struggle in mature life: in choosing to “deal with” these somber complexities rather than escaping to some “falsely simple solution which does not include them,” she reached maturity as a human being and as a writer. From what we know of Plath from her letters, we can infer that this awareness informed her poems and prose to a high degree: so much of her work deals with tragedy and conflict—her father’s death and her problems in her marriage, just to name two. But what is she saying here specifically, and how did it inform her life and work in a literal sense? How can knowing this iconic writer felt this way over half a century ago be useful to writers today, in 2010?
In answering this question my instinct is to lean on the Blakean notion that without contraries there is no progression, apt in this case in that life’s “contraries” (a nice way to put it) have always given writers raw material/“fodder” for poems, but it is not one hundred percent suitable in Plath’s case: “Ironically enough, I write best when I am happy,” she said in a letter to her mother, “because I then have that saving sense of objectivity which is humor and artistic perspective.” It is a bit of a surprise but it also makes sense; struggle alone doesn’t seem to lend itself particularly to the creation of something new: rather it seems, objectively, to stay in the same place. The two statements seem contradictory unless we find that thing that is happiness and the impulse for artistic creation within struggle; how is it possible? The question seems key in the development of a clear understanding of Plath’s work.
In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Joyce coined the term “aesthetic arrest,” which basically meant that, better than pulling the viewer toward or pushing her away from art, it is better to be in a state of arrest, to vacillate between the normal, E-G-B-D-F, five-line scale of musical composition, rather than going way above and down below more effective for artists within the composition of their art. To keep ourselves sane (i.e., “happy”) while we are “composing,” then, this “static radiance” is what allows us to see up to those heights, to the depths below, and to be able to convey something of their significance. In other words, a writer can’t reside in the absolute existential limits and still get her work done: there is too much fear of falling (and perhaps rightfully so). “Be regular and ordinary in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work,” as Flaubert famously put it.
You need distance, but what is ironic is that you need to go back to where you already were before you knew you needed distance to achieve that distance. Why couldn’t you have just stayed there? is the question that begs to be asked, and it is an excellent question that I’m not sure I can answer. In the former quotation at the beginning of this essay, Plath references “some falsely simple solution”: one should not try to escape to rather than dealing with struggle. The best answer I can think of is that, having reached the heights, and spent some time there before having arrived back in your own, “safe” middle would hardly seem false or simple: moreover, it would be to have arrived back at the place you were before it happened to or all around you, (or both), and know it, and be able to go on from there. As Eliot said.