terça-feira, 5 de novembro de 2013
It is hard to believe that if Sylvia Plath had not taken her own life — in 1963, at the age of 30 — she would quite possibly still be alive today. Her rival Adrienne Rich, three years her elder, died just last year. But how could Plath live to comb gray hair? Her suicide does not seem like something that just happened to happen. In her poetry, she forces us to see her death as a destiny and a culmination: “The woman is perfected. / Her dead /Body wears the smile of accomplishment, / The illusion of a Greek necessity,” she wrote in her last poem, “Edge,” just six days before she died.
Plath imbued her life with the kind of interpretability that usually belongs only to art. It’s no wonder, then, that on the 50th anniversary of her suicide Carl Rollyson and Andrew Wilson should want to add to the already full shelves of Plath biographies, even though neither of them radically changes our picture of her life and death. With Plath, biography is a kind of criticism, and vice versa.
Rollyson and Wilson, however, take very different approaches to Plath’s story. Rollyson, as his title “American Isis” suggests, gives in wholly to the process of mythification that Plath herself began. If Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess, sounds like too remote a reference, he begins the book with another, more homegrown, legend: “Sylvia Plath is the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” As a biographical claim, this is of course absurd: Monroe lived the life of a rich and famous movie star, while Plath scraped out a living as a writer and teacher, not achieving any kind of renown until several years after her death.
But as a statement about the kind of work the two figures perform in our culture, there may be something to it. It’s no coincidence that Plath and Monroe both lived and died just before the advent of 1960s feminism. Both were in a real sense victims of patriarchy, and both became important symbols for thinking about how women could and could not live and achieve.
It’s disappointing, then, that Rollyson does not do much with the comparison. As the author of a biography of Monroe, he is able to point out some coincidences — Monroe married Arthur Miller the same month Plath married the English poet Ted Hughes; Plath once had a dream about Monroe — but these generally feel arbitrary. For the most part, “American Isis” retells the life that is already familiar from earlier biographies. We follow Plath from her childhood in Massachusetts, raised by her mother after the early death of her father, through her triumphant career at Smith College; her first suicide attempt in 1953; her Fulbright to Cambridge, which led to her marriage to and separation from Hughes; her last burst of writing, which produced the masterpieces of “Ariel”; and then her second, successful suicide attempt, by gas, in her London flat.
Rollyson’s account is concise, fast-moving and reliable, but seldom surprising or deeply empathetic, and he has almost nothing to say about Plath’s work. This is a shame, since one of the most intriguing parts of “American Isis” is Rollyson’s suggestion that Plath was in some sense a poet for the age of mass media and pop culture. “For Plath,” he writes, “an audience had to witness the spectacle of what it meant to be Sylvia Plath.”
Here he touches on what is surely the strangest thing about Plath as a writer, especially a young writer of her generation: her apparent indifference to the usual distinctions between high and low. Plath’s father was a German immigrant, and she had the first-generation American’s drive to achievement. But she often defined achievement in highly conventional terms. Selling stories and poems to magazines like Seventeen and Mademoiselle seemed all of a piece with getting A’s in school and going out with the most eligible boys at Yale. Elizabeth Bishop’s first literary mentor was Marianne Moore; Plath’s was Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of best sellers like “Stella Dallas” and “Now, Voyager.”
It does not feel like a coincidence, however, that Plath’s greatest triumph in this conventionally feminine literary-social realm — winning a nationwide contest to become a summer intern at Mademoiselle — was immediately followed by her first suicide attempt. No reader of “The Bell Jar,” which was closely based on her experiences in that summer of 1953, can forget the scene in which Esther Greenwood, Plath’s alter ego, is asked to pose for a photograph holding a paper rose: “Show us how happy it makes you to write a poem,” the photographer cajoles her. The rest of Plath’s life and work can be seen as her response to that inane, implicitly sexist suggestion: “I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real,” she would write in “Lady Lazarus.”
Biographies of Plath tend, naturally enough, to concentrate on the last six or seven years of her short life. That was the period of her greatest poems, and of her marriage to Hughes, which collapsed in bitter recriminations that continue to echo down the years. But in “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” Andrew Wilson makes a convincing case that we can learn more about Plath and the pressures that shaped her by paying attention to her “life before Ted” — the high school and college years.
By interviewing a number of Plath’s friends and fellow students, and examining the obsessive archive built up by Plath’s mother, Aurelia, Wilson is able to bring this phase of Plath’s life into sharper focus than before. This approach has some drawbacks — “Mad Girl’s Love Song” ends in 1956, so it could not be any reader’s only Plath biography, and Wilson includes many irrelevant details that his research happened to turn up (for example, every present she received for Christmas in 1943: “chocolate creams, a Spanish grammar book, mittens, a pair of skates, two hair ribbons,” and more).
But it also yields significant insights. Wilson, a journalist, emphasizes the crucial role of money and class in Plath’s life: the child of a single mother, she worried about every penny in a way that left her isolated at wealthy Smith. The need to make money also influenced her attitude toward writing, which for Plath had to be a profession as well as a calling, and helps to explain her interest in producing salable magazine stories.
Most important, Wilson’s chronicle of Plath’s early relationships with boys and men allows readers in a very different era to understand the regime of repression and hypocrisy under which she suffered. Plath had a strong sexual appetite that she felt bound to deny and hide in the name of feminine virtue, even as she went out on countless dates with aggressive, sometimes assaultive men. The destroying angel that Plath became in her late work — “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air” — was her final triumph over these intolerable contradictions. Wilson reminds us why feminism is the indispensable context for understanding Plath’s work and reception, just as Romanticism was for Byron. Her continuing appeal as a biographical subject suggests that the political and psychological questions her life and work raise are ones we still feel compelled to ask.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Tablet. His most recent book of poems is “Invasions.”
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 17:17