Plath's uncensored journals expose raw nerves: The Sylvia Lining

from: The Village Voice - October 31, 2000

by Carole Maso

THE UNABRIDGED JOURNALS OF SYLVIA PLATH - Edited by Karen V. Kukil Anchor Books, 732 pp., $18 paper

Sylvia Plath is back once more in all her "fury & humiliation, anguish & anger," risen a "red scar in the sky." Her journals have been restored from the heavily edited version authorized and made public by the poet Ted Hughes, her husband and literary executor, in 1982. Only the two journals from the last three years of her life are still absent.

What is laid out before us now, in this complete version edited by Karen V. Kukil, is the true dimension of Plath's struggle: the magnitude of her estrangement, the persistence of her depressions, the endlessness of her strategies for recovery and rejuvenation. The restored material conveys on nearly every page the pressures convention placed on her head, the intricate dynamics of her relationships, and the degree to which she relied on her work to make her, in the most direct and urgent way, real.

In the earlier, truncated edition Plath often came across as too gaudy or too prim--too capricious. She now seems far less the golden girl--far less a victim of her perfectionism, less a portrait of a manic overachiever, less the creation of her husband and her mother. Inadvertently, the edited journals simplified her ambivalences, managed her violence, took a little of the edge off. Returned now is her constant berating of herself: to learn German, to get up earlier, to prepare in advance for the classes she taught, to read history--things for the most part she never did get around to. Tasks are seldom done for their own sake, but rather to give her the impression that she is alive. vShe is more slavishly devoted to Ted this time. Returned are her rhapsodic testimonies to her husband, their working honeymoon in Europe, the way she relied on him to define herself. We better understand the impact of the failure of her marriage; the text more starkly stands as an indictment of Hughes's betrayal and desertion. She is also engaged now in a mad housewifery, something Hughes presumably thought did not befit the late great poet. Back is the baking of the cheesecakes, the lemon meringue pies, the devil's food...It could break your heart. So could the decision she often made to spare her man the news of her rejections. With this we witness the role she played to insure her own estrangement. It is in the devastating accretion of details that we understand the gap between how she felt and how she acted, the struggle between what might be called authentic and inauthentic selves.

So practiced is Plath at the art of dissimulation that often when she meets herself in these pages she is not someone she wholly recognizes. This is perhaps the eeriest aspect of the journals as they now stand--how adept she was at disowning essential aspects of her psyche. "I'll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I'm also so damn healthy and resilient. And apple-pie happy." We witness now her poignant efforts at salvation: "To give myself respect I should study botany, birds and trees: get little booklets and learn them, walk out in the world." But she cannot stay engaged, and the distance multiplies: "I look down into the warm, earthy world. Into a nest of lovers' beds, baby cribs, meal tables, all the solid commerce of life on this earth, and feel apart, enclosed in a world of glass."

The journals allow us to fall into these psychic ebbs and flows, to experience the arc of her hopefulness--the belief that things are on the upswing, as she wills herself to well-being: "The nadir is passed. I know that now," she writes. "I am happier and more ecstatic at this particular moment than all this year." A few entries later, she is reclaimed by the gloom. Though the journals are self-involved, self-indulgent, often tedious beyond belief, it is not possible to fault them by ordinary criteria, for the self was the subject, as it would turn out, she was perfecting all along. In everything she saw aspects of her own character and her own ways of feeling and perceiving.

From the earliest pages her journals are haunted by her acute sense of isolation. As a student at Smith she laments: "Everywhere I heard doorbells, telephones not for me, roses for all the other girls in the world." There is a suicide attempt in August of 1953, and in November 1955 the journal resumes. Something has been done that cannot be undone, and it becomes the thing around which everything else seems an accommodation. Her ear changes after "that dark year of hell." She has woken from a languid sleep into language that will, with increasing relentlessness, do her bidding. "I feel now as if I were building a very delicate, intricate bridge quietly in the night, across the dark from one grave to another while the giant is sleeping."

The tone and focus of the journals go up another notch after her dreary teaching stint at Smith, and after she senses Ted's emotional and sexual defection. "I saw this in several sharp flashes, like blows. I could not tell the color of the girl's eyes, but Ted could, and his smile, though open and engaging as the girl's was, took on an ugliness in context." The battle now becomes between the expression and the submerging of her rage.

When she can fix her feelings she starts hitting the mark even in the most casual entries. Before our eyes we see in small ways the troubled, promising young writer slowly begin to move toward that place that will allow her to become the poet of astonishing accomplishment. From the very beginning she is keenly insightful into all matters poetic, with a seismic, intuitive intelligence that never wavers. She is always asking the right questions, and she never spares herself: "What inner decision, what inner murder or prison-break must I commit if I want to speak from my true deep voice in my writing?"

Plath was never content to write only poetry, and the restored pages reveal how desperately she wanted success as a fiction writer as well. "If I could get into would be a salvation. If I could have simple fun doing it." Fiction would be "a certain therapy." Bestsellerdom was her persistent dream. "Must get out SNAKE PIT. There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don't relive it, recreate it." She seems to have associated it somehow in her mind with life: "Prose sustains me. I can mess it, mush it, rewrite it, pick it up any time--rhythms are slacker, more variable, it doesn't die so soon." She wanted a story, a narrative; she wanted to be whole, not broken. She believed it would keep her "from flying into black bits."

As we come to the end of these journals we get closer to the Plath of the last poems. She describes a visitor "wearing a thick coat always in the house, like a caul, a womb sack." The work she knew all along she was capable of would now take shape in her with frightening velocity and power.

The two bound journals that Plath wrote during the last three years of her life are not included here. These crucial years, in which she wrote most of the poems her reputation is based on, are presumably lost to us forever. According to Hughes, he destroyed one, and lost another. Judging by the rage Plath expresses toward her mother in these restored pages, the final two journals must have been a devastating portrait of her husband, and it is unlikely that the man who once omitted descriptions of himself as "sweet-smelling," or "greasy," or fearful of Truman Capote's homosexuality, etc., etc., could ever have afforded to let these last journals see the light of day. There is something unforgivable here, made more so with the publication of his maudlin my-side-of-the-story book of poems, Birthday Letters.

It still would not surprise me entirely if the missing journal were to reappear, and if the journal some say Hughes burned one day reconstitutes itself from the ash. Such were the magic and audacity of Plath's last acts of language. But as it stands now, to read the hundreds and hundreds of pages that make up The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is to mourn anew that incalculable loss.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Sylvia Plath at a dance: Her journals allow us to experience the arc of her hopefulness.

Memo: Carole Maso's latest book is The Room Lit by Roses: A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth.

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