A BOOK REVIEW BY KARL WENCLAS
Chaos is the default condition of human society. We’re caught in a maelstrom, with limited senses that give us the illusion of order and knowledge. As physicists are discovering, we’re primitive creatures in a hyper-intelligent universe largely beyond our comprehension. We tell ourselves we understand it.
Countless things occur in this world every moment. Happenings rush at us. Our memory of them is disjointed, fragmented, a series of glimpses like a story told through a motion picture. A flashing of images swiftly vanishing behind us. What can we know about that past– how do we determine truths about it? How do we answer the question, “What happened?”
The job of the historian or biographer is to ask that question, and attempt to answer it.
Some events are eternal puzzles. What really happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963, when a U.S. President was assassinated? That setting– that plaza; that motorcade– has been analyzed by hundreds of experts, answers attempted and presented via thousands of books and articles– and we still don’t have a definitive answer.
We’d like to believe there’s a real answer lurking in the shadows– like the solution to the puzzle posed in the classic Western movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Is there?
“What really happened?” Endless puzzles.
In The Last Days of Sylvia Plath (University Press of Mississippi), biographer Carl Rollyson asks what happened in the months and weeks leading up to the poet’s death. He gives us no definitive explanation, but presents a large body of evidence. Enough for us to draw our own conclusions– not just about Plath’s death, but about Plath herself, and about her husband, poet Ted Hughes. Much of the book details Hughes dealing with his wife’s burgeoning fame when she was alive, and with the aftermath of her death– which he spent the rest of his own life coming to terms with. As Rollyson says of Hughes, “For him literary history was a private mausoleum and only he had the key. . . .”
Carl Rollyson documents decades spent by Ted Hughes and his sister, Olwyn, in frustrating any attempt by biographers to tell the full, accurate story of Sylvia Plath’s life and death, particularly, the relationship between Ted and Sylvia; husband and wife. It’s largely in that relationship that answers to why Sylvia Plath killed herself have to be found.
The Last Days of Sylvia Plath is biography and history but also a mystery story (all good history is a mystery story) we plunge into. This volume, in its melding of evidence and its facets of viewpoints, has a three-dimensional aspect. The further we fall into it, the more questions we ask about Plath, her genius, and her death, including the key question of why a transcendent artist committed suicide at the peak of her talent. Our minds set off on tangents.
THE PRICE OF GENIUS
My mind set off on speculations about other artist suicides. Thoughts about Vincent van Gogh, who like Sylvia Plath invested a huge part of his personality and psychological health into his art. After years of arduous work and study he’d begun to achieve his artistic goals, creating brilliant canvases unlike any before seen– and his mind split apart. Rare human beings take on an absurd quest to discover secrets of the artistic universe– the brilliance and stimulation there discovered are too much for them. Icarus flying too close to the sun.
(Similar examples can be found with other artists. Kurt Cobain for example, who toward the end of his life threw the entirety of the pain he felt into his singing. In his band’s MTV Unplugged concert and other concerts, at the audience.)
ABOUT TED HUGHES
The book is as much or more about Ted Hughes as Sylvia Plath– about his curious relationship with his sister, his affair with Assia Weevil, and his marriage to Carol Orchard. It’s about his friendship with Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, who wrote a novel, Poison, based on Ted Hughes and his family relationships. It’s about the poems, Birthday Letters, by Hughes about Sylvia Plath that were published toward the end of his life. The Rollyson book is also about how the sterling career of Ted Hughes was largely fashioned by Sylvia Plath.
Sylvia, remember, had to work very hard to get Ted going. She is the one who built up this wayward amateur into a prize-winning professional, who no longer dithered around Cambridge or employed himself as a dilatory script reader at J. Arthur Rank. The business of writing had always bothered Ted, and Sylvia took care of it.
The Last Days of Sylvia Plath is about the attitude toward Sylvia’s American confidence and brashness by Ted’s friends, and about his own insecurity toward her. Ultimately, it’s about a BBC rebroadcast two days before her death of a Ted Hughes radio play, “Difficulties of a Bridegroom,” which seemed directly pointed at Sylvia Plath. These, all of them, are clues in our search for “What happened?” If the deck appears stacked against Ted Hughes, it’s not because of Carl Rollyson, who presents the evidence without editorializing about it. There’s no summation to the jury. We create that summation ourselves, inside our heads.
At the beginning of Chapter 7 Carl Rollyson describes the bleakness of London during those times. The city was still caught in a post-World War II malaise– only a few years before the Beatles ushered in the paisley joys of Swinging London of the mid-Sixties. I thought to myself, if only she’d held out. Rollyson later mentions, via quotes from Plath’s therapist, Ruth Barnhouse, the way “the bomb” weighed on the psyches of everyone during that period of time.
It had changed human consciousness, Barnhouse argued, leading people to consider that “whether we live or die is totally out of their control.” Why compete? Why go on?
It’s impossible to read this and not think of the gray challenges of our own period of time.
A TED HUGHES SUMMATION
After a fascinating section about Ted Hughes’s disdain of literary criticism near the end of the narrative, Rollyson presents an interesting quote, Hughes in a letter to literary critic Keith Sagar, which seems to sum up the man’s own opinion of what sent his former wife and mother of two of his children over the edge. “I read those Ariel poems as a climb . . . But she was knocked off again by pure unlucky combinations of accidents.” Hughes proceeds in the letter to list half-a-dozen of those accidents which, in combination– to his mind– led to her death.
This sent my own mind on a final tangent concerning this book– to remembering a video of the controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson, which I’d made note of a while back concerning someone else. Peterson’s premise is in line with Ted Hughes’s thoughts:
MY OWN SUMMATION
The final chapter of the book is a perfect coda to all that comes before– I’ll not say more because to do so might spoil it. Suffice to say that in sum, the book is an excellent examination of events leading up to Sylvia Plath’s death. Carl Rollyson, well established as one of the best biographers on the planet, has done a ton of work in producing a volume which can be read again and again– a presentation of a puzzle which will never have a definitive answer. Presented in such a way that our own take on the matter will change based on our viewpoint, the particular state of mind we bring to the narrative at the time we read it.