The first time I encountered Sylvia Plath’s poetry was in my dorm’s Bayview laundry room. After buying her final book, “Ariel,” on a whim, I read it all in one sitting. I remember being floored by the precision and beauty of the final line of “Morning Song,” written about the loud cry of her newborn: “The clear vowels rise like balloons.”
As an amateur poet struggling to make his poetry impactful, this line seemed shot from a high-caliber rifle. Not only did it perfectly describe a baby’s rising cry, but it also seemed to describe the entire poem that came before it, with its chain of clear syllables rising up from the page to meet me.
It wasn’t until I was half finished with the book that I learned of Plath’s untimely suicide. After an initial shock, I continued to read, but my attitude toward her work had changed. Rather than reading her words as she presented them, I couldn’t stop imagining what she was doing and what she was feeling as she wrote them. Rather than appreciating the beauty of the lines “The dew that flies / Suicidal,” I could only focus on the suicidal voice that spoke them.
I often assume this mindset while reading Plath and other authors who met similar ends. The achievements of giants such as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace and Hunter S. Thompson often seems secondary to their terrible personal pains — their own words are like small flowers growing in the shadows of their tragic biographies. When Woolf wrote that “He would shut his eyes; he would see no more,” in her novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” she surely meant to give me a window into her own suffering. And Wallace’s statement in “Infinite Jest” that the drive to suicide is like the “terror of the flames” in a burning building, was surely a mystic vision of his own future.
Quotes such as these seem to wink at me from the page, and for a long time I told myself that it was my job to trace them to their source — to the struggles of their authors. But then I reread my old poems, and I realized how different they were from my present thoughts. I suddenly understood the arrogance of this type of reading; of approaching a text like a forensic analyst approaches a crime scene.
As a reader, this habit produces a kind of closed-mindedness. Rather than appreciating the beauty of Plath’s balloons, my brain searches only for patterns that will reinforce the interpretation I already had before I started reading. By forcing an author’s life into their work, I look past their words and, in doing so, I give myself the comfort of studying them without ever listening to them.
But this urge also reveals deeper anxieties of my own, and of a trend I see in popular culture. My investigation into the mind of the “tortured artist” through literature is, after all, an absurd version of celebrity worship. It’s the social instinct that makes me read blurbs about the life of Kanye West, mixed with deeper curiosities about the mind, about language and about what might lead a person to choosing death over life. It’s no coincidence that David Foster Wallace’s celebrity vaulted to new heights after his death in 2008 — people wanted to find the reasons for his suicide buried in his words.
This pursuit of “the reasons” should be abandoned completely.
This mindset creates dangerous misunderstandings about the value of literature and of the realities of mental illness. The “forensic” approach will always fail because it rests on the assumption that an author’s work is a direct line into their psyche. In reality, literature will never be so direct. Even if a quote comes from a place of extreme pain, studying a novel to arrive at the pained mind of its author is like studying a blossom to give evidence for the shape of its seed.
In other words, while the mind of the “tortured artist” is worth studying, it should be done without the fog of their literature. Virginia Woolf likely died from the effects of untreated bipolar disorder. Ernest Hemingway died of hemochromatosis, a deterioration of the brain. David Foster Wallace died after he switched depression medications, a decision that often creates neurochemical complications.
These are the things that should be talked about. Forget the “literary” connection between Woolf’s and Ophelia’s drownings and forget how “fitting” Plath’s death was with her tendency toward morbid poetry.
That is not to say that I will discard the troubling parts of their work simply because I don’t want to over-analyze them. But if I want to truly honor my heroes, I want to allow their words to touch me as they wrote them, with vowels full of pure helium.
Anthony writes the Monday column on literature and life. Contact him at [email protected].