Monday, March 23, 2015

thank you, i think.

as i'm just about to finish the bell jar for, probably, the 50th time, a thought occurred to me. sylvia plath has been heralded as a  major figure--she's even been called a martyr--of the feminist movement, and while all the acclaim she's won as part of that movement is both indisputable and well-deserved, i will go even further to say she's a martyr for all writers. i'd say she died a terrible life because she only truly lived when she was producing work, writing to somehow contain her feelings into a place that made them at least somewhat accessible to her. she suffered for her art, and not simply because she was mentally ill, but because we let her suffer. the approach on mental health back then, especially for women, seems medieval compared to today's pragmatic approach. women "in hysterics" were regarded as different people altogether, feared, and ostracised. her methods of treatment were brutal, unresearched, experimental and--as a result--ineffective. that's why i say she died a terrible life, because i feel she died a long time before her suicide in 1963.

so how does that make her a martyr? as a writer, i subscribe to the philosophy that artists are not, as society likes to believe, these great inventors, these almost-supernatural beings vested with abilities well beyond the everyday-you-and-me, but instead vessels to a higher form of creativity, gifted simply with the ability to extract unique, lasting vestiges from the ephemeral comings and goings of everyday life. and yet because what we produce, whether it's a painting, a song, a story, or a sculpture, is thought to be a source of inspiration for the common folk (as they, the general public, tend to categorize themselves in relation to any type of artist), we find ourselves under enormous pressure, simply because we attach our self-worth to whatever we create. this, in turn, puts the validity of our self-worth into the hands of nobody and everybody at the same time. people we know, people we don't know. masses of people that may include a few genuine appreciators of art, but mostly those who choose to pass harsh judgement on something simply because they don't understand it. and a non-artist reading this would say, "but who cares what they say? they don't know their ass from their elbow, so why does their opinion affect you?" and the answer is, it just does. because as artists, we care. as vessels for a higher form of creativity, we get the divine call to create, but we don't get the divine answer on whether or not what we created is any good. and in a world that tries so hard to make subjectivity work, objectivity always prevails, and when you're starving for both food and a good review, the tiniest amount of negativity can inflict a mortal wound on the vulnerable soul of an artist.

sylvia plath cut two very deep, very lasting parallel paths during the course of her career. as a writer, a poet, and a student at cambridge, she did what women "shouldn't" have been doing at that time, considerably fueling the feminist movement. she also did what all artists do, which is to create under pressure, to submit to a life of judgement, for which she suffered greatly, but, unlike today, there was no free clinic, no charity-funded group therapy organisation around to provide the type of psychiatric care she needed. she wasn't even regarded as genuinely needing help on account of her being a woman and thus considered merely 'hysterical,' rather than simply mentally unwell. and whether or not what she wrote was as unique and genius and amazing as critics have said over the years isn't important. what's important is that it exists, each poem a tiny tombstone and each story a mausoleum that form a cemetery, a memorial, a place where writers and any other kind of artist can go to have a moment's silence as the commiserate with one of their own.

happily, her tragic story doesn't pull me into depths of sadness over the despair of the situation, but instead actually pulls me up to street level. the more i read sylvia plaths' stories and poetry, the more i research her life, the more i read her journals, the more i see she was the same as any of us creative people. she came alive when she was writing, and she was sick when she wasn't because she felt she couldn't. and what do i do when i feel i can't write? i turn to writers like sylvia plath. i read their books, their diaries, even overviews of their lives on wikipedia. then i search for their strange habits, foods they loved, foods they hated, what they ate for breakfast and what they drank or didn't drink. i seek the solace of the lives--both celebrated and tragic--of writers i respect with a religious fervour, as if their stories are biblical and the act of thinking about them is akin to praying. and for me, sylvia plath, the martyr, the saint, will always be a golden beacon of hope, a voice that, instead of the preachy, "sermon on the mount" cadence, speaks to me in a loving, gentle way, and says, "we're all in this together."