Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Plath Complex

In an empty bar in Williamsburg with my author friend, we were in the midst of a discussion about women's literature when I said, "I never used to think men were assholes until I tried to talk to them about Sylvia Plath." She repeated the sentiment, then said, "Now there's a great first line to an article about why feminism still matters."

A few weeks earlier, I had basically erupted in a hysterical bout of the “f” word when my two male friends proceeded to have a laugh over the work and life of Plath—I don’t remember exactly how they described The Bell Jar, but let’s just say it was far from complimentary. I responded by asking if they had ever read her poetry, to which one of them responded that he had not, the other that he had read “a few of them.” I pointed out that sometimes it’s best to read someone’s work before you condemn it. Both of them offered a defense amounting basically to the idea that “the sort of things she writes about,” were of no interest to them. “What sort of things?” “Oh, you know: motherhood, marriage, jealousy, etcetra.” Oh, I see.

Then I got really angry. In the crowded bar, I could feel like tears welling up in my eyes and my throat was doing that swelling thing where it makes it difficult for me to breathe. “So,” I said, trying to speak clearly through my semi-intoxication, “Could one of you explain it to me how it is that I am able to recognize the literary merits of someone, say, like Henry Miller, who writes about fucking whores’ cunts (his phraseology, not mine) but you two are unable to acknowledge a woman’s talents as a poet because she writes about motherhood?”

I relayed this story to my author friend, who quickly replied, “Why are you friends with these guys?”

But it isn’t just the boys, I’ve found. Several of the female interns where I work have expressed a marked dislike of Plath. One said, “I don’t like Sylvia Plath.” When I asked her why not, she said the The Bell Jar was “too morbid.” Prying further, I asked “Have you ever read her poetry?” to which she responded, vaguely embarrassed, “no.” Another boy responded that he thought Plath’s poetry was “overdone.” “What,” I asked, “do you mean by overdone?” “I mean, those emotions are so overdone.” “Well,” I said, “Do you think they were overdone in the 1960s, when Plath was writing?” “Oh,” he replied. “Probably not.”

I’ve realized after close to eight years defending her, I can’t force people to like Plath. Hell, I can’t even convince them to give her a chance. Most of all, I can’t convince people of how ignorant they sound when they presume to judge someone’s work when they haven’t even read it. How is it that Plath gets such a bad rap? Are the subjects of her poems and her novel still so taboo and upsetting that people are unable to look past the topics and into the art? Why is it that, even today, topics such as emotional hysteria, abandonment, marriage, love, childbearing, domesticity, parenthood, and sex still seem “uninteresting,” or “too personal?”

I just finished reading I Love Dick, a semi-fictional memoir by Chris Kraus, written as an epistolary novel. In her discussion of why some contemporary artists are taken seriously and why some are not, she draws the line in terms of gender. She mentions one artist, Hannah Wilke, who, in photographs and performance art, makes a comment about her longtime boyfriend abandoning her for another woman. She appears naked and vulnerable. Critics called her work “hysterical” or “overdone” or even “sloppy.” What bothers people more, I wondered, the fact that she was vulnerable, or a woman, or both? Other critics condemned her art, saying it was simply, “too personal.” She responded:

If women have failed to make 'universal' art because we're trapped within the 'personal,' why not universalize the 'personal' and make it the subject of our art?

I couldn’t agree more. But how? How do we get people (I wanted to type men here, but now unfortunately it’s more than just men who refuse to acknowledge the importance of the personal and the feminine) to be interested in this kind of art? Do we really have to fight the fight again? My professor at IU, Susan Gubar, and her teaching partner, Sandra Gilbert, founded the first graduate colloquium on Women’s Literature in the 1970’s. The first. How the fuck is it that I’m still defending writers like Plath thirty years later? Has anything really changed? Why is it that I’m expected to have read Ulysses but not Mrs. Dalloway, and how can women my age shrug off Plath like she’s some irrelevant poet? Are they afraid of what men will think of them if they profess to enjoying or relating to her work? Why do I almost wince as I write this?

I’d like to write some sort of over-arching, inspiring conclusion to this post, but I can’t. I can only offer that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, or rather, in the state of feminism today. It’s the same reason so many of my female friends are so unhappy if they aren’t in a relationship. It’s the same reason many of my female friends in relationships allow their boyfriends to insult them and under appreciate them. And it’s the same reason so many of my female friends apply huge double-standards to their sexuality in comparison to their male friends’ sexual behavior. This is not the Victorian era, ladies. Women don’t have to be a paradigm of virtue anymore. There is no one to impress but ourselves. If Sylvia Plath has taught me anything, it’s: There is no other person. You are the other person. And relying on someone to fulfill you or your life, only gets you into a whole bunch of trouble, and apparenty makes you author of poetry that no one wants to read.

I know one thing for sure: it’s never okay to judge someone or someone’s work simply because it’s outside of your comfort level. And to debase someone because of their sex or their experience only makes you look like a big fucking idiot.