Why was Plath suicidal?

Andy Martin muses on suicide and searches the new publication, ‘Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956’, for clues about the famous oven deaths. Did she write so well because she was disintegrating, or in spite of it?

Andy Martin@andymartinink
Friday 06 October 2017 11:16
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Suicide is the only serious philosophical question, Camus reckoned. You could call it a poetic question too, though. Poets tend to come to a premature end. None, I think, quite so memorably as Sylvia Plath – who stands alone, I believe, on account of a) being a great poet – just have a look at Ariel; b) sticking her head in the oven with the gas on.

Back in the winter of 1963, she was only 30, a young mother-of-two married to Ted Hughes (but separated). You can’t help but ask why she committed suicide, and whether it was such a good idea in the first place. I’ve been flicking through the monumental Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956, just out from Faber, in search of clues. The cover of the UK edition has a photograph of her as a blonde bombshell on a beach somewhere, which has sparked a controversy among those who think that the beach babe look automatically trivialises and sexualises her (I don’t: Camus has some beach boy pics and they don’t trivialise him).

And there is a conference coming up in November at the University of Ulster, “Sylvia Plath, Letters, Words and Fragments”, which may offer answers too. But rather like trying to keep track of random particles in their erratic passage through time and space, you are always going to bump up against an element of indeterminacy – and therefore mystery.

First of all, the oven. A friend was telling me the other day about a friend of his who stuck his head in the oven – kept it there the entire night in fact – and got precisely nowhere. If you’re thinking about trying it, forget it; gas is no longer toxic in the way it used to be back in the golden age of kitchen-based suicide. Today, you’d actually have to switch the oven on to have any impact. Maybe you could go electric and try and fry yourself, I don’t know. It wouldn’t be my choice.

Given the option, I would have gone for the good old hosepipe attached to the exhaust pipe. The smell of benzene is reasonably pleasant, I think. I have a feeling that the catalytic converter has nixed that plan though. You’d have to find an older car, more of a polluter – that would probably do it.

But I guess the oven was just there. So domestic. And yet also poetic, to Plath’s way of thinking. She had a habit in her poetry of identifying with the Jewish victims of the Second World War, and seeing the men who surrounded her (her father, and notably her husband) as Nazis: goose-stepping, thigh-booted fascists tormenting, terrifying and subduing her, imposing their will.

There is a definite Holocaust tendency to some of her most striking poems (eg “Daddy” – “the ‘Guernica’ of modern poetry” as George Steiner called it). So, unless I am misreading her intention entirely, there was an aesthetic factor in her choice of the oven. Look, she seems to be saying, I too am getting gassed. Which just about works on the page, but is (although technically true) less convincing in reality, given that she is sticking her own head in there and voluntarily spinning the dial around to ON.

Simple interpretation of the act: it’s all Ted’s fault and Sylvia is the victim. This is suicide as protest against patriarchy. But it doesn’t quite add up.

Not that I am an unalloyed Ted defender. Of course he admitted to the affairs. Bad boy. I was once in the offices at the old Faber and Faber building when he came to visit. It was like royalty. They rolled out the red carpet for him (in my memory there actually was a red carpet, but maybe it was already there).

In any case, there was a definite feudal feeling about it, with him as grand seigneur and everyone else as peasants. I had the impression that he (poet with a strong anti-anthropocentric swerve though he was) accepted adulation quite readily. And I can see how, if you were married to the guy, this could have been fairly annoying. To the point, perhaps, of wanting to stick your head in the oven.

I am sympathetic to suicides. I’ve known a few. Not, needless to say, that they (being dead) take a blind bit of notice. But I mean, even beforehand. The fact is, I was once turned down for a job with the Samaritans. It wasn’t even a job, just volunteering to man the phones and talk down (or possibly up) those in despair. The consensus was that I was “insufficiently discouraging” to those intending to commit suicide.

I don’t think I was actively encouraging anyone, though. I admit that I did once offer to drive a woman to the cliffs at Beachy Head, but that was a one-off and it was only because she kept calling me and threatening to do away with herself at around 3 or 4am (in the event she changed her mind, so take that, Samaritans!)

Having witnessed one guy jumping off a tall building, I am not about to recommend that to anyone. He lived on the 17th floor, I was on the 3rd. Had we had a brief conversation, as he flew past my window in a downward direction, in one of those NYU buildings on Bleecker Street, he might have said, “So far so good”. I gather he was an IT guy with a wife and two young kids, and following an argument he had gone storming out.

But rather than go to the nearest bar and get drunk, he had rashly taken the back door and then, embarrassed to turn back, kept right on going over the balcony. I was listening to the slow movement of Philip Glass’s violin concerto at the time, then I saw a fast movement out of the corner of my eye, and then it was over. They say you don’t really feel anything because the lights go out before you have time to, but it’s no joke for the first attenders (such as me). I feel the same way where train drivers are concerned – suicides ought to realise they are going to make a mess of someone else’s life, too.

I once had a student who offed himself. I still have huge respect for his mother who, having found him dangling from the rafters (quite literally), still (some time later) heroically affirmed his right to choose and continued to celebrate his life. She refused to diagnose or psychiatrise, and I am following her lead where Plath is concerned.

Emile Durkheim’s great work on the sociology of suicide, at the beginning of the twentieth century – prompted, if I recall, by a financial crisis and a spate of people throwing themselves out of high windows – concluded that “romantic anomie” was at the root of most suicides. “The infinity of dreams” running up against an infinitely disappointing reality principle. Maybe the analysis fits Plath.

The letters, at least, suggest something like this. The letters, by the way, are a marvel to behold, in their crackling intensity and observational fervour. I picked this one completely at random (it’s on page 1039). Cambridge, 12 December 1955: “I am sitting with my right flank scalding by gas fire and my left as cold as the other side of the moon talking to all the people I love most. There are at least 10 or 15 of them…”

For starters, you can’t help noticing, there was a lot of gas about the place in those days, one way or another. It’s asking for trouble. And then you wonder about loving 10 or 15 of one’s fellow students. It’s a lot to be in love with at the same time. And the consider this, in the same letter, pre-Ted:

“Oh Elly, there is this boy: tall, raven-haired, scarlet-cheeked, husky, Jewish, strong as the ‘giants in the earth’ in the days of the old Testament prophets… God, Elly, he is the kind one could create a superman with… he is a MAN, fantastically strong, like a lion, yet oh, so gentle…”

There is more about music and “organ like roar of god”, “the young black-bearded moses standing beside me”. And so on. Not Ted. But even pre-Ted, it is obvious she had a tremendous capacity for idolatry. And at her height of Hughes-mania, this letter: page 1267, dated 3 October 1956: “Dearest Teddy...

“I am in a queer way capable of being happy completely alone; living with my god, which is you; like a nun; I talk to you each night before I go to bed, opening the window wide, leaning out looking at clouds of stars, smelling the wet earth and concentrating hard and completely on you, whatever you're doing, wherever you are.”

She sees herself living out a Biblical drama. This is not life as a poem, this is life as gospel: a Passion narrative, doomed to end prematurely but gloriously, with the inevitable ascent to immortality.

You can see why it was that Al Alvarez used to sing her praises for writing “on the edge of disintegration”. Someone once said of music that either it goes in the ear like broken glass or like honey. In Plath’s case, it’s both: broken glass coated in honey – or possibly (since she’s American) maple syrup. You find yourself wanting more of it, even though it’s painful.

I asked Dr Maeve O’Brien, who teaches English at the University of Ulster and is overseeing the Plath conference, and has reviewed the letters in The Irish Times, for her take. “Plath loved life,” she said. “She battled to survive, enjoyed food, laughed heartily, loved and was loved in return. Her desperately sad suicide in the blisteringly cold London of 1963 is not the sum of her being.”

And that is fair. It isn’t the sum. But you can’t blame the weather. I remember that winter – it was great for tobogganing. The best winter ever. Is it possible Plath “loved life” just a bit too much and was, in effect, rebuffed? Life, I find, does not exactly requite love.

Another writer I know, having just finished another book and standing by a high window, said that the best thing he could do right now would be to toss himself out. The tragedy would be better than any mere PR. He also said that, on the other hand, he had a contract for a couple more books and he didn’t want to let the readers down.

Do you have to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown in order to be a good poet? Alvarez implied as much in his book, The Savage God. But not so long ago, I had a chat with Roger McGough. He didn’t seem too depressed or (conversely, à la Plath) ecstatic. Still an incontestably top poet. Right up there. But no oven per se.

Following my rejection by the Samaritans, I would like to offer

5 reasons not to commit suicide:

1. “To sleep, to dream – aye, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.” (Hamlet)

2. “To seek death is to ascribe too much significance to life.” (Sartre)

3. “Only optimists commit suicide, optimists who no longer succeed at being optimists. The others, having no reason to live, why would they have any to die?” (Cioran)

4. You know what happens if you leave the party early – people are going to make rude remarks about you. Do you really want that?

5. Death is a constant. Look at Dante: it’s either perpetual torment, or perpetual adoration of the sublime. Either way it’s boring. There is no longer any possibility of being surprised. I think I’d miss that. Not knowing what’s coming next.

And, finally

5 slightly more positive reasons for remaining alive

1. I promised Jonathan I’d go to the flicks with him next week.

2. Porridge on a cold winter’s morning.

3. The first gulp of a really cold beer on a warm summer’s evening.

4. I want to outlive all my enemies and dance on their graves. Or at least hobble around a bit.

5. I still haven’t surfed the perfect wave.

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, volume 1, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V Kukil, is published by Faber and Faber. The University of Ulster will host Letters, Words and Fragments: A Sylvia Plath Conference on 10-11th November, 2017

Andy Martin is the author of Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me and teaches at the University of Cambridge

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