Sunday, July 17, 2005

Sylvia Plath


I was reading some of the reviews of the Sylvia Plath biopic and found a few very interesting observations by some reviewers. Stephanie Zacharek (one of my favourite critics, even though she loathes Lars von Trier) in her review calls Plath's poetry "carping" and bemoans her "extreme self-pity":

Sylvia Plath is a fascinating character but a lousy icon. I don't happen to care much for her poetry: Where others see passion, I see carping; her version of hard-bitten introspection reads like extreme self-pity to me. Would I feel differently if Plath's short and tragic life -- and Hughes' life along with it -- hadn't been hijacked by any number of book-benumbed thinking-cap types who drive agendas as if they were glamorous, racy little red sports cars? Probably. But I can't change the way Plath's legacy has been appropriated any more than I can change the specifics of her life.

It's interesting to speculate of what would have happened had her mental illness not conquered her. How would she have felt about her own poems after some years? After all, she was only thirty when she took her life.

Anthony Lane in his review in The New Yorker is even more unsympathetic towards Plath's poetry. But then he explains his indifference, or rather a "constitutional aversion to her poetry":
Will “Sylvia” send viewers out of the movie theatre and back to the verse, or will they find better and saner things to do? For those slouching toward middle age, Plath’s poems are no longer guaranteed to provide either solace or provocation; she herself, like a war poet, was granted no middle age, and we can never know how the riper Plath might have chosen to outgrow, or even disown, the bitter fruits of her youth. Hers is a country for young men and, more obsessively, for young women; I now suffer from a constitutional aversion to her poetry, as one should to any art or writing that casts a spell on one’s teen-age years, and the extremity of her self-absorption, which a movie as careful and sociable as “Sylvia” can never properly catch, seems as likely to repel as to entrance.

And don't miss the review in Slate for its delightful opening line:
Complaining that a biopic of Sylvia Plath is oppressively bleak is like complaining that a steam room is oppressively moist. Bleakness, it may be argued, is the whole damn point, and it obviously did oppress Plath, who in her last months was probably happiest when fantasizing about her own suicide.

He then coins a new term for the genre, he calls it "the Bleak Chic"! And the review in The Village Voice has this delightful phrase about the Hughes-Plath industry:"Deconstructing the rugged ├╝bermensch and the maenad housewife spawned its own literary subgenre (or Plathology?)."

These pronouncements do sound a little insensitive at first but then if you remove the sad and bleak prism of the Sylvia Plath's actual life through which we inevitably end up looking at her poetry, perhaps these critics do make some sense. And while we are at it, I mean berating the adolescent tendencies of self-pity and carping, I can't help but link to the wonderful short essay by Jonathan Yardley of Washington Post, in which he delivers some (rather well-deserved I would say) spanking to the patron saint of adolescent angst, self-pity and "jejune narcissism", Holden Caulfield:
[...]"The Catcher in the Rye" can be fobbed off on kids as a book about themselves. It is required reading as therapy, a way to encourage young people to bathe in the warm, soothing waters of resentment (all grown-ups are phonies) and self-pity without having to think a lucid thought. Like that other (albeit marginally better) novel about lachrymose preppies, John Knowles's "A Separate Peace" (1960), "The Catcher in the Rye" touches adolescents' emotional buttons without putting their minds to work. It's easy for them, which makes it easy for teacher.

Emotional button pushing? Hmmm. I wonder what Yardley thinks of Harry Potter and the fascination it inspires in adults.

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