In October 1957, she wrote a “Letter to a demon,” in which she says, “I have a good self, that loves skies, hills, ideas, tasty meals, bright colors. My demon would murder this self by demanding it be a paragon, and saying it should run away if it is being anything less… So: a stoic face. A position of irony, of double-vision.” The in-between space is what characterizes Plath’s work. And I think our cultural hang-up with Plath’s suicide is linked to the difficulty of reconciling all of these complexities and personas, a desire to write her off, therefore absolving us from having to reckon with the many contradictions she confronts in her fiction and poetry.
My concern with writing on true and false selves in Plath’s work is that it gives attention to her suicide, which already dominates the conversation around Plath. When I went to Plath’s archives at Smith College, her alma mater, I discussed this with Karen Kukil, the editor of her Journals, co-editor of her new book of letters, and curator of the Mortimer Rare Book Room, where Plath’s papers reside.
We went for lunch that day, and as we climbed and slid over the crunchy dirty snow in the dim afternoon light of mid-January Northampton, we talked about the feeling of dissonance that arises when caught in a conversation about Plath, like when, at an awkward academic reception, someone asked me what I was writing my master’s thesis on, and my answer—Plath—was met with the statement, “I should call your gas company.” Or the play Plath., which paints her as a flat depressive, devoid of the energy and joy and color that led me to love her. It isn’t the Plath we know. Public emphasis on the darker self so often overshadows the lust for life Sylvia expresses in her Journals, her voracious appetite for food and people and sex and travel, her relentless drive for self-actualization, the constant begging: “Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don’t want to die.”
She was all of the things, and she can be all of the things. She was resilient, and she was sensitive, and she was ambitious, and she was a perfectionist, and she had flaws. Her Journals show an ability to reach—and capture—an ecstasy I had never seen on the page as a college student. That is what drew me back to her. For all of the sadness accompanying the facets of Sylvia Plath’s life and work that have been obscured—the burned journals at Hughes’ hand, the edited letters at her mother’s, by the public focus on her as a tragic figure, and even by her own complex masking of herself—there is an upside: over 50 years after her death, we have layers of her unfolding before our eyes; we are still getting to know her.