Saturday, June 2, 2012


 I'm rereading The Bell Jar.

This was a book club pick, not something I would have come back to on my own.  Plath's book is possessed of both brevity and wit, but there's very little soul here, and a great deal of the slough of despond.

[Sidebar: What better phrase is there, really, than "the slough of despond?" I will attempt to inflict this on all of my conversational partners in the next week or so. You've been warned, preschoolers!]

Not that it's not a graceful slough: Plath has a poet's eye, and the dark, hurtling force that propels her poems straight into your gut is present, too, in her prose.  But the despond is so erotically and exactly depicted, so lovingly rubbed up against, you tend to get sucked in.

Not a book, in other words, that leaves you better than it found you.

The first time I read The Bell Jar, I was 17 and suggestible.  Plath's oeuvre propelled me almost single-handedly into the only bona fide period of depression I've ever experienced.  (In retrospect, I can't pin the whole thing on Sylvia: I'd just quit ballet to concentrate on music, and thus for the first -and hopefully last- time in my life, I was getting no exercise.  That stuff about exercise acting as an antidepressant?  Totally true.)

In rereading, I can still feel the downward slurp of the thing.   Plath's insight, what makes her so dangerous, is that depression isn't abut sadness.  It's about revulsion.  The ordinary, intensely examined, is revealed to be sickening.  Fountains, mothers, boyfriends, pipes: the disgusting excrescences of the everyday.

She's right, of course.  Look at anything too long, too closely, and it reveals itself as foul.  But then you learn -as I had to, as Plath never could- to keep walking.

1 comment:

Allan said...

I read The Bell Jar at age 15, as part of a "Tragic Hero" lit class. We also did The Catcher in the Rye, which sent me reading everything else by Salinger, and Death of a Salesman, which left me simply irritated at how stupid the Lomans were. The teenage heart can be hard!

I've been bumping up against some of Plath's poetry again, choosing what to teach to 8th and 11th graders. I like "Mirror." But I can imagine the sort of murk you describe in reexperiencing her novel. I think I'll enjoy these coming summer days by pairing it with "Miss Lonelyhearts!"