Thursday, September 27, 2012


Plath was not schizophrenic but she was a split woman, oscillating between conflicting irreconcilables. A woman in a man's world, a poet and a homemaker, a mother and a worldly successful. Yet plath, except in her last months before death was very adept at dissimulation. People who knew her had trouble reconciling the bright, american girl to the neurotic p
oet who killed herself. This corresponds to Laing's notion of a false self and a true self. The false self confers a simulacrum of sanity, a modicum of functioning but when the real self rears its head psychosis or splitting is an invariable result. It is my contention that, unlike laing's the camouflage was what kept plath going. When her real self emerged, it was forceful enough to end in obliteration.

But as another Laingian strand it is not the split person who is at fault but the world around them, the family that produces the schizoidness. Plath's journals demonstrate precocity and a eviscerating social gaze. Her critiques into America are both bitingly funny and accurate. Her understanding of the larger framework encapsulating and circumscribing her is highly perceptive. Forced by an unmitigatedly harsh social reality we see plath going inwards. Her neurosis ( indistinguishable with psychosis for laing) is a cultural neurosis, a neurosis felt by many women as evidenced by Anne stevenson and Janet malcolm. Plath's journals, even at their most intimate, most personal, are a social document giving a portrait of 50's America. Riven by antinomies Plath subsumes into insanity as as gesture of defiance. This is not to underscore the neurochemical. She eschews tradition and enters into a solipsistic self communion ( margaret atwood's heroine in surfacing does the same) and finds in her breakdown a breakthrough, another laingian concept. By divesting herself of the appurtenances of sanity and the norm Plath plumbs her psyche and emerges as more self aware, still fragmented, yet elusively reconstituted.

By the laingian scheme the patient is not mad but their madness is a commentary on the culture surrounding them. Can we say that Plath's first breakdown happens at an opportune moment in her life as a woman. She is on the brink of change and has been rejected by Frank o connor's writing program. A spiralling and dismal future beckons combined with her self doubt and inadequacy. Writing against the odds seems unthinkable, writing seems unachievable. When she looks out, hope is deflated. So she looks in and finds a primordial darkness , a vertiginous space and she succumbs.

Back in cambridge a vestige of normalcy resumes. She marries , writes and tries unsuccessfully to publish. Eventually, at 30 she kills herself after Ted leaves her.

Laing took an existential view of depression and Plath's journals prove that. The most powerful passages about wanting to die are underpinned by the laingian false self shutting reality out. Yet reality supervenes even in denial and plath faces an impasse every time she seeks to traverse and bypass its oppressive constituents.

It is interesting to note that most of the case histories Laing recounts are of women. Plath's despair and angst is that of a bright, attractive talented woman who sought more out of life than what life gave her. It was a post war scenario when plath was 18 and a restructuring of the family, women's re resumption of the domestic sphere was promulgated. Domesticity was prized as virtue and patriarchy insidiously reasserted its hold. Within this scenario plath's death is, for me, not a cowardly act of relinquishing life but leaving behind an indelible imprint of the nature of 50's social reality. Her 'ontological uncertainty' as laing calls it, her sense of dispossession, rootlessness in england are all factors. Mother hatred is also something laing's patients demonstrated, the mother as the repressive, freedom curtailing, symbiotically entangled knot which suffocates. The woman being relegated to the home nursed her frustrated ambition by making an infant the extension of her putative apotheosis. Such a reading is not fully contingent but sums up plath's journal entries of mother hate. All these concatenated dichotomies made plath a women inviolably singular yet representative.

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