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Sylvia Plath on Privilege, Free Will, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession.”

One of our our basic human biases is the tendency to take credit for our successes as a function of our personal excellence and to attribute out failures to external circumstances. Privilege is problematic precisely because it leads the privileged to believe that their advantages in life are entirely earned and the disadvantages of the less fortunate entirely merited, when in reality powerful cultural currents can carry us in either direction based on cultural, political, and economic forces wholly external to our character, ability, and personal worth. But when all of our external conditions are stripped away, be they fortuitous or wretched, who are we in our innermost personhood? What erects the geometry of the “I”?

That’s what young Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) addresses in a characteristically poignant and exquisitely self-aware passage from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — the same terrific volume that gave us the precocious poet on finding nonreligious divinity in nature, her exuberant celebration of curiosity, and her thoughts on life, death, hope and happiness.

In a journal entry from the autumn of 1950, eighteen-year-old Plath considers free will, the blinders of privilege, and what makes us who we are. She writes:

What do I know of sorrow? No one I love has ever died or been tortured. I have never wanted for food to eat, or a place to sleep. I have been gifted with five senses and an attractive exterior. So I can philosophize from my snug little cushioned seat. So I am going to one of the most outstanding colleges in America; I am living with two thousand of the most outstanding girls in the United States. What have I to complain about? Nothing much. The main way I can add to my self-respect is by saying that I’m on scholarship, and if I hadn’t exercised my free will and studied through high school I never would be here. But when you come right down to it, how much of that was free will? How much was the capacity to think that I got from my parents, the home urge to study and do well academically, the necessity to find an alternative for the social world of boys and girls to which I was forbidden acceptance? And does not my desire to write come from a tendency toward introversion begun when I was small, brought up as I was in the fairy-tale world of Mary Poppins and Winnie-the-Pooh? Did not that set me apart from most of my school mates? — the fact that I got all A’s and was “different” from the rough-and-tumble Conways — how I am not quite sure, but “different” as the animal with the touch of human hands about him when he returns to the herd. All this may be a subtle way of egoistically separating myself from the common herd, but take it for what it’s worth.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep

A year earlier, Plath had written in a letter to her mother: “I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own.” Now, it is with this empathetic curiosity and acute awareness of how different cultural backgrounds manifest different foregrounds of personhood that she returns to the question of free will in her journal:

As for free will, there is such a narrow crack of it for man to move in, crushed as he is from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention. If I had been born of Italian parents in one of the caves in the hills I would be a prostitute at the age of 12 or so because I had to live (why?) and that was the only way open. If I was born into a wealthy New York family with pseudo-cultural leanings, I would have had my coming-out party along with the rest of them, and be equipped with fur coats, social contacts, and a blasé pout. How do I know? I don’t; I can only guess. I wouldn’t be I. But I am I now; and so many other millions are so irretrievably their own special variety of “I” that I can hardly bear to think of it. I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession. The pen scratches on the paper … I … I … I … I … I … I.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is a remarkable read in its entirety — a masterwork both of philosophy at its rawest and of prose at its most refined. Complement this particular passage with cosmologist Janna Levin on the perplexity of free will, C.S. Lewis on what it means to have a free will in a universe of fixed laws, and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity, then revisit Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a journal, her little-known children’s book illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, and her beautiful and heartbreaking reading of the poem “A Birthday Present.”

Published October 27, 2015




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