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The Quicksand of Existence: Sylvia Plath on Life, Death, Hope, and Happiness

“The present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead.”

On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, “an addict of experience” — took her own life at the age of thirty. Though some have argued that Plath has been “flattened into the prototype of the mentally tormented poet, the betrayed woman, the tragic literary blonde,” and suicide is always challenging to talk about in causal terms, Plath’s private writing reveals a complex and, indeed, tormented woman whose constant struggle to understand the meaning of life took an increasingly melancholy turn.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library; UK) — the same volume that gave us the young poet’s exuberant celebration of curiosity and life — also gives us a record of her incessant oscillation between hope and hopelessness. In an entry from the summer of 1950, 18-year-old Plath adds to history’s finest private moments of everyday happiness:

‘We only begin to live when we conceive life as tragedy…’ W. B. Yeats

‘Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past…’ James Joyce

[…]

I may never be happy, but tonight I am content. Nothing more than an empty house, the warm hazy weariness from a day spent setting strawberry runners in the sun, a glass of cool sweet milk, and a shallow dish of blueberries bathed in cream. Now I know how people can live without books, without college. When one is so tired at the end of a day one must sleep, and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth. At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more…

But in the fall of that year, in a despondent and peculiarly punctuated stream-of-consciousness passage, Plath ponders:

Not to be sentimental, as I sound, but why the hell are we conditioned into the smooth strawberry-and-cream Mother-Goose-world, Alice-in-Wonderland fable, only to be broken on the wheel as we grow older and become aware of ourselves as individuals with a dull responsibility in life? … * to go to college fraternity parties where a boy buries his face in your neck or tries to rape you if he isn’t satisfied with burying his fingers in the flesh of your breast. * to learn that there are a million girls who are beautiful and each day that more leave behind the awkward teen-age stage, as you once did, to embark on the adventure of being loved and petted. * to be aware that you must compete somehow, and yet that wealth and beauty are not in your realm. … * to learn that you can’t be a revolutionary. * to learn that while you dream and believe in Utopia, you will scratch & scrabble for your daily bread in your home town and be damn glad if there’s butter on it. … * to have won $100 for writing a story and not believe that I am the one who wrote it. … * to know that millions of others are unhappy and that life is a gentleman’s agreement to grin and paint your face gay so others will feel they are silly to be unhappy, and try to catch the contagion of joy, while inside so many are dying of bitterness and unfulfillment. * to take a walk with Marcia Brown and love her for her exuberance, to catch some of it, because it’s real, and once again love life day by day, color by color, touch by touch, because you’ve got a body & mind to exercise & use it as much as you can, never mind whose [sic] got a better or worse body & mind, but stretch yours as far as you can.

Another entry bespeaks her dissonant, conflicted relationship with life and death in increasingly poetic, if heartbreaking in retrospect, language:

With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can’t start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It’s like quicksand… hopeless from the start. A story, a picture, can renew sensation a little, but not enough, not enough. 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.

But perhaps most poignant of all is this meditation on the ineffable:

There are times when a feeling of expectancy comes to me, as if something is there, beneath the surface of my understanding, waiting for me to grasp it. It is the same tantalizing sensation when you almost remember a name, but don’t quite reach it. I can feel it when I think of human beings, of the hints of evolution suggested by the removal of wisdom teeth, the narrowing of the jaw no longer needed to chew such roughage as it was accustomed to; the gradual disappearance of hair from the human body; the adjustment of the human eye to the fine print, the swift, colored motion of the twentieth century. The feeling comes, vague and nebulous, when I consider the prolonged adolesence [sic] of our species; the rites of birth, marriage and death; all the primitive, barbaric ceremonies streamlined to modern times. Almost, I think, the unreasoning, bestial purity was best. Oh, something is there, waiting for me. Perhaps someday the revelation will burst upon me and I will see the other side of this monumental grotesque joke. And then I’ll laugh. And then I’ll know what life is.

To celebrate Plath’s life and legacy, I asked my ineffably talented friend Wendy MacNaughton — whose hand-lettered drawings of Susan Sontag on art and on love you might recall — to illustrate Plath’s vortex of literary influences, in the vein of our prior Circles of Influence collaboration. Enjoy:

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What Makes a Great Essay?

“The things that are most lasting and edifying are the things that lodge in the brain most deeply, which means they are emotional, enjoyable, and fun.”

Ah, the timeless power and joy of a great essay: Joan Didion on self-respect; David Foster Wallace on the nature of fun; Susan Sontag on courage and resistance; George Orwell on why writers write. But where, exactly, does that intangible magic of the essay reside?

Besides beautiful writing by such literary titans as Malcolm Gladwell (“Creation Myth”), Francine Prose (“Other Women”), Alan Lightman (“The Accidental Universe”), and Miah Arnold (“You Owe Me”), The Best American Essays 2012 (public library; UK) also offers a necessary meditation on the art and nature of the essay itself. Robert Atwan writes in the foreword:

Essayists like to examine — or, to use an essayist’s favorite term, consider — topics from various perspectives. To consider is not necessarily to conclude; the essayist delights in a suspension of judgment and even an inconsistency that usually annoys the ‘so what’s your point?’ reader. The essayist, by and large, agrees with Robert Frost that thinking and voting are two different acts.

In the vein of recent debates about how personal the writerly persona should be, Atwan echoes Vonnegut’s famous advice and advocates for fully inhabiting one’s own personality in writing:

From the start, [students] would need to understand that — as we know from all the great essayists — ruminating on a topic doesn’t mean that the writing will be impersonal. The essayist’s reflections will be indistinguishable from a particular personality or temperament.

[…]

Essays can be lots of things, maybe too many things, but at the core of the genre is an unmistakable receptivity to the ever-shifting process of our minds and moods. If there is any essential characteristic we can attribute to the essay, it may be this: that the truest examples of the form enact that ever-shifting process, and in that enactment we can find the basis for the essay’s qualification to be regarded seriously as imaginative literature and the essayist’s claim to be taken seriously as a creative writer.

In the introduction, David Brooks adds a historical context, suggesting that the internet has ushered in a new Golden Age of the essay:

The essay hit a bad patch for a little while. Yet today I think it’s coming back. The age of academic jargon is passing. The Internet has paradoxically been a boon to essayists. Yes, there is Twitter and blogging and hysteria on the Internet and all the things Jonathan Franzen says he doesn’t like. But the Internet makes far-flung essays so accessible [and] has aroused the energies of hundreds of thousands of intelligent amateurs.

Brooks ends with the perfect definition — part poetic, part practical — of what makes a great essay:

The self-improving ethos was something that was taken for granted in the mid-twentieth century, and now we’re fortified by the knowledge that the things that are most lasting and edifying are the things that lodge in the brain most deeply, which means they are emotional, enjoyable, and fun.

Dive into The Best American Essays 2012 for some empirical examples, then complement them with F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, and Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques for modern prose.

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Jules Verne: Prophet of Science Fiction

How the father of science fiction presaged airplanes, submersible warfare, space travel, and fuel cells.

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real,” trailblazing science fiction author Jules Verne (February 8, 1828–March 24, 1905) wrote in his masterpiece Around the World in Eighty Days. And, indeed, many of the seemingly fanciful concepts Verne imagined were made real in the decades that followed. He conceived of an underwater vehicle “all powered by electricity!” at a time when only prototypes of submarines existed and electricity was known but not of wide use; he presaged the use of such a high-powered submersible in warfare and scientific research; with the help of an illustrator-friend, he envisioned a propeller-driven aircraft when hot-air balloons were the height of aviation; he depicted weightlessness when zero gravity was still a scientific guess and put humans on the moon a century before mankind’s giant step. But far more than a gifted fiction writer, Verne was also an amateur astronomer and amateur scientist. Obsessive research and fact-checking were core to his writing, and his immense curiosity about science and technology frequently drove him to seek out famous scientists and inventors passing through town.

Jules Verne: Prophet of Science Fiction is a fascinating Discovery documentary, chronicling Verne’s seminal contributions to science fiction and his strikingly accurate predictions of the technologies that came to life a century after his death, as well as how he used his fiction as escapism from his troubled family and why he ended up destroying his own legacy.

Verne creates Nemo’s high-tech Nautilus at a time when even a can-opener is considered an exciting new concept.

Complement with the beautifully illustrated 1964 biography Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented the Future.

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