‘Intolerable absolutes’

Setting out my response to Don Arthur’s great post below sent me scurrying to a book I read a few years ago. I thought someone had thrown it out but fortunately no. The book is The Silent Woman and it’s about Sylvia Plath and the biographical writings she inspired. The author, Janet Malcolm, re-reads an aerogram she got several months previously from Anne Stevenson – one of Plath’s biographers – on the train ride to Durham to interview her. This is what she reads:

We never touched on the subject of victims. I do believe Sylvia’s suicide has had a devastating effect on all associated with her-including her biographers…. all of us suffered a trauma of associated guilt. My argument with Sylvia is essentially a moral, philosophical one: to me, no art, no “great poem” is worth that much human suffering. After all, there is suffering enough in the world without creating it for the purpose of an interior psychodrama. I believe Sylvia, encouraged perhaps by her Freudian and well-meaning therapist, Ruth Beutscher, found her own psychodrama (a word I prefer to “mythology”) so intoxicating and such an inspiring source of poetry, that she lost all perspective.

The notion that “perspective” has any place in Great Art is anathema, of course, to latter-day Romantics. But belief in “Art” of this kind, in the so-called “risk” of Art and the existential dilemma of the artist (give me genius or give me death) is, for me, akin to the beliefs of fundamental religious fanatics. In the end it leads (via Nietzsche, Weininger, and other German-Austrians of the decaying Hapsburg Empire) to the rise of Hitler; or the Ba’athist dictators (Saddam is only one), who threaten the whole fabric of society with intolerable absolutes. I disagree with Alvarez, with Plath, with Ted Hughes (perhaps) when they contend that the pursuit of the absolute has anything to do with the pursuit of truth. Truth is, in its nature, multiple and contradictory, part of the flux of history, untrappable in language. The only real road to truth is through doubt and tolerance. Unfortunately, philosophical skepticism can also become a mannerism; and the doubting leader is usually a bad one.

Now the biography of Plath, Bitter Fame which was written by the author of this letter – Anne Stevenson – is regarded as a bit of a failure â a bit too protective of the sensibilities of the living. As the author Anne Stevenson wrote in the preface âAny biography of Sylvia Plath written during the lifetimes of her family and friends must take their vulnerabilities into consideration â even if completeness suffers from it. As Janet Malcolm says âThis is a most remarkable â in fact a thoroughly subversive â statement for a biographer to make. To take vulnerability into consideration! To show compunction! To spare feelings. Not to push as far as one can! What is the woman thinking of?â

In any event the letter to Malcolm continues:

One more thing. Although I never contemplated suicide, for a long time in the 1970s I was, through my weakness and misery, to all intents and purposes an alcoholic. I have never confessed this to anyone outside the family; but I think you ought to know that my life has not been that of a nice bourgeois wife and mother. I left my children in Oxford (no, in Glasgow) in 1971, to the care of their father and grandparents, and went to live with a poet in a sort of desperate bid for my “real” self. I don’t know if it was the time that was responsible (the infectious counterculture) or my own New England puritan upbringing. In any case, I spent ten or so years “in the wilderness” – writing “Correspondences” of course. But – and this is the point – divided. I now try to forget, as far as possible, those nightmare years. But I do know firsthand something of what Sylvia suffered, and Ted also…. I cannot believe that a biographer who does not understand the pervading madness of S.’s time can possibly understand her despair. Alvarez, of course, does; but he admires extremism, self indulgence, narcissism that I, after long experience, deplore. (p. 79-81)

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Tom N.
Tom N.
14 years ago

Wonderful post Nicholas … as usual. Thanks for sharing it.

Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
14 years ago

Amen to that, Tom.

I don’t think anyone so far has really touched on the role of mental illness; not only in this post on “Intolerable Absolutes” but also in Don’s post on Layard and the subsequent comments where Nietzsche figured prominently.

Plath, it seems, suffered from a particularly virulent case of bipolar disorder and made her first suicide attempt in her junior year at college. To suggest, as Stevenson does, that Plath was ” . . . creating it [suffering] for the purpose of an interior psychodrama” is I think dangerously close to misleading. Her therapist may indeed have misjudged the dangers of heightened inner exploration but bipolar sufferers have little need of encouragement. Nor do I think it