living underground in the real world

The Sylvia Syndrome

I told Maresa the other day that I was reading a new Plath biography. She asked me what I was getting from it.

“Oh, you know, her obsession with perfection, hatred of weakness, temper tantrums, and need for sacred solitude in order to create.”

Maresa stared at me, then burst out laughing.

Man.

Sylvia was 30 when she died. You’d think at 35 I’d be a bit more mature, not going through these same cycles of perfection obsession and tantrums.

“I know, I know. There are some parallels.”

Like every other [white, Western, middle class, whip-smart] girl in the world, I was obsessed with Sylvia Plath as a kid.

So cliché, I know. Bear with me, for I fully understand that the world doesn’t need one more word written about Plath. But I’m going to make it very brief.

For the first time in 20 years, I am out of the bell jar [COULDN’T RESIST] of wanting to be Sylvia. It’s weird.

I took a break from reading Plath for a few years, then I read a new (to me) bio of her (Rough Magic, by Paul Alexander), and I’ve finally realized that Sylvia might have had more flaws than charms. We might actually not have been besties, had we the chance. We probably would have hated each other, really. And maybe I’m actually better off being me than being Sylvia.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately walking around inside these odd new thoughts.

Like many other girls, I nurtured a nascent perfectionist streak by overdosing on the most perfectionist of all perfectionist, high-strung women: through her poetry Sylvia sought to set the world in order, and when the world didn’t cooperate she kept throwing her body at whatever walls were in her way until it did.

It seemed like a good way to go through life. Intensity, always.

So it burned a little to see that my independent, brilliant, fierce love maybe was better on the page than she was in real life. Biographies sometimes ruin all the fun. I’ve read a few others of her, but the perspective of adulthood changed things. Some of the sheen is gone from the Sylvia-mystique.

The book is Sylvia-sympathetic, but I left it with a bitter taste. Sylvia’s jealousy, pettiness, and obsession with status and superficial accomplishment (prizes, money) annoyed me, as did her dependence on traditional gender roles in her relationship with Ted Hughes. (I’m not one of those women who blame Ted for everything, can you tell? That angle never appealed to me. Though it does seem obvious we’d have a lot more Plath poetry if she hadn’t spent so much time typing his manuscripts and playing his secretary.)

Sylvia, my love.

In trying to be a more tolerant and less rage-filled person, I tell myself this little aphorism all the time: take what you need, leave the rest. Don’t get too invested in someone’s seeming perfection, because they will disappoint you. Everyone and everything does. Just because they disappoint you doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them or enjoy their company or like them. Amazing how long it takes to let that lesson sink in.

Ah well.

We’ll always have Lady Lazarus.

 

 

5 Responses to “The Sylvia Syndrome”

  1. scuzer

    HI Laugusta; it’s Suzanne……

    Just wanted to share a taste sensation with you. Tess made some garam masala and it was a tad bit on the strong side; so, while we were tasting, correcting seasoning, and tasting again, I helped myself to some dark chocolate. Well, I have to say that the two tastes go very nicely together. Peppery clove and dark chocolate; yum. Just wanted to share that with you. Also, everyone at Bloodroot appreciated the chocolates and wanted to hear all about your shop. Which, of course, I shared along with the reading at the bookstore. Thanks again; I am enjoying the book!

    Best, suzanne

    ________________________________

    Reply
  2. calvinhisboldness

    Thank you for sharing, I hope you’re doing well with accepting yourself for being what Plath wasn’t as well as for being parts of what she was. You probably know that a great deal of life lies behind published words, but every so often it helps to see a more complete truth.

    Reply
  3. Rachel Creager Ireland

    The saddest part about suicide is that the survivors will go on learning and growing and changing and living new experiences, while those who are gone will always be stuck in that one place they were desperate to leave. I’m so much different -better, truly- at 46 than I was at 30, or 19, and when I think of people I’ve known who committed suicide I just wish they could have stuck around long enough to discover that. I’ve done things in the last five years that I never would have dreamed of doing at 30. What would Sylvia have done and been if we could have seen her at 40, or 60? Just as you’ve matured over the years, she would have developed and changed and possibly grown into a person you would still feel that deep bond with.

    Or not. I guess it’s a moot point, after all.

    Reply

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