Monday, 15 November 2010

The Greek serenity of tranquil plaster;

Time has absolutely flown since I penned my last blog entry. I have been kept busy with the administrative side of PhD life over the past fortnight, beginning my preparations for a 100-Day Viva this coming January. You may think I'm a little over-zealous preparing so far in advance for the event, but I am so aware that Christmas will be socially busy and that the weeks are relentlessly disappearing.. I just want to make sure I am as organised as humanly possible. As the weeks go in, I become more and more grateful of the opportunity I have to study such a fascinating topic.

On the note of more administrative elements however, I would like to recommend this book Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates, which I have found to be a real life-saver in the last fortnight or so. Having been out of academia for a few years, the major niggling worry in the back of my mind is that I've forgotten how to write academically. For my upcoming Viva I have to supply a Critical Literature review and was really at a loss as to how to start writing one up. The book I have recommended not only suggests great and non-rambling ways to present your information, it also helped me read more critically also: helps give you the confidence to question so-called experts and assert your own opinions! A worthwhile read!

I've also been really happy to have received some feedback from readers of the blog. Nuala NĂ­ ChonchĂșir in particular sent me some interesting information about Sylvia being inducted into a New York Cathedral Poet's Corner. It's so great to see that organisations still recognise Sylvia's literary greatness and that her work is still relevant and read today.

I also found it great, being from Ireland, to see Paul Muldoon was one of the readers at the ceremony. I visited Queen's University Belfast recently actually to hear Paul Muldoon read some of his new poems and speak on Louis MacNeice. It was brilliant to see him read; I often think a lot of the imagery in his poems is reminiscent of Plath. Dr Maria Johnston from Trinity College, Dublin briefly mentions a comparison in the linked article. I do feel it is safe to say however, that a thorough study in looking at Plath and Ireland is definitely lacking. Having just re-read her "Letters Home" in the past few weeks, and noting her numerous references to Ireland, moving to Ireland, the West, Galway.. I think that this is certainly an untapped topic in the world of Plath!

Instead of sticking to my Irish roots, I'm going to skew this post off on another tangent entirely. One of my main research interests is the connection between literature and art. I am very interested in looking at this in terms of Sylvia Plath. I feel that there is a huge scope for discussion in looking at the poems of "Ariel" and abstract expressionism, for example. In this blog post however, my thoughts are in direct reference to the seriously interesting 'Three Caryatids' essay by Diane Middlebrook contained in the beautiful Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual.

Middlebrook references the Plath poem 'Three Caryatids', published in a Cambridge University magazine in the 1950s called Chequer. A central theme of my thesis is that of Suffocation, and in reading this essay and furthermore, looking at the images of caryatids, I took leave from Middlebrook's analysis and focused on what I believe is a strong connection between suffocation and these pillars.

This picture is an example of a typical caryatid which the British Museum describes as "female figures serving as support". Perhaps I've been reading too much Betty Friedan recently, but the parallel between these female figures and Sylvia Plath is so clear to me. Every scholar looking at the life and work of any writer must look at the era in which they lived, the social restraints placed upon them, etc. Biographical information aside, the female figures are holding together the whole buildings. These figures are not an anomaly, they are featured prominently in Ancient Greece both at the Acropolis and the Parthenon. Positively, without these women, everything would fall unto itself. But what of the weight these women hold?? This is where I see a parallel between the pillars and, not just Sylvia, but of most women alive in the 1950's. To me, these pillars show the choice: if you became a housewife, you stood and held the home up, irregardless of what happened. You sacrificed yourself for the home. Again, if you were the 'Jay Cee' of the situation: you chose your career and sacrificed a home-life. You chose one or the other and were fixed: head holding the weight of it all. Unmoving.

The Hugo Robus sculpure which provided the muse for 'Three Caryatids' appears as follows:

The female forms are drastically changed from their Greek counterparts. This piece was sculpted in 1953 and I feel that it represents so much of the climate of that time. In general terms; it was post-WW2, in a time when the USA was immersed in the Cold War and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was hanging overhead. To me, this sculpture represents that the air of society has been squeezed out so much that these statues do not even require mouths and noses to breathe, eyes to see, a brain to think. Coupled with the fact that these forms are women - what does this illustrate about women at this time? To me, it is the artistic expression of those women who tell their tales in "The Feminine Mystique" - they went to school, College and were demanded of to be nothing more than mothers and wives. As Adlai Stevenson remarked in his commencement address at Smith College in 1955 (which Sylvia Plath attended) as to the role of women: "inspire in her home a vision of the meaning of life and freedom... to help her husband find values that will give purpose to his specialised daily chores...". These Robus sculptures represent, to me, the suffocating sentiments of Stevenson.

As Middlebrook inititally asked: what drew Sylvia Plath to these sculptures? This is what has puzzled me and played on my mind the most. I am personally trying to distinguish between internal and external suffocations: Plath's self-awareness. Why of all the pieces in the Whitney Muesum did she choose these, with hindsight, perfect representations of the suffocations of her era, to write about?

"but such a trial is not granted
by the gods: behold three daunted


Morgane said...

This is really, really fascinating. As I was reading, I was thinking "of course!". I had never though about the internal / external suffocations different but I think it's really accurate in Sylvia's case. :)

The Plath Diaries said...

Thanks so much Morgane! Your opinions are so important to me - you're a far better scholar of 1950s literature than I!! Here's hoping my PhD panel feel the same way about using suffocation as a central theme..!