Monday, 29 November 2010

USA! USA!

The weather here in Ireland has taken a decidedly cold turn. Last year in the UK it was the coldest winter on record since 1962 - the winter that Sylvia Plath moved back to London in. As I watched the snow fall last night, I thought it only appropriate to re-read 'Snow Blitz' from "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams". I think it's definitely a very accurate account of how it must have felt that particular winter. I manage to moan about the snow and sleet and cold 90% of the time and that is with the added advantage of central heating!

This week, PhD-wise I have been trying to write a paper I would like to put forward at an upcoming postgraduate symposium. I am looking in particular at two stories from the "Johnny Panic" collection that deal with the US schooling system and social clubs/sororities. I want to look at how Plath presented schooling and also, how she looked back at her time in school, attendence in social cliques, etc. This has meant I've had to do a lot of background reading into the USA and the climate in which Sylvia Plath lived. I found myself getting de-railed a little by engrossing myself in looking at the rise of McCarthyism and conservativism of that time period - something that has always interested me. It interested me further to see how in many schools and Universities in the 1940/50s, schoolchildren and teachers were asked to pledge 'loyalty oaths' to the USA and renounce any thoughts regarding communism or any kind of 'radical thoughts' whatsoever. I read about Universities having to sack staff members because of their leftist leanings, libraries taking books off shelves for a 'quieter life' and even the burning of books in some areas of the US.



Paradoxically, the 1940/50s seem to have been remembered by people as generally happy times in any account I have read so far. The US and it's "arsenal of democracy" experienced good job prospects, a prosperous emergence from WW2 and increased buying of commodities (by the mid-1950s 20,000 television sets were being bought per day in the USA).

The more I read, the more it seems to me like the USA was teetering on the brink of mass-hysteria in so many ways: the threat of cold war, nuclear attack - children being drilled on what to do if the H-bomb was dropped.. The fear of infiltration from within limiting the freedom of speech and thought that the USA prided itself was smoothed over by television sets, new household appliances, marketing strategies - everything geared towards consumerism and adopting an "American" way of life. Of course, what became of those who thought differently or outside the box?

By using schools and sororities as an embodiment of the USA, Sylvia Plath is able to give an interesting account of what it is to conform and what it is to reject the straightforward path that would make life in America much easier. In 'Initiation', after performing a series of trials in order to join a sorority, Millicent is forced to ask everyone on a bus what they ate for breakfast. One strange, eccentric man replies he ate the eyebrows from a heather bird. This outside-the-box answer challenges Millicent to think otherwise; to realise that there is another option open to her, although it will be a tough and sometimes lonely road - she will be choosing her own path instead of taking one set out for her by American tradition and values. The following is the description of the heather birds which really impacts upon Millicent -

"Swooping carefree over the moors, they would go singing and crying out across the great spaces of air, dipping and darting, strong and proud in their freedom and their sometime loneliness".

In the end, Millicent opts for the sometime lonliness of going it alone. Plath proves to us here that desipte the suffocating climate in the US at that time, the option to go your own way was still there. Despite all the banning of books, the no-tolerance attitude when it came to leftist/radical thought - the true values of the USA: freedom of speech, freedom of mind - could not be dispelled.

However, an interesting fact to note is that Sylvia Plath herself was a member of a high school sorority. She was able to write this story but actually joined up (albeit for a short time) and was part of the social clique that Millicent walked away from.

Does this mean my initial conclusion is wrong? That actually, the avenue Millicent chose was not open and this story was just a re-imagination of what Plath wished she had been able to do? This is something I'm still trying to work out (I'm looking at 'America! America!' which also documents a sorority initiation) but I think the answer is that it's probably a bit of both. Plath scholars always talk about a duality in her work: this may be a simple duality - the split between what Plath wished she could have done (her 'real' self) and what she, being a straight A student had to do (the 'other' self).

On a side-note, and putting on my Plath-fan hat, I really have to say what a joy it has been to re-read and devote time to the "Johnny Panic..." stories. The collection is given some luke-warm reviews, but if you give it time and attention, the stories really unfold themselves and take you away with them as you read. I would definitely recommend the collection for even the Plath fan who is solely devoted to the poetry. The mixture of short stories and diary excerpts give it a great all-round perspective on what, if she had had time to develop further, would have been a great novel-writing career for Sylvia.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Representations of the Bell Jar

As I mentioned in my last post, the theme of my PhD thesis revolves around the notion of suffocation. That's as much as I'm keen to give away at present.. in case everything goes wrong! What I would like to explore in this blog post is the physical object of a bell jar. Firstly, what does it actually do? How is it represented - what images does it conjure? And for me personally, how does it correspond with suffocation?

The bell jar has long since been an object of interest: both scientifically and artistically, as this 1768 painting by Joseph Wright illustrates. Wright was concerned with painting the scientific advances of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. He departed from the convention of the time by depicting scientific subjects in the manner formerly reserved for scenes of historical or religious significance. The painting below shows us a bird in a bell jar.. whe the air is drawn out, the bird will surely suffocate (side note: I found the expressions of the onlookers fascinating, as if they depict the differing opinions such an experiment would have provoked in 1768).



Wikipedia defines a bell jar as: "a piece of laboratory equipment similar in shape to a bell. It can be manufactured out of a variety of materials, ranging from glass to different types of metals. A bell jar is placed on a base which is vented to a hose fitting, which can be connected via a hose to a vacuum pump. By pumping the air out of the bell jar, a vacuum is formed". In turn, a vacuum is described as "empty space from which all or most air or gas has been removed".

For my study, I do think there is a parallel in descriptions here. Comparatively, to suffocate is described as "kill/be killed by deprivation of oxygen or to feel uncomfortable from lack of air". My PhD is not going to hark back to the Plath criticism of the 1970s, looking for one particular answer to the study of her literary output - but I feel that suffocation has the potential to pose as a foil in which to translate her life and work. I feel there is a corresponence between a bell jar, which creates a vacuum and suffocation - which, from definition illustrates the feelings one would have being placed within a vacuum.

Bell jars are represented in a variety of different ways. There are a good deal of youtube videos documenting classroom science experiments where bells are silenced when the air is pumped out. I feel the following image illustrates the function of a bell jar very well:



In my mind, in terms of the time period in which Plath lived: in general, especially for women, I can visualise the United States enclosed in a bell jar; with different factors (e.g. McCarthyism, the Cold War, resrtictive social rules) on the opposite site, pumping the air out. I read an interesting paper by Steven Gould Axelrod on 'Robert Lowell and the Cold War' a few days ago. It documented Lowell leading a McCarthyist assault on the administrator of the Yaddo Writers' Colony in 1949 (a place where Plath found a great deal of inspiration around a decade later). The motivations behind Lowell getting so involved in this can possibly be attributed to his mania, alcoholism and unclear politics (he swung from left to right to pacifist frequently!) but I feel the sentiment of what occurred at Yaddo can be visualised in the form of the above bell jar image. Politely rigid and oppressive ideology sucking the air our of creativity. Creating an atmosphere which can only have made those in Yaddo feel like silencing themselves, stifling creativity - for fear of going against the grain and being outcast. In the grand scheme of American Literature, these themes are in my mind, inherently puritan: which I feel gives the bell jar as symbol a very important place.

In looking online at other types of use for a bell jar, I was suprised to find that people enjoy using them as decorations in their homes as well as containers to house food. I may be overthinking this, but it is possible to concede that this practical and helpful use of bell jars could represent that something positive can come from being enclosed in a vacuum? Perhaps though, the word vacuum is the wrong one to use. For any kind of creative contribution to come from a vacuum, it can no longer be thought of as "empty space". Or it is the empty space that breeds creativity?



In the case of Sylvia Plath, if we are to generally suppose that yes, she was enclosed in a bell jar and various internal/external suffocations created it so that she inhabited a vacuum state: did this factor into the work that she produced? Had it not been for the vacuum, would she have been able to write the way she had?

Again, these assumptions are quite 2D at present, but it's certainly a point that could be developed!

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
caryatids"