Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Secret Art of Resurrection

One of the lessons of our new century is that tragedies of all stripes can pass almost unnoticed in a sea of instant information. It was announced this week that Nicholas Hughes, the 47-year-old son of the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, killed himself, apparently by hanging. He worked as a biologist in Alaska, studying aquatic life, and seemed determined to put a world between him and the story of his famous (and infamous) parents. As with everything else in the Plath-Hughes story, even the microscopic details are capable of tearing one's heart out.

Sylvia Plath, best known as the author of "The Bell Jar," married the British poet Ted Hughes and had two children with him, Nicholas being the eldest. She killed herself in 1963, sticking her head in a gas oven as the children slept in the next room. Her poetry, prose, journals, virtually all of her adult life seemed in some ways as aiming toward that moment, as least in the imagination of both her admirers and critics.

The story might have closed here except that six years later, Hughes' second wife Assia Wevill (with whom he had an affair while married to Plath) killed herself in the exact manner as Plath. Only she took their four-year-old daughter with her.

Hughes went on later to become the British poet laureate and was publicly silent about the more tragic circumstances of his life. But in the intervening years, Plath became a feminist icon, the subject of endless speculation and adulation. She easily has outpaced her contemporaries in generating comment, criticism and imitation. Speculation about what drove Plath, in life and to her death, focused attention and vitriol at Hughes. Did he drive her to a decision she had reached long before, or would she have sought out her own destruction no matter whom she might be married to?

I am more familiar with Plath's work than Hughes' and, despite the sometimes crushing morbidity of her words, I think she easily encapsulates the experience of the 20th century woman in her art - dark and dangerous, alluring and condescending, simple in its architecture yet dense in its knowing power. In "Lady Lazarus," Plath appropriates the Biblical resurrection image and turns it inside out. One has to die before one can be reborn, and death is a horrible experience of decay and desolation. She mixes the Christian image with that of the concentration camp, using and reusing German words and Nazi tableaux before burning out with the image of the reborn Phoenix, bent on what sounds like revenge.

Plath reminds us subliminally that the feminine experience is inextricably linked to that of reproduction. Men shed blood in wars, but women bleed in the monthly ritual that is aimed at creation. This draining of life, and emotion, is messy, upsetting, horrifying. Yet it gives the female a power that makes men uncomfortable with their own vain, self-important visions. When we read Plath, both men and women come away with the impression that men may, in fact, be superfluous. But the life and death imagery in "Lady Lazarus" also reminds us that one can plumb these depths for only so long without losing something irrecoverable. Solitude hardly seems like existence at all.

But one is inevitably tempted to ask, what does it all mean? Nicholas Hughes picked not the anniversary of his mother's death but the 40th anniversary of Assia Wevill's. His death seems more the outcome of a life struggling with depression, the same as his mother. Finding a meaning there, one runs into the same difficulties whenever one reads poetry. Suicide, like a hastily scribbled poem, may in fact be an impulsive act, only without the possibility of withdrawal. It is a measure of human existence that our ambition, frustrated, ultimately turns toward self-destruction.

In "Mishima's Sword," Christopher Ross notes that while everyone knows the day they were born, only someone planning their own death knows what God knows, the day it will happen. Apart from the biographer's narrow ambitions, our only hope is to let God provide the meaning and the worth of life. For the clinically depressed or the silent doubter, this takes daily acts of almost punishing faith. The will of God is also unwilling to reveal itself, under even the most careful scrutiny.

In "...Or Not To Be," Marc Entkind collects suicide notes of the famous and obscure, finding anger, resignation and messages that can only be understood by the person no longer there to explain them. Probably with the Plath-Hughes story, there is much we will never know, no matter how many explanations we attempt.

Some people don't need suicide notes. Their lives, discarded like paper, blow about in the years as their absence grows. We snatch them out of the air expecting words, and find nothing.

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