Women and Men

This began as an update to “Confessions,” which concerns the man called G. H. Hardy and the woman called Sylvia Plath. I had originally included a photograph of the subjects’ respective books. On Hardy’s, the author poses reluctantly; on Plath’s, a woman applies powder in a compact mirror.

Plath’s book was the 2013 Faber and Faber 50th Anniversary Edition of The Bell Jar, and the cover is controversial. See Alexandra Topping, “The Bell Jar’s new cover derided for branding Sylvia Plath novel as chick lit” (The Guardian, Friday 1 February 2013). I learned of the controversy from Emily Van Duyne, “Sylvia Plath Looked Good in a Bikini—Deal With It,” in Electric Literature, hosted by Medium (October 9, 2017). Medium had promoted the essay to me when I read Brian E. Denton, “The World Will Not Quarrel: Day 282 of A Year of War and Peace.

Yesterday I happened upon a tweet juxtaposing the real cover of the British edition of Volume I of The Letters of Sylvia Plath with a fake cover of The Letters of Ted Hughes. Each cover shows the letter-writer posing in revealing swimwear on a beach, though the head of Plath’s husband seems to have been imposed on another man’s topless body. The text reads:

If male writers were marketed in the same way as female writers. Via Christopher Hamilton-Emery. pic.twitter.com/1IwN8MfckZ

— Jane Harris (@blablafishcakes) October 4, 2017

(I saw the tweet as retweeted by Jennifer Williams, but Twitter seems not to preserve this valuable information.)

The three real and one fake book cover shown above are all somehow undignified. More precisely, I would feel undignified to be seen reading such books. Hardy did not like having his picture taken, and it shows on the cover of A Mathematician’s Apology. On the cover of The Bell Jar, the compact mirror and powder puff suggest superficiality. But then Hardy’s image does reflect the uptightness that I see in his book. And Sylvia Plath did wear lipstick.

Her favored color was Cherries in the Snow, by Revlon. A devotee of Plath called Patricia Grifasi learned this only after buying the lipstick for herself. She wrote (in “The Rise And Fall Of Sylvia Plath’s Favorite Lipstick,” The Gloss, June 16, 2015),

Forget that Plath’s poetry is terrifyingly intimate, crowded with speakers who say things like, “I eat men like air” (“Lady Lazarus”). Forget that her journal entries describe how satisfying it is to scoop out a pesky glob of snot. In a weird way, wearing Cherries in the Snow allowed me to be even closer to a writer I admired than reading all those very personal things.

Thus the 50th anniversary cover of The Bell Jar may not be inappropriate. As for the bikini on the Letters, says Emily Van Duyne in the aforementioned Electric Lit article,

The reality, and it’s astounding to me that I have to write this sentence down, is that we can take a writer who wears a bikini seriously. I have three in my closet, the most recent of which is a vintage-inspired red-halter. I bought it because I love red; I love red partly because I love Sylvia Plath. I wear “Cherries In The Snow” lipstick to the classes I teach, to parties, to intimidating meetings with condescending men, and when I do, I invoke her, just a little bit—for inspiration. For luck. For permission, which she gave me, which she gives me—to be brave. To try and astound. To say the things no one wants to say, or hear. To be beautiful, and to be smart, and sexual, and to never, ever fall into the foolish trap that these cannot coexist.

I have read The Bell Jar just the once so far. Looking back at my copy with the garish cover, I see that I marked several passages, noting their page numbers at the back. The later passages are uses of the term bell jar, and for now I have nothing more to day about this term than I did at the end of my earlier article. Many essays have no doubt been written about the meaning of the title, and some of these will be available on line, perhaps for a price, so that you can turn them in to your teacher as if they were your own (perhaps after making enough changes to fool automatic plagiarism detectors).

The earlier passages that I marked may perhaps illustrate what Plath meant by the bell jar. In any case, since I found an electronic text on a New York high school English course web page, I am able to quote the passages at length with no trouble.

I hadn’t the heart to tell Jay Cee there wasn’t one scrap of space on my senior year schedule to learn languages in. I was taking one of those honors programs that teach you to think independently, and except for a course in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and a seminar in advanced poetry composition, I would spend my whole time writing on some obscure theme in the works of James Joyce. I hadn’t picked out my theme yet, because I hadn’t got round to reading Finnegans Wake, but my professor was very excited about my thesis and had promised to give me some leads on images about twins.

When I read this, I had not yet heard about and joined the project of Brian Denton (mentioned above) to read War and Peace over the calendar year, one chapter a day. Plath seems to make an ironical acknowledgment of what Pirsig would write, in a passage of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that I considered also in “One and Many”:

Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own.

Plath either understands this or betrays it. Her first person Esther later looks at herself: the emboldened clause is specifically what I had marked.

I started adding up all the things I couldn’t do.

I began with cooking.

My grandmother and my mother were such good cooks that I left everything to them. They were always trying to teach me one dish or another, but I would just look on and say, “Yes, yes, I see,” while the instructions slid through my head like water, and then I’d always spoil what I did so nobody would ask me to do it again.

I remember Jody, my best and only girlfriend at college in my freshman year, making me scrambled eggs at her house one morning. They tasted unusual, and when I asked her if she had put in anything extra, she said cheese and garlic salt. I asked who told her to do that, and she said nobody, she just thought it up. But then, she was practical and a sociology major.

I didn’t know shorthand either.

This meant I couldn’t get a good job after college. My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.

The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters. Besides, those little shorthand symbols in the book my mother showed me seemed just as bad as let t equal time and let s equal the total distance.

Would somebody call Plath’s Esther a snowflake? “Look, Honey, none of us like the idea of serving men, but we all gotta do it.” This could be said by another woman or by a man. That doesn’t make it fair. Plath is writing the truth, as a confession.

Finally Esther meets a psychiatrist and reveals her fantasy of what such a man might be like.

I hated him the minute I walked in through the door.

I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying “Ah!” in an encouraging way, as if he could see something I couldn’t, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.

Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn’t sleep and why I couldn’t read and why I couldn’t eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.

And then, I thought, he would help me, step by step, to be myself again.

But Doctor Gordon wasn’t like that at all. He was young and good-looking, and I could see right away he was conceited.

I would have to read the novel again, to think about how much irony is here.

Recently I was alerted (again by a tweet, as retweeted by Nicholas Christakis) to a theory described in a 2015 article in The Scholar’s Stage blog called “Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture.” The Iliad portrays an honor culture, but America passed from such a culture to a culture of dignity. Honor is given us by others; dignity, we can have on our own. Now that many Americans are sensitive to so-called micro-aggressions, the country may have passed to a culture of victimhood.

I confess to being insufficiently interested to read all of the sociology. I know what is happening in America, only from a distance. Plath’s Esther seems to have been hoping for help from a man. In recent tweets, I see women asking men to help fight abuse at the hands of Harvey Weinstein and the like. This is not victimhood, if victimhood is something to be perversely proud of, the way one might be proud of one’s honor or one’s dignity. The requests for help are recognition that we are all connected, and life might be better if we did not have to defend ourselves from attack, all of the time.

This sounds like the sort of thing that I have tried to work out, as in the article “All You Need Is Love,” where the topic is education—as it often is for me, and as it is in a good part of The Bell Jar. For Pirsig, rather than being imposed on you, education is something you ought to demand for yourself. But there is a middle way. Quoting my own email, I wrote,

Perhaps it is best to learn because one understands it as one’s role in the community that one is happy to be a part of. Here again is something that Pirsig may miss. Pirsig is the individualist, the lone wolf, and this is a reason why I like him. But education is not just something one achieves for oneself. It means joining an educated community; it means helping others join that community.

Life can be cooperative and not just adversarial. There are things you can learn on your own, or demand to learn, like a prosecutor examining a witness for the defense. If you can learn them, you may well be smart. Let me then end with one bit of tweeted wisdom:

History of full of stories of catastrophe brought about by people who are smart only in only a narrow domain, and lack humility and remorse.

— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) October 6, 2017

One Trackback

  1. By Some Say Poetry « Polytropy on November 6, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    […] did not read Sylvia Plath at school. She may have been too recent. After posting “Women and Men,” I tried reading Plath’s Ariel and Other Poems. I got through most of it, but ended up […]

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