- Confessing Cultures: Politics and the Self in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath
Let me confess right from the start that this is the book on Sylvia Plath I would have liked to have written. But let me also add that it is also the book on Sylvia Plath I probably couldn’t have written even if I’d tried. I don’t think I could have turned most Sylvia Plath criticism on its head as convincingly as Lisa Narbeshuber has done. Much of that criticism traces her poetic evolution over the last five years of her life as a steady movement into her own inner world. Her late poems especially are read as almost entirely interior explorations of her own psychological condition. This tendency in the critical reception was encouraged by the poet’s husband and literary executor, Ted Hughes. He insisted that the value of Plath’s poems lay in their heroic and clear-eyed explorations of her own psychic states. Anne Stevenson’s biography props up this opinion by turning Plath into a supremely talented but self-absorbed interior traveler and, as a result, something of a mental “case” (9). Inevitably, Plath has been all too easily labeled as a confessional poet and grouped with other Americans—Sexton, Berryman, Lowell, Roethke—all wandering over the same “schizoid” (David Holbrook) terrain as Plath. Narbeshuber argues that this critical sequestration of the poet obscures a more radical trajectory, not entirely inward and self-obsessed but operating on another plane. Plath’s “brilliance,” we are told, is not as the fearless diver into the wreck of the isolated, disconnected self but “to have shifted the focus from individualism or self-actualization to the formative fields that rule subjectivity” (13). Those fields impinge on consciousness and make her poetry “an attempt, not to act out her own pathological condition, but to pathologize the various categories that go into constructing the status quo (individualism, marriage, Woman, Nature,...)” (9). This more radical project, by bringing [End Page 221] into dialectical tension inner states with social realities, more accurately marks the poet’s progress and her extraordinary achievement.
Narbeshuber argues that for Plath consciousness is not some uniquely internal essence figured and disfigured by the imprisoning contours of private experience. Instead it is “an historical artifact” that has a specific historical location, namely, mid-twentieth-century industrial society, which shapes the self in ways that fully alienate it. This is not Plath’s problem alone. It is everyone’s condition of being. We are all shaped in ways that are meant to keep “the whole techno-patriarchal culture running smoothly” (2). Each of us comes to terms with this dialectical formation in different ways, some acquiesce in the dehumanization, some make money from it, some go mad, some rebel, while others use the disruptive potentialities of art to understand and expose the humming socio-cultural machinery that manufactures what passes for normalcy. Instead of Plath’s work becoming more obscurely private, internal, and psychotic with time, especially the late poems, it understands the more general psychological disaster of modernity with greater clarity and precision:
Plath’s later work traces and challenges the reifying social conditions under which people lose their humanity, flatten into a single dimension. Far from unbalanced or psychotic, she charts out a specific cultural style—a style characterized by industrial mechanization (droning monotony), compartmentalization (dismemberment of the psyche and the social body), and exchange values (women as commodities).(3–4)
In this way Narbeshuber rescues Plath from those critics who want to incarcerate the poet in the gulag of the psychological-confessional mode with its monocular gaze on the isolated and abstracted self. Oddly enough she also rescues Plath from the embrace of a certain kind of traditional feminist criticism. In an amusing reversal of a vulgar feminist Manichaeism, Narbeshuber quotes approvingly Jacqueline Rose’s aperçu that on the matter of an emergent female selfhood some feminist criticism even ends up on the same side of the tracks...