Friday, October 31, 2014

Sylvia Plath, Unconventional Gay Icon

Gay icons, as regularly defined, are frequently campy, eccentric women in the entertainment industry. The first that comes to mind is Cher and, more recently, Lady Gaga. But they are far from the only ones. My favorite gay icon is Sylvia Plath. If identification with the self is what ultimately makes a gay icon, Plath is a no-brainer for me. The two of us struggled with bipolar disorder, a failed suicide attempt, and possessed an compulsion to pack every minute full of productivity. This spurred us onward, but came at a great cost, hers more than mine.

While in college, I routinely drove from Birmingham to Atlanta to visit a friend who was enrolled in art school. The school provided recording equipment to its students and was deserted during the weekend, allowing the two of us nearly unlimited access to the premises. On Saturday mornings, we lugged my amp, two guitars, and a bass guitar up temporary wooden scaffolding. Drums were cumbersome and would be overdubbed later.

The adjacent art museum was being remodeled. The art college was housed in the same building as the symphony orchestra. It seemed like an odd place for students to congregate, much less take classes.

A new musician proficient on the keyboards joined us during one marathon session that started early and ended shortly before the building closed for the night. He was openly gay. When I launched into an impromptu spoken word version of "Lady Lazarus", he immediately joined in with me, word for word, much to my surprise. Around the same time, I viewed the US version of the Showtime television show Queer as Folk, which identified Plath as an especially important influence upon the lives and consciousness of queer men.

In my role as unofficial Plath scholar, I've read several biographies of Sylvia Plath, some sympathetic, some not. Second-wave feminists of the 1960's and 1970's saw her life and situation as tragic, one ended early because of her husband's infidelity and heartless behavior. This is an enticing proposition and I understand their beliefs, even if I might disagree somewhat with their conclusions.

Ted Hughes was far from an angel. That much is true. He was physically and emotionally abusive from time to time, a demanding partner. And yet, some believe that this rough treatment was perversely what she wanted. During his life, women's rights activists defiantly interrupted Hughes' poetry readings until being quickly escorted out. Those with the same beliefs have chiseled her married name "Hughes" from Plath's tombstone on at least three separate occasions. Hughes did himself no favors, and his own erratic behavior and poor judgment at the time of his wife's death did nothing to exonerate him from any culpability in his wife's death.

And yet, to show Plath without any fault herself is incorrect. She could be curt and spiteful, sarcastic, and utterly tactless, but to excuse her neuroses would be oversimplifying matters considerably. It is curious that a strong personality like hers possessed sexual fantasies and desires that might seemingly be more in keeping with someone else, someone far more passive. She had always fantasized about being physically dominated by her partner, but boyfriends prior to Hughes had taken a submissive role. Sylvia wanted to be picked up bodily by a strong, virile man and to be completely ravaged by him in bed.

One wonders if she had lived in a time where topics like BDSM and consensual sadomasochism were more commonplace, whether she would have articulated her desires with more detail. Prior to Hughes, relationships terminated and began at her insistence, not theirs. Most of the men who courted her fell madly in love, and she resisted committing solely to any of them, instead bouncing back and forth between three or so at the same time. What Hughes meant to Plath is somewhat unclear, but he brought out animalistic impulses in her. Upon their first meeting, she famously bit his cheek hard enough to draw blood.

But to return to this question of gay icon, one I have raised before, there must be some sort of commonality that draws us to the same faces and motifs. Words and concepts alone may be insufficient explanations. Plath's tragic death has overshadowed almost everything else. Her confessional brand of poetry, best expressed in the style used in her last batch of poems entitled Ariel, would lead the reader to believe that her primary means of poetic expression was macabre and morose.

Her first and only novel, The Bell Jar, has moments of mirthful humor mixed in with an intense account of a swelling mental breakdown that nearly kills her protagonist, Esther Greenwood. To call Plath a ticking time bomb is unfair to those who struggle with mental illness. I have undergone my own tragedies, but they did not break me. Instead, they made me stronger. Plath never had the opportunity to defend herself or explain her motives. Few external factors have pushed me to the breaking point. I have made no suicide pacts and I possessed the strength to cry out for help when I was at my worst.

The controversial 2003 movie Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, shows a conversation between Ted Hughes and Sylvia's mother, Aurelia Plath. In it, Aurelia implies strongly to Ted that her daughter is emotionally unbalanced, referencing her earlier suicide attempt. She is to be watched closely. Aurelia wants Ted to know her full medical history before committing to a relationship with her daughter. This desire to humanize Hughes likely never happened.

Hughes' infidelity, according to the conventional wisdom, was the end of his wife. She flew into a rage, plowed through all the stages of grief, and felt thoroughly betrayed. It is possible that this time-honored theory is entirely correct, but there are others. It is true that she was left to care for two small children by herself during the worst winter in decades. It was only at the very end of her life that she began taking antidepressant medication, which take weeks to work effectively. Plath was at the end of her rope by then, disinclined to wait any longer.

Mental illness can be triggered by stress and cruelty, but the circumstances that led to my own near-death experience came out of nowhere. About the same time my first episode began, when I was 16, my mother told me that she knew something was wrong with me almost immediately after I was born. I cried too frequently, I was too tightly wound, I would get easily overstimulated, and I startled at the slightest sound.

Plath was never formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but because she kept an extensive letter correspondence with many people, especially her mother, it is possible to make a more-or-less accurate posthumous diagnosis. Records indicate several periods of debilitating depression. Stress lowered her immune system's effectiveness and led to a series of sinus infections. Depression and physical illness often occur simultaneously.

I ask again. What is so entrancing in the queer mind about someone who left behind great promise, who never even reached middle age? Is it her defiant femininity, or the ferocity of her writing? I identify routinely with the feminine side of myself, finding something compelling about unorthodox women with unique talent. Sylvia Plath is that, for certain.

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