On madness, re-reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and retracing hope within hopelessness
Borges once said, “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books.” It is true, defying the laws and confines of reality lands one in an abyss of derangement. Borges, in all his literary insanity did. Treading his twisted labyrinths for plots, one can grasp the extent to his otherworldly and unreal, imaginative madness. Literature has blurred the distinction between madness and genius — how often has history portrayed a mad person as a genius and a genius as a mad person. Taking from the lesser evil end of the spectrum, mental illness has been rampant in recognised geniuses.
Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Anne Sexton, Hart Crane, John Berryman, Hemingway, Virginia Woolf are stuff of legends for not being able to bear the burden of their intellect; they took matters in their own hands and took their own lives. Nietzsche went insane, falling over to the higher evil end of the spectrum. Kafka was plain neurotic, Sartre loved his amphetamines and Burroughs’ junk obsession is no secret to anyone. Most of the world agrees there was something extraordinary about those misfits, whether one loves or hates them. Their deviance from what was commonplace, ordinary, done-to-death, mundane and accepted made them outliers.
Madness is not an epiphenomenon, biology and the universal considerations of our human existence do not necessarily explain it. Through history, the way madness has been depicted in religious myths and fables is fascinating. From Saul’s spiralling into madness through Yahweh’s orders, for not being able to carry out the letter on the Lord’s command to slay every man, woman, and child of the Amalekite tribe, to the madness of the mighty King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, who turns into an animal, madness has a legacy of explaining medieval disease, an inability to conform to divine will or even widely rebuked characteristics such as savagery or jealousy.
Madness is not an epiphenomenon, biology and the universal considerations of our human existence do not necessarily explain it. Through history, the way madness has been depicted in religious myths and fables is fascinating
While instrumental in explaining the shortcomings of human character, madness was questioned and treated with a sceptical eye. Hieronymus Bosch’s satirical painting of The Cure of Folly: The Extraction of the Stone of Folly (1494) is an example of how medical claims about madness were dubious. In the painting, a doctor dressed in a dunce’s cap uses a scalpel to draw forth the supposed cause of madness from the scalp of a patient, much like if the mad person had a dandruff tumour.
Voltaire rightly said, “Men will always be mad, and those who think they can cure them are the maddest of all.” It’s incurable, the tendency towards obsessive speculation has a genius living on the edge at all times, anyone can fall, slowly and gracefully like a snowflake, or abruptly and cartoonishly like an anvil.
So while reading ‘The Bell Jar’ for the third time, I traced a certain musicality to Esther’s madness. On account of Sylvia Plath’s poetic prowess, it seemed fitting. She alludes to Seneca’s suicide without naming him. She glorifies cutting oneself in places and bleeding to death in a warm bath, a most strange way to die. She glorifies death, calling it beautiful and serene, observing silence. She thinks of death as absolving one of all that is ugly and heavy.
‘To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.’
It possesses her as a better alternative to living a dull life. She craves simplicity, unlike Hunter S Thompson who was infinitely exhausted of old age and needed respite from boredom. His suicide note said,
“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”
Thompson’s suicide was quite literally Hemingwayesque. He too put a bullet through his head, like a man unwilling to let pain get in the way of his resolve. That was perhaps his last thrill. Plath on the other hand, like Anne Sexton, wanted to cross over to the realm of death, unruffled — they chose carbon monoxide poisoning, a most tranquil way to die. It was not so much of a desperate choice.
I must qualify here that ‘The Bell Jar’ is a seminal work, and not just a glorified suicide note. The overture may have raised expectations, for the method to madness is indeed fascinating. Esther’s descent into insanity appears to be a smooth transition — as if she was prescient of her madness, waiting to tumble. The novel starts with a reference to the Rosenberg’s electrocution — the idea makes Esther sick. She wonders what it would be like to be ‘buried alive all along your nerves’. Her attention to everything that has to do with madness and her looking for relief from it through exerting her ultimate agency is significant. Like when she is speaking to Cal about the play debating whether the protagonist’s mother killed him or not, all she could remember is the character’s madness. She constantly likens her losing it to not having a brain in her head — she expresses her disbelief at others around her not noticing it. It is also a reflection of how little it matters to society if we are not in tune with our internal environment — Esther cannot eat, sleep, read or write — but the world around her does not seem to care.
It could also be that she is in a state of utter indifference and her internal state of not caring is mirrored by the world around her. She becomes minuscule, because she is reduced to everything she does not hold dear. She loathes everything that requires effort, from the futility of changing into new clothes, to the strain of a hearty conversation with a bright-eyed Valerie. She cannot regulate her hatred for herself and the world around her and turn it into something beautiful anymore and she collapses under the burden of that hatred. When Philomena Guinea takes her to a hospital with better facilities, her indifference is magnified. While she should be grateful to her, she says she wouldn’t feel a thing even if she was given a ticket to Europe or a round-the-world cruise, because she would be sitting under her ‘bell jar’, simmering in her morose state of mind.
I’m going to do something abhorrent and bring in my newly concocted theory of the waning utility of life owing to its chaotic expectations of one. The inability to conform, the will to rebel and in this case exhaustion from continual effort are by-products of such a conceptualisation. I don’t know whether it would be fair to put Esther in a box and say she was exhausted of being extraordinary because even in her insanity, she still was. Esther’s annoyance of visitors in Belsize has a universal intolerance for offal written all over it. She hates the lady Christian Scientist who says her illness has to do with a belief in the mist of error and the Unitarian minister who takes her for a loon over her very amusing belief in hell:
“I told him I believed in hell, and that certain people, like me, had to live in hell before they died, to make up for missing out on it after death, since they didn’t believe in life after death, and what each person believed happened to him when he died.”
I find Esther’s emotional consumption with her arch nemesis Joan rather telling. She loathes her with a devotion. She doubts her intentions and wonders whether Joan is a figment of her imagination
I find Esther’s emotional consumption with her arch nemesis Joan rather telling. She loathes her with a devotion. She doubts her intentions and wonders whether Joan is a figment of her imagination and if she comically created her only to remind herself of what she was and wanted to be. Paradoxically, she treasures her, despite their having been forced together by fate. Even after Dr Nolan betrays her trust and she is taken for Electrotherapy (I find this part of the novel extremely poignant and painful) and her thoughts are vanishing midway, she does not forget to hate and condemn Joan. Joan is a representation of everything Esther is not; I see them as binaries. Yet, after the affirmation from Joan that Buddy Willard is completely unsuited for both women to marry, Esther goes ahead with giving up her privilege of giving birth — she becomes her own woman, she wilfully subverts the function imposed upon her by society and conquers her own body. Her envy for Joan’s physics books, her privileges, her recovery and eventually her announcing that she is leaving, is very convincing and real. The hate, envy and bitter fondness (especially after Esther’s adventure with Irwin) that binds the two is crushing when Esther is confronted with Joan’s disappearance and conclusion. She has to reckon with Joan’s death. She cannot forget her struggle, but she hopes that forgetfulness might cover it.
There is hope in ‘The Bell Jar’. There is hope for the bell jar to lift and let the light of life and plans and love in. Esther conquers her crippling depression and momentary insanity and goes on to live with a burden. This paints a picture of the possibility of life. Unfortunately, the writer’s own conclusion may portray it as a bleak harbinger of death and retreat. But in the end, perhaps, Sylvia Plath wanted to leave a legacy of hope behind and let the world know that there is a way out. She lives through this hope in the world’s eyes.