Very raw writer's materials

The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962
November 17, 2000

The appearance of The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962 was heralded by the media with a flurry of features. It was presented as an event of revelatory significance, "the first, exact and complete transcription of the journals kept by Sylvia Plath over the last 12 years of her life".

Some clarifications and qualifications are badly needed. First, the vast bulk of the materials published in the Journals relates to the period ending in November 1959, although some scattered notes from the later period, most of them already published in one form or another, are included in appendices. By Ted Hughes's own account, of the two remaining volumes of Plath's journals, covering the last two years of her life and ending days before her death, the last was destroyed by him and the penultimate volume disappeared. No material from these lost journals, which coincide with the most intensive and well-known phase of Plath's creative output, is included.

The period covered by Karen V. Kukil's edition broadly corresponds to that of the previously available text of the Journals , published by Dial Press in the United States in 1982, edited by Colleen McCullough, and long familiar to Plath scholars. McCullough's was a selected and censored version, the main categories of omission being pejorative or hurtful comments on named individuals, "intimacies" of a sexual nature and passages deemed to be "not particularly relevant to any of the basic concerns of the book". The restoration of these cuts, along with the exhaustive notes and index, is to be welcomed, although it is striking how little difference the censored material makes to the overall contours of the passages concerned. It would be a mistake, then, to see this new edition of the Journals as offering access to, or revealing, an "authentic", previously obscured version of Plath.

This is an excessive text in every sense: in length; in the intensity and fierceness of the contradictory selves that it seeks to name; in its voracious appetite for self-analysis; in its linguistic richness and creativity; above all, in its relentless drive to turn experience into writing.

Not intended for any audience other than herself, it has much of the redundancy, the claustrophobia and the compulsive fascination of all such documents. It is very much a writer's diary, crammed with self-imposed goals, deadlines and exhortations, a storehouse of materials, and a celebration of the craft of writing as well as a "wailing wall", in Plath's phrase, for the frequent occasions when writing fails, or seems to fail her.

One entry refers to the Journals as "a litany of dreams, of directives and imperatives". A recurrent motif is the quest for a forever elusive "deep self", beyond the conflicts - of sex and normative femininity, professional ambition and married domesticity, art and economics, high culture and low, to name but a few - that beset the writing life. In this preoccupation with authenticity, there is a strongly puritan element; self-analysis becomes the vehicle for a therapeutic tribunal of subjectivity, in which writing features as both solution and problem.

One of the most powerful discourses in which the "soul-battles" of the Journals are acted out is that of Freudian psychoanalysis. The psychotherapeutic register is particularly prominent in the passages coinciding with Plath's course of therapy with Ruth Beutscher, which deal with her furious and disabling ambivalence towards her mother."It makes me feel good as hell to express my hostility for my mother," she writes.

Such passages provide a stage for the convolutions of a distinctively Plathian psychic drama: a ruined family romance presided over by the haunting figures of the encroaching mother, the dead father and the saviour/betrayer-husband. Yet at the same time the Journals are "burgeoning, fat with the texture and substance of life", as is the writing that she longs to emulate. The pleasures and torments of daily existence are vividly present, captured with a writer's eye, even when refracted through the overwhelmingly subjective optic of psychic crisis.

Indeed, the extent to which Plath identified selfhood with the vocation of writing leaps off every page, a useful corrective to lazy tendencies to see her poems as a "confessional" suicide note. The struggle with depression of which these diary entries provide a sometimes daily record is, at one and the same time, a struggle with writing. Writer's block assumes for Plath the dimensions of a metaphysical ordeal: "My shaping spirit of imagination is far from me"; "I MUST WRITE ABOUT THE THINGS OF THE WORLD WITH NO GLAZING"; "All paled, palled - a glassy coverlid getting in the way of my touching it". The recurrent metaphor of the "glassed-in cage", echoed in The Bell Jar , signals a crisis of language, which at once empties meaning from the world and exacts symbolic reparation.

Paradoxically, such passages suggest, the creative energy of Plath's writing may be shaped by what she terms, in a revealingly Blakean turn of phrase, the "demon of negation". However, this ongoing, unresolved and highly productive work of mourning exceeds the causes that Plath's readers, and sometimes she herself, are all too ready to salvage from her personal history. While traversing the boundaries between life and writing, it cannot be confined within either a biographical or a psychoanalytic narrative.

The Journals resemble a workshop, littered with the raw materials and building blocks of Plath's poetry and fiction; to that extent, they are of undoubted value and significance to her readers and interpreters. What they do not, and cannot, provide, is the key that would unlock the definitive meaning of either the writings or the life. So long, however, as debate about Plath's work continues to be organised around the unfolding or revelation of a suicidally self-destructive personality - a narrative teleology that generates reductive readings but good media soundbites - the futile quest for a "real" voice behind the contradictory and disparate voices of her published texts will continue.

Christina Britzolakis is lecturer in English and comparative literary studies, University of Warwick.

The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962

Editor - Karen V. Kukil
ISBN - 0 571 19704 3
Publisher - Faber
Price - £30.00
Pages - 732

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