Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Spivack on the suicides of Plath and Sexton

    On page 224 of Kathleen Spivack's With Robert Lowell and His Circle she writes, "It was easy for Plath and Sexton to think of death as a way out of their dilemmas: the swirl of forbidden emotions, unshared and unsupported, exhausted them.  Sylvia's betrayal by her husband, Anne's seduction by her psychiatrist -- these events seem to have left both women defenseless.  They thought of suicide reflexively as a solution, in the same way that other women poets, not as mentally unbalanced, might think of going to bed for a few days, or getting away to the country.  I don't think either of them realized the finality of suicide; they talked of it, played with it in their minds, and attempted it, as we see, in the hopes of getting a Rest, not a Death, out of it."

    Can this be true?  Can someone commit suicide looking for Rest and not Death?  Perhaps Spivack's concision sounds like an over simplification, but we know that the world is full of people doing things without taking the consequences into consideration.  In my younger days I did a lot of ambitious hiking and in some of the areas Rangers would describe finding inexperienced hikers in rest-rooms frozen to death.  These hikers started out down below on a sunny day, looked up and saw the mountains and decided to go up there.  They went too far or got lost.  They were wearing flip-flops and tee shirts and eventually crawled into a restroom partly because it didn't seem as cold as outside and partly in hopes that someone would show up to help them.  How could anyone be so stupid I wondered?  But is it stupidity or just the inability to plan ahead, or plan ahead in certain regards?
     I took groups hiking years ago, one hike every two or three weeks, and would insist that they bring certain things with them, things that most of them wouldn't have brought if I hadn't insisted, like enough water, layers of clothing, food, and emergency equipment, and then, not trusting them, I carried extra water and emergency equipment in case they hadn't brought enough.
    Also, our prisons are full of people many of which committed some spur of the moment crime that they are paying for with years of imprisonment.   Some of these crimes weren't committed with any idea of trying to get away with it.  Couldn't they imagine the consequences and control themselves?  And every day young people take up smoking and taking drugs.  Don't they realize that the dangers of smoking and drug habits are prohibitively high?  Can't they plan ahead?  And the charging so much on credit cards that one has to declare bankruptcy is so common that it is banal.

    OTOH, one of my brothers-in-law, years ago committed suicide.  He was a lot like Willy Loman, a salesman, always expecting the next job to make him rich and then when he lost the job or it didn't make him rich, he would become depressed for a while.  One night he got drunk and killed himself, using his only weapon, a Dirty Harry 44 Magnum.  He admired Clint Eastwood and John Wayne.  Willy Loman really was a failure and so was my brother-in-law.  The lack of planning on my brother-in-law's case, I'm sure meant that he didn't take into consideration the pain he would be causing his sisters or his girlfriend.  A better documented case is the effect the suicide of John Berrymans's father's suicide had on him.  His father's suicide seemed to make his own easier.

    Also, guilt played a big role in Willy Loman's suicide.  He had an affair that his son Biff found out about but he still kept from his wife.  His suicide and the money his wife would get from his insurance policy would, he decided, make up for his unfaithfulness.  Enough is known about John Berryman to believe that guilt "might" have had something to do with his suicide -- not everything could be explained by his father's suicide.  He engaged in many well-reported embarrassing (at least I assume he was embarrassed the next morning) and scandalous acts while drunk.  Anne Sexton was probably (her poetry suggests this) ashamed of many things that she engaged in.  I don't know about Sylvia Plath, but Sylvia and Anne were not simply looking for a rest from all the abuse they were enduring, probably no one is.  We all have a bit of Willy Loman guilt as well as the ability to deceive ourselves, and as Will Munny said in The Unforgiven, "we've all got it coming."
    But, we (most of us) learn from our mistakes.  Sure we feel guilt from some of our past acts, but we don't repeat those acts . . . or do we?

    Will Munny: I ain't like that no more. I ain't the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin' whiskey and all. Just 'cause we're goin' on this killing, that don't mean I'm gonna go back to bein' the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for them youngsters. Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head? I think about him now and again. He didn't do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin' I could remember when I sobered up.
Ned Logan: You were crazy, Will.
Will Munny: Yeah, no one liked me. Mountain boys all thought I was gonna shoot 'em out of pure meanness.
Ned Logan: Well, like I said, you ain't like that no more.
Will Munny: That's right. I'm just a fella now. I ain't no different than anyone else no more.



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