Thoughts and Reflections

Walden | Comfort Classic | Journal

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”

 

Walden

Thoreau lived at Walden Pond from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847. Walden was published in 1854.

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Pond near my house

For the last few years I’ve returned to Thoreau’s Walden many times. Sometimes I read it from beginning to end, sometimes I listen to the audiobook. Other times, I read only a chapter, or the things I’ve highlighted. Themes, excerpts, and the work as a whole especially come to mind when I visit my parents’ home and take a walk around the forest and the local pond. I am trying to figure out what is it about Walden that makes it what I call a “comfort classic”—a classic I re-read to make the world feel right again. This entry is really meant to read like a personal reading journey entry where I log notes and discuss them.

In the first section ‘economy’ Thoreau points out all that is wrong with society, which frankly has not changed, if anything it has only worsened (particularly discussing student debt from the Universities). He points out all that is wrong, and all that we should aspire to be. He writes:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

The mass is quiet, that is what makes it awful. They have the natural consequence but they do not know how to express this quiet desperation.

ainting“What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be a falsehood to-morrow.”

“One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living.”

“Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me”

“Are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.”

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

Thoreau also mentions how impractical the anxiety to be fashionable is (in terms of clothes, household furnishings and objects).

Earlier I mentioned that certain things have worsened since (like fees, rent, etc). I wonder how Thoreau would react or write about (in the middle class West) people spending the majority of their time on the Internet indoors.

“It would be well, perhaps, if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies…birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots…many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box.”

There is something in Walden, particularly in the beginning that strongly reminds me of things I’ve seen or heard recently but figured Thoreau said it first. Most of the discussion of your things owning you was strongly ringing of Fight Club (not the book but the movie).IMG_20170620_120942

I think what I like about his writing is that he goes from contemplative and philosophical writing to the mundane and every day speech all in the same sentence. Thoreau wrestles with social constructions that have ones seemed natural and a part of our existence.

I like imagining Thoreau walking, and thinking, and just tapping into some of his thoughts on literature and what he sees, to me, is a very idealized pastoral scene so Walden has become my comfort classic.

If you were to compare what some of today’s styles and trends are: eating organic, growing your own food, travelling and reconnecting with nature, hiking, etc. This sort of ‘hippy’ or ‘bohemian’ lifestyle is often divorced from the intellectual now. I realize that Thoreau did all these things back in the 1840s and combined it with the intellect. His chapters on “reading,” and “where I lived and what I lived for” are imbued with literary references and discussions. It is akin to books like Ex Libris or the genre we all love so much recently ‘books about books.’

“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.”

His every thought is an allusion or a reference to a literary work from antiquity to his contemporaries. Through the voices of other literary giants and describing the sounds around the pond, Thoreau shows how you can be surrounded while completely alone in a contemplative state.

Every section of Walden has its own charm. There are so many YouTube channels for instance focusing on cooking, growing your own things, and budgeting. Thoreau writes about all those things explaining in detail how he did it. I sometimes imagine 19th century readers reading this the same way millions of us subscribe to channels online now. I enjoyed reading about his budget, savings, and spending when it came to building the house and investing in clothing, food, and farm supplies. It’s both personal and distant, it’s doable and also impossible. Most importantly it brings me to a good place mentally because I think about nature, and what the natural realm means.

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Plath and Hughes | Opinion

“The scholars want the anatomy of the birth of the poetry; and the vast potential audience want her blood, hair, touch, smell, and a front seat in the kitchen where she died…neither audience makes me feel she owes them anything.”

–Ted Hughes, The Observer, November 21, 1971

“It’s hard to read the original manuscript without trying to understand what Hughes was thinking when he left out certain poems and included others. She loved him. He hurt her. All of us who love her work are caught like children in that crossfire forever.” 

-Los Angeles Times

Last Tuesday, April 11 The Guardian posted one article around 4:00 p.m. written from an objective standpoint by Danuta Kean titled “Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Huges” showing how some letters to Plath’s therapist (Barnhouse) from Plath herself suggest that Hughes was physically abusive just before her miscarriage. Shortly after, The Guardian followed up with an opinion piece, only four hours later, by Sarah Churchwell titled: “Sylvia Plath, a voice that can’t be silenced” where Churchwell dives a little deeper in the dynamics of the marriage and draws on her own research. On Wednesday, The Guardian published a third paper that was more from a gender studies point of view by Rafia Zakaria titled: “Sylvia Plath’s letters probably won’t harm Ted Hughes’s reputation” where the article criticizes some of Plath’s biographers for placing much blame on Plath in the deteriorating of the marriage, and society in general. All three articles are linked if you are interested in following.

I read all the comments under the three articles with a lot of interest. I wanted to know what do readers who are part of the ‘Hughes’ or ‘Plath’ fandoms think about the three articles, and the dynamics of this relationship as it fits with the poets’ artwork. I extracted from it three dominant comments which I find crucial to discuss. To sum up, these were the dominant three reactions:

  1. Seriously, who cares?
  2. Plath killed herself because of Hughes, as did his mistress, and son.
  3. Hughes is a monster, not even surprised.

Before I try to address the three questions I would fist like to tell you where I stand. First, I love the poetry of Plath. You may have noticed in my “favourites” list that she is the first person that came to my mind. Of Hughes’s work I have read Crow, The Birthday Letters, and The Iron Man, whereas I have read Plath’s entire corpus (including letters/diary entries) so I cannot pretend to be an expert on Hughes. I have glanced at some of his other works but did not finish them. Her use of language stuck with me since six years ago when I discovered her and through most of my undergrad and grad school I have written most of my essays on her poetry, her print culture (comparing various editions of her work), and even on her tombstone which is often chipped away at by fans. Hughes to me, doesn’t quite cut it. I tried reading his works and they did not have an impact. I found that fans are often divided in the two teams, whether it’s Plath vs. Hughes, British vs. American, Women vs. Men, with the occasional: I like neither, or I like both but don’t care about their life.

Secondly I would like to present the disclaimer that I cannot discuss mental illness or pretend that I’m an expert on it, or apply what happened to Plath to all depressed/suicide cases. I do not romanticize suicide. I will only discuss the relationship and biography of the two poets AS POETS and why it matters (or doesn’t) when discussing their poetry as literature, in an academic setting.

That said, I would like to address the three points above:

  1. Who cares?

At first it seems like we all just thrive on drama and that’s what’s interesting. I certainly thought so for a while, until I realized that the ‘who cares’ question is part of the division I mentioned earlier. The truth is, Plath and Hughes were working on different kinds of poetry. Hughes was working on classical/mythological re-workings like those of Ovid; he was writing rhythmically, and building on a larger British Tradition of what was expected of a poet laureate. So if you like Hughes and his work then frankly, you shouldn’t care because Tales from Ovid, The Iron Man, Lupercal, Cave Birds…among others, exist within a contained context of what is on the page and in response to a larger Western Tradition—he was highly influenced by the Romans and his poetry resembles that of Keats, Shelley, or the more recent Seamus Heaney (to me). Unless you’re reading The Birthday Letters, it really doesn’t matter—as our teachers/professors tell us time and time again: biography of the author/poet shouldn’t affect our reading of their art. True. Yes. EXCEPT in one case. This case includes poets: Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell (Plath’s prof), Allen Ginsberg, John Berryman, W.D. Snodgrass, and Sylvia Plath. They were working on a different kind of poetry known as “Confessional Poetry.” This movement was mostly composed of American Poets in the 1950s and ‘60s who wrote ‘poetry of the personal.’ This personal poetry often didn’t rhyme and dealt with topics like: depression, sexuality, abuse, suicide attempts/thoughts, trauma, and things that were highly private and linked uniquely to one’s biography. Unlike poets like Hughes, these poets were drawing solely from personal experience without necessarily responding to a larger tradition. Confessional Poetry is the only time where the poet invites you to learn about their life and invites you to tie it into their artwork. So to answer the question ‘who cares?’ the answer is: people studying confessional poetry. They care about biography, because it’s important, because it’s connected, and because it sheds light and meaning on the artwork. I need to know that Plath was hospitalized in a white room where someone brought her these red tulips that stuck out like an eyesore, for me to understand “the tulips are excitable” in her poem “The Tulips” or that her father was German and a beekeeper which fuels her Holocaust references in “Daddy,” or the ways he was referenced in The Bee Poems. And perhaps understanding that the two poets (Plath and Hughes) were working on something different makes sense of why Plath fans are very interested in biography, while Hughes fans might not be.

  1. She killed herself because (or for) Hughes.

Plath at Smith

Claims like these, though kind of directed at ‘shaming’ Hughes, to me come across as demeaning to Plath. First of all, she wasn’t a love-struck Juliet figure who killed herself because a man left her. She was a very intelligent woman, and had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts. Claiming she ‘killed herself for Hughes’ or to prove a point comes from a reductive understanding of Plath, and a reductive understanding of mental illness.

Plath went to Smith College on scholarship for academic excellence (she wrote her paper on Ulysses). She got electric shock therapy (without anesthesia) which right now is illegal. She attempted suicide once when she was much younger. Her second suicide attempt was by overdosing on pills and she hid beneath the house porch. She was gone for three days, and was in the newspapers as ‘missing.’ They gave her electrical shock therapy again. She then went to Cambridge in England on a Fulbright Scholarship (very prestigious) where she met Hughes. Her thesis was on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s figure of The Double demonstrated through Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin’s character in The Double and Ivan Fyodorovitch Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.  This is an excerpt from her Introduction in her thesis “The Magic Mirror:”

“It is this dangerous embodiment of the Double in two of Dostoyevsky’s novels which is the subject of our paper. The device of the Double, although an omen of doom, is instructive since it often reveals hitherto concealed character traits in a radical manner and thus frequently throws unreconciled inner conflicts into sharper relief. However, the recurrence of the double personality in Dostoevsky’s novels is more than a mere technique for clarifying the psychic oppositions; it is the core of Dostoyevsky’s own polemical philosophy.”

I think sometimes Plath is reduced to this ‘revenge-kick’ stereotype of a dismissed woman looking for attention. Just look at how Norton’s character talks to Darla in Fight Club like yeah, yeah, we’re all dying, Sylvia Plath. As if she was just looking for attention. She’s just as often stereotyped as “teen” literature because of The Bell Jar (which is a memoir reflecting on her teen years). This is a horrible reduction. That’s like judging Jean-Paul Sartre on Le Mots (The Words) only and clumping all of his later work and philosophy in that category.  It’s just not fair. Plath was an adult, Smith/Cambridge-educated woman with a career, she wrote a thesis on Dostoevsky, and was extremely well-versed in American, British, and Russian Literature. To look at her like she’s the teenage girl from Thirteen Reasons Why (which got criticism on its own as well), is just not comparable.

To return to my original point, while Hughes was an important part of her life, he cannot be blamed for her death because she had a history of attempting it, a history of depression, and they had already been separated for five full months.

“I have done it again.

One year in every ten

I manage it—

…I am only thirty.

And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.” – Lady Lazarus

Secondly, to say that she killed herself for a man is something that demeans a woman of Plath’s stature (or any woman) immensely. She was so intelligent and capable, and was part of an emerging new group of poets—which she pretty much dominates now—that to say ‘she killed herself for Hughes/because of Hughes’ would be offensive to Plath herself and her ambitions for herself (based on the biographies I’ve read of her). Suicide is a result of mental illness and Plath wanted us to pay attention to that. Her poetry calls for mental health awareness, and paying attention to one’s life..

Point #3: Ted Hughes is a monster.

Zakaria’s article suggests that his reputation doesn’t get affected by the appearance of the new letters, while some in the comment sections painted Hughes as ‘monster.’ Maybe he was driven to do things like the biographers say, maybe his reputation is ruined or not like Zakaria says. I don’t know so I am not going to pretend I do. I wasn’t there. He gets blamed for burning Plath’s diaries from her last two years, and for many other things including the death of Plath, his mistress Assia Wevill (and her child), and subsequently Nick Hughes (son with Plath).

I myself am thankful for Ted Hughes for one reason and one only: he published Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Collected Poems, and that is enough for me. He could have easily kept the manuscript to himself, burnt it, or never have worked on it. However, he did no such thing. He decided to publish them and in the end those last two published works made Plath the iconic figure she is today. The Collected Poems got her the Pulitzer Prize (which she got posthumously in 1982). The publication or Ariel coincided with the rise of second wave feminism and that is how the two stories clashed and combined. Fans of Plath rarely let Hughes forget, and if The Birthday Letters isn’t enough proof that he didn’t exactly have a fun time after 1963 then let’s just be thankful that he published Ariel which made Plath an icon and famous, as well as The Collected Poems. In discussing this with a friend I received the retort “so a bad person did a good thing, does that make his behaviour excusable?” Obviously not, if he was abusive then I would not (and currently do not) celebrate him. I don’t hail him as a ‘great man’  and like I mentioned, his poetry isn’t one that sticks with me anyway—but if it’s his poetry you like then his biography shouldn’t affect the Hughes side because his poetry doesn’t demand it like Plath’s does.  This excerpt from Churchwell’s article highlights an important aspect of this dilemma for us readers:

“the facts may alter with new evidence, but mostly it’s our interpretations that have altered. Our ideas — about feminism, marriage, mental illness, suicide and domestic violence — change and with them or attitudes towards Plath and Hughes.”

To remember that this was the ’60s when women weren’t even allowed to run marathons, have a bank account, or attend universities without signatures from spouses, perhaps Hughes can be seen as progressive by supporting his wife’s literary career. I hope I explained in this post the ways in which I think it’s important to examine this relationship, biography in confessional poetry, and for what purpose.

I would love to know what other people think about this. And if you see another comment in those articles that irked you, why did it? Or in this one. Perhaps I have said things that you found to be untrue in your experience of reading the two poets. If yes, how so? These were the three comments that got to me, but I would love to know what you think.

Other Resources on Plath and Hughes:

Interview with Plath and Hughes

Lecture given at the University of Toronto by Professor Nick Mount.

Sylvia Plath Archives

John Green’s analysis of Plath’s poetry

Discussion of Jonathan Bate’s recent (2015) biography of Hughes: Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life

Plath reading my favourite four: “Lady Lazarus,” “The Applicant,” “Daddy” and “A Birthday Present

Audible: Ted Hughes reading his own Crow, Plath’s Biography pre-Hughes Mad Girl’s Love Song, The Bell Jar (read by Maggie Gyllenhaal), Her Husband, Hughes and Plath, A Marriage

Analysis of ‘The Reader’ | Reflection

***WARNING: This is a reflection/analysis there are many spoilers“***

thereader073

the readSince 2009 I have been incapable of answering wholeheartedly, or even understand myself, why my answer for “what’s your favourite movie?” has been: “The Reader.” I had no personal relationship, nor family history with Germany and the Holocaust, nor felt particularly attached to the study of law. Many films (and books) before and after The Reader had interacted with this theme so much that Ricky Gervais jokingly remarked to Winslet in the introduction to the 2009 Golden Globes after she had received nominations for both an Oscar (which she won) and a Golden Globe (also won):

“I told you, do a Holocaust movie the awards come, didn’t I?”

I was partly embarrassed that in order to get to the highly philosophical and literary discussions at the end—should one choose my suggestion and associate me with the film through recommendations—that one would have to sit through 45 minutes filled with somewhat uncomfortable sex scenes between a 36-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy.

vorlesserHaving re-watched it this past week, re-read the book, and interacted with it through Audible as well, I have finally figured out the film’s appeal: it is a highly biblio-centric puzzle. The Reader is not for a lazy audience. The film purposely leaves many unanswered questions for which the book, written by Bernhard Schlink, is an absolutely crucial companion.

Professor Rohl makes an excellent point in the film as he says:

“the question is not whether it is moral, people often tend to know murder is wrong, the question is: is it legal, and not by our laws, no, but by the laws of the time.”

The law however, can only work with facts, and these facts are rooted in text. The jury mainly worked with the text of the Jewish survivor and the records are the only proof that Hanna Schmitz or any other defendant had participated. Knowing Hanna is illiterate through Michael’s voice we understand as a distant audience why it looks suspicious to others that she should have rejected a secretarial position with Siemens and rather purposely enrolled in the SS as a guard. There’s a beautiful line in the book where Michael says

“with the energy she put into maintaining the lie, she could have learned to read and write long ago.”

Although the novel contains many more clues to Hanna’s illiteracy pre-trial, the movie displays flashes of Hanna’s passive looks at menus looking with envy at young children who have no difficulty ordering what they desire.

There is however a very important detail that the movie has left out and I wouldn’t have been able to find the answer until much later with the help of the book. In the middle of a class discussion one eager students says (about the Holocaust):

“everyone knew, our parents, our teachers, the question isn’t whether everyone knew, the question is how could you have let this happen and why didn’t you kill yourself when you found out?”

Near the end of the novel when Michael has been notified of Hanna’s suicide he explores her cell. He narrates (in the book):

“I went over to the bookshelf. Primo Levi, Ellie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery—the literature of the victims, next to the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hanna Arendt’s report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature at the camp.”

The prison manager tells Micahel:

“several years ago I had to get her [Hanna] a general concentration-camp bibliography and then one or two years ago she asked me to suggest some books on women in the camps, both prisoners and guards…as soon as Frau Schmitz learned to read, she began to read about the concentration camps.”

To me, this is the most important detail. Hanna couldn’t read so she lacked empathy and couldn’t read people either. She says in the film after Michael is so worried and concerned that this whole time she hadn’t learned anything from the trial, nor thought about any of the victims: “well I did learn kid, I learned to read.” Hanna kills herself because as the young student suggested: the only redemption from the knowledge of and participation in the Holocaust is suicide.

It could be argued that the film tries to empathize too much with a Nazi—but this book (and movie) is much more about the inferiority an individual has due to illiteracy. Had Hanna been able to read she might have taken the job at Siemens instead. By asking young Jewish girls to read to her before sending them away perhaps she gave them better last days than other prisoners in similar situations.

The first time I watched the film I interpreted Michael’s silence on the knowledge of Hanna’s illiteracy as revenge and anger. I thought he felt that because she had slept with him, and met him when he too (like the prisoners) was weak/sick, and that she had treated him the same way as she did many other young people that he suddenly wasn’t special in her life—and the audiobooks that followed were his redemption. However, Michael is special because he’s Hanna’s only survivor. He survived her treatment and he knew her secret.

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Hanna’s tombstone

The film is entirely biblio-centric. It interacts with the legal system using text and archives for proof (memoirs included), reading aloud and audiobooks, and the ultimate shame of being illiterate which resulted in crimes beyond the human imagination. What Schlink gets to in the end is that reading teaches one empathy. Only through reading can one truly think about life in another shoes and only when Hanna learns to read can she really understand the camps—despite the fact that she was physically there. Michael keeps Hanna’s secret until the end because he knows that to her it is a bigger shame to admit that she is unable to read than to take all the blame for what happened at Auschwitz.  In the end all we see is what is left of Hanna Schmitz as text: two words on a tombstone hidden in a rural cemetery.

Michael shares their story as text. He narrates:

“at first I wanted to write our story in order to be free of it…[then] I wanted to recapture it by writing…and it came back, detail by detail and in such a fully rounded fashion, with its own direction and its own sense of completion, that it no longer makes me sad.”

This is the film and book’s ultimate message (to me at least): stories heal. Michael and the young Jewish woman used their experiences with Hanna Schmitz and healed through text. Writing as therapy, and reading as empathy: that is The Reader, and that is why this will continue to be my favourite film and one of my favourite contemporary books.

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Movie still at the very end where Michael visits her grave