I will do a full author spotlight on Matt Haig, particularly regarding his fictional works, where I will get into further details about my strange connection to this author, and my fascination with his work. I did want to tackle his non-fiction/memoir/self-help book independently. I will say that this blog entry is less a book review and more of a personal interaction with this work. I mostly jotted down notes of the portions of this book I enjoyed, and found striking in a way. It’s more of a ‘personal reading log.’ I would recommend this book for times when you are in a depressive state, but I think the first time you read it, I would ideally recommend this at a time when you are out of a depressive episode, and then use it as a guide to return to when it hits. I also saw this image often on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I always found it wonderful, but I had no idea it was taken out of this book.
This work is Haig’s account of his lowest point in life when he was brought down by a mixture of Anxiety, Depression, and all other physical and psychological effects they bring.
“We humans love to compartmentalize things. We love to divide our education system into separate subjects, just as we love to divide our shared planet into nations, and our books into separate genres. But the reality is that things are blurred. Just as being good at mathematics often means someone is good at physics, so having depression means it probably comes with other things. Anxieties, maybe some phobias, a pinch of OCD…”
Haig’s lowest point happened in Spain where he wanted to kill himself and he describes in detail the pressures and negative thoughts enveloping his days for months to follow, and the ways in which his parents and girlfriend supported him through this. He writes about the ways our awareness of death can often be both an anxiety-inducer and a life ‘activator’ and the paradoxical relationship between depression and happiness:
“It is a hard thing to accept, that death and decay and everything bad leads to everything good, but I for one believe it…that’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.”
What I particularly enjoyed about this work was the way Haig introduces us to his relationship to books, literature, authors (both dead and alive, both depressed and not) and often quotes another writer associating it with his immediate feeling or concern. The way he talks about books made me highlight uncontrollably:
“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping…So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered…most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest…. the plot of every book can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something.’”
Haig also urges us (or challenges us in order to be happy) to:
“Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.”
A secondary point of focus of Haig is the observation on how we view the mind as separate from the body, and how in reality the two are highly connected. He looks at the psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of a mental illness and notes that there are much more on the physical side. He describes his relationship to running, meditation, and yoga and throughout this work returns to how important physical movement, physical nourishment, and physical forms of self-care influence the mental state.
Haig examines our relationship to ‘greats’ in literary and artistic history who have killed themselves. I know I am certainly one of those. But Haig takes a different approach. He urges us to admire and look up to people who certainly have depression but get out, putting aside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Wallace, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and look at a much longer list of people who made it out. He even mentions the great long list that he keeps on hand of depressed celebrities who did make it out. There are also greats like Linocln and Churchill who overcame great depression and thrived on the lessons learned from the experience. Haig writes that maybe biographies of Lincoln and Churchill shouldn’t say that they thrived “despite” having depression, rather that they should say they thrived “because” of it.
There are moments in the book where Haig will mention something a famous writer says and in a way responds back to it with his own take. Here are two examples:
“Anais Nin called anxiety ‘love’s greatest killer,’ but fortunately, the reverse is also true. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer…forcing yourself to see the world through love’s gaze can be healthy. Love is an attitude to life. It can save us.
As Schopenhauer said, ‘we forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people,’ then love—at its best—is a way to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.”
I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on time and time anxiety. This has certainly been a fixation of mine in the past I found some of his lines on time to be quite powerful. He writes:
“I was as obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had…We feel an urgency to get on because time is short. Pain lengthens time…pain forces us to be aware of it…turning life into a desperate race for more stuff is only going to shorten it…in terms of how it feels.”
The whole book is also filled with advice from Haig and reminders that happiness will return, even when you are in a depressive state feeling shrouded in hopelessness:
Hate is a pointless emotion. Hate is the lack of imagination
Be around trees
we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.
The key thing about life on Earth is Change. Cars rust, paper yellows, caterpillars become butterflies, depression lifts.
Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.
You will one day experience joy that matches this pain…you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap…you will eat delicious foods…there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversation and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you…hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.
Lastly, as I was reading this book I took note of every quotation by other writers that Haig brought into this work that I enjoyed and each gave me pause. I jotted most of them down here to look at from time to time.
Quotations from other people scattered through the book that I really enjoyed:
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” –Rumi
“is there no way out of the mind”- Plath
“The object of art is to give life a shape” – Shakespeare
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson
“I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.”-Winston Churchill
“it did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”- David Foster Wallace (on Advertising).
“Time crumbles things”- Aristotle
“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” – Jules Verne
“The lotus flower…grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clear air, pure, and beautiful.” – Buddhist Teaching
Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates is a re-read for me. This book made me take down lots of notes and had me wondering if I should start marking these passages and keep them safe on an online forum/reading journal. Laura Bates is a Shakespeare professor who teaches at Indiana State University. She entered a correctional facility and started a Shakespeare reading club with inmates. According to her introduction, what led her to this activity, was reading an academic paper from a famous literary scholar, who asserted that Shakespeare’s play Macbeth represented “the ipso facto valorization of transgression.” She set out to prove that “real-life transgressors would disagree.”
Bates starts off by offering inmates the soliloquy of Richard II in prison. She then asks for a written analysis. Depending on what people write, she either continues to work with them, or steps aside. Some would participate, others would not. Over the years Shakespeare had an influence on some inmates, but none struck so hard a cord as Larry Newton. At first I thought this book focused too much on this one person but then I realized that the book is a memoir written about a person who couldn’t write it himself. I was very intrigued by what choices Bates made regarding the material she started with, and what she focused on, but I was even more interested in what Newton did with the contents of Shakespeare’s works. I got so immersed in his words that many times I forgot that he is someone who would be labelled as extremely dangerous in our society. This book made me think a lot about rehabilitation, and what it means to have committed a crime in the past, incapable to prove that you have grown as a person. I find that readers can often analyze characters on paper in all their complexity but label real humans in society so fast without giving them a chance.
I’ll give an example of something that came out of the reading group from Laura Bates and the inmates. The topic was Macbeth. I studied Macbeth many times in school and it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. In class discussions, we always talk about Macbeth “becoming” a murderer and changing drastically, doing things he was never okay with before encountering the witches. But the inmates say:
“Macbeth was a killer before, they [Duncan and the society] made him into one. He was a soldier.” Before Macbeth was still killing but it was this ‘othered’ enemy, not his best friends. That was the only difference. They also paid close attention to how he killed Duncan:
“…if Macbeth wanted to kill Duncan in the most efficient, most merciful manner, he would stab him once, through the heart…but he uses two daggers…that’s butchering”
Newton notes that in his moment of guilt Macbeth sees the dagger and the act, not the person. He relates to Macbeth and relates his crimes, explaining how he too sees the act rather than the victim, every time he thinks of it. Then there was an insight on Hamlet, which Newton calls the “prison of expectation”
“Hamlet is chasing honor for his family’s name because that is what was expected of him…His father has returned from the dead not to tell Hamlet how much he loved him, not to apologize for all the times that he worked late. He returned to make Hamlet revenge his death.”
These are just two examples of literary analysis that completely escaped me and my fellow busy students in university. Newton had only Shakespeare to work with. He had time, silence, and could focus on this one thing, while contemplating that he is never getting out, and might never discuss this with anyone else other than Ms. Bates. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are in a form of prison, whether literal or metaphorical, and most are murderers. Newton can understand all those thoughts much better than any one student in first year undergrad can even imagine. I wonder if Newton had had a richer education prior to the crime, how much would his thoughts have differed? If instead of Larry Newton it had been Dostoevsky post-solitary confinement with a larger literary corpus to compare, and philosophers to allude to, how would that differ to my reading experience of this book or to Laura Bates’s discussions?
I enjoyed the ways in which Newton almost looks down on Othello for being unable to see his faults. Newton says:
“no one can make you be anything that is not already you…accepting responsibility for one’s actions is an essential first step toward rehabilitation.”
This book covers the history of Larry Newton, the context upon which Ms. Bates arrives, some problems with the prison system, and discussions on several Shakespeare plays. There are moments when Bates compares what students at the university produce from the same play to what Newton would write behind bars. I found myself almost annoyed, as if I could see the hungover student who wasn’t reflecting, or thinking hard enough on these topics, and remembered that I too was one of them.
There are too many lines in this book that are absolutely breathtaking and notes I’d like to keep, so I created a PDF with some of my favourite quotations. Don’t worry, it’s only one page. I recommend this book if you love Shakespeare and want to learn more about one person, namely Larry Newton, and his reading experience behind bars after spending ten years in solitary confinement. I will leave you with this line from Newton if you don’t get a chance to look at the PDF:
“It is an absolute magic, and the magic has little with what Shakespeare has to say. You can memorize every cool quote and be as clueless as you were before reading. So it is not Shakespeare’s offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development…Shakespeare is simply an environment that allows us to evolve without the influence of everyone else telling us what we should evolve into. Shakespeare offers a freedom from those prisons! Your mind will begin shaking the residue of other people’s ideas and begin developing understandings that are genuinely yours!…you have nothing to lose but the parts of you that do not belong anyhow”
I received this work from Columbia University Press. It’s an academic book scheduled for publication on November 28. The work itself is a translation and presentation by Peter France of Konstantin Batyushkov’s writings. France interweaves Batyushkov’s own writings with his biography presenting to readers the life of a poet and his career as a soldier with his subsequent decline into mental illness at the age of thirty-four. A mixture of depression and PTSD from his life as a soldier made Batyushkov unable to write poetry any longer in the last few years of his life. Konstantin Batyushkov (1787-1855) was one of Russia’s greatest poets. France makes it known on page one of the introduction that even though:
“To most non-Russian readers his name is hardly known… for Russians he is a classic.”
He emerged in the 1820s in a literary grouping of what was later known as the Golden Age or the Pushkin Pléiade. The introduction to this work tells us that Pushkin himself regarded Batyushkov as a master.
In terms of where in the canon one might place or discuss Batyushkov, France tells us that:
“One might see in this divided soul an expression of Batyushkov’s intermediary historical position—between the urbane sociability of Enlightenment Russia, and the rebellious Romantic sensibility that is embodied in Pushkin’s Eugin Onegin.”
This work is relatively short but quite dense. Peter France focuses on each section of Batyushkov’s life by adding an introduction with biographical information. He then selects the corresponding poems that fit in with that time in Batyushkov’s life and illuminate his feelings, reflections, and own self-documentation. France also adds passages of close reading and analysis to Batyshkov’s poems supporting the connection to his biographical passages by adding letters Batyushkov sent to his family and friends.
Reading this work was refreshing because it felt like I was reading something completely new, but somehow reading a classic as well. I found it absolutely crucial that someone should introduce Batyushkov to the West after reading his poems. France did an excellent job not only presenting/introducing Batyushkov but also in translating his poems. I would strongly recommend this book to readers fond of Russian literature, poetry, and semi-academic works. I didn’t find it exclusive by any means, it was accessible and interesting.
“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:
- Seriously, who cares?
- Plath killed herself because of Hughes, as did his mistress, and son.
- 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:
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.
She killed herself because (or for) Hughes.
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