Plath’s Bell Jar Descends upon the Left
Esther Greenwood says of the summer of 1953: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” So goes the opening sentence in the classic novel The Bell Jar.
A political event—execution of two Jews accused (apparently, fairly) of treason—ends up being all about Esther. The execution is a metaphor for her identity crisis as a middle-class white woman surrounded by docile females and egotistical, inconsiderate men.
As many freshmen have postulated about this classic young adult novel, Esther is allegorically executed too, by the stifling conformity and sexual inhibitions of Eisenhower America! You see, being a gifted woman in bourgeois society is just like being put to death for treason!
The Bell Jar was the thinly fictionalized account of Sylvia Plath’s journey through the suffocating 1950s. Sylvia/Esther moves from a highly prized internship with a women’s magazine to her suicide on February 11, 1963. Writing under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, she relates the oppressiveness of blue cornflower arrangements and being forced to learn German, as she staves off Latin American gigolos, mocks her womanizing boyfriend for getting fat as he recovers from surgery, and hemorrhages upon losing her virginity to a professor.
Educated in pristine colleges and expected to conduct herself with a modicum of ladylike decorum, Plath rebelled by writing a trove of popular poetry in the 1950s. She became a favorite of smart but wisecracking young women who might find Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett interesting but not edgy enough. Many an Ivy League girl still bitter from her days at Deerfield or Choate Rosemary has loitered under centuries-old elms gracing ancient quadrangles, wearing thick-rimmed genius glasses and some kind of countercultural hairdo, immersed in Plath’s poems like “Daddy” and “Lorelei.”
Fans of intersectionality must, of course, take issue with her uncritical experience with “white privilege” and her demonization of lesbianism. But there’s so much to rebuke beyond that.
As a conservative I find Plath grossly immoral, given that she committed one of the evilest of sins in Christianity—murder of self—by sticking her head in a gas oven while her helpless young children were in the house (gentle biographers remind us that she stuffed the cracks around the kitchen so the gas would not escape and kill the little ones.)
Every time a famous person like Robin Williams kills himself, we hear a loud chorus of advocates for mental health warning us not to condemn people for suicide, but I have never accepted their premise. The suicide rate in the United States keeps skyrocketing the more we try to affirm and understand everything people feel. Would that humanitarians could figure out: if we tell people the truth that suicide damns a soul to eternal separation from God, we could encourage just enough of them to give us time to nurse their minds back to functional health. I digress but not really.
Her poetry is good the way well-crafted Danish pastries are good. Anyone who’s ever been to the little Denmark in Solvang, California, knows you can respect a chef’s artistry while still acknowledging that cholesterol and triglycerides will make you gluttonous and kill you. But this is where liberals get things twisted. To them Sylvia Plath is good both for her artistry and for her effects on the human soul. They see the march toward Plath’s suspension of hope as transformative. To them it’s enlightenment, the very aim of higher education itself, the discovery of the meaningless malaise hidden beneath layers of puritanical Christian delusion. In my recent book Wackos Thugs and Perverts, I describe the ideal state for the American left as “a cultivated state of confusion, dysfunction, anxiety, and ignorance, which academia deploys in order to maintain its power.”
The four phases of this cultivated state are important, if we are to understand the left and also the academy that the left both mirrors and molds.
First comes confusion with an onslaught of crazy notions and nobody brave enough to contest them.
Next comes dysfunction, as people start basing their life decisions on their confused notions: for example, they decide to spend their twenties not on courtship but on working long hours and trying to publish bad novels, because their muddled judgment has told them life will be totally happy if they never get married or start a family (and if they change their mind in, say, their fifties, anybody can start a family with egg donors, surrogate wombs, and sperm donors.) Because of such poor judgment, they do self-defeating things like hang all their hopes for self-worth on getting a literary agent. They look for emotional closeness from co-workers and a shrink who charges $200 an hour to do what a husband would have done for free: nod, listen, and say, “yes, you’re so right.” (The difference is that a husband will also provide some good old-fashioned lovemaking—and babies!)
Next comes anxiety, as people immersed in this blurry world of nonsensical values find their waking hours plagued with stress, doubt, uneasiness, worry, fear, and of course blind rage. Having mismanaged and sabotaged the most important relationships around them, they cling foolishly to people who hate them. They spurn people who would love them. As they realize that they’ve made bad decisions, they start racking themselves and doubling down, excoriating themselves for not doing enough of the confused decision-making that got them there in the first place. “Maybe I shouldn’t have broken down and put up a profile on OKCupid! Maybe I just need to sign up for more writing workshops run by arrogant lechers who tell long-winded stories about how they got their novel published in 1982! Maybe I should try harder to be like Diane Chambers in Cheers.”
Finally arrives ignorance, the all-encompassing state in which this tragic process culminates and to which, like the Via Appia pointing to Rome, all of the bad thinking leads. Confusion has made knowledge unattainable, while dysfunction has made it impossible for the victim of this rhythm to discipline their lives for true study and actual learning. In a crippling state of anxiety, the mind is unable to focus. The ultimate result is the lack of any perspective and inability to gain it. Life becomes nothing but outbursts, reactions to provocations, obsessions, and increasingly violent ideations. Ignorance is not bliss. It is deadly.
Never forget that Sylvia Plath, after writing about the tragically disoriented and suicidal Esther Greenwood, stuck her head in a gas oven and endangered the lives of her small children.
To liberals, despite all their trucks with ideologically driven Black Panthers and ACTUP and pink pussy hats, Sylvia Plath epitomizes what they stand for: embittered observations about how annoying the world is, total inability to suggest anything better, sarcasm, whining, mental illness, self-absorbed neurosis, and suicidal politics with zero regard for what they do to children. The proliferation of talk therapy options, psychotropic drugs, and self-help books (including a boom in Christian sects structured around “healing” and “pastoral care for the whole person”) seems to have had no impact on the main problem facing the American left: They are profoundly spoiled, unhappy, and destructive.
The bell jar itself—a glass container—serves as Plath’s overarching metaphor for two reasons. Beautiful roses are placed under bell jars to deprive them of oxygen, so that they die but remain in their lifeless but beautiful state. Also, dead babies used in science experiments are kept in bell jars, immersed in liquids that preserve them for investigation.
Like the liberals of today, Plath sees herself as the victim of the bell jar in both respects. She pictures her own beauty as a forced commodity blocking her from what she presumes would be a far more exciting and visceral experience full of grit and danger. She also sees herself, half-correctly, as an infantile human being, like a fetus trapped in an overprotective womb, and killed by claustrophobia before it could reach real maturity.
There are countless reasons to express alarm about the left of today. My book’s title was intentionally provocative: Wackos Thugs & Perverts, to encapsulate the trivium of nihilistic tendencies that predominate in academia. You have wackos peddling wildly implausible theories about the world as if they are unquestionably smart. You have thugs on all levels, from the party racketeers who move trillions of dollars in tax-free holdings and student loans for worthless degrees, to the angry youths shattering windows and tweeting vile insults at people in the name of causes they barely understand. And at last you have the perverts who have declared war on every form of bodily dignity, striving to force their pornographic imagination into every nook and cranny of society.
But there is room for compassion if we understand that the left is defined not by its politics but rather by its mental illness. They live in bell jars that they cannot understand or trace back to any clear person to blame. Thus they find wild monsters hidden behind everything that provokes them. They think Donald Trump wants to rape them and Mike Pence want to electrocute them to make them heterosexual. They think Vladimir Putin caused Hillary Clinton to lose an election. They think the Koch Brothers plot to sell them into slavery and Steve Scalise is a white supremacist.
In such a state of hyper-anxiety and ignorance, they seek emotionally affirmative relationships with oversimplified human abstractions: illegal immigrants, black youths shot by police, sexual assault victims, Muslims, transsexual fifteen-year-olds—people with striking stories to tell, but people whom they do not know personally at all. Since they feel like fetuses trapped inside bell jars, they need distant and two-dimensional characters to populate their emotional landscape, because their dysfunction and confusion will only be aggravated by the complexities of real-life individuals. And they fear, most of all, people who disagree with them and who aren’t as mentally ill as they are. They cannot endure any intelligent beings who do not mirror the tumultuous fancies they hallucinate all around them.
At their core they suffer from a powerfully suicidal urge, reminiscent most of all of Sylvia Plath’s own psychological afflictions. Freud defined ambivalence as the simultaneous co-existence of a wish and counter-wish, neither of which can overcome the other. The left’s relationship to its bell jar is one of ambivalence. They want to smash it but fear that if they do, the world outside will be impatient with their neuroses and they will be adrift forever. They want the sensation of being oppressed and contained, because it gives their lives meaning. But they know, also, that they cannot live inside a bell jar forever, so they lean dangerously toward suicide.
Perhaps the most blatant Plath-like wing of the left is the LGBT movement, which wields threats of suicide repeatedly to get what it wants. But the fascination with the gas oven in the kitchen is wide throughout the left. Their nihilism vacillates between wanting to shatter the world around them and wanting to cease to exist. If you can understand Sylvia Plath, you know what we are dealing with, when we confront today’s left.
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