The Creative Tension Between Vitality and Fatality: Illuminating the Mystery of Sylvia Plath Through Her Striking Never-Before-Revealed Visual Art

“How frail the human heart must be — a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing — a fragile, shining instrument of crystal, which can either weep, or sing.”

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother upon the publication of her first tragic poem. Perhaps Plath would have felt differently had she been able to anticipate how inseparable her poetry would become from its indelible wellspring, her personhood, as posterity enveloped both in an immensity of interpretation — and misinterpretation — the right to which “the public” all too haughtily presumes over any artist’s life. In the decades since her death — a death the circumstances of which have only intensified the impulse for interpretation — her poetry has permeated the fabric of culture, quoted in everything from popular science books to Hollywood blockbusters, often unmoored from context and warped by a superficial understanding of fact. Half-opaque though we are to ourselves, we so readily presume to see the reality of another’s life on the basis of little more than fragmentary glimpses and biographical half-fictions.

Sylvia Plath

In addition to her poems, Plath left behind a rich body of journals and letters — an abundance of autobiographical material that seems to have only deepened the mystery and myth of her person. She found an outlet for what words could not contain in her visual art. “It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” Plath wrote in a letter to Ted Hughes when she took up drawing seriously at the age of twenty-four. “I can lose myself completely in the line, lose myself in it.”

In One Life: Sylvia Plath, Smithsonian curator Dorothy Moss hopes that we may find Plath — the unseen, unfathomed, misinterpreted Plath — in the lines of her visual art.

Self-Portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, ink and gouache on paper, c. 1946-1952
(Estate of Robert Hittel, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

The exhibition features a selection of images and objects from the Plath archives at Smith College and Indiana University’s Lilly Library, most of them never previously exhibited — sketches, drawings, collages, photographs, letters from her psychiatrist, handwritten pages from her journal, her childhood ponytail, her typewriter.

Triple-Face Portrait by Sylvia Plath, tempera on paper, c. 1950-1951
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia Plath’s childhood ponytail with her mother’s inscription, August 1945
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
“A War to End Wars,” self-portrait by Sylvia Plath, February 26, 1946
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

Moss, curator of painting at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, had been incubating the idea for the show for five years. Having studied English and art history at Smith, where she first encountered the poet’s remarkable archives, she grew convinced that Plath made a worthy candidate for the Smithsonian’s One Lifeexhibitions, each offering a deep look at a single person’s impact on American life and culture. Previous installments in the series have celebrated founding father Thomas Paine, poet-philosopher Walt Whitman, baseball legend Babe Ruth, rivaling Civil War generals Grant and Lee, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.

Plath is only the third woman portrayed, after pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart and farm work activist Dolores Huerta. (Incidentally, Plath’s first job was as a farm worker — an experience she believed shaped her as a writer.)…

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John Quincy Adams on Efficiency vs. Effectiveness, the Proper Aim of Ambition, and His Daily Routine

John Quincy Adams. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, 1796.

“The spark from Heaven is given to few — It is not to be obtained by intreaty or by toil.”

“Those who work much do not work hard,” Henry David Thoreau observed in his prescient meditation on the myth of productivity and the measure of meaningful labor a century before the dawn of the cult of workaholism, which continues to bedevil us with ever-accelerating virulence to this day.

A generation earlier, John Quincy Adams (July 11, 1767–February 23, 1848) — another man of introspective genius and uncommon wisdom — dug at the heart of modernity’s foundational disconnect between efficiency and effectiveness: our tendency to pour tremendous energy into doing things, with little reflection on whether those are the right things to do in the first place.

His journals, now published as John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779–1821 (public library), offer an exceedingly insightful record of one extraordinary man’s reflections on his own nature, haloed with luminous wisdom on the universals of human nature. Throughout them, the sixth President of the United States examines the paradox of how even the most industrious self-exertion can fail to attain a worthwhile result and why unfocused ambition is a guarantee of frustration rather than fulfillment.

In the spring of 1819, six years before he won the Presidency, 52-year-old Adams anticipates Kierkegaard’s proclamation that “of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous [is] to be busy,” and laments the absurdity of ineffectual busyness that animates his days in office as Secretary of State:

Every day starts new game to me, upon the field of my duties; but the hurry of the hour leaves me no time for the pursuit of it, and at the close of my Career I shall merely have gone helter skelter through the current business of the Office, and leave no permanent trace of my ever having been in it behind.

Years earlier, in observing his own habits of mind in the course of his voracious self-education, Adams had become aware of the meager correlation between effort exerted and results obtained when a clarity of purpose is lacking — even the mightiest discipline, after all, is wasted without a clear direction. In a diary entry penned on the final day of 1804 — a year he considered distinguished by “its barrenness of Events” — the thirty-seven-year-old Adams laments his tendency to lose himself in rabbit holes of what may be interesting but is not relevant to his larger aims:

My studies were assiduous and seldom interrupted. I meant to give them such a direction, as should be useful in its tendency; yet on looking back, and comparing the time consumed with the knowledge acquired, I have no occasion to take pride in the result of my application — I have been a severe Student, all the days of my life — But an immense proportion of the time I have dedicated to the search of knowledge, has been wasted upon subjects which can never be profitable to myself or useful to others — Another source of useless toil, is the want of a method properly comprehensive and minute, in the pursuit of my enquiries — This method has been to me a desideratum for many years; I have found none in books; nor have I been able to contrive one for myself. From these two causes, I have derived so little use from my labours, that it has often brought me to the borders of discouragement, and I have been attempted to abandon my books altogether — This however is impossible — for the habit has so long been fixed in me, as to have become a passion, and when once severed from my books, I find little or nothing in life, to fill the vacancy of time — I must therefore continue to plod, and to lose my labour; contenting myself with the consolation, that even this drudgery of Science, contributes to Virtue, though it lead not to wealth or honour…

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The Terror Within and the Evil Without: James Baldwin on Our Capacity for Transformation as Individuals and Nations

James Baldwin (Photograph: Sedat Pakay)

“It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”

“The self,” the poet Robert Penn Warren observed in his immensely insightful meditation on the trouble with “finding yourself,” “is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.” Indeed, if the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm was correct, as I believe he was, in asserting that self-love is the foundation of a sane society, our responsibility to ourselves — and to our selves — is really a responsibility to one another: to know our interiority intimately and hold our darkest sides up to the light of awareness. But part of our human folly is that we do this far less readily than we shine the scorching beam of blameful attention on the darknesses of others.

That is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores in a magnificent 1964 piece titled “Nothing Personal,” found in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Baldwin on the creative process and his definition of love.

A year after he contemplated “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” Baldwin writes:

It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.

Echoing Bruce Lee’s assertion that “to become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are,” Baldwin turns his critical yet uncynical intellect toward our capacity for self-transformation — the most difficult and rewarding of our inner resources comprising our collective potentiality:

It is perfectly possible — indeed, it is far from uncommon — to go to bed one night, or wake up one morning, or simply walk through a door one has known all one’s life, and discover, between inhaling and exhaling, that the self one has sewn together with such effort is all dirty rags, is unusable, is gone: and out of what raw material will one build a self again? The lives of men — and, therefore, of nations — to an extent literally unimaginable, depend on how vividly this question lives in the mind. It is a question which can paralyze the mind, of course; but if the question does not live in the mind, then one is simply condemned to eternal youth, which is a synonym for corruption…

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Sam Shepard in Love, on Love

“There can be a real meeting between two people at the point where they always felt marooned. Right at the edge.”

Of the varied threads of connection that can stretch between two people — threads of innumerable thicknesses, textures, and hues, so difficult to classifyand in such constant evolution — which do we get to call “love”? Perhaps love can never be defined in the singular, for it is utterly singular to each person in each relationship at each moment in time — we each love different loves, constantly navigating and negotiating the infinite continuum of meaning with which this one small, enormous word is imbued.

In the history of literature, valiant attempts at definition abound, but perhaps those of them that seem to cut to the heart of the mystery — Rilke’sTom Stoppard’sShel Silverstein’sSusan Sontag’sAnaïs Nin’sAlain Badiou’s — simply resonate with where we ourselves are at a particular moment in time, in a particular phase of a particular relationship.

One of the richest, most powerful definitions I’ve encountered, exploring love as a union of two sovereign alonenesses and a mutual awakening to dormant parts of each self, comes from the polymathic playwright Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943–July 27, 2017) in Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark (public library) — the great dramatist’s correspondence with his dearest friend, former father-in-law, and spiritual brother.

Both men belonged to “The Work” — a movement of gatherings based on the spiritual teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, whose philosophy was rooted in the idea that although our default state is a sort of waking sleep, we are capable of waking up. In 1982, Shepard met the actor Jessica Lange on the set of the film Frances, in which he had a supporting role. Lange earned an Academy Award nomination and won Shepard’s heart — the two entered into an immediate and intense romance that effected, as Shepard wrote to Dark, mutual awakening. On St. Patrick’s Day the following year, shortly after the premiere of his play Fool for Love, Shepard moved into Lange’s cabin in Northern Minnesota near Bob Dylan’s birthplace, which he described to Dark as “a town right out of Kerouac.”

In a letter penned twelve days later, Shepard writes from the thralls of something far deeper and more powerful than infatuation:

I love this woman in a way I can’t describe & a feeling of belonging to each other that reaches across all the pain. It’s as though we’ve answered something in each other that was almost forgotten. I look back on that whole ten years in California & I see myself hunting desperately for something I wasn’t finding. I know the Work point of view is the only true one. That life is inside. That nothing outside can ever finally answer our yearning. I know that’s true but, in some way, finding Jessie has reached something inside me. A part of me feels brand new — re-awakened.

With a keen awareness of our human curse to metabolize everything, to habituate to even the most transcendent experiences, Shepard adds:

I know even this will change. There’ll be moments of deep regret maybe. But life is a gamble. I felt the weight of that the first time I left home for good. I walked out of that house into the unknown & it scared the shit out of me but the adventure of hitting life straight on was a thrill I’ll never forget. I feel that now — along with the fear. But I see the fear stems from being alone in the world & it has a new meaning for me now. You can be alone in the midst of people or you can be alone & join with the other one’s aloneness. There can be a real meeting between two people at the point where they always felt marooned. Right at the edge. And that’s how it is with me & her.

Shepard and Lange’s daughter, Hannah, was born three years later, followed by a son, Walker. The couple remained together for the nearly three decades…

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MALLOCH: Europa, Eurabia and the Last man

Europe is full of ‘Last men’ (and perhaps women, I suppose we are now forced to say, given the incessant demand for political correctness).

Why is this so and who will come to dwell in these territories we have hitherto called — home?

We are not talking about some imaginary seven kingdoms, as in the legendary but fictional television series, Game of Thrones, either. The point of contention is about a real place, with real peoples, and real nations that have existed for centuries on end, perhaps thousands of years—called Europa.

Trends in immigration suggest what can only be termed, a self-imposed European death wish.

Look at any demographic map, preferably an interactive one.

Of the 7.5 billion people presently on this earth, the vast majority, mostly in the Southern hemisphere, and who are generally poor and backward, are trying to get to the Northern hemisphere, where there are greater opportunities and overly generous welfare states. In recent polls 7 out 10 people from these lands say, given the chance, they want to flee their plight.

The last decade has seen more refugees, migrants and economic immigrants than at any point in human history: tens, if not hundreds of millions. They are dying in transit, drowning on the Mediterranean Sea and suffocating in the back of trucks, as was the case, yet again in Texas this past week.

Human trafficking is big business. The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 1,000,000 migrants arrived in Europe by sea in each of the last three years, and tens if not hundreds of thousands more, by land.

The numbers are astounding and only increasing. Some 5,000 new migrants arrive on the shores of Italy alone every day.

The U.S. estimates it is now populated by millions of illegal and undocumented immigrants. In fact, about one-fourth of the 42.4 million foreign-born people living in the United States today are illegal immigrants – this amounts to roughly 10.5 million, according to an objective study by the Center for Immigration Studies.

Geostrategists cannot comprehend billions (yes, potentially billions) of people moving from South to North. They can’t comprehend the risk or the total effects of this — a world without borders. Yet it is something that globalist political leaders and flat worlders actually seek and actively endorse.

Europe will change. This will happen… is happening, in our lifetimes, with globalist elites endorsing it as benign or even laudatory. The ‘anywhere’ crowd with no attachment to place, custom or religion, favor such open borders.

The ‘somewhere’ folks who still have some degree of loyalty to national identity, tradition and religion do not share the same attitude. As the global elites get their way we witness the end of Europe and the emergence of the Last man.

And who is this Last man?

The Last man (in German, der letzte Mensch), is a description used by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra to describe men tired of life, who take no risks, and seek only comfort and idle security.

They exist without purpose or direction. Their lives are pacifist and comfortable. There is no longer any distinction between strength and weakness, excellence and mediocrity. Social conflict and challenges are defined out of existence. Everyone lives equally and in a “superficial” harmony of no consequence. There is no originality or flourishing social trends or ideas, merely fashions. There is no innovation or creativity. Individuality and thinking are suppressed.

According to Nietzsche, the Last man is the goal that modern society and western European civilization have set for themselves. Those writers who have sought to warn about this have failed to date.

Nietzsche warned that the society of the Last man could be too barren and decadent to support the growth of healthy human life or great individuals. The Last man is only possible by mankind having bred an apathetic person who is unable to dream, who are unwilling to take risks, and simply earn their meager living and try to keep warm.

Even having children or concern for future generations is too much of a challenge and inconvenience. Leadership is nothing more than a greater degree of things and creature comfort. They are willing to make any temporary compromise so as to maintain their ease.

The Last man, Nietzsche predicted, would be our response to the problem of nihilism.

Is Europe today ever closer to what Nietzsche described? Has European decadence and anomie, adrift from its original moorings and spirituality, and more and more awash in a sea of unassimilated and perhaps unassimilable immigrants, with yet more on the way, brought us to this state?

Others have described the onslaught of Islamist immigrants who come to the west to exploit its wealth and flee the scourge of poverty and war of the places they have vacated. They bring with them cultures of hate and the practice of terror as they find no way to immanentize their eschaton and instead end up hating the very new places they inhabit and the way of life that has sustained it for centuries…

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http://www.breitbart.com/london/2017/07/30/malloch-europa-eurabia-last-man/

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Indescribable you

Resultado de imagem para The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, 1988. Photo by Elliott Erwitt/Magnum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, 1988. Photo by Elliott Erwitt/Magnum

Can novelists or psychologists better capture the strange multitude of realities in every human self?

by Carlin Flora is a journalist and former features editor at Psychology Today. Her work has appeared in Discover and Scientific American Mind, among others. She is the author of Friendfluence (2013).

With her curling blonde hair and her slender limbs and her beautiful clothes, Inez was alluring in an obvious way, and yet it was easy enough to see that her slightly protruding blue eyes were blank screens of self-love on which a small selection of fake emotions was allowed to flicker. She made rather haphazard impersonations of someone who has relationships with others. Based on the gossip of her courtiers, a diet of Hollywood movies and the projection of her own cunning calculations, these guesses might be sentimental or nasty, but were always vulgar and melodramatic. Since she hadn’t the least interest in the answer, she was inclined to ask: ‘How are you?’ with great gravity, at least half a dozen times. She was often exhausted by the thought of how generous she was, whereas the exhaustion really stemmed from the strain of not giving away anything at all.

This amusing passage, written by Edward St Aubyn in his novel At Last (2012), touches upon Inez’s looks, social class, psychology and behaviours. It’s hard to imagine a better description, and it’s certainly superior to what people provide to each other conversationally or on dating websites. And yet, any particular reader will project his or her own stored images, memories and worldview upon Inez. She is different in each person’s mind. She is also a symbol of the worst traits of her social milieu – satire posing as personality.

Though normally with less flair than St Aubyn, we’re constantly describing ourselves and others. Sometimes, the stakes are low, as with idle chat, and sometimes they are higher, such as when we’re summing up a potential job candidate or a possible love match for a friend. Writers search for emotional granularity, consequential details and apt metaphors, while sociologists and personality psychologists have come up with sorting tools such as the ‘Big Five’ personality traits – extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness. But if I tell you someone is ‘a nice-looking middle-aged Asian extravert who is fairly agreeable, neurotic and open-minded, and from the Midwest’ you have no idea what she’s really like. You barely have a starting point.

People have habits of speech, mannerisms, a temperament that is at least in part inborn, and even behavioural signatures and routines. But across time and contexts, any of these characteristics can change. We can act against our own proclivities until they aren’t proclivities anymore. Being enclosed in solid, distinct bodies fuels the belief that our personalities must be fully formed and consistent as well. But they aren’t. Everyone from pop-psych authors to business-school professors to astrologers has come up with her own system for sizing up people. If it were possible, wouldn’t one method have prevailed by now? In fact, two recent paradigm-breaking studies suggest that personality traits can shift slowly yet drastically over time, and quite quickly after therapeutic interventions.

A million tiny human factors – tone of voice, brand of shoes, frequency of smiles – form a gestalt as difficult to pick apart as it is to pin down. If a person contains multitudes and is perhaps even infinite, how can we compare infinities? This is a legitimate question for theoretical mathematicians, but in the science of personality (unlike mathematics) perception trumps precision most of the time.

This fluid state of affairs is often captured best by writers, who tend to have an agenda when delineating characters. What we’re often not conscious of are our own agendas when casually describing others. Do we want our audience to like the person we’re talking about? To see themselves in her? To – I don’t know – maybe draw a comparison that’s favourable to us? Just as people around us are in flux, so, too, are our intentions. Acting as though other people have personalities is sometimes a prerequisite to reaching our own social goals.

The messy mosaic of feelings and impressions that assemble in our own minds when we meet another person is brilliantly depicted in Mary Gaitskill’s novel The Mare (2015), about Velvet, a Brooklyn girl who grows close to Ginger, a middle-aged woman from upstate, and the horses stabled near her house. Here Ginger assesses Velvet’s mother, Alicia:

It took me a minute to realise that the power in her body didn’t come from her musculature or size, but from her character; she sat in her body like it was a tank.

Later Ginger meets a horse trainer named Beverly:

Her eyes were simple mentally but emotionally snarled, aggressive and shrewd like an orangutan’s. She looked out of her eyes so hard you couldn’t look into them. She was verbally polite to me while her face dismissed me with the fast scorn of a teenager. She looked like the kind of person who could really mess up a child.

These evocative outward descriptions are portals to interiors – but mostly to Ginger’s. Though she might think of them as personality descriptions, these are really her gut-level intuitions, which mingle with her own state of mind and shape how people appear to her. Ginger’s acute sensitivity to danger surfaces in the way she sees both these women. How the women act over time will tell us if her hunches are correct. Novelists know that behaviour is always more revelatory than a grocery list of traits…

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https://aeon.co/essays/are-novelists-or-psychologists-better-at-describing-people

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Sir Thomas Browne on the Divine Heartbreak of Romantic Friendship

Sir Thomas Browne by Jane Carlile

“United souls are not satisfied with embraces, but desire to be truly each other.”

Navigating the various types of platonic relationshipscan be challenging enough. But few things are more existentially disorienting than trying to moor oneself within a relationship that floats back and forth across the porous boundary between the platonic and the erotic — one rooted in a deep friendship but magnetized with undeniable romantic intensity, like the relationships between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann in the nineteenth century and Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman in the twentieth.

But as beautiful and vitalizing as such more-than-friendships can be, they tend to be inevitably dampened by an undercurrent of disappointment, a quiet undulating heartache that comes from the disconnect between the enormity one or both persons long for and the lesser-than reality permitted by the other person’s nature or the circumstances of one or both of their lives.

Four centuries ago, the English polymath Sir Thomas Browne (October 19, 1605–October 19, 1682) captured the divine heartbreak of romantic friendship with enduring insight in a passage from his first literary work, Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician) (public library), penned the year of his thirtieth birthday.

Browne, whose enchanting and lyrical writing inspired many of the Romantics, celebrates romantic friendship as a love that, in transcending regular friendship, approaches the divine:

I hope I do not break the fifth commandment, if I conceive I may love my friend before the nearest of my blood, even those to whom I owe the principles of life. I never yet cast a true affection on a woman; but I have loved my friend as I do virtue, my soul, my God. From hence, methinks, I do conceive how God loves man.

He then presents a taxonomy of the “three most mystical unions”:

1. two natures in one person; 2. three persons in one nature; 3. one soul in two bodies. For though indeed they be really divided, yet are they so united, as they seem but one, and make rather a duality in two distinct souls.

There are wonders in true affection; it is a body of enigmas, mysteries, and riddles, wherein two so become one, as they both become two.

But Browne’s most poignant insight deals with the paradoxical nature of such intense connections. When we seek for another to be our everything, he suggests, we doom ourselves to continual despair and disappointment, because the most anyone can ever give us is still less-than-everything, which to the heart that longs for everything — for a complete merging of natures — feels like a sorrowing incompleteness next to nothing. He writes:

I love my friend before myself, and yet methinks I do not love him enough: some few months hence my multiplied affection will make me believe I have not loved him at all. When I am [apart] from him, I am dead till I be with him; when I am with him, I am not satisfied but would still be nearer him. United souls are not satisfied with embraces, but desire to be truly each other; which being impossible, their desires are infinite, and must proceed without a possibility of satisfaction.

And yet the redemption of this perennial dissatisfaction, Browne argues, is that by so intensely throwing ourselves into a love that can never be fully requited, we master the difficult art of unselfish love — a love we can then direct at anyone, free of expectation of return, perhaps more akin to the Ancient Greek notion of agape, which inspired Dr. King’s “experiment in love.” Browne puts it simply:

He that can love his friend with this noble ardor will, in a competent degree, affect all.

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