From the Box: Sylvia Plath

If we have our why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that. (Nietzsche, TI 12.)

Anchored misery, misery that has something external to the sufferer as as both its cause and its object can, in some ways, be easier to bear. At the end of her penetrating essay ‘Joy’, Zadie Smith quotes Julian Barnes on the subject of mourning: “It hurts as much as it is worth.” If we have a ‘why’ of suffering, it doesn’t diminish it or make it any lighter to drag around with us, but it does give it a place and an importance in our ethical lives. Misery is the appropriate response to loss of something valued, whether that is a person, a relationship, innocence or even a rosebush.

Although the above quote is an aphorism from ‘Twilight of the Idols’, Nietzsche’s ‘Genealogy of Morals’ deals more explicitly with these themes. There he examines the differing ways in which the ‘Ancient’ worldview and the ‘Christian’ both give meaning to suffering  and secure their existence because of this, since “what actually arouses indignation over suffering is not the suffering itself, but the senselessness of suffering.” Of course the ways in which they both do this have little to do with seeing a certain kind of suffering as being a key component of valuing. However, largely deprived these two worldviews to see our suffering through, it does seem like this is one of the few ways we have left to make sense of it.

This is where Sylvia Plath, and her book the Bell Jar which chronicles her “slide into depression” (taken from the back of my edition) come into it. This extract occurs near the beginning of the novel, when Esther/Plath is about to have her picture taken to mark the end of the prestigious magazine internship she has spent the summer doing in New York.

“I didn’t want my picture taken” she writes “because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.”

One of the awful things about the kind of misery which tends to get tagged ‘depression’ is that it’s damn hard to find any sense or meaning in it (and what differentiates it, despite comparisons, from Kierkegaardian religious ‘Despair’.) And whilst those afflicted by a slightly different sort of suffering can spend hours reflecting and ruminating on its object, describing it to others, dousing themselves in all the complexities of thought and feeling that go with it, when suffering loses it’s anchor this becomes much harder to do.

Which is why I think the Plath extract is significant: there is nothing to her misery except misery itself, nothing ‘inside her head’ apart from it, no reflection on things outside her, no internal dialogue. So her brilliant and profound way of describing this misery is to characterize it in terms of its latent expression, an expression which can only be to weep. (“I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.”) This is course is not meant to be a description of her physiology- tears just don’t work like that-  but rather an attempt to describe what is “in” her, when the lack of referent for her misery gives her few other words to do so.


It might be thought that these considerations run directly counter to my general view of the importance of attempting to see ‘mental illness’ from the sufferer’s perspective. If depression is just a brute fact of feeling, with nothing in the sufferer’s cosmos to latch onto, then surely the only appropriate level of explanation is to see it purely as chemical imbalances and misfiring neurons.

The phenomenology of ‘depression’ tends to end up being a lot like this- brute suffering- but this doesn’t mean we can’t trawl our pasts and re-examine our presents to attempt to find some of the stuff that might have led to it. To find First-personal ‘causes’ of our suffering, at least, if not ‘reasons’ for it. This exercise is not a replacement for that phenemonology (how could it be?) or an attempt to show it as false. Rather it is something which might be important if we want to get out it, prevent us from falling into it again, or even to find other people to blame for our being ‘depressed.’ The ‘why’ of being depressed, unlike the ‘why’ of grief or loss, is very different from the ‘is’ of it.


One response to “From the Box: Sylvia Plath

  1. I’d find it easier to deal with the misery of you not posting if I knew the ‘why’. Come back, Beetle Box!

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