Thursday, August 12, 2004

"Mad, bad and dangerous to know"

...Lady Caroline Lamb wrote in her diary after meeting George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Now that is what I call marketing.

These words, which apparently applied more to herself than Byron, introduce the idea of a reputation that in other circumstances could not fail to disappoint. The novelist Lady Blessington anticpated her first meeting with Byron with a thrill of dread...and was very much disappointed: "I had expected to find a dignified, cold, reserved and haughty person, but nothing could be more different; were I to point out the prominent defect of Lord Byron, I should say it was flippancy, and a total want of that natural self-possession and dignity which ought to characterize a man of birth and education."

Well, la dee dah. I don't particularly relate to the Byronic hero in nineteenth century literature and philosophy "...a man greater than his emotions, capability and suffering. Only among wild and vast forms of nature--the ocean, the precipices and glaciers of the Alps--can he find a counterpart to his own titanic passions. Driven by a demon within, he is fatal to himself and others; for no one can resist his hypnotic fascination and authority. He has committed a sin that itself expresses his superiority: lesser men could not even conceive a like transgression. Against his own suffering he brings a superhuman pride and fortitude. Indeed, without the horror of his fate there could not be the splendor of self-assertion and self-mastery in which he experiences a strange joy and triumph." [English Romantic Writers, edited by David Perkins, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967] However, I have read Don Juan, whereas I'd be hard-pressed to name anything published by Lady Blessington.

Actually, Camille Paglia's chapter on Byron in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson re-ignited my interest in him. Byron provides ample fodder for her thematic investigations into the polymorphous perversity of Romanticism. More on Camille later, as she deserves a blog entry to herself.

I digress to....Sylvia Plath. I saw the preview for the movie Sylvia once or twice. I assume it came and went in the box office (where, having three children, I don't often go). So I bided my time waiting for it to surface at Blockbuster. And so it did, in the form of one lone copy. It was my turn to pick up the rentals. I made a tactical judgement. My husband's last foray produced not one but two B-minus forgettable flicks, whose failings were myriad enough to earn me the credit I needed to impose dubious and unshared tastes. Mad Max II, the pre-agreed upon movie was not only was not at that Blockbuster, but (according to the sales associate) not even in the system. The moment was mine to seize. I acquired the target and, for good measure, picked up Dirty Dancing, Havana Nights on the way to the checkout.

"Have fun watching Sylvia put her head in the oven" my sister dryly offered, when I shared the viewing plans for the night. That wasn't exactly what I had in mind. I was hoping for passion and the meeting of great minds. Daniel Craig's "understated" performance meant that I'd probably have to delve into Ted Hughes poetry to see the some sparks. The most exciting it got was watching Gwynneth's Sylvia recite a passage from Chaucer's Wife of Bath to some cows in the Cambridge countryside (I knew there would be a payoff for learning Middle English pronunciation) but, even there, the chosen "woe that is in marriage" passage was foreshadowing the eventual disintegration of the couple's relationship.

To the extent that the movie shows Ted Hughes' abandonment of his wife and their two young children for his lover, Assia Wevill, he does come off as quite the archetypal shit. Two generations of feminist critics flaying his hide, with regards to his treatment of his wife and the questionable taste of editing her posthumously published manuscripts, where some of the more sensitive material dealing with their relationship just happened to disappear---is probably no less than he deserved. This book looks like it might provide an intelligent and scholarly account of the relationship between the two poets.

As far as the movie is concerned, though, Hughes is really a secondary figure. In fact, an episode with Sylvia's mother dwells on the issue of whether Plath was not instinctively drawn to the sort of man whom she knew she could not control. The real performance is Gwynneth Paltrow's depiction of a woman falling apart.The pressures mounting on the couple are daunting. Hughes' poetic career takes off, while Plath feels creatively stalled in her writing. When she does publish her first collection of poems, Colossus, it is generally ignored by the critics. We follow Plath, struggling to raise her two young children, through a bleak and dreary winter in Devon and then London, where she wonders if she hasn't "conjured" her husband's lover out of her own anxieties. The obstacles facing Plath in her writing somewhat recall Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own, especially Woolf's interest in the logistics of writing and her belief in the necessity of having an independent income and the ability to go off, undisturbed, to "a room of one's own." In that vein, one homey detail I found particularly interesting (and not so surprising) was the fact that Plath did much of her writing late at night while her children slept. It would appear that Plath's marriage to Hughes and her motherhood both cannibalized (to use some Camille Paglia imagery) and creatively inspired her.

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