On Writerly Jealousy

Illustration from Tacuina sanitatis (XIV century)

Recently, while reading a new book of poetry, I noticed a certain signature of influence: a poem with a macabre playfulness that reminded me of “Daddy.” Plath-y!, I wrote in the margin beside it. I pulled my copy of Plath’s Collected Poems off the shelf (inscribed Merry Christmas, 1994, Mom & Dad; I would have just turned fifteen) and reread “Daddy” for the whatever-eth time.

For most of my life I read “Daddy” quite literally, as a renunciation of Plath’s father: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” She all but calls him Hitler, with his “neat mustache” and “Aryan eye.” As Janet Malcolm points out in The Silent Woman, the poem “has had a mixed reception.” She quotes Leon Wieseltier in The New York Review of Books, 1976: “Whatever her father did to her, it could not have been what the Germans did to the Jews.” Irving Howe, writing in 1973, found “something monstrous, utterly disproportionate” in the metaphor. I think of the Sharon Olds poem “The Takers,” which begins, “Hitler entered Paris the way my / sister entered my room at night.” (My friend Chris, in grad school, read these lines and said, simply, “No.”)

However, in 2012, newly released FBI files on the German-born Otto Plath suggested that he may have been a Nazi sympathizer. As the Guardian reported at the time, “the files reveal that he was detained over suspected pro-German allegiance.” Unlike her critics in the twentieth century, Sylvia may have had the inside scoop on those allegiances. She may have meant to literally call him a Nazi.

That doesn’t close the case on “Daddy,” though. Nazi sympathies notwithstanding, there is little evidence that Sylvia harbored hateful feelings toward her father. As noted in a short, rather wonderful article about Plath and her series of bee poems, which I found on the website of a Dublin beekeeping association: “His death when Sylvia was only eight years old deeply affected her feelings and thoughts for the rest of her life. Her mother writes that, when she was told of her father’s death, she said: ‘I’ll never speak to God again!’ ” (Otto Plath, an entomologist, authored an influential book called Bumblebees and Their Ways.)

Plath does not betray conscious resentment of her father in her journals; the opposite, in fact: “I rail and rage against the taking of my father, whom I have never known; even his mind, his heart; his face, as a boy of 17 I love terribly. I would have loved him; and he is gone.” A few years later, she visits his grave: “I found the flat stone … right beside the path, where it would be walked over. Felt cheated. My temptation to dig him up. To prove he existed and really was dead.” Her journals make it clear it was her mother she hated instead. In 1958 she wrote:

I never knew the love of a father, the love of a steady blood-related man after the age of eight. My mother killed the only man who’d love me steady through life … I hate her for that … I hate her because he wasn’t loved by her … It was her fault. Damn her eyes.

It’s misplaced blame—Otto died of diabetes—but evidently how she felt. So why the big switch, in 1962? I don’t think there was one. She wrote the poem shortly after she discovered her poet-husband was having an affair with a mutual friend (the striking Assia Wevill—I feel compelled to tell you that the beekeeping site misspells her name as “Weevil”) and shortly before she, at last successfully, committed suicide. Given the timing, I now presume “Daddy” is mostly a veiled address to Ted Hughes: Hughes is the bastard she is through with.

I wrote a review of the new book, and turned in my first draft with a long digression containing much of the above material, trying but not expecting to get away with it. Sure enough, my editors suggested we cut it, because it “distracted a bit too spectacularly” from the book at hand. (Quoting this editorial note is a humblebrag, I know, but what a brilliant bit of diplomacy—of course I was willing to kill this darling once they said it was too good to survive.) But I figured the rabbit hole I had fallen down was a sign that I should write about Plath at length. Time to remind the world how good her poetry is, I thought—no more of this focus on her persona, on her schoolgirl cuteness, on the mythology of her suicide. We tend to associate Plath with goth teenagers bent over their diaries; because we, unfairly, do not take her imagined readership seriously, we take Plath less seriously as well.

Not long after this, I saw a link on Twitter to a piece in The New Yorker, by Dan Chiasson, about Sylvia Plath’s last letters, which had just been published. I think I gasped aloud. It was coincidence, only, or else some manifestation of collective consciousness, but it meant that my new re-obsession with Plath was not unusual; any old Plath fan would be thinking, and writing, about Plath again now. I felt cheated (like Plath, at her father’s grave) and a little mad—mad that a critic, much more famous than me, had gotten to her first!

The piece does the work I egomaniacally thought I might do—reestablishing her genius, in the context of her vulnerability, her tendency to be underestimated, her “façade of chipper enthusiasm.” It quotes the five words of Plath’s I’m most jealous of not having written, which I’m sure you can guess: I eat men like air. It is compassionate and full of interesting detail, like who ended up with her fishing rod, and critical insight:

Her mind was brilliantly off-kilter, its emphasis falling in surprising places. We hear less than we might like about major literary or historical events: a dinner with T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender in London, or her Tuesday-afternoon classes at B.U. with Robert Lowell, or drinks afterward with Anne Sexton and George Starbuck at the Ritz bar in Back Bay. It was unlikely that she could use these occasions in poems, and so, I think, they settled very lightly on her consciousness. But a groundhog—that she knew she could use.

I was mad it was so good.

There’s a bad double bind in being a writer: If you don’t write about things people are interested in, nobody is going to read you. But if you write about things people are interested in, other people are writing about them, too. I have felt jealousy as a writer many times: while reading Rachel Aviv writing about fugue states and psychosomatic unconsciousness; Lauren Oyler writing about the un-give-up-ability of social media; and, even though she’s dead, Susan Sontag writing about the way apocalypse looms but never occurs—the last section of AIDS and Its Metaphors is basically my whole work in progress, condensed. Sontag seems to have already had all my worthwhile thoughts. Reading writers I admire writing about things I want to write about, obsessions I’m protective of, makes me feel unspecial: a bratty thing to feel, or at least to admit.

Doesn’t everyone want to be special, though? In an interview in 2015, the novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner, who writes a lot about fame, said the following:

Of course Warhol said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, but I think the new model of that mantra is that in the future—which is now—everyone will be famous all the time. I think fame has a really interesting place in our being human. The desire for acclaim is not new—the attention one calls to self. An old Buddhist text said that the desire for acclaim is so strong that in many ways it’s a more difficult hardship to overcome than poverty or disease. This particular Buddhist text I was reading said that even the most reclusive of cave monks will have the desire to be known the world over as the most reclusive of cave monks.

That last part—“even the most reclusive of cave monks will have the desire to be known the world over as the most reclusive of cave monks”—remains one of the most comforting things I have ever read. I recite it to myself like a mantra. Wanting to be special isn’t special.

I wrote most of this essay and then got on a plane with a copy of Between Eternities, a collection of short, riffy pieces by Javier Marías, mostly selected from his weekly columns in the Spanish newspaper El País, which he has been writing for over twenty years. In these essays he seems preoccupied with the idea of uniqueness, and at least as jealously possessive of his subjects as I am. In a piece called “The Isolated Writer” (2011), he writes of the writer’s “need to feel almost unique, rather than the mere interchangeable member of a generation or group, rather than even ‘a child of one’s time.’ ” How awful, to appear to be the product of the arbitrary coordinates of your time and place of birth! Without the illusion that we can reach escape velocity and transcend our zeitgeist, we’d be unable to work; our books would seem “superfluous.”

In “For Me Alone to Read” (2007), Marías writes of the irritation of finding that your favorite art or artists have other fans. After naively believing “we were the only people who knew them, or at least the ones who best or most truly understood them,” we learn that “many other readers, viewers or listeners are familiar with these books and have perhaps felt the same, and then you cannot help see these others as ‘usurpers’ or ‘copycats.’ ” I’ve had a slightly different worry, that once someone more famous than me has written about “my” subject, everyone will think that I’m the copycat. For Marías—who I guess doesn’t have to worry about writers more famous than him—this having-to-share is worse when the others are “people we don’t like, or whom we detest or despise, or who strike us as arrant fools.” Again, I feel differently; the pain of sharing is more poignant when I see the writer who got there first was at least as interesting on the subject as I might have been.

Marías ends “The Isolated Writer” with a passage about winning the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, a distinction he shares with such people as W. H. Auden, Italo Calvino, and Simone de Beauvoir. “These were figures whom I viewed almost as extraterrestrial beings, some ever since I was a child, and who, I was sure, bore no resemblance to myself,” he writes. One might think that such an accolade would finally make one feel truly special. But, for Marías, to see his name added to this list of literary greats is paradoxically diminishing: it “makes me somehow less myself,” it “makes me exist less.”

This is like achieving satori, an understanding of the principle of “no self,” via fame. How counterintuitive. It suggests that the cave monks, in their yearning for renown, were doing something right.

Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist, is the author, most recently, of The Word Pretty (Black Ocean). 

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