The Facets of Madness - "This Is the Light of the Mind": Lady Lazarus' Maddened Musings


Originally Published in Farrago Edition Four (2022) 

Content Warning: references to mental illness and psychiatric treatment, mentions of death

"I rise with my red hair, and I eat men like air," declares Sylvia Plath in a sonorous tandem.

Written in a burst of creative energy, Sylvia Plath's concluding line in her poem 'Lady Lazarus' is nothing short of intimidating. Recalling the resurrected Lazarus of biblical lore, she seems to write that she herself is resurrected out of the flames of her own suffering--more powerful and intimidating than ever before.

Between the spaces of her written poetry, her voice rings free and curious, wild and uninhibited, breathy and slightly deranged. Indeed, there is a bit of the deranged in
the absolute conviction with which she proclaims the raw power she appears to hold over mankind. Certainly, had many of the men of Plath's 1960s caught wind of these words, I can only assume they would take a page out of the old cliché's book and collapse dramatically into an armchair in a fit of misogyny.

Many would have, in fact, thought Plath mad; and indeed, the chronic depression that plagued her until her death wouldn't have helped her case. Yet, one could just as easily argue that Plath simply wrote what she knew. Her highs, her lows, her cynicism, her witticisms, her morbidity, her mental illness and her experience of it all; every single bit of it was poured into her work. To be frank, there is no madness in that- only the unspoken side of humanity.

Take, for example, The Bell Jar, the one novel Plath dedicated much of her scholarly intellect to writing. She does not shy away from revealing society's perceptions of madness and the flawed institutionalised methods of "curing" madness conducted by asylums, prisons and psychiatric hospitals.

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York," she writes at the opening of her novel.

Later, this sense of helplessness-amidst the vast, monstrous, overwhelming tsunami of the unknown- makes its encore when she undergoes electro-shock therapy at the hands of an incompetent doctor. The trauma of electro-shock therapy remains embedded in her veins, even as she is taken under the care of a doctor of a more empathetic nature and an infinitely knowledgeable psychiatrist. Yet, this trauma stands in stark contrast to how her mother and the hospital's medical staff seem eager to ignore her "madness" under the guise of returning to normalcy. Esther Greenwood, the novel's protagonist, is thus forced to internalise her trauma. Attempting to adopt the gilded veil of normalcy only resurges Esther's terrible madness and harms only herself.

Plath's goal is to rent the veil into shreds and humanify madness. She aims to portray it as an innate facet of the human personality; one to be acknowledged rather than ignored; one to be handled and not suppressed. It is her suppression and the general unwillingness to acknowledge her mental illness that leads her down the thorny path, that makes her feel suffocated, as if she is within the airless confines of a bell jar. The minute she begins to know it, however--to embrace it as a reluctant companion and manage it as one manages a petulant child--her highs and lows converge into a bumpy yet straight and smooth line.

And perhaps it is this humanising of mental health that allows Plath's readers to relate to her work and explore the taboo aspects of their personalities

"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree." Plath writes. "One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet, and another fig was a brilliant professor... I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest."

How many of us have embodied these exact fears and anxieties about our future; fears of falling behind, of making a fatally wrong choice, of ruining chances and living with regret? How many of us have wanted and wanted, and have had to give up what we wanted? And how many times has the admittance of the "taboo" aspects of our humanity been demonised, ignored or misconstrued as madness?

Plath is hardly the first author and poet to depict the hidden woes of the human mind, but she arguably does it better than most. Her musings strum at the fleshy heartstrings of the reader and map the neurotic pathways of the reader's brain. It's safe to say that if the poetic musings of the inner human mind, the blatant depiction of mental health and psychiatric institutional practice cannot sway the taboo on "madness", then nothing will.

You may be interested in...
There are no current news articles.