Iain Cameron's Diary
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2005-08-22 - 12:50 p.m.
THE SUBLIME OF THE SMALL 3
We have seen how the pattern of artistic vision that Hux finds in DHL leaps forward into Ted Hughes’ poetic methodology and self definition. We have also seen how the reaction to PCP - possibly true but undutiful in its nastiness and the depression it induces - is read into Sylvia Plath’s work in the first phase of critical response some 35 years later.
This last loop must be drawn tighter by looking in detail in what SP made of Hux. Towards the end of her first year at Newnham at the age of 23 we find Sylvia Plath invoking Huxley in her Journals:
“Can I be good for a week? No acidity or lemon looks for those laborious puns and endless family trees: oh my God - what is it, what is it? Why does not one learn to live with the boring daily bread that is good for one? That is comfortable, convenient and available? Like Brave New World. So one can suffer and become Shakespeare? Ironically I suffer and do not become Shakespeare - and it is my life which is passing - my life which is smutched and battered and running - each heart-beat, each clock-tick being a fatal subtraction that the total number that I was allowed in the beginning.”
This was written in Europe - on a turbulent vac venture - after the famous St Botolph incident, while Hughes is living in London - indeed a few sentences further she is wondering whether she should have gone to live with Hughes. A page further on the journal continues:
“And now the alternatives revolve in a fatal dance - with the mailing of the postcard Ted will know I am going to Rome and Ted will know I want to be with him if only for one night.”
About a month earlier she was in Heffers and bought ‘lots of books by Huxley - the most recent about Heaven and Hell - of antipodes in mind - reached under hypnosis or mescaline.’ She goes to the Anchor pub and buys sandwiches and expresso and reads her Hux. (Of course in my young day we didn’t just read about mescaline by the Cam - the biochemical post doc deadheads had it flown in from California. Meaning leaks from molecules)
In February she had noted that Cambridge is full of scientists printing presses and theatre groups all she needed was ‘the guts to write about them.’
Its also worth remembering that this was Plath’s first year of English at Cambridge (it must have been a culture shock) . She noted in her journal that “At Newnham there isn’t one don I admire personally.” She can’t get a male supervisor although thought that they were probably better but because of ‘their brilliance ‘. Even then she felt she would be unlikely to indulge in the friendly commerce she had with the Profs at Smiths.
(Its worth comparing the NHS account of SP’s well defined social circle at Smiths and in particular her enmity with the pioneers of the emerging beat movement and her enthusiasm for the ‘out’ poetry scene in Cambridge - the first bit of local colour to emerge in the journals of her first year at Newnham.)
Some of the journal entries are very funny. We need to remember that Leavis is dominant at Cambridge at this time and has just published his study of DHL. During the term before the Europe trip she writes:
“Today, Mrs Krook discussing the redemptive power of love, which philosopher F H Bradley (an English Hegelian) left out of his Ethical Studies (much to his weakening) and which we will hear about in D H Lawrence next week.”
She reports Mrs Krook comments on her paper ‘Passion as Destiny in Racine” that passion is only one aspect and not the ‘fatal holocaust I made it.’
A little later she notes that DHL died in Vence “where I had my mystic vision with Sassoon; I was the woman who died and I came in touch through Sassoon with that flaming spring, that flaming of life, that resolute fury of existence. All seemed shudderingly relevant - I have lived a good deal of this . Its important.” (Sassoon was the serious relationship which SP carried over from Smith to Cambridge.)
Within four months she has married Hughes.
But back to Hux in in the USA. At the start of her course when she was 18, under pressure having started at Smiths and also feeling rather lost SP wrote:
“These are the only indications that I am a whole person - not merely a knot of nerves, without identity. I’m lost. How Huxley would have laughed. What a conditioning centre this place is. Hundreds of faces bent over their books, fans whirring, beating time along the edge of thought. It’s a nightmare. There is no sun. There is only continual motion.”
At Smiths, SP also refers to DHL in quite a forcefully written entry about the phenomenology of sex and love - which she is tempted to see in terms of training and conditioning :
“What is it but destruction? Some mystic desire to beat to sensual annihilation - to snuff out one’s identity on the other - a mingling and mangling of identities? A death of one? Or both? A devouring and subordination? No no - a balance of two integrities changing electrically one with the other yet with centres of coolness like stars. And D H Lawrence did have something after all………No its not a black and white choice or alternative like - either I am victorious and on top or you are - It is only balance that I ask for. Not the continual subordination of one persons desires and interests to the continual advancement of another’s.”
Now lets take another major specimen and give him a good dissection.
In BNW, Hux spends the first half of the book with the set-up. This is so fabulously executed that many readers think that this is the whole point but in fact its only the start.
Two characters go for a holiday in the Mexican reservation. They witness a display of Indian dancing - live snakes feature and some initiation. The candidate has to endure not only the snakes but being whipped by an older man dressed as a coyote until the younger bleeds. His young blood is symbolically fed to the snakes. The female character finds this a bit too much but unfortunately she is out of soma.
One of the natives comes to her aid - and starts speaking in Shakespearean language. This is the Savage. He is the son of a visitor who got marooned on her trip to the reservation - she was out for a hike in the wilderness when she fell and hurt herself and was abandoned by her companion. Without contraception she becomes pregnant and her son is raised on the reservation. She learns that the Indian mescal is a bit like soma except you get more of a hangover.
The Savage is raised by his mother - she tells him stories of civilization (which in a neat irony come across as ancient myth) and she teaches him to read. When he was about 12 his mother is given an old relic by her Indian lover - a battered text which is some 300 years which he has found in one of the old ruins in the desert (an abandoned settlement from the time before the wars which led to the scientific civilization.) It is the complete works of WS. So the Savage is raised as a half-breed - partly in the Mexican Indian culture and partly excluded with frequent beatings:
‘All alone outside the pueblo on the bare plains of the mesa. The rock was bleached like bones in the moonlight. Down in the valley the coyotes were howling at the moon. The bruises hurt him, the cuts were still bleeding: but it was not for the pain that he sobbed; it was because he was all alone, because he had been driven out, alone, into this skeleton world of rocks and moonlight. At the edge of the precipice he sat down. The moon was behind him; he looked into the black shadow of the mesa, the black shadow of death. He had only to take one step, one little jump…….He had discovered Time Death and God’
(Hux’s older brother committed suicide when Hux was about this age.)
The Savage strikes a rapport with the male visitor - Bernard - who is also a bit of an outsider - and Bernard invites the Savage back to civilization. In response the Savage quotes Miranda’s words from the Tempest.
The debate ends with the Savage saying:
“I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin’.
Mustapha Mond interprets this as meaning that the Savage is claiming the right to be unhappy :
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly an impotent: the right to have syphilis and cancer: the right to have too little to eat: the right to be lousy: the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen: the right to catch typhoid: the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”
The Savage claims them all and Mustapha tells him that he can have them.
(The last time I saw Richard was in Detroit in 68.)
If SP saw Smith as part of the conditioning centre in a scientific civilization - she had already read and digested BNW at the start of her time there. While she is still wondering which way to go in Cambs she reads some later Hux about mescaline and the exploration of psychological extremes and then a bit later in Europe, wondering which way to go, she is balancing Mustapha’s options.
Lets look at the situation from the other angle:
The bright mirroir I braved: the devil in it
Nile moves in me; my thighs play
Desert and river unwrinkled again.
Half deity out of Capricorn,
From my bed. May the moon
And we have echoes of this as - sometime before 1962 - Hughes poetises from the female point of view - Cleopatra’s final vision - releasing the snake against order and rationality - against male self-command - against scientific civilization.
The snake is sublime and small and it reigns.
(To be continued)