When the twenty-two-year-old(October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) wrote to her mother one bleak January day, both women were wading through the darkness of the soul. Science was only just beginning to hone the tools with which to start dissecting the elemental mystery of what makes us who we are: how much of our psychology and what we experience as our personhood — whether we call it self or soul or spirit — is a product of our physical constitution, of the particular biochemical processes through our particular infrastructure of matter that we experience as our body. Neuroscience was then an infant science — it still is — and the helix of heredity had just been discovered, hinting at the promise of new clarity on the ancient puzzlement of nature versus nurture, unique insight into how much of our psychology is a biological inheritance and how much an ongoing composition continually revised by we call experience.
Several years earlier, the teenage Plath had begun contouring her consciousness and mapping its psychological promontories, its luminous surfaces. Its dark edges, rhapsodizing about, thinking deeply about , and composing in response to a minor domestic accident. Two years before she shaded in what was becoming all-consuming darkness in she wrote to her mother in a letter included in the posthumously collected ( ):
I don’t know whether it is a hereditary characteristic. Still, our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these, I’ve been fighting a massive battle with myself.
But then, with the presence of mind and the triumph of spirit that allowed them to live through theof her life — years she filled with some of the most timelessly exquisite poetry ever written — she adds:
But beyond a point, fighting onlyone out, and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy… Your present life is the crucial thing. There is a dangerous fallacy — a biological falsehood, a feebleness of empathy, an ethical failing — in the view that people who die by suicide after living with have somehow failed at life. It is one thing to feel the tragedy of that loss deeply, to rue the help not of struggle; it is quite another to fault the faulty instrument itself. It is impossible for any one consciousness to honestly inside another is like in the first place — we make art and poems and songs to try to show each other what it is like to be alive in this body-mind.
But it is exceptionally unfathomable for a mind coursing with fairly ordinary biochemistry, housed in a brain with ordinary fairy neurophysiology, to grasp what it might be like to live with a mind inflamed by ceaselessly misfiring neurotransmitters or a mind housed in a brain with a large tumor pressing against the amygdala atof every hour. To survive even a with such a mind is no small feat. To have not only survived thirty-one years, as Sylvia Plath did but to have filled those of staggering beauty, with poems that irradiate generations of lives — that is a rare triumph of the spirit.
Complement with May Sarton onand Lorraine Hansberry — another visionary artist of Plath’s generation, who also lived and made in the darkest depths — on , then hear Meryl Streep read Plath’s stunning and savor a rare glimpse of the poet’s inner world through her .