Sylvia Plath and the Language of World War II
The Holocaust is one of the most devastating and incomprehensible events in human memory. The systematic killing of millions of civilians and the attempted erasure of their culture defies logic, and exists outside the realm of everyday understanding. Words associated with the Holocaust or the dropping of the atomic bomb automatically summon a visceral frame of reference for anyone informed of the atrocities of World War II. Sylvia Plath’s use of Holocaust imagery as a lexicon in her poetry likens her struggles with power and suffering to the horror of mass genocide. By using such alarming language in her poetry, Plath’s writing arouses disturbing feelings of horror and confusion in the reader regardless of the overall subject matter. By associating her suffering with World War II, Plath elevates her experiences to a realm of common understanding.
While the imagery of World War II is accessible to many readers, Plath’s identification with the victims of the war, particularly the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, calls into question the ethics of such usage. Some readers feel that Plath’s appropriation of the victims’ experiences is morally reprehensible and unsuitable to her medium. Critic George Steiner asked “Does any writer, does any human being other than an actual survivor, have the right to put on this death-rig?”[i] While the argument against Plath’s language is valid, the literary use of Holocaust imagery taps into a collective consciousness of the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s. In the context of Plath’s concise, tense poetry, the controversial language fits the purpose of communicating evil, suffering, and victimhood immediately. In “Daddy”, Plath writes “I began to talk like a Jew./ I think I may well be a Jew.” She uses ‘Jew’ as a placeholder for someone without a voice, but the meaning is intensified in the socio-historical context of the Holocaust. Robert Boyers wrote that her language “does not represent a political judgment but a commitment to particular expedient categories which are functional within the poem alone. They are acceptable and functional because the poet needs to see her suffering as emblematic of a more widespread affliction and because she is able to draw upon a wealth of concrete details…capable of releasing tremendous rage and pity…”[ii] Boyers argues that Plath’s language is an attempt to connect to the global outrage over the events of the Holocaust, and that it is acceptable because poetry does not necessarily parallel the real world.
In “Lady Lazarus”, Plath references her previous suicide attempts, and makes associations between her body and the Holocaust. By associating negative, evil imagery with her own body, “A sort of walking miracle, my skin/ Bright as a Nazi lampshade”, Plath iterates a self-loathing and a desire for destruction. In the next stanza, however, her reference “My face a featureless, fine/ Jew linen.” solidifies her view of herself as an anonymous victim. She expands on the image of the empty victim as she writes “Ash, ash-/ You poke and stir./ Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–/ A cake of soap,/ A wedding ring,/ A gold filling.” The violence of being burned, and of only being valued for one’s possessions, are even more extreme images associated with concentration camp prisoners. Plath is communicating the serious subject matter of suicide, and her use of Holocaust imagery is fitting because it expresses the depth of a despair difficult to enumerate to those who have not experienced extreme mental illness. The stanzas of “Lady Lazarus” are only three lines long, and are written in short, staccato-like phrases. Plath writes in the first person to explain her experiences with suicide. “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well./ I do it so it feels like hell./ I do it so it feels real.” The straightforward, unflinching language shocks the reader, and is even more uncomfortable when the reader is addressed as a Nazi doctor. “So, so Herr Doktor./ So, Herr Enemy./ I am your opus.” This assignation of identity forces the reader to participate in Plath’s despair. Her despair is not regular despair; it is connected to horror associated only with the Holocaust, and thus placed on a higher plane of suffering in the mind of the reader. Al Strangeways argues that “…readers are meant to feel uncomfortable with the suprapersonal, mythical depiction of Jewish suffering, feeling somehow implicated…in the voyeurism such an assimilation of the Holocaust implies.”i The reader’s “implication” is part of Plath’s aim to disturb and involve the reader in her suffering. Plath connects her suffering to the Holocaust as a device to make the reader feel uneasy in the same way that the historical events of the Holocaust make people uneasy.
The dissolving of boundaries between one’s personal life and historical events is most present in Plath’s poem “Daddy”. Plath oscillates between competing visions of adoration and fear of a patriarchal figure, using Nazi imagery to describe him, such as “And your neat mustache/ And your Aryan eye, bright blue.” The overall tone is violent and unstable, as if the poem itself (or Plath) could fall apart at any moment. The speaker not only desires to kill the father, “Daddy, I have had to kill you./ You died before I had time–” and “There’s a stake in your fat black heart”, but she also references her own suicidal urges when she states, “At twenty I tried to die/ And get back, back, back to you.” The violent imagery is an expression of her mental illness, yet by associating the father figure with a Nazi, the depth of the speaker’s anger feels warranted to the reader. Boyers again iterates that Plath’s identification with the Jewish victim is justified, stating “In “Daddy”, the poet feels that the common language is simply inadequate for any reasonable communication of her needs.”ii Plath necessitated the appropriation of Holocaust imagery in order to fully convey her experiences. The paradox of the father figure emphasizes a sense of confusion that permeates the poem. The speaker desires to reconnect with the father, “I used to pray to recover you”, and searches for his ancestral roots. Unable to do so, the speaker writes, “I made a model of you,/ A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw/ And I said I do, I do.” The speaker was unable to reach the unattainable Daddy, and thus married the most similar man she could find. However, the speaker still retains an intense hatred for the father figure, comparing him to a fascist, a devil, and a vampire. The resulting image of Daddy, a person meant to be a loving parent, is contradictory and uncomfortable. Plath struggles to define Daddy or the “model” of him, just as people do not understand how an event like the Holocaust could occur. The confusion Plath expresses, “The tongue stuck in my jaw./ It stuck in a barb wire snare./ Ich, ich, ich, ich,/ I could hardly speak./ I thought every German was you” is similar to the confusion surrounding the Holocaust, and the inability of writers to put such an atrocity into words.
In both “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy”, Plath attempts to change the power dynamic and to subvert the figure she is struggling against. The enemy in “Lady Lazarus” is the “Herr Doktor” and “Herr God, Herr Lucifer” that values her for her body and is also disturbingly associated with the reader. At the end of the poem, Plath warns the vague enemy, “Beware/ Beware./ Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.” Plath defies a violent death and vows to return and consume the men who have committed injustices. The speaker of the poem not only enacts revenge for her suffering, but also assumes the role of power by physically ingesting the men and making them a part of her body. The reconfiguring of the narrative of victimhood associates the Jewish Holocaust victims with a spirit of vengeance that is easy for a reader to imagine. As is previously stated, “Daddy” expresses a desire to kill the father figure in order to be freed from it. However, “Daddy” lacks the strong resolution of “Lady Lazarus”, ending instead with a resignation and a vow to no longer be involved in the dysfunctional relationship. “And the villagers never liked you…They always knew it was you./ Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” By removing herself from the chaotic dynamic surrounding Daddy, Plath destroys the structure that allows it to exist in the first place; she no longer acquiesces to be a victim of Daddy’s machinations, and thus his power is gone. The removal of oneself from the situation is a more temperate solution than killing Daddy, as she desires to do, yet feels less resolved and earnest than the bluntness of “Lady Lazarus”. Sylvia Plath’s late poetry is marked by struggles with her own personal demons, and the inability to understand the root of her suffering. She searches for resolution and explanation through language and writing; her use of Holocaust imagery is an attempt to express her thoughts with a depth that readers will emotionally respond to themselves. Though unsettling and controversial, Plath’s use of a historical event is appropriate, as her writing exists in the realm of literature rather than reality; she does not attempt to convey fact. In reference to “Daddy”, Matthew Boswell wrote “The world of the poem- a kind of hell peopled by vampires, devils, and perpetrators, a world where the speaker cannot even die- thus enable the coming-into-being of fictional, mythical, transhistorical, and intergenerational identities that testify to the continuing presence of past atrocities in oblique and unsettling ways.”[iii] Poetry allows Plath to experiment with the possible reactions, associations, and identifications that a reader associates with the Holocaust, in a way that does not impede on the historical narrative of World War II. Rather, she creates a disturbing realm of contemplation exploring how the injustices suffered by the Jewish victims can be translated to other types of experiences.
[i] Strangeways, Al. “The Boot in the Face: The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter and Deborah A. Schmitt, vol. 111, Gale, 1999. Contemporary Literary Criticism Online, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LCO&sw=w&u=viva_wm&v=2.1&id=WIOATZ448266561&it=r&asid=e89c077b5e25142d32c7f341e5e304d7. Accessed 29 Oct. 2016. Originally published in Contemporary Literature, vol. 37, no. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 370-390.
[ii] Boyers, Robert. “Sylvia Plath: The Trepanned Veteran.” Poetry Criticism, edited by Robyn V. Young, vol. 1, Gale, 1991. Poetry Criticism Online, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LCO&sw=w&u=viva_wm&v=2.1&id=KQOBMK586019060&it=r&asid=271b505d1aa2865c3ebc8169dba14e37. Accessed 29 Oct. 2016. Originally published in The Centennial Review, vol. 13, no. 2, Spring 1969, pp. 138-153.
[iii] Boswell, Matthew. “Holocaust Literature and the Taboo.” The Bloomsbury Companion to Holocaust Literature, edited by Jenni Adams. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. Print.
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