Sylvia Plath died by suicide.
She stuck her head in an oven with the gas turned on and waited till she was unconscious.
I was given Sylvia Plath’s poems to read when I was 16 years old. And they repulsed me. I thought I was too naïve and unprepared for her maturity. I was definitely not ready for the rawness of the unconscious even though I was at the same time sinking in it. I picked up her poetry again some years ago as a forty year old and I loved them.
Even though I respect her as a writer, I can’t seem to enjoy her work now as I did back then.
And now I know why.
Many writers use poetry as a form of therapy and therefore a way to achieve transformation.
In Latin the phrase ‘to pull’ comes from the word trahere which connotes being pulled through in order to experience metanoia. In Cornwall the Mên-an-Tol, probably from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, is a stone with a hole in the middle which people got carried through in order to heal. Ill Scandinavian children were pulled through a window close to a stove three times as part of a ritual to draw out illness.1
An oven in psychoanalytic language is a womb. That is why we say when a woman is pregnant she has a bun in the oven. A womb is where the creative potential of a woman and a man, even though in symbolic form, exists. Hexagram 50 from the I Ching Book of Changes shows how the cauldron which is another receptacle for mixing and cooking ingredients, acts as a psychological container where one can create a symbolic third. In other words it can be viewed as an environment where we cook up different ingredients to produce a whole.
Kachelofen is a German word for a tile or masonry oven which was used to heat up a house and cook food simultaneously. It is large enough to cater for bathing and some even have a compartment to smoke meats. Since they contain multiple flues or baffles, the warmth which is sponged up and slowly radiated through the tiles and masonry advantageously lasts a whole day.
There are many Russian fairy tales which feature an Izba (Russian log cabin) which contains a kachelofen or similar type oven. A kachelofen is safe, cosy and accommodating enough to sleep on in the colder months. Interestingly during the war people were able to escape capture by using their interior as a secret hideaway.
Depending on our approach, we can find ourselves in the bath of the oven and drown or turn our life around and emerge as something new. We can use the oven as a cocoon or as a trap. The oven can be used to save us or burn us alive.
The Russian legendary hero Ilya Muromets could not walk for 33 years and lay on an oven until he was cured. Similarly Christ was 33 before he died and experienced the resurrection.
The way Plath used her gas oven reminds me of something cold, harsh and mechanical not unlike the holocaust chambers and so a terrible contrast to the homely cottage oven which radiates a sense of cheerfulness and comfort for the whole family.
In psychoanalytic terms, a house is a symbol for the psyche or body. When we are not open to feeling and love our nocturnal dreams can illustrate a hearth which is not burning or that we live on isolated and icy terrain. Blocking off emotion causes dissociation or a feeling we are cut off from ourselves and others. And this is why dreams and writing can convey castration symbols such as one choking or being hanged or beheaded. They can reveal houses collapsing or submerged in a flood.
Dissociation puts a plug on our ability to feel joy and pain alike. Our creativity cannot flow like sulky water in a sink and which is as stagnant as a cesspool.
In dreamwork and writing the image of the oven is associated with the stomach. This is where process occurs, where food is digested and which symbolizes the assimilation of old and new attitudes. It highlights how the cooking up of different elements can restore one to health and consciousness which can also be poetically described as the metamorphosis of a butterfly. This is the reason why in fairy tales the oven was sometimes used as a flying form of transportation similar to a magic carpet.
Neonates in the right position at birth are positioned head first. Plath had her legs sticking out. Instead of a rebirth she got stuck in the womb. Tragically, before the point of death she was in a deep regression.
Dreams and writing can conjure claustrophobic images and feelings like suffocating or being compressed in a tight place to show an overdue confinement in the womb. We can perhaps find ourselves in a cave or drowning in a bathtub full of water or imprisoned in a body bag while sleeping. This means we are not in the world because we are still dependent on our mothers. Jung described this as being the same as being in the egg. We have not yet hatched and experienced life.
Regression dreams can also highlight bombs exploding and ambiguous figures because they involve panic and anger and other aspects of ourselves which are split off from our awareness.
Regression is a common psychological defense mechanism to guard against pain. This means that instead of our ego and soul mutually operating at our normal expected psychological stage we have reverted back to an earlier more ego-centric one. We may find ourselves addicted to the bottle revealing that we are still trying to suckle our mother’s breast for succour and nurture. An older child may redevelop a lisp.
This shows we are afraid of moving forward so we cling to what we feel comfortable with. This often means we relapse into our old attitudes even though they prove to be deleterious. It is when we are driven towards an unconscious sadomasochistic direction we begin to destroy ourselves and others. The reason it takes us down is because we are simply not aware it exists in us and so unable to unscrew our tension in order to encourage circulation so that we undo the wooden or unfeeling aspects of ourselves and become more human.
Regression is at times beneficial and a necessary stage for development such as seen in the cases of a reculer pour mieux sauter. This means we take a few steps backward into a sheltered psychological environment to gain momentum and leap into a more mature consciousness later on. The natural although painful battlefield of regression is the psyche’s way of urging us to revisit our experiences at that point in our life. This means if we experienced a wounding when we were two years old, aspects in our attitudes in both dreams and in waking life will explain the origins of this.
This regression holds us in a womb-like environment which acts as ‘nurturing mother’ to ensure we are kept safe and sound during our healing process. A reculer pour mieux sauter is more temporary than a regression proper and acts more like a placebo in that it gives us a psychological jolt in order to wake us up and consider a more positive direction. It is like a psychological trick which forces us to walk back a few steps to the fork in the road so that we can turn right instead of left. A regression of this type can help us to remain shielded in a familiar environment so that we can digest unbearable affects and learn to perceive ourselves differently before taking a plunge forward.
Regressions occur because when we were young our caregivers did not have the full capacity to contain, digest and return our frightening feelings and thoughts to us in a more soothing and reassuring way.
Any type of regression can be disastrous if it remains in a deadlocked position. They can prove fatal in a psychological sense and also eventually manifest physically because it can lead to a quick downward spiral toward suicide if it is not made conscious.
It takes a great deal of ego solidity to learn how to accept and resolve regressive states. One must learn to identify and interpret their meaning so that one can submit courageously to the unconscious even in cases of psychosis (as can be observed in the writing of James Joyce) in order to emerge in a healthier state more seamlessly.
Tragically, the rebirth that Sylvia Plath was seeking was interpreted literally and physically rather than symbolically and psychologically and so her approach was inside out. She was a young woman with enormous potential who just never got through to the other side.
Perhaps if her underlying motivations were made conscious by interpreting her dreams, writing and behaviour during her waking life she could have turned her body and life around and lived to realize her full creative potential.
Her pages feel cold with loss on the tips of my fingers. I close Plath’s book and gently return it to my bookshelf. I wish I could have seen her other more life-giving side. It is with great regret I realize I will never get the chance to read the poetry she could have one day written.
Annie Blake (BTeach, GDipEd) is a divergent thinker, a wife and mother of five children. She enjoys experimenting with Blanco’s Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Logic to explore consciousness and the surreal and phantasmagorical nature of unconscious material. Her work is best understood when interpreted like dreams. She is an advocate of autopsychoanalysis and a member of the C G Jung Society of Melbourne, Australia. You can visit her on annieblakethegatherer.blogspot.com.au and https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009445206990.
- Hand D. W. Magical Medicine: The Folkloric Component of Medicine in the Folk Belief, Custom, and Ritual of the Peoples of Europe and America. University of California Press. 1981; 168