Discovering Sylvia Plath and ‘Herr Enemy’

The publication of a previously unreleased short story by Sylvia Plath is big news in the literary world. As Harper Perennial released Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom to much fanfare and debate in January, I realised that – to my shame – I had never read any Plath. I decided to begin with Ariel (1965), written just before her suicide in 1963, and edited, along with her journals and letters, by Ted Hughes. (Hughes burnt the last of her journals. He was able to do all this because their divorce was not yet final. His actions obscured his abuse, which has become clearer since his death.) Reading Ariel was a startling experience – I was immediately enraptured by this voice, which articulated so much I feel and think but cannot easily name. But I was also surprised by something – the two perhaps most famous poems of the collection, ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’, both centre on Holocaust imagery. And yet, I had never come across Plath in my reading about Holocaust literature. Why not?

In ‘Lady Lazarus’ the speaker addresses ‘Herr Enemy’, and describes her total destruction at his hands, ‘And I a smiling woman’. This destruction explicitly recalls the Holocaust – ‘Ash, ash / You poke and stir’, ‘A cake of soap/ A wedding ring,/  gold filling.’ – and is voyeuristic for ‘Herr God, Herr Lucifer’. It is a ‘big strip tease’. She tells us: ‘Dying/ Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.’ Dying becomes performative.

For me, this poem has the interconnected relationship between fascism, capitalism and the patriarchy in its sight. The more fascistic a state becomes, the more rigidly policed its gender roles. In states that aren’t fascistic, these roles are policed by economic inequalities, the messages of consumerism, and the messages of culture. In these systems, there is the dominant and the dominated; a power dynamic that at one end of the political spectrum is maintained by economic, cultural and social means, and at the other is maintained at the point of a gun – until the dominant can justify (to themselves) the total destruction of the dominated.

‘Lady Lazarus’ reads as a woman recognising the death expected of her – the destruction of her own desires, ambitions, thoughts, control, and body. The poem ends with a promise of revolution after the death of this performed womanhood: ‘Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.’ In ‘Daddy’, the speaker’s father is a ‘Panzer-man, panzer-man’ with ‘neat mustache/ And your Aryan eye’, who dies when the speaker is a child, as Plath’s father did. The speaker ‘knew what to do’: ‘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.’

I began to look into how the poems have been critically received. I found that three particular lines in ‘Daddy’ have been subject to query and worry: ‘Every woman adores a Fascist,/ The boot in the face, the brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you’. Should we take this line literally? Do they suggest both victim and persecutor are complicit? For me, these lines wryly articulate how as women we are taught to find domination normal, even attractive. The poem’s final line is addressed to the ‘Daddy’ that has now become father and husband: ‘Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.’

I realised I had little context for Plath as a poet – and as I read up on her, this seemed no accident. I found a host of critics and poets insisting Plath’s writing was all about Plath, and nothing else. Take critic George Steiner, recognising that Plath inspired other women writers, but insisting her ‘desperate integrity’ cannot be imitated. Here are some more examples:

poet laureate Robert Pinsky: [Plath] suffered the airless egocentricism of one in love with an ideal self.

critic Denis Donoghue: she showed what self-absorption makes possible in art…

poet Peter Davison: ‘No artifice alone could have conjured up such effects.’

This remarkable doublethink has Plath in a double bind. She cannot play an influential role in literature, despite actually influencing other writers, because her experience, her ‘desperate integrity’, is hers alone. Plath must then be the only woman in the world to have an ‘authoritarian father’ (as her Poetry Foundation biography puts it), and an abusive husband, as Plath did in Ted Hughes. This reasoning suggests Plath wrote about her own singular experiences of abuse and oppression, rather than the patriarchal system of abuse and oppression. I was reminded of the scholar Herbert Marder, who notes that Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse both include ‘vivid pictures of … domestic tyranny’ – and yet claims the novels ‘do not converge on a central “problem”’. To quote Joanna Russ, ‘it is surely uncomfortable for a patriarch to see patriarchy as the central problem.’

Just as Plath was accused of egocentricism and self-absorption, Woolf was routinely depoliticised against all evidence to the contrary. The insistence that both of these writers were self-preoccupied isolates their anger, making it personal, and therefore mysteriously indirect. In this way, the personal cannot be political, undermining the rallying cry for women in the 1960s and 1970s, in which the personal was political precisely because tyranny is domestic.

Plath’s use of Holocaust imagery troubled critics in the 1960s. Here is George Steiner again, writing that it gives him ‘unease’, and asking, ‘Does any writer, does any human being other than an actual survivor, have the right to put on this death-rig?’ This is a question that has perhaps been asked more of the Holocaust than any other historical event, partly out of urgent guardianship, as the Holocaust has so often been misrepresented and denied. There is also the danger of the voice of victims and survivors being silenced by the voices of others. Cynthia Ozick sums this up with characteristic power: ‘Jews are not metaphors – not for poets, not for novelists, not for theologians, not for murderers, and never for anti-semites.’

The belief that, for Plath, it’s all about the personal makes the link between the speaker’s traumatic experiences and the separate events of the Holocaust deeply problematic. In this reading, Jews are indeed only metaphors. But this wasn’t how the poems read to me. As Plath wrote the poems collected in Ariel, the Eichmann trial filled world headlines, and brought a greater understanding of the events of the Holocaust to public consciousness. But for Plath the Holocaust had been always been part of the conversation of her life. At school, Plath’s history teacher tacked enlarged photographs of inmates of Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz to the classroom wall. Later, Plath studied fascism – and in particular its potential in the US – in college, and went on to write about it at Cambridge.

In a 1962 BBC Radio interview with Peter Orr, Plath said: ‘In particular, my background is, may I say, German and Austrian’ – Plath’s father was a German immigrant to the US – ‘and so my concern with concentration camps and so on is uniquely intense. And then, again, I’m rather a political person as well, so I suppose that’s what part of it comes from.’ Orr asks, ‘Do your poems tend now to come of out books rather than out of your own life?’ Plath addresses the dichotomy being set up here:

No, no: I would not say that at all. I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is … personal experience … should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau…

The personal is political.

For me, ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’ are disturbing because the subject is disturbing. While Plath’s language might in some ways feel out-dated now, I consider it to be uncomfortable because it’s supposed to be. The speaker’s identification with the victims of the Holocaust asks us to consider the intertwined systems of fascism, capitalism and patriarchy much like Virginia Woolf’s essay Three Guineas, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In the days of Trump, finding writing that seeks to highlight this relationship feels crucial.

You might also like

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.