The Romantics and the shackles of Modern Life

‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains’ – Jean Jacques Rousseau

We’ve all heard scientists talk about how sickness is epidemic in the modern world. The ills of technology, social media, processed foods and oppressive schedules affect each part of our physical and mental wellbeing. While a lot of this can be considered scare-mongering, I think there is some truth to the warnings. In some ways, we are the sickest we have ever been.

We are somewhat fortunate in the West that our culture propagates a strong work ethic as the key to success. People climb higher than ever before. The ascendance of individualism, however, has its costs. Humans are wired to always be on the run. Rising stress levels cause us to produce fight or flight responses to small inconveniences. We rely on substances to wake us up or put us to sleep. Chronic stress,  high blood pressure and strokes are more prevalent than ever before.

We are the generation of immediacy. We expect quick results, and everything in society must attend to this purpose. Technology provides shortcuts and brain-power where ours has lapsed. It is the clock that makes us tick. Time is of the essence, and our health suffers because of it. We have cultivated a society that attends to our needs, and doesn’t. Our quality of life has been impaired as much as it has been improved.

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Literature has long chronicled the illnesses of modernity. The words of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl suddenly spring to mind. His harrowing image of ‘starving, hysterical, naked’ automatons, the otherwise ‘best minds of [his] generation’, ‘dragging themselves through the streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix’, can only resemble the long queues of people waiting in line at the doctors for their magic pill: the elixir of life that will charge them up enough to face the mound of paperwork at the office the next day.

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Ginsberg often used natural imagery in his poetry as a point of contrast to the encroaching threat of modernity. He visualised a world that rejected the oppressive conformism and materialism of American society that had produced the sickness he saw on the streets. Like the early Romantic poets, Ginsberg saw industrialism as the disease of the modern condition.

Ginsberg’s generation, the Beats, were liminal figures. They expressed their cultural marginality by being everything and nothing, and belonging nowhere. They were the nomads of the American streets. The poets of early nineteenth-century Romanticism pioneered this interest in the figure of the ‘wanderer.’ Wordsworth, writing against a backdrop of rapid industrialism and the casualties of the French Revolution, fought against the changing order of society that modernity had brought along. He wrote of ‘thou wanderer in the wood’ – a person who wilfully chose to escape the reign of inequality being produced by a hierarchical, industrial-led society, into the recesses of nature, ‘the guide, the guardian… and soul of … moral being.’ Nature was still pure, untouched by human influence, and therefore a place to receive spiritual consolation.

Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, ‘Wanderer above the sea fog’ (c. 1818) captures a lone man stood on a summit, absorbed in quiet reverence, overlooking the catastrophe of the modern world. Framed by nature, he stands objectively, disconnected from the ills of modernity. Wandering was to the Romantics a way of submerging oneself into Nature and into a world with infinite and unlimited potential. Gazing out into the immensity of modern life, one should learn that it is, at times, okay to ‘wander.’

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Casper David Friedrich: ‘Wanderer above the Sea Fog’, (1818)

I now realise how Wordsworth felt composing ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, sat peacefully on the banks of the River Wye. Nature and writing, I have found, have an interesting alliance. I have learned enough about myself to know how susceptible I become to claustrophobic environments, and how much this can stifle my creativity. Sometimes sitting alone on a park bench amidst a cluster of trees truly can, as Wordsworth said, allow us to ‘see into the life of things.’

As Rousseau observed as early as 1762, man may be born free, but in the 21st century, our chains, obscured by the flashes of our mobile phones, may not be visible. We are inescapably tied to an overcharged sense of responsibility to perform at our best, reach success, make as many connections and as much money as possible. We may just not realise it.

Perhaps what our society needs most is a Roussean call to ‘get back to Nature!’, for it is Nature that can provide clarity to an unintelligible world.

The Romantics felt that life was not always something to be analysed, but felt and experienced. Nature, in all its majesty, was an apt setting to contemplate how one could strive for something greater.

Of course, it is too late in the day for us all to flee to the mountains, but all humans do need an outlet. For the Romantics it was opium; for my generation its the hyper-escapism that digital connectivity, recreational drugs and binge drinking can afford. The antidote for the stresses of modern life shouldn’t have to be a rejection of responsibility, or a substance-induced oblivion, but a carefully planned, structured, period of escape. 

Allow yourself time, stillness and flexibility. Cultivate an environment where only your own thoughts pervade. Shake the pollution of the city and embrace the fresh air of the country. Plan a day where events can be unplanned and spontaneous. Turn off that bloody phone.

Accepting uncertainty is not surrendering. It is choosing to relinquish, if only momentarily, the planning, structure and insatiable drive that lies behind our success. 

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World Down’s Syndrome Day: my brother, Joey.

It’s World Down’s Syndrome Day, and I wanted to write something to honour my younger brother Joseph and raise awareness for his cause.

As of 2018, a new advanced test for Down’s Syndrome, (Non-invasive prenatal testing) will be rolled out to about 10,000 women per year who are considered to have a higher likelihood of giving birth to a baby with this condition. In places like Iceland, 100% of babies diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome are aborted. This increase in screening will mean that fewer children like Joseph will have a chance to live.

Of course, there are conditions where a woman cannot, for valid reasons, bring a child with Down’s Syndrome into the world, and in some cases this is kinder. But a child with Down’s Syndrome is not suffering with a chronic disease. These children aren’t sickly. They require help and support more so than other children as they cannot learn as fast as we can, but many grow up to have stable jobs and take care of themselves.

I think it’s important to debunk the myth that scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, propose on the subject of this condition. Dawkins would have us think that children with Down’s Syndrome are miserable and ailing; existing only to suffer. Dawkins publicly told a woman on Twitter that if she was knowingly pregnant with a child with Down’s syndrome then the only ‘right’ thing to do would be to, ‘Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.’

Immoral.

What Dawkins proposes, to me, is eugenics. He propagates a vision that humans are here solely to reproduce and to, consequently, advance the human race. A simple matter of evolution. He renders people with Down’s Syndrome as entirely dispensable, given that their function as a human, in Dawkins’ eyes, is void.

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People with Down’s Syndrome cannot contribute to the economy or the perpetuation of the human race, but they can lead fulfilling lives. Granted, there are couples who cannot bring a child with Down’s Syndrome into the world for viable reasons but this is not one of them.

I could tell you so many reasons as to why my brother Joseph, known to us as Joey, has been nothing else if not a gift to my family. He is a person who wakes up every day and is enchanted by life. He gives love and joy back to a world that can be unkind.

Joey is a sentient human being, not an economic parasite. My argument, however, doesn’t make sense in scientific Dawkinsian terms. It’s emotional, not logical. Emotionally biased and not at all objective.

Those who meet Joey tend to walk away from the encounter as slightly more enriched individuals. Among his very many quirks of personality, he is entirely charming and extremely good company. He is known at Gloucester Cathedral, where he goes to the children’s church every Sunday, for enthusiastically singing the hymns and shouting out random words like ‘marmite’ and ‘ogan’ (a hilarious mix of ‘organ’ and ‘ogre’), just to lighten the mood. At my great aunt’s funeral, Joey decided the appropriate farewell was ‘Merry Christmas.’ And then there are his nicknames. my dad is often referred to by Joey as ‘big, baldy head’ which has since become a term of endearment.

If I ask Joey to do something, he sighs and rolls his eyes like any typical teenager would. He grunts every time he is asked to go for a bath. When he’s told to turn down his music in his bedroom, he’ll wait until you’ve left the room before cranking it up even louder.

Joey has a smile that leads to laughter so contagious that the hardest of hearts would melt in repose. He is cheeky and mischievous – that is, when he can be bothered. Joey doesn’t really stand, he reclines. He doesn’t walk, but shuffles. He knows no urgency. He moves everywhere at a snail’s pace. A big bundle of joy that you can’t move for the life of you.

Ultimately, Joey doesn’t really care what you think. If he wants to belch in public, he will. If he detects a tone of condescension in your voice, he’ll tell you, quite simply, to p*** off. He knows no bounds. He is completely uninhibited by the superficial social graces that we all perform and that’s what gives him his individuality.

Joey understands a lot more than he can say. He’s receptive to the troubles of those around him and while he can’t offer words, he will offer comfort in gesture. There has been many a time where I have sat and sobbed, and he has rubbed my back and put his hands in mine. An unspoken understanding.

Unlike the rest of us, Joey has no self-pity. He does not understand what it is to be unkind, selfish and resentful. He views every day with a sense of curiosity and wonder and appreciates the small things. The ‘squashed eggs’ (scotch eggs) he looks forward to having every week on a Sunday are symbolic of this ability to find joy in triviality.

To be around Joey is a wholly immersive experience. He will smother you with love and affection and in the same breath remind you that you are fat and bald.

If you distil life down to its brutal essence – the matters of life, death, reproduction – then you get an argument like Dawkins’, one that is ill-informed, reductionist and lacking in humanity.

Joey performs the same function as we all seek to do: to love and to be loved. He triumphs in life simply because he is entirely unashamed of who he is. We could all learn a thing or two from a person like him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sylvia Plath and the Art of Dying

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‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenberg’s, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

An odd line for the start of a book, I thought, upon reading the opening of The Bell Jar. I had read about Sylvia Plath before: sadist, suicide fanatic, suppressed artist, but never before had I read her novel which, upon further investigation, is undeniably about her life. A life characterised by such a sharp, unsettling sense of self-hatred as to make one quiver while reading. But this is only speculation.

Plath has been psychoanalysed to an inch of her life since her suicide in 1963. Sunday 14th January 2018 marked the 55th anniversary of the publication of The Bell Jar and occasioned my desire to add my own share of interpretation. It would be easy for me to mythologise Plath as a suicide fanatic, majestically draped in a robe of madness, but this would serve to trivialise her torturous experiences of clinical depression. What is striking about Plath, however, is the way in which she spoke of death with such an ease of expression. This was a woman who was deeply enraptured by visions of her own destruction that were so intimately crafted and, ultimately, so memorably enacted.

When considering the biographical details of her life, the opening line of The Bell Jar becomes more comprehensible. It was the summer of Plath’s senior year at college, the summer where they ‘electrocuted the Rosenberg’s’, and where Plath received electroconvulsive therapy multiple times before her first medically-documented suicide attempt. Plath, like her protagonist Esther, was in New York interning at Mademoiselle, a job a lot of women would have died for, chasing a rather stilted version of the American dream. Surrounded by conflicting modes of American womanhood – the domestic homemaker of the 1950s, the secretary who was learned in shorthand but ultimately subject to a man’s dictation– Esther, and Plath, began the downward spiral of despondency.

In The Bell Jar, death is a longing, a desire, but also a real, proven, possibility. The novel is sharply inflected by sharp motes of Plath’s own brush with self-destruction. Anne Sexton wrote how she and Plath ‘talked death with burned-up intensity, both of [them] drawn to it like moths to an electric lightbulb.’[1] This metaphor of electricity is used time and time again. Esther feeds off the adrenalin, the electric feeling of seeing ‘redness flower from her wrists.’ The potent image of red vividly reminding us of its author, Plath – a woman bent on mutilating herself body and soul. The reality of hurting oneself is glamorised. A nightmarish image of sinking further into a blood-stained bath ‘under a surface gaudy as poppies’ is swallowed up, forgotten, as we are lulled asleep along with its victim.

The morbid lucidity of Esther’s moments of pain are shocking to the reader, but all the more pleasurable to their author. Esther plays a game with us, and equally with herself. How much pain can she inflict upon herself, and how much can we hurt as a consequence?

One of Plath’s most momentous attempts at suicide is described in The Bell Jar. Esther heaves her body into a gap in the cellar wall and, after swallowing her mother’s sleeping pills, lies still on the brink of oblivion. She describes how ‘‘The silence drew off, bearing the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep’’. Her fragile body, this vessel of ‘tatty wreckage’, is finally numbed, nearly engulfed and swept away with the tide, but is saved before extinction.

I said earlier that is was easy for one to mythologise Plath because in a way, she wanted us to do that. She said herself that The Bell Jar was a ‘throw[n] together’ series of events from her life that she focused upon ‘fictionalising to add colour.’ You can’t help but think that suicide is an assertion of power and character; the additional ‘colour’, the redness flowing from the wrist, needed to remedy a life lived in torment.

Esther’s fantasies of suicide are tied to famous fictional narratives. Death is a stage, and we the spectators. Madness becomes theatre. In Plath’s poem ‘Edge’, she writes:

‘The woman is perfected. 

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment.’

This is a woman that has been prodded and preened and packaged up in an image of death. At last, perfected. In ‘Lady Lazarus’, a woman who has survived several acts of self-destruction, the cat with nine lives, says that,

‘Dying is like an art.

Like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.’

It is in these poems that I hear echoes of Plath’s own residual thoughts of suicide. It is she that is finally placed in the centre of the amphitheatre, here until the final close of the curtain, where her dead body will be brought onto the stage in full display.

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23 Fitzroy Road. Previously home to W.B. Yeats, Plath moved here with her two children after her split with husband and poet laureate Ted Hughes. It was here that she was discovered after she had taken her own life. 

 

Plath’s final collection of poems are characterised by what her daughter Frieda Hughes described as a ‘distinctive Ariel voice.’ Ariel is where Plath’s inner demons – rage, violence, punishment, fever – are tangibly personified and brought before us as an offering. You feel the energy of a tormented psyche in search of something deeper, darker, to ‘colour’ her life with catastrophe.

The electric imagery, the rage, returns, and then the numbing effect. The speaker of ‘A Birthday Present’ exclaims ‘My god, the clouds are like cotton’, a smothering, white expanse, muffling, nursing a wounded soul with the numbing effect of ‘carbon monoxide.’ But these clouds are in ‘armies’. They too desire to hurt. The speaker cries, ‘I am alive only by accident.’ She does not want to be saved.

In ‘Tulips’, the imagery of white returns with a hallucinatory quality. The speaker contemplates ‘how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.’ She says:

‘’I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted, 

To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.’’

The tulips offer an offensive brightness which startle the speaker. She does not want flowers. She desires an existence devoid of self that only the sterility of the hospital can offer. She wants only to be ‘empty’, effaced. Eileen Aird remarks that: ‘The world of Ariel is black and white, one into which red, which represents blood, the heart and living is always an intrusion.’[2] The redness, the life of the tulips should ‘be behind bars like a dangerous animal’ while she, empty, light as a cloud, can be ‘free’, ‘peaceful.’ It is Plath’s own dead body that is left, wounded, despised, when a whisper of, ‘from the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/ Govern a life’, is heard, echoing, reverberating, at the end of the collection. Each word dropped like a stone in the ocean.

As self-confessed, ‘peanut crunching’  voyeurs of Sylvia Plath’s plight, we have cast her opus under the eye of the interpreter more times than one can count. The posthumous unearthing and publishing of her works reveals a woman who seemed reluctant to reveal herself. Self-flagellant, self-sadist, sufferer of torturous thoughts and assaults, she was a woman who, seemingly, did not feel in the world. Subject to continuous psychoanalysis for all who read her works, it’s doubtful that Plath’s mind and body will ever rest in peace.

 

[1] http://www.theparisreview.org/viewinterview.php/prmMID/4073

[2] Eileen Aird, Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1975.