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When you’re in Trouble, Go into your Dance: History, Culture, and Sylvia Plath

“Give ’em the old three ring circus
Stun and stagger ’em
When you’re in trouble, go into your dance


Give ‘em the old flim flam flummox
Fool and fracture ‘em
How can they hear the truth above the roar?
Roar, roar, roar!


Razzle dazzle ’em
Razzle dazzle ’em
Razzle dazzle ’em
And they’ll make you a star!”

—Fred Ebb, “Razzle Dazzle, Chicago
Examining a work of Sylvia Plath’s away from the familiar terrain of biographical, psychoanalytic, feminist or antifeminist readings has, until relatively recently, been an enterprise rarely undertaken. Considerations of Plath have traditionally been preoccupied with differing interpretations of the details of Plath’s life, from less well-known incidents[1] to more familiar events like her tragic suicide at the age of 30; her marriage to, ostensible artistic symbiosis with, and eventual divorce from Ted Hughes; the death of her father when Plath was eight years old; and on and on. The poems are read against this background, and meaning is generated by virtue of the light the biography putatively sheds on the work and the light the work—again putatively—sheds on the biography. Further, biographical and psychoanalytic methods easily and inevitably slide into feminist or antifeminist readings of two varieties: Plath the martyr, victim of patriarchy; Plath the unstable man-hater, destroyed by her own rage.

This is true even at a time when new approaches to Plath have begun to appear. Tracy Brain, author of the refreshing The Other Sylvia Plath (2001) and a 2006 essay entitled “Dangerous Confessions: The Problem of Reading Sylvia Plath Biographically”[2] has striven to expand the context in which Plath’s work is seen. A similar goal is sought by the well-intentioned collection of essays, The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath (2007), though this uneven volume is hobbled by a tendency in contemporary academia to “problematize” and “remap” the construct of clock before attempting to tell you what may or may not be the time.

Implicit or explicit in titles of the works cited above is the heavy force the biographical tradition exerts upon the contexts in which Plath is typically viewed. These works cut against a tradition of biographical focus that is still evident in the titles of works like Her Husband: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes—A Marriage (2003); Giving up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath (2003); Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the story of Birthday Letters (2000), and the persistence in print of books like The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (1991); The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1993); and Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976).

Of course, a case can be made that, like the French Poệtes Maudits, it is perhaps impossible to wholly separate the Plath biography from considerations of her work. To the great extent that it is possible, however, it ought to be pursued. For Plath’s writing has too long been subservient to her biography, which, in turn, has been made to tirelessly perform errands that have ruthlessly restricted her work’s power and reach.

Take the instructive representation of Plath in something like 2003’s “arthouse” film Sylvia. Featuring the American film actor Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath and the English film actor Daniel Craig as Hughes, Sylvia tells a simple story, hitting all of the highlights of the well-worn Plath biography/legend/myth: Sylvia Plath is an aspiring poet(ess) who meets the talented, handsome, and charismatic Ted Hughes while studying in England (after the first meeting, Sylvia identifies Hughes as her “Black Marauder” and is shown to be working on her poem “Pursuit,” with the line “One day I’ll have my death of him,” uttered aloud). Hughes and Plath fall in love, marry, and move to Massachusetts, where they both teach. Plath often feels intimidated and overshadowed by Hughes and his work. One day Plath and Hughes go out in a boat off the coast of New England and Plath recites a passage from The Tempest from memory (the section cited, beginning “Full fathom five…”, is the beginning of the song Ariel sings to Ferdinand about his (Ferdinand’s) father Alonso’s supposed death; Plath changes the line “thy father lies” to “my father lies,” thus simultaneously allowing the filmmakers to etiologically dwell upon Plath’s father’s death and also allude, for those in the know, to Plath’s poem “Full Fathom Five,” which ends with the stanza, “Father, this thick air is murderous. / I would breathe water.”; father complex and death wish all expressed in a single scene with cinematic economy—though one of commercial cinema’s several Achilles’ heels is on display with Paltrow’s wooden and unconvincing readings). Plath and Hughes move back to England and have two children. Hughes often feels that Plath is too much to handle and eventually begins an affair with another man’s wife (Assia Wevill). Plath discovers the affair and does not take it well. Hughes leaves Plath and their two children. Plath, always unstable, breaks down. Hughes comes back at some point and he and Plath make love; Plath tells Hughes to leave “her;” Hughes says he cannot because she (Assia) is pregnant; Hughes leaves; Plath breaks down completely and kills herself. The adumbration of the final event occurs early in the film when a flashback to Plath’s first suicide attempt (or second? Or some abstract combination of both?) is accompanied by a voiceover of Paltrow (as Plath) reciting these lines from Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:

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.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

The implication is clear enough: Plath had a suicidal streak and foretold her death in “Lady Lazarus.”

Simplistic and maudlin, delivered with the delicacy of an anvil over the head, Sylvia does nonetheless evince familiar tendencies not strictly confined to popular culture’s[3] representations of Plath, but in fact quite prevalent in almost all sustained considerations of Plath: namely, the inclination to regard Plath’s life as primary, to hyperbolize the details of that tumultuous and tragic life, and to regard her work as secondary. Too often, Plath’s works are regarded as nothing more than entrees into narrow versions of her life, rather than being regarded as works in their own right, concerned with, as Brain puts it, “things beyond [Plath’s] own skin.”[4] For example, the epigraph to the preface of Bitter Fame (1989), Anne Stevenson’s “controversial” (but for all that, emblematic) biography of Plath is the same section of “Lady Lazarus” quoted in Sylvia. And what is one of the two epigraphs Stevenson uses for the chapter (entitled “Pursuit”) in which she introduces Hughes for the first time? Why, none other than these lines from “Pursuit”: “There is a panther stalking me down: / One day I’ll have my death of him.”[5] Stevenson is not at all unique in her focus; emphases and sympathies may change between scholars, but the song, for the most part, has remained the same.

The Sylvia Plath story of Sylvia, then, is not much different, often, than the Sylvia Plath story of much Plath scholarship or the Sylvia Plath story of casual conversation. This is unfortunate, for, to quote Brain:

There are events and ideas and emotions that influenced her writing, and we simply cannot know them, however much literary biographies or the book covers which are designed to entice buyers would wish to deny this.


What we can know of Plath are the historical and cultural events in which she lived. There is much unkindness, not to mention little value and reliability, in using poetry and fiction as evidence for Plath’s supposed anger towards her husband or parents or female rivals; or, at the opposite extreme, as proof of her presumed victimhood. To treat Plath’s writing in this way is to belittle her work, for the implication of such an exercise is that Sylvia Plath was too unimaginative to make anything up, or too self-obsessed to consider anything of larger historical or cultural importance.[6]

Brain goes further:

Plath’s writing is concerned with the relationship between human beings and this world that is around them, however painful that relationship, and powerful the temptation to deny it, may sometimes be.[7]

I would only offer this corrective to Brain’s claim: Plath’s writing is concerned with the relationship between human beings and with the relationship between human beings and this world that is around them (more specifically, the political, historical, cultural, economic, and so on, details of the world around them).

And what was the world around Plath?

On July 16, 1945, scientists working on the US Government’s wartime Manhattan Project detonated the first atomic bomb in a test that took place in the Jornada del Muerto Valley, 300 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, at a site dubbed “Trinity” by the project’s lead scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Upon the successful (the bomb worked) outcome of the test, Oppenheimer is said to have thought, quoting Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”[8]

On August 6 of the same year, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing between 80,000 and 140,000 people instantly and injuring 100,000 more (many of whom would go on to die of wounds and ailments related to exposure to the blast).

The next day, August 7, U.S. President Harry Truman announced to the American public:

Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima. [I]t is an atomic bomb. We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.[9]

Two days later, on August 9, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Japan, this one on the city of Nagasaki.

The exact number of casualties was impossible to determine. The Japanese listed only those they could verify and set the official estimate at 23,753 killed, 1,927 missing, and 23,345 wounded. U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey figures were much higher, but still less than those for Hiroshima.[10]

On August 15, 1945, Japan unconditionally surrendered, bringing an end to World War II and the unprecedented, mechanized slaughter of millions that it had entailed, and for which, seen in retrospect, the horror of World War I had been but a grim dress rehearsal. By war’s end, not only had a new weapon been developed that was capable of destroying whole cities and, potentially, all of mankind, but it also soon became common knowledge that six million Jews, and three to five million other “undesirable” noncombatants, had been systematically slaughtered in death camps by Germany’s Third Reich.
Furthermore, in Nazi Germany, and in Stalin’s Soviet Union, new forms of social organization based on a very particular kind of ongoing terror had arisen and were becoming known to people in other countries in the postwar period. This sort of terror as a basis of totalitarian social organization is lucidly described by Hannah Arendt:

Because of its racial ideology, Nazi Germany could fill its concentration camps with a majority of innocent people far more easily than the Soviet Union could. It could maintain some sense of order without having to adhere to any criteria of guilt or innocence simply by arresting certain racial groups on no other grounds than race….Because the Nazis had declared these non-Germanic ethnic groups enemies of the regime, it could uphold the pretense of their “guilt.” Hitler, who in this matter as in all others always comtemplated the most radical and far-reaching measures, saw a time coming after the war when these groups would have been eradicated and a need for new categories would arise.…The Hitler dictatorship would have decimated the German people just as the Bolshevist regime did the Russian people.[11]

Although the Third Reich was defeated in 1945, and the horrific excesses of Soviet Russia were somewhat attenuated with the death of Stalin in 1956,[12] these new methods of organizational terror had been exposed to the world, both as a blight upon human consciousness, and as a new tool available for use by oppressive regimes. Furthermore, for the first generation of denizens of the postwar world there existed (and still now exists for us, but in a different, less bifurcated fashion) a new and different sort of ongoing terror: the threat of nuclear annihilation. And this terror existed for all members of the postwar world—those behind the oppressive Iron Curtain, those in the prosperous West, and those in the Third World.[13] However, this notion of ongoing terror should not be conflated with Arendt’s notion of ongoing terror as a method of social organization in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. For this reason I call the terror arising from the fear of nuclear annihilation “ongoing anxiety and unease;” ongoing anxiety and unease that, in the period addressed in this essay, reached terrifying heights at least once.

Beyond the ongoing unease and anxiety that mankind would be annihiliated in a nuclear holocaust, the prosperous postwar West and its unquestioned leader, the United States,[14] had (and still has) certain problematic characteristics worth investigating for the purposes of better elucidating Plath’s cultural moment. Rather than examining all of the ailments of the patient (racism; sexism; militarism; societal violence; conformism; standardization; meritricious consumerism; scandalously disproportionate distributions of wealth; etc.), I will here confine my explication of symptoms to the realm of culture (in which many of these problems find expression and/or response), and more specifically to that of the condition of the serious artist vis-à-vis “mass culture” and the postwar “consumer” (alas) of arts.

Several observations are worth considering. Any examination of twentieth century mass culture does well to begin with Theodor Adorno, whose critique of the “culture industry,” while perhaps familiar by now, is worth recapitulating in brief. Adorno begins his essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered” with the following words:

The term culture industry was perhaps used for the first time in the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, which [Max] Horkheimer and I published in 1947. In our drafts we spoke of ‘mass culture’. We replaced that expression with ‘culture industry’ in order to exclude from the outset the interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it is a matter of something like a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves, the contemporary form of popular art. From the latter the culture industry must be distinguished in the extreme. The culture industry fuses the old and familiar into a new quality. In all its branches, products which are tailored for consumption by masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan.[15]

That is, Adorno is careful to note that twentieth century mass culture is not a popular culture that arises from the “masses,” but is a culture that is aimed at the masses in order to be better consumed by them. “The consumer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object.”[16] In the past:

Culture, in the true sense, did not simply accommodate itself to human beings; but it always simultaneously raised a protest against the petrified relations under which they lived, thereby honouring them. In so far as culture becomes wholly assimilated to and integrated in those petrified relations, human beings are once more debased.[17]

What does this mean for serious artists who wish to make art that is free from the formative mechanisms of the culture industry, art that is able to resist appropriation by the same, art that, in some way, “raise[s] a protest against the petrified relations under which” human beings live, “thereby honouring them”? In another famous essay, “Culture and Administration,” Adorno presents a dim view:

The demand made by administration upon culture is essentially heteronomous: culture—no matter what form it takes—is to be measured by norms not inherent to it and which have nothing to do with the quality of the object, but rather with some type of abstract standards imposed from without, while at the same time the administrative instance—according to its own prescriptions and nature—must for the most part refuse to become involved in questions of immanent quality which regard the truth of the thing itself or its objective bases in general.[18]

The culture industry, with, of course, the profit motive at its heart, is, naturally, indifferent to the quality or purpose of an art object, and cares only about its money-making potential.

But serious art also has a place in the workings of the culture industry; namely, serious art is a source to be exploitively appropriated and perversely distorted. Adorno makes this point more clearly in “How to Look at Television”:

The more the system of ‘merchandising’ culture is expanded, the more it tends also to assimilate the ‘serious’ art of the past by adapting this art to the system’s own requirements. The control is so extensive that any infraction of its rules is a priori stigmatized as ‘highbrow’ and has but little chance to reach the population at large.[19]

Dwight Macdonald makes a similar point in his essay “A Theory of Mass Culture.” Utilizing, after Clement Greenberg, “kitsch,” the German term for mass culture (and selecting, in an Adorno-like distinction, “Mass Culture” as a more appropriate term than “Popular Culture,” “since its distinctive mark is that it is solely and directly an article for mass consumption, like chewing gum”), Macdonald notes that “kitsch mines High Culture the way improvident frontiersmen mine the soil, extracting its riches and putting nothing back.”[20]

Along the same lines, Irving Howe, in a footnote to his 1948 essay “Notes on Mass Culture” says of the relationship between mass culture and art:

In mass culture the materials of art are exploited, although art works, except very rarely and that by accident, are not created. Mass culture allows art neither to thrive nor to perish, since art is at once its most dangerous competitor and its one indispensable source of ideas.[21]

Again, where is the place for the serious artist in a cultural landscape like this? In the cultural landscape in which Plath wrote? Where is there room if Macdonald is correct when he says:

Good art competes with kitsch, serious ideas compete with commercial formulae—and the advantage lies all on one side.…Bad stuff drives out the good, since it is more easily understood and enjoyed. It is this facility of access which at once sells kitsch on a wide market and also prevents it from achieving quality. Clement Greenberg writes that the special aesthetic quality of kitsch is that it “predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasures of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art” because it includes the spectator’s reaction in the work of art itselt instead of forcing him to make his own responses.


When to this ease of consumption is added kitsch’s ease of production because of its standardized nature, its prolific growth is easy to understand.[22]

Macdonald himself points to two phenomena that allow for creative work that is free from the constraints and expectations of mass culture. First, there is the possibility of a movement of serious artists, like the Avantgarde movement, which Macdonald (writing in 1953) identifies as running from 1890-1930:

The significance of the Avantgarde movement (by which I mean poets such as Rimbaud,[23] novelists such as Joyce, composers such as Stravinsky, and painters such as Picasso) is that it simply refused to compete. Rejecting Academicism—and thus, at a second remove, also Mass Culture—it made a desperate attempt to fence off some area where the serious artist could still function.[24]

This is one option: a collective movement of artists “desperate[ly] attempt[ing] to fence off an area where the serious artist [can] still function.” But with the weakening of the Avantgarde, Macdonald sees only one other option:

There are still islands above the flood for those determined enough to reach them, and to stay on them: as Faulkner has shown, a writer can even use Hollywood instead of being used by it, if his purpose is firm enough.[25]

That is, the only other option (according to Macdonald) is an individual serious artist with an almost heroic firmness of purpose. But, as Macdonald says in a slightly different context, “one cannot demand that anybody be a hero, though one can hope for it.”[26] A tough spot indeed for the serious artist.

Before moving further with the questions of the means and space open to the serious artist in the context of twentieth century (and beyond) mass culture, it is important to note that there is another, perhaps “softer” way of looking at mass culture, and that is through the examinations of nineteenth-century European civilization undertaken by Walter Benjamin.

For Benjamin, all cultural forms of organization are merely dream images, phantasmagoria, since old and new elements appear in them all mixed up together. “The century was unable to respond to the new technical possibilities with a comparably new social order.” This ongoing contradiction, most clearly manifest in the commodity, determines all forms of expression of the nineteenth century and makes them appear displaced as in a dream.

To understand humanity’s history in this way as its dream means, in effect, that although the true desires and longings of human beings, for fulfillment and happiness, do achieve expression, they only do so in a displaced, censored, repressed form…[27]

What is important in the citation above is not the uninteresting jargon of the dream, or the overdeterministic nature of the “contradiction,” but instead the idea that, even in a capitalist society predicated on problematic and often inhuman bases, the human in humanity is nonetheless able to express itself, even if it is often in distorted form. One might see the twentieth century’s mass culture as an intensification of the distortion Bernard Witte identifies Benjamin identifying in the nineteenth century. But, again, this does not entirely preclude human expression (even in the commercial realm of the twentieth century).

Furthermore, Adorno, Macdonald, and Howe are not without their faults. Adorno, for example, certainly fell victim to some degree of hyberbole, exaggeration, and elitism (he hated, of all things, jazz, and “his standards of what…music ought to have been were set by the extraordinarily difficult works of Schoenberg, works which Adorno averred were honorably destined to remain unheard and impossible to listen to.”[28] ), and, in the system he describes, he undoubtedly failed to see some of the lacunae and interstices available to serious artists.

Indeed, no less an admirer than Edward Said, who said of Adorno that “he was a forbidding but endlessly fascinating man, and for me, the dominating intellectual conscience of the middle twentieth century, whose career skirted and fought the dangers of fascism, communism and Western mass-consumerism,”[29] faulted Adorno for some of the statements that arose out of Adorno’s notion of “the totally administered society”:

Popular culture means absolutely nothing to me except as it surrounds me. I obviously don’t accept all the hideously limited and silly remarks made about it by Adorno….[30]

As for Macdonald, one should presumably at least note Gilbert Seldes’s objection
that Macdonald misses the serious artist’s role in the divide between popular culture and high culture:
I differ with Mr. Macdonald…in his dark diagnosis of the ills of the superior artist who is compelled to compromise with his inferiors. He appears to believe that expanding capitalism drove between the artist and the people, forcing them apart, and compelled the artist to work for a small, appreciative fringe group; but, as I have noted in the preceding section, it seems equally fair to say that the artist in America took the initiative, rejecting the woes and passions of the average man, and then complained that he was not appreciated.

It is a misfortune that this tradition of hostility between the artist and the people should persist in the age of mass entertainment. As each new medium comes into being, the intellectual shies away. In fifty years of movies, many first-rate novels and plays have been adapted, but few writers of the first order have tried to master the movies as a craft, as a new mode of expression for themselves.[31]

This, as an explanation, is rather unconvincing, given the asymmetry of power in the relationship between serious artist and mass culture, and the very intense, but very narrow and confining, demands mass culture makes upon its producers. It is, however, perhaps true that the lamb has, for good reason, developed a reflexive reluctance to lie down with the lion, and that might strike some observers as a form of snobbery. Seldes duly notes this, and, more than a half century later, I duly note Seldes’ point here.[32]

In any case, I’ve quoted Adorno and Macdonald (and to some extent Howe) at length because I believe the picture they paint of mid-twentieth century mass culture is a compelling one, useful for the purposes of examining the condition of the serious artist in postwar society:

Adorno’s primary concern was not with the future of art but with salvaging those elements most under threat from enlightened reason: sensuous particularity, rational ends, a substantial notion of individuality, and authentic happiness. The logic of modernism, a logic determined as much from without as from within, was the historical inheritor of these categorical claims. To Adorno this seemed worth documenting and elaborating, all the more so if high art was the only place within modern society where those categorical claims were emphatically realized. If this is no longer the case, it must not be construed as a criticism of Adorno but of culture.[33]

It is useful now to move from the general tenor of the postwar milieu to a specific event that drew certain realities into high relief. The Cuban Missile Crisis began for the public when the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba was made public on October 22, 1962. On October 29, 1962, the crisis had been resolved. In the interim, the world feared a war would begin between the United States and the Soviet Union—a war that would likely become a nuclear war. According to Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson:

It wasn’t until January, 1992, in a meeting chaired by Castro in Havana, Cuba, that I learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, were on the island at the time of this critical moment of the crisis. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and Castro got very angry with me because I said, “Mr. President, let’s stop this meeting. This is totally new to me, I’m not sure I got the translation right.

“Mr. President, I have three questions to you. Number one: did you know the nuclear warheads were there? Number two: if you did, would you have recommended to Khrushchev in the face of an U.S. attack that he use them? Number three: if he had used them, what would have happened to Cuba?”

He said, “Number one, I knew they were there. Number two, I would not have recommended to Khrushchev, I did recommend to Khrushchev that they be used. Number three, ‘What would have happened to Cuba?’ It would have been totally destroyed.” That’s how close we were.[34]

Indeed, even closer:

There were other hidden flashpoints …At a conference in Havana to mark the 40th anniversary of the crisis, research by the National Security Archive of America’s George Washington University showed just how close a Soviet submarine came to firing a nuclear-tipped torpedo at the US warships blockading Cuba.

The submarine was trapped on the ocean floor under bombardment from US depth charge. The captain, fearing its destruction, decided to take the enemy with it. His deputy agreed. But firing the missile needed the approval of three officers. The world was saved from catastrophe by the third. He died three years ago without thanks for this gift to humanity. We owe a lot to Vasili Arkhipov.[35]

The date of composition given for Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazurus” is October 23-29, 1962.[36] Whatever the poem is about (or, if you like, whatever the poem does) it is no accident that its composition took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis—was indeed almost coterminous with the duration of the public’s knowledge of the crisis, and the crisis’ resolution.

That said, just as it is a mistake to reduce any of Plath’s works to the merely biographical, I do not intend to offer a simplistic reading here, reducing Plath’s work to a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis only. The previous four sections, and the note here I make about the timing of the composition of the poem, are all intended to provide a broader context in which to examine this particular manifestation of Plath’s work.

“Lady Lazarus” begins, of course, with its title. The story of Lazarus is from the book of John in the New Testament. Mary Magdalene’s brother Lazarus falls ill in Bethany. Mary and her sister Martha seek out Jesus and importune him to heal their brother. Jesus says that Lazarus’ illness is “not a sickness unto death.” Jesus stays where he is for two days, and then, before leaving for Bethany, tells his disciples “plainly, Lazurus is dead” (John 11:14). Jesus and his disciples then make their way to Bethany, where Jesus finds that Lazarus, following his death, has already been interred in a cave for four days. Jesus orders the stone removed from the front of the cave. Martha objects, saying, “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead for four days” (John 11:39). Jesus insists. The stone is removed and Jesus calls Lazarus forth. “And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go” (John 11:44). This scandalizes many of the Jews, who report the miracle to the Pharisees. The chief priests and Pharisees fear that “if [they] let [Jesus] thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both [their] place and nation” (John 11:48). Caiaphas, the high priest, prophesies that Jesus will die for the nation; and “Jesus therefore walk[s] no more openly among the Jews…” (John 11:54).

Plath’s use of the story of Lazarus, it very soon becomes clear, is not only ironic and sardonic, but grotesque as well. Speaking not as the savior, but as the saved, not as the miracle-worker, but as the one upon whom a miracle has been performed, she very quickly engages in grotesque parody, not simply of the story, but of the resurrected.

I have done it again.


One year in every ten
I manage it—

Here, as will become clear, the poem’s narrator imputes some of the power of resurrection, of overcoming death, to the one who has died—to the Lazarine figure, and not to the figure of a “savior.” Furthermore, whereas in the Bible the resurrection of Lazarus is a singular miracle, for the narrator of Plath’s poem it is a sort of routine which occurs “One year in every ten;” and so what was a true miracle in the Bible becomes a miracle…after a fashion, if you like, an almost blasé miracle, si vous voulez. She has done it again. She manages it one year in every ten.

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

A sort of miracle which introduces the horrors of Holocaust imagery, a catalog of images the poem nearly fetishizes and repeatedly returns to until its very end. But it is not only the repeated use of Holocaust imagery, or the almost quotidian, rather than singular, nature of the resurrection, which underscores the parodic grotesquerie in which Plath’s narrator is engaging:

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?—

Of course, Lazarus himself came forth with a napkin binding his face, but it is hardly a stretch to see in this image that of another literary character on the brink of apocalypse and in close contact with death: Hamm at the opening of Beckett’s Endgame, yawning beneath his handkerchief and then removing—indeed, peeling—the bloody handkerchief from his face, and saying, through his second yawn, “Me—to play.” And so Lady Lazarus herself, peeling the napkin from her face, comes to life, and begins to play. The strip-tease/freak show/magic act is underway.

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

This, to invoke the musical theatre artists Kander and Ebb (heirs, in some ways, and not incidentally, as will be discussed below, to that older musical theatre duo, Brecht and Weill), is the beginning of “the old razzle dazzle”: “Give ‘em an act with lots of flash in it / and the reaction will be passionate.”

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

Lady Lazarus’s hypnotic prolegomenon nearly complete, she moves on to the heart of her act:

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

And begins to “play” on the horrors of her own history and the condition of the world in which she finds herself alive again:

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip tease.

Those crowded around the cave are not the awestruck and/or scandalized Jews of Biblical antiquity, but the crudely drawn “peanut-crunching” crowd of the modern cinema (the “million filaments” clearly refer to the threads of linen covering Lady Lazarus as she emerges from the cave, but film projectors also use filaments, filament bulbs, one filament per projector, and “what a million filaments the peanut-crunching crowd shoves in to see,”[37] indeed), ballpark, or circus. No—even worse (better?) for the jaded Lazy Lazarus—they are the mob at a crude strip show, or the throng crushing into a freak show for which she herself acts as hustling carnival barker—or simultaneous prurient solicitor and emcee:

Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

And then, as if withdrawing into a sotto voce monologue whose effect is to heighten the dramatic tension, Lady Lazarus continues to play, in two senses of this term: (a) almost musically (to make use of a metaphor) upon the tragedy of her own history, (b) as an actor plays for an audience (indeed, to extend this analogy, her monologue comprises much exposition of her—i.e., Lady Lazarus’s—past):

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.[38]

The monologue increases in amplitude as the actor begins to command the stage and truly address the “peanut-crunching crowd;” a crowd eager for grotesque spectacle:

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.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’

The peanut-crunching crowd, that is, roars its approval at the theatrical miracle.

That knocks me out.
There is a charge

There is a “charge” in three senses. There is the charge, or thrill, presumably, the resurrected gets out of having been resurrected. There is a charge the performer gets from the crowd’s approval (it “knocks [her] out”). But, more to the point, there is a monetary charge (as there is a monetary charge for nearly everything in Plath’s cultural moment, even witnessing miracles), the “peanut-crunching crowd” must pay:

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart—
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor
So, Herr Enemy.

Herr Doktor. Herr Enemy. Having earlier introduced Holocaust imagery, these honorifics are fraught with unmistakeable meaning. The doctor who has raised her from the dead is no savior, no Christ, but precisely the opposite: he is a Nazi doctor.[39] He is (perhaps) Dr. Mengele. He is her enemy. He does not die for the sins of others; instead his sins are to experiment on others and watch them die for him (and the power behind him). And Lady Lazarus is his victim, she his experiment, shrilly[40] mixing the scorn she has for him with a horrific catalog of images drawn from the Holocaust more generally:

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

(A gold filling!)

Herr God, Her Lucifer

And now Lady Lazarus has her triumph, or what she regards as her triumph. A triumph, one might plausibly argue, over the world of Nazis, and atom bombs, and Holocausts (past, and potentially, given the date of composition of this poem, imminent), and spectacle-seeking consumers, and the culture industry:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

The last three lines of the poem evoke both the Holocaust of the past (“ash”), and the one the future may hold: the one rising with “red hair,” “eat[ing] men like air.”

The last line is important. It might easily be interpreted as Lady Lazarus eating men as if they were air, or the way (and with the ease with which) she eats air (just behind this interpretation, of course, the familiar figure of Plath as man-eater). This is a unique way of thinking about eating, but I also think it is a mistaken interpretation. The more accurate interpretation, it seems to me, is Lady Lazurus eating men the way that air eats men. But air doesn’t eat men. Except when it’s the air produced by a weapon like that dropped at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or by a weapon—thankfully never yet used in warfare—such as one of those poised to fire during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

By the poem’s end, then, it is Lady Lazarus who has become death, the shatterer of worlds (the worlds, enumerated above, she is in opposition to, and “triumphs” over).

What, then, au fond, is Plath up to in “Lady Lazarus”?

Something rather remarkable.

In her essay “Pyrryhus and Cineas,” Simone de Beauvoir, seeking to answer the question she poses at the end of the essay’s dramatic prologue, “What, then, is the measure of a man? What goals can he set for himself, and what hopes are permitted him?”[41] says:

Only that in which I recognize my being is mine, and I can only recognize it where it is engaged. In order for an object to belong to me, it must have been founded by me. It is totally mine only if I founded it in its totality. The only reality that belongs entirely to me is, therefore, my act; even a work fashioned out of materials that are not mine escapes me in certain ways.”[42]

The last clause of this citation, applied to “Lady Lazarus,” might seem to make problematic Plath’s use of, to take one example, Holocaust imagery (which, in some ways, is hers—as it, like the dropping of the atomic bombs Little Boy and Fat Man on Japan, is her inheritance as a human being who came of age in the wake of World War II—but in other important ways—as a non-Jew, first and foremost; as a noncombantant in World War II, secondarily; and as someone who did not endure World War II on the continent of Europe—is not hers). However, addressing, and making more complex, the idea of “materials that are not mine,” de Beauvoir says that, “Even the objects that were not mine in the past because I didn’t found them can be made into mine if I found something on them.”[43] Further on, de Beauvoir writes, “What is mine is what I have founded; it is the accomplishment of my own project.”[44]

Following de Beauvoir’s thinking, then, it is my contention that, with “Lady Lazarus,” Plath founds, not without a soupçon of desperation—desperation akin to the desperation Macdonald identifies which underlay the Avantgarde movement—something that is hers and hers alone, but that can also be used as a useful point of departure for others similarly disposed to view the postwar (now postindustrial) cultural landscape with skepticism, not to say cynicism and desperation.[45]

But what of Plath’s use of Holocaust imagery, often regarded as exploitive? Susan Gubar’s book Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew addresses Plath’s use of images of the Holocaust in her poetry in a profoundly useful manner:

Her appropriation of the voices of the casualties still seems outrageous to those who point out the lack of any reasonable affinity or parallelism between Plath’s individual suffering and mass murder. Such readers wonder, how dare she presume to imagine herself as one of the victims, to arrogate the Otherness of the deceased through projection that might be said to profane the memory of the people exterminated by the Nazis?[46]

Gubar herself falls into the biographical trap when she writes, “Plath undoubtedly used the [Holocaust] to express her personal suffering,” but gets closer to the crucial point, away from the biographical when, in the very next clause, she writes, “in the process she also illuminated the experiences of civilians persecuted under the Nazis’ genocidal rule.”[47]

Gubar’s analysis of a section of Plath’s poem “Getting There” evinces similar tendencies. Not quite able to completely shed the hermeneutics of the biographical, but sensing something more than a simple appropriation by Plath of historical events for the purposes of expressing her own misery, Gubar writes:

This is not the autobiographical Plath writing in The Bell Jar about women being reduced to the passive place from which phallic arrows shoot off or in “Ariel” about her personal desire to become an arrow flying suicidally into the red eye of morning. However, the poet’s persistent identification does seep into the “I” perceiving the collective emasculation of a “Dynasty” of “broken arrows” and “dragging my body” through Russia “I have to get across” (248), if only because of our tendency as readers to equate Plath with her willful but embittered or fearful speakers. [48]

That is, Gubar hints that perhaps if we were not in the pernicious and jejune habit of equating Plath’s speakers with Plath herself, we might not ask about the appropriateness of her use of Holocaust material, because we wouldn’t immediately, lazily, and patronizingly, identify the “I” of Plath’s poems’ speakers with Plath herself. This is a valuable (if obvious) insight, and one that ought to be pursued to its logical end in the reading of Plath’s poetry.

Finally, and crucially, vis-à-vis the Holocaust imagery in “Lady Lazarus,”and drawing on Christina Britzolakis, Gubar writes:

While she advertises the spectacle of herself as miraculous saint and prostituted actress, Lady Lazarus’s “music-hall routine” parodies “the trash culture of True Confessions” so as to confess “a commodity status no longer veiled by the aura of the sacred” (Brtizolakis 151, 155, 156). As her aesthetic mastery taps the language of the Shoah and thereby capitalizes on the disaster, it demonstrates how that historical calamity has itself been robbed of the “aura of the sacred.”[49]

“Robbed of the ‘aura of the sacred’” because transmuted, by mass culture, into another commodity.[50]

Thus, boldly using Holocaust imagery, making use of allusions to recent atomic destruction, writing (as an American in England) in the midst of the terror of the Cuban missile crisis, and operating upon and against the expectations the culture industry engenders in the “peanut-crunching crowd,” Plath founds upon the horrors of postwar society, with its recent unspeakable atrocities extant in collective memory, its present terror, and its narrowing space for serious art, that which is hers, viz. (a) a place (however small) for uncommoditized (and, perhaps, uncommoditizable) and meaningful (and uncomplicated; see below) language in the midst of a state of affairs in which postwar consolidation of various commercial and cultural kinds strengthens “an apparatus in which individuals are interchangeable and superfluous, [and in which] the meaning of language is disappearing;”[51] (b) a place for the serious artist in a society in which the place for serious art is also fast disappearing; (c) a place for the human in a world tending towards inhumanity; and thus a space (hers, yes, but a point of departure, in the de Beauvorian sense, for others) for those who, like Plath, align themselves against the oppressive, the atrocious, the soul-diminishing, the meretriciously commerical, and the inhuman, or the anti-human.

And in order to do this Plath does not utilize the language of the Avantgarde movement. “Lady Lazarus” is by no means Eliotic or Joycean in its linguistic difficulty.[52] Quite the opposite, its language is simple (sometimes comically simple, “The grave cave,” “I turn and burn / Do not think I underestimate your great concern.”), but with great depth. There is an irony here, for, though Plath often employs the simple, seductive language of the mountebank, it is difficult to imagine the words of “Lady Lazarus” becoming a cliché in the same way in which, say, some of the lines of Robert Frost have. Further, one has a hard time imagining the marketing meeting at which the decision to appropriate and put to commercial use the words of “Lady Lazarus”is made. (On the other hand, and this is no fault of his own, except to the extent, if any, that he could see how the culture he was living in was developing and what it could do to serious art, Frost’s words would fit right in to any number of marketing campaigns. [“When you’ve got miles to go before you sleep, make sure you’re riding on Goodyears.” “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood? Now you can take both.” This last one is a stretch. The first line is too erudite, even if blandly so. The “diverged” would have to go. So would the “yellow.” Even so, it doesn’t quite work, even for a financial services firm. Perhaps it should be, “Now the road not taken can be the road you take tomorrow.” Or “For Ford Tundra owners, there are no roads not taken.” Lest these all seem like implausible exaggerations, caricatures of mass culture and its advertising apparatus, we should remember that Thoreau himself has been put to use in glossy television ads for the now infamous American International Group: “Go forth boldly in the direction of your dreams.”])

Above I noted that “Lady Lazarus” works upon and against the expectations of the culture industry. I also noted that “Lady Lazarus,” the character, engages in an act that two other cynical entertainers, Kander and Ebb, might describe as “the old razzle dazzle.”

Kander and Ebb are, as I noted above, quasi-heirs to Brecht and Weill, and Brecht provides another interesting way of looking at what Plath is up to in Lady Lazarus, for it is my belief that Plath engages in a Brechtian strategy and, in a minor victory, checkmates mass culture or at least makes use of popular culture in her work without allowing it, mass culture, to make use of her work (her myth/legend/biography is a different story, as we have seen).

Brecht, of course, was the father of the “epic theatre” and its “alienation effect” (verfremdungseffekt), which was designed to remind the theatregoer that s/he was watching a play. In Benjamin’s words, “instead of identifying with the characters, the audience should be educated to be astonished at the circumstances under which they function;”[53] watching, for example, Brecht’s Parables for the Theatre (e.g., The Caucasian Chalk Circle), the audience should be made to understand that the social conditions under which the characters operate are contingent and historically based, and not, at present, the best of all possible worlds:

If we ensure that our characters on the stage are moved by social impulses and that these differ according to the period, then we can make it harder for our spectator to identify himself with them. He cannot simply feel: that’s how I would act, but at most can say: If I had lived under those circumstances. And if we play works dealing with our own time as though they were historical, then perhaps the circumstances under which he himself acts will strike him as equally odd; and this is where the critical attitude begins.[54]

That, in a nutshell, was Brecht’s project. What is its significance vis-à-vis Plath?

Brecht, unlike Adorno, saw some value in popular culture for the serious artist—from his concept of the “gest,” which was the syntagmatic creation of stereotypical scenes or types from the semiotics of everyday life and mass culture, to his “emphasis on sport” as a proper way in which to hope for the presentation and reception of a play:

When people in sporting establishments buy their tickets they know exactly what is going to take place; and that is exactly what does take place once they are in their seats: viz., highly trained persons developing their peculiar powers in the way most suited to them, with the greatest sense of responsibility yet in such a way as to make one feel that they are doing it primarily for their own fun. Against that the traditional theatre is nowadays lacking in character.[55]

Brecht saw elements of mass culture as potentially utilizable tools for the purpose of evincing the contingencies of historically based social relations, and the ability people have to change them. The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, for example, draws heavily on the conventions and aesthetics of the comic book to examine Hitler’s rise to power.

The main subject of the drama today must be relationships between one man and another as they exist today, and this is what I’m primarily concerned to investigate and find means of expression for.[56]

Among these means of expression are elements of mass culture which are themselves manifestations of the very social relations (the “petrified social relations” to use Adorno’s terms) against which Brecht is raising a protest. Further, mass culture has a difficult, though by no means impossible, time reintegrating Brecht’s expression.[57] This is no small achievement on the part of the serious artist.

Of course, Plath was no strict, or even casual, Brechtian. She does not make didactic use of the alienation effect in her poetry or of the gest or any of the other dramatic devices Brecht utilizes (nor is it entirely clear how she would have transferred these devices, in toto, from drama to poetry—though there is, in “Lady Lazarus,” a self-consciousness and some alienating baring of devices which are reminiscent of Brechtian performance). What she does very clearly, however, is, like Brecht, utilize elements of mass culture against mass culture, without, as I have already noted, allowing mass culture to return the favor. This is one of the achievements of the language of “Lady Lazarus,” directed against the inhuman in politics and mass culture, drawn in some measure from mass culture, and successfully creating, fencing off, a space for the serious artist to address issues of politics, culture, society, individualism, interpersonal relations—in sum, crucial issues in the relationships between human beings, and the relationship between human beings and the world around them; a space that is a point of departure for serious artists to, to again use Adorno’s words, “raise a voice against the petrified relations under which [human beings live], thereby honouring them.”

Throughout the foregoing I have gone out of my way to avoid the biographical details of Plath’s life, narrowly focusing instead on a particular manifestation of her art in a particular cultural milieu, and deriving an interpretation therefrom. My argument, therefore, rests on several assumptions for which I’ve not yet adduced evidence. One is that Plath saw herself as a serious artist, or had the aims of a serious artist. The second is that Plath was aware of, and disturbed by, the political and cultural developments of her times. There are no end of biographies that, whatever their take on Plath, attest to the truth of this first assumption. That these biographies also demonstrate that Plath expressed a fierce desire for fame and commercial success does not detract from the seriousness of the artistic purpose evinced in works like “Lady Lazarus.” A desire for fame on the part of an author does not, of course, ipso facto, compromise her literary works—it is the rare author indeed who writes without hope of recognition and at least some measure of fame. As for commercial success, what serious author would deny it if it were offered? Plath may well have wanted commercial success, and wanted it very badly at times, but if a work like “Lady Lazarus” is any indication, she wanted it on her terms, and not on the terms dictated by the society in which she wrote. Furthermore, these expressions of a wish for commercial success are likely more complex than a simple desire for money (though this is not to imply that a simple desire for money on the part of a serious artist, or, for that matter, serious human being, is a somehow rebarbative quality[58] ); a superficial delving into Plath’s biography and psychology (superficial, but deeper than should be necessary) reveals the following section from a December 12, 1959 journal entry:

Images of Society: the Writer and Poet is excusable only if he is Successful. Makes Money.[59]

As for the second assumption (that Plath was aware of, and disturbed by, the political and cultural developments of her times), another cursory glance at Plath’s journals and letters is again useful. Here Brain is helpful once more. This is a quotation of a 1960 letter Plath wrote to her mother culled from Brain’s study:

I had an immensely moving experience and attended the arrival of the Easter weekend marchers from the atomic bomb plant at Aldermason [sic] to Trafalgar Square in London[. …]I left[…]with the baby [….]

…I found myself weeping to see the tan, dusty marchers…I felt proud that the baby’s first real adventure should be as a protest against the insanity of world-annihilation.[60]

Brain also notes that in 1959, Plath writes of England: “I could write a novel there. … Without this commercial American superego.”[61]

Brain writes too that, “long before she came to write the poems that were to make her famous, the possibility of nuclear destruction established its presence in Plath’s imagination.”[62] In her late teens (1951), Plath records this entry:

When I read that description of Nagasaki I was sick: “And we saw what first looked like lizards crawling up the hill, croaking. It got lighter and we could see that it was humans, their skin burned off, and their bodies broken where they had been thrown against something.” Sounds like something out of a horror story. God save us from doing that again.[63]


[1] Tracy Brain’s survey of the different ways in which Plath’s participation in an anti-nuclear weapon demonstration is cast by different biographers is a good example of the way some of these less well-known incidents are dealt with in variegated but, for all that, narrow terms.  Brain, Tracy.  The Other Sylvia Plath.  Essex: Longman, 2001.  12–13.

[2] Brain, Tracy. “Dangerous Confessions: The Problem of Reading Sylvia Plath Biographically.” Modern Confessional Writing: New Critical Essays. Ed. Jo Gill.  Routledge: New York, 2006. 11–32.

[3] For the purposes of this investigation, “popular culture,” “mass culture,” “the culture industry,” and “kitsch” are used interchangeably, even though some of the theorists cited make distinctions between two or more of these terms.  The distinctions made, however, are always predicated on the motive to distinguish the posited phenomenon (“commercial culture,” to use another term) from a “genuine” culture arising from the masses themselves, or the populace itself, or the “folk” itself.

[4] Brain, Tracy.  The Other Sylvia Plath.  38.

[5] Stevenson, Anne.  Bitter Fame.  Boston: A Peter Davison Book/Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989.   xi, 59.  Also of note about Sylvia is that it is essentially antifeminist; Plath is shown to be hysterical and dependent upon Hughes (and, to lesser extents, other men) to sustain her.

[6] Brain, Tracy.  Op. cit.  14–15.

[7] Ibid.  38.

[8] Pais, Abraham.  J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life.  Oxford: 2006.  43–44.  Oppenheimer’s decision to name the site “Trinity” was apparently inspired by his reading of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV.  See Lamont, Lansing.  Day of Trinity.  New York:  Atheneum, 1965.  70.

[9] “Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered: The Story of Hiroshima.” Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered. 2005. AJ Software & Multimedia; project part of the National Science Digital Library funded by the Division of Undergraduate Education, National Science Foundation Grant 0434253. 6 Dec. 2007 <>.  [My emphasis.]

[10] “Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered: The Story of Nagasaki.” Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered. 2005. AJ Software & Multimedia; project part of the National Science Digital Library funded by the Division of Undergraduate Education, National Science Foundation Grant 0434253. 6 Dec. 2006 <>.

[11] Arendt, Hannah. “Mankind and Terror.”  Essays in Understanding: 1930–1954. Ed. Jerome Kohn.  New York: Schocken, 2005. 300–301.

[12] Which is not to suggest that atrocities did not continue under Kruschev and his successors; perhaps one might say that a more bureacratized, and less idiosyncratically paranoid, frenzied, and large-scale method of social terror obtained in the post-Stalin Soviet Union.

[13] I realize that this tripartite division of the world into categories appropriated from the discourses of Western World is not particularly nuanced or original, but it serves the purpose at hand, and is not done without some irony.

[14] In spite of the time she spent in England, I identify Plath as an American poet—if this is problematic, I identify her as a First World Anglo-American poet.

[15] Adorno, Theodor.  “Culture Industry Reconsidered.”  The Culture Industry.  Ed. J.M. Bernstein.  New York:  Routledge, 1991.  98.  [My emphases.]

[16] Ibid. 99.

[17] Ibid. 100. [My emphasis.]   Also, vis-à-vis “Rais[ing] a protest against the petrified relations under which [human beings live], thereby honouring them,” cf. the statement Ingmar Bergman is reputed to have uttered, “I come not to bring peace but war to your souls” (I quote from memory from a documentary on Fellini whose name escapes me), or this famous phrase of Kafka’s “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”  Kafka, Franz.  Letters to Friends, Family, & Editors.  New York: Schocken, 1977.  16.

[18] Adorno, Theodor.  “Culture and Administration.”  The Culture Industry.  98.  [My emphases.]

[19] Adorno, Theodor.  “How to Look at Television.”  Ibid.  160.  [My emphasis.]

[20] MacDonald, Dwight.  “A Theory of Mass Culture.”  Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America.  Ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White.  Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1957.  59–60.

[21] Howe, Irving.  “Notes on Mass Culture.” Ibid.  503.  In this essay, Howe takes “mass culture” to refer “to easily accessible amusements for mass audiences, as well as to the products themselves.”

[22] MacDonald, Dwight.  Op cit..  61.

[23] Poệte Maudit, incidentally (or not incidentally).

[24] MacDonald, Dwight. Op cit.  63. [My emphasis]

[25] Ibid. 71.

[26] Ibid. 71.

[27] Witte, Bernard.  Walter Benjamin, an Intellectual Biography.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.  177–79.  [My emphasis]

[28] Said, Edward W.  “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals.’  Representations of the Intellectual.  New York: Vintage, 1996.  55

[29] Ibid. 54.

[30] Said, Edward W.  “Criticism and the Art of Politics.”  Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said.  Ed. Gauri Viswanathan.  New York: Pantheon, 2001.  145.

[31] Seldes, Gilbert.  “The People and the Arts.”  Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America.  83.

[32] Interestingly, Seldes goes on to explore ways in which the supposedly deleterious effects of comic books can be mitigated—through protest or, at last resort, perhaps local legislation.  Seldes’ essay is odd and plodding, but not without its cogent points: e.g., “‘The same thing but more of it’ is the essence of radio’s promise;” and “The…public…must learn the truth about all the popular arts: you cannot, by avoiding them, escape their effect.”

[33] Bernstein, J.M. “Introduction” in Adorno, Theodor, The Culture Industry.  22.

[34] “Errol Morris: Film. The Fog of War Transcript.” 6 Dec. 2006 <>.  “How close we were,” because an invasion of Cuba was seriously considered by Kennedy.  Perhaps Nixon would have invaded.  Perhaps Mayor Daley’s alleged electoral shenanigans on Election Day 1960 inadvertently averted war.

[35] Stephens, Philip. “How the Cuban Missile Crisis Forced a Rendezvous with Reality.”  Financial Times, October 25, 2002: 21.  Academic Universe. Lexis-Nexis. Northeastern University Libraries.  6 December  2006 <>.  Another version of this story has the captain of the submarine believing that a hot war (beyond mere depth charges) was already underway.

[36] Plath, Sylvia.  “Lazy Lazarus.”  The Collected Poems.  Ed. Ted Hughes.  HarperPerennial: New York, 1992.  244-47.

[37] Regarding Plath’s concern with real horror as mere cinematic spectacle/entertainment, cf. her poem “The Thin People.”

[38] “Those are [like sticky] pearls that were [her] eyes.”?  Also, to anachronistically make use of the 1975 musical Chicago once again, “How can they see with [sticky pearls] in their eyes?”

[39] It has been suggested to me that there is perhaps another sort of “Herr Doktor” addressed here.  A poet as serious as Plath surely would known the role Ph.D.s in literature play (or try to play ) in evaluating and making the reputation of  literary works.  Joyce made a famous comment to this effect, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.”  (For one of many sources of this quote: Gray, Paul. “Odyssey of a Corrected Classic.” TIME Magazine 02 Jul 1984. 07 Aug 2007. <,9171,926689-2,00.html>.)  But Plath, in this interpretation, is less comfortable with professors busily “pok[ing] and stir[ring]” her work for dubious purposes.

[40] There is sometimes an unfortunate connotative association between the feminine and the shrill.  “As Mary Ellman…noted, women writers are often written about in such disparaging terms as ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’….”  Brennan, Clair.  “Unifying Strategies and Early Feminist Readings.”  The Poetry of Sylvia Plath.  Ed. Claire Brennan.  New York: Columbia.  1999.  50.  My intention is not to draw on this association.  The shrillness I speak of is that of a skilled artist, making use of it for formal effect.

[41] de Beauvoir, Simone.  “Pyrrhus and Cineas.”  Philosophical Writings.  Chicago: University of Illinois, 2004.  91.  “Man,” obviously, meaning “human being.”

[42] Ibid.  93.

[43] Ibid.  93–94.

[44] Ibid.  111.

[45] “I can never create anything for the other except points of departure.”   Ibid.  121

[46] Gubar, Susan.  Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew.  Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 2003.  178.  [My emphases.]

[47] Ibid. 181–82.  [My emphases.]

[48] Ibid. 182.  [My emphasis and bolding.]

[49] Ibid. 199.  [My emphasis.]

[50] One might ask, with some justification, what the effect of cultural products like Stephen Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, Art Spiegelmann’s comic book Maus, and The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. have on the commoditization and/or preservation of memory of the Holocaust.  Presumably they do both, in varying degrees.  Plath, however, throws the horror in one’s face.  Whatever one thinks of her use of Holocaust imagery, it does not seem to further the commoditization of the Holocaust, though she might draw on some already commoditized aspects of the Holocaust.

[51] Adorno, Theodor W. “Trying to Understand Endgame.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Endgame. Ed. Harold Bloom.  Chelsea: New York, 1988. 28.

[52] Although, of note, both Eliot and Joyce made use of popular culture in their works.  The Waste Land is rife with references to popular culture (see Send up da Clowns in the Fall2008 Straddler), and, in Joyce, of course, Leopold Bloom, the ad man.

[53] Benjamin, Walter.  “What is Epic Theater?”  Illuminations: Essays and Reflections.  Ed. Hannah Arendt.  Schocken: New York, 2005.  150.

[54] Brecht, Bertolt.  “A Short Organum for the Theatre.”  Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic.  Ed. John Willett.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.  190.

[55] Brecht, Bertolt.  “Emphasis on Sport.”  Ibid.  6.

[56] Brecht, Bertolt.  “Interview with an Exile.” Ibid.  67.

[57] Not impossible.  The form of (if not the intent behind) the alienation effect, for example, has become something of a cliché in “postmodern” cultural productions, and has even been used during an Oscar ceremony.  This seems to suggest that different forms of the alienation effect need to be used if they are to be effective.  Or that different effects altogether need to be used.  Because this is not a paper on Brecht, I’ll simply note that Brecht said, in another context, “For time flows on….Methods wear out, stimuli fail.  New problems loom up and demand new techniques.  Reality alters; to represent it the means of representation must alter too.  Nothing arises from nothing; the new springs from the old, but that is what makes it new.”  Brecht, Bertolt.  “The Popular and the Realistic.”  Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic.  Ed. John Willett.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.  110.

[58] “Money,” after all, as the Emcee and Sally Bowles famously say in Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, “makes the world go ’round.”

[59] Stevenson, Anne.  Op cit. 146. [my emphasis]

[60] Plath, Sylvia.  Letters Home.  Ed. Aurelia Schober Plath.  London: Faber and Faber, 1975.  378 (letter to her mother dated 21 April 1960). Cited in: Brain, Tracy.  The Other Sylvia Plath.  12.

[61] Plath, Sylvia.  The Journals of Sylvia Plath.  Ed. Frances McCullough, consulting ed. Ted Hughes.  New York: The Dial Press, 1982.  325.  Plath, Sylvia.  The Journals of Sylvia Plath1950–1962.  Ed. Karen V. Kukil.  London: Faber and Faber, 2000.  521.  Cited in: Brain, Tracy.  Op cit.  56.  [Brain’s [sic]]

[62] Brain, Tracy.  Op cit.  107.

[63] The Journals of Sylvia Plath1950–1962.  Ed. Karen V. Kukil.  London: Faber and Faber, 2000.  46.  Cited in: Brain, Tracy.  Op cit.  108.

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