# 355: Neurotic

Plath, Sylvia (1963). The Bell Jar, 98.

Story behind the Passage

Maybe it is fall or maybe the full moon. I do not know. But sometimes the days are gloomy without you knowing why. Or you know why but you to not want to know. That is the worst kind of non-knowledge ever. So, I decided to talk about a passage by Sylvia Plath. For those who do not know how gloomy and Plath go together, that can be explained very easily. Plath killed herself at the age of 31 by putting her head into a gas oven to make sure it really worked. She had tried before like so many other people. It feels weird to be writing about this sad story of a genius writer on a day when the sun is shining outside on a warm late-summer day.

This dualism of shadow and light, of sadness and happiness, is something that is natural to life. We all experience it at different intensities and in different cycles. Some have many of these ups and downs quite frequently. Others have them at long intervals; the more or less natural intervals which life burdens you with. Maybe in your younger years, you have more happier ones than later because many of the “big” things in life naturally happen when you are younger — you graduate from school, you travel, you get married, you have a family, your income rises, etc. At least, these are the conventional sources of happiness for most people. For me, actually, I never thought about them until recently. And now I wonder which difference these things make when it comes to happiness — fulfilment?

Are these two the same?

For Plath, at least, conventional happiness recipes did not help. She had a husband and she had children as well as several miscarriages. She also had a career as a writer already. This career was tightly linked to her psychological state of mind as she wrote in a confessional mode about her depression. Still, this did not save her, obviously. Even the many insights she had about her own illness which she shared in her books did not save her. But maybe these insights help others when they read her books? I doubt it because I think that just circulating around your own weirdness with other people who are weird, even outright insane, does not help you much. Still, as my own choice today reveals, we seem to have a certain proclivity towards this.

My Learnings

“’If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell.” This sentence from the passage depicts a dialogue between Esther, the (autobiographic) protagonist, and her former boyfriend. Obviously, the definition of neuroticism is exactly in line with my shadow/dark division. You can have shadow and you can have dark — just not at the same time. Eithere it is daytime or nighttime — not both at once. So, if I follow my natural sciences and spiritual approach, which means I take nature as the model for how the world works and how it works in balance, then wanting two mutually exclusive things at the same time is neither possible nor desirable. Still, Esther here reveals that this is what she wants and what makes her neurotic. Still, she seems to embrace it.

When you read about her biography, you also see that from a fairly early point onwards, she decided to openly talk about her state of mind, her depression, which people would nowadays call bipolar disorder. Some of these terms were only invented later. In any case, she knew what the problem was and the people who treated her knew as well. Still, nothing worked. And, what makes books like these especially cruel in a sense, is the very awareness, the clarity of her thinking about her own situation, as well as the literary representation of this thinking, which stands out in her work.

As many writers, Plath did not really have a career, except for writing. She flourished in college and started publishing, gained grants, won some awards, etc. But really working somewhere as other people do — not just to get money but also to have something like a career — did not happen in her life. And we are talking about the middle of the 20th century here. So, it was not a time when women were not able or allowed to work anymore. She did teach literature at some point, I think. But that is the other question I always have. How can people who write literature also teach it in this academic system in which students can hardly spell their names correctly anymore? Yes, I am being mean here but it is the truth. I think, you lose interest in literature altogether if you are being surrounded by this kind of crowd. Not even talking about other academics who never published a single line except academic papers.

So, as you can see, my text is going nowhere today. Maybe that is a sign of neuroticism?

For better or worse, Plath obviously became “famous.” The Bell Jar was still published during her life time. Well, at least sort of. She killed herself one month later. But she had published other works before. All this did not save her mental health. Maybe it still offered her some degree of happiness to know that people could read her text. In the novel, the protagonist does survive her psychological ups and downs. In real life, Plath decided against this ending. The question always remains how necessary this mental state is for writers. It is well-known that writers are among the most affected by bipolar disorder. We know this from all the literary geniuses throughout history and across nations. So, maybe nature just wanted it to be this way — that the greatest literature is produced by the greatest neurotics. Still, I think you have a choice what to do with your creative genius.

Do you?

Reflection Questions

1) How do you interpret the title “Bell Jar,” even without knowing the book?

2) Did you ever feel “neurotic” in the sense that Plath defines it here?

3) Do you think writers have to be “out of their minds” in a way in order to be good writers? Why/not?



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