The Sad and Long-Standing Tale of the Tortured Female Artist on Sylvia Plath’s Death Day

It was 54 years ago today that Sylvia Plath took her life. I know no poetry more haunting, visceral, raw, and surreal than the restored edition of Ariel, much of it written in the weeks before her death.

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

 

A former female fiction professor of mine once said to our class: “When I was young and wanted to be a writer, I soon realized many of the most famous female writers had killed themselves: Woolf, Plath, Sexton. I got the message.”

A male poetry professor of mine had said when he was a boy, he’d build a blanket fort with his friends and then they’d read poems like Lady Lazarus by flashlight, as if they were scary stories.

When I was first getting the idea for The Great Chaining of Being, I knew there’d be a Plath-like character. A tortured female artist who’d been held down way too long by a male-dominated avant-garde. Whose work had been withheld from being published, like Emily Dickinson’s was.

—Master of the em-dash—

Who’d had to deal with sexist, jealous, and domineering fellow male writers and artists as had the women associated with the Bouzingo, the Surrealists, and the Beats.

“Outside the avant-garde community, George Sand was one of the most notorious avant-gardists of the mid-19th Century, and within it was one of the most divisive. Her cross-dressing, her unabashed sexuality, her ambiguous relationship with nascent Feminism, and her outspoken socialist propaganda novels made her a catalyst for the exploration of gender and its malleability within the Romanticist avant-garde, analogous in many ways to that of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in the Dada community.” From: Resurrecting the Bouzingo

“I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist,” British-born surrealist Leonora Carrington once wrote. Her fascination with the early 19th-century art movement started well before meeting her lover, the artist Max Ernst. Their relationship became a great source of pain for her after he fled the Nazis, leaving her behind. It sparked a mental breakdown, the experience of which she channeled into her novel, Down Below. But Carrington’s contributions to surrealism have little to do with Ernst. One of her first major surrealist works was the 1938 painting The Inn of the Dawn Horse, a dark self-portrait. —From 10 Female Surrealists You Should Know by Alison Nastasi

Women of the Beat Generation

In my novel, reincarnation is a physical phenomena of the multiverse scientifically proven by the transhumanist future. So my three main bohemian characters have lived many lives in many times. Their names change somewhat but usually follow a similar pattern. Mathilda Lund from 1950s New York is Mathilde Esmond from 1830s Paris is Maxine Lancaster from 1960s San Francisco.

The following poem was written by Mathilde Esmond in 1830s Paris. I cut it from the novel and have replaced it with a full chapter detailing her life among the Bouzingo.

Is this his? 

A man creates his art because he is small, 

we all well know the littleness of kings. 

He creates it for his meaning

which he think is his

for he thinks he owns all things. 

The hilltop in the sun is his.

The castle in the clouds is his.

The paint that paints, the ink that writes,

the woman who dances—all belong to him.

But then what is this—

this voice that rises from the dirt

at the bottom of all things, glaring

at Jacob climbing his ladder

his eyes wanton for the lord,

the image Narcissus craved

and Achilles killed.

This voice 

that has been raped

burned at the stake

taken for a cow

and sent to the slaughtering house. 


This voice from a vase

in a comfortable home

bent over the oven

wherein she cooks lost children

when suddenly she remembers 

the fate of Hypatia.


What is this voice

that owns itself?


It could not be an artist,

for only the privileged sex 

has the power by nature, and instinct

to live out an adventure in poverty.


For who really wants to be a leader:

not the bouzingo.


No, it is enough to rule half the world.

———————————————-


Though she is as bitter and enraged as Plath was in Ariel, this will not always be the case. Not to give too much of the story away, let’s just say 1960s San Francisco suits her much better than 1830s Paris.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocySBhtsfDw&t=1s

 

How It All Began (or A Season in Methaline Falls)

Once, if my memory serves me well, life was one long party where all wines flowed freely and all hearts opened wide—no, wait, that’s the beginning to Arthur Rimbaud‘s A Season in Hell, forgive me, let me try this again.

Rimbaud: “I think I’m in hell, therefore I am.”

It was summer 2011. I’d just graduated college with the very high market value and job reliability of a Creative Writing degree, 2nd only to an accounting degree. My brother, father, and I were painting two dilapidated buildings 300 feet from the Canadian border in the tippy top of Northeastern Washington State. Methaline Falls it was called, excuse me, Metaline Falls. It goes without saying that aforementioned government buildings were set to be demolished in six months time, and for the outrageous price they were paying us to paint it reflected their desire not to lose a cent of their yearly budget.

 

We were staying in an old hospital turned hotel, with an crazy ol’ cat man likely in his 90s. It was best to hold one’s nose when coming in the front door, for the cats ran the place. The halls were literally soaked in their piss. Guess that’s what happens when you give your cats Pepsi instead of water. Inside his industrial grade ammonia chamber: the cats covered the room, two on his lap, at least three on his chair, two on the kitchen counter, five on his bed, several in the bathroom chopping up catnip and drinking big gulps, not to mention the ones who’d slipped out and were on nightly spray duty. He was very hard of hearing, which I believe was due to the smell. I have to admit they were crafty, more than once they picked the lock to our room and emptied their tiny bladders on our pillows.

Cat cartoonist Louis Wain suffered from schizophrenia (or divine psychedelic revelation depending on who you’re speaking to and how often they go to Burning Man) as can be seen in these increasing cat fractals. Some theories suggest it was triggered by Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite which comes packaged in cat shit. However, little do they know that long exposure to cat piss can trigger extended DMT-esque hallucination as when I frightened the old cat man with our weekly check to which he exclaimed: “Why do you want my cats magical machine elf?!” I don’t.

They say a writer should suffer, to you know, then write what you know: suffering that is, because who doesn’t like to read about someone else’s suffering, the Germans even have a word for it:  schadenfreude.

But honestly it wasn’t that bad (except that hornet’s nest on a 30 foot ladder). The money was for a trip to the UK. And in the meantime I’d snagged from my university library the 784 page tome which is Revolution of the Mind: The Life of Andre Breton, almost as big as the founding dictator and pope of French Surrealism’s forehead.

Check out that dome!

I found my way to the Surrealists via the Beats. Kerouac’s Bop Spontaneous Prose was often compared to Breton and his automatic writing (direct from the unconscious of disaffected French medical students following WWI) after jazz and lots and lots of speed in your coffee. In my more juvenile idolization of Kerouac, which happens to most American bohemian leaning teenagers with writing aspirations, I was told by my poetic elders that “The Surrealists already did that!” and “As Truman Capote said of Kerouac: that’s not writing, that’s typing!” Obviously I was missing out on some much needed pretentiousness, a valuable currency in academic circles, not to mention poetry slams. So naive I was at 19! High out of my mind on LSD most weekends, drinking way too much cheap wine, pouring unrequited love poems at the feet of goddess poetesses, who all seemed to throw me by the wayside—as they should have. I was way too Neal Cassady those early years. My first novel at 19, half of it written in 2 weeks in homage to On the Road, after all was an homage to The Beats.

Left to Right: Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, No Idea, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Thus my love affair with the Beats had already waned at the much more mature age of 25 as I sought new idols, much less American, much more French. And as I read of Breton so the web of Surrealism held me in its strange hands.

Leading me back in time to Dada, Symbolism, Realism, and the Bouzingo, the latter the granddaddy of all bohemian youth movements in the age of Victor Hugo, and happily the height of my newfound personal pretentiousness. Only if I could run into that geriatric poet today and tell him what things I know! I’d snip his damn tie off and say: “Tre Dada! Tre Dada! Epater le bourgeois!” “Know much about Montparnasse you ol’ geezer? Oh you don’t?! Guess you’ve measured out your life in trips up Capote’s ass.” (Note to reader: when shocking the middle classes, one must be crass.) Then to finish him off, I’d automatically write an American haiku on his forehead in permanent ink, naturally.

But I digress. You probably wonder what the point of this entry is by now. It is the origin story of “The Great Chaining of Being”. My newest novel, which I’ve just finished.

First off the title is a pun (dare I say Joycean (actually that’d be way too Irish for me)) on The Great Chain of Being, the popular religious hierarchy of the Middle Ages, with God on top, the angels, flawed us, then the biggest beasts like lions, tigers, and bears, oh my, all the way down to the dirt. Poor dirt. Gets such a bad rap. The title was originally going to be the name for a short story collection of non-human narrator based stories, i.e. from the point of view of a tree, a cloud, the dirt, or God itself, not as an all-powerful being, but rather a life manipulated thoughtform (trapped, chained, dumb to its experience, manipulated by life’s will and imagination).

Thought-form of the Music of Gounod, according to Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater in Thought Forms (1901)

Before reading of Breton, I’d been reading a lot of books on near-death experiences and reincarnation and kept thinking how good these theories might translate to fiction. For example I said to myself sitting by the river with my rainbow kitten notebook (it’s the only one at the general store that appealed to me), what if Sylvia Plath and Charles Baudelaire were trapped in the afterlife together. I wrote that story calling it Cruel Flowers for the Colossus.  

Poor Sylvia.

It wasn’t that good of a story. However, what if an Andre Breton like character was added to the mix. What if it wasn’t exactly Plath, and it wasn’t exactly Baudelaire and they were all linked via an oversoul (your dysfunctional none-blood-related family in the afterlife). What if these three bohemians were in trouble, what if a Singularity-salivating transhumanist future was after them in a sense, swallowing up history for their technological death march of progress. As flawed and arrogant as Breton might be he wouldn’t stand for it, nor would Plath no matter how self-destructive she was, nor would Baudelaire no matter how much he drank, smoked, or mooched money from his beloved bourgeois mother. And so the first three chapters in their raw form were born there back in the summer of 2011 in Methaline Falls. 

Only 5 plus years later after many more adventures and much more research would it all come together. This is the story of the story (a meta-metaphor if you will), and The Long, Perilous, and Inevitable Publication of The Great Chaining of Being. 

Long live Montparnasse in the 20s,

Ian Drew Forsyth  

 Self-referential narcissistic photo of me and my novel’s journal in Venice a la 2015

Photo credit: Kinga Leftska