The last of the tragic poet Sylvia Plath‘s letters were released recently, and reviewed in the New York Times, those which show her struggling with her sanity following the breakup of her marriage to the poet Ted Hughes. Of course, as those who are followers of Plath already know, that period of struggle in her life ultimately led to her writing her great seminal collection of poems to be found in her book titled Ariel, as well as leading to her eventual suicide during the winter of 1963. Previously, during her years as a college student, she had also confronted madness and suicide, something about which she wrote in her iconic novel The Bell Jar.
To read the poems contained in the Ariel collection is to indeed come face to face with the possibility of a type of madness, one in which one explores the limits of human consciousness in an attempt to come to grips with the world as it really is. For as anyone who has traversed the boundaries of rational thought surely knows, the nature of the thinking mind, its possibilities and its limitations, is something with which one inevitably comes into conflict during that journey, as maddening as that might be. For to peek over the edge toward a limitless reality which exists only in the realm of emotion and direct insight, as Plath surely did, without trying to reign it in by the use of one’s rationality, is to come into direct contact with the limits of thought and sanity.
However, it is this same journey which allows one to seek a larger consciousness, one born of a direct insight which can only take place when the irrelevancies of thought are finally swept away. Yet in our current digital age it is this same capacity for direct insight which appears to now be under assault. And that is because the critical aha moment of complete absorption in whatever aspect of his/her world one is apprehending is being continually interrupted and thus diluted by the fragmented awareness being conditioned in all of us by how we jump from one virtual location to another on our smart phones, tablets, and PCs.
In her title poem Ariel, Plath writes at the poem’s end The child’s cry/ Melts in the wall./And I/Am the Arrow/The dew that flies/Suicidal, at one with the drive/Into the red/Eye,the cauldron of morning. Needless to say, this is a state of existence that lies on that borderline between primal essence and madness; one that can never be apprehended by the thinking mind. Yet, at the same time, it can be a dangerous place in which to exist simply because without the power of rational thought there are no moorings in which one might sustain oneself while surrendering to the potential power of such frightening emotive states. Furthermore, it can be a place that on occasion threatens to swallow one completely without a road map for return.
However, it is this same potential flirtation with madness at a place that exists on the the other side of rational thought which might lead one toward a more expansive, clearer consciousness; arrived at through the flow state in which one ceases to lean on rational thought in pursuit of a purely emotive state of direct insight. Yet the possibility of such a state of existence may now be on the way to being significantly diminished as people’s awareness grows increasingly distracted as they jump back and forth between the glut of information and images on the screens of their digital devices while simultaneously growing increasingly less able to sink into their experiences with a depth that might lead toward a larger awareness.
There is indeed a real value in exploring the frontiers of madness, the thinking mind, and consciousness in pursuit of something larger; in the case of Sylvia Plath it was in pursuit of a deeper reality which she strove to express even at the risk of her sanity. For ultimately one can allow him or herself to be conditioned by the world in which they live in order to keep the dangerous internal forces of one’s life at bay. Or one can take the risk of exploring a deeper reality in which we might live in an attempt to reach the core of our existence. Let’s hope that choice isn’t being made for us by the folks that design our smart phones, PCs, websites, and search engines.