Nothing is more terrifying than listening to Plath read her own poem, which thanks to YouTube, you can do:
Sylvia Plath reads Lady Lazarus
The first time I encountered this piece, I thought of Lady Lazarus as a phoenix, a mental image I have been unable to shake in subsequent revisits. Perhaps this is why I hear redemption on repeat, especially in the second half of the poem:
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!' That knocks me out. There is a charge 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. 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. Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware. Out of the ash I rise with my red hair And I eat men like air.
This from someone who gently placed her head on a soft towel in a gas oven, and neatly died in her London flat.
And yesterday, found dead in his home in London, the brilliant, volatile, and bewitching Alexander McQueen, whose designs included marvels such as this:
I've never closely followed the fashion world. But Alexander McQueen lived on the margins of it, and kind of created his own world in the process, leaning into discomfort to challenge our notions of beauty and really, if you think about it, human nature. I value his ideas about creation and how we fit into it, especially as he explained it to the musician-artist-performer, Bjork:
"I've done loads of collections based on man and machine and man and nature, but ultimately my work is always in some way directed by nature. It needs to connect with the earth. Things that are processed and reprocessed lose their substance.... I support what you're saying about this connection between man and nature, but it's like you're talking to a brick wall when it comes to the rest of the world. Everyone wants an easier life. I don't think nature fits into most people's concepts of an easier life."
I love that McQueen is thinking about the locomotion of creating in terms not that far removed from Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Anyone who has any interest in modernity and how it bisects with what it means to authentically create something should read this work, which embraces the fact that crises can and do occur when new forms of art are born. The "aura" of a work of art is compromised by our demands to have it, to own it, to claim it as our own. "I am your opus," challenged Plath. What a curse and a blessing.
Benjamin's essay, certainly read widely in Plath's day (if not as often in our own) is part of the scaffolding for the dialogue that artists such as Plath and McQueen entered. They did so with an uneasy volatility that is so wretchedly beautiful and ugly all at once. In many ways, it puts an essential and declarative point on their pain. You can hear it in Plath's voice, and you can read it in her lines. You can follow McQueen's twitter and arrive at a silence as still and arresting as stones. As Plath herself said, “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”
I think Plath would have appreciated McQueen's comments as much as she likely would have dug his butterfly head piece, a nest so strange and beautiful - a miracle, really. I also believe that sometimes there are those who walk on this earth to create and create until there is nothing left that they want - their theatrical comeback refuses to rise again.
In these voices, there is yet redemption. An easier life, no. But one worth interrogating these strange angels who trouble us as much as they inspire, yes.
And lest we forget Descartes, who also died on February 11: “I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things which I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery.”
Amen to that.