Holocaust Imagery in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath
Critic: Al Strangeways
This essay explores the controversial role of holocaust imagery in Plath’s poetry.
Sylvia Plath's poetry is generally judged on the contents of the posthumously published Ariel (1965), and often on a minority of poems within that volume, such as "Daddy" (1962) and "Lady Lazarus" (1962), which are most striking because of their inclusion of references to the Holocaust. Plath's whole oeuvre is frequently and superficially viewed as somehow "tainted" by the perceived egoism of her deployment of the Holocaust in these poems. Such straightforward condemnation, however, disguises the difficulties surrounding any judgment of Plath's treatment of this material--difficulties which are clearly exhibited by the respected critic George Steiner, who in 1965 applauded "Daddy" as "The 'Guernica' of modern poetry," yet later, in 1969, declared that the extreme nature of Plath's late poems left him "uneasy": "Does any writer, does any human being other than an actual survivor, have the right to put on this death-rig?" It is important to study both why and how the Holocaust appears in Plath's poetry, because our reaction to it as readers and the strategies Plath uses to approach it are tied to a wider problem relating to the place of the Holocaust in our culture. If we understand this, it is possible to place the disturbing appearance of the Holocaust in Plath's poems in its proper context, and to see this effect as symptomatic of a more general problem she recognizes, a conflict about the very uses of poetry itself. The problem of Plath's utilization of the Holocaust can be broadly divided into two parts: the motives behind her use of such material, and the actual appearance of it in her poetry. I will show that her motives were responsible, and that the often unsettling appearance of the Holocaust in her later poems stems from a complex of reasons concerning her divided view about the uses of poetry and the related conflict she explores between history and myth - a conflict which finds its ultimate focus in her consciousness of the importance of remembering such an event, but also of the voyeurism implicit in attempts at remembrance.
critics such as Jacqueline Rose and Margaret Dickie Uroff have gone some way toward arguing that Plath was
genuinely and consistently interested in political issues, little attention has
been given to the link between such political concerns and the Holocaust. In
Plath's academic life (the influence of which is neglected at cost by many
critics and biographers), the Holocaust was a topic in both high school and
college. A schoolmate recalls how Plath's history teacher at
to the emotional impact of this introduction, Plath's college professors
encouraged the reasoned linking of Nazism with current political concerns.
Erich Fromm's The Fear of Freedom (1941), a set text in one history course
Plath took at
The impact of Fromm's book on Plath lies in its combination of psychology and history in a way that appears to have influenced her combination of the two in her later poetry. While accepting that Nazism's rise was "molded by socio-economic factors," Fromm saw it as rooted in a "psychological problem" that also affected (albeit in a lesser way) American society. His exploration of Nazism concentrates on how "the Nazi system express[es] an extreme form of the character structure which we have called 'authoritarian,'" and he examines in detail examples of neurotic symptoms that are evident, in an extreme form, in Nazism. In Plath's poem "Daddy," the controversial lines "Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you" are trying to make a similar, though gendered, point. Throughout the poem, the speaker and "daddy," masochistic and sadistic figures respectively, appear dependent upon each other, and both figures' connections to Nazism (as Jew and Fascist) link their dependence on each other (lack of individuation) to Fromm's theorization. In the speaker's consciously disturbing over-statement that "Every woman adores a Fascist," Plath asserts that, while the archetypal male figure appearing in the rest of the poem (as father and lover) connotes the escape from freedom through sadism, the female figure's adoration of the Fascist is an extreme result of a stereotypically feminine escape from the feelings of aloneness associated with freedom, through masochistic strivings. Freedom, for the archetypal "feminine" figure in "Daddy," is freedom from the authoritarian father figure. Political realities (in the form of Nazism) and psychological difficulties (in the form of neurosis) are inescapably linked for Fromm and for Plath. Thus Plath's lines in "Daddy" are both psychological and political. They are psychological not because "Daddy" is about Plath's relationship with her father, but in the sense that Plath uses the situation depicted in the poem to explore the dynamics of her attitude toward individualism. Her intellectual and moral approval of individualism is set against a consciously explored ambivalence in her desire for such freedom, an ambivalence which is summed up in the final line, so that "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through" may mean either that the speaker is "through with daddy" or free from him, or that she is (in relation to the imagery of the black telephone in stanza 14) through to him, having made a final and inescapable connection with him--having, in short, given up her freedom.
As well as this staple American interest in individualism, Plath's other central political concern, as for most of her generation, was the prospect of nuclear war. With the cold war at its height in the late 1950s, the potential for a different, nuclear genocide made concerns about the Holocaust immediately relevant. The literary critic A. Alvarez (who was also a friend of Plath) notes that he "suggested (in a piece for the Atlantic Monthly, December 1962) that one of the reasons why the camps continue to keep such a tight hold on our imaginations is that we see in them a small-scale trial run for a nuclear war … Then there are those other curious, upside-down similarities: the use of modern industrial processes for the mass production of corpses, with all the attendant paraphernalia of efficiency, meticulous paperwork, and bureaucratic organization; the deliberate annihilation not merely of lives but of identities, as in some paranoid vision of mass culture." Elie Wiesel, a respected commentator on and survivor of the Holocaust, writing in the 1980s, also connects the genocide carried out by the Nazis and the more universal potential genocide of nuclear war: "Once upon a time it happened to my people, and now it happens to all people. And suddenly I said to myself, maybe the whole world, strangely, has turned Jewish. Everybody lives now facing the unknown. We are all, in a way, helpless." Other, later writers go further in their linking of anti-Semitic and potentially nuclear holocausts, such as Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Markusen, whose study The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat explores detailed similarities between the way the Nazi system of the Holocaust and the nuclear narrative work. Plath, in "Mary's Song" (1962), also connects the past atrocity of the Holocaust and the future threat of nuclear destruction, exploring the double-edged nature of technological "progress" that allows both space flight and efficient genocide--historically of the Jewish people, potentially of the whole world.
For Plath, the main link between the Holocaust and a potential nuclear war was the mind-numbing rhetoric that both "final solution" and cold war discourses employed. The widely publicized trial of Adolf Eichmann (1961-62) showed the importance of such a use of language in the smooth running of the Nazi genocide machinery. Hannah Arendt notes, in her report on the Eichmann trial: "all correspondence referring to the matter was subject to rigid 'language rules.' … the prescribed code names for killing were 'final solution,' 'evacuation' … and 'special treatment.' … for whatever other reasons the language rules may have been devised, they proved of enormous help in the maintenance of order and sanity in the various widely diversified services whose co-operation was essential in this matter." As a student at Smith, Plath marked Fromm's general comments on this subject of rhetoric and aggression in Escape from Freedom with a determined "yes!": "Never have words been more misused in order to conceal the truth than today. Betrayal of allies is called appeasement, military aggression is camouflaged as defense against attack [Plath's emphasis]." Plath's concern resurfaced in the period just before she wrote her Holocaust poems, during the Khrushchev-Kennedy stand-off, when she writes, both in her letters to her mother and in "Context," a piece published in London Magazine in 1962, about her fear of such a dissembling and dangerous "doubletalk."
Yet Plath's concerns with the Holocaust were not purely disinterested, academic connections between past and present threats. Her awareness of the interconnection between the private and the political in her interest in the Holocaust is evident in a BBC radio interview she gave in 1962. When asked why she treats the Holocaust in her poetry, she declares, "In particular, my background is, may I say, German and Austrian … and so my concern with concentration camps and so on is uniquely intense. And then, again, I'm rather a political person as well, so I suppose that's what part of it comes from." One might add, as James Young argues, that she also felt "she shared the era of victimhood, victimized by modern life at large as the Jews and Japanese had been victimized by specific events in modern life." Plath's personalized treatment of the Holocaust stems, then, from a combination of two motives: her very "real" sense of connection (for whatever reasons) with the events, and her desire to combine the public and the personal in order to shock and cut through the distancing "doubletalk" she saw in contemporary conformist, cold war America.
Edward Alexander expresses a common concern when he writes of his unease at the sort of connections made not only by Plath but also by other writers who talk of an "era of victimhood" or who specifically connect Jewish and potential nuclear holocausts: "stealing the Holocaust … [is the process of] reduc[ing] Jews from the status of human beings to that of metaphors for other people's sufferings … we must keep steadily before our mind's eye the truth that, as Cynthia Ozick once wrote, 'Jews are not metaphors - not for poets, not for novelists, not for theologians, not for murderers, and never for anti-semites.'" Alexander's fear is that once the Holocaust and its Jewish victims become mythical metaphors for suffering, it is easy to extend such metaphoric treatment into the very anti-Semitic stereotyping that resulted in the Holocaust itself. This very genuine concern does not, however, take into account the impossibility of regulating the relationship between history and subjectivity. As Young declares, "To question whether or not the suffering of the Holocaust should be cast as a type implies that we have some sort of legislative control over which events figure others, which events enter consciousness." Yet to accept the impossibility of legislating against the metaphorizing of the Holocaust does not mean that all judgment about the deployment of such material should be suspended. In relation to Plath's poetry, then, it is important to evaluate how effectively or appropriately Plath treats the Holocaust, and whether, indeed, she actually confronts the problem of metaphorizing in her deployment of such material.
have shown that Plath's motives for including Holocaust material in her poetry
were responsible, the Holocaust appears only briefly in her work. Not only does
Plath use such material within a short space of time, but in the poems in which
the Holocaust does appear, it is treated almost tersely. Such dual brevity
lends credence to the widespread view, noted by Rose, "that politics
appears only opportunistically, as a form of self-aggrandizement" in her
poetry. Apart from Plath's oblique treatment of the subject in the earlier poem
"The Thin People" (1957), Holocaust imagery appears only in the poems
she wrote between October and November 1962, just after her separation from Ted
Hughes and her return from Devon to
While it is relatively straightforward to chart the complex reasons behind the abrupt chronological appearance of the Holocaust in Plath's poems, the briefness of the appearance of such material within individual poems poses more complicated problems. Certainly, as Young notes, Plath's poems are not strictly about the Holocaust (in the way the poems of survivors such as Primo Levi are), although, as I argued earlier with reference to the influence of Erich Fromm, neither are they as resolutely private as they often appear. Accepting this, however, and notwithstanding her genuine sense of connection to the cultural impact of its horrors, the Holocaust appears in Plath's poems in references that are often emblematic, seemingly untransformed by poetic craft. In "Daddy," for instance, it is not so much the style of "light verse" and the connection of the very personal to the very extreme horrors of, in Seamus Heaney's terms, "the history of other people's sorrows" that causes unease. Rather, Plath combines myth and history (Electra, vampirism, and voodoo rub shoulders with the Holocaust) in such a way that the history of Nazi persecution of the Jews appears almost one dimensional in comparison to the flexibility of her treatment of the poem's mythic and psychoanalytic aspects.
"Fever 103" (1962), this uneasy combination of history (here, in the
to [the] sustained and vivid images, the historical-political image transitions
in the center of the poem appear violently swift and
lack the resonance of the mythic imagery. Concerns about modern science are
explored when the "Hothouse baby in its crib" becomes "The
ghastly orchid /… // Devilish leopard," of which the reader is told (in
relation to the drawbacks of such scientific wonders), "Radiation turned
it white / And killed it in an hour." These
startlingly swift metaphoric transitions, while working in complete contrast to
the more sustained progression of the frame of the poem, nevertheless appear to
cohere, both together and to the rest of the poem. The lurching transition to
"Greasing the bodies of adulterers / Like
contrast between the resonance and diversity of Plath's use of myth and the
single dimensions of her use of history in the form of the Holocaust and
If, then, this is the root of the dilemma about Plath's treatment of the
Holocaust, what were the reasons behind Plath's reversal of
in describing the Holocaust and nuclear bomb as the "larger things,"
Plath appears to perceive such historical events in expressly mythic terms. Jon
Harris, in trying to determine why, in the decades following World War II, very
little poetry was written about the Holocaust in
This problem of the relationship between myth and recent history is central to the difficulties surrounding literature and the Holocaust. Aharon Appelfeld writes: By its nature, when it comes to describing reality, art always demands a certain intensification, for many and various reasons. However, that is not the case with the Holocaust. Everything in it already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology. Thence comes the need to bring it down to the human realm. This is not a mechanical problem, but an essential one … I do not mean to simplify, to attenuate, or to sweeten the horror, but to attempt to make the events speak through the individual and in his language.
Many critics who explore the "literature of atrocity" recognize this conflict, between the "naturally" mythic nature of the events, and the need, difficult in practice, to remove them from such an easily assimilated mythology. Irving Howe, for instance, writes, "it is a grave error to make, or 'elevate,' the Holocaust into an occurrence outside of history, a sort of diabolic visitation, for then we tacitly absolve its human agents of their responsibility." Yet, as Harris recognizes, there are equal dangers in trying to "de-elevate" the Holocaust:
The problem, in fact, is twofold; first we must accept that the horrors were so extreme that they seem to belong to another world entirely, not the one we regularly write poetry about.Secondly, in claiming that we can conceive of the horror of the Holocaust, we lay ourselves open to the accusation that by imposing a critical form and structure on it we are ipso facto justifying it: by attributing a rationale of any sort to it, we admit that the Holocaust could be seen as a rational act.
which Plath's treatment of the Holocaust exhibits, of exploring or representing
the inconceivable (the mythic horror of the Holocaust) with the conceivable (be
it a conceivable subject, such as personal difficulties, or a conceivable
form), is also apparent in the Hollywood films produced at the time (as well as
many similar cinematic treatments from then on, with the notable exception of Shoah ). Annette Insdorf
describes the difficulties inherent in cinematic treatments of the Holocaust,
citing John J. O'Connor (a New York Times television critic), who writes:
"The Diary of Anne Frank and Judgment at
It is these problems surrounding the conventionalization and metaphorizing of the Holocaust that not only inform Plath's late poems but are enacted by them. Lawrence Langer's tentative answer to the way out of the impasse between the impact of the Holocaust and the ethical problems associated with its depiction is through a creativity which works to collapse the distinction between history and the present, metaphor and subject. Langer writes of an episode in Jerzy Kosinki's The Painted Bird: "Episodes like the gouging out of the eyes seek to induce a sense of complicity with the extremity of cruelty and suffering in modern experience, from which history (with its customary distinctions between "then" and "now"), conspiring with the reader's reluctance to acknowledge such possibilities, unconsciously insulates us. The art of atrocity is the incarnation of such possibilities through language and metaphor." Plath's late poems try to work in a similar way, "inducing a sense of complicity" by combining the events with an intimate tone and material. Yet instead of trying directly to present the cruelty of the Holocaust itself, the feeling Plath's poems generate is one of complicity in the easy assimilation of such past cruelties. Her poems try to avoid the anonymity and the amnesia contingent on the "them and us" and "then and now" distinctions that characterize the perception of history by highlighting her use of the Holocaust as metaphor. In such poems, readers are meant to feel uncomfortable with the suprapersonal, mythical depiction of Jewish suffering, feeling somehow implicated (because of their traditional identification with the lyric persona) in the voyeurism such an assimilation of the Holocaust implies. This feeling of implication that Plath's poems generate may be viewed in broad terms as their success. Such poems are culturally valuable because the appearance of the Holocaust in them is like a "boot in the face"--certainly, few readers leave them feeling "complacent instead of concerned or disturbed."
While the ultimately inconceivable nature of the horror of the Holocaust means that Plath cannot mobilize the kinds of overt reflexivity apparent in her treatment of traditional myth in, for example, "Electra on Azalea Path," her poems that deal with the Holocaust also work to comment on metapoetic concerns. In "Lady Lazarus," for example, Plath collapses the "them and us" distinction by confronting readers with their voyeurism in looking at the subject of the poem. To apply Teresa De Lauretis's theorizing of the cinematic positioning of women to Plath's poem, in "Lady Lazarus," the speaker's consciousness of her performance for the readers (who are implicitly part of the "peanut-crunching crowd") works to reverse the gaze of the readers so that they become "overlooked in the act of overlooking." By extension, in her parodic overstatement (Lady Lazarus as archetypal victim, archetypal object of the gaze) Plath highlights the performative (that is, constructed rather than essential) nature of the speaker's positioning as object of the gaze, and so (to extend Judith Butler's terms), Lady Lazarus enacts a performance that attempts to "compel a reconsideration of the place and stability" of her positioning, and to "enact and reveal the performativity" of her representation. This sense of performativity and the reversal of gaze likewise extends, in "Lady Lazarus," to compel reconsideration not only of the conventional positioning of the woman as object, and of the voyeurism implicit in all lyric poetry, but also of the historical metaphors as objects of the gaze. Readers feel implicated in the poem's straightforward assignment and metaphorizing of the speaker in her role as object and performer, and contingently are made to feel uncomfortable about their similar easy assimilation of the imagery (of the suffering of the Jews) that the speaker uses. In "Daddy," a similar relationship between reader, speaker, and metaphor is at work. Like "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy" does not attempt to depict the suffering directly for our view (an impossible task, for the reasons given above) but works by confronting readers with, and compounding the problematic distinctions and connections between, the private and the historical (our lives and their suffering). In other words, readers' reactions of unease, discomfort, and outrage are necessarily a response to the surface, the poem itself, rather than to the events the poem uses as metaphors for its subject (be it about individualism, freedom, or memory), because the events themselves are not graspable. The poem is effective because it leaves readers in no clear or easy position in relation to the voyeuristic gazes operating within it (of reader at speaker, reader at poet, poet at speaker, and all at the events which are metaphorized) and able to take no unproblematic stance regarding the uses of metaphor involved.
Ultimately, then, George Steiner's divided attitude toward Plath's treatment of such material most adequately and accurately represents the effect and effectiveness of Plath's project--a project meant to confront readers with their implication in the viewing and metaphorizing of others' lives and suffering, and aimed at foregrounding the complex instability of the boundaries between myth and reality that forms the root of the problematic placement of the Holocaust in our society. The reason such reflexivity, and its resulting complexity, is so often missed is because Plath's conflict between the idea of poetry as timeless mythic object or as political and/or personal communication remains unresolved, or, indeed, unresolvable, due to the modern relation between history and myth. Her critics often fail to see Plath's balanced ambivalence and appear trapped in one of two extremes of judgment about the meanings of, and motives behind, her poetry. Two interpretations of "Getting There" (1962) sum up this divide. Judith Kroll reads the poem "as the enactment of a willingly undertaken purgatorial ritual, in which the true self, purified by Lethe of all false encumbrances [of the past] finally emerges . . . [d]iscarding the 'old bandages' . . . [in] a symbol[ic] resurrection." In this interpretation, indeed, the Holocaust has been abused for its immediate value as a metaphor for the past. Margaret Dickie Uroff, however, perceives the poem as expressing a view opposed to that read by Kroll. She writes: "the train that drags itself through the battlefields of history ultimately becomes the 'black car of Lethe,' a symbol of the forgetfulness of the past. It becomes a cradle, nurturing a new generation of killers: the pure baby who steps from it will perpetuate murder because she has forgotten the world's past history of murderousness." These two readings reflect Plath's own foregrounding of her culturally situated conflict about the uses of poetry, between the mythic desire that poetry transcend history and the "committed" purpose that it name history and thus remember it. An understanding of the "boot in the face" effect of Plath's treatment of the Holocaust, then, enables the recognition that the dissonances between history and myth in her poetry are not an aesthetic problem but work to prohibit complaisance about the definitions of--and the relationship between--myth, history, and poetry in the post-Holocaust world.
Source: Al Strangeways, "'The Boot in the Face': The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath," in
Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 370-90.