Volume XV, Number 1, 2019

"Literature and Illness. Sylvia Plath in an Interdisciplinary Mirror" by Réka M. Cristian

Réka M. Cristian is associate professor, chair of the American Studies Department, University of Szeged, co-chair and founding member of the university’s Inter-American Research Center. She is author of Cultural Vistas and Sites of Identity: Literature, Film and American Studies (2011), co-author with Zoltán Dragon of Encounters of the Filmic Kind: Guidebook to Film Theories (2008), and editor-in-chief of AMERICANA E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, as well as its e-book division, AMERICANA eBooks. Email:

The Risk of Imagination. Sylvia Plath’s Works, Life, and Illness
József Gerevich, ed.
Budapest, Noran Libro, 2019.
ISBN: 978-963-517-050-0


A képzelet kockázata. Sylvia Plath életműve, élettörténete és betegsége [The Risk of Imagination. Sylvia Plath’s Life, Works, and Illness] edited by József Gerevich is an intriguing collection of essays published in the Psychiatria Hungarica series founded by the Hungarian Psychiatric Association, a volume in which literary historians with interest in psychology along with psychiatrists and psychologists drawn to literature and literary studies teamed up to analyze the intricate relationship of Sylvia Plath’s work and illness. Literary researchers focus in this volume on the psychobiographic features of the writer, while psychologists and psychiatrists zoom in the psychiatric aspects of confessionalism in Plath’s poetic works. As the editor of this Hungarian-language volume writes in the Introductory part “A vallomásos költészet pszichiátriai vonatkozásai” [Psychiatric Features of Confessional Poetry], the book is “imbued with considerations of literary psychology and literary psychiatry that expand and enrich both literary studies and the psychiatric field” (14). Indeed, Plath provides captivating material for researchers of literature and psychologysts alike because her poetry offers a unique dialogue for the two fields considering that her illness is richly documented in thousands pages-long documents—including memoirs and letters—alongside her novels and poetry bearing witness to Plath’s struggles of self-analysis, all confessional chronicles of her Self.

The volume is divided into three main parts. The first, which is written by researchers of literature, linguistics, and cultural history, focuses on the textual studies of Plath’s oeuvre (pp.19-166). The second part contains discussions on Plath’s life history authored by psychologists, a poet, and a cultural historian (pp.167-278), while the third part centers on Plath’s illness put under scrutiny by psychiatrists (pp. 279-390). The selection of texts in this book shows an admirable balance among the points of view of the volume’s authors discussing themes also valid in other scientific fields apart from their own disciplinary terrains. As a literature researcher, I will in the following concentrate on the essays written in the field of literary history with a short detour on the literary aspects of the psychological texts.

The editor’s “Introduction” provides a pragmatic frame for the volume’s interdisciplinary world. Gerevich is a psychiatrist with a wide knowledge of cultural issues, who has increasingly researced in the past years the creative world of the arts and artists. Many of his recently published books, including a series of three publications (Teremtő vágyak. Művészek és múzsák [Creative Desires. Artists and Muses]; Múzsák és festők: teremtő vágyak 2. [Muses and Painters: Creative Desires 2] and Teremtő vágyak 3. Szerelmek, múzsák, szeretők [Creative Desires 3: Loves, Muses and Lovers] discuss the relationship between artists and their muses through what tha author calls creative desire by concentrating on the forms and phases these creative desires have and take. Gerevich’s first text in this 2019 edited volume, “A vallomásos költészet pszichiátriai vonatkozásai” [Psychiatric Aspectss of Confessional Poetry], and his last essay, “A törött nyakú szarvas” [The Deer with the Broken Neck: Reconstructing and Understanding the Sylvia Plath Phenomenon] analyze Plath’s lyrics of illness—more precisely, her illness sublimated into lyrical confessionals—based on substantial researches in cultural history and psychiatry and shed light on Plath’s confessional poetry through psychiatric lens.

The first essay of A képzelet kockázata. Sylvia Plath életműve, élettörténete és betegsége is Enikő Bollobás’s “Maszk és Én—és a betegség: A lélek sérülései Sylvia Plath költészetében” [The Mask and I—and the Illness: Traumas of the Soul in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry]. Bollobás published several articles on Plath’s works, among them two outstanding ones on “Nő és költő egyszemélyben? Konfliktusok Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath és Anne Sexton költészetében” [Woman and Poet in One? Conflicts in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson] (1981: 93-98) and „Énné váló álarc, álarccá váló Én (a tükörben): a plathi Bildung természetrajzához. [The I-Mask and the Mask as I (in the Mirror): The Nature of Plath’s Bildung] (2002, 59-78). In this book, the literary historian discusses the dilemma of Plath’s oeuvre by focusing on how, in the lack of a unified “I,” self-expression in Plath’s confessional works exhibit aggregated selves, which, resulting from personal crises, are not compatible with each other. The plurality of identites is due to the lack of a coherent “I,” which Plath tries to hide under various masks. However, the female Bildung, which follows the changes and developments of the “I,” contradicts this masked “I,” which is according to Bollobás, one of the hidden, less known features of Plath’s poetry. As the author of this chapter previouosly wrote in “Troping the Unthought” (2012, 25-56), in case of Emily Dickinson’s poetry it was catachresis that took the form of this “unknown;” in Plath’s case, this unnamed, strange contradiction surfaces between multiple lacks of masked “I”-s and the confessional capacity of “I”-develpoment. Plath projects this cognitive instability unto her verses in which “measures of attention” (Bollobás 1986, 262-277) taylor the prosody by following an “inner rhythm of language” (1979, 99-121). The reader can thus wittness a pragmatic-philosophical dissolution in the contradiction of the lack of “I”/Bildung analyzed in other works of the chapter’s author (Bollobás 2007, 2332-2344; 1986, 279-285; 2008), which centered on the performative construction of the subject through the poetic text.

Antal Bókay’s article “Énteremtéskudarcok a vallomásos költészetben: Sylvia Plath és József Attila” [Failure in the Construction of the Ego in Confessional Poetry: Sylvia Plath and Attila József] builds on his extensive researches on the oeuvre of Hungarian poet Attila József, especially on the one written with Ferenc Jádi and András Stark (1982), which is one of the pioneering works combining the terrains of Hungarian literature and psychiatry, along Bókay’s other work on psycho-literary parallels involving Attila József’s “Kései sirató” [The Belated Lament] and Plath’s “Daddy” (Bókay 2002, 79-115). Bókay stresses the fact that both aforementioned poems build on real events stemming from infantile regression, and concludes that these were written with a certain “psychoanalytic consciousness” (2002, 62) originating from the participatory experience in psychotherapeutical sessions. Moreover, the traumatic kernel of each poem is grounded in the anger generated by the lack of the opposed-sex parent, with both poems prefacing the inevitable suicide of their authors. These poems also hold the dilemma of the lack of “I” and the creation of “I” previously discussed by Bollobás, alongside the recognition that pre-Oedipal and Oedipal traumas overwrite the subject-making potential of interpersonal object relations. As Bókay remarks, the effect of losing the primary object of love leads both poets to an unbridgeable sense of lack that ultimately surfaces in their poems.

Júlia Lázár is the Hungarian translator of Plath’s memoir and poems and her essay, “Kié a gyilkos arc?” [Whose Is This Face So Murderous?], recontructs the events of Plaths last months by illustrating their presence in Plath’s poems and diaries. Lázár “invokes” (91) Plath’s figure by emphasizing that her tragically ended life does not stand at the core of her oeuvre because the work of an artist cannot be limited or narrowed down to one or two features of her life. In another essay, the linguist Zsófia Demjén analyzes Plath’s diaries in “»Elmerülök a dacos ellenállásban, az önutálatban, a kétségben, az őrületben«: Mit mond a nyelv Sylvia Plath depressziójáról?” [“Drowning in Negativism, Self-Hate, Doubt, Madness:” Linguistic Insights into Sylvia Plath’s Experience of Depression?] by focusing on what Plath’s language shows about the poet’s mental state. This analysis is done on the basis of current international researches in linguistics concerning the language of the depressed, with special focus on The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath as a case study. Demjén identifies many depressive traits in Plath’s texts—for example, recurrent metaphors, pronouns and polarized language use, and transitivity—and maps the frequency with which these are used, especially the ones invoking death in the first person singular, but also the metaphors of depth and darkness, frustration, isolation, claustrophobia, features of disintegration, feelings of void, excesses, self-references and negations.

The literary and cultural historian Dóra Ocsovai contributed two articles to this volume. The first, „Magzatvíztől a hullámsírig: A víz poétikája Sylvia Plath életművében” [From Womb to Wave-yard: The Poetics of Water in Sylvia Plath’s Oeuvre], deals with Plath’s work from the vantage point of water poetics. Ocsovai observed that the polarized symbols of water are employed by Plath with outmost ingenuity in her depiction of the dichotomies of male and female, rage and tranquility, motion and stillness, because the American poet was atavistically attracted to water. For Plath, the ocean in motion is a real life force, while the motionless surface of any water calls for an almost endless narcissistic gaze. Finally, water becomes both a healing force and an aggressive, powerful threat. In „Isten és ördög: Ted Hughes kettős szerepe Sylvia Plath életében és halálában” [Devil and God: The Double Role of Ted Hughes Sylvia Plath’s Life and Death], Ocsovai analyzes the fatal relationship between Plath and her husband. Similar to other creative pairs such as Verlain and Rimbaud, Leo Tolstoy and Sophia Andreevna Behrs, Miklós Mészöly and Alaine Polcz, Hughes indeed helped but also hindered Plath’s creative work because their relationship was burdened with contradictions. Plath saw her husband as both a god figure and a satanic presence—just as she saw the figure of her own father—with the bipolariy of her art adhering to this duality.

In the first essay of the second part of the volume, Balázs Matuszka seeks to map in Plath’s works the emotions concerning her parents in „Az élménytől az indulatig: A szülőkkel szembeni érzelmek elaborációja Sylvia Plath művészetében” [From Experience to Anger: The Elaboration of Feelings Against Parents in the Art of Sylvia Plath]. This biographical text considers art as an imprint of life, especially in case of confessional poetry. Matuszka, a practicing psychologist, observed that the poet’s deteriorating marriage turned Plath against her parents, blaming them for the failure of her relationship. And being unable to process her anger might have also led Plath to suicide. Kinga Fabó’s „Személyiségvázlat Sylvia Plathról” [On Sylvia Plath’s Personality] is a text that analyzes with empathy Plath’s personality through a fellow poet’s eyes. Fabó, a poet, essayist and linguist, detects in Plath’s personality the oscillatory traits between addiction and freedom, as well as those which show the perspective of death and the neurasthenia of mundane existence; all features thrashing between extremes, topped by a phobia of objects alongside ambivalent feelings toward people. Following Fabó’s essay, Krisztina Zsédel investigates the relationship between Plath’s illness and her creativity in „A kreativitás »ára«? Prediktív és protektív faktorok Sylvia Plath öngyilkosságában” [The “Price” of Creativity? Predictive and Protective Factors in Sylvia Plath’s Suicide] by concentrating on the predictive features of the artist’s suicide, which foreshadowed her tragic end. Zsédel discusses Plath’s pathological mood swings from the point of view of a psychologist and shows that the inconsolable mourning the poet felt after her father’s death, besides her isolation and professional failures, point to the lack of a chain of preventive things that were completely missing from her life, such as happy motherhood, strong attachments to people and an empowering social safety net around her. Zsédel’s main thesis rests on the premise that Plath paid the ‘price’ of her creativity with her illness and suicide.

Introducing the third part of the book, Attila Németh’s “Sylvia Plath pszichiátriai betegsége” [Psychiatric Disorder of Plath], takes into consideration the psychological and biogical factors of Plath’s tragic life, a life that “should have been a true American success story” (279). On the basis of Plath’s family anamnesis, Németh examines the poet’s relationship with her parents, as it appears in Plath’s memoirs by presenting the processes of her treaments and comes to the conclusion that contemporary treatments of combined medication and phsychotherapy could have saved her life. Furthermore, psychiatrist Magdolna Moretti aims to put together the “pieces of a tragic life” (309) in „»Lábamhoz füvek hordják kínjuk«: Sylvia Plath terápiája” [The Grasses Unload their Griefs on My Feet: The Psychiatric Therapy of Sylvia Plath] by reconstructing the real therapies Plath had undergone from a number of documents left from the American writer. In Moretti’s remake the reader can follow Plath’s imagined curative route where the boundaries of art and life are erased and the poet identifies with her created lyrical I. József Gerevich’s „A törött nyakú szarvas: Kísérlet a Sylvia Plath-jelenség rekonstrukciójára és megértésére” [The Deer with Broken Neck: Reconstructing and Understanding the Sylvia Plath Phenomenon] is the last in the volume and explains Plath’s psychiatric illness through a route of five questions: Did Plath suffer from psychiatric illness? Did she show signs of bipolarity? Did her activity as a writer have a therapeutic effect? What was the nature of her confessionlalism? To what extent does Plath’s oeuvre reflect her life? Gerevich’s asnwers to these questions are that Plath suffered indeed from bipolar II affective disorder characterized by dispositional aggression and emotional dependence. These symptoms, paired with an unsuitable treatment and the early interruption of intensive psychotherapy were all factors that led to her tragic death; these are according to Gerevich also well-identifiable in the poet’s oeuvre. Writing with a therapeutic aim was, as it turned out, less helpful for Plath since it produced, besides a temporary self-healing, too much stress. Plath was aslo in this context a confessional poet because willingly-unwillingly she “tried to expel her stalled sentences in diary kind of works” (378) that ultiamtely halted her development as an artist.

The collection of essays A képzelet kockázata. Sylvia Plath életműve, élettörténete és betegsége [The Risk of Imagination. Sylvia Plath’s Life, Works, and Illness] is a volume that celebrates, through its elegant outlook of Plath’s own Triple-Face Portrait (1950-1951) on its cover and the high-quality texts contained in it the interdisciplinary dialogue that binds together science, literature and life.


Works Cited

  • Bókay Antal, Jádi Ferenc and Stark András. „Köztetek lettem én bolond” – Sors és vers József Attila utolsó éveiben. [“Among You I Became a Fool.” Fate and Poetry in Attila József’s Last Years]. Budapest: Magvető, 1982.
  • ———. “A vallomás és test poétikája. Sylvia Plath és József Attila új tárgyiassága.” In: Modern sorsok és késő modern poétikák. Tanulmányok Sylvia Plathról és Ted Hughesról. Szerk. Rácz István és Bókay Antal. Budapest: Janus/Gondolat, 2002. 79-115.
  • Bollobás, Enikő. „New Prosodies in 20th Century American Free Verse.” Acta Litteraria Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae XX/1-2, 1979: 99-121.
  • ———. “Nő és költő egyszemélyben? Konfliktusok Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath és Anne Sexton költészetében” [Woman and Poet in One? Conflicts in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson]. Filológiai Közlöny XXVII/1-2, 1981: 93-98.
  • ———. “Poetry of Visual Enactment: the Concrete Poem.” Word and Image (London) II/3, 1986. Iconicity in Literature: 279-285.
  • ———. “Measures of Attention. On the Grammatics of Lineation in Williams Carlos Williams’ Poetry.” In Poetry and Epistemology. Turning Points in the History of Poetic Knowledge. Roland Hagenbüchle and Laura Skandera, Eds. Regensburg: Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 1986, 262-277.
  • ———. „Énné váló álarc, álarccá váló Én (a tükörben): a plathi Bildung természetrajzához. [The I-Mask and the Mask as I in the Mirror: The Nature of Plath’s Bildung]. In Modern sorsok és késő modern poétikák. Tanulmányok Sylvia Plathról és Ted Hughesról. [Modern Fates and Late Modern Poetics. Essays on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes] Rácz István and Bókay Antal, Eds. Budapest: Janus/Gondolat, 2002, 59-78.
  • ———. Performing Texts/Performing Readings. Journal of Pragmatics (Amsterdam) 39/12, 2007: 2332-2344.
  • ———. “Making the Subject. Performative Genders in Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café and David Hwang’s M. Butterfly.” AMERICANA—E-Journal of American Studies IV/1, 2008. Web: http://americanaejournal.hu/vol4no1/bollobas
  • ———. “Troping the Unthought.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 21.1 Spring, 2012: 25-56.
  • Gerevich, József. Teremtő vágyak. Művészek és múzsák [Creative Desires: Artists and Muses] Budapest: Noran Libro, 2016;
  • ———. Múzsák és festők: teremtő vágyak 2. [Muses and Painters: Creative Desires 2] Budapest: Noran Libro, 2017.
  • ———. Teremtő vágyak 3. Szerelmek, múzsák, szeretők [Creative Desires 3: Loves, Muses and Lovers], Budapest: Noran Libro, 2018.