Autodidact: self-taught


Bell Jar

by V. L. Craven

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
001. I liked looking on at other people in crucial situations. If there was a road accident or a street fight or a baby pickled in a laboratory jar for me to look at, I’d stop and look so hard I never forgot it.
I certainly learned a lot of things I never would have learned otherwise this way, and even when they surprised me or made me sick I never let on, but pretended that’s the away I knew things were all the time.
002. I sat crossed-legged on one of the beds and tried to look devout and impassive like some businessmen I once saw watching an Algerian belly dancer…
003. I thought of crawling in between the bed sheets and trying to sleep, but that appealed to me about as much as stuffing a dirty, scrawled-over letter into a fresh, clean envelope.
004. The longer I lay there in the clear hot water the purer I felt, and when I stepped out at last and wrapped myself in one of the big, soft white hotel bath towels I felt pure and sweet as a new baby.
005. I’d discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it improperly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.
006. I felt very low. I had been unmasked only that morning be Jay Cee herself, and I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer.
007. I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more.
008. “I don’t really know,” I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.
It sounded true, and I recognized it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that’s been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father and looks exactly like you, so you know he really is your father, and the person you thought all your life was your father is a sham.
009. Physics made me sick the whole time I learned it… there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr Manzi’s special red chalk.
010. Of course, I would never have succeeded with this scheme if I hadn’t made that A in the first place. And if my Class Dean had known how scared and depressed I was, and how I seriously contemplated desperate remedies such as getting a doctor’s certificate that I was unfit to study chemistry, the formulas made me dizzy and so on, I’m sure she wouldn’t have listened to me for a minute, but would have made me take the course regardless.
011. Then she slipped a suit jacket over her lilac blouse, pinned a hot of imitation lilacs on the top of her head, powdered her nose briefly and adjusted her thick spectacles. She looked terrible, but very wise.
012. My secret hope of spending the afternoon alone in Central Park died in the glass eggbeater of Ladies’ Day’s revolving doors.
013. At about this point I began to feel peculiar. I looked round me at all the rows of rapt little heads with the same silver glow on them at the front and the same black shadow on them at the back, and they looked like nothing more or less than a lot of stupid moonbeams.
014. Usually after a good puke you feel better right away. We hugged each other and then said goodbye and went off to opposite ends of the hall to lie down in our own rooms. There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.
015. “This is Constantin Something-or-Other.”
I couldn’t make out the last name, but it was full of S’s and K’s.
016. Probably Mrs Willard’s simultaneous interpreter would be short and ugly and I would come to look down on him in the end the way I looked down on Buddy Willard. This thought gave me a certain satisfaction. Because I did look down on Buddy Willard, and although everybody still thought I would marry him when he came out of the TB place, I knew I would never marry him if he were the last man on earth.
017. I decided to expect nothing from Buddy Willard. If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.
018. Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed. Buddy seemed hurt I didn’t say anything. “I think you ought to get used to me like this,” he said. “Now let me see you.”
But undressing in front of Buddy suddenly appealed to me about as much as having my Posture Picture taken at college, where you have to stand naked in front of a camera, knowing all the time that a picture of you stark naked, both full view and side view, is going into the college gym files to be marked A B C or D depending on how straight you are.
019. I almost fell over. From the first night Buddy Willard kissed me and said I must go out with a lot of boys, he made me feel I was much more sexy and experienced than he was and that everything he did like hugging and kissing and petting was simply what I made him feel like doing out of the blue, he couldn’t help it and didn’t know how it came about.
020. At first I thought he must have slept with the waitress only the once, but when I asked how many times, just to make sure, he said he couldn’t remember but a couple times a week for the rest of the summer. I multiplied three by ten and got thirty, which seemed beyond all reason.
021. He could almost have been an American, he was so tan and had such good teeth, but I could tell straight away that he wasn’t. He had what no American man I’ve ever met has, and that’s intuition.
022. I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old. [PN: for me it was eight]
023. … little new firecrackers of ideas going off every day.
024. It mightn’t make me any happier, but it would be one more little pebble of efficiency among all the other pebbles.
025. Then Constantin and the Russian girl interpreter and the whole bunch of black and white and yellow men arguing down there behind their labeled microphones seemed to move off at a distance. I saw their mouths going up and down without a sound, as if they were sitting on the deck of a departing ship, stranding me in the middle of a huge silence.
026. I started adding up all the things I couldn’t do. [Andrew Solomon talks about this in Noonday Demon]
027. For the first time in my life, sitting there in the soundproof heart of the UN building between Constantin who could play tennis as well as simultaneously interpret and the Russian girl who knew so many idioms, I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.
028. I felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks or a champion footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit, his days of glory shrunk to a little gold cup on his mantel with a date engraved on it like the date on a tombstone.
029. I said maybe if you loved a woman it wouldn’t seem so boring, but Eric said it would be spoiled by thinking this woman too was just an animal like the rest so if he loved anybody he would never go to bed with her. He’d go to a whore if he had to and keep the woman he loved free of all that dirty business.
030. The main point of the article was that a man’s world is different from a woman’s world and a man’s emotions are different from a woman’s emotions and only marriage can bring the two worlds and the two different sets of emotions together properly.
031. When I was nineteen, pureness was the grest ussye,
Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another.
032. And then I wondered if as soon as he came to like me he would sink into ordinariness, and if soon as he came to love me I would find fault after fault, the way I did with Buddy Willard and the boys before him.
033. On a low coffee table, with circular and semicircular stains bitten into the dark veneer…
034. The fountain spurted a few inches into the air from a rough length of pipe, threw up its hands, collapsed and drowned its ragged dribble in a stone basin of yellowing water. The basin was paved with the white hexagonal tiles one finds in public lavatories.
035. At my left, the rope tow deposited skier after skier on the snowy summit which, pocked by much crossing and recrossing and slightly melted in the noon sun, had hardened to the consistency and polish of new glass. The cold air punished my lungs and sinuses to a visionary clearness.
036. Buddy singled me out, hesitating there in the red jacket. His arms chopped the air like khaki windmills. Then I saw he was signalling me to come down a path that had opened in the middle of the weaving skiers. But as I poised, uneasy, with a dry throat, the smooth white path from my feet to his feet blurred.
A skier crossed it from the left and another crossed it from the right, and Buddy’s arms went on waving feebly as antennae from the other side of a field swarming with animacules alike germs, or bent, bright exclamation marks.
I looked up from that churning amphitheatre to the view beyond it.
The great, grey eye of the sky looked back at me, its mist-shrouded sun focusing all the white and silent distances that poured from every poiint of the compass, hill after pale hill.
037. People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of it…
038. A dispassionate white sun shone at the summit of the sky. I wanted to hone myself on it till I grew saintly and thin and essential as the blade of a knife.
039. I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that it anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.
040. I buried my face in the pink velvet facade of Jay Cee’s loveseat and with immense relief the salt tears and miserable noises that had been prowling around in me all morning burst out into the room.
When I lifted my head, the photographer had vanished. Jay Cee had vanished as well. I felt limp and betrayed, like the skin shed by a terrible animal. It was a relief to be free of the animal, but it seemed to have taken my spirit with it, and everything else it could lay its paws on.
041. It was becoming more and more difficult for me to decide to do anything in those last days. And when I eventually did decide to do something, such as packing a suitcase, I only dragged all my grubby, expensive clothes out of the bureau and the closet and spread them on the chairs and the bed and the floor and then sat and stared at them, utterly perplexed. They seemed to have a separate, mulish identity of their own that refused to be washed, folded and stowed.
“It’s these clothes,” I told Doreen. “I just can’t face these clothes when I come back.”
042. “I am an observer,” I told myself.
043. I stepped from the air-conditioned compartment onto the station platform, and the motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me. It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station wagons and tennis rackets and dogs and babies.
044. I slunk down on the middle of my spine.
045. I reached for the receiver
My hand advanced a few inches, then retreated and fell limp. I forced it toward the receiver again, but again it stopped short, as if it collided with a pane of glass.
046. I sat like that for about an hour, trying to think what would come next, and in my mind, the barefoot doll in her mother’s old yellow nightgown sat and stared into space as well.
047. The years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three … nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.
048. The room blued into view, and i wondered where the night had gone.
049. One of the requirements was a course in the eighteenth century. I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.
050. At first I wondered why the room felt so safe. Then I realised it was because there were no windows.
051. The reason I had washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly. …
It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it.
I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.
052. I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying “Ah!” in an encouraging way, as if he could see something I couldn’t, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.
Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn’t sleep and why I couldn’t read and why I couldn’t eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.
053. But when I took up my pen, my hand made big, jerky letters like those of a child, and the lines sloped down the page from left to right almost diagonally, as if they were loops of string lying on the paper, and someone had come along and blown them askew.
I knew I couldn’t send a letter like that, so I tore it up in little pieces and put them in my pocketbook, next to my all-purpose compact, in case the psychiatrist asked to see them.
But of course Doctor Gordon didn’t ask to see them, as I hadn’t mentioned them, and I began to feel pleased at my cleverness. I thought I only need tell him what I wanted to, and that I could control the picture he had of me by hiding this and revealing that, all the while he though he was so smart.
054. Everything I looked at seemed bright and extremely tiny.
055. At that moment, the loudspeaker crackled into life and started announcing the stops of a bus getting ready to leave in the parking lot outside. The voice on the loudspeaker went bockle bockle bockle, the way they do, so you can’t understand a word.
056. As my mother and I approached the summer heat bore down on us, and a cicada started up, like an aerial lawnmower, in the heart of a copper beech tree at the back. The sound of the cicada only served to underline the enormous silence.
057. I felt dumb and subdued. Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently.
058. But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenceless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, a whole lot harder to get at.
059. I didn’t want to go at first, because I thought Jody would notice the change in me, and that anybody with half an eye would see I didn’t have a brain in my head.
But all during the drive north, and then east, Jody had joked and laughed and chattered and not seemed to mind that I only said, “My” or “Gosh” or “You don’t say.”
[PN: People don’t notice because they don’t care.]
060. The only reason I remembered this play was because it had a mad person in it and everything I had ever read about mad people stuck in my mind, while everything else flew out.
061. I had bought a few paperbacks on abnormal psychology at the drugstore and compared my symptoms with the symptoms in the books, and sure enough, my symptoms tallied with the most hopeless cases.
062. The only problem was, Church, even the Catholic Church, didn’t take up the whole of your life. No matter how much you knelt and prayed, you still had to eat three meals a day and have a job and live in the world.
063. If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat–on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok–I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.
064. I told him I believed in hell, and that certain people, like me, had to live in hell before they died, to make up for missing out on it after death, since they didn’t believe in life after death.
065. I hated these visits, because I kept feeling the visitors measuring my fat and stringy hair against what I had been and what they wanted me to be, and I knew they went away utterly confounded.
I thought if they left me alone I might have some peace.
066. “But what were they doing? ” I had asked. Whenever I thought about men and men, and women and women, I could never really imagine what they would be actually doing.
“Oh,” the spy had said, “Milly was sitting on the chair and Theodora was ling on the bed, and Milly was stroking Theodora’s hair.”
I was disappointed. I had thought I would have some revelation of specific evil. I wondered if all women did with other women was lie and hug.
067. “We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,” she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. “We’ll act as if all this were a bad dream.”
A bad dream.
To a person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.
068. Buddy met my eyes and I saw, for the first time, how he had changed. Instead of the old, sure smile that flashed on easily and frequently as a photographer’s bulb, his face was grave, even tentative–the face of a man who often does not get what he wanted.
069. How did I know that someday–at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere–the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?
070. There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice–patched, retreaded and approved for the road.
071. Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.
072. I tried to imagine Jay Cee out of her strict office suit and luncheon-duty hat and in bed with her fat husband, but I just couldn’t do it. I always had a terribly hard time trying to imagine people in bed together.
073. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.
074. It was my first big chance, but here I was, sitting back and letting it run through my fingers like so much water.
075. The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.
076. New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.

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