lørdag den 1. juli 2017

READER'S ROUND // "Sylvia Plath skriver om mig" Part 3

”I felt sorry when I came to the last page. I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree”


En af litteraturens forunderlige kvaliteter er, at den formår at gribe ind i ens eget liv. Litteraturen kan sætte tanker i gang, den kan ændre måden, hvorpå vi betragter og forstår andre mennesker, men også måden hvorpå vi forstår os selv. Vi kan spejle os i litterære karakterer og pludselig forstå os selv på et dybere plan, eller vi kan tage afstand til det, vi læser og pludselig erfare, at vi føler anderledes, end vi troede. 

Det er helt unikt, når et menneske møder en bog, som forandrer noget i menneskets tilværelse. Denne lille føljeton skrevet af forskellige læsere handler om netop dette: et menneskes møde med en bog og alt det der opstår i mødet.

Ps. Forfatteren har valgt at være anonym, men alle kommentarer vil blive videresendt og læst. 


Læs DEL 1 og DEL 2 


One of the wonderful qualities of literature is the way it can reach into our own lives. Literature can make us reflect on the way we live, it can change the way we perceive the world and how we understand ourselves and other people. We can see ourselves reflected and mirrored in literary characters and suddenly understand ourselves better. 

It's such a unique experience when you read a book that changes something in your life. This series is about exactly that: a person's meeting with a book and everything that happens in this meeting. 

Ps. The author of this post has chosen to be anonymous, but all comments will of course be forwarded. 

Read part 1 and part 2



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”I felt sorry when I came to the last page. I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree”

Sådan tænker Esther om den novelle med figentræet, og sådan tænker jeg også om The Bell Jar. Det var en trøst at læse om Esther, så meget at det nærmest føltes luksuriøst: når man selv har det dårligt, kan det være en lettelse at leve sig ind i andre menneskers liv i stedet. Når det viser sig at deres liv nærmest er en spejling af ens eget – og når den fortællende endda har et præcist, levende og ærligt sprog – så er indlevelsen i dette liv ikke kun en spændende virkelighedsflugt; det er også (måske!) en måde at komme et stykke videre på. Det er i hvert fald til dels derfor jeg læste så sultent og så hurtigt – jeg kunne mærke at der hér var nogen der vidste hvad den øde, livsforladte, trøstesløse ørkenvandring går ud på. Så jeg læste med ilende desperation – i hvert fald så længe identifikationen og genkendelsen varede ved. På et tidspunkt sænkede mit læsetempo sig nemlig betragteligt. Da jeg skulle forklare min veninde det, sagde jeg at det måtte være da jeg ikke længere havde det lige så dårligt som Esther, altså der hvor hendes fysiske symptomer begynder. Det ville give mening, men det er ikke helt sandt. Det var snarere lidt senere i romanen hvor Esther kommer i behandling og bliver indlagt. Hvorfor lukkede teksten sig for mig dér? Jeg kan finde tre årsager som vist er relativt sammenhængende. Den første handler om psykiatrien, den anden handler om beskrivelsen af Esthers bedring, og den tredje handler om selve den måde hvorpå hun bliver rask.

Ét: psykiatrien. De scener The Bell Jar udspiller sig på indtil omkring kapitel fjorten er ret genkendelige. Jeg har godt nok aldrig været i New York, men jeg kender universitetsverdenen, jeg kender den flig af karriereverdenen der for Esther er en praktikplads og for mig et studiejob. Jeg kender det unge voksenliv, at skulle forme sit fremtidige liv, og det vægelsind og den usikkerhed der følger med dette ansvar. Jeg kender den uoverskuelige, overambitiøse kolos af et studieprojekt man giver sig selv som opgave blot for at blive knust af. Jeg kender den ængstelige mor som man for alt i verden ikke vil forvolde sorg selvom man ikke kan undgå det, og jeg synes også at landskabet af mænd, sex, kærlighed, forelskelser og forelskelsesfravær er et forvirrende og desorienterende terræn. Jeg kender også de langstrakte somre hvor den uudholdelige ensomhed og manglen på struktur og noget meningsfuldt at tage sig til gør én tung og sløv, underligt skør og uden livsvilje.
Til gengæld kender jeg ikke det psykiatriske system. Jeg læser selvfølgelig med når Esther træder derind, og jeg prøver at forstå det for både hende og mig nye sted hun er ankommet til. Esther bliver fra starten og gentagende gange overrendt af læger og er mistroisk over for dem alle – og med god grund, for tidligere i romanen, efter de fysiske symptomer, men før selvmordsforsøget og indlæggelsen, er hun blevet behandlet med elektrochokterapi der langt fra gik som det skulle: hun kunne mærke de kolossale stød hun fik, de kraftige rystelser og smerten i muskler og nerver og knogler, hun kunne se det blå lys og høre den elektriske hvinen og knitren.
I løbet af halvfjerds sider, fra kapitel fjorten til kapitel tyve, føres Esther gennem tre institutioner: først det lokale hospital hvor hun er blevet indlagt efter sit selvmordsforsøg. Så et større statshospital som hun bliver flyttet til fordi det har en psykiatrisk afdeling. I denne del af bogen skriver Plath en subtil absurditet frem der får læseren til at stille det samme spørgsmål som man må stille sig når man læser Ken Keseys roman Gøgereden (1962), der også foregår på en psykiatrisk afdeling: virker det hele sært og absurd fordi fortælleren er psykisk syg og derfor oplever stedet som sært og absurd, eller er det fordi der er sært og absurd på en psykiatrisk afdeling?
Det bliver aldrig så dramatisk som i Gøgereden, men det er tydeligt at Esther føler sig utilpas og fremmedgjort. Indtil nu, i New York og hjemme hos sin mor i en anonym forstad, har hun frembragt klare og troværdige skildringer af menneskene omkring hende; nu sidder navnene ikke fast: en italiensk kvinde Esther deler stue med, bliver kaldt Mrs Tomolillo, ikke fordi hun hedder det, men fordi Esther kun fik fat i at hendes navn “sounded long and full of l’s, like Mrs Tomolillo”. Esther er stadig mistroisk, og da hun bliver introduceret for en lang række læger, nogle af dem med underlige efternavne, begynder hun at holde øje med “suspicious, fake names, and sure enough, [a doctor] came up and said ’I’m Doctor Pancreas,’ and shook my hand”. Hendes mistro, ikke kun over for navne, men også over for småting der forekommer hende sære (for eksempel at der til aftensmad serveres både grønne bønner og baked beans, altså to gange bønner), gør at man som læser også føler sig på vagt. Jeg får ondt af Esther fordi det er tydeligt at hun føler sig utryg, og fordi hun bliver mødt med vrede fra sygeplejerskerne frem for forståelse og empati. Esther synes at hendes omverden nu er mærkelig, fremmedgørende og mistænkelig, og faktisk læser jeg også selv med øget mistro og svækket optimisme, for min litterære tvilling har bevæget sig ud på en rejse jeg ikke stoler på. Den forløber anderledes end forventet – først og fremmest i utryghed og tilsyneladende uden lindring.
Den tredje institution Esther stifter bekendtskab med, er et psykiatrisk privathospital der har tre afdelinger: Wymark, Caplan og Belsize. Wymark er for dem der har det værst, og Belsize er for dem der har det bedst. Caplan er i midten. Esther bliver indskrevet på Caplan og ankommer med samme mistillid som hun forlod statshospitalet med; en mistillid der til dels dulmes af hendes nye (kvindelige) psykiater, Doctor Nolan, som formår at etablere en fortrolig og tryg relation til Esther. Det er her bedringen endelig kommer snigende, må man formode, for Esther bliver flyttet fra Caplan til Belsize. Men det er faktisk enormt svært at sige, for man kan ikke rigtigt spore Esthers fremgang i teksten. Det bringer mig frem til den anden årsag til at teksten begynder at lukke sig for mig. Eller rettere: jeg begynder at mangle noget i teksten.

To: beskrivelsen af Esthers bedring. Eller skulle jeg sige manglen på samme? I hvert fald lader det ikke til at Esther får det bedre i løbet af den tid hun er på Caplan. Godt nok får hun et tillidsfuldt forhold til Doctor Nolan, men hun deltager ikke i nogen aktiviteter og forventer hele tiden at hun lige om lidt bliver flyttet til Wymark. Hun synes heller ikke hun har fået det bedre, og hun bliver overrasket da hun får at vide at hun skal bo på Belsize.
Men Esther kommer på Belsize, og hun får det bedre. Og vi hører skam om hvordan det føles da hun, langt om længe, mærker en lindring: “All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air”. Det er et mirakel. Så let som ingenting, virker det til, er glasklokken lettet og Esther kan trække vejret igen. Men det er også alt vi får af specifikke beskrivelser af lindringen. Det går ganske vist bedre – Esther begynder at gå ud, hun møder endda en mand hun fatter interesse for, og da hun efter nogle uheldige drejninger afslutter deres forhold over telefonen, er det med køligt, fattet overskud. Så vi hører altså om tegn på bedring, og senere kommer også én af The Bell Jars mere berømte sætninger, lyden af Esthers hjerte der triumferende banker: “I am, I am, I am”. Esther er her stadig – selvom man må bemærke at det også er en bittersød triumf, for den melder sig på banen ved hendes veninde Joans begravelse og bliver altså nærmest hånlig og upassende. Og så er der altså ingen billeder på hvordan bedringen føles, ikke noget som helst andet end at glasklokken nu svæver oppe over hovedet på hende. Esther virker ikke til at være bevidst om hvordan bedringen er foregået – den sker ligesom bare af sig selv.
Jeg har hørt lignende fra mange der har haft det dårligt psykisk: de fik behandling eller fandt en måde at komme videre på, og så “fik de det bare bedre”. Men hvordan føles det? Hvad er det for en bevægelse? Når Esther kan beskrive sit fald så levende i romanens første halvdel, når hun benytter sig af originalt og rammende billedsprog, hvorfor er der så ikke ord og bevidsthed og opmærksomhed til at beskrive bedringen? “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”, “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”, “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 trolley-bus”. Når Esther kan beskrive sine oplevelser i New York og sit indre følelsesliv og den tiltagende depression så levende, hvorfor er det eneste vi får så konstateringen at glasklokken nu lykkeligvis har løftet sig – og dét tilsyneladende let og ubesværet? Hvor er det billedsprog der hører bedringen til? Findes det ikke?
Det må det gøre. Og Sylvia Plath måtte have været i stand til at fremkalde det hvis hun ville. Men måske skyldes den minimale beskrivelse af Esthers bedring den måde hun får det bedre på – hvilket også er den tredje årsag til at jeg ikke kan spejle mig selv i Esther helt så klart som jeg kunne i starten.

Tre: elektrochokterapi. I kapitel atten vågner Esther op efter at have fået elektrochokterapi, denne gang problemfrit. Det er her vi hører om den løftede glasklokke, det tilsyneladende mirakel. På siden efter, da Esther betragter den smørkniv hun har brugt til at skære toppen af sit æg, står der: “I tried to think what I had loved knives for, but my mind slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the centre of empty air”. Som jeg læser det står hér lige præcis hvad elektrochokterapien har udrettet, hverken mere eller mindre. At Esther før har elsket knive læser jeg som et depressivt træk – jeg ved at man i de mere skyggefulde dale af depression kan opleve sit sind underligt og uhyggeligt fikseret på ting som pistoler, reb, søer med dybt, koldt, stillestående vand, knive; altså redskaber til selvskade og selvmord. Elektrochokket har for nu zappet Esther ud af skyggedalen, eller zappet skyggedalen ud af Esther, som man ser på det. Når hun prøver at genkalde sig den depressive kærlighed til knive, kan hendes sind ikke få fat i den løkke som tanken er (ordet “noose” er med dets konnotation til hængning og død uden tvivl et bevidst ordvalg). I stedet flyver sindet som en fugl ud i den tomme luft. At ens sind flyver frit virker umiddelbart positivt, og for en person der indtil da har følt at hun var været fanget i en iltfattig glasklokke må det være en befrielse uden sammenligning. Den eufori ønsker jeg ikke at bagatellisere. Men vi kan ikke forlade denne tekstnære læsning uden at granske ordet “empty”, tom. Sindet slynges ud i den tomme luft, det står der jo egentlig også. Man kunne tro at ordet hentydede til det mere eller mindre midlertidige hukommelsestab der er en almindelig bivirkning af elektrochokterapi, men Esther nævner ikke hukommelsestab andre steder i bogen – tværtimod siger hun at hun husker alt (om man vil stole på hende som fortæller eller ej må være op til én selv, men det er en diskussion man kan have med sig selv på hver eneste side i bogen alene på grund af det faktum at historien fortælles af en psykisk syg jegfortæller).
Det er elektrochokterapien der løfter glasklokken, ikke Esthers styrkede psyke og langsomt opbyggede viljestyrke og tiltagende livsmod. For hendes psyke er slet ikke blevet styrket noget videre, hun har ikke opbygget nogen større viljestyrke end den hun havde i forvejen. Hun er holdt op med at tænke på selvmord hele tiden, så der må være sket en lille bedring, men sandsynligvis mere på grund af den ro hun har fået end på grund af redskaber til at håndtere sin psykiske skrøbelighed og den brutale verdens påvirkning. Under alle omstændigheder har hun haft brug for elektrochokterapien til at få det bedre. Det er den der har løftet glasklokken, ikke Esther selv.
Misforstå mig ikke: det er ikke en fejl hos Esther at hun ikke kunne løfte sig selv. Det kan de færreste. Det er ikke en svaghed at samtaleterapi ikke var nok. Hun var selvmordstruet, dybt depressiv, og hun blev indlagt på basis af et resolut selvmordsforsøg som hun næsten lykkedes med. Elektrochokterapien virkede, og det kan man ikke på nogen måde undervurdere værdien af. Men den kan ikke gå hele vejen – det tror jeg ikke på, og det tror jeg heller ikke at Esther gør: “I had hoped, at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead – after all, I had been ‘analyzed’. Instead, all I could see were question marks”, tænker hun da hun venter på at skulle ind til den afsluttende samtale med lægerne.
Og hvad sker der så? Ja, her forlader vi Esther. Vi hører ikke hvordan hendes samtale går, men vi må formode at hun bliver udskrevet. Og så? Får hun taget de skridt der er nødvendige for at den bedring elektrochokterapien fremkaldte, bliver vedvarende? Hvilke erfaringer gør hun sig? Går hendes sind andre veje end dem der førte til den mørke spiral, det smertefulde orkanøje hun befandt sig i da vi mødte hende? Det ved vi ikke. Det er vinter og sneen har lagt sig som et roligt, lindrende tæppe, men sommeren kan komme igen uden at vi ved om den bliver “queer, sultry”, underlig, trykkende.

Den primære grund til at jeg stadig hungrer efter mere af samme kaliber (og, indrømmet, med samme spejling af mig selv) som The Bell Jar, handler også om lindringen og den måde den kommer på. Jeg har læst bogen færdig for længst, og mine noter er også ved at være færdige. Det er årets første sommermåned. Er vinteren ovre? Den kolde, kolde vinter hvor jeg har længtes efter midsommer, kærlighed, svalende saltvand fra det brusende, åbne sommerhav, lange, pastelfarvede nætter, duft af syren og hyldebær, og den silkebløde lindring frem for alt. Jeg har hele tiden forestillet mig at lindingen skulle komme ligesom sommeren gør det. Temperaturgrad for temperaturgrad, frostløs nat for frostløs nat, gradvist tiltagende som dagene og soltimerne og farverne. Frem for alt sikkert. Ikke pludseligt – jeg har det heldigvis ikke lige så dårligt som Esther, og jeg vil ikke få elektrochokterapi, jeg må nøjes med samtaleterapi. Til gengæld har jeg bevidstheden om det arbejde der ligger foran mig og at det er mig selv der skal udføre det. Jeg skal selv skabe strukturer og rammer som jeg har det godt i, jeg skal selv blive bevidst om giftige tankemønstre og hvordan jeg modarbejder dem. Jeg ser en psykolog jeg stoler på, og jeg har mennesker omkring mig der passer på mig og holder af mig og støtter mig, men selve benarbejdet, det er stadig mit. Men lindringen vil komme; lindringen kommer, bare jeg stamper skridt for skridt gennem den frosthårde vinter.



‘I felt sorry when I came to the last page. I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree’
That is what Esther says about the short story about the fig-tree, and that is also how I feel about The Bell Jar. Reading about Esther has been comforting, so much so that it almost felt luxurious: when you’re going through hard times, it can be a relief to read about other people’s lives instead. When it turns out that their lives seem like accurate reflections of your own life – and when the writing is vivid, precise and honest –   the reading is not merely an escape from reality; it is also (possibly) a way of moving on. In any case, this is partly why I was reading so quickly and hungrily. I felt that here, someone understood what the desolate, lifeless, dreary walk through depression was like. So I read with speedy desperation – at least for as long as the terrain was familiar and well-known. At one point, my reading pace slowed significantly. When I tried to explain it to one of my friends, I told her that it was probably around the point where I no longer felt as badly as Esther; that is, when her physical symptoms of depression began to show. This would make sense, but it is not quite true. Rather, it was slightly later in the novel where Esther gets hospitalised and her treatment begins. Why did the novel start to close itself off there? I can find three reasons which seem to be relatively connected. The first reason has to do with the psychiatric system, the second has to do with the description of Esther’s recovery, and the third has to do with the actual way she recovers.

One: the psychiatric system. Until around chapter fourteen, the settings in The Bell Jar are relatively familiar. Granted, I’ve never been to New York, but I know what it’s like to be a student, I know the hint of career and work life which for Esther is the internship and for me a student job. I know what it’s like to be young, having to shape your future, and the capriciousness and uncertainty that come with such a responsibility. I know how the overly ambitious study projects you make yourself do can turn into immense colossi that will do nothing but crush you. I know the worried mother whom you do not want to cause grief even though it is inevitable, and I also think that the landscape of men, sex, love, passion and lack of passion is a confusing and disorientating place. I, too, know the drawn-out summers where unbearable loneliness and a lack of structure and meaningful activities to keep you busy make you drowsy and heavy, weirdly crazy and apathetic.
However, I don’t know the psychiatric system. Of course, I read along when Esther enters it, and I tried to understand this place which is new for me and her alike. From the beginning, over and over, Esther gets overrun by doctors, and she’s suspicious of all of them – and with good reason, because earlier in the novel, after the physical symptoms, but before the suicide attempt and the hospitalisation, Esther was treated with shock therapy. It did not go at all to plan: she felt the painful jolts, the violent shaking and aches in muscles, nerves and bones; she saw the blue light and heard the electricity sizzle and crackle.
During seventy pages, from chapter fourteen to chapter twenty, Esther is staying at three institutions: first the local hospital to which she is admitted after her suicide attempt; then a larger state hospital which she’s moved to because it has a psychiatric ward. In this part of the book, Plath writes forth a subtle absurdity that makes the reader ask the same question one must ask when reading Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) which also takes place at a psychiatric ward: does everything seem strange and absurd because the narrator is mentally ill and thus experiences the place as strange and absurd, or is it because everything is strange and absurd at a psychiatric ward?
The Bell Jar never takes as dramatic a turn as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it’s clear that Esther feels uneasy and alienated. Until now, in New York and at her mother’s home in an anonymous suburb, Esther has delivered clear and credible accounts of the people around her; now, the names don’t stick: an Italian lady with whom Esther shares a room is named Mrs Tomolillo, not because that’s her actual name, but because Esther only recalls that her name ‘sounded long and full of l’s like Mrs Tomolillo’. Esther is still distrustful, and when she’s introduced to a long line of doctors, some of them with strange last names, she starts to look out for ‘suspicious, fake names, and sure enough, [a doctor] came up and said “I’m Doctor Pancreas,” and shook my hand’. Her suspicion, not only towards names, but also towards little things that seem strange (for example the serving of two types of beans, green beans and baked beans, at dinner), makes the reader feel on guard, too. I feel sorry for Esther because she clearly feels unsafe, and because the nurses meet her with anger rather than understanding and empathy. Esther finds her surroundings strange, alienating and suspicious, and I, too, read with increased suspicion and weakened optimism, for my literary twin has embarked upon a journey I don’t trust. It runs differently than expected – first and foremost in uncertainty, and seemingly without alleviation.
The third institution Esther becomes acquainted with is a psychiatric private hospital with three houses: Wymark, Caplan and Belsize. Wymark is for those that are doing worse, and Belsize is for those that are doing better. Caplan is in between. Esther is admitted to Caplan and arrives with the same distrust with which she left the state hospital; a distrust that’s partly relieved by her new (female) psychiatrist, Doctor Nolan, who manages to establish a confident and safe relation to Esther. This is where the recovery comes creeping, we must assume, seeing as Esther eventually gets moved from Caplan to Belsize. But this turns out to be incredibly hard to tell because Esther’s improvement is hardly traceable in the novel. This leads me to the second reason the novel starts closing itself off to me. Or rather: I start to need something in the text.

Two: the description of Esther’s recovery. Or should I say the lack of it? Either way, it doesn’t seem like Esther improves much during her time at Caplan. Granted, she establishes a trusting relation to Doctor Nolan, but she doesn’t take part in any occupational therapy, and she thinks she’ll get moved to Wymark any minute. When she’s told she’s moving to Belsize, she’s surprised because she doesn’t think she’s improved at all.
But Esther does get moved to Belsize, and she does get better. And we do learn what it feels like when, at long last, she notices a relief: ‘All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air’. It’s a miracle. As easy as anything, it seems, the bell jar has lifted and Esther can breathe again. However, this is all the description of the alleviation we get. Things are getting better, yes: Esther starts to go out – she even meets a man she finds interesting, and when, after an unfortunate turn of events, she ends their relationship over the phone, she’s cool and collected. So we do see signs of improvement, and a bit later, one of The Bell Jar’s more famous sentences appears, the sound of Esther’s heart beating triumphantly: ‘I am, I am, I am’. Esther is still here – although we have to note that the triumph is bittersweet as it shows itself at her friend Joan’s funeral and thus almost seems mocking and inappropriate. Add to that that there is no imagery describing what the recovery feels like; nothing other than the lifting of the bell jar. Esther doesn’t seem to be conscious of how the recovery has happened – it just sort of seems to have taken place by itself.
I’ve heard the same thing from many who have gone through a rough time psychologically: they were treated or found a way to move on, and “then they just got better”. But how does it feel? What kind of movement is it? When Esther is able to describe her downward spiral so vividly during the first half of the novel, when she makes use of such original and incisive imagery, why are there no words or consciousness or attention to describe the recovery, the upward journey? ‘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’, ‘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’, ‘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 trolley-bus’. When Esther is able to describe her experiences in New York and her emotional life and the growing depression so vividly, why is all we get on the recovery that the bell jar luckily has lifted, something which was seemingly effortless? Where is the imagery that belongs to the recovery? Does it not exist?
It has to. And Sylvia Plath had to have been able to produce it had she wanted to. But perhaps the lacking description of Esther’s recovery has to do with the way she recovers – which is also the third reason I can no longer see myself in Esther as clearly as I could in the beginning.

Three: shock therapy. In chapter eighteen, Esther wakes up after having received shock therapy, this time unproblematically. This is where we are introduced to the lifted bell jar, the seeming miracle. On the next page, when Esther is looking at the knife she’s been using to cut the top of her egg off with, it says: ‘I tried to think what I had loved knives for, but my mind slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the centre of empty air’. As I read it, this passage states exactly what the shock therapy has done, no more, no less. Esther having loved knives earlier seems like a depressive trait: I know that in the darker vales of depression, you can feel your mind weirdly and hauntingly fixated upon things such as guns, rope, lakes with deep, cold, stagnant waters, knives; that is, things that can be used for self-harm and suicide. For now, the shock therapy has zapped Esther out of the vale of shadows, or zapped the vale of shadows out of Esther, as one likes it. When she tries to recall her depressive love of knives, her mind fails to grab the noose-like thought (the word ‘noose’, with its connotations to hanging and death, is no doubt a deliberate choice of words). Instead, her mind flies through the empty air. The idea of a free-flying mind seems like a positive thing, and for someone who’s been feeling trapped inside an oxygen-deprived bell jar, it must be an unparalleled liberation. I don’t wish to belittle such euphoria. However, we can’t finish our close reading without examining the word ‘empty’. Esther’s mind is flung into the empty air – just how positive is that? One might think the word refers to a common side effect of shock therapy: a more or less temporary loss of memory, but Esther doesn’t mention memory loss anywhere in the book. On the contrary, she states that she remembers everything (whether one trusts her as a reliable narrator is up to oneself, but that’s a discussion one can have on every single page of the book due to the simple fact that the story is told by a mentally ill first person narrator).
Shock therapy is what lifts the bell jar, not Esther’s strengthened mind, will-power and spirit. Her mind is not particularly stronger; she has not gained more will-power than she used to have. She’s no longer suicidal, so there must have been some improvement, but that’s more likely because of her surroundings now being calm than her having gained means of handling her mental fragility and the challenges and stress of life. In any case, shock therapy has been necessary for her to get better. That is what has lifted the bell jar; not Esther herself.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a fault on Esther’s part that she hasn’t been able to lift the bell jar herself. Most people can’t. It’s not a weakness that conversational therapy wasn’t enough. She was suicidal, heavily depressed, and she was hospitalised based on a decisive suicide attempt that almost succeeded. The shock therapy worked, and there is no way to underestimate how important that is. But shock therapy can’t go all the way for you – I don’t believe so, and I don’t think Esther does, either ‘I had hoped, at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead – after all, I had been “analysed”. Instead, all I could see were question marks’, she thinks while she’s waiting for her final appointment with the doctors at Belsize.
And then what? Well, this is where we leave Esther. We don’t learn how her appointment goes, but we get the sense that she gets discharged. And then? Is she able to take the steps necessary to make the improvement created by shock therapy permanent? What will she learn? Will her mind take different turns than those that led her to the dark spiral, the painful eye of the tornado we found her in when we met her? We don’t know. It’s winter, and the snow has fallen like a soft, soothing blanket, but summer might come back without us knowing whether it’ll be queer and sultry, like the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.

The main reason why I still hunger for more literature as great as The Bell Jar (and, I admit, more works that mirror my own life as well) has to do with the alleviation and the way it appears in The Bell Jar. I’ve finished the book a long time ago, and my notes are coming to an end as well. It’s the first month of summer. Is winter over? That cold, cold winter where I’ve been longing for midsummer, love, cooling seawater from the roaring, open summer sea, long, pastel coloured nights, the smell of lilacs and elderberries, and the silky soft alleviation first and foremost. All the time, I’ve imagined alleviation arriving the same way summer does. Degree by degree, frostless night for frostless night, gradually increasing like the days and the sunlight and the colours. Steadily, first and foremost. Not suddenly – fortunately, I’m not doing as badly as Esther, and I won’t receive shock therapy; conversational therapy is all I’ll get. What I do have is a sense of the work ahead of me and the fact that I need to do the work myself. I have to create structures that I feel comfortable with, I have to become aware of poisonous patterns of thought and find own how to tackle them. I’m seeing a therapist whom I trust, and I have people around me that look out for me and care about me and support me, but the leg work itself is mine. But alleviation will come; alleviation does come, as long as I stamp through the frozen winter step by step.

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