Last night I finished The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I expected it to be depressing. I thought it might be quite self-indulgent in the way veiled autobiographies often are, especially veiled autobiographies involving mental illness. However, in the end I found it funny more than anything else.
Oscar Wilde said something along the lines that a work of art (art in its widest sense) can’t be moral or immoral, it is either effective or ineffective. Because ultimately, art is a mirror. It tells us something about ourselves. So what the heck does it say about me, chuckling away to a book in which a young women descends into madness, first published a month before the author killed herself? Do I have a really sick sense of humour?
No, it was funny. The character of the narrator and protagonist was funny, with her bizarre romanticism (aspiring to collect male acquaintances with exotic names), her sexual frustration, her preoccupation with her own unfulfilled greatness, her inability to be truly ‘good’ like her prissy friends, or truly ‘bad’ like the vulgar Doreen, whose every word “was like a secret voice speaking out of my bones”. She treats everyone else with both disdain and admiration – although she rarely expresses any of this out loud. She desperately wants to be normal and happy but has a very limited view about what that means. She is a Bridget Jones with a high IQ and dodgy brain chemistry.
And her unhappiness is comic. When desperation sinks in, she is totally hapless in her attempts to escape from home or write her novel. Before she makes what might be considered an asserted effort at suicide, she makes pathetic, really laughable, gestures towards it, which she takes so very, very seriously.
The funniest thing about depression is that you do take it so damn seriously. I mean, often there is something, something at the root of it which you really ought to take seriously. But you wind up taking everything seriously, including yourself and all your ridiculous behaviour. Suffice to say that my elaborate plan to drown myself in a duck pond in the middle of the day, or to persuade a taxi-driver to drop me off on the tallest bridge in Suffolk, no questions asked, seem pretty funny to me now. Especially as I tried to exercise them both in the same afternoon, visiting a church in between (just to check there was no God) and doing a lot of walking round. This resulted in an immediate relapse in my physical health that put me in bed for two months solid. And this when it was my physical health that was making me so desperate in the first place… Come on, that is a bit funny, surely? I mean, who thinks about drowning in a duck pond anyway?
I supposed I can laugh quite easily at this because it was a long time ago, I was a teenager at the time and whilst at the time it seemed like the most dramatic incident in the history of everything, well, I just hadn’t been born. But even last year, when I went loopy, it was quite funny. It was the most terrifying thing that ever happened to me. It wasn’t Plath’s Bell Jar. If the Bell Jar surrounding her had shattered and great shards of glass had fallen in on her, then that would have been closer to my experience.
However, my paranoia was, in a sense, a comedy of errors. For a start, there was discussion of my ‘crisis’ going on behind my back – I know that for sure now – just not nearly to the extent I imagined. So there were people revealing information that they shouldn’t, to my knowledge, have known. And then was the fact that I had a brain like mud and I didn’t know what I’d said to whom. I would often demand of someone, “How do you know that? Who told you that?!” only for them to reply “You did. Just now.”
Then there was my central delusion; the idea that my every thought was being leaked or projected out of my brain. This sounds funny by itself even though, my God, can you imagine it? My only way to describe this experience is if someone took all the sexual thoughts you ever had – but especially the really odd ones, the stuff you don’t yourself feel too comfortable about – made them into a graphic film and then broadcast this film on the television sets of everybody you knew. Everybody. Not just close friends and family, but everyone, your postman, your colleagues, your teachers from school, and of course, everyone who had ever featured in any of your fantasies. And they can’t turn their sets off.
This wasn’t quite what I imagined, but I was pretty sure that all my thoughts were leaking out and thus, everybody knew everything – they might as well have publicly broadcast my innermost everything.
Shame is not the word. Terror barely touches it. But it is kind of funny. I mean, really. I shuffle away from people who read their Horoscopes and yet I fell for this? Ha!
[It was a virus, apparently. Story of my life. It’s bad enough that every time I have a new and distressing symptom the GP feels my perpetually swollen lymph nodes and says, “It’s a virus.” Didn’t expect the bloody shrink to pull that one! My brain swole up, she said, blurring the lines. Hmm, the lines. Blurred. Fine.]
Perhaps I find humour in this stuff because the human situation is inherently comical. Our minds do not behave consistently with the reality of our lives. All sustained emotional distress is ironic, but then arguably so is contentment. We are programmed to fear death above all things and yet it is the one absolute certainty about our existence. At the same time, our minds have the capacity to turn upon us and consider death long before we've exhausted every other possibility. It is, after all, the last thing you do.
There's nothing much funny about Sylvia Plath killing herself at the age of thirty. One of the main sources of her unhappiness was the sense of being unable to fulfil a potential that she knew to be immense. And all that nonsense about sex, about men and women, marriage and babies. We may be destined to screw one another up just a little bit, but it's nothing worth dying for. Not nearly.
Suicide is really a lot of bad luck.
But if you can't laugh...