Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

The death-drive and the drive to self-indetermination in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’

Bethany Smith

If death is seen to be the ultimate fear of the human psyche, the subject is faced with two options — to find any means necessary to escape it, or to aggressively confront it in hopes of making it less of a fear. Many human actions are driven by the desire to escape consciousness through oblivion, and if death is the ultimate form of oblivion, this may explain why it is so feared yet so intensely imbued with mystery, ritual and religious revelation. We seem caught in the dichotomy of attempting to transcend nothingness by way of transformation, say in the Judaeo-Christian resurrection of Jesus or Buddhist reincarnation, or in accepting that we will transcend into a collective nothingness, which for some may seem preferable to life. Plath’s poetry certainly exhibits elements of the drives of death, self-doubt, and self-indetermination, but the very fact of her premature death, confuses their interaction. Had she not died in such a manner, would her work be imbued with the same meaning and the same psychological assessment? This is a debate lost to the enigma of time, and is not within the scope of this essay. I will, however, examine the extent to which Plath’s poems embody Freud’s theory of the death-drive, and the separate yet interlinked drives of self-doubt and self-indetermination.

First, we must understand what is meant by Freud’s death drive, and his impetus in developing it. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud proposes that the death drive manifests as the ‘opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts’ (Freud 1989) and arises out of an oceanic’ feeling of the ego becoming one with the universe and the external world. If the ego begins undifferentiated with the world, and develops out of regression, guilt and conscience, there may be a biological benefit that drives a subject from an organic state back to an inorganic state, in other words, there is something about it that seems ‘intrinsic’. Perhaps, the process of living is precisely the same as that of dying, in that very strange dissociated sense of the psyche, that ‘we cannot fall out of this world’ (ibid), but we feel an ‘indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole’ (ibid). Under Lacan, all drives are subliminal to the death drive, but for Freud, Eros and Thanatos are directly opposed, which causes the fracas in human behaviour. The issue then becomes, is this universal? Indeed, Freud claims to have never felt this ‘oceanic’ feeling, and the exhibition of destruction towards the internal and external differ widely from psyche to psyche. Freud observed the repetition of repressed experiences of trauma in the mentally ill, and it could be argued the fear of abandonment and of 1 death, or of endless pain, could be the cause of these traumas. He does make a distinction between the normal and the neurotic, but it seems the ‘death-drive’ is somehow intrinsic. How closely melancholia interacts with the ‘death-drive’ is also unknown, when a loss is so indecipherable and unknowable it is consigned to the realm of the unconscious, engendering the death of all we have come to know as real, the death of the self itself. What is annihilation when there is nothing left but ourselves?— so we seek to overcome this nothingness with a more sibylline kind of psychological and metaphysical disintegration.

At first glance, it seems incontrovertible that Plath’s poetry is at least in part, an embodiment of Freud’s death drive. In ‘Ariel’, Plath is subsumed by the journey towards the unknowable, as the darkness in which she rides symbolises the introspective dusk of the artist, which absorbs heart and mind. Initially, she enjoys the physicality, but is still slightly devolved from it, as if some all-encompassing external force that carries the natural world propels her forward, until she conflates that the berries have ‘blood’ just the same, and the thorns finally ‘hook’ her into the physical world. As she discards ‘dead hands, dead stringencies’, she ‘unpeels’ herself from her body, the male gaze, and the gendered confines of maternity and motherhood — ‘the child’s cry / Melts in the wall’. As she is overcome by this unnamable force, she dematerialises before our very eyes, ‘foam[ing] to wheat, a glitter of seas’ and awakens in the ‘suicidal’ dew before it evaporates under the evisceration of the sun, into the ‘cauldron of morning’. This natural force as ‘something else’ is not defined but it seems as if it is something that has always compelled her, to become ‘one with the drive’ towards the horizon, towards the unknown. At this point, the greatest unknowns are still ourselves and the nature of existence, so a force propelling us towards death would be at once a cruel yet biologically pertinent drive. This kind of liberation however, brings with it the ecstasy and annihilatative properties of self-immolation and distraction by skirting these unknowable boundaries. A kind of ecstatic transcendence, a conflation of self-knowledge and disintegration of the self occurs when the subject relinquishes their physical, human burdens and embraces a sense of uninhibited instinct. But what is this all-encompassing force — is it Freud’s ‘Thanatos’, a kaleidoscope of both the drives of life and death, or a drive to a more elusive transformation?

Plath’s transformative piece makes the suggestion that self-realisation is intrinsically linked with self-derealisation or being free from the constraints of the ego, at one with something greater than oneself. Plath metamorphoses into both male and female, horse and rider, poet and imaginative force, journey and end, no longer a hostage of the addiction to transcend life through art or words, but its agent. The ego is no longer dichotomising reality at the same angle, causing a breakdown of the material, psychosocial world — ‘the rider is one with the horse, the horse is one with the furrowed earth, and the dew on the furrow is one with the rider… the movement is circular… the states in darkness cease to be static, when the potential violence of animal [and rider] are unleashed’ (Ahmad 2021). As Perloff writes, ‘at its most intense, life becomes death but it is a death that is desired: the ‘suicidal’ leap into the ‘red’ / Eye’ of the morning sun is not only violent but ecstatic’, emblematising the ecstasy of endlessness, the false dichotomy of destruction and rebirth, and a drive perhaps not to death itself but what it is to be reborn. If Jesus himself, as a cultural figure as well as spiritual, had not risen from the dead and achieved the impossible, would he be so revered and prophesied about in the same manner? Plath makes direct reference to the suffering of the Hebrew race — ‘Ariel’ translates to the Hebrew ‘lion of God’ and she refers to the speaker as ‘God’s lioness’ — suffering makes the desire for transcendence sharper and brighter.

‘Ariel’ is also parabolic of identity as a process and as something performative, as in the journey of poetic transcendence Plath dies on the page right before our eyes, which in some ways is what the art of expression is. The boundaries of reality are breaking down, as the very fabric of consciousness blurs between subjectivity and objectivity. At what point does consciousness dichotomise the universe — at the quantum realm, the illusory limits of an individual’s perception, as a collective expanse, a blurring of life and death, or something greater and more elusive? Does it transcend death or is life its prerequisite? Once we are freed from the shackles of individual perception, we may be able to see our lives isolated from our conception of time. It is thought that some animals experience time faster or slower than we do, due to the frame rate at which their eyes see light. Perhaps it is most greatly our distorted perception of time that shackles us, and to transcend time would be the greatest transcendence of all. We are so disturbed by time we have even created false worlds and ‘doubles’ to annihilate it even further [a concept that will be discussed later], as in Baudrillard’s ‘simulacrum’ of the internet and artificial consciousness (Baudrillard 1988). This infinity of mindless abyss is akin to the death of time or the concept of negative time. Soon, we will not be able to distinguish any false reality from the real; we will be estranged from any semblance of a true self, time itself may become immaterial. What would it be indeed, to be free of time, or to stand outside it? Expanding on this idea, psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan wrote that the uncanny places us ‘in the field where we do not know how to distinguish bad and good, pleasure from displeasure’ (Lacan 2005), resulting in an insurmountable anxiety that gestures to the fate of falling out of our perceived reality. Or even perhaps between life and death.

However, for the present moment, in our games of the seen and the unseen, and our fetishisation of youth as well as death, we still have not been able to transcend our material circumstances here on earth. Our fascination with recreational hallucinogens, our obsession with the ephemeral ecstasy of sexuality, and our exploits into the uncanny valley, will still not allow us to escape from ourselves, when we wake up and remember that we are unchanged. We cannot, in the words of Freud, ‘fall out of this world’ — it is with this self, and this plane of reality that we are marooned. Jesus is the prophet of many, because he is the only one who could ever transcend his God, and God is the only one who could ever love us. We are doomed to die many times before the end, whether our image looks back at us in the mirror or not. Eventually, after we have been peeling away our skin for years and may have lived many different lives, as Plath was preoccupied by, the sum of them dissolves into a single moment and it is this moment that ‘Ariel’ captures. As a synergy of persona, Plath is concurrently the watcher, the actor, the agent, the lover, the victim — she is everything all at once.

In this way, I would make the case that Plath alludes to a more transcendent kind of metamorphosis in her poem, than that of purely Freud’s death drive. Even in the ‘depths in which consciousness drowns’ (Sontag 2000), is it really death that we seek, or to escape it by transformation, to live forever in spirit? We are caught between seeking to transcend death and seeking to transcend life. If it is indeed transformation that we seek, then perhaps it is away from the knowledge that to unravel ourselves as Plath tries to, we will have to confront the realisation that there is no true self. It is this fear of our incapacity to be reborn that makes us secretly engage in rejecting or escaping ourselves, to escape the knowing that there is nothing to discover, as perhaps in the cosmic horror of the creation of the universe (Axelrod 1985). Perhaps not a drive towards the absence that may be found in death, but a drive towards the absence of life. Our ‘souls’ have been transformed from the ‘animal inside the animal, the man inside the man’ (Frazer 2009), to the announcer of death itself (Rank 2011), and the almost pathological loss of one’s real self through a superimposed one (ibid) — ‘the form of evil which represents the perishable and mortal part of the personality’ (ibid). This is something Plath was obsessed by, the concept of the ‘double’, as explored in her dissertation at Cambridge — one may try to deny the power of death by ‘creating the idea of the soul of the deathless double of the mortal body’ (Axelrod 1985), but this double will haunt us till our last breaths.

The element of Freud’s ‘death-drive’ that is present in Plath is also ingrained in the works of Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke’s letters are subsumed by the notion that ‘we grow our death inside us like a talent or a tumour; that we are here to realise the world, to raise it, like Lazarus, from its sullen numbness into consciousness; that differences are never absolute, but that everything (life and death, for instance) lies on a continuum, as colours do; that we are strangers in a world of strangers; that simple people have a deeper understanding of their existence than most, and an insight into the secret rhythms of nature’ (Gass 2000). I reject the implied implications of the Sylvia Plath Effect, just because more women may have a distorted locus of control as a result of trauma [this itself may be contested] does not in any way diminish the notion of a universal ‘death-drive’, so I disagree with Kauffmann’s emphasis on the fact that ‘female poets are more mentally ill than any other type of writer’ (Kaufmann 2001). Is not this to be expected? — women are part of one of the world’s most historically and prolifically disempowered and abused groups. Rilke’s enmeshment of life and death is most present in his letters, where he propounds that ‘there is death in life, and it astonishes me that we pretend to ignore this: death, whose unforgiving presence we experience with each change we survive because we must learn to die slowly. We must learn to die: That is all of life’ (Rilke 2018). In this way, life is inexplicably a process of dying (at a cellular level and perhaps psychologically), but perhaps it is not to death that we are drawn, but to be transformed? And it is such that death is the greatest illusion, it is our greatest metaphysical journey, beyond that of our birth.

However, this is not to assume this is some all-encompassing instinctive drive that afflicts everyone, some certainly seem more afflicted than others, more predisposed to live concurrently with the muse of death. Rilke is an extreme case to which many may be drawn to or be repulsed, in his words ‘it is this idea of death, which has developed inside of me since childhood from one painful experience to the next and which compels me to humbly endure the small death so that I may become worthy of the one which wants us to be great’ (ibid). This directly relates to ‘Ariel’ in that it is only in death that we finally become a totality, that the past, present and future come to a singularity, and time is set free from the shackles of perception. In life, we are forever dying, and will have died a thousand times before the last, because each death leads into the next. In a reverberation of Plath’s fable, we will always be ‘riding, riding, riding, through the dag [day], through the night, through the day… And the heart has become so tired, and the longing so vast’ (Rilke 1932). Rilke’s view epitomises my argument that it is the reciprocal interpretation and misinterpretation of Plath’s works that capture their strength — ‘death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love… Life always says Yes and No simultaneously. Death (I implore you to believe) is the true Yea-sayer. It stands before eternity and says only: Yes’ (ibid). How can it be wrong to live and wrong to die, as in the case of unnameable suffering, mental or physical? This is the appeal of death, it will only ever envelop you, disintegrating everything you have ever known, and likely will ever know. You are free of the restraints of time, you are not yourself.

Where ‘Ariel’ embodies the dissolution of the persona and disentanglement of consciousness, ‘Daddy’ makes an allegory of Plath murdering her already dead father to emancipate her from the imposter syndrome plaguing her creative double and exorcise his vicious hold over mind and work, ‘Lady Lazurus’ mirrors Rilke’s proposition that life is a series of physical and metaphorical deaths, and ‘Cut’ explores the conflict between the self and the external, the mind-body complex and implications of bodily pain. ‘The Hanging Man’ makes the suggestion that if God were human, he would not want to live in the same way that Plath does not — ‘if he were I, he would do what I did’. ‘Cut’ sees Plath cuts off her thumb as if it were an onion, the blood personified as ‘Redcoats… whose side are they on?’, depicting the battle of nature, within the mind and body to destroy or preserve itself leading to a kind of estrangement and entrapment, as the mind simultaneously imprison’s and tricks itself in its pursuit of salvation. ‘A celebration, this is’ (Cut) — there is something about pain that is death, but something about it that is life, so in a way it symbolises the cruel battle of ‘nature’ in the mind of why it is wrong for some to live, but wrong for some to die. ‘Are those the faces of love?…Is it for such I agitate my heart….These are the isolate, slow faults / That kill, that kill, that kill’ (Tulips) — these lines convey the intertwined toxicity between love and wanting to escape, love is an ecstasy and a slow death, but once you are dead nobody can take anymore from your heart, you are crystallised in isolation. In Lady Lazarus, Plath’s physic disintegration is evident, she is grotesquely split into warring selves, ‘I do it exceptionally well / I do it so it feels like hell’, the real and the ideal confront each other hauntingly. Finally, in Tulips, she is fully derealised, ‘I am nobody; I have nothing to do Wirth explosions’ — the persona is subsumed by the uncanny valley, there is no introspective totality. In the words of Rilke, ‘What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours –that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child’ (Rilke 2018). Both authors seem to suggest here that our discernment and mis-recognition of ourselves is intrinsically linked with the birth and death of our psyches, our identities under Lacan 6 ‘product of a series of partial identifications, never completed’ (Culler 1997: 115), our selfhood composed by the uncanniness of the double that stares back at us in the mirror.

In conclusion, certainly both Plath’s poems and Rilke’s letters capture the essence of Freud’s death-drive, but I would argue that Plath’s last collection before her death implies a more complex metaphysical transformation, to be free of the dilation of time and the refracted prism of consciousness, to de-realise the self, to become no one. Self-determination is partly a form of self-indetermination, this drive toward the death of the illusion of the ego — and death is the closest to this we can imagine, it is the ultimate transformation, the greatest enigma. To be caught in such a trap, on the cusp of life and death, to hold oneself in the mirror and see one’s death, this is what it is to live, this is what it is to die. Fundamentally, Plath’s poetry and Rilke’s works mirror some of the conclusions of psychoanalysis, that identity is born of the haunting double of the mirror, that we ever become who we are meant to be, that death is ultimately the intrinsic return to an undifferentiated state of consciousness. To die is to have lived, to live is to have died a thousand times.


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