Some notes on “The Bell Jar,” Richard Powers, and Evolving Definitions of Mental Life

Yes I accidentally bought an edition meant for "young readers." I'm owning it.

In an effort to make up for more than a few literary and personal-life-ish oversights, I finally read The Bell Jar this week.  From there, I turned back to some of the more famous poems in Ariel, making what I think is a common bonehead mistake when reading Plath.  It becomes incredibly difficult when reading Path’s work not to consider biography as overdetermining every detail in her fiction and poetry.  Maybe it’s partially her fault, sure.  The Bell Jar is so close to autobiographical that Plath famously prevented its publication in the United States and insisted upon releasing it under a pseudonym in Great Britain.  But I do want to try to put all of that aside.  To say that Plath’s story is tragic (and even to suggest, as a friend put it, that Ted Hughs pulled of the most dastardly murder in the history of modern letters) does miss the point of this novel: namely, that Esther Greenwood is probably one of of the most distinctive characters in mid-20th Century American fiction.  I don’t have the ability or background to articulate what the novel meant for the feminist movement, although Esther’s observations about men and relationships are scathing and often hilarious.Rather, I started to think of how a reconsideration of Esther’s psychological life in a contemporary context might reshape a reading of the novel.  This kind of consideration becomes richer when The Bell Jar is considered in conversation with Richard Powers’s incredibly beautiful book The Echo Maker.  Powers’s novel won the National Book Award in 2006, in part because of his masterful expansion of a question that I think lies at the heart of The Bell Jar.  His novel offers a very contemporary picture of how mind works within the context of current neuroscience, but also forces us to determine how–in light of such advances–Esther’s description of psychological and physical life as dichotomous might continue to lend us an understanding of ourselves.

In The Bell Jar Esther describes the relationship between mind and body as one in which each imprisons the other.  The mind traps the body literally: it gets Esther locked in a psychiatric hospital.  But at the same time, the body traps the mind.  It has “little tricks” for preventing her from killing herself.  She calls the body a “cage” that prevents the mind from extinguishing itself (for example, her grip loosens as she tries to strangle herself with a belt and begins to pass out).  “If only there were something wrong with my body,” she wants to tell the nurses.  She would prefer it if something were wrong with her body.  But to Esther, the mind is an entirely different question.  Problems with the mind are separate from those of the body and, in her view, are much worse.

The question in play is a simple one, and it goes something like this: how has the transition toward control of psychology through psychopharmaceuticals and neuroscience redefined the boundaries between mental and physical existence?  As contemporary neuroscience finds more and more ways to describe the subtleties of mental/emotional life (and medicalizes these primarily by identifying and controlling symptoms), what use does something like Esther’s description have for us?  To what extent might it be useful to view the distinction as she does?

The Echo Maker: Capgras and Geese

Powers’s book gives us something that looks like a rejoinder, if not a response, to this question.  The Echo Maker describes the condition Capgras Syndrome.  Capgras involves a breakdown between systems of  recognition and systems of memory in the brain.  Essentially, after a brain trauma, Mark Schluter believes that his sister Karin (his primary familial caretaker) is being played by an imposter.  While he can recognize familiar physical and emotional characteristics marked off as “Karin-like,” he does not recognize the actual Karin as his real sister.

Mark refuses to believe anyone’s insistence that Karin is related to him.  He is trapped in a recovery ward of a hospital, ostensibly until his mental faculties improve to the point that the connection in his brain is repaired.

In The Echo Maker, medical science is embodied by the well-meaning but (so the implication goes) inexperienced Dr. Hayes, who insists that he can only describe brain injuries and their physical effects–and the respected and popular neuroscientist (whose case studies bear a strong resemblance to those of Oliver Sacks of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat fame) Dr. Weber.  At the end of his career, Weber continues to insist on psychological and medical practices that seem outdated in the face of advanced technological means of patient-evaluation.  But of course, the novel demonstrates, that the older techniques of investigation and interview and close observation retain an air of mysterious effectiveness.

What intrigues me about reading these novels next to one another is the resulting ability to analyze how far we have actually gotten away from the division of mind and body that Esther articulated more than 50 years ago.  We now recognize the phenomenon that Plath describes in the voice of Esther Greenwood, and Powers’s novel explores how the relationship between medical science and something like classical psychoanalysis might work together in a kind of comprehensive investigation of the brain.  But at the same time, we want to hang onto the older model.  We want to believe in the specialness of individuality and unique subjecthood.

I am definitely in the camp of people that does not want to be reduced to a clump of scientifically analyzable symptoms, but the experience of reading these novels in succession forces a reader to consider why we cling so desperately to the notion that we are not reducible by science.  Even five decades later–and despite the fact that Esther’s description of the mutual imprisonment of mind and body–we still identify with the way that she describes the self.

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