Diane Arbus and Sylvia Plath:

“The Horror! The Horror!”


Jeffrey Meyers


  Sylvia Plath is the Diane Arbus of poetry, the verbal equivalent of her visual art. Since Arbus and Plath had strikingly similar lives, it’s surprising that they never mentioned each other and that their biographers have not compared them.  They were self-destructive sexual adventurers, angry and rebellious, driven and ambitious.  Both suffered extreme depression, had nervous breakdowns and committed suicide.  But they used their mania to deepen their awareness and inspire their art, and created photographs and poetry to impose order on their chaotic lives.  They shared an ability to combine the ordinary with the grotesque and monstrous, and expressed anguished feelings with macabre humor.  Arbus was consciously and deliberately bohemian, Plath outwardly conventional yet inwardly raging.  Both explored the dark side of human existence and revealed their own torments.
  Arbus (1923-71) and Plath (1932-63) were contemporaries for thirty years.  Arbus was Jewish; Plath imaginatively identified with the Jewish holocaust victims.  Dorothea Krook, Plath’s Jewish tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge, noted her unusually “passionate feeling for Jews and her sense of belonging with them.”  Both women rejected their parents’ values and wanted to obliterate the traits they had inherited.  Arbus’ family owned Russeks department store in Manhattan, lived on Park Avenue and had seven servants.  But she earned little as a photographer, was always short of funds and descended from an upper to a lower-class life.  She either wouldn’t ask her father for cash or he wouldn’t give her any.  He spent lavishly and left little money in his will.
  Plath’s father was a scientist who died when she was nine and left her family in straitened circumstances.  But like Arbus, she had the requisite lessons in ballet, piano and painting.  Supported by scholarships and her patron at Smith College and Cambridge University, Plath clung to the middle class and remained angry at her father for abandoning her in death.  Their mothers were problematic in different ways: Arbus’ mother was self-absorbed, hysterical and depressed, Plath’s was ghoulish, domineering and possessive.
  Reading about Arbus in Arthur Lubow’s excellent biography (2016) seems like reading about Plath.  And Robert Lowell’s description of Plath applies equally to Arbus: “She was willowy, long-waisted, sharp-elbowed, nervous, giggly, gracious—a brilliant tense presence embarrassed by restraint.”  In the conformist 1950s the two women wore pageboy hair styles and dresses with Peter Pan collars.  From high school days to the end of their lives they were beautifully turned out when working well, dirty and disheveled when depressed.  They aspired, as Arbus ironically said of herself, “to be competent, cheerful, serene and virtuous,” but lacked the last three qualities.  For a time both were teachers: Arbus at the Parsons School of Design in New York, Plath at Smith College in Massachusetts.  Both had broken marriages and two children, and were torn between domestic duties and professional life.
  Extremely competitive, ambitious and often unpleasant, they rebelled early on against their traditional backgrounds.  Arbus’ photos of glamorous models and Plath’s formulaic stories both appeared in the young women’s magazine Seventeen.  In her novel The Bell Jar (1963) Plath describes the heroine posing for a fashion photograph and ruining it by bursting into tears.  Her face, as if beaten, “looks bruised and puffy and all the wrong colors.”  After they both had achieved commercial success they realized that they loathed this glossy world.  They had to break away from conventional work to discover their individuality and become real artists.  
  They shared a certain ruthlessness in their dealings with other people and had a savage wit.  Arbus was sensitive and responsive to the people she photographed.  But she admitted that she would assume a fake and ingratiating persona, lie to and deceive her subjects in order to get them to submit to her demands.  Plath, as if talking about Arbus as well as about herself, confessed her own duplicity: “I can lie successfully; I have a direct honest look; I am plausive as the devil with my reasons; my actress-side is sensitive to mood and situation and, without calculation on my part, responds as the occasion demands.”
  Arbus and Plath had sharp tongues, flaunted their sexual power and mocked the absurdities of their friends.  Arbus observed, “Sometimes I feel sorry for men.  Their big ideas, and their trousers ready to burst!”  She had done extensive field work and was seriously interested in compiling “an atlas of penises; she marveled at the inexhaustible variations in them.”  In one of the funniest scenes in Plath’s The Bell Jar the clean-cut, preppy boyfriend of the autobiographical heroine, Esther Greenwood, is proud of his penis and thinks his erection would excite her.  He strips naked but provokes the wrong response.  She recalls, “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.”  In this detumescent episode his cock and balls resemble a fowl’s stretched neck and sack of innards.  She’s repelled by them—and by him.
  Like Arbus, addicted to the thrill of danger, Plath took risks.  She tried daredevil skiing, galloping on horseback and crashing cars.  Twice she attempted suicide.  Arbus described her own sense of being driven by “an almost pathological need to have it all.
… I get hysterical, fierce, like I’ll try anything to get my way.”  Desperate to be famous, Plath was also aggressive and willing to do whatever was necessary for success.  
  Arbus photographed the corpses of her grandmother and her father, visited the morgue and pinned to her walls “gruesome photographs of body parts and deformities.”  Plath also wanted to confront ugliness and mortality.  A morbid passage in The Bell Jar describes the image of Esther’s face after she had attempted suicide in the rocky crawl space under her house: “You couldn’t tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head.  One side of the person’s face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way, shading to green along the edges, and then to a sallow yellow.  The person’s mouth was pale brown, with a rose-colored sore at either corner.”  This chromatic picture of herself as a person of indeterminate sex who’s referred to in the plural recalls the self-alienation in Arthur Rimbaud’s famous declaration, “I is another.”
  Arbus’ life was a series of personal disasters.  As a teenager she had married her high-school boyfriend, the photographer Allan Arbus, in 1941.  She was devastated when Allan began his six-year affair with the stunning Jewish actress Zohra Lampert and their marriage broke up in 1959.  But Diane continued her photographic work with Allan from their separation until his move to Los Angeles to become an actor.  They had two children: Doon, born in 1945 and named for a river in Scotland evoked in the poetry of Robert Burns; and Amy, born nine years later in 1954.  Arbus’ photo of a young girl in her early twenties, Sitting on her bed with her shirt off, N.Y.C. 1968, looks remarkably like Doon, who was twenty-three that year.  The girl has a huge crown of wild dark hair cascading down to her eyebrows, pointed nose, thin lips, tiny breasts and a grim expression.  Doon aroused Arbus’ jealousy by working as an assistant for her artistic rival Richard Avedon.  
  Arbus replaced Allan with a lover, the short, bald, ugly Marvin Israel, who remained married and devoted to his wife.  He encouraged and inspired Arbus, but was also an evil genius, a malign influence who had sexual relations with Doon, her daughter and rival.  Arbus felt cheated and betrayed by both Allan and Marvin and spoke bitterly about both of them.
  Arbus’ sexual life was worthy of Casanova and De Sade. She was persistently in search of sex but never satisfied.  She had lifelong incestuous relations, from adolescence until just before her death, with her older brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, and treated her deepest and most forbidden emotional connection as if it were a casual affair.  She envied her younger sister who’d been raped by a black man with a knife.  As a teenager she posed naked in her bathroom for a voyeur who stared at her from across the narrow courtyard.  She slept with any man who ever asked her—and seduced those who didn’t ask.  She had sex in her hospital room, sex with lesbians, sex in anonymous orgies, tourist sex with a black waiter in Jamaica and sex with strangers in the back of a Greyhound bus.  She even gave a helping hand to men masturbating in sleazy 42nd Street movie houses.  She didn’t seem to get much pleasure out of all this frantic activity, unromantically described sex as “wet and hairy,” and was once infected by hepatitis that made her seriously ill for a year.
  Her polymorphously perverse and reckless sexuality, her eagerness to engage in pathological adventures with sick strangers, had complex motives.  She wanted to break out of her isolation and make physical contact with other people; confirm, after being jilted by Allan, that she was still desirable; free herself from conventional restrictions; achieve the instant pleasure of a cheap thrill; get hedonistic rewards for her depression; and reach the extremes of experience by trying every possible sexual permutation without considering the consequences.  She confessed, “my favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”
  In 1956 Arbus abandoned her successful fashion photography career, and made a radical change in subjects and style from glamor and beauty to deformity and ugliness.  For her (as for the fashion photographer Richard Avedon) beauty was commerce, ugliness was art.  Arbus’ photos seemed to confirm traditional beliefs about physical appearance.  According to Neo-platonic thought in the Renaissance, the human face reflected the inner soul.  A beautiful face revealed a good person, an ugly face betrayed an evil one.  Shakespeare’s villainous hunchback Richard III bitterly complains that he’s been “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, / Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce made up,” and swears to take revenge by acting as evil as he looks.
  Our preference for the power of beauty endures and often we assume that the portrait painter and photographer will enhance the subject.  In Arbus’ pictures, however, babies are screaming, children repulsive, young couples grotesque, older people hideous.  Her stigmatized victims have everything but holes in their hands.  She shot all manner of wretched outcasts: strippers, carnival performers, sword swallowers, tattooed men and dwarves; nudists, cross-dressers, female impersonators and the mentally ill.  She flayed them into harsh reality and adorned them with weird props, bizarre makeup and grotesque costumes.  Her exact delineations of biological disasters, her taxonomy of terror, are forbidden and alluring.  Satire, not sympathy, cruelty, not compassion give them a fierce emotional charge.
  Arbus’ aphoristic and perceptive comments on her work in the Aperture volume of 1972 are often quoted but rarely explained.  She said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret.  The more it tells you, the less you know.”  The photo was her secret that revealed her subject’s secret, and she tried to remain as objective as possible to let the viewers form their own impressions.  She also said you had to prepare your face to meet the faces that you meet: “everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that’s what people observe.  You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.”  Her comment reveals the difference between appearance and reality, between how people want to look and how they actually look when her scalpel eye reveals their fatal flaw.  Her brutal, full-frontal close-ups intensify people’s physical imperfections and create the opposite impression they hope to make.  In Arbus’ pictures even people trying to appear normal—the suburban couple sunbathing on their lawn and the older couple smiling and dancing—look alienated and isolated, increase each other’s misery and reflect the sick American society of the 1960s.
  Staring at Arbus’ beguiling nightmares is like handling barbed wire, seeing a car crash or watching an epileptic fit.  These imaginative projections of her own tortured self were, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.”  Her subjects craved attention and attention must be paid.  She managed to win their trust by seducing them with flattery, but was afraid she’d end up like one of them—or already had.
  A close look at eight of her best photos gives some idea of her formidable achievement.  Arbus’ nudists ignore the admonition of Gulliver in Lilliput and “expose those parts that nature taught us to conceal.”  Middle-aged, naked and wearing forced smiles, the husband and wife are seated on cushioned chairs and dressed only in casual footgear.  Nude photos hanging on the wall and resting on the blank television between them suggest they live in a self-enclosed world.  Fat and flabby, they are nourished by a bulging sandwich just visible on the side table. Unlike the idealized naked bodies of Adam and Eve in western art, the man’s brown, cigar-like cock and the woman’s drooping dugs are repulsive.
  Arbus made a rare political statement in two photos.  In one, the boy, wearing a bright straw hat pulled low on his forehead, has a thick nose, thin lips, protruding ears and blank stare.  His buttonhole displays a bow-shaped American flag, enlarged in the tall flag that he holds on a tall stick.  One pin on his lapel urges the military to lift restraints and “Bomb Hanoi”; the other states, “God Bless America.  Support our boys in Vietnam.”  Ignorant and easily manipulated by patriotic slogans, this mindless youngster advocates the hopeless war.  He’s either too feeble to serve in the army or, if drafted, destined to be destroyed in the tropical mud.  Complementing this photo is another young man with tousled hair, wild staring eyes, gaping mouth, sharp incisors and pitted, freckled face.  Also sporting an “I’m Proud” patriotic pin and holding a drooping flag, he seems equally manipulated and mindless, even lobotomized.
  The seven-year-old boy clutching a toy hand grenade (and eager to get a real one) has a child’s clothing and adult’s rage.  In the sylvan setting of Central Park with tranquil pedestrians in the misty background, he wears a patterned shirt with a little round collar, short pants with one shoulder strap hanging down, sinking socks and white-laced dark sneakers.  His blond head is tilted sideways, his knees are dirty and his grimacing mouth is smeared.  He radiates fury while grasping the grenade in one hand and twisting his other hand into an animal’s claw.  If not confined in a mental asylum, he seems destined to become a bomb-throwing mass murderer.  This photo inspired Norman Mailer’s remark about how Arbus emphasizes extreme behavior and destroys common perceptions about strange people: “Giving a camera to Diane is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.”
  Arbus observed, “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot… . Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience.  Freaks were born with their trauma.  They’ve already passed their test in life.  They’re aristocrats”—a notable non sequitur.  Some of Arbus’s  freaks were professionals who exhibited themselves in a circus.  Three Russian midgets attempt to look normal with housedresses, aprons and sensible shoes. Their reflections appear in a tall triple-mirror and their room is cluttered with a pussy-cat lamp and other tchotchkes.  But the constricted setting only intensifies their squashed bodies, and wide, wrinkled, weird Slavic faces.
  In another photo, the seated Mexican dwarf, sustained by a liquor bottle at his elbow, has a cheap tilted hat and pencil-mustache to camouflage his thick upper lip.  Brown-skinned, bare-chested and cut off at the waist, he reveals his stunted arms and stubby fingers, and allows three toes of his hidden leg to creep out from under the covers.  His massive head and defiant expression challenge the viewer to deny his right to exist.  In The Bell Jar Esther, also fascinated by repulsive figures, wittily describes an unfortunate blind date, “some pale, mushroomy fellow with protruding ears or buck teeth or a bad leg.  I didn’t think I deserved it.  After all, I wasn’t crippled in any way.”  She also recalls in a letter a hunchbacked neighbor who was “apparently born without parents of either sex.”
  Arbus’ nine-foot-tall Jewish giant brings Brobdingnag into Lilliput.  The blunt-featured giant, wearing huge orthopedic shoes and unsteadily supported by a cane, bends over as his thick curly hair brushes against the low, cracked ceiling.  In this distorted perspective either the giant is unable to fit into his parents’ house or the midgets cannot fit into his room.  Gazing up at him, his shocked progenitors wonder how they managed to create the monster who could suddenly topple over and crush them.  Arbus called the giant “tragic with a curiously bitter, somewhat stupid wit.”  He convincingly claimed she made sexual overtures toward him, but she missed that great opportunity.
  Under a dark, cloud-swept sky seven “mentally defective mongols” (to use the terminology current in 1970) wear Halloween costumes with masks, painted faces, false noses and inflated bosoms.  Clutching hands, they struggle blindly and hopelessly toward an unknown destination.  Arbus’ photo has a rich genealogy.  It was influenced by Pieter Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), which portrays a string of six beggar-like men wearing capes and hoods, staring upwards with sightless eyes and stumbling through a bleak landscape.  Another source, also called The Blind Leading the Blind (1918), was one of the most poignant photos of World War I.  This progression of sightless British soldiers blinded by chlorine gas shuffles with bandaged eyes toward the refuge of a field hospital.  This war photo probably inspired the most memorable scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).  In this dance of death, seven linked figures in black capes, one of them holding a sharp scythe, are silhouetted on a hill beneath a cloud-filled, doom-laden sky and express the same morbid mood as Arbus’ photo.


  Anne Dick and Robert Lowell formed a personal link between Arbus and Plath.  Lowell’s sexual relations with his college girlfriend, the mentally unstable debutante Anne Dick, provoked a violent quarrel in which he punched and knocked down his father.  Anne, a close friend of Arbus, later married Alex Eliot, and Arbus was godmother to their daughter May.  But in 1949, when Arbus had a sexual encounter with the persistent Alex, Anne felt betrayed and broke off their friendship.  (After attempting suicide, Anne finally killed herself in 1981.)  In 1959, when Plath had a job typing psychiatric records at Mass. General Hospital, she was seeing her own psychiatrist and auditing Lowell’s poetry course at Boston University.  Connecting Plath’s poetic powers to her mental illness, Lowell told Elizabeth Bishop, “whatever wrecked her life somehow gave an edge, freedom and even control, to her poetry.”
  Sexually sophisticated, voracious and domineering, Sylvia Plath claimed her vagina was an organ of perception.  My friend Peter Davison, her sometime lover, told me that she became very angry and critical if she did not achieve orgasm.  Plath began her sex life with a number of clean-cut, blond-beast Yalies, and graduated to the sinister Richard Sassoon and the crazy rapist Edwin Akutowicz.  Sassoon was born in Paris and played the French card—wine and Rimbaud—for all it was worth and it was worth a lot to Plath.  He conned her with phony statements, abandoned her in Paris and jilted the pretty girl who’d always been pursued.  Alluding to Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” she told her college roommate that when Sassoon “holds me in his arms, I feel like Mother Earth with a small brown bug crawling on me.”  Her roommate added that Plath (like Arbus) needed to feel physically desirable at all times and “could not resist exploring the bizarre or ugly, even when it frightened and sickened her.”
  Plath liked to have simultaneously competing lovers.  She was excited by dangerous sex, but felt more pain than pleasure.  As Oscar Wilde remarked of illicit homosexuality in De Profundis, “it was like feasting with panthers, the danger was half the excitement.”  Plath, who needed some kind of punishment to assuage her guilt for hating her parents, had a morbid taste for the extremes of experience.  Betrayal, cruelty, mutilation, madness, rape, attempted suicide and the threat of death pervade her life and work.  
  While still an undergraduate at Smith, Plath attended summer school at Harvard and met Edwin Akutowicz, a brilliant mathematics professor at MIT.  Tall, myopic, emaciated, balding and repellently ugly (like Marvin Israel), he suited her perverse needs.  He raped her and she had to rush to the emergency room in a spurt of blood, an episode she used in The Bell Jar.  Instead of feeling violated and outraged, she was proud that she had abandoned her puritanical inhibitions and went on a picnic with him the next day.
  As a graduate student at Cambridge Plath seemed to have found the perfect husband in the handsome, virile and gifted English poet Ted Hughes.  Though they inspired and sustained each other’s work, their idealistic love contained the seeds of destruction.  Despite Plath’s beauty and brilliance, many people found her personally unappealing and were even repelled by her Arbus-like qualities: her quest for perfection, unrelenting egoism and naked ambition combined with the horrors and self-pity in her work.  A fellow student recalled, “she had a fierce competitive edge that made one rather afraid of her.”  Hughes confirmed that “people who met her were alarmed or exhilarated by the intensity of her spirits… . Once she had set her mind to it, nothing was too much trouble for her.”  She did not want to forget her traumas, the rich mine of her poetry, and repeatedly hurt herself so she’d always remember them.  Fascinated by her own suffering, she forced readers to see her work as a reflection of their own misery.
  Both Arbus and Plath adored their husbands, who were talented artists and worked with them.  Punning on his name, Plath recorded that Hughes “even fills somehow that huge, sad hole I felt in having no father.”  But she was always insecure and intensely suspicious, flew into jealous rages and constantly needed reassurance.  Arbus slept with women and men when she was married.  Plath always remained faithful to Hughes, even when he left her for his Jewish lover, Assia Wevill.  She turned Plath into an innocent victim who could no longer identify with Jews.  (In 1969, after Hughes left her, Assia killed her child by Hughes and herself.)  
  Hughes knew that Plath was mentally unstable and suicidal, but was remarkably insensitive–or indifferent–to her precarious emotional state.  Even before her marriage she recognized Hughes’ ironclad egoism and accurately prophesized that she would love not wisely but too well: “he has never thought about anything or anyone except himself and his will … and has done a kind of uncaring rip through every woman he’s ever met.”  Plath had two children with Hughes.  Frieda was not yet three at the time of Plath’s death, Nicholas was just one year old.  Frieda became a poet and writer of children’s books.  Nicholas, a fish-biologist who retreated to Fairbanks, Alaska, became deeply depressed and hanged himself there in 2009 at the age of forty-seven.  The suicides of Arbus and Plath punished their husbands for betraying them and left them with an intolerable burden of guilt.
  The pictorial and literary influences on Arbus and Plath reveal their similar intellectual background.  We have seen that Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind had a powerful impact on Arbus’ photo of the stumbling mentally defective people.  In Bruegel’s Triumph of Death (1562) two doomed lovers, unaware of the devastating army of death and the menacing skeleton hovering above them, inspired Plath’s equally morbid “Two Views of a Cadaver Room”:

Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip tease.

In this poem Plath recounts her suicide attempts and tells what it was like to come back from her close calls with death.  She’s thrilled by approaching the edge of extinction and drawing back just in time.  For Plath life itself is a kind of death and she returns from death to try to get dead once again.  “Lady Lazarus” expresses Plath’s hatred of all her enemies: her oppressive parents, doctors, husband, Ted’s lover and, most of all, herself.  In our time the disturbing display closest to Arbus and Plath was the Chinese Bodies exhibition of 2005.  The flayed, preserved and anatomically revealing cadavers once belonged to tortured and murdered Chinese political prisoners.
  Plath’s poems in Ariel (1965), like Arbus’ photos, pick open the scar of her wound instead of hiding or healing it, and her portrayal of extreme emotional states sucks us into the vortex of her morbid world.  “Cut,” a study in self-mutilation, suggests the tragic aspect of a kitchen accident:

He tells me how sweet
The babies look in their hospital

Each baby has two little feet sticking out of his classical toga-shrouds.  These miniature corpses recall Esther Greenwood examining in a hospital a display of miscarried fetuses, which she degrades to amphibians and calls babies, as if they were still alive: “glass bottles full of babies that had died before they were born.  The baby in the first bottle had a large white head bent over a tiny curled-up body the size of a frog.”
  In The Bell Jar Esther “had a great yearning, lately, to pay my father back for all the years of neglect, and start tending his grave.”  She means, with deliberate ambiguity, that she will either repay him for neglecting his grave or take revenge on him for neglecting her.  When Plath actually visited his grave in a Boston cemetery, she had a necrophilic desire to dig him up and examine the decomposed remains of his body.  “Daddy,” her most savage poem, portrays her German father as a Nazi and herself as his Jewish victim.  She kills Otto Plath in her poem for killing himself in life.  Both her father and husband abandoned her; and the poem twists suddenly at the end to attack the vampiric father of her children, who ruined her life and eventually drove her to suicide:


  Both Plath and Arbus attempted suicide before their final closure.  Though they abandoned all hope of happiness and tried to absorb themselves in work, their existence was doomed.  Everything in their lives led up to their creative achievement and everything afterwards led to their precipitous death.  Suicide authenticated their depth and pain.
  Plath’s realization of what all the treacherous years were leading to and really meant was too tragic to bear.  After her shock treatments had failed to minister to a mind diseased, she feared another breakdown, inevitably followed by shock treatments, lobotomy and a strait jacket—permanently locked up in an institution.  She confessed in a letter, “The only doubt in my mind was the precise time and method of committing suicide.  The only alternative I could see was an eternity of hell for the rest of my life in a mental hospital.”
  Since Plath was explicit about her motives for suicide, her other reason—overwhelming guilt—has scarcely been noticed.  She felt guilty about hating her father and her mother; shaming her family after her first suicide attempt; condescending to students less brilliant than herself; being sexually promiscuous; expressing her jealousy of Hughes; failing to cope at the end with freezing weather, small children, physical illness and unbearable depression, without any help from her husband, friends or doctors; and emotionally damaging her children after her death.  After preparing bread and milk for her infants, she sealed the room, put her head in the stove and gassed herself, aged thirty, on February 11, 1963.
  William Wordsworth observed these emotional heights and depths in “Resolution and Independence”: