Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Was Sylvia Plath a Witch?

A solid quartz or lead-crystal ball 7 inches across weighs about 22 pounds.

Was Sylvia Plath a witch? References in Sylvia Plaths creative work to the supernatural, weird, and mythic are in fact typical of her time and place, the era of plays and Hollywood movies called I Married a Witch, The Bad Seed, and Bell, Book, and Candle. [1] Plaths references to the unseen do not mean or prove Plath was a witch. That idea first emerges in the USA and UK around 1970 when faddish interest in the occult, and cute media portrayals, made witches trim and beautiful, feminist and cool. [2] Popular fiction and film have since kept their modern witches young and appealing. Everyone who feels stronger owning an Isis poster or consulting Tarot cards, or takes pride in their zodiac sign, as Plath did -- is a witch an occultist.

For those pursuing the Was Plath a witch/mystic/psychic? question, precise definitions of what she was are crucial.

An occultist seeks power or advantage through rituals or tools such as Tarot cards, crystals, chanting, Ouija, or horoscopes; the use of such tools for those ends is called magic(k). A person can do occult work with and for other people. Most major religions prohibit occultism. An occultist is not automatically a witch.

A mystic (from a Greek root meaning with eyes or lips closed) looks inward, is receptive, seeks personal spiritual union with a higher power, and wants less from the material world rather than more. [3] Therefore Tarot cards, crystal balls, charms, prayers, and so on used to cull deliverables, such as predictions or good health, are not in fact “mystical.” One cannot do mystical work for other people. Major religions revere their mystics, and they are few. Being an occultist or being spiritual or intuitive does not make someone a mystic.

Mysterious,” “mystical,” and “magical,” are not synonyms. An example to show that word choices matter: Which slogan would the Disney Corp. likely choose?

-Disney World is mysterious.

-Disney World is mystical.

-Disney World is magical.

A psychic (noun) has clairvoyant, healing, mind-reading or prophetic ability. Such ability, on call and consistent enough to make a reputation and money, is extremely rare. It is rarer yet to possess more than one such ability. Psychic (as an adjective) seers supported by cards, crystal balls, pendulums, drugs, fire, and so forth are occultists, not psychics. Mostpsychics are, alas, performers. Intuition is not psychic. Intuition originates in the body.

Ones psyche is defined as the totality of ones mind or spirit or soul; the being, without the body. That we all have a psyche is a useful philosophical concept, but not a fact. Unfortunately the adjectival form of psyche is psychic, which makes people think of crystal balls and mind-reading. Plaths post-breakdown psychic regeneration is not related to occultism.

A witch is a person of any gender who self-identifies as a witch. Plath never called herself a witch. No one is a witch just because someone says or thinks so. Things we call “witchy,” such as dancing around a bonfire, or using Tarot cards or bibliomancy to reveal desired information (“divination”), do not make Plath a witch. They make her an occultist, like her idol, poet William Butler Yeats.

All the above labels have been muddled, misused, corrupted, sensationalized, and contradicted, because people read Harry Potter and watch Disney and The Craft and anime and Buffy, playful fictions drawn from misinformation. Sylvia Plath herself was misinformed about the differences between psychic and occult and intuitive. She wrote in a 1956 letter to her mother Aurelia Plath:

[a]ll my horoscope points to my psychic, occult powers, & certainly if I give them play, I should at least, with my growing womans intuition be able to join Ted in becoming a practising astrologist. [4]

Plath soon found out that casting horoscopes is not intuitive or psychic but instead required her to do math, so Ted Hughes remained their house astrologer while Plath elected to use Tarot cards. Friends say Sylvia used Tarot ever more obsessively as her life came to a close. Using Tarot cards or playing Ouija (a Victorian parlor game, trademarked in 1902), still do not make Plath a witch, a psychic, or a mystic. They make her an occultist. Collecting and burning Hughess stray hairs and nail clippings for spite is something Plath read in The Golden Bough. [5]

Sylvia Plath only dabbled in the occult. Ted Hughes, through his mother, had lifelong occult interests, but no one asks Was Ted Hughes a witch? That suggests that Plaths gender has encouraged this line of Plath-as-witch inquiry. Even asking the question is frivolous, because whatever the answer, it does not matter. Nor (as Hughes would have it) was his wife bedeviled by “psychic gifts,” seemingly never used except to catch him cheating.

Plaths writings show a character hyper-rational, practical, keen-eyed, and worldly. The “Mystic” of her eponymous poem after one big moment falls to Earth with a thud. The speaker of Witch Burning is a dartboard for witches” and never admits to being one. It was poet Anne Sexton who in a poem (Her Kind) called herself a witch. Maybe Plath was a witch persists because people still suspect, as in the witch-burning days, that black magic is how high-achieving women get their edge.

Plath above all was a dedicated and hard-working writer. Writers experience inspirations and breakthroughs to higher  levels – not of spirit, but of confidence, nerve, and skill. Such breakthroughs are part of a working writer’s experience: remarkable, but not mystical or magical at all. Sylvias hard work on the Ariel poems is documented in the many drafts of them archived at Smith College.

Eternity bores me, 

I never wanted it.

[1] Plath saw the play Bell, Book, and Candle and wrote her mother about it on 21 January 1953. Her letter of 13 December 1954 says she had just seen the play The Bad Seed in New York.

[2] Examples: U.S. TV sitcom Bewitched (1964-72), openly based on a 1942 Paramount comedy starring beautiful Veronica Lake as a witch; U.S. TV program, animated, Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1970-74). Sabrina stars in her own comic-book series starting in 1971. Read here about the U.K. witchploitation TV and media fad of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

[3] https://www.encyclopedia.com/philosophy-and-religion/other-religious-beliefs-and-general-terms/religion-general/mystic 

[4] Sylvia Plath to Aurelia Plath, October 28, 1956. Astrologist and astrologer are synonyms; the former is rarely used. 

[5] Plath's copy of this book is held by Smith College. https://libguides.smith.edu/c.php?g=1227026&p=8978322

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

New: AureliaPlath.info, and an Aurelia Video

Facts about Aurelia Plath need to be "out there" and more available to the public, so I have made two positive changes! This blog can now be accessed using the simpler name Aureliaplath.info. Easier to remember. Then, using some of my research and getting professional guidance, I made a video about Aurelia and Sylvia, 4 minutes 44 seconds, now posted on YouTube. No, I don't appear in it.

I'd like to make more videos about the wealth and vitality of Sylvia Plath studies and the community of Plath scholars and fans.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Aurelia and Her Man Friend at Camp Maqua

Camp Maqua in season welcomed girls and women age 16 to 35 to its rustic lakeside cabins in Poland, Maine. The above brochure said $15.50 per week included a bunk and meals plus camp activities: swimming, boating, guest lectures, fireside storytelling and singing. In 1927, college student Aurelia Schober left her home in Boston for a summer office job at Camp Maqua. She was 21. She returned to Maqua in summer 1928. One of those summers was heavenly and the other was hellish, and not because of the weather.


On Sunday, July 24, 1927, Aurelia welcomed to the camp a very special visitor: her boyfriend, an Austrian engineer guest-teaching at MIT. Dr. Karl Terzaghi in 1926 had needed a German-speaking secretary, and college sophomore Aurelia Schober, 19, daughter of two Austrians, got the job. When they met, Karl was 43, divorced, and dashing. In a few months he and Aurelia were dating. It was not a fling or a dirty-old-man thing. He admired her intelligence and sensitivity. Aurelia brought Karl home to meet her parents. Karl took her to her junior prom. They both loved the great outdoors. In July, Karl was delighted to leave stuffy Boston and spend a week at Camp Maqua near his girl.


In the camp’s guest quarters, Karl wrote in his diary, “Felt today five years younger. Strain gradually disappearing, the wrinkled skin gets smooth under the gentle touch of L.’s caressing hand.” Karl called Aurelia “Lilly,” a nickname German speakers use for a dream girl. Karl’s diaries, now in archives, describe the pair’s two-year relationship and refer to Aurelia first as “Miss Schober,” then “A.,” and then “L.” All that idyllic week, after Aurelia finished her workday, the pair spent late afternoons and evenings rowing for miles, swimming in springs and coves, hiking at sunset, dining at farmhouses. Of course they shared quiet moments. Curfew was midnight.


A geologist by training, Karl observed nature with an artist’s eye:


. . . One more hour at the lake shore. Separated from the world. No sound but the voices of sleepy birds and now and then the breeze gently passing through the foliage. Fragrant smell of the woods, and the passionate kisses of the girl, curled up on the blanket and pressing her body against mine, trembling with overflowing tenderness. Rowing home at midnight, 6 miles to the camp. No moon. The sky fairly clear, the stars shining through transparent mist. To the left an unbroken wall of dark forest, the smell of the woods saturating the atmosphere. To the north the silvery lake stretching as far as the eye can see, smooth like a mirror, bordered by a pale blue rim of low hills, covered by forest, with horizontal crests. Vast distances, pale colors, horizontal lines, here and there a little light shining at the lake shore as a link between now and the endless past and the future . . . . [1]


On July 30 Karl boarded the train to Boston and “the memory of a week in fairyland went with me.” “What shall I do with my love for this child?” he asked his diary. Karl Terzaghi (1883-1963) was famously plainspoken, but never wrote a critical or salacious word about Aurelia except to say he scolded her: “You will never make a man friend unless you get rid of your self-sufficiency!” [2]


The following summer Aurelia pined for Karl while again working at Camp Maqua. Karl was with clients in Central and South America. She worried he no longer needed her. The couple met again in autumn, only to break up. Aurelia was inconsolable. Karl moved on. His colleagues had become her friends and she probably heard he was dating a Radcliffe graduate student.


In summer 1929 Aurelia waited tables at a New Hampshire vacation hotel, saving up to go to graduate school herself. In summer 1930 she worked for camps in Pine Bush, New York, possibly at the YWCA’s Echo Lodge. [3] The Great Depression closed Maine’s Camp Maqua. [4] It was sold and became a boys’ camp in 1936.

[1] Terzaghi Diary 27.1, pp. 57-72.

[2] Ibid., p. 37.

[3] Letters Home, p. 8.

[4] Another YWCA Camp Maqua operated in Michigan until the 1970s.

The pier at Camp Maqua, Maine, 1924