A Biography Like A Match

The very best sociological biography I ever read was Kate Moses’ Wintering. In it, she takes Sylvia Plath’s collection of poetry Ariel and then re-orders each poem so they are laid out in the way Plath left them with/as her suicide note. Somehow, through Ted Hughes’ editing and the book’s posthumous publication the poems got ordered in a way that forever cast Plath’s greatest writing into a portrait of despair. In Moses’ reordering of the poems, Plath’s life become soaring, triumphant, the diary of woman unafraid of being so desperately sad.

When we consider a life, Moses’ biography teaches us, especially one heavily documented and fabled, we must remember that every isolated moment of that life, every incident, every happening, flickers with light, like the beating of a heart and that no one moment or incident is more important than any other. She also teaches us that we can choose the life moments we want to rest on, to rely upon as our first memory, our first talking point. For her the life of Sylvia not the sum of her sorrow and anger at her husband’s philandering and lying, but rather the poet’s own steady burning lust.

There are two other sociological biographies worth noting here alongside Moses’ work, both cinematic bio-pics: Mark Rappaport’s From The Journals of Jean Seberg and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. In Rappaport’s work Mary Beth Hurt plays actress and icon Jean Seberg and spends most of the film talking back to her celluloid image; and in Haynes’, several actors play Bob Dylan-like characters, but the actual subject of the film, Bob Dylan, is never there.

Like Moses’ novel about Sylvia Plath, both of these films teach us the same rule about reading into and telling stories about other peoples’ lives: That such work is by definition subjective, unaccountable, untrue and uncertain, and that we always need to leave room for interpretation or what novelist, playwright and ethnographer Zora Neal Hurston called the real truth of little lies.

End Note: For another excellent sociological interpretation of Sylvia Plath’s life, see Karen Nystrom’s new play about Plath, archived at the Reorb.it Project.

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