Prompt 106 of the Isolation Journals.
This analogy of a cloud that surrounds you during a volatile time reminds me of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The semi-autobiographical novel recounts Plath’s time being treated for a psychiatric mental collapse after an attempted overdose. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist Esther is released from the hospital after a consultation with her psychiatrist. She likens her negative emotions to a bell jar trapped around her, a decorative accent for a mantle clock or other centerpieces. The jar traps her anxiety and depression, swirling it around her enclosure. Without the assistance of treatment and support of family and friends, she would remain imprisoned in the bell jar and lose her luster and function. The same can be said for the metaphorical clouds that prohibit us. Plath’s novel remains true today and is still insightful despite Plath’s own mental shortcomings at the end of her life.
But lord, the clouds have shifted since then. At the start of The Bell Jar, Esther is participating in a summer program in New York City as part of a fellowship for a young women’s magazine, where her poem was accepted. Esther is from Massachusetts, stays in Northampton at school and Winthrop with family, then admitted to Belmont during her hospital stay (note that some of these details are not given in the novel but inferred based on details and parallels to Plath’s own life). While much of the book is during the summer, and a typical summer would involve a lot of travel like this, this lifestyle is unachievable now. So many artist and writer residencies in elite locations like Manhattan have been cancelled, delayed, or attempted to be held remotely.
Unfortunately, the literary magazine where Plath interned, Mademoiselle, became defunct in 2001, so it’s impossible to know how they would have continued this fellowship program had they lived to see the peak of the novel coronavirus. Many Mademoiselle staff transferred to another Conde Nast imprint, Glamour, after the shutdown, but it is not as focused in literary arts like Mademoiselle was. Conde Nast hosts a few college programs, but none quite the same as Esther’s. I imagine some of their internships and fellowships are being done remotely, and it’s a good thing that a pandemic has happened at a time when remote work is more achievable. The Bell Jar is set in the 1950s, when computers, if they existed, were massive, unaffordable, and had to be shared between several business or intelligence agencies. What would the world have been like if a pandemic hit in the 1950s? I guess we could have conducted work through television, radio, newspapers, letters, phone conference calls, or fax messages (if they were around at the time). Today we have much more options.
Then there’s a buffet. Esther relishes these crabmeat stuffed avocado halves. Buffets are a great way to spread coronavirus, but I do miss them so. On vacation my family and I would eat at a few, often breakfast buffets but sometimes dinner. I can’t wait until we can attend a buffet again.
Then there is the romance. Esther goes to a bar and drinks vodka in New York, and assumes an alias of Betty Higginbotham from Chicago to annoying boys. The bars can’t operate the same way, nor can attempted flirtation.
Finally, maybe the most important aspect of the book, is the hospital stay. Plath stayed at McLean Hospital after her suicide attempt at twenty years old, but yet again, residential opportunities outside of the permanent house is risky for disease. The hospital however, does have several remote programs and research studies, but the question remains… Would they be suitable for patients in a severe collapse such as Esther’s? I guess provided clinicians check in frequently, but how would they monitor patients who may attempt to harm themselves? Esther watches an acquaintance relapse into poor psyche, and I worry for someone like that. I guess they could operate at reduced capacity since we are in Phase 3 in Massachusetts, but how can we be certain patients of the highest need are staying? Mental illness fluctuates intensely.
Evidently, the Covid-19 pandemic and the recession that has preceded it is the cloud that shrouds not just me, but the world. I pray and wish that we can have some sort of semblance of coming-of-age and reconciliation that happens in The Bell Jar. Lately, even the most mundane of vignettes in the book and others in the theme and genre of it seem like fantasies. It is very concerning that we are uncertain when they can become attainable again. How will we ever love romantically again? How will we ever progress our professional accomplishments again, and how will we celebrate them? How will we protect ourselves from our id? We can’t answer these right away. We must wait, and this is agonizing, or at least can be. We are fatigued, but we still must protect ourselves.
We must keep our minds busy and seek to find opportunities wherever and however they may appear. We must use whatever resources possible to stay connected. We must keep the faith.
With perseverance, we can fight and overcome. We will not stay clouded and jarred.