The Mad Saints Deserve Good Design
I suspect for anyone who reads this blog, it’ll come as no big shock that I was one of those cliched black-clad messed-up girls who read and resonated with Sylvia Plath’s classic book The Bell Jar.
And I also suspect that it’ll come as no big shock that I find the cover for the new 50th anniversary edition of the book to be a gaze into the abyss of bottomless banality, an eldritch horror of commodification summoning foaming acid and bile up from my esophagus like a million bottles of Ipecac. For a fleeting moment I considered converting back to Catholicism just so I could believe in a Hell, one that had a most horrendous circle reserved for hack designers who pull shit like this, and that I would be crowned Head Tormenting Demon to inflict eternal damnation upon their wretched soul…hmmm, you know I don’t think anyone who thinks this is a good idea even has a—ok, you get the point. I really fucking hate it.
It sure is…red. Red red red, the sort that might inspire someone like me to want to bleed all over it. It’s not the overt femininity of it. This is not one of those “hate girly things and therefore devalue femininity” dealies. I personally find much of Plath’s writing to have an inherently feminine tone to it anyhow. It’s not that I didn’t catch that the compact actually seems to be empty. (What, she’s hallucinating her makeup? If that were my experience with hallucinating, I could save $30 twice a year or so by thinking I was never out of Studio Fix.) It’s more that this is completely wrong in every way for the contents of this book. Sylvia Plath’s book was a thinly veiled yet deeply personal account of being a young woman, overwhelmed by depression at a crucial point in her nascent writing career, and her subsequent mental breakdown and hospitalization. It’s accounts of the treatments of the day are by no means glamourous or romanticized. Horrific old-school ECT. Medications and injections, and all the side effects which crush one down even more in their own ways. In reality, as we know, Plath did eventually take her own life.
This cover looks like Cosmopolitan magazine. It’s slick and shallow. It’s bold. It’s shiny. It in no way reflects Plath’s writing voice, as earlier covers did. Everything is primary and secondary colored, clipped and glossy. It feels like whoever did it was told that at the start of the book that the main character has an internship at a fashion magazine, and nothing else about the story. Or that if they were told, they simply didn’t care, a notion that seems augmented by what this article at The Independent notes as the back cover blurb:
“The blurb on the back cover notes that the novel’s protagonist, a young writer at a magazine in New York, ‘grapples with difficult relationships and a society which refuses to take women’s aspirations seriously.’ “
Ok, but, no mention of any of the mental health aspects of the story? Why? I have no doubt the sexism she faced exacerbated an already complex condition. Who can forget the sentences from the party scene, where she recounts (accurately) reading the man she’s been set up with as a misogynist from the jump with a mixture of sharp observation and self-deprecation? Or her terse speculations on the psyches of those who practice such sexism? But still, this all feels like an entirely different book. Why is it all so glossy and glossed over?
Ugh, I feel like I’m winding down. Because I believe those of us facing mental health struggles deserve to be heard and seen as we are (not as others would like us to be), and because I’m sure we all need some eye and brain bleach, here’s some of Sylvia Plath’s own artwork and words.
Once I was ordinary:
Sat by my father’s bean tree
Eating the fingers of wisdom.
The birds made milk.
When it thundered I hid under a flat stone.
The mother of mouths didn’t love me.
The old man shrank to a doll.
O I am too big to go backward:
Birdmilk is feathers,
The bean leaves are dumb as hands.
This month is fit for little.
The dead ripen in the grapeleaves.
A red tongue is among us.
Mother, keep out of my barnyard,
I am becoming another.
Feed me the berries of dark.
The lids won’t shut. Time
Unwinds from the great umbilicus of the sun
Its endless glitter.
I must swallow it all.
Lady, who are these others in the moon’s vat —
Sleepdrunk, their limbs at odds?
In this light the blood is black.
Tell me my name.