Creativity and Mental Illness: Sigmund Freud and Sylvia Plath

I have long been interested in the connection between mental illness and creativity. My latest novel, A Dangerous Daughter, describes how psychoanalysis was used to cure a mental illness and to unlock the main character’s creativity.

Some of our greatest artists, writers and musicians suffered some form of mental illness while producing brilliant and lasting works of art. Many of the 20th century’s great writers, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Schumann,Virginia WoolfErnest HemingwayF. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda Fitzgerald, and William Styron, suffered from mental illness. 

In this article by Jahnavi Ravishankar “Sylvia Plath– A Caged Darkness of the Mind”, the writer extrapolates how Freud, the Father of Psychoanalysis, might have analysed the poet and author Sylvia Plath, who suffered what would now be called a bipolar condition, and made several suicide attempts before succeeding in 1963.

Sigmund Freud, The Father of Psychoanalysis

In this abridged version, Ravishankar analyses Plath’s famous poem, ‘Daddy” in Freudian terms (see poem attached):

.“Sylvia Plath, a renowned American poet, was clinically depressed for most of her life and eventually became a victim of suicide at the age of Bnb thirty. The “Ariel” poems, including ‘I am Vertical and ‘Daddy’, were written shortly before she died. and posthumously garnered acclaim. These poems painted a vivid image of her inner psyche.

Sigmund Freud’s position that the artist is a successful neurotic has been contested but, at the same time, has served as a key focal point for several psychoanalytic theories in literature. In his essay, ‘Creative Writers and Daydreaming’, he states, “The opposite of play is not what is serious, but what is real.

Plath’s poem ‘I am Vertical’ , through vivid imagery, makes her depression poignant. In her conversation with the sky, her desire to lie down and become one with nature is expressed. She tries to fill her own dark void with the colour, calm and perfection of nature. As thoughts darken in the night, she hopes for an everlasting peace.

‘Daddy’ remains one of the most controversial modern poems written during her turbulent period. The poem appears to be a metaphor for the ‘Electra Complex’ — the female counterpart of the Freud’s Oedipus complex, wherein the daughter experiences a psychosexual energy towards her father and perceives the mother as her rival. To free herself from her father, she has to kill him– an event oddly juxtaposed with his real-life death when she was merely eight years old. To kill him, she must kill a part of herself. Eerily finding in him in a vampire replica of the husband she falls in love with, she now needs to kill two.

In ‘Daddy’ the poet ventures into all three orders of Lacanian theory- the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. Plath is removed from her own self and identity, even as her desires and subconscious consume her existence. The author is nothing but a spectator her imagined world, Freud implies. In the process of infusing inner emotions and feelings into the characters of the text, she not only presents her most vulnerable self to the world, but also brings out what is real– both to the reader and to herself. “

Adapted from the article by Jahnavi Ravishankar “Sylvia Plath– A Caged Darkness of the Mind”.


You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not 
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Sylvia Plath 12 October 1962

Ref: Creativity and Mental Illness  James C. Kaufman

Cambridge University Press, 7 Aug 2014 .

Ref: Burning with Creativity



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