Wednesday, March 18, 2009

W'assup with Edward Albee?

I have never liked it that Edward Albee's title, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" could stand in for Woolf's works themselves and even for his own. That title is all that many supposedly literate people know about her, even if they didn't read or see his play. Invoking it suggests a general audience, one not convinced of Woolf's achievement. It awakens a boyish disregard for "crazy ladies." "Madness" may define it generically, but much, much is known about manic-depression that was not known when Woolf died in 1941. In our day, m-d is treatable -- it is as if she had killed herself for having contracted TB -- something no one might need to do today. [See the fascinating article about Dr. Alice W. Flaherty in The New York Times, March 17, 2009.]

I read all of Virginia Woolf's works in college and immediately afterward before going to graduate school -- her essays, novels, short stories, letters, and diaries. I read an occasional biography. I studied Sylvia Plath's poetry in detail, too, and later her journals. I read into these works as a young woman writer but not as a writer with mental illness. I believed then that Woolf had ended her life at 59 because of air raids over London. She was a pacifist. Her age at death is important because she was not young but died at the same age as Donald Barthelme, for example, whom we regard as just slightly prematurely concluded -- and who never stopped drinking and smoking prior to having throat cancer.

While it is possible that Virginia Woolf feared institutionalization -- as many, many older people do, including people who are not writers or artists -- is there proof of it to replace my long-standing belief that she had again become morbidly ill due to war? Louise de Salvo argued that Woolf had lifelong intermittent mental illness due to sexual predation by her half-brothers when she was young. The film, Tom & Viv, suggests that V. Woolf had to do w/ the lifelong confinement of T. S. Eliot's wife, Viv. At least one researcher has suggested that Woolf killed herself to ensure her legacy when she considered her work completed, but does suicide succeed in doing that and for whom?

Early reports of David Foster Wallace's death were met with derision and foggy accounts on the internet. Then in a letter to the NYTimes his father wrote that Wallace had exhausted over decades all available treatments for his depression -- medications (with troubling side effects) and shock treatments. I realized that his early genius -- documented by his works -- could not compensate for the severity of his depressions. It needed to be understood sympathetically if possible. More recently, an article about him in The New Yorker reveals that Wallace wanted to be "drug free" after having been treated for marijuana dependency at a 12-step program. He had, in short, stopped taking medication and ended his life. He wrote in diaries and letters that he could no longer write fiction. It will be up to critics -- and he has their attention -- to evaluate his last novel. Wallace's significance and contribution as a younger-generation writer fit him into a hierarchy of important American men writers whose final values have yet to be determined -- perhaps, he, too, was hoping to sweeten his own legacy by his death.

What does "confession" have to do with it?

I've been rereading John Berryman's novel, Recovery, an amazing book, a book, like Barthelme's stories, to make a woman laugh like a man, and thinking about his legacy, especially in MN where there are many "wholesome" writers who reject his importance while emphasizing their own -- in eclipsing Berryman's position in MN and in literature they are proposing that "health" produces more important works. Believe me, most of the "wholesome" writers who reject Berryman's legacy are destined to have importance in their writing communities and in their own lives, which is not to say more. I wonder how Robert Bly views Berryman in light of these questions.

Notes toward theater with apologies ... notes toward apology with theater ... for momentarily turning on academic procedures in my previous letter -- my group see ourselves as hardworking gov't employees. Our products are not-for-profit, and the taxpayer doesn't want to pay anyone's sustenance.

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