In my first year of university teaching I introduced my poetry class to Sylvia Plath's electrifying volume, "Ariel." Some of these poems vividly describe the author's spellbound fascination with suicide. "Dying / Is an art, like everything else," she wrote. "I do it exceptionally well." Her suicide shortly after composing those lines made her a posthumous celebrity, a role model for other poets, like Anne Sexton and John Berryman, who envied and then imitated the perfect unity she had made of art and life.
Teaching her poems in 1970 I thought only of her art. I celebrated the intensity of her lyric expression, her freshness of vision and imagery. My students responded favorably, especially one woman who spoke often and avidly about Plath's wonderful genius. After we moved on to other poets I noticed with foreboding the absence of this enthusiastic student. Several weeks later she came to my office and rolled up a sleeve to display the raw scars on her wrist. Our discussion of Plath had caused her to attempt to take her life, she said. Fortunately, a roommate had discovered her in time to call an ambulance.
This was the first time I learned something from a student about the true relation of art and life. I thought the lesson was a simple one: I must avoid teaching any books likely to inflame violent impulses; I must constantly judge and censor, lest my endorsement of a bad example persuade my students to emulate it. But this attitude could not last. The masterpieces of literature achieve their power in part by inviting dangerous and antisocial desires into the stories they tell. That is one reason they continue to claim our attention.
The problem was not the artworks but my own failure to anticipate the effects of their high-voltage materials. I realized that where a text did not sufficiently circumscribe its destructive potential, my responsibility as an educator was to do so very plainly. That young woman's desperate act became part of Plath's poetry, in my mind and in my courses, a reminder to me that a full assessment of any literary work must involve its psychological impact on readers.
If Plath's sophisticated poetry can have such consequences, one can easily project how the contents of television, movies and popular songs influence the behavior of their consumers. Take the most disturbing fact: We are told that by the time a child is 16, he or she will have witnessed 16,000 murders on television, most of them glamorized by an aura of righteousness or financial gain.
Can anyone suppose that an increasing social depravity does not result from prolonged and visceral immersion in the dark fantasies of the species? The question as always is, what is to be done?
There are many answers, and those who advise regulation of the media deserve a hearing. I would put the emphasis differently. We must commit ourselves more firmly and comprehensively than ever to a defensive education, in the schools and in the media, in order to disarm the power of hyper-stimulating imagery. When William Blake wrote that "the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction"--a proverb that haunts the teaching profession--he advised that a society refreshes itself by welcoming the savage force of liberated instincts. But Blake could not foresee how the modern mind would be pummelled night and day by manufactured and manipulative fantasies, and how modern society would prove increasingly unable to break the circuit before those fantasies are unleashed on the streets.
As with familiar campaigns against drugs and venereal diseases, the goal of instruction must be to link the media message with its likely effects. Acts of analysis would be carried to the art we take for granted, whether Rambo movies, the lures of sexual degradation in heavy-metal music and MTV-style commercials, or the siren calls to oblivion by suicide or addiction coded in various forms of popular art. What was unconscious would become conscious, or conscious enough to foster life-enhancing inhibitions.
In this task the humanities will help us, but probably not in the ways we have been taught to expect. Sometimes the authors we revere--like Blake and Plath, or Emerson and Goethe and Hemingway--will resemble our enemies more than our friends. But that is precisely how they will help us to withstand the antisocial behavior that they acknowledge, and sometimes recommend, as an essential part of human nature and human destiny. Our responsibility as citizens in what the New Republic recently called "the culture of apathy" is to add our mature insights to those of our greatest authors. Many will protest the pedantry of such a program, but many others, the most vulnerable among us, will silently reward our efforts by staying sane and staying alive.