15 April 2014

Dating Sylvia Plath's Journals

On pages 56-57 of the Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000), there is an undated entry. Right now reading it, one can only roughly date it to late March/early April 1951. Plath unfortunately (and frustratingly) did not date many of her early journal entries as freshman at Smith College. In this particular entry, Plath has taken "Notes on an experimental film" which was, as Karen V. Kukil points out in her extensive notes to the edition, Un Chien Andalou directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí

Un Chien Andalou (1929) (Vimeo, YouTube) is a sixteen minute silent surrealist short film produced in France by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí.

That semester in the spring of 1951, Plath was taking Art 13. The prior entry to her "Notes on an experimental film" can be dated to late March; and the subsequent entry is her poem "April 18" (untitled in the journal, but it appears under that title in her Collected Poems). Hard to know when Plath saw the film, but, her notes are interesting in light of the fact that we can now readily watch the film for ourselves through mediums like YouTube and Vimeo* and consider it through the perspective of the notes she took.

Sometimes looking into trying to date Plath's undated journal entries and letters leads to frustrations and false starts. Initially, I thought that perhaps her calendar for this year, held at the Lilly Library, might reveal something. In that calendar, which I reviewed in October 2012 while at IU for the Plath Symposium, Plath has marked that on 22 March she was going to the movies with someone called Tony Stout. Plath would have been back in Wellesley at this time, as her Spring Recess that year was from 21 March to 5 April. However, after searching the Boston and Wellesley newspapers, it was determined that Un Chien Andalou was not listed as a film playing at any of the local cinemas that day. The closest possibility was a South Station cinema which was playing "Shorts." But, there was no identification of what was included in these, though mentioned were cartoons and news stories. So, it seems unlikely. Plath spent some time during the Spring Recess in New Jersey and New York. Is it possible she saw it there? Or, is it possible that film was something she had seen in a class either before or after Spring Recess?

I wonder if this film was perhaps a requirement listed on the course syllabus? But it might also be that her interest in film and the visual arts lead her to see the films as an extracurricular activity. In a letter held by the Lilly Library, which was not part of Letters Home, Plath writes that she saw a "shock film" by Dalí and that seeing it was an act of free will. The letter is dated "Tuesday night" and was postmarked 11 April. 11 April that year was a Wednesday, making the date her letter was written 10 April 1951.

The Smith College Archivist, Nanci Young, provided some information about her Art 13 course. Art 13 "Basic Design" was taught by Mervin Jules (info; obituary). The course description was: "The visual properties of color, light, volume, space, shape, line, texture through study of simple problems dealing with the nature of these elements, the use of materials and their creative application. For Freshmen, Sophomores, and Junior transfer students. M 9; eight studio hours of which four must be T W 2-4, Th F 10-12 noon, 2-4."

Karen Kukil checked the Smith College Bulletin, looking at the calendar for the Week Beginning 8 April 1951. And sure enough, shown on Monday, 9 April 1951 were "Three experimental films presented by Studio Club." The three experimental films were: "Ballet Mécanique, Cinema Anémique, Le Chien Andalou (scenario by Salvador Dali)." They were shown in on campus at Graham Hall at 7:15 P.M.

Ballet Mécanique is a 1924 art film by Fernand Légerdates in 1924.

Cinema Anémique (actually Anémique Cinema) is a 1926 film by Marcel Duchamp.

So, though the pieces are scattered between different archives in different states it is possible with a little work and querying to fill in some gaps. Anyway, part of the the point of this blog post is that we now know that Plath's journal entry 64 was made on 9 April 1951.

*All links accessed 1 March 2012, 7 May 2013, 6 June 2013, and 9 April 2014. I have been working on this post off and on for quite some time --since March 2012-- and in that time, several online versions of the film have gone up and been removed … So please keep that in mind if you are greeted with bad links in this post.

P.S.: If you are interested in Un Chien Andalou, you may also be interested in another Buñuel/Dalí film, L'Age d'Or (1930) (YouTube) ,which Plath saw while on Fulbright to Cambridge on Wednesday 1 February 1956 through her membership with the Cambridge Film Society.


Annika J Lindskog said...

Great entry, love stuff like this!

The Plath Diaries said...

Fascinating as always Peter! What an amazing privilege to be able to explore Plath's letters, journals and life in such depth! All this hard work is going to be so important to future generations interested and intrigued by Plath. Thank you all!

Nick Smart said...

Great stuff, Peter. Have annotated my copy accordingly!

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thank you. I have just written in that date on page 56. Much appreciated!

BridgetAnna said...

Is this the film you were looking for when I went to IU several years ago? I recall you wanted to know the name, or date, or something similar, when I was there. Hmm. Good job, again, on your research, Pedro!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Bridget! Yes, that was something I was looking for back in October 2012. Persistence paid off in this instance!


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