Thursday, February 23, 2012

Embracing the paradox (Books - To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf)

I revisited To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf's great meditation on how connection to people and to things we love helps us transcend life's transience. It must have been the third or possibly the fourth time I read it. I had bought a new edition last year as my old one is falling to pieces. I am less inclined to do a full-on review than to make a few appreciative observations.

People most often describe the style of Woolf's prose as stream of consciousness but I was aware in this reading that the cadence was more like speech than thought - as though as I was being read to. This legislated a speed for the progress of my reading that I could not exceed without losing the meaning - a kind of enforced luxuriousness.

When she looked in the glass and saw her hair grey, her cheek sunk, at fifty, she thought, possibly she might have managed things better - her husband; money; his books. But for her own part she would never for a single second regret her decision, evade difficulties, or slur over duties. She was now formidable to behold, and it was only in silence, looking up from their plates, after she had spoken so severely about Charles Tansley, that her daughters, Prue, Nancy, Rose - could sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, of ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother's eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy, like a Queens raising from the mud to wash a beggar's dirty foot, when she thus admonished them so very severely about that wretched atheist who had chased them - or, speaking accurately, been invited to stay with them - in the Isles of Skye.
It is a work so seemingly accidental and yet so purposeful. I was stunned to observe the craft of creating this illusion of undisciplined thought in prose. The lengthy sentences piling clause upon clause with commas. The parenthetical phrases - one entire chapter is enclosed in parentheses.

It is a work about embracing paradoxes. A novel about a summer vacation in a ramshackle house replete with the feuding younger children and socks which need to be darned, yet it roams the halls of existential philosophy. It is male and female, mystical and concrete, modern and old fashioned. Moments of life are captured in painting and words. In this last paradoxical pair the novel evokes Woolf's life - she and her sister, writer and painter, are referenced in the characters of Lily Briscoe, childless and a painter, and Mrs. Ramsay, the protagonist of the work, but arguably it's author in that her existence creates the action. Except in this novel we see the reverse of their actual circumstances as here the author has the energetic, disarrayed life with children, more like Woolf's sister the painter Vanessa Bell, than the childless delicate Woolf. The character of Mr. Ramsay strongly references Virginia and Vanessa's father - Leslie Stephen. A philosopher with beautiful hands who looses his wife and becomes emotionally needy of his young daughters.
Mr. Ramsay sighed to the full. He waited. Was she not going to say anything? Did she not see what he wanted from her?...

"Such expeditions," said Mr. Ramsay, scraping the ground with his toe, "are very painful." Still Lily said nothing. (She is a stock, she is a stone, he said to himself.) "They are very exhausting," he said, looking, with a sickly look that nauseated her (he was acting, she felt, this great man was dramatising himself), at his beautiful hands.
People who haven't read Woolf's fiction think of it as difficult and oblique. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You don't have to search for her themes, she comes right out with them. For example, the person attempting to embrace (and the artist to capture) the paradox of the quotidian and the existential that is the spine of this novel:
One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled. One must hold the scene - so- in a vise and let nothing come in and spoil it. One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on the level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy.
Yet in that attempt at embrace, at capture, the goal is always just out of reach. It is like the endless frustration of the interrupted visit to the lighthouse in this novel, while its beam visits the bedroom of the Ramsay's house at night, illuminating the darkness.


Criticlasm said...

I love this book so much.

Ted said...

Hey - Happy New Year. I'm right with you on that one. A singular work you can go back to and back to. Shoot me an email - how's everything?