10 October, 2010

Impersonality in Woolf

Being the T.S. Eliot junkie I am, I've been rather fascinated--if not particularly surprised--to see the concept of the "impersonality" of the artist explicitly voiced in many other writings than his "Tradition and the Individual Talent". Because of his towering status, and his remarkable talent for expressing critical concepts in a way that made them seem unquestionable, people tend to remember his formulation. But the same idea exists in Yeats, Pound, Hulme, and last, but certainly not least, Virginia Woolf.

This idea Eliot expresses as follows: "What happens [in creating a work of art] is a continual surrender of [the artist's self] as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." One can get at a good idea of what he means here by considering that when you read an excellent book or poem, you're not primarily interested in what the author was feeling when he or she wrote it. (Not that the common assumption isn't the opposite--that art is sloppy self-expression.) The artist's actual experience and emotions will almost inevitable play a part in the creation of the work, insofar as the artist is a human person with emotions like everyone else, but the work itself is not merely an expression of those. The artist is "a medium and not a personality", as he puts it, not something himself to be communicated, but the means by which the pressure of the artistic process is exerted on the objects of everyday life to create a coherent whole out of what is otherwise disjointed.

It's hardly a surprise that Virginia Woolf, well-read and part of the highly literary Bloomsbury group which Eliot himself frequented would have been acquainted with this notion of impersonality, nor that this would be one of the objects she tried to achieve in her art. What did surprise me a little upon reading To the Lighthouse for the Twentieth Century Literature class was how explicitly she lays out this aesthetic within the novel itself.

The novel is famously divided into three parts, the highly experimental central part, "Time Passes", being (logically enough) a lyrical evocation of the passage of time and its inexorable erosion of the human constructs that have brought order to life. Both the first and second parts, by contrast, deal with the creation of a work of art. At the end of part one, Mrs. Ramsay, the paradigm of the gracious hostess, brings the "work of art" of a perfectly harmonized dinner party into being. Part three then ends with the parallel completion of a painting by Lily Briscoe, one of the guests at the Ramsays' summer house. Now just before either work of art is achieved, something rather important has to happen: both Mrs. Ramsay and Lily undergo a loss of personality that allows them to identify with the Lighthouse, the overarching guiding image of the novel.

"Losing personality," Mrs. Ramsay muses, "one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity". This peace, rest, and eternity are what she hopes to achieve in the dinner party, and what she will in fact accomplish. The tensions of "personalities" subside as each guest, under her tacit direction, subordinates his or her individual likes and dislikes to the artistic unity of the evening. This may be seen as regrettably hypocritical by some. Lily certainly feels a twinge of regret for the honesty of self-expression that Mrs. Ramsay's created order denies, saying to herself after a bit of conversation with the generally disliked Charles Tansley, "She had done the usual trick--been nice. She would never know him. He would never know her." But any brutal honesty displayed to Charles would be out of place in this unusual work of art that is so contingent not merely on Mrs. Ramsay's direction, but upon the cooperation of the participants. (By analogy one may imagine that the best of Shakespearean plays, untainted by the author's personality, may nonetheless be marred as a total work of art if the actors playing the parts cannot cooperate with the words on the page and insist upon bringing in their personal lives to their performances.) No cooperation would be necessary, however, without Mrs. Ramsay's personal success in effacing her own personality to the point at which she can be seen as "like" the Lighthouse. "It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things...felt they became one..." And in this disposition, she can attach herself to the other : to the Lighthouse's last, "long steady stroke" or--and this is most important--to another person. Because that is precisely what the dinner party and its aftermath end up being. Art as portrayed in "To the Lighthouse" is not merely some theoretical literary unity as it can come off in the essays of Eliot's younger days. It helps to effect human unity, to enable love that is the loss of the individual's preoccupation with self in his or her desire to know another. Lily, by not displaying her dislike for Charles at the dinner is enabled to later remember him not by that initial dislike, but by the moment of mutual liking brought about some indefinite time later with Mrs. Ramsay acting as catalyst. And in the aftermath of the dinner party, Mrs. Ramsay is able to wordlessly relate to her husband in a way that had been consistently elusive up to that point in the novel as she turns away from what is now her image in the Lighthouse to smile at him.

Lily's case can be covered in fewer words, now that this pattern is established. She is initially frustrated in her efforts to complete her painting by Mr. Ramsay's too-strong personality: "He imposed himself. He changed everything." (It will, incidentally, be Mr. Ramsay's moment of redemption when he too reaches the Lighthouse and has ceased in some way to impose himself.) But a sudden surge of sympathy in Lily allows her to resolve her resentment of him as he heads out on his journey to the Lighthouse, and this opens the door to a whole series of revelations about the nature of Mrs. Ramsay, of art, and of what is necessary to complete the painting. Mrs. Ramsay has been the one to teach Lily the value (though I would argue she only realizes it now) of "giving, giving, giving." And now Lily is able to make the connection between this selflessness, this lack of desire to merely express oneself, and the making of art. "'You' and 'I' and 'she' pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint. The crucial aspect of the painting she creates is not the intent behind it, but "what it attempted", the effort to achieve unity is what "remained forever".


turinhurinson said...

I agree with much of what you're saying, but I think you're making too much of the similarities and not enough of the differences. I don't buy the claim that "Mrs. Ramsay:dinner party::Lily Briscoe:painting of house" is a completely unproblematic analogy. The crucial difference is that the dinner party is meant to BE the community; it is supposed to unite the individual personalities into a communal experience, and through that union to attain immortality. The painting, on the other hand, is something that only attempts to REPRESENT the community.

Another way of putting it is that the painting attempts to achieve unity between subject and object by creating an aesthetic distance between the two, while the dinner party attempts to achieve unity between subject and object by engaging them in a common activity. Both create an order, but Mrs. Ramsay's is a shared, essentially private, order while Lily's is a communicated, but essentially private, order.

If we acknowledge this distinction, I think, we have to read the book as a rejection of the dinner party in favor of the painting, and a rejection of Mrs. Ramsay in favor of Lily - we may love and admire Mrs. Ramsay, but we should not attempt to be her.

More generally, I got the unmistakable sense from the novel that it intends to set up a three-way opposition between Mr. Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay, and Lily, as representing the contemplative life, the active life, and the artistic life, and that it argues in favor of the artistic and against the other two.

Anonymous said...

Great article Thank

you so much!

Anonymous said...

I haven't read To the Lighthouse, but from what you have written, Mrs. Ramsey seems to equate the "loss of personality" to a sort of "dying to self." I wonder if a distinction should be made?

Does one lose "the fret, the hurry, the stir..." from "losing personality" -- all that makes one distinctive and unique, or from dying to that selfish aspect of one's personality which puts one constantly at loggerheads with others, whether it be for the "pride" of brutal honesty or just a lack of sensible manners?

Mrs. Ramsay and Lily have indeed died to self in a way which allows them to "do" their art. And so, in peace, they can admire their art. Norman Maclean, in A River Runs Through It: And Other Stories puts it rather nicely:
"One of life's quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful even if it is only a floating ash."