25 February, 2011

Harper on "To the Lighthouse"

Howard Harper is currently very high up on the (small) list of Woolf critics whom I really like. As I've made abundantly clear to anyone who will listen, there's a really unfortunate tendency to read her political views (which, if you actually read a good biography you'll realize were a lot less important to her and more tenuously held than many assume) into her work. Thus love is bad and must be surpassed by the artistic vision. (Oh, right, because Woolf was a feminist. Therefore love, particularly married love, is bad.) Personally, I rather think that she is searching out a proper understanding of love that can serve as a context for responding to the world in general in a particular way. This often is betrayed by the common ways of defining love; for one thing, it can't be contained in a few words, as in a hallmark card or something. Hence in To the Lighthouse, for instance, Mrs. Ramsay's refusal to tell her husband that she loves him comes at the moment in the novel (save the conclusion, arguably) when her love for him is most clearly triumphant.

I could argue all this, but some of it will come into my major paper for the semester, and I really don't want to get bored with the topic. So here instead is a rather longish passage regarding the relationship of the artistic vision and the love that inspires it from Harper's admirable book, Between Language and Silence. It's not an argument at this point either, coming at the conclusion of a rather long chapter, but it's an excellent description. Note the secondary role that the former takes as the framer of something that can exist in every human life. In other words, there really is none of the arrogance of the artist that Woolf is often accused of in this vision. The artist's role doesn't surpass the best in ordinary human life, but orders and preserves it.(Woolf is hesitant to affirm this latter point, even.)

Lily's painting has somehow captured the meaning of the Ramsays and their voyage. Just as the depth and subtlety of the world of Part I had been subsumed within Mrs. Ramsay's awareness, so the essence of that world, reclaimed from the ravages of time, is expressed in the work of art. . .Lily's insight is, in some ways, greater than Mrs. Ramsay's. Lily sees her as a shadow and paints her as one. Yet in a sense, Lily herself becomes a shadow of Mrs. Ramsay, approaching in art what Mrs. Ramsay had done in life. . .To the Lighthouse is about hope and promises and, especially, love. And as Lily discovers, "Love had a thousand shapes." It is not only the love of man for woman, which the narrative sees as awesome and terrible. It is also the love of parents for children, and of children for their parents, love which also may find expression in puzzling, even outrageous, ways. It is the quiet love of friends, with its shelter of respect and privacy. And it is the love of the artist for art, which allows both intimacy and distance, detachment and desire.

The forms of love are also the forms of conflict--between mother and father, man and woman, parents and children, friends, the artist and the work of art. These tensions reach moments of unexpected horror, as when Mr. Ramsay says, suddenly, to the woman he loves, "Damn you!" Then the promised voyage to the lighthouse suddenly becomes even more necessary: Mr. Ramsay's unspoken guilt will last for more than a decade.

The problem, then, is somehow to come to terms with who and what one inescapably is, not really in hope of changing it, but in the hope of understanding it. The struggle is to comprehend, to express what is, to paint its picture, tell its story. When that story has been told, a kind of immortality is achieved, so that we can say of Mr. And Mrs. Ramsay what the brothers Grimm say of the fisherman and his wife [this Grimm story is an important recurring reference in the novel]: "there they are living still at this very time," fallen into ordinary mortality, as they must for ordinary mortals to recognize them. So their very mortality gives rise to their immortality. When the narrative discovers their authentic place in time, it also endows them with universality--and timelessness...

When chaos threatens to overwhelm her dinner, Mrs. Ramsay commands her children to "Light the candles." And they do. At her side, the poet [Mr. Carmichael] becomes "monumental" in the failing light. In that same realm of twilight, as the story of the fisherman and his wife ends, the failing light of day gives way to the first reflection, in the eyes of a child, of the light of love. Toward that light, to the lighthouse, the human spirit must always turn. in that light the most ordinary actions become monumental, archetypal, reflections of a love and longing which are so deep, so mysterious, that they can never be directly stated, only surrounded and suggested by poetry.

24 February, 2011

Tony Tanner on Pride and Prejudice

So, after reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time since I was very young (and practically drooling over Austen's perfect sentence structure the entire time), I read Tony Tanner's classic introduction, less because I wanted to than because it was assigned in class. Am I glad it was assigned! It's kind of fantastic, and I don't say that lightly. Especially after having done Junior poet, and most of the annotations part of Senior novel, I have a keen appreciation for good criticism; a truly depressing percentage of what somehow gets published is painfully inferior. Tanner's essay, in striking contrast to this norm, is intelligent, well-balanced, up front about his presuppositions, etc.

He opens the essay musing on the question of how Pride and Prejudice may be considered a novel relevant to Austen's early nineteenth century British society, despite the fact that it keeps well aloof from any discussion of the Napoleonic wars or various forms of contemporary social unrest within the burgeoning empire. As he observes, the central event can be reduced to “a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind” (368-9). Yet within a stable society, guided in nearly all its affairs by a strict set of traditions, the tension between these traditional forms and individual expression renders such alterations deeply effective: Tanner describes a tendency within such society to script the lives of others, and reduce knowledge of a person to knowledge of his or her role within the traditional forms. Moving first to explore these issues from the perspective of Pride and Prejudice's original title, “First Impressions,” Tanner discusses the emphasis that philosophers of Austen's time put on the distinction between “impressions” and “ideas”; the former is a complex of sensory and emotional responses to events and characters, which is then acted on by reason to form ideas. Austen is highly conscious of the problems inherent in this epistemological structure, as evidenced by the most basic elements of the narrative: the plot exists, one might go so far as to say, only because Elizabeth—and many supporting characters with her—has the misfortune of finding perceptions, or “first impressions” unreliable as a basis from which to draw true conclusions. Thus her assumption of Darcy's pride and ungentlemanly disposition leads her to give far more credence to Wickham's self-presentation than it deserves. Tanner moves on to note the essentially linguistic aspect of the misunderstandings and corrections of the novel. Acting as, and recognizing others as genuine or not comes down to a sort of discrimination between styles; the divide between social appearance and “inner” reality is least problematic where the style is at its best, that is, where it is most indicative of the truth about a person. Tanner notes the many instances wherein this is the case, the most important of which is the way in which Pemberley's tastefulness becomes a metaphor for its owner's well-ordered mind. He then observes that the novel itself moves formally from a dramatic mode of expression, in which impressions and experience are paramount, to a reflective, retrospective narrative mode that allows the reader to discriminate between “styles” of people just as Elizabeth is learning to do so. Unlike the many objects of Austen's harsher satire, who have in various ways lost the ability to relate as complete persons to their social role (Mr. Bennets solipsism and Mrs. Bennet's social superficiality are contrasted as two sides of the same coin), Elizabeth puts 'truth to self above truth to role' (390). She thus can recover from her initial judgments and fit the truth about Darcy into her initial impressions in a way that makes her re-understand both. “Love,” according to the Austenian definition, follows naturally from this re-comprehension. Both passion and romantic idealization are rejections of mature reason, and so are invalid definitions of love, for Austen; rather, it must be based upon a rational recognition that one possesses a true respect and regard for the other. Emotion, Tanner explains, must be able to be verbalized (that is, to be reasoned), or it is folly. Importantly, Tanner does not end the essay with an assertion of Austen's absolute preference for the path of formality and reason over Elizabeth's laughter (even when the latter is mistaken). While he suggests that several of Austen's later novels do display such a marked preference, Pride and Prejudice asserts above all the necessity of a union between the “wildness” that an Elizabeth Bennet is capable of displaying, and the rationality of Darcy. In ending with their marriage, Austen is above all asserting that social forms and individual energy are really only brought to their full potential when brought into harmony with one another.

22 February, 2011

A Few Observations on Shakespeare's Sonnet 130

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Like many of his sonnets, Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 takes a conventional, even clichéd, observation about love and gives it a fresh rhetorical presentation, thus gaining the double advantage of a universal context in which the poem can be understood, and the ability to preserve the individual voice. Key to the fresh presentation of this poem is the way it draws attention to the clichéd quality of the images it uses, using them for the purpose of contrast rather than assenting to them. “My Mistres eyes are nothing like the sunne,” the speaker declares. Devoting two quatrains to discussing her appearance (the first from a more distant perspective, the second focusing on the way her “cheekes” and “breath” appear from close up) and a third to the grace of her actions, the speaker follows his initial negative comparison with seven more. He is obliged to admit that his “Mistres” is neither white as snow nor has she cheeks like roses, nor can any of the idealizing similes of conventional love poetry apply properly to her.

These denials are startling. We are so accustomed to poets putting their beloved on a pedestal that for this speaker not to do so seems unusual, even cruel. Yet objectively, from the syllogistic structure of “if haires be wiers, black wiers grow on her head,” to the speaker's invocation of sensory evidence (he has “seene Roses. . ./But no such Roses” does he see “in her cheekes”), he is only being rational. It would be absurd to claim seriously that a lover's eyes emitted waves of solar radiation or that skin—assuming we are not discussing the skin of a corpse—could even approach the whiteness of snow.

Such hyperbolic descriptions are admittedly universalizing in the sense that whereas they are never true of any particular woman, they convey the idea that the lover ought to consider his beloved as surpassing any other thing in beauty. However, by denying these images, the sonnet gets a double return out of entering into conversation with them. As already observed, such comparisons have the disadvantage of being rather predictable. The speaker, by contrast, is anything but banal: through his syllogisms, appeals to sensory evidence, contrasts between what he “well. . .know[s]” and what he feels, we are presented with a vivid picture of a particular man: rational, wary of hyperbole, and suspicious of the unreasonableness of convention. By contrasting conventional image with reality, the speaker is able to remind us of the context of his sentiments while, by denying them, he is able to preserve his idiosyncratic voice.

This pattern continues—with a shift in emphasis—in the final couplet. Here the speaker proves himself fully capable of feeling despite the reservations of the quatrains. Though used to convey the speaker's individual disposition, all of the objections to considering his love the most beautiful of women are themselves another form of universalizing: he has been appealing to the unemotional, rationally-based response of the general public not in love with her, and to which, we assume, he would belong were he not in love himself.

Despite the fact that logic finds her lips less red than coral, or her movements less graceful than those of a goddess, to one in love, these similes are “false comparisons” both in the sense that they are untrue, and in the sense that they are misleading. The beloved is a woman, not a jigsaw puzzle of coral, snow, and so forth. Incline to the rational as he may, this lover is willing to acknowledge the illogicality of the conventional view while maintaining that “[his] love [is] as rare, / As any she beli'd with false compare.”

20 February, 2011


How pretentious to call it that. But still, today marks the four-year anniversary of starting this blog. I was rather young at the beginning, as you can clearly tell from looking at the abysmal style of the 2007-era posts (not that I bother much with good writing on here even now). Now I'm older. And the blog has somewhere around 185,000 hits, which is very modest for a website, but not bad compared to my expectations. About 46,250 hits a year averaged out, with a huge difference in practice between traffic in 2007 and traffic in 2010. As I said, not much at all, but more than the maybe 365 per year I was expecting to get from my familia.

Not much else to say beyond "yay" and "I never expected to keep this up even with the sporadic attention I have given it for anywhere near this long".

03 February, 2011

“The Pseudo-Homeric World of Mrs. Dalloway.”

Hoff reads Mrs. Dalloway in light of Joyce’s contemporaneous publication of Ulysses, arguing that Woolf utilizes classical literary tradition in a manner that parodies Joyce’s “rigidly restrictive” employment of his Homeric inheritance. Finding obscure Homeric references in Woolf’s depiction of minor characters such as Mr. Bowley (who is “sealed with wax”) and Miss Kilman (recalling Scylla and Charybdis through her monstrous appetite both for food and people), the essay focuses on the parallels between Peter Walsh and Odysseus. Several of these parallels are persuasive at least in their potential as frameworks within which to understand this character; the identification of the garden world of Bourton as the Calypsean locus amoenus to which Peter desires constantly to return, but from which he is repeatedly distracted, is a particularly promising instance of this parallel. However, the essay suffers from two weaknesses. For one, it falls into the common trap of pushing a parallel a bit too far; many of the instances Hoff presents are almost impossible to give credence to, such as the idea that Peter’s visit to Clarissa is consciously reminiscent of Odysseus’ visit to Helen’s chamber towards the beginning of the Odyssey. Moreover, though purportedly aimed at pointing out the parodic nature of the text, Hoff neglects to provide any discussion of how exactly the parallels she discerns would be a parody  of Ulysses rather than a simple imitation, or at best, a project coincidentally similar in drawing on the Homeric world.

Lucio Ruotolo's "The Interrupted Moment: A View of Virginia Woolf’s Novels"

Devoting a chapter to each of Woolf’s novels, Ruotolo incisively examines the phenomenon interruption as seen in the lives of Woof’s characters. The ability to accommodate interruption indicates an openness to undefined experience, he argues.  He contrasts the average citizen as he or she appears in Woolf’s non-fiction works, with the heroines of her novels; the former tend to rest in society’s formulaic explanations for the complexities of human life, while the latter habitually indulge “interruptions,” physical or intellectual, that allow them to conceive of the world more richly. The chapter on Mrs. Dalloway is particularly illuminating, as he makes use not only of Woolf’s non-fiction, but is able to highlight the way this patience with interruption grows into a primary characteristic of Clarissa Dalloway by contrasting the finished novel with the study “Mrs. Dalloway’s Party.”  In the finished novel she is tempted to “crystallize the present” (108),  as Ruotolo puts it, moving, for instance, from an intense enjoyment of the particularities of London during her flower-buying errand, to see the footmen and mysterious car as permanent signs of an unchanging, stable reality within her society. Yet the climactic party succeeds so well, Ruotolo argues convincingly, precisely because it is an image of Clarissa’s triumph over such impulse to reduce her experience to symbols: circulating among her guests to ensure the comfort of each, she allows the party to develop a life of its own and so “entertains a world of motion and change” (117).

Jacob Littleton's “Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Woman”

Littleton’s essay teems with fruitful and perceptive observations about aspects of Mrs. Dalloway ranging from the eponymous character’s conception of life to the contrast between community and individual isolation. The body of the paper focuses primarily on defining Clarissa’s artistic endeavor, arguing that her love of life for its own sake is at the heart of her ability to transmute this love into a communal setting at her climactic party. Her heightened awareness of existence leads her to find unity with others in shared experience and memory of shared experience, and Littleton intelligently characterizes her secular “faith” in such communal moments as a counter to the fear of death (physical or societal) that plagues her even to the close of her triumphant party. This excellent argument, however, forms only the central portion of the paper, and is rather weakened by being couched in political language that relates only distantly to his attempt to characterize her artistry. Depicting Clarissa as a subversive element in the midst of a stifling traditional society, the close of the paper comes off as rather bathetic after the highly engaging discussion of the body.

02 February, 2011

Forbe's “Equating Performance with Identity: The Failure of Clarissa Dalloway’s Victorian ‘Self’ in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.”

What a pretentiously-titled essay, no? Forbes concentrates on the tension between private identity and the performance of a public role as it plays out in this day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. Buying unquestioningly into her role as hostess, her day regulated by the demanding chimes of the Big Ben clocktower, Clarissa makes the error of equating her performance with identity, Forbes argues. The essay places much interpretive weight upon her occasionally-mentioned wish that everyone could “merely be themselves,” pointing out that her failure to pursue romance in the person of Peter Walsh, is an instance of her not being herself. Because personal desire conflicts with her social role, she is not, she believes, a unified self, as the Victorian aesthetic of her patriarchal society demands that she be. In pursuit of such unity, she substitutes role-playing for individuality, allowing the former state to dominate the latter impulse and decomplexify her identity. The essay makes in passing some valid points about individual symbols occurring throughout the novel (Big Ben, the streets of London), and some good observations about Clarissa’s thought process. But in seeing her as an essentially “failed” character, who has caved to the demands of a patriarchal society while ignoring all of the moments when Woolf emphasizes the ethically-oriented aspect of being a hostess, of trying to bring others into a temporary community, the essay makes essentially the same error it accuses Mrs. Dalloway of committing. Extrapolating a single, supposedly definitive, feminist interpretation of the novel from a few observations, it fails to see Woolf’s novel in the full complexity it deserves.

Senior Novel

And let the obsessive posting about Virginia Woolf begin! I'm studying Mrs. Dalloway for Senior Novel, and it's most likely that from now on a lot of this blog will be devoted to commentary on the critics, discussions of Woolf's work in general, and planning for the course-culminating paper. Huzzah!

01 February, 2011

The Wanderer

One of two Anglo-Saxon poems that we had to know for our rather absurdly easy comps, "The Wanderer" has been one of my all-time favorite poems since I studied it in Medieval Lit a few years ago. An obvious reason for this affinity is its Tolkein-esque-ness (how's that for an agglutinative?). Thinking of this, and being lazy as usual (when it comes to this blog, at least), I thought I would post a brief quote and see if it sounds familiar at all:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu?
Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune!
Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære.

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!

This anaphora is a staple of the poem, and a large part of why I find it so powerful (the tragic background to this almost-narrative verse is another reason). Plus anything in Anglo-Saxon is irresistible to me. But aside from those remarks, what does this remind you of? Honestly, the resemblance to one of the hymns of Tolkein's Rohirrim is uncanny:

Where now the horse and the rider? where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harp-string, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning?
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

Or perhaps not so uncanny when you recall that Tolkein, besides being fluent in Old Norse and conversant in about 16 other dead languages was an aficionado of Old English. Rather nifty all the same.