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.

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