23 March, 2011

Helal on “Anger, Anxiety, Abstraction: Virginia Woolf's 'Submerged Truth.'”

Woolf is an angry feminist. Anger in women is completely justified because it has been historically frowned upon, while anger in men is illegitimate because it has been historically enabled. These are the two flawed presuppositions that support this discussion of Woolf's political essays and the novels Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Though the latter assumption is illogical, it does not significantly mar the opening discussion of the essays, many of which Woolf did in fact write in a polemical vein; the presence of anger here is unmistakable, and its expression does line up in some respects with Helal's description of it as a tool for attacking historically repressive structures. However, Helal claims—assumes rather—that “the discourse of anger constructs and organizes social reality” (80), and this assumption is the framework for a much less than convincing reading of Woolf's two most famous novels. Focusing on Clarissa Dalloway's and Mrs. Ramsay's minor outbursts of anger or irritation, she takes these as a sign that the two women are boiling over with a rage that then is suppressed in favor of the feminine role that society expects them to play. With its disregard for anything in the text that might modify this rather extreme claim, the essay takes a single (minor) element of the characters as the unspoken “reality” underlying the text. Despite its relative uselessness as actual criticism, the essay is deserving of passing note in the annotations as a telling caricature of a significant quantity of Woolf criticism, much of which likewise seems to begin with a few assumptions about what they are “supposed” to find in Woolf's writing, and then to extrapolate wildly from the textual evidence to find psychological subtexts that agree with this presuppositions.

18 March, 2011

Part Three: Faulkner

Despite the vast differences between their narrative styles, both Austen and Flaubert seek to understand an individual through externals. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, by contrast, uses a variety of first-person narrators to give the reader direct access to individual consciousnesses: these consciousnesses, then, become the defining aspect of each character. Within the framework established by a controlling, selecting “narrative consciousness” are fifteen different accounts of the novel's action, each given by a secondary narrator with his or her own understanding of reality. The portion that Addie Bundren narrates from her coffin is strikingly different in focus from Cora Tull’s hypocritically religious interpretation of events or Anse’s unthinkingly self-centered understanding. Whereas the rest of the characters address and interpret the action and events of the novel directly, she explains the journey to the cemetery in Jefferson in terms of the deep, underlying motivations that led her to request this burial in the first place. The following passage is taken from her account of her early marriage to Anse, just after the birth of her first-born, Cash. Central to the paragraph is her preoccupation with the randomness and insecurity of language, a preoccupation that directs the course of her gradual withdrawal from husband and children into what she attempts to make a world of pure act, unmediated by the forms and words that seem to her to betray the truth of experience.

“He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I would say, Let Anse use it, if he wants to. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn’t matter.” (164)

The narrative consciousness that frames Addie’s account preserves the idiosyncrasies of her stream-of-consciousness, to the point of using punctuation less in a conventional manner to separate discreet portions of dialogue (as an Austen would do) than in a manner that reflects the pauses and progressions of the experienced thought process. Commas mark mental pauses rather than grammatical units, and quotations are incorporated into Addie’s thought without the distinguishing quotation mark to set them off from her consciousness. This technique allows the reader, even as Addie explains her suspicion of language, to garner much additional information about her personality and character simply through the way in which this argument is presented.

The triad of short, dismissive sentences with which she commences indicates the skepticism that controls the paragraph; yet these abrupt dismissals of Anse’s “word” contrast with the complexity of structure and length at which she recounts her own visceral rejection of Anse’s perspective. She is either unwilling or unable (likely both) to examine the nuances of his consciousness, and will thus retain hers as the measure of everything she confronts. The anadiplosis and repetition of structures (I knew that. . ., that) also leads us to a sense of her everywhere-apparent intensity. She rejects Anse’s words out of hand and elsewhere rejects the verbal even violently, because she feels strongly about the insufficiency of this mode of understanding. Words cannot bring about the mingling of blood that she longs for as a means of defeating her isolation; Cash, as the fruit of her womb, is the only creature, at this point, she believes, to have “violated” her aloneness, and he correspondingly does not need words to communicate with her. One cannot truly, she argues, “fill a lack” satisfactorily with a “shape”; she has found this to be consistently the case in her experience, pointing to “the others” that have also failed to be of any use at “the right time”.

By the time we reach the end of the paragraph, the narrative consciousness has made clear precisely how Addie's rant about language relates, not merely to her personality and ideas, but to the plot unfolding as she speaks. Not only are words useless to convey meaning; Anse also is meaningless to her. His name can be interchanged with no alteration of what is being said with the “empty” term, “love”: despite being her husband, he too has failed to fill the lack, to connect blood with blood in the manner that she feels necessary. This point is crucial to her motivation for demanding the trip to Jefferson. Anse and love both are things that to her “d[on’t] matter,” and by the time she has had her affair with Whitfield she has similarly rejected both Cash and Darl, thinking them away so that “it doesn’t matter what they call” these two sons either. All that is left to her now as the root of her identity is the blood of her forbears in the soil in Jefferson; the family that she has acquired through ritual and verbal assent has no meaning for her. She demands the trip as “revenge” for being tricked by “words older than love or Anse”; her revenge is to get the better of this deception at Anse’s expense, to affirm the meaning of her roots above the meaning of the new life she rejects even as she participates in it.

17 March, 2011

From Irish Fairy Tales, by James Stephens: A Tale of Fionn Maccumail

All desires save one are fleeting, but that one lasts for ever. Fionn, with all desires, had the lasting one, for he would go anywhere and forsake anything for wisdom; and it was in search of this that he went to the place where Finegas lived on a bank of the Boyne Water. But for dread of the clann-Morna he did not go as Fionn. He called himself Deimne on that journey.

We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not answered we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell. Fionn asked every question he could think of, and his master, who was a poet, and so an honourable man, answered them all, not to the limit of his patience, for it was limitless, but to the limit of his ability.

"Why do you live on the bank of a river?" was one of these questions. "Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind."

"How long have you been here?" was the next query. "Seven years," the poet answered.

"It is a long time," said wondering Fionn.

"I would wait twice as long for a poem," said the inveterate bard.

"Have you caught good poems?" Fionn asked him.

"The poems I am fit for," said the mild master. "No person can get more than that, for a man's readiness is his limit."

"Would you have got as good poems by the Shannon or the Suir or by sweet Ana Life'?"

"They are good rivers," was the answer. "They all belong to good gods."

"But why did you choose this river out of all the rivers?"

Finegas beamed on his pupil.

"I would tell you anything," said he, "and I will tell you that."

Fionn sat at the kindly man's feet, his hands absent among tall grasses, and listening with all his ears. "A prophecy was made to me," Finegas began. "A man of knowledge foretold that I should catch the Salmon of Knowledge in the Boyne Water."

"And then?" said Fionn eagerly.

"Then I would have All Knowledge."

"And after that?" the boy insisted.

"What should there be after that?" the poet retorted.

"I mean, what would you do with All Knowledge?"

"A weighty question," said Finegas smilingly. "I could answer it if I had All Knowledge, but not until then. What would you do, my dear?"

"I would make a poem," Fionn cried.

"I think too," said the poet, "that that is what would be done."

In return for instruction Fionn had taken over the service of his master's hut, and as he went about the household duties, drawing the water, lighting the fire, and carrying rushes for the floor and the beds, he thought over all the poet had taught him, and his mind dwelt on the rules of metre, the cunningness of words, and the need for a clean, brave mind. But in his thousand thoughts he yet remembered the Salmon of Knowledge as eagerly as his master did. He already venerated Finegas for his great learning, his poetic skill, for an hundred reasons; but, looking on him as the ordained eater of the Salmon of Knowledge, he venerated him to the edge of measure. Indeed, he loved as well as venerated this master because of his unfailing kindness, his patience, his readiness to teach, and his skill in teaching.

"I have learned much from you, dear master," said Fionn gratefully.

"All that I have is yours if you can take it," the poet answered, "for you are entitled to all that you can take, but to no more than that. Take, so, with both hands."

"You may catch the salmon while I am with you," the hopeful boy mused. "Would not that be a great happening!" and he stared in ecstasy across the grass at those visions which a boy's mind knows.

"Let us pray for that," said Finegas fervently.

"Here is a question," Fionn continued. "How does this salmon get wisdom into his flesh?"

"There is a hazel bush overhanging a secret pool in a secret place. The Nuts of Knowledge drop from the Sacred Bush into the pool, and as they float, a salmon takes them in his mouth and eats them."

"It would be almost as easy," the boy submitted, "if one were to set on the track of the Sacred Hazel and eat the nuts straight from the bush."

"That would not be very easy," said the poet, "and yet it is not as easy as that, for the bush can only be found by its own knowledge, and that knowledge can only be got by eating the nuts, and the nuts can only be got by eating the salmon."

"We must wait for the salmon," said Fionn in a rage of resignation.

The Fáed Fíada -- Repost

The Lorica is also known as the "Deer's Cry" or the Fáed Fíada in Irish Gaelic (a much prettier name, no?). This name comes from an old tradition about the prayer's origin. St. Patrick, they say, along with a few companions, was on his way to preach at the court of the an Irish king, Laoghhaire. God knew that a converted Ireland would be the salvation of the Western World during the Dark Ages, so He wasn't about to allow it's chief converter to become a martyr, however much St. Patrick may have wished to be one. So God let Patrick know in a dream that Druids were hiding by the roadside, waiting to beat the travellers to a convenient pulp (Druids and many other ancient pagans seemed to be able to stomach Christians more easily in liquid form). Patrick, being both holy and clever, chanted the Lorica with his followers. As they passed by the Druids, the bewildered would-be murderers saw only a doe and twenty fawns passing down the road. Fortunately, the aforesaid ambushers must have already had a good lunch, considering that they obviously weren't in a mood for venison.

16 March, 2011

Part Two: Flaubert

Performance is central to Austen’s aesthetic, both technically and philosophically. Flaubert’s meticulously-crafted short story, “A Simple Heart,” is similarly concerned with exploring the relationship between external action and the essence of a person, but unlike Pride and Prejudice, this tale of a simple servant woman with an extraordinary capacity for love does not focus on the relationship of personality to character. Félicité is, rather, a woman in whom choice and disposition are so fully integrated that there is no tension between the consistently selfless actions she undertakes and the sentiment towards which she is disposed. As we see in the following passage, Flaubert’s objective, removed narrator focuses not on tensions within Félicité’s character, but on the external challenges that the continual stripping-away of all the objects of her affection presents to her outlook on the world.

“For two nights Félicité never left the dead girl. She said the same prayers over and over again, sprinkled holy water on the sheets, then sat down again to watch. At the end of her first vigil, she noticed that the child’s face had gone yellow, the lips were turning blue, the nose looked sharper, and the eyes were sunken. She kissed them several times, and would not have been particularly surprised if Virginie had opened them again: to minds like hers the supernatural is a simple matter. She laid her out, wrapped her in a shroud, put her in her coffin, placed a wreath on her, and spread out her hair. It was fair and amazingly long for her age. Félicité cut off a big lock, half of which she slipped into her bosom, resolving never to part with it.” (39-40)

The death of the beloved young girl is only one in the series of losses that forms the substance of the narrative. Whatever brings Félicité joy—the arrival of a long-lost sister, the visits of her nephew, Victor, or the parrot Loulou—is stripped away from her, either by others or by circumstance. Yet despite every trial her character remains constant in its uncomplaining fidelity. The narrative voice juxtaposes the fidelity of the vigil with detail upon detail of the corpse’s inexorable decay, yet despite this narrative objectivity, the analytical comment “to minds like hers the supernatural is simple matter” does not leave the reader unaffected. Despite its objectivity, this observation, paired with the relentless material realism used to describe the corpse, propels us towards Félicité in sympathy while leaving us astonished at the constancy inherent in her response. Her simple, repetitive action culminates when she cuts lock of the girl's hair, preserving the single part of the corpse that retains its former beauty. This impulse to continue the vigil long past its material extent leads her to memorialize her lost loved one: a movement that she undertakes again and again in the story. Whether collecting a lock of Virginie’s hair or preserving Loulou’s stuffed body, Félicité accumulates material objects as tiny memorials to fill the shabby little room that is all that is left to her by the end of her life. In committing them to her memory, Félicité maintains her loving vigil, while the narrator's focus on these external manifestations of her memorialization avoids the sentimentality that might mar the description. Félicité's character is untarnished by loss because she has preserved all that she loves within an interior that the vagaries of the material world cannot access. Just as the narrator can access Félicité’s interior self only through the image of the time-worn room filled with bric-a-brac, so the ravages of time can only affect the external beings that contribute to her happiness, without accessing the core of joy that remains within herself.

14 March, 2011

Austen's Performative Art

Part one of a series of readings of three different novels, examining a dichotomy between individual life and social life that is very much pertinent to my study of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

Pride and Prejudice is renowned for Austen's brilliant use of a satirical narrative voice, but equally brilliant is her use of dialogue to force the analytical narrator out of the spotlight and allow the interaction of one or more characters to stand on its own. The following exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy at the Netherfield ball is entirely performative, yet conveys a complete depiction of the dramatic tension of the novel, elsewhere explained by the narrator.

“Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case, or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?”

“Both,” replied Elizabeth archly; “for I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb.”

“This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure,” said he. “How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly.”

“I must not decide on my own performance.”

As in any well-crafted theatrical piece, Elizabeth's hostility to Darcy is here conveyed through phrasing and implication rather than through narrative comment, while Darcy's growing attraction is communicated through his even-tempered response. Darcy's ironic “imagine” conveys his still-lively pride (she is wrong, he believes), yet leaves open the possibility that Elizabeth's “mistakenness” is rooted in an honest desire to “gratify” his feelings. Elizabeth, meanwhile, by presenting her judgment as an observation on their “similarity,” cleverly manages to maintain basic courtesy while criticizing him severely. They are not really similar in this respect: no attentive reader would argue that Elizabeth is unsocial and taciturn. Darcy himself understands this clearly, and rejects it as “no very striking resemblance of [her] own character”; his earlier reluctance to take offense at Elizabeth, however, again leads him to assume that “[she] think[s] it a faithful portrait” of him.

Within these few lines, Austen is able to address in miniature one of central the ethical concerns of the novel. Whatever emotional tensions are at its root, the subject of the conversation is the relationship between character and personality as this relation affects the possibility of judging another. Darcy rightly cavils at Elizabeth's claim to know him well enough to paint a faithful portrait of him. Yet whereas Elizabeth speaks of “disposition,” a term referring to the sum of one's personal inclinations, Darcy insists on saying “character,” a term traditionally associated with the way conscious choice builds upon the foundation of innate personality. Elsewhere in the narrative, he admits Elizabeth's claim about his disposition: he does incline to being reserved around strangers. Yet despite using the term “disposition,” Elizabeth moves implicitly into a discussion of character, of what the person inclined to taciturnity will actually do in a social context, when she asserts that Darcy is “unwilling to speak, unless [he] say[s] something that will amaze the whole room.” Elizabeth's judgment is hasty of course: Darcy is not merely arrogant, and if he does at times act thus, he struggles against the tendency.

However, while Darcy urges a qualification to her claim, he feels that he “cannot pretend to say” whether it is an accurate description of his own character cannot without being just as arrogant as Elizabeth considers him. Ironically, Elizabeth's lighthearted reply that she is likewise unable to “decide on [her] own performance” reveals that her understanding of the extent self-knowledge is fundamentally similar to Darcy's. One can have an accurate idea of one's own disposition, but it is arrogant to assume perfect knowledge of one's character: the latter is a social fact, not the sole property of an individual. Correspondingly one may, if highly perceptive (like Elizabeth) have some idea of another's personality, but this idea must necessarily be extrapolated from the other's social presentation. Only when Elizabeth comes to a better understanding of Darcy's character will she understand that he is in disposition more than a taciturn, arrogant individual: he is kind and generous precisely because he has cultivated these elements of his disposition through his performance of good actions.