08 January, 2012

From whence we draw our inspiration...

In this case from my sister's latest trip "to the lighthouse". I was rereading the book by bits and reveling in Woolf's exquisite prose (which stands in first place in my admittedly subjective aesthetic system). This bit is one of my favorites--though as soon as I say that I remember four or five other passages that deserve the distinction just as much. When one begins to quote Woolf, it's difficult indeed to stop. I think what I admire so much about her style is how very intertwined each passage of a novel is with the others. The rhythmic repetition of ideas and phrases throughout doesn't leave me bored, but fascinated, as though I'm watching a weaver at work creating a tapestry--less like the Bayeux tapestry than like a Persian rug in which the same theme is elaborated until any "perceived" is an organic emanation from the picture as a whole. Perhaps that's an excessively complicated way of saying that while you can take a chapter from, say, Jane Austen, and read it as it's own sub-narrative, almost every moment in TTL depends on all the others.

Yes, yes, all moments in a good novel depend on the whole for their full explication, and one can admittedly isolate narrative moments from the rest of a Woolf novel. The distinction is meant to mark tendencies; if the difference were as extreme as the rough Bayeux-Persian analogy, I'd find it difficult to even call Woolf's work "novels".

In any case, here's the quote, and if you go look it up in the book (third section of part II), you'll see what I mean by hating to have to stop here. In itself it's a highly poetic expression of the "modernist dilemma," and you can see from this some indication of Woolf's skill as an essayist. But it's rather unsatisfying on its own; it's a moment that deserves its context, so to speak. I've left out the only narrative moment of the third section, incidentally, which is very short in comparison to the rest, although a huge spoiler, if you care about that sort of thing. Again, read it in context though; that narrative moment makes all the difference.

But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.

It seemed now as if, touched by human penitence and all its toil, divine goodness had parted the curtain and displayed behind it, single, distinct, the hare erect; the wave falling; the boat rocking; which, did we deserve them, should be ours always. But alas, divine goodness, twitching the cord, draws the curtain; it does not please him; he covers his treasures in a drench of hail, and so breaks them, so confuses them that it seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth. For our penitence deserves a glimpse only; our toil respite only.

The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

[I should hope, incidentally, that anyone reading this would catch the Matthew Arnold reference. If you don't immediately see what I mean, please refer to "Dover Beach" for your own good.]

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