Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Darkness and Being Alone

"I am alone; I am alone! she cried, by the fountain in Regent's Park (staring at the Indian and his cross), as perhaps at midnight, when all boundaries are lost, the country reverts to its ancient shape, as the Romans saw it, lying cloudy, when they landed, and the hills had no names and the rivers wound they knew not where-- such was her darkness."  (Woolf, 24)

There are times when we feel alone in the world, as if no one is around to help us or to be our companion's in life.  Rezia is certainly lost in this feeling of being alone.  Her husband, Septimus, seemingly gone mad and haunted by hallucinations, has left her without any companion in life, since she has moved away from her home and sisters in Milan.  Her poetic thoughts of being alone and comparing her darkness to the ancient land of England that the Romans came across when England is still uncharted territory is very poignant.

None of us know what the isles of Britain looked like before the conquering armies of Roman landed and charted out and built the framework of what is now modern day England.  It is impossible to know, but reminds us of the time when maps were made of the world that look silly to us with their misshapen continents in our age of Google Earth.  One of the last untouched worlds I can think of is New Zealand.  Visiting the small island nation, it reminds me of a prehistoric Scotland or England.  Not touched by the houses and development the way the flatlands of England are, the land seems virgin and untouched, a place where you could imagine rivers not knowing where they were going.  This feeling of untouched land seems to resonant extremely well with Rezia's predicament.

Her predicament also reminds me of Hedda's predicament in Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler.  The character, who is in control of her life in every possible facet, suddenly loses control towards the end of Act IV.  The life that she was leading seems marginalized and she cannot see any remedy to her predicament.  She, too, is in a darkness.  Her darkness is solved by her suicide at the end of the play, but an action so bold I cannot see Rezia committing.  Rezia plans to solve her darkness by divorcing Septimus, but will that solve the problem?  Will she really be happy if she returns to Milan?  Can that solve being alone?  Or will she just remain in the darkness, never having a cartographer to map out the river of her emotion.

The Stifling of the Soul

“The sheets were clean, tight stretched in a broad white band from side to side. Narrower and narrower would her bed be. The candle was half burnt down and she had read deep in Baron Marbot’s Memoirs. She had read late at night of the retreat from Moscow. For the House sat so long that Richard insisted, after her illness, that she must sleep undisturbed. And really she preferred to read of the retreat from Moscow” (Woolf, 31).

I felt compelled by Virginia Woolf’s own reading tactics to lightly research General Baron de Marbot and the historical influence of his Memoirs, in order to get a clearer sense of its literary purpose in Mrs. Dalloway aside from its War-oriented connotation. Why a Memoir? Why Baron’s? Why does Woolf mention that Mrs. Dalloway “preferred to read” at all? And what does it mean for the rest of the novel?

According to the words of the translator, Oliver C. Colt, the Memoirs “are merely reminiscences of an old soldier, […] who came from a family which might be described as landed gentry. His father served in the bodyguard of Louis XV and later in the Republican army. Marbot himself was a soldier from the age of 17 and fought in the wars of the Republic and the campaigns of Napoleon. His memoirs were written for his family and his intimate circle, without thought of publication, and it was not until after his death in 1854 that his family were persuaded to offer the manuscript to publishers” (The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot).

At this point, Mrs. Dalloway isn’t reading about Napoleon’s domination of Austria or Britain’s continuous fight against the new French Empire, but she is reading the retreat from Eastern Europe, a very self-defeating and inglorious moment. Mrs. Dalloway rather read than sleep undisturbed. Perhaps she is more disturbed when she isn’t reading. She rather read the lines of someone else’s awful life, a soldier who experienced multiple deaths in his family, than turn inward. There is this sense that Mrs. Dalloway’s greatest fear might just be looking at herself only to find nothing, the complete nothingness of Clarissa. She rather read De Marbot’s “Crossing of the Ukra” or the “Death of [his] Brother Felix.” There’s this emphasis on the memoir, the reading of life, as long as it’s someone else’s.

The passage shows us that Mrs. Dalloway reads for leisure. Subsequently, we learn that Sally Seton played a great role in the fashioning of her literary preferences. And we are now aware that Mrs. Dalloway used to read, and she still does.

Peter Walsh’s recollection of Mrs. Dalloway provides a background and characterization of the protagonist that we couldn’t know without his historical eye. Peter begins to criticize Richard Dalloway, and like their mutual old friend, Sally Seton, feels that Richard has indeed stifled Clarissa’s soul. He says, “But how could she swallow all that stuff about poetry? How could she let him hold forth about Shakespeare? Seriously and solemnly Richard Dalloway got on his hind legs and said that no decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes …” (Woolf, 75).

Shakespeare is yet another literary reference that manages to create a deep divide between Mrs. Dalloway and her husband. While Richard detests Shakespeare, Clarissa chooses to use a line in Shakespeare’s Othello to describe, what appears to be, the most majestic moment of her life: coming to the realization that she is in love with Sally Seton:

“But she could remember going cold with excitement, and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy (now the old feeling began to come back to her, as she took out her hairpins, laid them on the dressing-table, began to do her hair), with the rooks flaunting up and down in the pink evening light, and dressing, and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall “if it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy.” That was her feeling- Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it all, all because was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton” (Woolf, 35).

The literary references in the novel help demonstrate how little soul is left in Mrs. Dalloway, how little she recognizes Clarissa, who might be seen as responsible for that casualty, and how important she feels it is to her living, to avoid the opportunity of self-examination.

On the Potential of Limitations

Whether an author structures his or her work in a traditional manner or diverts from an established format to experiment with its boundaries, a novel must begin in some way. Seeing as I can't even decide how to begin a post, I imagine that deciding on an opening sentence must be one of the most difficult, and intimidating, parts of writing a novel.

Woolf begins Mrs. Dalloway in a striking way: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." This opening sentence is short, crisp and assertive; there is an action and a specification that "the" flowers will be bought. It's also a very powerful way of introducing the actual body of a novel entitled Mrs. Dalloway and its title character. However, the magnitude of the declaration seems to shrink when the reader realizes that Mrs. Dalloway just declared that she would buy flowers, which seem rather trivial and easy to acquire. There is a discourse in the opening sentence that makes the reader linger; the content of the opening doesn't reflect the potential for achievement that is portrayed through the assertive tone of the declaration.

This opening immediately reminded me of the first sentence of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which begins with the assertion, "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." Perhaps this is a strange parallel since it's negative, but, seeing that Woolf was heavily influenced by the female writers of Victorian Literature, a sense of similarity exists. The opening of Jane Eyre seems to allude to the weather, but, upon closer examination of Jane's situation, the short sentence becomes remarkably dense; rather than simply not going for a walk that day, Eyre doesn't even have the possibility of going outside. This limitation upon possibility reflects Jane's lack of mobility in Victorian England due to her low position in the social hierarchy as an orphan and a woman. Bronte's choice of opening her feminist novel is effective because the extent of Jane Eyre's immobility is introduced in the initial sentence as a theme that will challenge Jane Eyre throughout the novel.

Mrs. Dalloway seems indebted to the Victorian tradition of female authors, such as Bronte and Austen, who have their heroines assert themselves within the social limitations of their society. However, Woolf seems to challenge her title character further than Bronte since the novel is entitled with the social salutation for Clarissa as a married woman. Her limitations seem to exist in relation to the bounds of marriage and the act of losing one's maiden identity when a woman accepts her husband's social label.

However, something is achieved through Mrs. Dalloway's declaration that she will buy THE flowers HERSELF. This initial line declares a goal that the character will attempt to carry out throughout the novel. While Mrs. Dalloway completes her task of buying flowers well before noon, the larger task at hand, or her party, seems to be the goal symbolized by the flowers. Perhaps throwing a party is rather trivial, but its an action that Mrs. Dalloway carries through. Clarissa Dalloway seems strong because she acknowledges the limitations that British society places upon women, takes what she can, and becomes dedicated to stretching the potential of these limitations. The opening line emphasizes the active element of Mrs. Dalloway; while the other major characters of the novel are haunted by their past, Mrs. Dalloway actively prepares for her party.

Philosopher Robert Audi, who developed the Theory of Action, proposes that people actually utilize their choices more when they have fewer options to choose from. Perhaps this concept can be applied to a reading of Mrs. Dalloway, who, limited by her role in society, regards throwing a party as a way to assert herself within her time. While today's social mindset is that subdued women in past patriarchal societies should be pitied because of their lack of possibilities, perhaps Mrs. Dalloway encourages one to celebrate those women who took their limitations and found new potential within the boundaries.

Monday, January 26, 2009

My hands are small I know...

My cousin subscribes to a peculiar and aggravating kind of feminism. (He calls it feminism anyway.) He says he judges women harshly because they are made of better stalk than men. He is jealous of them because they are morally superior and more capable. Apparently, if you worship women, you can blame them. If they can save you, they are responsible for your demise. I've encountered this attitude elsewhere, mostly in emo music and emo boys. I was surprised to find it in two of Woolf's characters, Septimus and Peter. Of course, they are not feminists (much like my cousin), but they invest women with the power of salvation--an oppressive expectation to lay on a mere mortal. A lovely hand motif helps illustrate my point.

Septimus marries Lucrezia so that she will cure him of his inability to feel (86). One night it caused him to panic and "he asked Lucrezia to marry him, the younger of the two, the gay, the frivolous, with those little artist's fingers that she would hold up and say 'it is all in them.' Silk, feathers, what not were alive to them" (87). Poor Lucrezia didn't know she was volunteering to bring Septimus back to the land of the living. Her hands could make hats, not cure PTSD, depression, or madness. The weight of this expectation leads to the symbolic undoing of their marriage. Her hand becomes too thin for her wedding ring and with that, Septimus declares himself the lord of all men and free from his marriage (67). So much for Lucrezia’s lively hands.

As Septimus gives up on his marriage, Peter is nearby dreaming of women. He invests the trees with womanhood and notices how they then dispense charity, comprehension, and absolution (57). Continuing the revelry, he imagines a female shape being "sucked up out of the waves to shower down from her magnificent hands compassion, comprehension, absolution” (57). Even the hands of a fantastic woman can cure! Earlier he had seen a woman and imagined that her cloak was opening like "arms that would open and take the tired" (53). For Peter, femininity and sainthood are one and the same. We’ve seen what those expectations did to Lucrezia. Poor Daisy seems headed for a similar fate…unless she takes one of those hands and gives Peter a good slap.

The faith that these men put in women is oppressive but the bit about the water woman and her magnificent hands is emo-tastic. Couple that with Peter’s lament about Clarissa’s ability to make him suffer and we’ve got a hit. But if girls rule and boys drool, why are girls oppressed? I think Woolf is trying to say that girls are people too and canonizing them doesn’t do anyone any good.

I forgot my keys--a review of "Virginia"

I knew I was going to be late. My miscalculations about subway times, Google’s microscopic map on my phone and the frequency with which I am usually on time (zero.), made me sure that I would be late leaving (forgetting my coat, my keys, my lip balm), have to go back twice, wait forever on a local train, get lost walking five blocks in the wrong direction and probably fall down a couple of times for good measure only to arrive at the Drama Bookshop just as "Virginia" was wrapping up. This did not happen. I was on time and the Bookshop had been situated conveniently, obviously for sillies just like me, so that I could see it from the sidewalk in front of Port Authority.

I have a soft spot for staged readings and workshopped plays. Usually in small spaces, most of these plays don’t even get produced and, for the ones that do, there’s a selfish satisfaction in being able to say, “I saw it first.” It also lets the audience share in the creative exchange happening between the playwright, the writers and the actors. "Virginia" isn’t new at all--it was first produced in 1985-- so there was a different sort of dialogue going on. This one was between the actors, the directors, and Virginia Woolf herself.

With four people and three chairs, the cast of "Virginia" was able to create an entire world. I knew exactly who was who (as some have mentioned before me, two of the actors were multi-cast) and where the characters were. It would have been so easy for the actors with multiple roles to play each the same way and rely on the text of the play to speak for them. Instead, they changed their voices and bodies for each character—the high, tense voice of Virginia’s mother became the sultry flirtatious one of Vita Sackville-West. I could see that everyone had done an incredible amount of research, but especially Kris Lundberg, who had taken up the daunting task of playing Virginia Woolf. I can’t imagine how taxing it would be to play someone so complex—and so real. Everyone knows about Virginia Woolf’s mental illness and suicide, there are expectations, but to go inside her head takes bravery and to do such a character justice takes true talent. Lundberg did an amazing job.

I wish I had more, or anything, to criticize about the performance or direction, but I just don’t. Some of the other reviewers have mentioned that the play didn’t make Virginia, or the audience, choose between Virginia’s love for Leonard and her love for Vita. Virginia loved them equally, but differently. At the Q & A after the show, one of the speakers (probably Dr. Fernald) mentioned that Leonard is probably the reason why Virginia lived for as long as she did. This doesn’t discredit her relationship with Vita who, in the play, seemed to bring out a different side of Virginia—one that was more carefree, but also more reckless.

"Virginia" was a beautiful way to honor Woolf’s birth, and to shed some light on the complexities of Woolf’s life and loves. It gave me a fuller appreciation of Woolf, but also made me desperate to get inside her head, to read all her diaries and letters and novels and to know as much as possible, to get the entire story. I look forward to the day when "Virginia" is made into a full production and I can experience the play in its full glory.

The Flame and the Flower

Fresh off her morning shopping jaunt through the streets of London, Clarissa Dalloway returns home to further prepare for her party. She scales the stairs of her home and makes her way up to the room of her own for her afternoon nap. Woolf describes her ascent and consequent restlessness:

“Like a nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower, she
went upstairs,paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There
was the green linoleum and a tap dripping. There was
an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room. Women must
put off their rich apparel. At midday they must disrobe…” (31).

Woolf chooses to describe Clarissa as retreating to her attic room as a nun would to her cloister. It seems to be a perfectly appropriate comparison for our rigid and prim heroine as we are able to imagine her reverently roaming the corridors and stairwells of the Dalloway estate. Then, Woolf throws the reader a curve-ball as she goes on to further compare the protagonist to a “child exploring a tower.” This simile seems to be the anti-thesis of the first. The mention of the exploring child evokes a sense of lighthearted deviance and mischief. The child exploring the tower embraces his or her curiosity; he or she indulges the urge to discover something previously unknown. Dissimilar to the child, the image of the withdrawing nun suggests repression of irreverent impulses and obedience to convention. To liken Clarissa to both is to illustrate her central conflict, her struggle with the duality of her personality. The reader gets the sense of her constant struggle to compromise her inner desires with her outward appearance.
While the adventurous child and the quiet nun are wildly different in their behavior, they share the unifying characteristic of intact virtue. Both battling sides of Clarissa are represented as virginal and sexually innocent. Woolf goes on to describe Clarissa’s late morning nap: “So the room was an attic; the bed narrow; and lying there reading, for she slept badly, she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet” (31). Mrs. Dalloway lays on her “narrow” bed tossing, turning, and ruminating about her sexual dissatisfaction. She struggles to kick off the claustrophobia of the virtue that she believes clung to her long after she left the marriage-bed.
As she has a daughter, Mrs. Dalloway is most certainly not a virgin; however, it is likely that while she physically let go of her virginity, she feels emotionally unfulfilled by her previous sexual experiences with Richard. She goes on to think about her long-ago relationship with the wild and sassy Sally Seton and has a sudden “illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed.” Is the enlightened vision of the fiery perennial Clarissa’s way of vividly expressing her lesbianism in terms that she can fully comprehend with regard to herself? Is it a way of articulating her vague yet passionate feelings towards other women? Is Clarissa truly tormented because of her unfulfilled lesbianism, or is she just generally dissatisfied with her life as a married woman? After all, she feels the same excitement after her surprise visit with Peter Walsh in her attic room: “she heard a hand upon the door. She made to hide her dress, like a virgin protecting chastity, respecting privacy” (40). When he leaves her, she thinks that if she had married him, she would have been privy to the “gaiety” (47) she felt during their brief meeting everyday. The wide-eyed child and the hushed nun come together on the field of innocence, yet somehow manage to clash on the front of Clarissa’s mind. She is neither, but she remains both. She desires to explore the tower, but she requires her withdrawal into subdued snobbishness.

"Mrs. Dalloway"

Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs.Dalloway” focuses on Mrs.Dalloway’s day as
she prepares to host a party. Mrs.Dalloway is a middle-aged woman who looks back at her youth and romances in this novel set during WWI.

When we read Mrs.Dalloway we can see the effects of WWI with the character Septimus Smith, who suffers from depression. But we can see that high society isn’t as affected by the war as much as others: throwing parties and gossiping.

At the beginning of the book Clarissa sees her old flame Peter on the street and reminisces about their romance. Although she is 52 years-old, she sounds like a giggly teenage girl with a crush when she thinks about him. On page eight it says, “that he had no heart, no brain, nothing but the matters of an English gentleman, that was only her dear Peter at his worst; and he could be intolerable, he could be impossible but adorable to walk with on a morning like this.” This shows that she still has feelings for Peter but also a deep feeling of animosity towards him as well. Clarissa was upset that he married an Indian woman, but she felt sorry for him since he never did any of the things he dreamed of doing. But when she compares her husband with Peter, it’s almost as if she regrets marrying her husband. When it says that she would still find herself arguing with herself in the park over whether or not she did the right thing by not marrying Peter, it’s almost as if she’s having a midlife crisis. Like when a middle-aged man, who is having a midlife crisis, leaves his wife and finds a woman half his age.

In the book Septimus, who suffers from depression, is painted as a mentally-ill, helpless man who needs the constant assistance of his wife. His wife is very loving and helpful. On page 31 it says, “For Dr. Holmes had told her to make her husband (who had nothing seriously the matter with him but was a little out of sorts) take an interest in things outside of himself.” But Septimus did suffer from depression and that is evident when he commits suicide.

The Car

Woolf’s works always leave me with the impression that a path has just been lighted for me. Yet, I am not exactly certain of the path or its end(s). For example, the mysterious car appears to me to be an emptiness and disconnection of the post-WWI society. The people watching the car pass are not certain who is in the car yet their interest is immediately drawn to it. They circulate rumors and begin to revere the car, the imagined passenger, and the relation to the British Empire. Their uncertainty is universal in that no one is certain of the identity of the passenger; “But nobody knew whose face had been seen…Nobody knew.” They, nevertheless, argue about their failing certainties, trying to assert their evidence as greater than that of another’s.

Furthermore, the spectators grasp the empty and intangible to fill the malformed voids that the war crafted. Woolf writes, “passing invisibly, inaudible, like a cloud, swift, veil-like upon the hills…mystery had brushed them with her wing; they had heard the voice of authority; the spirit of religion was abroad with her eyes bandaged tight and her lips gaping wide.” The spectators experienced an irreligious and, perhaps, nonspiritual reverence for their empire. I would equate their reverence with nationalist blind faith or awe. They saw the car as a representation of the British Empire. Perhaps, the Empire is the lasting impression of grandeur, seemingly untouched by the hardships and difficulties of regular life.

However, while the spectators are united in their wonderment and uncertainty they are also divided in their inability to communicate or experience the car passing as a whole. While the mysterious car passes them by with closed blinds, Clarissa and her fellow onlookers are described as straightening themselves. They try to present an image of austerity and “extreme dignity” but stand as disconnected individuals. As I pointed out earlier, everyone has their own ideas as to who might be the passenger and Woolf does not mention that anyone voices any agreement. They only agree that the car is transporting royalty based on fleeting perceptions because few saw the face and they disagree on the sex of the individual, as well as the identity. Clarissa’s knowledge that the car contained British royalty was even based on a guess, “Clarissa guessed; Clarissa knew of course; she had seen something.” Though they could not quite make sense of it, all the spectators felt something. They were all at a standstill and suspended in the moment but not in time. The readers are told, “Clarissa was suspended.” We know that Septimus’s paranoia places him at the center of the event and that the “tall men, men of robust physique, [and] well dressed men” position themselves awkwardly to receive the passing car “for reasons difficult to discriminate.”

Nonetheless, the descriptions transcend the explanations of the moment to capture the conflicting and confusing feelings of the spectators. I interpret the descriptions of the spectators reverence and awe as empty tradition, serving only to remind one of the former years of grandeur and current decadence. The reader is given the impression that the whole procession (the straightening and attentiveness) was performed “as their ancestors had done before them.” Also, the car or the Queen as the representation of the British Empire appears as a relic (“the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time”). The car creates a nostalgic haze, “The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple.” It seems to call on better times when the Empire held more global prestige and a better grasp on its imperial endeavors.


"Getting up rather unsteadily, hopping indeed from foot to foot, he considered Mrs. Filmer's nice clean bread knife with "Bread" carved on the handle" (149).

This is easily the most heartbreaking sentence I've ever read. Unlike Bradshaw and Holmes, who never seem to show any humanity or empathy from their high perch, just before Septimus leaps from his, he cannot help but spare Mrs. Filmer's grandmotherly cutlery from sharing his gruesome fate. The contrast here is frightening; these doctors can neither understand nor care about the patient entrusted to them, but the supposed mad man can, in the final seconds of his life, show nothing but compassion for this stranger and concern for affects.

Holmes rushes up the staits, never doubting that he knows best as he pushes Rezia aside and barrels into the room. He never considers that his violent and unwelcome entrance may cause rather than present Septimus' death. He also does a lot of talking, and everything he says is false; he does not "come as a friend", and Septimus is neither "In a funk", nor a "coward". Despite all of his pronouncements, his words contain not a single morsel of truth; rather, after all his speech, he can only say to himself that he has no idea "why the devil [Septimus] did it" (150). Holmes is, thus, either lying to himself or exceptionally stupid.

Unlike the doctors, Septimus and Rezia are able to move throughout the scene and think correctly without speaking; Rezia does not say anything, rather, "she saw; she understood". Septimus does not need to speak, but rather is able to make a series of rational and empathic decisions in the moments before his suicide. Whereas Holmes has nothing but bluster and ignorance, coupled with the need to pronounce his thoughts on the world, Rezia and Septimus' quiet manner allow them insight and agency. By giving up the ability and conquering the need to conquer and colonize with speech, Septimus has gained a greater empathy and agency than the quacks who drive him out the window.

I see signs now all the time*...

When I was a little girl, I thought my mother created the world for me.

She died a few months after my first birthday, so I didn't remember her at all. I relied instead on the stories of my family to know my mother. Perhaps it was a result of their firm Catholic upbringing or maybe it's just what you tell a young child who is missing a parent, but my family taught me to believe that she was in Heaven, looking down from above, still helping me and guiding me, from all the way up in the clouds. I was certain she was an angel and no one corrected me.  

After much deliberation and examination of scholarly texts, namely my children's Bible, I concluded that if my mother was indeed an angel, she could communicate with me, like the angels in the Bible who brought messages to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. So I waited for my mother to appear in a blaze of light and glory, with wings and a halo and a long white robe, with a message for me. But she didn't come and I was puzzled, because I had been so certain she had a lot of things to tell me: about how nice it was living in Heaven, what God was like, whether Jesus still had the holes in his hands and feet, if the angels sang everyday or just on Sundays, how to be good--you know, the things that mothers tell you. 

I remained puzzled until one cool summer night. My father and I had just driven out to the house in Long Island for the weekend--it was dark when we arrived and I was half-asleep. My father pulled me gently out of the car and set me on the driveway. I was too tired to move, so I just stood there and looked at the stars and then it hit me. "Daddy," I said, "Daddy, look at the stars. Mommy put them there for me. She made the stars like that. She's saying hello." I don't remember what my father said to this, only that he smiled and lifted me up so I could get a better look.  

From that point on, I was convinced that my mother left unspoken messages for me, hidden in the fabric of everyday life. To other people, they were ordinary things, but to me, they were extraordinary. Only I knew that the bird that sang outside my window in the early morning was a song from my mother. Only I knew that my mother communicating with me by the way the world smelled after the first April rain. Only I knew that the warm sunlight which fell through the trees was her way of embracing me. Only I knew that her bright orange tiger lilies against our white picket fence meant something more. I realized that my mother left signs for me everywhere, in everything. I just had to see them. 

I don't remember when I outgrew this way of thinking, when I stopped living in a world where everything was loaded with meaning. But I haven't thought about this for a long time. Mrs. Dalloway has reminded me of my convictions about my mother's signs as a little girl. More specifically, Septimus Warren Smith has reminded me of this strange aspect of my childhood, in his lucid insanity, where he interprets everything as a sign:

So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words;  that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intentions to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! (212)**

Septimus notices the extraordinary in the ordinary. Everything is of significance to him, everything has a message which needs to be communicated to the masses. The smoke letters in the sky, an ad for toffee, are beautiful to him, and are signs that promise to "provide him" with more beauty forever. He understands the meaning behind the smoke letters, even though he can't read the language yet (whether this is in reference to the fact that the smoke letters have not finished spelling out the word "toffee" yet or whether Septimus simply believes it is written in a language he cannot understand I do not know)--he sees significance in them that the sane people around him don't. They are too busy straining to spell out the word, instead of "looking merely" like Septimus, who perceives he understands "their intentions."

In his altered mental state, Septimus experiences revelations, which he notes "on the back of envelopes" (215). These revelations include, "Men must not cut down trees. There is a God...Change the world. No one kills from hatred. Make it known," (215). Septimus hears messages from singing birds, he sees the wickedness of people by simply walking past them in the street, he learns profound truths by the voices rustling above his head. The world of Septimus Warren Smith is a world where everything is charged with meaning; it is the world of the insane. He sees signs and messages and profound truths in the mundane. 

As we discussed in class, Mrs. Dalloway examines how people who never meet can be connected and have the same thoughts--but at the same time, Septimus Smith is a testament to the fact that people can look at the same world and come away with vastly different conclusions. What his wife sees as a toffee ad, Septimus sees as a promise of enduring beauty. Mrs Dalloway offers a world viewed from the sane and the insane, juxtaposes and contrasts these two points of view. 

I for one, find the world of Septimus Warren Smith to be a good deal more beautiful than that of Mrs. Dalloway's, of Peter Walsh's--a good deal more beautiful and a good deal more terrifying. Being able to see signs in the most prosaic things, in ordinary nature, lends an air of purpose to the often random universe we seem to inhabit; yes, you can find truth in this world, if only you'd sit and listen. 

Yes, you can find truth, beauty, messages from lost mothers, and meaning, if only you'd sit and listen. If only you'd sit and look. 

*The title of this blog is taken from a line in the Bloc Party song "Signs"
**Professor Fernald, this quote absolutely refuses to be block-quoted--it won't stay tabbed, so I bolded it out of desperation. 

"...this question of love... this falling in love with women."

As I watched the staged reading of, Virginia, the portrayal of Woolf’s relationship with Vita reminded me of the love between Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton. I believe that in this instance of, Mrs Dalloway, Woolf’s voice is most clearly heard, as she, herself, experienced a relationship quite similar to the relationship of Sally and Clarissa. It was through the performances that I could grasp the importance of Vita’s and Virginia’s relationship, that I could further understand that, “something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together.(34)”

Undoubtedly, the fictional relationship between Clarissa and her friend, and Woolf’s love affair have their differences. One might assume that Woolf’s real life affair was more sexual, that Clarissa’s and Sally’s relationship was hardly an affair. Still, in the play, Virginia, there was certainly allusion and ambiguity when portraying the relationship. Were they sexual lovers? Were they simply very close friends? I found the same allusion in the descriptions of Sally and Clarissa’s relationship. When the moment finally comes along, when, “Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips,” the women are interrupted by Peter. It’s unclear whether or not this is the most it comes to. We can make our own conclusions about what these relationships consisted of, but none the less, this love for Vita, for another woman, is imbedded in Woolf's writing, and therefore could certainly be the inspiration for the relationship between Clarissa and Sally.

The brilliant portrayals of Virginia and Vita revealed Virginia as more timid around Vita, certainly in awe of Vita, possibly even more attached than Vita was to Virginia. Woolf writes, “…all that evening she could not take her eyes off of Sally.(35)” While reading, I could not help but imagine Woolf in the same position, surrounded by potential husbands, and pressures, and expectations, and oddly not being able to take her eyes off of a woman. In the play, Vita was portrayed as more flirtatious than Virginia, who seemed less in control of herself when Vita was around. In these moments, Virginia didn’t argue, didn’t quarrel. Instead, she blushed and seemed incredibly affected by Vita. With this said, Vita seems similar to Sally, who’s, “power was amazing, her gift, her personality.” Additionally, in, Virginia, Leonard is shown acting jealously, at one moment telling Vita to stay away from Virginia- that Virginia is ill and Vita is not helping. Vita is insulted and says that he can not take Virginia away from her. We find this jealously of a man when Peter interrupts Clarissa’s and Sally’s moment alone. Woolf writes, “She felt not only how Sally was being mauled already, maltreated; she felt his hostility; his jealousy; his determination to break into their companionship. (39)”

It seems plausible that, “this question of love… this falling in love with women” is found in Mrs. Dalloway because of Woolf’s own experiences, her own questioning (35). Clarissa’s love for Sally sprung from a deep connection, wildly different from the attraction of a man to a woman; instead this love is based upon “purity… integrity”, “a quality which could only exist between women, between women just grown up”, and we can assume this is how her own love affair began as well (37). These moments where Woolf describes Clarissa’s love for Sally seem especially genuine, especially personal, as her love for Vita was undeniably strong and influential. “Had not that, after all, been love?”

Synchronicity is Not a Coincidence

“They always had the queer power of communicating without words. She knew directly he criticized her. Then she would do something quite obvious to defend herself, like this fuss with the dog—but it never took him in, he always saw through Clarissa. Not that he said anything, of course; just sat looking glum. It was the way their quarrels often began” (60).

Woolf focuses a large part of her literary endeavor in Mrs. Dalloway on describing the mental states of her characters. In order to convey how deeply World War I has wounded humanity's collective consciousness, its understanding of itself and of morality, she details what occurs in her characters' minds, as much as in their worlds. (Indeed, it is interesting to count the instances of the word “thought" on a single page, especially in Peter's passages.) However, Woolf often emphasizes a particular element of these descriptions-- the instances when characters seem to telepathically share a thought or mental perception. In these moments, it is almost as if the characters have a sort of supernatural power, like Darl in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, who sees in his mind events that occur in distant places. I initially thought of two terms to describe this phenomenon: coincidence, and synchronicity. I then realized that the two words that had chosen me were opposites, rather than synonyms. Does Woolf simply mean to emphasize the characters' similarities, or even suggest that this is a commonplace and unremarkable occurrence (coincidence), or does she mean to write that these thoughts occur in the characters experiencing them as a result of the same external forces acting upon them (synchronicity)? Woolf confirms that she undoubtedly intends the latter.

Woolf extends this synchronicity to the characters' interactions. As she writes of Clarissa and Peter, "They always had this queer power of communicating without words" (60). In the midst of Woolf's challenging prose, this device almost seems to serve as an apology for the novel's lack of dialogue. More importantly, though, Woolf communicates that the characters are able to convey their feelings to one another, to determine whether to be empathetic or not, through the force of sharing a mental wavelength. This is a very unusual form of action for novels, even modernist novels, which usually develop relationships using dialogue and/or action, rather than description. "She knew directly he criticized her," and "He always saw through Clarissa" (60). Woolf emphasizes the characters' different points of view, but uses vague verbs to indicate that Clarissa and Peter have a common understanding—they share a discourse that exists outside of language. Woolf does not explain how Clarissa knew this, “directly.” Does Peter say it to her directly?

Woolf writes of Clarissa, "Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct" (4). Similarly, in Peter's passages, Woolf builds a character with an extraordinarily keen sense of perception, who deconstructs the social pretenses of Clarissa's world with aplomb. Septimus, too, shares in this heightened sensitivity, perceiving "inexhaustible charity" in a toffee advertisement (22). Though his observation seems to be a humorous aberration of the theme, Woolf nonetheless uses it for the same higher purpose-- to convey that this is a shared "power," a shared experience—at least it is so between the characters Woolf cares about.

However, Woolf includes an ominous detail about Septimus that makes this power seem more like a curse than a gift--"He had fought," she writes, "he was brave" (23). Similarly, when Peter pursues a woman in the streets, she seems to whisper, calling him "You," a "private name," which was formerly limited to "his own thoughts" (53). And so, as in As I Lay Dying, with this hypersensitivity comes an increased susceptibility to mental corruption, to obsessive compulsive tics and sublimations like Clarissa’s fussing with the dog, and indeed to mental illness. Woolf's synchronicities have endless significance, but at their core, perhaps, is a human psyche disturbed by something which we might now call post-traumatic stress disorder, except in this case on a grand, civilizational scale.

There's a War On

Being young in a dynamic city with days full of things to do, I rarely stop and read the front section of the Times from cover to cover anymore, something I used to enjoy every morning in high school.  Even worse, I sometimes forget that our country is at war.  

One evening last spring, as I was making my way home for Easter, I decided to pick up an issue of Rolling Stone to occupy me as my flight out of JFK was delayed.  I stumbled upon Jenny Eliscu's piece entitled "The Troubled Homecoming of the Marlboro Marine."  Before then, I followed the war as it was developing in Iraq, but I hadn't contemplated things like Stop Loss or PTSD.  I became quite angry as I read the story of Blake Miller, a man who has become something of an icon for striking up a cigarette during a brief respite at the battle of Fallujah.  The distant, forlorn look in Miller's eyes, Eliscu writes, has been misconstrued by the American public as a triumphant gaze.  Miller came home burdened by what he was forced to do in Iraq, and he now occupies his time in a motorcycle club, drinking, and smoking packs of cigarettes a day, having given up on his counseling for PTSD.

As I read Woolf's portrayal of the shell-shocked Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, I was reminded of the Marlboro Marine.  Although Miller has to deal with the red tape of the VA, I suppose he is fortunate that he has some means of obtaining medication or therapy.  This isn't the case for Septimus.  In my reading, I found an oscillation in the narrator's depiction of the relationship between Septimus and Lucrezia, which I do not believe is sympathetic to Septimus' plight.  He comes across as insane, though "Dr. Holmes said there was nothing the matter with him," while Lucrezia's melancholy in England seems justified because of his psychosis (65).

"Every one has friends who were killed in the war.  Every one gives up something when they marry.  She had given up her home.  She had come to live here, in this awful city.  But Septimus let himself think about horrible things, as she could too, if she tried.  He had grown stranger and stranger."

This passage illustrates the lack of understanding of the emotional burdens that soldiers carry.  To Lucrezia, Septimus "let himself" be haunted by the memory of the war, and of his dead comrade, Evans.  In spite of her Italian heritage, Lucrezia ironically comes across as quite British in her perspective; she is stoic and pragmatic.  It is as if she says to Septimus, "Buck up.  This is an ordeal we've all been through."  She too could "think about horrible things," but she knows that this mindset is fruitless.  Perhaps this is why she finds Septimus odd; in her view, he freely gives himself over to his delusions.

I don't blame Lucrezia for her view of Septimus.  In fact, because she experienced the war as closely as he did, I see her as strong, courageous, and admirable.  Her feeling of "suffering" is justified, I think, by her ignorance of the real psychological trauma in her husband (64).  Yet, because of the times in which we live, I couldn't help but read Septimus in a more sympathetic light, not "strange," but damaged.  His delusions are understandable and heartbreaking.  The fictional Septimus, or the real-life Blake Miller ought to remind us that, for those involved, a war doesn't really end with a ceasefire.       


The Hours & Mrs. Dalloway

I have read Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" many times and its treatment of "Mrs. Dalloway" was one of the reasons that I took this class in the first place. While I have head Mrs. Dalloway before, it was a long time ago and I'm realizing now, as I re-read it, all the different ways that Cunningham reinvented and utilized Woolf's text for his own book. Since it has been so long since I read Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," the characters and plot lines of "The Hours" had become much realer for me, however, in re-reading it, it's been extremely interesting to see the different ways that Cunningham interpreted certain characters, and if that really made a difference in the way the story is told.

The main characters that Cunningham borrows for his own book are, of course, a revised Clarissa (a lesbian in a long term relationship with Sally) , Richard (a gay novelist with whom Clarissa was once in love and constantly alludes back to), and Peter (both Clarissa and Richard's ex-lover, named Louis in the book). These three characters, who Cunningham also follows throughout a day that ends in a party, echo Woolf's melancholy for Clarissa's past, the complex relationships that exist between them and their own unhappiness with the way things have turned out. While the relationships are clouded and mismatched in Cunningham's novel, he retains Woolf's message through Clarissa and her ex-lovers, and just switches up the players a little bit. He sets Clarissa up with Sally instead, a relationship that Woolf implied, while retaining the weight of her past relationship with Richard, the same way that Woolf's Clarissa cannot ignore her past with Peter. Peter (Louis), who despite being essentially replaced by Richard in Cunningham's novel as Clarissa's great past love, is consistent in his relationship with Clarissa. Though he is no longer cast as someone she once really loved, he is a reminder to her of a happier time, as well as someone that causes her to sharply criticize and herself and her lifestyle.

The changes in Woolf's original work to Cunningham's is not limited to these three main characters. In fact, Septimus, a main character for Woolf, is never mentioned in "The Hours." However, he is not entirely dismissed as his suicide technique is re-used by Cunningham for one of his own characters in "The Hours." Similarly, while Elizabeth is fought over between her mother and her teacher in Woolf's version, Cunningham's Clarissa also battles for influence of her daughter, Julia, with Julia's older and overbearing girlfriend.

Therefore, while Cunningham has, in my opinion, created a successful and revised version of Mrs. Dalloway for a modern audience, the changes he made were simply on the surface. His work is adapted to a different time and a different set of readers, as well as to the role it plays with the other two stories in "The Hours." However, despite all the seemingly drastic changes between Woolf and Cunningham's interpretation of Woolf, many of the general themes remain the same. The story is still about a women unhappy in the life she is leading and living, essentially, haunted by the people of her past. Her relationships with her daughter and her lovers, present or past, still evoke a certain sadness from the reader and a compassion for Clarissa Dalloway/Vaughn. Therefore, though my re-introduction to Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" was, at first, a little overwhelming due to what seemed to be some fairly big changes done on the part of Cunningham in "The Hours," when both stories are looked at more closely it is clear that Woolf's voice is still the one telling the story.--Kathleen Kane

[How can I explain why I love you so?]

[Sally] came into a room; she stood, as he had often seen her, in a doorway with lots of people round her. But it was Clarissa one remembered. Not that she was striking; not beautiful at all; there was nothing picturesque about her; she never said anything specially clever; there she was, however; there she was.

Just look at how long that last sentence is—that last justification. Peter Walsh is, and always will be, it seems, a little bit in love with Clarissa. He cannot explain it; when he tries to, he fails to find anything that stands out about her. In comparison to Sally she is, allegedly, plain in every way. Sally immediately attracts and maintains everyone’s attention, but Clarissa is seared into Peter Walsh’s memory. And there she was.

For some reason the lyrics of an unpublished Sherman brothers (composers of many a hit tune) song just popped into my head:

The winter snow

Only hides the flowers below

Every face and every day place conceals

The beauty in reveals

Through the eyes of love

Reading on in Mrs. Dalloway, I found that Clarissa and Peter had so much in common in regards to their world outlook; their literal way of looking at the world. They see the beauty underneath. In the beginning of the day, Clarissa is so taken with the beauty of her city awaking. And walking around in the afternoon, Peter goes so far as to muse that he “scarcely needed people any more. Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun…was enough.” And yet they are captivated by each other.

Clarissa may very well be as plain as Peter makes her out to be. (And his insistence on her plainness is all the more intriguing, as he can’t stop loving her and thinking of her, as he tries to explain his feelings away.)

……maybe that’s it, then.

Either everything is extraordinary, or nothing needs to be in order to capture one’s heart. We assign meaning to things, to places, people, events, smells, sounds, memories. OR… being open to everything, the most ordinary time or place or person can completely overwhelm your senses, your memory, your heart.

Without any outward sign. It’s the (nearly) imperceptible underneath of things that you can hear buzzing when you stop and listen………..

There she was.

Nothing cool ever happens in MY basement... (A Review of "Virginia")

Yesterday, I traveled down to The Drama Book Shop on 40th Street without any idea of what to expect from a staged reading of “Virginia.” What I saw was a small theatre, three chairs, and three people; what I experienced was something entirely amazing.
In a small space inside the basement of a book shop, I watched three talented actors (not to mention one awesome English professor) bring Virginia Woolf to life on her 127th birthday. Because there was no use of props or scenery, everything was stripped down to just the words, the actors, and the audience. For me, this made the experience particularly special because I had never gone to a staged reading before. I was impressed by the talent of the actors, because they unfailingly held my attention and created Woolf’s world for me with just their voices and actions. Two of the actors played multiple roles, but it was never confusing; it was easy to follow the transformation into each individual character.
What I found to be most intriguing about the event was that it made Virginia Woolf a real person in my mind. She isn’t just a dead literary genius, separate and apart from us, only to be found within the pages of her novels. I got the feeling that Virginia Woolf was just like me (granted, a more intelligent, worldly, and impressive version of me) and the people sitting next to me because we share the commonality of being human; of making mistakes and getting disappointed and feeling insecure. During the Q&A session, the topic of Woolf’s sexuality was brought up because—to borrow a phrase from Professor Fernald—there was “no vote taken” in terms of whether Woolf was a straight woman or a lesbian within the context of the play. Rather, she was just a person who loved different people for different reasons, and neither love was dishonoring another. This complication is not unique to Virginia Woolf—but to the people in her life as well, like Leonard Woolf. Well...I mean in the sense that he was a complex person too, not that he was possibly a lesbian.
What I mean to say is that people can argue over whether Virginia Woolf was heterosexual, or whether Leonard was a disciplinarian, or whether Woolf’s father was a cold, unfeeling Victorian. But essentially, what “Virginia” shows is that every person can seem one way, and just when you think you have them figured out they can change completely—perhaps within a single line of speech. When watching the performance, there were times when Woolf seemed absolutely crazy, but then she could have a conversation that made absolute sense; Leonard could seem like a bit of a control freak, but there were many instances where he proved to be a very nurturing person; Vita seemed not to have a care in the world and in turn, not to care about anyone, but it is evident from the end of her relationship with Virginia Woolf that Vita loved her and needed her.
This kind of complexity is found within all people, and the fact that we share this can serve to unite the brilliant writer with the common readers.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Freshwater at The Women's Project

You can see a video preview of Woolf's play here, thanks to a report on NY1.

Clearly--blessedly--Anne Bogart got the message that "Freshwater" is meant to be funny!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cue the Garden

In Virginia Woolf’s, “Kew Gardens,” the narrator immediately drops the reader onto a stage of oval-shaped flowerbeds, only to realize he or she will be leaving the flowerbed shortly, perhaps blithely unaware he or she will return. The reader never leaves the scene that Woolf has written; still, he or she is in constant movement from that flowerbed forward.

In order to do this, Woolf plays upon the transfer of energy: between characters, in the flow of the short story itself, or in a single descriptive word. She uses concise sentences to remind the reader that the energy is just palpitating, waiting to disperse. The narrator notes, “All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew […] the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe [italics mine]”.

She uses the transfer of energy to change perspective throughout the piece; a flick of the umbrella or a passing dragonfly are used as guiding suggestions, telling the reader, let’s look down here right now:

“Pressed the end of her parasol deep down in the soft earth.” (And the mind goes down with the umbrella.)

Or we leave the grounded, earthly perspective of the soft brown earth for the life outside the flowerbed, though by using light, Woolf writes them as connected. The reader receives a signal that something interesting may be circulating in the mind of that gentleman up there; let’s leave the snail for a bit. Moreover, because of this transfer of energy, the landscape is taken in through multiple gazes, not just the one passerby, the snail, or the narrator. The transfer of energy also allows for the displacement of emotion, which is marked by the gentleman whose focus changes from person to object and object to person. Although there is something jolting about this zoom in and out effect, it is written in a way that there is nothing jarring about it.

Woolf brings us to a natural place, but reminders of the urban environment make their way into the piece, especially toward the end. These reminders manage to disrupt a peaceful world that caters to unpeaceful thoughts, something that readily occurs in city life:

“And in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul.”

On "How Should One Read a Book?"

In “How One Should Read a Book” Virginia Wolf talks about how she views reading a book as a personal experience for everyone. She views reading as a thing of liberty and freedom, where you can escape and not be bothered by what everyone else thinks. I think Woolf’s feelings about reading influenced her writing: she wrote whatever she wanted and never censored her thoughts. She also wants to change the way we see certain literature: we see fiction as mere amusement and poetry as false. She describes poetry and biography extensively and uses examples from other writers. This reading is teaching us, what Woolf thinks, is the proper way to read a book. But she believes that even if we read something a hundred times we will never be able to truly criticize or understand it, because literature is so deep and profound.

In the first paragraph Woolf says, “the only advice indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” I think she is trying to say that no one views and imagines a book the same way. We don’t even imagine a book the way the writer intended us to. So maybe in a way we are also the writers since we come up with our own conclusions. It’s like when a book becomes a movie: the director shows the way that he viewed the book, he may even change certain events and characters for the movie. The writer may argue against this but they can do nothing about it, since the director has made it his own. She also argues that one cannot truly say that one book is better than another. “Romeo and Juliet” may be viewed as one of the greatest books of all time, but to whom? We all see it a certain way and Shakespeare certainly isn’t around to discuss it with us.

I also found it ironic that Woolf is saying that we shouldn’t be told how to read a book since it takes away our freedom, but later on she is telling us how we should read a book. She tells us not to dictate the author but to try and become him. I think she is trying to say that we shouldn’t say, “Why would the character do that? I would’ve made them do so and so.” We should respect the author’s choice and try to understand why they wrote that. She also thinks that takes away from us truly enjoying the novel. She thinks that when we read we are in a different world, and when we read we shouldn’t let things from our current world influence the way we are seeing the book. It also seems like Woolf is questioning the intelligence of the readers. She seems to believe that one must be an intellectual and college-educated person in order to fully appreciate a book. I don’t agree with her, if a five-year old can read ,they can enjoy and appreciate a book. Maybe even more so than an adult, since their imagination is less limited.

I think the end of the essay shows how much Virginia Woolf loved and valued reading. She looks at it as a kind of holy thing that will get you into Heaven. She thinks that the people with books under their arms will get into Heaven, before the lawyers and the statesmen. She thinks that we not only read for pleasure but because it is a good thing to do. Woolf is right, I don’t think she’s right about reading getting us into Heaven, but about it being a good thing to do. Reading strengthens and influences the mind.--Baha Awadallah

Monday, January 19, 2009

Wordless Voices

While the setting of Virginia’s, “Kew Gardens” is that of lush beauty, her narrator- who lives within the minds of every character we meet, every passing stranger, woman, man , or even snail- reveals the dissatisfaction that settles quietly, or in some cases, noisily in the thoughts of each mind. I found, while reading, the theme of the past, the struggling with the present, the desire to relive the past, as the present has become dull, monotonous, and they have become like robots.

Some of these robots, like the first man and women, whose conversation we overhear, are stuck on repeat, and I found desperation in their voices. Virginia also keeps a kind of ambiguity or mystery about these two characters, as their relationship isn’t explained. We’re left wondering, “Why is this man telling his wife of his old love, of his Lilly?” If in fact she is his wife, this introduction to the essay is an especially striking and compelling one, the most obvious portrayal of the dissatisfaction of the characters. Both characters seem a bit crazy, a bit mad, as they frantically talk of their past loves. When I read the woman’s response to her possible husband’s ranting of Lilly, I wasn’t surprised at her odd, panicky response. Of course, she is a bit insane if her husband continuously speaks of Lilly. His walking ahead of her also suggests that she is not something he is too proud of, as if he would rather run from her, run to the past, if I may. She, on the other hand, lazily, yet responsibly looks back to the children.

I found many quotes of the characters, as well as of the narrator, to poignantly describe what the piece is about, including the woman’s asking, “…Doesn’t one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees? Aren’t they one’s past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees… one’s happiness, one’s reality?”
Soon we meet the elderly man who, “talked almost incessantly; he smiled to himself and again began to talk, as if the smile had been an answer. He was talking about spirits- the spirits of the dead…” This again carries the theme of the past, and while deeming these spirits, “the spirits of the dead,” Virginia implies a deep regret, a sadness.

Parallel with this regret of the characters is a sense of exhaustion with life, of the mundane routine that they’ve settled into. The two elderly women find amusement in the elderly man’s signs of eccentricity or madness. “Then she suggested that they should find a seat and have their tea.” Virginia’s language is so simple at times, but also so revealing, so telling. Here, I found this feeling of boredom, of tiredness. Later, a conversation between a young couple is, “in toneless and monotonous voices,” and it seems in this relationship, the woman wants to be excited about something, wants her companion to be excited, passionate perhaps.

Soon after, another quote resonated in me as it seemed to summarize the story. The young woman’s hopeless desires are described as, “wishing to go down there and then down there, remembering orchids and cranes among wild flowers, a Chinese pagoda and a crimson-crested bird; but he bore her on.”

In this story, Virginia brilliantly and beautifully reveals the common loss of excitement, of luster in one’s life, in one’s relationships, and the failing solution of looking back towards the past, going through the present almost completely numbly.

Being an English Major Is Getting in the Way of My Reading

I have a confession to make: While I love to read, I do not always like to study literature (pronounced "lit-tra-tuure" by those few pretentious dons who wear pipes and mustaches).

I am jealous of those people who Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson call "common reader[s]." He or she, being "worse educated," is not bound by the same "literary prejudices" that have been taught to me over and over again for the past four years at university.

For instance, there are times when I read a particular part of a novel, verse, or story and I cannot wait to explore the beauty of it in class. However, upon arriving to class, I am informed that the professor is only interested in discussing theory and its applications to the work. I am horrified when faced with the perversity of this practice. Before my very eyes, as if with an iron pole, a passage, line or word is sufficiently beaten and rendered near-death. Unable to wriggle away or defend itself, I want to scream on its behalf, but I am unable to because I am drowning in theory terms- supplement, deconstruction and ideology.

For the sake of my own sanity, it helps to acquiesce to the common reader still stubbornly holding on within me. I often entertain the idea of cheating on my school books (sometimes with three or four books at a time). During class, I am prone to anticipate the last day of the term when I can look forward to a holiday of reading. Mostly though, I dream about when I will get another opportunity to visit those marvelous places "to humble to be called libraries" and simply pick a book on a whim. I long for the freedom to be, as Woolf describes, "hasty, inaccurate and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it..."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On Fascination with the Ordinary and the Curse of Reading Between the Lines

As a Joyce fan, any mention of Joyce is bound to grab my attention and Woolf's mention of Ulysses in "The Pastons and Chaucer" did exactly that. However, the context to the mention rather surprised me: "Nor can we believe, with Mr. Joyce's Ulysses before us, that laughter of the old kind will ever be heard again," (p.15). Wow. That statement, regardless if the laughter that Woolf is alluding to is tasteless or moral, declares that Ulysses could be the definitive end to any sort of continuation of Chaucer's humor. It also emphasizes that Ulysses, and, thus, much of modernist literature, is too self-conscious to treat life realistically and approach humor in a natural way. Being an animated reader, this surprised me so much that I physically frowned and pouted.

I can think of numerous instances in Ulysses where the mundane and everyday is presented in such a way that most people wouldn't call it self-conscious. Wasn't it Joyce's own mother who, upon receiving one of the few original copies of the first publication of Ulysses, refused to open it due to its profane accounts of gorging on food and (gasp!) details of its digestion? Ulysses is shocking because it presents the everyday with all its natural functions as an Epic. Also, depending on one's sense of humor, it can make you laugh: Bloom, passing by a Church, decides that the Latin inscription "INRI" is an English acronym for "Iron Nails Ran In."

However, I have to admit that Woolf is right.

All of Joyce's accounts of the everyday do not exist as they are. Rather they are metaphors or integral parts to some larger metaphor; Ulysses, in itself, is an allusion to the Odyssey, which about as far from human reality as literary prototype can get.

To Chaucer, a bar maid is a bar maid. Perhaps she goes to church everyday, perhaps she is promiscuous, but Chaucer's bar maid is definitely not some device inserted into a literary work to represent a Siren. Chaucer is considered the father of vernacular literature and "The Canterbury Tales," along with the Bible, were illuminated with gold thread, yet he definitely did not shy away from blunt potty humor. A friend of mine who recently took a Chaucer class dedicated his final paper to an analysis of flatulence as key plot-changing device. Perhaps it wasn’t the most profound topic but he managed to write ten pages on it and earn an "A-."

Woolf, fascinated with people's ordinary and mundane habits, sees a truth in Chaucer's work that modernist experimentations do not capture. Instead, one must read in-between the lines to see that a rustle of bushes and a disapproving glance from a priest are meant to allude to copulation. Perhaps implied humor and witty allusions actually distance a writer from reality. Perhaps some writers want to distance themselves from their, or any, reality. Woolf, however, does not. She seems to almost long for the ability to write without self-consciousness.

"The Pastons and Chaucer"

I found "The Pastons and Chaucer" fairly baffling and deliciously Woolfian. The title instantly confused me. I could not imagine what the Pastons and Chaucer had to do with each other. After about 7 pages of what I would call historical commentary, she transitions almost seamlessly into literary criticism. It was then that I realized that this essay has the same structure as Woolf's fiction.

She takes a minor detail, Sir John's reading of Chaucer, and uses it as a wormhole, jumping through time to an entirely new subject. On page 11, she leaves Sir John sitting and reading Chaucer while the smoke stings his eyes, and returns to him 9 pages later, exactly as she left him. Meanwhile she explore the merits of the Canterbury Tales. The essay moves through subjects as the mind does, seemingly randomly. It drops a sunject for another only to return to the former. It's only after reflection that the two subjects become relevant to each other. In the second to last paragraph, she points out that Chaucer would have loved the language from the Paston letters and that that sets him apart from the other great British poets.

This point seems so casual and haphazard but is keen and illuminating. It has a far greater effect than it would if it were stated as a thesis at the end of an introductory paragraph. I actually uttered, "whoa," when I read "it is easy to see, from the Paston letters, why Chaucer wrote not Lear or Romeo and Juliet, but the Canterbury Tales." I'm an English major and a history minor and I hardly ever have a visceral reaction to the essays I read on those subjects. I do, however, have a moment of pure joy when I make a discovery in literature. She captures that feeling in this essay. It's structured more like one of her pieces of fiction than like an essay but that just makes it so much cooler.

It's Just Greek to Me

No one knows Greek anymore, at least not the Greek of Euripides, Sophocles and Aristotle. When I was in high school, I remember asking my drama teacher about how ancient Greek worked and how to pronounce it and make words. I came out of the conversation with nothing really cleared up. There remains this vague, semi-pretentious cloud around Greek and Greek culture. And it doesn’t help that it is impossible to translate Greek perfectly into modern English.

Woolf touches on this point, and the case could be made with translation between any two languages, but it only makes it more difficult to do with a language that no one actually speaks anymore. Translation is rife with misinterpretation and miscommunication. That is why “we bruise our minds upon some tremendous metaphor in the Agamemnon instead of stripping the branch of its flower instantly as we do in reading Lear.” (35) One great historical misinterpretation was when during the period when Neo-Classical was the preferred architecture of choice; buildings became flanked with all sorts of white columns and pediments in a testament to the Greek culture that inspired. Little did they know, the Greeks’ buildings were actually painted in a marvelous array of colors and the white color that endured on the Parthenon was only due to the durability over time of the marble versus paint.

Woolf again emphasizes the problem of getting the meaning correct when she says that even the most skillful of scholars cannot translate everything perfectly. She gives the example of the original Greek and a translation, stating simply that they are not equal. (36). Try as we may, the Greek language has many subtleties that do not have English equivalents. Yet, the Greeks have always held an appeal for us that we crave and cannot fully explain. Perhaps it is the same way we cannot fully translate, there is something that we need: the rawness of Euripides’ plays or the cleverness of Plato’s dialogues. The fact that so many of them are still relevant today is only a sign the civilization in which they lived in has endured so well, even if we cannot fully understand or imagine everything as it once was.

Slipping from society to thoughts & Woolf’s “Kew Gardens”

Ok, I must first open this “blog”—the word is unreal to me, it’s not even part of my vocabulary and I won’t own it. Writing a blog and at points posting on forums or boards is odd to me. So, yes, this is a big deal. I will mark it with how I feel Virginia Woolf’s work “Kew Gardens” can reflect the occurrences of my life—perhaps everyone’s life.
Anyway, life has taken a weird change since my nephew has returned to NYC. He is just 6 years old. Among other things, he is vivacious and outwardly social but surprisingly very introverted. He never wants to go to sleep or nap for he says “I want to stay awake for the rest of my life.” ODD!!! Unless you have a complex condition (narcolepsy…), who doesn’t like to sleep?
So … outwardly social but introverted. He can repeat whole episodes of Spongebob or Dora or any of the cartoons he watches when you and he are in the midst of conversation or when he does not feel in the mood to talk to anyone. During these episodes, he is alone with his thoughts and is free to reenact the scenes from the shows. He can mimic the facial expressions and body language, on top of the lines, of the characters. He can retreat into the protection of his thoughts in a flash. He will introduce himself to a stranger, “Hey there, Buddy! My name is ---- What’s up,” pause to portray a feeling of genuine interest, and then undertake a circuitous path of escape from the intruder(s) to reenact his scenes.
Now, that brings me to “Kew Gardens.” I find that in this short story voices and one’s presence are tangible but ethereal. People come and go in the gardens:
[men, women, and children] wavered and sought shade beneath the trees,
dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it
faintly with red and blue […] but their voices went wavering from them as if
they were flames lolling in the thick waxen bodies of candles. Voices, yes,
voices, wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth […]
breaking the silence? But there was no silence […] one within another the city
murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads
of flowers flashed their colours into the air.
Voices emit from waxy husks to dissolve in the air or hang languidly over the city. The snail has “veins” and a clearer and simple aim, which is to cross, but the trotting humans are described with less vigor and likeableness than the snail. The humans imprint a “stain,” a presence that touches the garden but is washed away with time and the colors of nature like the red, blue, or yellow flowers and the penetrable sunlight. The visitors have a dissoluble presence that lingers mostly in their thoughts while transmitting to the outside world as an indistinguishable gesture. The secrets the old man gathers from the flowers as he stoops to listen or the young man’s decision to take tea elsewhere are examples of gestures that remain mysterious to the outside world, to their companions. The humans seem to retreat into nature and away from the “motor omnibuses” and mechanical turns of their city as we retreat, today, into technology, our ipods or iphones or blackberries or TVs and in the case of my nephew, our TV shows. We are constantly escaping the outside world. I listen to my ipod to escape having people talk to me in the train station or boredom because I would rather not converse or be too involved in people’s weird conversations with one another—I also read a book to avoid these things. However, this is my way of escaping for my nephew the preference is to reenact shows and, still yet, other people have other preferences. Right?

Mini mini mini

It wasn't long before Woolf's Kew Gardens brought me to Paris, specifically Paris of 1966 and Jacques Dutronc's song Et moi, et moi, et moi from his self-titled debut album. The song is a response to the self-important windbaggery of mid early 60s lyrics wherein the fate of the universe seems to hang on the outcome of the singer's relationship (or the kind of hubris that would make Simon think the Dragonfly had anything to do with him). Dutronc challenges such an egocentric outlook by putting his problems squarely in the context of the life on the planet as a whole, as in the song's first verse:
Sept cent millions de chinois
Et moi, et moi, et moi
Avec ma vie, mon petit chez moi
Mon mal de tĂȘte, mon psi
J'y pense et puis j'oublie
C'est la vie, c'est la vie"
In English:
Seven hundred million Chinese
And me, and me, and me
With my life, my little home
My headache, my Persian cat
I think about it and then I forget
That’s life, that’s life
Dutronc and Woolf seem to share an idea about how the troubles of individuals fit into the context of the gigantic struggles between major world forces. Dutronc sees how greatly the pains of his headache and the comforts of his cat pale in comparison to the experiences of the "seven hundred million" Chinese. Likewise, Kew Gardens is a story of being dwarfed. The snail and the obstructions in its path are dwarfed by the Garden visitors, who are themselves dwarfed by the "murmur" of the city in which their voices are lost. And, let's not forget, everything in London, the greatest city of the world at the time, was dwarfed by the number of men and women fighting and dying in the Great War; no one in the story seems to realize how small they are as compared to the goings on in the world about them.
Yet, regardless of how small their subjects are, both the short story and the song exist; though minor as compared to the fate of nations, Simon still thinks about the dragonfly and the two elderly women still wonder about Williams and his companion. Jacques Dutronc has a home that shelters him and a life that he has to live. Despite the murmur and the 700 million Chinese, the voices of the individuals, small though they may be, are still worthy of attention and documentation.
Both Dutronc and Woolf feature an ambiguous "it". We're not sure what the "it" is that Dutronc thinks about, nor what the young woman's "it" is that's worth sixpence. And I think the ambiguity and the universality of that humble pronoun is terribly important: no matter what it is, it's worth the time of writer to document, the reader to read, and the person to live. No matter how small the snail's quest may be, it is important to the snail; no matter how intensely private Simon's recollections are, they are worth thinking. The smallness of life leads neither reader to reject its value; for Dutronc, "c'est la vie"; that's just how it goes, and for Woolf, the voices and lives are not subsumed into the din of the city, but rather they find themselves atop the cacophony and "cried aloud [as] the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air".

"Lucky it isn't Friday."

While reading “Kew Gardens,” I could not help but envision The New York Botanical Gardens on the first beautiful Sunday in the late spring that heralds the start of summer. That day of the long-awaited and much-craved balmy temperature marks the time of year when I, like the flowers, come back to life. Like a Lazarus who suffered from January chill, I’m happy (for once) to dust the cobwebs off of my Asics and run across Southern Boulevard to take advantage of the free admission to the garden for exercising Fordham students. Because I hate running with an iPod, I usually evade the tedium and defer the pain of a long run by imaginatively eavesdropping on the other people enjoying the weather by trading the cement stress of the city for the soft, earthen trails of the Botanical Garden. Jogging past them, I am privy to snippets of their discourse; I can hear a word or two of the argument between the old couple, the mother chastising her small child, the lovers making plans. I can synthesize their history and their present from these fragmented syllabic over-hearings.
Exactly what Virginia Woolf meant by “Kew Gardens,” I do not know. By the end of the short work of fiction, which reads more like a painting or a dream, it seems that she means to portray the garden as an isolated oasis, an island whose visitors are allowed melancholy musings of regret and reminiscence amidst the swirling violence of a World War ocean. In a London where residents are forced to constantly face their present plight and look forward to a frightening and uncertain future, Kew Gardens acts as a momentary reprieve. “Voices,” muses Woolf. “Yes voices, wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise; breaking the silence? But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear” (89). Despite the serenity offered to Londoners by strolls in Kew Gardens, they must ultimately, like Woolf’s laboring snail emerges from his shell, leave behind the safety of the garden walls and face whatever uncertainty the reality of the city presents them.
Even while running through the deepest and thickest part of the Botanical Garden, I can still hear reverie-breaking sirens.

Voices and Colors in "Kew Gardens"

What follows may be a rather simplistic analysis of "Kew Gardens"--quite honestly, I am finding it difficult to articulate my thoughts on the piece (this may be due to the fact that I am watching Rome simultaneously and Brutus has just been stabbed a billion times but I KNOW HE COMMITTED SUICIDE, HBO WRITERS, STOP TAKING ARTISTIC LIBERTIES WHERE YOU DON'T NEED THEM) but I do know that I really liked this piece for Woolf's signature stream of consciousness style and her always startlingly clear insights into the human condition. With that said, here we go.

Fittingly, "Kew Gardens" begins and ends with flowers. 

In her opening paragraph, Woolf delineates the  flowers of Kew Gardens intricately and exhaustively: 

    From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into   heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end.

But she closes simply with: "and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air."

Woolf heavily emphasizes the colors of the flowers--in the first paragraph, we see red, blue, yellow, gold--but she also describes their shapes and their surrounding environment. Yet in the end, for all the other details Woolf has given us, the flowers are merely reduced to their colors. This reduction of form of the flowers parallels the reduction of form of the humans in "Kew Gardens."

Like her attention given to the flowers, Woolf  comprehensively sketches the human figures in this story. They are brief sketches, as we jump from conversation to conversation, but they are thorough nonetheless. With the humans, Woolf emphasizes their voices--we learn about them from their dialogue, but we learn more from their "wordless voices" (their thoughts, their actions)-- as she emphasizes the colors of the flowers. Woolf also describes the physical attributes and the environment of the characters, but she concludes with a focus on the voices ("Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices...on top of which the voices cried aloud").

With the conclusion of "Kew Gardens", the humans are reduced to voices and the flowers reduced to colors. Interestingly enough, Woolf uses the vocabulary of human anatomy to describe the flowers, with words such as "heart-shaped," "tongue-shaped," "throat," "flesh." Perhaps then, the flowers can stand as a metaphor for humans--the world as a garden, humans as ephemeral things of the earth--in the end, what are we but voices? What are our voices, our thoughts, but colors which serve to distinguish one individual from another? And in the end, what remains?

*Professor Fernald, my Rome digression is completely relevant because it is a true-life imitation of Woolf's stream of consciousness style: "Kew Gardens" to "difficulty" to "Rome" to "artistic liberties, abuse of" to "Kew Gardens" again, and so forth. I confess to not being able to shake off old blogger habits of going off on a tangent, ranting, rambling, etc.