Monday, January 26, 2009

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.

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