Monday, February 16, 2009

Consumerism: A Necessary Evil....?

So many demands are made on our time today that we often reminisce about the “good ol’ days” when there were no cell phones, computers, or even cars or televisions. Unfortunately, upon closer examination you’ll probably find that that idyllic existence is an illusion; even without such technology, life—or maybe society—demands that one must have a purpose at all times.

“‘Really I must—really I must’—that is it. Without investigating the demand, the mind cringes to the accustomed tyrant. One must, one always must, do something or other; it is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself. Was it not for this reason that, some time ago, we fabricated the excuse, and invented the necessity of buying something? But what was it? Ah, we remember, it was a pencil.”
-“Street Haunting: A London Adventure”

With that, over seven decades ago, Woolf berates the musty old ‘must’ that never tires of plaguing our lives. A pencil seems innocent enough. One might write a long letter, or a postcard, or a novel; or one might write a list of things to do which require our attention. Regardless of purpose, the pencil is needed to propel us outside so we can shirk our other duties for a while.

This is the sad reality, folks. I was in the historic district of Seymour, CT for an appointment at the dentist’s over this past winter break. I was set to meet a friend afterward at the mall, but she was running late due to her mother’s concerns over the icy roads (Read: the roads weren’t making her late; her mother was). At any rate, I had some time to spare and thought it would be lovely to peruse an antique shop or two before heading up to the mall. It was cold and rainy out, so it was doubly lovely to be inside and with all kinds of great vintage jewelry, glassware, and books and such. Since I was killing time, I was poring over various objects for a longer than absolutely necessary. I had a conversation with the shop owner, the only other person in the store, and walked through every aisle. After fifteen minutes, she called out to me, “Found anything?” to which I replied, “Oh! You have so many great things!” Apparently, this would not suffice: “That’s not what I asked,” she said, “What are you buying?” With that, I was suddenly obligated. I couldn’t just take in all the pretty things and go on my way aesthetically satisfied before driving in the winter dreariness for eleven miles to get up to the mall.

So I bought a necklace…..and it was worth it. Not that I had a choice.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Out, damn spot!..Gosh!

I looked up and saw the mark on the wall for the first time…a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece…I’m not sure about it…I might get up but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn’t be able to say for certain (p. 77)…Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail. – p. 83 of "The Mark on the Wall" by Woolf
There are some black specks on the wall. I stare at them, certain they are moving. Well, I ought to be able to ignore a few bugs by this time. ‘Il ne faut pas mettre tout sur le même plan…’
I get up and look closely. Only splashes of dirt. It’s not the time of year for bugs, anyway.
– p.349 of Good Morning, Midnight by Rhys

A few days ago, I found myself in the same plight. While checking my e-mail, commenting on my friends' posts on facebook, organizing some upcoming club events, and researching something on the internet, I was thinking about all the work that I had to do and readings that I had to undertake when I suddenly looked up and saw a spot on the wall. It blended in slightly which made me wonder if it was some kind of spider or dirt or…I don’t know. I knew it was some kind of projection by the way the part that blended into the wall had a dark underlining shadow forming a half moon. Yet, I didn’t know exactly what it was...Long story slightly shortened, it was a nail that had been painted over many times.

I found that Jean Rhys in the excerpt from Good Morning, Midnight that we read for class slightly parallels Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall” but then diverges by the choices that the narrators make to ascertain what the mark is, or in the latter work was. Both narrators, and myself, use the “mark” or “speck on the wall” as a distraction. For Rhys, the “specks on the wall” intrude on her thoughts while she reflects on her friend Sidonie and her perception of Sasha, the narrator. Sidonie seems to orchestrate great influence over Sasha which may not always be what Sasha wants. Sasha says, “She imagines that it’s my atmosphere. God, it’s an insult when you come to think about it! More dark rooms, more red curtains…” (p.349). The thought that Sidonie perceives that this environment suits Sasha offends Sasha. Sasha seems to be trying to escape “the dark rooms” and “red curtains” but Sidonie, who thinks she knows what is best for Sasha, traps her in the very things she is trying to avoid. Sasha seems to indirectly challenge Sidonie when she says, “But one mustn’t put everything on the same plane. That’s her great phrase. And one mustn’t put everybody on the same plane, either” (p.349). Sasha twists Sidonie’s own philosophy against her. She lashes out, “And this is my plane.” Sasha’s words distance her from Sidonie’s control. Yet, Sasha’s distraction, “the specks on the wall,” seems to weaken her resolve. She broadens the distance from these rebellious thoughts by the taking some luminal and going to sleep at once.

On the other hand, the narrator in Woolf’s work approaches the “mark on the wall” differently. The “mark” saves her from an infantile fancy. The narrator says, “Rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted the fancy, for it is an old fancy, an automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps” (p. 77). The narrator chooses more mature and progressive thoughts. The “mark” provokes her thoughts to transcend imagination and histories to the meaning of life. Her cavalcade of thoughts is therapeutic and welcomed. The narrator, enlightened by her deep thoughts, says “I understand Nature’s game—her prompting to take action as a way of ending any thought that threatens to excite or to pain…Still, there’s no harm in putting a full stop to one’s disagreeable thoughts by looking at a mark on the wall.” – p. 82

The narrator of “The Mark on the Wall” seems to be more in control of and willing to face her thoughts than Sasha, whose distraction flashes her from a state of pondering discontent to sleep deprived indifference. Sasha is more willing to face her “specks.” She uses them as an escape plan from her discontent and as a bridge to her luminal. Woolf’s narrator uses the “mark” as a bridge to her thoughts and seeping discontent with oppressive masculine authority. Her thoughts slither in and out of scenes of oppressive males.

From the people who used to live in the house but moved because the man said “they wanted to change their style of furniture” (p. 77) to a ludicrous Shakespeare who had “a shower of ideas that fell perpetually from some very high Heaven down through his mind” (p. 79) to a world where “illegitimate freedom” could spring from the governing “masculine point of view” if “men perhaps, should …be a woman” (p.80) to antiquated, “learned men” whose honor sinks with “dwindling superstitions” (p. 81) and, finally, to a place where men and women sit together and smoke cigarettes after tea, it seems like at the end of the narrative masculine authority is replaced with a semblance of equality where men and women have equal footing and the world blooms in “beauty and [where]health of mind increases” (p.81). Woolf’s narrator utilizes the “mark” to obtain some peace of thought while Sasha’s distraction turns her away from deep thought to mere superficiality and shallow cares, to dirt and bugs.

And my spot? My spot lacked such depth but successfully diverted my attentions and energies to one focus, rather than many.

Friday, February 13, 2009


In “Streethaunting: A London Adventure” Woolf talks about how much she enjoys browsing the streets in the wintertime. She says that streethaunting in winter is the “greatest of adventures” and states many reasons why. When Woolf streethaunts it’s a very relaxing and almost spiritual thing. When I walk the streets I don’t think like Woolf does: she notices almost everything. Including all of the things that people are doing, which I think that most people wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to. When she talks she seems almost like Mrs.Dalloway since she is noticing and remembering everything as she walks down the street. She also has that nosy, curious quality that Mrs.Dalloway has.

In the second paragraph, Woolf gives us the best time to streethaunt. “The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful,” she says. She also says that we aren’t longing to get shade and air like we do in the summer, so that makes it more enjoyable. I don’t agree with her: in the winter I like to stay in the house, bundled up in bed with cocoa. I also think that in the winter other people like to stay home as well, so the streets aren’t as interesting. But she thinks the streets are beautiful in winter and talks about the interesting characters she comes upon while streethaunting. “The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks,” she says. I think this means that we shouldn’t look for interesting things we should just let them come to us.

When Woolf asks the woman what it’s like to be a dwarf, it seems very mean and rude of her. But she seems to almost admire the woman. She talks about how she held her foot out and it was normal-sized. “At length, the pair was chosen and, as she walked out between her guardians, with the parcel swinging from her finger, the ecstasy faded, knowledge returned, the old peevishness, the old apology came back, and by the time she had reached the street again she had become a dwarf only,” Woolf says. This seems like Woolf is saying that we judge a dwarf when we see them walk down the street. But if we get to know them and see who they are we wont see them as just a dwarf.

Woolf also talks about the excitement of entering into a new room. I think her excitement of entering into a new room is the excitement that we get when entering into a new country. “It is always an adventure to enter a new room for the lives and characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and directly we enter it we breast some new wave of emotion,” Woolf says. I think she means that we don’t only get these things by the people that are in the room, we also get it by the way the room looks and the objects in it. Streethaunting to her isn’t just walking on the street, it’s walking into shops and observing people.--Baha


I was happy as a clam to be sitting in the Julia Miles Theater and staring at a multicolored, patchwork curtain on a school night. I had no idea what Freshwater was about, but the summer sounds that filled the theater seemed promising and I like Woolf quite a bit. I thought, “I won’t understand it but I’ll probably like it.” This seemed to be confirmed when the characters were introduced and the only name that even wrung a bell was Tennyson. But I got that all the characters, except one, were artsy types and it turned out that that was all I needed to get. I knew that the play was written for the Bloomsburies, one artsy group, to make fun of the old Victorian artsy group; a younger generation making fun of the older. It’s a timeless situation and from it, you can easily anticipate the nature of the comedy.

The set looked like something that would be in the White Box at Fordham. It was a drawing-room/garden with a couple of oddly placed doors and ladders. The floor and lower half of the whitewashed walls were streaked with bold, seemingly hastily painted strokes of bright green paint—grass. It seemed to say, we are not in the realm of the ordinary—yikes. But I had read too much into it. Megan Carter, the dramaturg, explained later that there had been disagreement over whether to set the play in a garden or in a house. Set designer, James Schuette, surprised everyone with a combination of the two. The play is a farce and the set was farcical—perfect.

Naturally, I did not get every joke and reference, but I got enough of them (and enough bare butt) to laugh regularly. I also understood the plotline of Ellen Terry, the de facto hero of the play. She is constantly posing for abstract virtues in her husband’s paintings. Her husband, George Frederick Watts, keeps imploring that she be glad to be immortalized as Beauty, Grace, Modesty, or what have you, but she feels trapped by her beauty and trapped by art. In the end, she escapes with a strapping young sailor who kisses her instead of paints her. She made me think of Elizabeth in Mrs. Dalloway. Just when Elizabeth is “blooming” and starting to be noticed for her beauty, she longs to be in the country with her dad and her dogs. One of her captors is Ms. Kilman, who traps Elizabeth with lectures. Elizabeth escapes by taking off like a pirate on a city bus. Pirate… sailor… just pointing it out. What’s so interesting is that the confining nature of beauty still pervades; the drawing room play is still relevant (one of the many reasons why it was so wonderful to hear the Sex Pistols blaring at the end). Though, I don’t think that city buses or affairs with sailors are the best escapes from beauty’s shackles. Piracy is the only answer?

One last point: I disagree with my classmate that Ellen Terry was cast too old. The play was meant to be performed by a group of friends. When I was 5 years old and putting on plays with my friends and family, I played Friar Tuck, a part for which I was too young, female, and way too cute. The actors in Freshwater were playing the Bloomsburies putting on a play not unlike my backyard performance of Robin Hood. It seemed completely appropriate and much more realistic that the actors were not physically ideal for the roles.

“Fun and illuminating. Two thumbs way up.”—Becca Webster

Theatre Review: Virginia & Freshwater

It’s not often that Virginia Woolf is seen in the theatre. Having only written one play, and a play that is rarely produced at that, Woolf does not seem to inspire much in the way of the dramatic arts. However, in one week I saw two theatre pieces that involved her.

The first one, a staged reading entitled Virginia, based on Virginia Woolf’s life was presented at Drama Books on Woolf’s birthday. The staged reading struck me as a piece that did not really have a real reason for being on the stage. It always bothers me when there is no ‘drama’, or action, happening on stage. This staged reading was case in point. Although it followed Woolf’s life from childhood to her ultimate suicide, it was not something that could not have been another literary form, namely an autobiography. Part of the problem was trying to cover Woolf’s entire life in a 90-minute play. Focusing on one aspect of her life might have been more moving, or even if the play had not gone chronologically. To me, the play felt as though I was merely reading an abbreviated Wikipedia entry about her life. One thing did strike me is the choice for three actors to play all the characters, with one play Woolf the entire show and the others play all the male and female roles. It was certainly interesting to see Woolf’s sister and lover double cast as well as her husband and the brother who abused her sexually.

The second piece was a revival of Woolf’s only play, Freshwater. The play is a farce, first and foremost, and to me, the time when I felt like the cast really got the attitude of the play happened as the Sex Pistols version of “God Save the Queen” blasted during curtain call. The rest of the play, the actors seemed to not really understand that their characters were meant to be ridiculous versions of the actual people and instead seemed more insistent on making them more real and creating a crass physical language. This physical language paid off at many points during the play, but during others, it seemed unnecessary. The one thing that bothered me the most, was that Ellen Page, the youngest character in the show, was being played by the oldest actor on stage. When questioned in class, the dramaturg replied that the director does not see age. This, I feel, is a cop-out. It bothered me that the young lieutenant kept referring to her young beauty in their moments, the decision to leave does not seem as reckless and her through line is essentially the only guiding light for the progression of the show, so why miscast the one crucial character? Other than that, the show was enjoyable. The set, reminiscent of a Victorian drawing room painted to resemble a spring weekend was great. The lighting, however, really did need to go to the next level and take us to ultimate-farce land, rather than simply being naturalistic. All in all, the play is a modest representation of Woolf’s only play, but perhaps, since she wrote it as an inside joke for her friends, maybe it should remain that way.

Within the Gap

Michel de Certeau's essay Walking in the City illuminated a recent trip I experienced with my Service Learning group. On Monday, my group decided to take advantage of the warm weather and locate an abandoned Richard Serra sculpture and photograph it in order to make a proposal for its reinstallation, which is the main goal of the project. Though we knew that the sculpture was somewhere in the South Bronx around the 134th Street and the bridge to Randall's Island, we were unsure of its exact location so we spend several hours thoroughly examining the area.

Other than drifting during commutes or "exploring" Manhattan for new restaurants, I never approached my walks around the City with questions such as, "how could something be abandoned here?" and, "how can the abandoned be reintegrated to benefit the community?" Every element of the area had to be examined.

Unsure as to what exactly we were looking for, other than that it would be large and constructed out of steel, we looked anywhere we physically could enter to make sure that we weren't missing anything. Being that the area is mostly occupied by industry storage lots, power generators, and huge warehouses that compress the City’s garbage, there really weren’t many places where we could go. Our search led us to the water bank where we followed a path around the edge of a fenced off plot of generators. We were commenting on the amount of trash on the muddy bank and joking that this sculpture probably didn’t exist when we noticed several flat pieces of metal that were upheld by wooden beams. I don't know who made the observation that we were looking at shelters but, the three of us uniformly turned around and rushed to trace the path back to the street.

We didn't speak for a while.

There was something incredibly disturbing in finding the homeless literally pushed out to the extremes of the City’s space. This five foot wide piece of land between the extent of industry and the natural boundary of water was probably the last remaining physical space that was unclaimed towards the City’s conceptual identity.

I realized that I was so shocked to see the homeless on the outskirts of industry because I've grown so accustomed to seeing them in the highly urban areas of the City. I admit that I interact with the homeless in a similar manner to Richard's interaction with the vagrant woman in Mrs. Dalloway. While Richard "bore his flowers like a weapon," (Woolf, p. 113) it's become my second nature to use a book on the subway as a distraction from having to make eye contact with the homeless. Though I do happen to donate money and occasionally receive a "God Bless," when I say that I don't have any cash on me, which, as a student, is usually the case, I don't feel that interconnection that Woolf so successfully establishes between Richard and the vagrant woman, "still there was time for a spark between them." (Woolf, p.114)

Instead of this sense that everyone is bound by a unifying thread of human existence what remains are questions like Richard's, who initially wonders what could be done about the vagrant woman, presenting her as a problem that must be solved. Here, as discussed in de Certeau's essay, is where the problem of space becomes very real within the City. As Manhattan expands throughout its conceptual space and further develops its own identity, it becomes crucial to regulate its organization since Manhattan is confined to the physical boundaries of the island. Unfortunately, the homeless often fall into the category that de Carteau describes as, "a rejection of everything that is not capable of being dealt with and so constitutes the 'waste products' of a functionalist administration." Organizations and programs are constructed to “solve” these “problems” but they often only create an abstraction of power within the City that extends their administrative and ideal space, while attempting to utilize their limited physical space.

Several Bronx-based groups interested in ecology are currently working on creating a "green path" for bikes from North Bronx to Randall's Island that would run around the outskirts of industry. I can’t help but wonder how this would affect the inhabitants of the shelters.

We did find the Richard Serra sculpture, which was amazing. In that sense, exploring the area really was successful. Still, the shelters linger in my mind.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

White peonies, cut short in small silver vases

I have always felt that I was a bit shallow, but now I suspect that I may be extraordinarily shallow.

I began to have the faintest suspicion of the complete shallowness of my character while reading Mrs. Dalloway, because I related to Clarissa Dalloway. I feel ashamed admitting that, but it is true. We are both privileged females living in the Western world, far too often concerned with trivial things.

I had a Mrs. Dalloway moment last week. I was at the Barnes & Noble cafe with my friend Isabella and we were discussing a dinner party that we were going to have. It was going to be very intime but charming, eight in all, in my grandmother's dining room, with bone china and candles in silver holders going down the length of the table. I was going to wear my Age of Innocence dove-gray silk, Isabella was yet undecided on her wardrobe, but it was most likely going to involve large quantities of tulle and netting. We fell to talking about the flowers. White, I said, only white. White peonies, cut short in small silver vases. I was very firm on this point--in fact, I absolutely refused to hear of anything else. Isabella finally gave in arguing for yellow and as she conceded, I had a moment where I thought, this is silly. This is silly to argue for white peonies for a frivolous dinner party. The entire thing is absurd--the flowers, the dove-gray silk, the candles, the dinner party, me--all absurd. 

It was a random moment of first-world guilt. It hits you when you least expect it. Not when you're sitting comfortably at home reading the horrific NYT story about the Sudanese rape victims. Not when you buy a $1400 handbag. Not when you moan and groan about having to get up for class and then see that in other parts of the world, girls are attacked with acid when they go to class. No, first-world guilt always comes unexpectedly--like when you're arguing for white peonies at a cafe table. And then you have to step back, and take a good look at yourself and the world you inhabit. To compare that world to the one in which the majority of humanity lives-- it's nearly impossible to really comprehend the gap between the two. Yes, it is easy to state the differences: a good deal of the world does not know when their next meal is coming and you do, but to actually realize what that means is difficult. Superficially, of course we understand. But internally? Perhaps not so much.

Similarly, the narrator in Woolf's essay "Street Haunting" observes the juxtaposition of the haves and the have-nots of humanity, except on a relatively microcosmic scale--in London. 

It is jarring to go from "the humped body of an old woman flung abandoned on the step of a public building with a cloak over her like the hasty covering thrown over a dead horse or donkey" to suddenly in the very next paragraph, and presumably, in the next street, "everything seems accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty." The speaker observes this contrast, pointing out that:
[The derelicts] lie close to those shop windows where commerce offers to a world of old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men, of hobbling dwarfs, sofas which are supported by the gilt necks of proud swans; tables inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit; sideboards paved with green marble the better to support the weight of boars' heads...
The speaker observes all this ironic contrast without any middle-class/upper middle-class guilt whatsoever. In fact, when describing "these derelicts," the speaker seems to feel a sense of revulsion over anything else, even pity. There is no attempt to empathize with these unfortunate beings, though the narrator does speculate about their lives, concluding that "life which so fantastic cannot be altogether tragic." While the speaker certainly sees the abject poverty of these people, it is clear that she or he does not truly understand the abject poverty. If the speaker did understand, then she or he would not have said that the derelicts did not grudge them their prosperity--especially when the speaker in question is wandering the streets of London observing its poor and handicapped as one might look at animals in the zoo.  

A first-world guilt attack, for me, usually consists of a reevaluation of my entire life in short questions running through my head: what is the point, what does it matter, what I am doing with my life? The last question generally echoes around my head longer than the rest, because I feel that instead of living a privileged life in the developed world, I should be doing something to help those who aren't. After all, my life as it is now feels like dumb luck--just being born in the right place and time to the right people. I am undeserving of what I have--I think probably most privileged people are. All of humanity equally deserves to lead the lives that we as developed-world inhabitants lead.  

Of course, I only think this way every so often--you forget about the guilt in the onslaught that happens to be your life. First-world worries consume me--like papers and grades and whether I can take a trip this summer or not and should I get bangs and internship applications--all these questions, which seem so insignificant in the larger scheme of things, are so important to me.

Sometimes I look at my life. I examine it closely, turning it this way and that way in my hand, to see if it catches the light. If I am possessed with nothing, I am possessed with ambition and I've recently begun to get a nagging feeling in me, the kind that starts in your throat and settles in the pit of your stomach and keeps you awake at night. It is not failure, exactly, but it's the middle road between success and failure. Mediocrity, I suppose. (I believe it is a first-world privilege to have continual, melodramatic, soul-searching, inner angst.) It's silly, at eighteen, to think this way, but I can't help it. I have this overwhelming sense of being pressed for time--like I have so much to do and so little time to do it all. I look at the quiet, ordinary days of my life so far, the days when I didn't write or come up with a plan to rule the world or nothing extraordinary happened to me, and half of me says those days are wasted and the other half of me says those days are and will be the most important days of my life.

After all, isn't that what Virginia Woolf writes about? Ordinary days, ordinary lives, ordinary people, and yet all are extraordinary. They all inhabit the same world and they all have a distinct viewpoint. Her works are worlds within worlds--and the dichotomy of two very different worlds living side by side to one another. My day may be ordinary and yours may be extraordinary, and yet we live in the same world. The speaker in "Street Haunting" imagines how pearls in an Oxford Street window could change her life and at perhaps at that very corner, there might be "a bearded Jew, wild, hunger-bitten, glaring out of his misery," looking at the same pearl necklace and thinking how it could change his life, but in a vastly different way. Half-way across the world, a girl hides from the rebel soldiers who have invaded her village, crouches, cowers, prays, knows the stories, and waits for her death, and perhaps in that same moment, I say white peonies, cut short in small silver vases. 

Of Turtlenecks and Roses

One of the things that impresses me most about Virginia Woolf is the way she allows characters to communicate without using words (sort of a strange enterprise for a writer). For me, the big moment when this nonverbal communication or communion occurs in Mrs. Dalloway is in when Clarissa quotes the same lines from Cymbeline as Septimus had some time before:

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages

The familiarity with this quote from one of Shakespeare's most obscure works marks Spetimus and Clarissa as people of quality; they are not parroting "To be or not to be", or misusing the word "wherefore" as we could imagine the other guests might. Their shared moment is a more quiet, subtle one that can only shine and exist away from the people around them; for Clarissa, the line first surfaces in silence, in the absence of Lady Bruton's invitation, and for the last time when she is alone, away from her party.

Likewise, in The Mystery Guest, the narrator and his former girlfriend are linked by reading Mrs. Dalloway. This isn't in the excerpt we read in class, but the party they're at is filled with turtleneck-wearing, Dostoyevski-in-the-back-pocket-of-my-skinny-jeans-grade pretentious snots; amid all the windbaggery, the small line from Dalloway, "Roses were the only flower she could bear to see cut", describes a clear path between the two souls.
In neither case is the literary reference reduced to trivia; neither the narrator and his former lover nor Septimus and Clarissa are trying to gain street cred by showing off their knowledge, unlike the others at their parties, like Brierly who has made a career out of bloviating on Milton or the other guys at the fete, one of whom actually and inexcusably mentions Sven Nykvist.

In both cases, the shibboleth is silent or quiet; Clarissa and Septimus never meet, and the narrator in The Mystery Guest barely hears his girlfriend among the white noise of the party. In both of these works, so much of the speech is unnecessary, wrong, or misinterpreted. Holmes speaks a lot, but he doesn't understand much of anything. Jim Hutton can imitate Brierly, unsaddled by understanding, and the narrator's fellow revelers can and do titter away into the night without saying anything original. For the 'heroes' of our two works, literature, operating in silence, becomes the language of the link. 

"Our" House on Ocean Point.

Growing up, I was never really interested in taking photographs with Mickey Mouse or riding the Log Flume on the Wildwood boardwalk. For me, the word “vacation” was synonymous with the thrill of returning to explore a familiar rocky coast, the salty smell of the ocean that lingered in chilly morning air, and falling asleep to the soft, muted lullaby of a foghorn through an open window.

My father’s family has been vacationing in southern Maine since the late 1960s. For the entire month of July, my grandparents would rent an old house named "High Water" (Hi-Watah to the locals) on Ocean Point, an idyllic peninsular seaside community populated with turn of the century cottages. My father, along with his sisters and brother, would spend the month fishing, boating, and exploring the craggy beaches and Pine forests, while my grandparents would play host to an array of guests: second cousins and their lovers, neighbors, in-laws. Even as time went by and their children grew up and started families of their own, my grandparents held fast to their traditional summers in Maine. For better or for worse, my big (and often dysfunctional) family would voyage over ten hours worth of highway and cram into the old cottage.

It couldn’t have been more than a few months before she passed away that I found myself sitting in my grandmother’s living room drinking tea and having a conversation over the books we were reading. She had just begun To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; she told me about a very brief passage in the book in which Woolf describes a summerhouse. She said the experience of reading the short sentences was one of those rare instances where she could not only relate to the text, but felt, almost eerily, involved.

Nearly three years later, I have stumbled upon the same passage, and finally understand the connection that the matriarch of my family must have felt with Mrs. Ramsay:

“She…saw the room, saw the chairs, thought them fearfully shabby. Their entrails, as Andrew said the other day, were all over the floor; but then what was the point, she asked, of buying good chairs to let them spoil up here all through the winter when the house, with only one old woman to see it, positively dripped with wet? Never mind, the rent was precisely twopence halfpenny; the children loved it; it did her husband good to be three thousand, or if she must be accurate, three hundred miles from his libraries and his lectures and his disciples; and there was room for visitors. Mats, camp beds, crazy ghosts of chairs and tables whose London life of service was done- they did well enough here; and a photograph or two, and books…Things got shabbier and got shabbier summer after summer. The mat was fading; the wall-paper was flapping. You couldn’t tell any more that those were roses on it.” (26-7).

For Mrs. Ramsay, her family’s seasonal seaside home lacks glamour; it does not age gracefully and is outfitted with retired pieces of furniture. “Shabby” as it is, with its faded walls and furniture in need of a good upholsterer, the house serves to unify the Ramsays. She believes the eight diverse Ramsay children love the home. It comforts her to see her husband away from the immediate and visible stresses of academia. The home itself is populated by memories- aged chairs and tables which have undoubtedly seen many of her happiest days. Mrs. Ramsay considers the Scotland house both a happy tomb for bygone days and a symbol for the closeness she wishes for her family in the future.

Our summer house, though we were only its lowly summer renters, unified, and continues to unify, my family. Though all twenty of us lead radically different lives, we share memories of creaky wooden floors, paper-thin walls, antique beds, mismatched consignment sofas, and dusty watercolors of torrid seas. No matter what change the winter months usher into our individual lives, the house stands as a concrete symbol for what it means to be related to one another. For us, as for Mrs. Ramsay, the house transcends its condition.

I have only been back to Maine once since my grandmother died, and it was only with my parents and my brother. We rented a different house. The whole time I couldn’t fight the haunting feeling that we were intruding upon another family’s memories.

Hidden Sights, Hidden Feelings

While Woolf explicitly mentions only her work on To the Lighthouse in the personal diaries she kept during the General Strike, she also reveals in these worrisome journals the impressions, sensibilities, and sense of fear that guide "Street Haunting. If World War I revealed uncertainty and madness in the state of the world, the General Strike revealed uncertainty and madness in Woolf's immediate context-- her beloved London. Gone are Mrs. Dalloway's flowing passages on skywriters, encounters with heads of state, or other such communal experiences. In "Street Haunting," this sense of British national pride is replaced by feelings of solitude and despair, and the vibrant imagery by grotesque figures and hidden "crevices." Rather than a mysterious and intriguing car that may hold the Prime Minister, in her diaries Woolf describes a "commonplace & official" voice reminding the Londoners in a "very trivial" way that the Prince of Wales is returning (, personal diaries, “5th May 1926).

Woolf encounters the strike with similar unease, feeling a similar sense of desolation. She writes, "...there is a brown fog; nobody is building; it is drizzling... There are no buses. no placards. no newspapers..." (5th May 1926). The strikers have cut off public transportation, the means of Elizabeth's foray into flaneuse-ing. Hence, any woman who wishes to have a wandering, solitary urban experience must instead stroll, like the narrator of "Street Haunting." One can imagine Woolf taking a stroll during this time of unrest, encountering strange rabblerousers, and marveling at the British working class that seems to have crawled out of the woodwork. As Woolf discovers with fright, if the poor are not driving the buses and building the homes, they gather in the public square. Suddenly, the modern urban world seems much more imposing, much more crowded, much more difficult to grasp within the conventional human understanding of the way the world, or the city, is supposed to work. As in Woolf's lengthy dissertations on the "dwarf" and the two blind men, London seems to her "tedious and depressing," while at the same time it presents an "unprecedented spectacle" (5th May 1926).

Woolf's diaries during this period illuminate the point of view of the narrator in "Street Haunting." Though Woolf may have supported the strikers in principle, she fills her diaries with an uncanny sense of fear and instability, rather than with socialist platitudes. "L.(eonard) & I
quarreled last night," she writes, "I dislike the tub thumper in him; he the irrational Xtian in me" (9th May 1926). In this brief interlude, we understand that Woolf does not stand blindly behind Labor ambitions, and indeed, perhaps holds on to some of the flavor of her bourgeois upbringing. She concludes another entry, "Now to dine at the Commercio to meet Clive" ("7th May 1926"). While we would be unfair to expect Woolf to cease the activities of her normal life, Woolf here reveals that she is clearly not among those taking to the streets. Her following entry of May 20th, which mentions chess, tea, and poetry, suggests even more the objective, outside observer of "Street Haunting."

The conversation with Leonard also allows us to witness an instance that might drive Woolf, an "irrational" woman according to Leonard
, to want to "obtain a pencil” (“Street Haunting”). Leonard unfairly attributes Woolf’s perspective purely to her fright, and to what he perceives as prudishness. At the same time, in the wake of the war, Woolf may be right to suggest that more violence and unrest will only make things worse. Woolf hence elucidates why a woman would then turn to her diary, or to a long walk through the dangerous but fascinating streets.

The Irresponsible Wanderer

While Street Haunting is an essay about London, about its characters, it is also an essay about letting go of one’s identity and becoming, or rather realizing that each person is part of something larger. This, perhaps, is why the narrator’s gender and personal identity are so elusive at times, as she slips effortlessly into and out of other people’s lives and stories. Walking through London streets at night is not only amusing and entertaining for the narrator, but it is an escape, as she becomes part of each character and place she comes across.
After we leave our homes, which themselves have over time acquired our identities, Woolf writes, “We are no longer quite ourselves.” This shedding of our skin that we wear so proudly, or with shame, can be entirely liberating, as “who we are” is forgotten whilst shuffling through crowds of “anonymous trampers.” Clarissa Dalloway, felt comforted when she, “…felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere”(Woolf 167). This feeling of smallness, but also the feeling of being a part of everything can be a relief. It reveals for a moment that “our own temperaments” are not really our “own”, that we can toss them away.
Woolf writes, “But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others is broken…” When we leave our homes and the objects which sit in the glow of “the memories of our own experience”, our identities become vague and like puddy; we have nothing to support the claims that, “this is who I am,” no objects to use as proof. Immediately, Woolf’s narrator exalts at this moment thinking, “How beautiful a street is in winter!” Moments prior, the narrator says, “The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow,” as if staying true to one’s identity is a responsibility, as if shedding our skin completely is a childish, reckless act. The narrator’s excuse of going out to buy a pencil is significant, as she is still carrying out the responsibilities of her identity. Though we might attempt at times to completely rid ourselves of “ourselves”, be it, “banker, golfer, husband, father,” we do it hesitantly, not delving too deeply into the experience of another, knowing we should “be content still with surfaces only.” Woolf writes, “We halt at the door of the boot shop and make some little excuse, which has nothing to do with the real reason…” And then, “…we may ask… ‘What, then, is it like to be a dwarf?” Rather than superficially and mockingly observing, I believe the narrator is deeply intrigued by the idea of being someone else- that instead of separating or distinguishing herself from this dwarf, she is blurring the lines by attempting to understand and determine her thoughts.
Though this essay reveals the differences of people, of genders, of classes, it also shows that, “we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run.” Like Clarissa Dalloway, the narrator of Street Haunting asks, “Am I here, or am I there?”
I believe the essay continues Clarissa Dalloway’s thought that, “… the part of us which appears, [is] so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide…”(Woolf 167).

Hey Neil Simon

I'm aware that Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest alludes heavily to Mrs. Dalloway.  As I read through "The Window" section of To the Lighthouse and got to know Mr. Ramsay, however, the narrator of The Mystery Guest and his sentimentality over the flowers rolled around in the back of my head, and I thought of the contrast between he and Ramsay.  I also inexplicably felt the urge to go on YouTube and watch the opening theme to The Odd Couple.  

The contrast between these two men is stark, to say the least.  In the scene with the bouquet of roses, Bouillier's narrator is caught up in a Woolfian "moment of being."  His language attempts the "purest ecstasy" that Woolf describes in her memoir "Sketches of the Past" (Moments of Being, 75).  In that text, she writes, "I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me.  But I should fail" (75).  The protagonist of The Mystery Guest seems to be caught up in the same kind of sublimity:

Yes, suddenly it began to seem as though our separateness was bringing us back together, managing the impossible while we stood in front of that bouquet, in that silence.  And during those freighted seconds everything grew more and more beautiful and harmonious and red and white and orange between us, and I wanted to believe in it...  (78-79)

The beauty of the passage lies in the feeling of its transience, as if the narrator's happiness and comfort lasts only in front of that bouquet of roses.  It reflects a level of observation and keen emotional intuition in him that is lost in most men.  (I feel somewhat confident in the area of dudes and emotional expression.)  In the grand scheme of things, however, the reader should be able to sense a certain melodrama in the narrator's placement of such import on a vase of flowers, as if they could actually "bring us back together."

On this note of constructive cynicism, the dissonant cadence of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison gnaws its way back up my spine as I turn away from Bouillier and back to To the Lighthouse.  In a scene that I find quite poignant, Mrs. Ramsay is watching over James as he cuts pictures out of a catalogue, reassuring him that they will try to go to the lighthouse the next day.  Enter Mr. Ramsay.  Ever the pragmatist, he says, "James will have to write his dissertation one of these days," effectively ruining the moment and fueling James' hatred for his father (To the Lighthouse, 31).  "There [isn't] the slightest possible chance that [you] could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow," Ramsay says later (31).  

In terms of masculinity, Bouillier's storyteller and Mr. Ramsay provide a sharp counterpoint to one another.  However, I think there are several reasons for this.  To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, and it seems to me that in the character of Mr. Ramsay, the reader is meant to see the fading of the stern Victorian era; he is more of an uninvolved overseer of his family, rather than an affectionate father.  He is also reminiscent of the dour Leslie Stephen, Woolf's father; this opinion is based on the knowledge I have from class, as well as from the reading of Virginia.  Bouillier's The Mystery Guest, on the other hand, was published in 2004.  Based on casual observation, Bouillier's rendition of a man in love makes me think that Zach Braff would be the protagonist of the film version of this novella; he's that guy who's constantly lovesick, and tries to sum up significant portions of his life with sprawling inner-monologues.

The clash between these two men is obvious.  Mr. Ramsay shatters a potential "moment of being" with his practicality, while Bouillier's narrator is grasping for a "moment of being" where it seems one doesn't exist.  It might be entertaining to watch the two of them share an apartment though.  

Notebooks & Pencils

I am not equating Joan Didion to the magnitude of Virginia Woolf (although I enjoy the works of both authors immeasurably). The writing styles are by no means identical; however, they share some similarities that I do not believe are a result of mere coincidence. While reading Woolf's, "Street Haunting: A London Adventure," a few select passages in Didion's well-known nonfiction essay, "On Writing A Notebook" unexpectedly came to mind. It occurred to me, that the same woman who would create buying a pencil after World War I into an occasion, would likely keep a notebook during the Vietnam War.

The narrator in "Street Haunting" meditates, "One is forced to glimpse and nod and move on after a moment of talk, a flash of understanding, as, in the street outside, one catches a word in passing and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime. It is about a woman called Kate that they are talking, how "I said to her quite straight last night . . . if you don't think I'm worth a penny stamp, I said . . ." But who Kate is, and to what crisis in their friendship that penny stamp refers, we shall never know; for Kate sinks under the warmth of their volubility; and here, at the street corner, another page of the volume of life is laid open by the sight of two men consulting under the lamp-post. They are spelling out the latest wire from Newmarket in the stop press news. Do they thin, then, that fortune will ever convert their rags into fur and broadcloth, sling them with watch-chains, and plant diamond pins where there is now a ragged open shirt? But the main stream of walkers at this hour sweeps too fast to let us ask such questions" (Woolf).

This interrupted thought-manner of writing is mirrored in much of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion’s collective work. In "On Writing A Notebook," Didion recalls various single moments throughout her life that she captured in her journal. Those moments are not explained with the help of length anecdotes, but random phrases, years and names. Woolf’s "If you don’t think I’m worth a penny stamp," is Didion’s, "So what’s new in the whiskey business." Didion writes:

"So what's new in the whiskey business?" What could that possibly mean to you? To me it means a blonde in a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Another man approaches, and they all regard one another in silence for a little while. "So what's new in the whiskey business?" one of the fat men finally says by way of welcome, and the blonde stands up, arches one foot and dips it in the pool, looking all the while at the cabana where Baby Pignatari is talking on the telephone. That is all there is to that, except that several years later I saw the blonde coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York with her California complexion and a voluminous mink coat. In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably tired to me, and even the skins in the mink coat were not worked the way they were doing them that year, not the way she would have wanted them done, and there is the point of the story. For a while after that I did not like to look in the mirror, and my eyes would skim the newspapers and pick out only the deaths, the cancer victims, the premature coronaries, the suicides, and I stopped riding the Lexington Avenue IRT because I noticed for the first time that all the strangers I had seen for years - the man with the seeing-eye dog, the spinster who read the classified pages every day, the fat girl who always got off with me at Grand Central - looked older than they once had."

One hotel, one scene, one passerby Didion overhears, creates the very "fabricated lifetime" Woolf’s narrator is speaking of. In both passages there’s the men in conversation; there’s Kate and there’s the blonde. There’s capitalist and feminist undertones. There is the judgment. But more than that, there is the answer to Woolf. In "Street Haunting" there is too much visual stimulation to stop and ask questions with regard to what one is witnessing. Perhaps we can only ask the questions later on. Didion is writing her rereading of the notebook. She's had many of these "walks" and is now in a position to ask questions, to reflect on why she noticed the things she did or continues to. Both the narrator and Didion are affected by the same sights and remake the same sights. In a small way, Didion’s sad spinster is the narrator’s dwarf; her mink coat, the narrator’s diamond pins; her whiskey business, the narrator’s wire from Newmarket. And the reader is left to form their own opinions about the two women judging them.

More importantly, both authors are living in the mind frame of war. As a progressive woman and writer, Woolf is a form of counterculture in her own right, and in effect, the narrator of "Street Haunting" owns a small part of that. Didion happens to be a woman who embodies those qualities as well. She lived during the era that defined counterculture, the time to ask questions and demand answers. Whether it is the unique conditions these women worked under that is responsible for the minor resemblances, is something to think about. Whether Didion was influenced by Woolf, I do not know. Still, in essence, buying a pencil and writing a notebook can be one in the same.

Let's Do the Time Warp Again... A Review of "The Hours"

The first time I watched Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours” was a few years ago when I had absolutely no knowledge about Virginia Woolf or her work. Back then, I had really enjoyed the movie, mostly because I love almost any book or movie that threads together multiple story lines and time periods. Now that I have acquired much more knowledge (and by “much more” I mean “more than not having any”) about Woolf and the novel Mrs. Dalloway, I have a new-found appreciation for the film the second time around.
Throughout the movie, the audience follows the intertwining lives of three different women, one of whom is Virginia Woolf herself. The other two women add interesting depth to the story; one an unhappy housewife living in the 1950s, the other a woman throwing a party for her writer friend in the present day. Part of what makes the movie so complex and so enthralling is the way these two women reflect Woolf’s protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, for a modern audience. Clarissa Dalloway felt that her life had become trivial, and thus felt a certain kind of despair that her contribution to society had amounted to throwing parties for fellow socialites.
This kind of deep-rooted dissatisfaction for the direction her life had taken is seen in the women of “The Hours” as well. Just as Virginia Woolf feels confined and imprisoned by her life in the country, Laura Brown (the aforementioned housewife) feels imprisoned in her suburban environment. Laura lives a quiet, desperate life and consoles herself through reading; her current papery companion being Mrs. Dalloway. Although Laura Brown makes bolder choices than Clarissa made, her similarities to Clarissa are undeniable. Through her, we see that people like Clarissa can be found in the real world—and in a fairly modern world as well. The film does an excellent job of showing that the same sort of emotions Woolf may have felt while creating the character of Clarissa can translate into the emotions felt by a severely depressed housewife living just a few decades before our time.
Clarissa Vaughn obviously shares many qualities with Clarissa Dalloway, seeing as Vaughn is her present-day counterpart. What makes Clarissa Vaughn so fascinating is that although she is leading an alternative version of Clarissa Dalloway’s life (ie. living with Sally and reminiscing about her past with Richard) she is still the woman throwing parties, feeling a persistent sadness for her lost youth and happiness. This is seen mostly through her relationship with Richard in the film, and it appears that the characters of Richard and Peter are oddly combined within a single character in “The Hours.” Although, the character’s name is Richard, it seems that the kind of passion he feels for Clarissa Vaughn and the way she clings to Richard and their past is more reminiscent of the original Clarissa’s relationship with Peter. In any case, Clarissa Vaughn is the staggering reality that Woolf’s protagonist is just as likely and just as relevant a figure in our time as in Woolf’s time.
Overall, I would highly recommend watching the film because it offers very intriguing portrayals of Woolf’s life and the lives of alternative Clarissa Dalloways. If that isn’t convincing enough, there are also some plot twists you might want to check out that I shan’t give away for the sake of first-time viewers. = )

Monday, February 9, 2009

Close Reading, Street Haunting, A London Adventure

Virginia Woolf's "Street Haunting, A London Adventure" provides a unique and detailed perspective of city life in London. As our narrator walks along the cobblestone streets, we are given glimpses into flower shops and book stores, bursting with light, and energy. Our narrator actively interacts very little in the story, but rather, interacts with everything, letting even the smallest moments of her evening walk wash over her. Woolf uses her extensive imagery to describe a snapshot of a city in the precise moment that our narrator is observing it. It is a winter evening in London and the flowers "burning" in the window, the woman trying on shoes, the blind men on the street, are all part the moment that Woolf attempts to capture. While the delicate and effusive language of the essay may lead one to believe that description is overly rosey in it's depiction, the portrayal of the street and it's people offers, instead, a realisticand truthful portrayel of the city and it's "haunters." 
While reading this, I was reminded of a Truman Capote essay that I had read before called, quite simply, "Brooklyn." Like Woolf, Capote conducts a thorough observance of the streets of Brooklyn and the small things that make city life on this street and in this city what it is. I don't know if Woolf had any influence on Capote or if both writers simply shared the desire to put into the writing the mish- mash of people and things that they experienced everyday, but many of their descriptions are similar in how they examine the city they live in. In particular, both writers write prolifically on the general appearances, sounds, and smells of their neighborhoods. Woolf and Capote also masterly resist getting overly sentimental about their cities while maintaining a certain admiration for those with whom they share these busy streets. Woolf describes her fellow "haunters" as "men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph." Like Woolf, Capote also appreciates the "shabby" but undeniable pride of his fellow Brooklynites, describing his aging neighbor with ironic awe as she stands "shrouded in a sleazy kimono , her sunset colored hair falling Viking-fashion" (Capote 19). Both Woolf and Capote create reverent tributes to their respective cities without shielding the reader from reality but, rather, embracing the tattered people and things that populate them.  
Like Woolf, Capote uses his essay to freeze a moment in a city before it changes. Both authors write about city life in an honest way, depicting for the reader the regularity of beauty if one takes a moment to notice it, especially in the people who bustle by you. 

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Rose by Any Other Name...

Excepting the commonality of the name, I could have been named Rose…rose, that gorgeous flower.

As I was going a little crazy trying to make sense of the flower images in Mrs. Dalloway, I decided to look up what other people thought about it. I was shocked but I was not at all satisfied by my research. From the deciphered meaning that “Woolf uses flowers to signal that an erotic experience between women is immanent” (p.60)in Communication and Women's Friendships: Parallels and Intersections in Literature and Life by Ward & Mink to the meaning from Quamar Naheed’s D. H. Lawrence: Treatment of Nature in Early Novels that “flowers and green fields in the novel again and again symbolise peace and contentment" (p.13), I didn’t feel like these interpretations spoke for Woolf’s obsession with flowers. Therefore, I abandoned my search on flowers and focused on roses. I specifically looked at Septimus because I like him.

After Rezia is disturbed by Septimus trying to throw them under an on-coming omnibus or train, both Rezia and Septimus ponder their miseries. Septimus wonders why his life has been spared and “his weakness” (p.68) pardoned. He and Rezia are on an outing to Regent’s Park and he listens while slowly becoming lost in his thoughts.

"Now he withdraws up into the snows, and roses hang about him—the thick red roses which grow on my bedroom wall, he reminded himself.” .” ~ p. 68
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. USA: Harvest Book and Hogarth 1981

The image of the blanketing, enveloping cold clashes and enhances the red rose image. The snow is white, frigidly enveloping, while the roses are described as a red comfort. The roses protectively cushion Septimus from the snow with their red amassing presence. Yet, the roses with soft petals and searing red warmth appear to be protective but also to be harming. Sure their beauty is reassuring but roses do have thorns. They can hurt the unwary who tries to grasp their beauty.

I think this might reflect the reality of life. Life can be beautiful and damning. Some people reflect more on the bad side of life and others on the good side of life. For Septimus, the balance of the good and the bad became skewed. We see him tortured by life and looking forward to death but we also see the dead making his life agonizing to live. He could have focused on the comforting aspects of flowers while displacing danger from the thorns to the snow. He could also be trying to ignore feeling by blocking out the prick of the thorns. His apathy to the thorns and coldness of the snow might be his way of realizing life’s dangers but protecting himself with a weak, snow and rose barrier.

It brings new thought to stop and smell the roses; Septimus envelopes himself in them.