July 24, 2011
Michael Cunningham says, “Mrs. Dalloway <also> contains some of the most beautiful, complex, incisive and idiosyncratic sentences ever written in English, and that alone would be reason enough to read it”
Maureen Howard says of Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway:
The novel is tempered by such easy lines: “That is all”; “I am unhappy”; “I have five sons.” Placed like stones at the rim of a billowing tent, these clear little sentences seem necessary stakes in the shimmering flow of language and emotion that strains, in paragraph after paragraph, to contain the intricacies of life.
I say, Intricacies of life indeed. Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness writing creates a seamlessness where characters' thoughts flow and pool as if thought was one great sea. It is difficult for the reader to keep track of who's thinking what, and yet, in this montage of minds there is a notable continuity (I think of the album Abbey Road here, the serendipitous confluence of song), an artistic device to represent unity. It approaches what Emerson had meant when he deemed humankind “One Man.” (Perhaps we can dub this “One Mind.”)
I have read Mrs. Dalloway twice, baffled the first time, enthralled the second. Virginia Woolf is famous for what I call “Moments of Sheer Radiance” touchstones of pure, heartbreaking truth that illuminate the page. A moment of sheer radiance strikes the essence of the prose and comes as close to poetry as prose permits. I underline or highlight these passages, these fundamental truths of humanity and note where a passage is written so well it spans the obstacle of our separateness and joins us to the rest of the human race. (Continuity, again ) We read through moments of sheer radiance and pause in awe and appreciate how the writer captures something whole, artfully turning it into words and leaving the surface of the earth for a few moments.
I thought I would include some of Woolf's moments of sheer radiance in Mrs. Dalloway (although, right away, I feel as if I have failed, or inevitably miss some that warrant attention, a daunting task indeed):
1. Away and away the aeroplane shot, till it was nothing but a bright spark; an aspiration; a concentration; a symbol (so it seemed to Mr. Bentley, vigorously rolling his strip of turf at Greenwich) of man's soul; of his determination, thought Mr. Bentley, sweeping round the cedar tree, to get outside his body, beyond his house, by means of thought, Einstein, speculation, mathematics, the Mendelian theory- away the aeroplane shot.
Isn't this what poetry is, the lurch of the mind for the sublime, the getting out of the body in pursuit of something higher? And isn't mathematics and the Theory of Relativity a sort of poetry? We are always reaching, reaching, wanting to soar; this is our soul part. Yes, that aeroplane up there, it is the soul, having finally escaped the cumbersome weights, the monotony, the drudgery of terrestrial life.
- The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent's Park, and holding his hat in hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained-at last!- the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, - the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.
To turn one's passions “round, slowly in the light” is the mark of wisdom. We no longer just feel passions, nor are we overwhelmed by them, as we are in our twenties and teenage years. We no longer refer to these passionate, intense feelings as ourselves; we are no longer the embodiment of fear or love or lust. With age, we have the ability to recognize them and name them as “other” or “part”, a thing, like a stone, to be turned 'round.
- It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.
Poor, poor Septimus, how I sympathize with you, with your fears, your madness, your hysteria, your existentialism, your paranoia. You are there, in “crisis”, hopeless, at the rock bottom of human feeling and no one around you knows what that's like, not the shrinks, not your wife, not the ghost who haunts you. There is no reason anyone should reach the shores of this island you call yourself; the mind convinces itself that desperation is final because life is meaningless. (It has not the wisdom of #2, above.) Septimus claims it is not life he detests but men like Dr. Holmes and Sir William, the two doctors who attempt to “cure” Septimus of wanting to kill himself. It is their imperialism of thought and attitude (you are in the wrong and we shall correct you) that was most devastating to Septimus. (“Try to think as little about yourself as possible,” said Sir William kindly. Really, he was not fit to be about.....if I had a dime for every time someone had told me that when I was depressed. Try to think as little about yourself as possible...as if it were a matter of flicking a switch.)
- All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet High Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that how unbelievable death was!- that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; every instant...
Clarissa, yes. We identify with you, your passions for men and women and silk dresses and flowers. Like you, we sometimes feel we may burst with ecstasy. But hidden under this is that subtle, subtle reminder that we will no longer feel anything. We will die, be body-less, be mind-less and all that we know will be gone. How unbelievable death is!
So we have Septimus Smith and we have Clarissa Dalloway, polar opposites. They portray the wide range of human feeling; one end, devastation, the other end, ecstasy.
- Like a woman who had slipped off her print dress and white apron to array herself in blue and pearls, the day changed, put off stuff, took gauze, changed to evening, and with the same sigh of exhilaration that a woman breathes, tumbling petticoats on the floor, it too shed dust, heat, colour; the traffic thinned; motor cars, tinkling, darting, succeeded the lumber vans; and here and there among the thick foliage of the squares an intense light hung.
- Or there were the poets and thinkers. Suppose he had had that passion, and had gone to Sir William Bradshaw, a great doctor yet to her obscurely evil, without sex or lust, extremely polite to women, but capable of some indescribable outrage- forcing your soul, that was it- if this young man had gone to him, and Sir William had impressed him, like that, with his power, might he not then have said (indeed she felt it now), Life is made intolerable; they make life intolerable, men like that? Then (she had felt it this morning) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one's parents giving it into one's hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear. Even now, quite often if Richard had not been there reading the Times, so that she could crouch like a bird and gradually revive, send roaring up that immeasurable delight, rubbing stick to stick, one thing with another, she must have perished. But that young man had killed himself.
So here is Clarissa Dalloway, having stepped away from her party, thinking of what noble Sir William had informed the revelers, how one of his patients had jumped out the window and killed himself. And in her sensibility, Clarissa, the light, the ecstatic, reaches Septimus. She knows not his name; she has never seen the man. But she knows very well if it weren't for certain turns along her path (her well to do husband Richard), it could have been her (she must have perished). There exists, in this life, a great “incapacity”; lack of ability, qualification, or strength; we are all vulnerable and only the acute are aware of this, how easy it is to lose one's self, how close we are to our own destruction. It could have been me. She gets it right, how Sir William is not the man, in all his supremeness is NOT the man to keep Septimus from the window. Although a successful doctor, he is not acute. Empathy is impossible for him. It is through Clarissa's sensibility that the extremes converge. That is empathy. That is compassion. That is what's missing most of the time, most of the places.
(Tangent: Why is compassion missing most of the time, most of the places? This is what I ask myself everyday. I've come up with this answer: Our world, in all of its myriad arenas, is run by competition. Nature: natural selection, only the strong survive. Economy: markets must compete. Politics, Sports: may the best man or woman win, Education: SAT scores. Resources: We need that oil, so we're going to occupy that country under the acronym of operation iraqi liberation and on and on and on. Oh sure we are civil, we humans, in our competition, most of the time, but nonetheless we have compassion when we know it's safe to have it or when we need something. That's not true compassion.
Maybe the worlds beyond this one aren't governed by competition. Maybe we'll find real compassion there. Maybe with real compassion comes with real seamlessness: one mind, one soul.