Monday, April 14, 2008

Impressions on Four Quartets

Buoyed by the knowledge that even our illustrious professor spent some little time with this text before actually understanding it, this post is basically going to be a collection of my impressions after reading the Four Quartets through a few times. These observations are likely to range from the intuitive to the inaccurate, but I am nonetheless confident that Tom, were he living, would take comfort in knowing that time doth not wither nor custom stale his infinite variety. Besides, every time an English student is baffled by Eliot, an angel gets its wings. Or something.

As I leapt into “Burnt Norton,” I was reminded forcefully of “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” There is a theme, not just of time (which I’ve beat to death all semester, but hey, so did the modernists) but of an interrelation of the past, present and future. They are bound up together. In the essay Eliot claimed that as the past shaped the future, so the present reshaped the past. The lines “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past” seem to say much the same thing to me.

There seems to be a great deal of play with binaries in the work. In particular the concept of the finite versus the infinite is played with over and over. The infinite, represented by the circle (an image repeated throughout the whole piece in various ways), is also connected intimately with… surprise! Time. Comparisons are drawn between the fluidity and circular (also seasonal) nature of time and the finite ideas of beginning and ending. The poem, in my opinion, favors the infinite as it often link beginning and end together – thus the circle again.

Other binaries that are explored at length are motion versus stillness, light versus darkness and sound versus silence. The references to sound caught my attention most as they included a host of different representations: singing, sounds of water (voices of the sea), clanging bells, et cetera. I think it’s interesting that while Eliot used onomatopoeia in other works, here he mentions noise without describing it in that way.

The whole poem was much more pleasant to fall into than The Wasteland. There certainly are some changes to his general philosophy. For example after his wicked lashing of marriage in The Wasteland, here he describes matrimony as “a dignified and commodious sacrament” in a better temper about that particular subject, certainly…

Eliot does use some interesting techniques. Sometimes he rhymes, mostly not. Here and there the poem feels like it speeds up. During a portion of East Coker he even slips into Middle English-y spelling. I don’t pretend to understand the significance of any of this beyond the fact that it looks and sounds pleasing to me. Obviously I have many questions. Not least of which is what in blue blazes did I read? I’m certain that with the help of some outside material (I intend to read more of the selection provided before Wednesday) we will leap into the meat of the work at length in class.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Recording Patterns of Thought

I think I’m really benefiting from reading a variety of Woolf’s work. In some ways I feel like To the Lighthouse displays elements of the styles and messages of Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own. I realize that A Room of One’s Own was written after To the Lighthouse, but my point is not to suggest that one was a product of the others, but that Woolf herself clearly displayed particular trends in her writing that have leapt out and danced in front of me.
One such line that seems to suggest things to come in A Room of One’s Own is this: “He would like her to see him, gowned and hooded, walking in a procession.” Woolf is noting that men clearly associate themselves with scholarship and scholarship with success. This reminded me of the in class lecture two weeks ago regarding comments Woolf made about how ridiculous men in procession, accoutered in cap and gown and observing archaic traditions were to her. The reason it was significant to me was that as Lighthouse (at least part I) hasn’t an omniscient narrator, the line is actually referring to Tansley’s own conception, conscious or not. Men, Woolf says here, really do place this kind of inordinate importance on procession. On a side note relating to the topic of academia, it occurs to me to wonder if the name Cam (Camilla) was chosen to reflect some connection with the river Cam that runs through Cambridge. I’m not certain what the significance of such a connection might be, but it is interesting none-the-less. If there is a connection there (and in my opinion, Virginia Woolf was far too clever and deliberate no to have made that connection intentionally on some level), how does it connect to Mrs. Ramsay’s opinion of her children: “Strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices twisted into the very fibre of being, oh, that they should begin so early, Mrs Ramsay deplored. They were so critical, her children. They talked such nonsense.” This passage would seem to say that Mrs. Ramsey resents her childrens’ engagement with issues and their predilections toward argument and debate. Does she not want her children to be active intelligent people, involved in the global discussion? Am I placing too much contemporary sensibility onto the work?
Of course the narrative continues the style adopted two years earlier in Mrs. Dalloway. There is no question that Woolf is concerned with recording patterns of thought and the nature of human consciousness far more than she is with constructing a “story.” I can only imagine, though, how tiring it must be to write this type of narrative. It isn’t as though Woolf is simply recording her own thoughts and plopping them into a book. Her work is so finely crafted, every word chosen with incredible care. Since she has to construct each sentence in the narrative, she must therefore invent the patterns of thought that she shows. My question at this point on my Woolf learning journey is what is the difference between meaningful and intentional? Basically, she writes thoughts both profound and mundane; she has to in order to succeed with this type of narrative. Does she believe that the mundane paths that the mind flits down are necessarily meaningful? If not, how does one go about crafting a piece of writing that contains intentionally meaningless elements? If so, well, no wonder she went a bit mad sometimes! There were a couple other things that struck me that I just wanted to mention briefly. I noticed how often in the course of the narrative the large number of children in a particular household was mentioned. At least four times in the first twenty pages or so, “eight children” or “nine children” were brought up for some reason or other. I haven’t any conjectures on the significance of such a repetition, but I’ve always been trained to consider repetition as an important stylistic element, so, there you have it. I was also curious about the line “Perhaps it will be fine tomorrow.” Taken in isolation the line might be suggestive of a comment on the future in general. Obviously it takes ten years for them to actually get to the lighthouse, but as a larger metaphor, it may refer instead to the state of the family or even of Britain itself. From what I know of Woolf herself I’m not sure if I believe she necessarily thought that everything would be fine tomorrow. Perhaps years down the road, through war and death and tumult, it would be though. Maybe not tomorrow, this whole book said to me, but eventually, it will all be fine.

Monday, March 31, 2008

No Influence? Please...!

I am desperately sorry that An Anthology of Human Wisdom was never made. It sounds like precisely the sort of book I should have both loved to read, nay devour and the sort of book I would have loved to display pretentiously in a very visible location in my home. I’m curious to know just how many bots and pieces were stored away by Leonard and Virginia before the project was abandoned and if much has been done with them.

I find it astonishing that people (such as Gottlieb) would suggest that the marriage between Leonard and Virginia was not a successful one based on mutual respect and a congress of ideas. I admit that I know very little of them, either as individuals or as a single matrimonial entity. However, What I do know is this: Both were incredibly intelligent people. Both were outspoken on many issues. Regardless of Leonard’s oft repeated assertion that Virginia was not a political animal (or some such), it is abundantly clear from even a cursory perusal of her work that she had many concerns and was passionately outspoken about them. Now, it is possible, even likely that they weren’t activists in the same causes all the time, but their must have been a meeting of minds on many issues in order for their marriage to have functioned as it did. I must therefore agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Chapman and his colleague on their three fundamental assertions: that “influence in the context of intimacy implies a congress of ideas,” that “the issue of such congress is complex,” and that “complexity is detectable in acts of collaboration or collaborative texts.” They go on to show that such collaboration existed and that by logical extension, Leonard and Virginia each influenced the other. I can see no reasonable argument to the contrary; indeed I would consider it an almost absurd suggestion to imply that the two, who obviously valued each other as critics and as authors, wrote without reference to one another. Actually, I would really enjoy reading an article by a scholar who holds that opinion (they must be out there, otherwise why should Chapman and Manson go to the effort of setting out to prove the opposite assertion?) Of course proving a negative is a logical fallacy, but I would like to see someone try none-the-less.

One argument, I suppose, is that they lived and worked “in separate spheres.” That seems to me an argument lodged firmly in a great patch of logical quicksand. Just because they didn’t write on the same topics, or that Leonard wrote and moved in the realm of politics, Virginia in that of the arts, it does not follow that they were unaware or uninfluenced by one another. I confess I haven’t read any Leonard Woolf. From what I have read of Virginia, though, I would say that her art benefits from a political footing. She understands world affairs, she has opinions and the desire to express them, in short, she knows what’s going on in the realm of politics. She may not live in it, but she definitely looks in the window often enough to speak intelligently on world affairs. Is that necessarily because of Leonard’s own involvement? Of course not. I would be completely dashed if it wasn’t touched by his involvement though.

Whatever the case may be, I’d like to register myself on the “influence” and “successful marriage” side of the debate at this time. I hope my membership card is in the mail.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Should Womankind Visit a Psychiatrist?

There are obviously many questions addressed (though not necessarily answered) throughout A Room of One’s Own. I think perhaps the purpose of Woolf’s narrative is to cause the reader to ask these questions of herself outside of the context of the work. I found her to be successful, as several of these questions stayed with me after I put the book down, indeed, several times I put the book down for the express purpose of contemplating the questions in personal self-reflection. The first of these questions was “Why are women so much more interesting to men than men are to women?” The question seems obvious, though I don’t believe I’ve even asked it of myself before. I suppose the contemporary answer would be a tongue-in-cheek comment about women being more interesting to both sexes because they are simply the more interesting gender. Women are frequently baffled by their own minds, actions and emotions, and that's to say nothing of how baffling women are to men in practically every respect. Both sexes seem to be content to wave men off as “essentially simple creatures” (I’m not suggesting I agree with this statement, but it does tend to be a prevailing social conception). What does this mean for the ability of women to contribute to the body of literature, art and history? Well, if men believe they have already said what there is to say about women and they believe they’ve said it better than any woman could, why should they invite reciprocal observation? Why should men, in other words, bother to listen? A discouraging thought, to say the least, and one that squeezed women out before Woolf’s time and probably (even in today’s enlightened times… right) continues to do so today. After all, it's so frustrating to speak if nobody will listen.

Chapter 2 is devoted to research into what OTHERS think of women. For me, this begs the question, why should the opinions of Napoleon and Dr. Johnson and Pope and Mussolini matter more than what Woolf herself, as a bright and capable woman, can bring to the conversation? The intentionality of her research seems to say something of the nature of and need for self-reflection rather than reliance on the observations of others. After all, modern psychology suggests that a person who basis their self-image entirely upon the opinions of other is more likely to suffer self-esteem issues than a person who has a strong personal sense of self based upon their own perceptions mingled with those outside opinions. Does the female sex suffer from low self-esteem? I can’t imagine that those trying to make a meaningful contribution to a male dominated field, particularly one so guarded as literature or art, would not, to some extent.

I found several instances in the piece that seemed like Woolf was deliberately playing off the self-conception of women in general. The most glaring was the use of capital letters for the title of Professor von X’s work: “THE MENTAL, MORAL, AND PHYSICAL INFERIORITY OF THE FEMALE SEX.” Writing it like that seemed to be a technique for commenting on the idea that that concept is shouted into the ears of all humanity through the mouth of culture (Sorry, I’m borrowing a metaphor from a favourite book here - Ishmael by Daniel Quinn - you should all read it) While it is rare that a person would sit another down and tell them, “now listen, you are mentally, morally and physically inferior,” that does not mean that the construction of our culture doesn’t teach that message, indeed, scream it to us constantly from the day we are born.

I also have to mention the concept of Judith Shakespeare. I had heard the theory before, told elaborately, though I’m dashed if I can remember where. Quite possibly from Jasper Fforde, but I can’t say for certain. What I can say is that I shamefully had no idea whatever that it was of Woolf’s invention. I’m glad I know the provenance of the tale now, as I think it’s a fascinating and instructive one.

On a closing note, I think the line “Women have served all these centuries as looking–glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” may be one of the greatest damn things I’ve ever read. I love that Woolf may speak passionately about a serious topic and never loose her incredible capacity for sly wit. A new favourite quote, to say the least.

Monday, March 10, 2008

What time is it? It's TIME!

What is it with time, anyway? The modernists are positively obsessed. Not in a science fiction-y Doctor Who H.G. Wells sort of way but in a how does the actual passage of time define our lives on Earth sort of way. Eliot repeats the theme endlessly in Prufrock and The Wasteland. Woolf plays with it just as much. I recall being struck by the use of time in Orlando when I read it and it was no less important in Mrs. Dalloway. It’s as though time doesn’t merely exist, but is an actual character, capable of influencing and interacting with others in all of these stories. Clearly this plays into the very fabric of modernism, which I am still too much of a Modernist-newbie to fully comprehend. I can see the themes, but I’m not certain how best to engage with them. So what about time, then. I would be lying if I said I never considered the unique place that time plays in our culture. We remember personal events by their place in our individual timelines and we study history as a chronology. Time matters. 11am 11/11/1918. 12/07/1941. 02/09/1964. 9/11/2001. Everything is defined by time. Did modernism represent a change in the way time was conceived? I think of pre-modernist writing as dealing more in space, so maybe they just though about things in a different way. This five minute read brought to you by Tom and Virginia.

Steinberg believes that Septimus is a derivation of T.S. Eliot. Interesting. I can’t fault his logic and he does make some solid connections. As I was reading, though, it struck me that he wasn’t taking Woolf’s own illness into account. He devoted a single line near the end of his essay to the idea in passing to say that perhaps Woolf’s own illness was an influence as well. Having had very close dealings with bipolar disorder (which I didn’t realize Woolf suffered from until our discussions last class) myself, I would be interested in reading up on how much of Septimus’ madness is derived from her own experience. I know there must be oceans of scholarship devoted to it. Can the character be an amalgamation of Woolf and Eliot both? How deliberate were the parallels, do you suppose? The thing is, that from my experience, I’ve found that manic depressives are not self aware enough to conceive themselves as mad. I know Woolf had an uncommonly brilliant mind, but how mad can a person be if they recognize their own madness? How capable was she of engaging with that facet of her life. For truly, find me the madman that is categorically, logically and creatively aware that he is mad. Is he out there?

I also wanted to mention a phrase. I don’t know how important it is or if, indeed, it holds any importance at all, but it kept cropping up so I feel obliged to comment on it. “Is that it?” It seems like such a paltry thing and yet it leaped from the page and stuck in my mind. Why, I wonder, does she use this phrase so frequently in the text? Maybe I’m rolling a bit too “new critic” here, but there must be a reason. It speaks of uncertainty and a particular kind of frustration. Perhaps even a bit of an accusatory undertone, which, as it is found prominently in inner monologue, speaks volumes about the character.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Innocence and Experience in The Garden Party

The Garden Party intrigues me. It intrigues me further in light of Atkinson’s article “Mrs. Sheridan’s Masterstroke: Liminality in Katherine Mansfield’s Garden Party”. Atkinson spends a great deal of time defining the elements of the story that set the narrative in a “carnival”-type atmosphere of defying expectations and topsy-turvy situations. What interests me is the quote from Nicholas Nownes that Atkinson refers to several times, namely that “Garden Party is “the story of a young girl’s initiation from experience to innocence”. I am interested in the state of innocence and the state of experience, which characters fall into which categories, what the opposing states mean for Laura, which state she is in at the beginning versus the end of the story and what that means for the message that Mansfield is trying to convey through her narrative.
Innocence and experience could be defined in several contrary readings of the story. It is possible that Laura, seemingly more enlightened than her siblings (she is, after all, the one who is sent to liaise with the workmen setting up the marquee) began in experience and through the machinations of her mother and the chance events that brought her to the Scotts’ cottage, was “purged” of her liberal sentiments by the trial and was thus purified into a state of innocence at the end. It is equally possible that she began the play in a state of innocence and was transformed through one or more of several experiences. I would argue that if the second interpretation is to be expounded upon, it was the moment when she apologized to the corpse for her hat that wrought the change from one state to the other. In the face of death, all seem equal and the distinction of her hat, so important hours before in the context of the party is rendered not only ridiculous but positively offensive. The brilliance of the narrative is that the story lends itself to both interpretations. It is equally true that both interpretations are indictments of the bourgeoisie.
Extrapolating from the first interpretation, the bourgeoisie is indicted through their corruption of the fair-minded Laura. Her foil, tellingly give a name remarkably similar to her own, Laurie represents this corruption in my mind. He is the “ideal” of bourgeois social innocence. In order for Laura to become acceptable to her class, she must be purged of her social awareness and worse, sympathy and become like Laurie. This reading is supported by the fact that it is Laurie who accompanies her on jaunts into the poor district. He remains, according to his class, “uncorrupted” by sympathy. The fact that it is he who goes to collect Laura after her ordeal and that he seems to have a tacit understanding of her feelings suggests that she has emerged like him. Mansfield seems to be saying that the reader ought to be slightly revolted by this. I was. Incidentally, I slightly resent Atkinson’s comparison of Laurie to Bertie Wooster. As a major fan of Wodehouse, I can see a resemblance in character, but Laurie’s function, in my opinion, distances him from a parallel with Plum’s frequent protagonist. Bertie would have cared. So there (insert childish harrumphing here).
The second reading is an indictment also. If Laura travels from innocence to experience, we are confronted by the absurdity of everything that occurred before the death of the carter. If it is absurd than the class distinctions, so fundamental to the very idea of a garden party, are also absurd. We are invited to witness Laura’s transformation and decry the ease with witch she reintegrates herself into her former lifestyle via her short conversation with Laurie at the end.
As a final aside, ever since I was a small child my favourite sandwich has ALWAYS been egg and olive. This is the first time I have ever heard it mentioned anywhere outside of my own family, and to hear it so derided, well, I must confess I was a bit hurt. That is all.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Whatever Did She Mean by it All?

This post comes with a very important disclaimer. I have the flu. I refuse to allow it to keep me from updating my blog on time, but I beg that any bizarre tangents, blatant errors or inexplicable non-sequiters may be processed by the reader through the knowledge that my mind is currently in a most disreputable state. Therefore, read on, MacDuff.

The foregrounding of the snail is an intriguing device. I am irretrievably reminded of Dead Poet’s Society when Mr. Keating forces his students to stand on his desk to view the room at a different angle. Far from a pointless exercise, it allowed them to readjust, if only slightly, their perspective on the classroom, if not the world. The suggestion that Kew Gardens has no “moral,” as John Oakland claims E.M. Forster believed, therefore fall flat, in my opinion. The very choice to offer the snail’s perspective of the garden and the people who pass through it is some kind of lesson at least.

Perhaps I’m reading this in an odd and unintended manner, but the opening of Kew Gardens sure sounds a bit “Romantic” to me. After spending a class drawing up the differences between the romantics and the classicists, and in particular placing the latter above the former in general, I cannot help but wonder if, like the distinction between heroic and domestic modernism, Woolf may have entertained a higher opinion of romanticism than did many of her contemporaries. The work is, after all, heavily laden with nature imagery and in particular, the repetition of “heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves,” connects flora and fauna in a, dare I say it? Wordsworthian sort of way.

That said, I was struck by the sheer freshness of the piece. Self-aware is the word I would choose. It was as if Woolf wrote it chiefly as a study of itself. There was the fabulous and intentional study of metaphor with the shoe and the dragonfly as well as the couples under the trees as the ghosts of the past. The heavy imagery, the symbolism of the snail’s journey and the futility of vocal silence, the exploration of inner monologue and outward dialogue, directly spoken and indirectly overheard… It was as if it was written as a challenge: “Write a story about how to tell a story, but don’t let anyone know that’s your aim.” Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps it’s my addled brain.

If that whole idea seems a bit far fetched, consider that the last paragraph presents a directed interpretation of her own work: “Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children…” she has returned to the intense description of the opening of the story, but has included in the shades of colour the people in the garden as well. It seems that Woolf is actually making a very real statement about the place of people within the world – no more, but no less important, diverse and beautiful than any other element of nature. In addition, the observation that voices are not breaking in upon silence because there is no silence, is a point I’d like to discuss in class as I consider myself ill-equipped to tackle it alone in my present state of mind.

As to The Mark on the Wall, I agree with the string of scholars quoted by Marc D. Cyr in the beginning of his article, particularly. Woolf makes an interesting point in her story, namely, that the burning desire for concrete evidence of all things can be a detriment to the faculty of understanding. I return to a point I have made a few times this semester: the distinction between Truth, which the modernists rejected, and truth, which they sought. What makes The Mark on the Wall is that at any given moment in the story the mark actually was whatever it was speculated to be at that moment. The definite pronouncement at the end that it is a snail denies those truths and instead puts forward a Truth. The presentation shows that Woolf intended for her reader to rebel at the conclusive proof of the mark’s nature. I, at least, was disappointed, for the speculation was the joy of the story, not the answer. To spout a cliché, it is the journey, not the destination from whence the pleasure is derived. This reversal of expectations – to ask “what is the mark?” to wonder and consider and learn and then to be disappointed with an actual answer, well, that is an impressive feat indeed. Woolf manages in The Mark on the Wall to achieve something incredible; she actually alters the reader on an intrinsic level. From “I must know” to “I am happy just to wonder” in a few short pages.