Wednesday, November 6, 2019

"The sea was more important now than the shore."

Since starting To the Lighthouse I’d been noticing all kinds of references to subjects and objects, which was prompted chiefly by this passage:
Whenever she [Lily] "thought of his [Mr. Ramsay’s] work" she always saw clearly before her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew's doing. She asked him what his father's books were about. "Subject and object and the nature of reality," [my emphasis] Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant. "Think of a kitchen table then," he told her, "when you're not there."
At first, I had thought Woolf was setting up Mr. Ramsay’s work to be an extension of the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, but it’s unlikely she would’ve known about Bakhtin. Instead, I think she’s drawing on Henri Bergson’s work. Bergson was much more well known in the early twentieth century, so Woolf would’ve easily encountered his ideas.

The more I read, the more obvious it was that Woolf was very much conversant with Bergon’s philosophy. Not only does she have Mr. Ramsay’s work be about "subject and object and the nature of reality," but she also has Mrs. Ramsay do all the difficult lifting of that work. It’s Mrs. Ramsay who thinks through all the nuances of subjectivity and objectivity.

Mrs. Ramsay fleshes out the parameters of Bergson's proto-phenomenology, dissecting the nuances of subject/object, active/passive, whole/parts, past/present, and perception/memory, mostly while holding court at the table, the object that puts reality and human relations into question.

At times, Mrs. Ramsay see the lighthouse sends out its light. At other times, she “reflects” the light of the lighthouse. And still other times, she becomes (as if) the light itself, like in Section 11:
Often she found herself sitting and looking, sitting and looking, with her work in her hands until she became the thing she looked at—that light, for example. And it would lift up on it some little phrase or other which had been lying in her mind like that—"Children don't forget, children don't forget"--which she would repeat and begin adding to it, It will end, it will end, she said. It will come, it will come, when suddenly she added, We are in the hands of the Lord [emphasis added].
And she gets instantly annoyed with herself for that last sentence that comes from outside her own mind:
But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who had said it? Not she; she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean. She looked up over her knitting and met the third stroke and it seemed to her like her own eyes meeting her own eyes, searching as she alone could search into her mind and her heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie. She praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light. It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one's being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover [emphasis added].
Here you have the whole subject/object, perception/memory problem being worked out and worked over. On top of that, you have the modernist wordplay: a rose (flower), rose (verb) from the lake, and then there’s the daughter Rose. Later at the table (what was to always remind Lily of Mr. Ramsay’s work), they recite poems with the repeated phrase “Chinese rose,” which also merges Lily (another flower, but with “Chinese eyes”) with the daughter Rose.

These phenomenological analyses are even more fleshed out in the middle third of the book and come to a head in the final section, where Lily Briscoe completes and culminates the ruminations of Mrs. Ramsay: "It is finished."

On the back cover of my cheap, used paperback copy is this reductionist bullshit: "The subject of this brilliant novel is the daily life of an English family in the Hebrides." Well, no, Chad (and you know damn well it was a Chad), To the Lighthouse is as much about "the daily life of an English family in the Hebrides" as the Gospels are about the daily life of a Hebrew man with a Messiah Complex. It just as easily is about—and so much more than just about—how human beings are always (in) the act of  transcending what it means to be human.

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