"How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached after all?"
This thought process of Lily Briscoe occurs early in To the Lighthouse, and has always struck me as not only Woolf's take on the piecing out of individual relationships but also a set of questions in which one could just as easily insert the word "art" or "writing" as "people." A set of questions that many a reader brings to Woolf's writing. Admiration sometimes tinged by a bit of ambivalence. The sensation of words washing over one without adequate comprehension of exactly what is being said. Or the affinity one feels for Woolf's writing or craft but with a vague unease at seemingly skeletal plots. Or characters too distant to appeal. Dissatisfaction with a prolonged stay in the interior of the mind versus the physical world. Again, back to the water imagery of her work, the novels ebb and flow, leaving the reader where? Especially in To the Lighthouse? Reflecting on impermanence.
The lighthouse stands as a permanent structure, a beacon. And yet all of the characters in this novel see it in a different way pointing to the fact that permanence is an illusion. That whereas we may be comforted or defined by our subjective interpretations of that which appears lasting, little endures aside from art where we still a subjective reality to share. But still a subjective vision. And that is where we see Woolf cut from one character's mind to another, consciously examining the quandary of how to achieve value in artistic achievement when all who view an object or read a book or poem see it in a different light.
So in the context of To the Lighthouse, how does one achieve permanence or truth or authenticity in a world that offers none of these things? Well, I like to think that Mrs. Ramsay knows. I quoted a favorite passage here yesterday:
". . . it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge . . ."
Intimacy. The seeking of smaller individual truths that point not to some grand, universal understanding of life but to a myriad of expressions of meaning.
Meandering thoughts here today because I just had a tearful re-read of To the Lighthouse. A personal loss this week left me more mindful of the very things I have written about here. More appreciative of the emotional content of this Woolf work. Touched by the examinations of love and beauty, of life's small moments. Residing in passages like this:
"It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity: as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures."
Or in our frustrated attempts to define:
"It seemed now as if, touched by human penitence and all its toil, divine goodness had parted the curtain and displayed behind it, single, distinct, the hare erect; the wave falling; the boat rocking, which did we deserve them, should be ours always. But alas, divine goodness, twitching the cord, draws the curtain; it does not please him; he covers his treasures in a drench of hail, and so breaks them, so confuses them that it seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth. For our penitence deserves a glimpse only; our toil respite only."
Or in the words of another admiring reader, Eudora Welty:
"... and to an extraordinary degree the novel seems to partake of its own substance, to be itself a part of this world, for there is a felt rhythm, too, underlying the novel's structure and forming a pattern of waking and sleeping, presence and absence, living and living no longer, between clamorous memory of lapses of mind, between the rushing in of love and the loosening of the hand in sleep."
Many thanks to our lovely host, Emily, on this second stop of Woolf in Winter. Stop by her post here for updated links to other's thoughts on To the Lighthouse. Please join us on February 12 for Orlando? Right here. But more on that later...