The Novels of Virginia Woolf #5: To The Lighthouse

But what she [Lily] wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it had been made anything.  Get that and start afresh; get that and start afresh; she said desperately, pitching herself firmly against her easel.  It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.  She stared, frowning (Book III. Chapter 12).

…the fundamental problem of bourgeois thought [is] the problem of the thing-in-itself (Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness)

Lily wants to “get hold of… the very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it had been made anything.”  Likewise, Hegel narrates the life of spirit as an attempt to render into concepts (in German, begriffe, from begreifen, to comprehend, realize, grasp, get hold of), reality, existence, things as they exist in themselves, the Ding-an-sich.  Hegel describes the reconciliation of thought with its object variously as the goal of reason, the inevitable end of Absolute Spirit, or the realization of freedom.  Woolf, in writing Mrs. Dalloway, tries to solve Hegel’s problem, one that uses a universalizing style that transcends individual consciousnesses to include something collective in human community, and also one that strives towards a universality at the level of theme, in Clarissa’s vision, one which strives to make her party an ultimate act of sacrifice, that renders holy the seemingly mundane, upper-class activity of party-going.  Septimus’s death impinges on this thematic unity, even though at the level of style, many connections are made between Clarissa and Septimus, and also between human and non-human, male and female, well and sick, and many of the dichotomies Mrs. Dalloway problematizes.  But what Woolf can’t square except at the expense of making Clarissa ultimately shallow, thereby undermining the goal of thematic unity, is a sort of theodical question about the relationship between Clarissa’s achievement of perfect happiness and its material conditions – empire, war, “proportion” and “conversion,” conditions which are  significant causes of Septimus’s suicide, conditions which the narrative critiques mid-novel, but seems to set aside as the action shifts to Clarissa’s party.  Some sense of disunity, requiring a problematic act of simplistic holistic spiritualism (“his death… made her feel the fun”) on Clarissa’s part, remains: a tension between theme and style, content and form, subject and object.

Hegel describes the unity of content and form as “the philosophical ideal,” one which strives to overcome the Kantian idea of the inaccessibility of things in themselves.  Kant, in confining the realm of knowledge to the conceptually perceived and sensorily intuited phenomena, had drawn a seemingly unbridgeable gap, and to close that gap becomes the task of post-Kantian German idealism.  To The Lighthouse dramatizes this problem in the aesthetic struggles of Lily Briscoe.  The addition of such an artist figure – or, the fuller fleshing out of such a character (both Septimus and Clarissa have artistic aspects that unify them) allows the self-conscious confrontation with this problem at both the level of form and content.  As Hermione Lee puts it, this novel indulges in

an elastic interplay between the real and the metaphysical, so that Mr and Mrs Ramsay’s marriage by now seems to be a reconcilement between abstract qualities which gives it a more than merely personal importance… The point of this constant emphasis on the disparity between thought and action is not that it should be psychologically convincing.  Perhaps not everyone thinks like this; but everyone in this novel must, because the characters are being used in the service of an abstract argument about the difficulty of infusing shapes with sense.  The recognizable shapes of daily life are frequently at odds with the sense which underlies them (123-4).

The argument that follows analyzes the project of To the Lighthouse at a very high level of abstraction – but I think it’s important to pause and consider just how “elastic” the interplay is.  There are moments of compelling psychological realism on nearly every page of To The Lighthouse; it is no mere thought experiment.  The emotional vivacity of the philosophical enquiry conducted gives it a unique kind of power to animate both the “real” and the “metaphysical,” in ways it’s very hard to describe.

To The Lighthouse begins with the search for unity the same way that Mrs. Dalloway does: through its matron-protagonist striving to unite the members of her social set at a dinner party.  Though an atheist, she is haunted by thoughts and feelings of God, ones which speak to her desire for unity with the world, and also her inability to reckon with the fundamental question of theodicy:

It will come, it will come, when suddenly she added, We are in the hands of the Lord.  But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that.  What had said it?  Not she; she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean… It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to things, inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers…felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one… What brought her to say that: “We are in the hands of the Lord?”  How could any Lord have made this world? (101-2; I.11)

Though there is no Septimus Smith in To the Lighthouse– that is, there is no manifest contradiction impinging on Mrs. Ramsay’s unification efforts, still there is an absence that leaves her ambivalent about her atheism, and there is also an ambivalence at the level of the text about the achieved unity at the end of the dinner party, a unity which is fleeting, and also hermetically confined to the world of the Ramsey’s vacation home.  The social contradictions have receded from view, not gone away.

They reemerge in “Time Passes,” the book’s most innovative section.  Whereas before, Septimus’s suicide threatened to upset a frustrated but ultimately resilient Clarissa, here, the death and dislocation of the Great War (in the death of Andrew) is actually syntactically aligned (in two parentheses) with the very death of Mrs. Ramsay, and the passage of ten years.  “Time Passes” is dialectically opposed to “The Window” in a way similar to the dialectical opposition between Clarissa and Septimus, but now, this central tension is raised to the level of narrative form, not only thematic content.  The reality of the upper-class family vacation home, a home seemingly frozen in time at the outset, is confronted by a view from the perspective of the house itself, and the domestic servants who stand in a more mediated and time-dependent way towards it.  In that sense, it’s not so far from Marx’s turn, at the end of part I of Capital, from the ideal world of “Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham” to the real struggles of the workers at the factories that generate that property.  Or for Lukacs, for whom the prolateriat is uniquely situated to grasp the mediation whereby things-in-themselves become inaccessible to the bourgeois, since for them, the entities of their existence exist as timeless, immediately accessible products, rather than the mediated result of time-bound processes.

But Woolf is no Marxist, and the solution of the final portion of the book – “The Lighthouse” – is not proletarian revolution, or cultural critique, but rather a more post-structuralist embrace of unity in disunity.  Mrs. Ramsay’s social unification gives way to Lily Briscoe’s aesthetic embrace of visual division as a unifying principle, and so the transition from a project of reconciliation premised in a socially connected protagonist gives way to a project which self-consciously considers the aesthetic dynamic of reconciliation between appearances as mediated by human consciousness and things as they are in themselves, a higher-order version of the previous tensions considered theologically or ethically/politically by Clarissa and Mrs. Ramsey.  Lily’s final version of the painting is strikingly similar to the final form of To The Lighthouse, the spatial divisions referenced in her painting mirroring the temporal break introduced by “Time Passes,” not uncoincidentally, the time during Mrs. Ramsay dies.

As Lee sees it, “the artist here rejects the passive forms of worship (such as Christianity) for what she considers a more arduous responsibility,” i.e., artistic expression (136).  That artistic expression begins in “The Window” as a more conventional effort at unity, centering around questions of the placement of a tree, but it shifts to something which considers dislocation and lack of unity in more abstract terms:

the link that usually bound things together had been cut, and they floated up here, down there, off, anyhow… Mr.s Ramsay dead; Andrew killed; Prue dead too… If only she could put them together, she felt, write them out in some sentence, then she would have got at the truth of things… Such were some of the parts, but how bring them together? She asked.  There had been a problem about a foreground of a picture.  Move the tree to the middle, she had said.  She had never finished that picture.  It had been knocking about in her mind all these years (227, III.1)

It is not a huge leap to hear echoes of Virginia Woolf narrating her own process in working out how to form To the Lighthouse; she had written the part some years ago (as Mrs. Dalloway) but did not know “how to bring them together.”  

But now, “it seemed as if the solution had come to her: she knew now what she wanted to do” (229, III.1).  And what is that?  After Cam, James and Mr. Ramsay depart, she was ‘sighing with relief and disappointment… She felt curious divided” (242, III.4)  As her solution comes to be narrated, we hear that “in the midst of chaos there was shape” (249, III.4).  She visualizes the end result by thinking “beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron” (264, III.6).  There is a temporal aspect to her art – so we are told, even if we can’t quite resolve what that might mean visually: “she went on tunnelling her way into her picture, into the past” (267, III.6).  In so doing, she is able to deal with the dead, “But the dead, thought Lily, encountering some obstacle in her design which made her pause and ponder… Oh the dead! She murmured, one pitied them, one brushed them aside, one had even a little contempt for them” (269, III.6), at some level echoing Clarissa Dalloway, but with the added element of time, having given it its own formal space (for Woolf, “Time Passes,” for Briscoe, “the tunnelling her way… into the past”).  Recognizing the pull of Mrs. Ramsay’s project (“it had seemed so safe thinking of her” – 275, III.7), after being brought to tears (277, III.7), she feels a moment of unity – “The sea and sky looked all one fabric… the cliffs looked as if they were conscious of the ships, and the ships looked as if they were conscious of the cliffs, as if the signaled to each other some secret message of their own,” (280, III. 8), she draws tantalizingly close to the already quoted “thing itself before it had been made anything.”  

Later, though, she falls back on the isolating notion that “She murmured, dreamily, half asleep, how we perished, each alone” (293, III.11), immediately following this thought with the idea that “So much depends… upon distance” (293, III.12).  And again the problem of “disproportion there seemed to upset some harmony in her own mind.  She felt an obscure distress… she could not achieve that razor edge of balance between two opposite forces; Mr. Ramsay and the picture which was necessary… There was something perhaps wrong with the design?” (296).  This remark interestingly echoes her question of Joyce, whether it is “due to the method” that it leaves us feeling “neither jovial nor magnanimous, but centered in a self which in spite of its tremor of susceptibility never reaches out or embraces or comprehends what is outside and beyond.”

To The Lighthouse’s final chapter echoes Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts about Judeo-Christian divine will, with Lily’s observation that Mr. Carmichael looked “like an old pagan God” (319, III.14); if the former suggests a unified and rationally explicable, monotheistic whole, the latter one member of an amorphous and chaotic pantheon.  At the conclusion, “with a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre” (319, III.14).  That line is important because it is no longer a tree, but instead a line – she has taken a step out of her assumed naturalistic mode of presentation towards something more abstract; just the same, “Time Passes,” transcends the previously assumed unifying, streams-of-united-consciousness project of Mrs. Dalloway. In both cases, a dimension, a level of abstraction is added.  Ultimately, Lily Briscoe’s painting may not, strictly speaking, even be physically describable from the words we are told about it, but insofar as its description serves to characterize the new aesthetic project of To The Lighthouse itself, and strives to resolve the struggle for unity at which Mrs. Dalloway strives for but never reaches, it occupies a crucial place in a fascinating modernist novel.

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