Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Burnt Norton

Because of To the Lighthouse and because of my current research of Maori lintels, I have been thinking a lot about liminal states of being. I see a great deal of liminality in Eliot's Four Quartets, particularly in "Burnt Norton." I liked Middleton's argument that situates the poem itself as having a kind of in-betweenness: originally written as a modern poem, Eliot recast it in the Four Quartets as both a poem present as a modern poem and as a ghost of modernism itself—it is, as Middleton notes, "'caught in the form of limitation/ Between un-being and being" (88). What Middleton suggests is that the poem exists only in the space and time before the other poems in the series have been read—it is thereafter "erased" (83). I think that the poem also situates human existence as being in a state of constant liminality. In this way, we resemble the poem itself.
For Eliot, it seems, the reason for this in-between state is time. Time is a medium that denies stable existence because of its constant movement. I think this is what he first hints at when he writes, "All time is unredeemable" (I: 5). The first section seems to be primarily about past time, which the narrator seems to chase as "echoes" (I: 19) through the rose garden. Venturing into the past ("our first world" (I:24)), our "eyebeam" is "unseen" (I: 30) by the "invisible" (I:25) people of the past. Venturing into the past thus creates a sort of cancellation of our existence, and I think this is what the bird refers to when he says "human kind / Cannot bear very much reality" (I: 44-5). The ending lines of the section, "Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always the present" (I: 46-8), seem to indicate that both types of time force existence into the present. But, as the rest of the poem shows, the present hardly exists at all because of the insistence of time.
The second section seems to be a description of the present. The "bedded axle-tree" (II:2) of the second section functions as an image of spiritual existence, which is caught in the present—the axle-tree is positioned between two wheels which represent the movement of past time on one hand and future time on the other. That these wheels are not mentioned here perhaps illustrates their elusiveness, or the inability to really know them. The "Garlic and sapphires in the mud" (1) which "Clot" (2) the axle-tree could be those hyper-real flashes of experience to which we have access—the intensely bad (garlic) and the intensely good (the sapphires). Since some people are quite fond of garlic, this idea might not hold up—however, the potency of garlic and the brilliance of sapphires both point to a kind of intensity. In the next stanza, the "Neither/Nor" binaries are a reflection of the narrowness of human existence, the tiny gap between times in which we exist. We are neither one thing nor its opposite—we are somewhere in between. Existence, is "At the still point of the turning world" (I:16), a point between times, but Eliot makes sure to remind us "do not call it fixity" (18). The closing lines of the stanza, "I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. / And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time" (22-3), are a more explicit statement of how time cancels existence. The next stanza seems to be a longing for spiritual freedom from time, which we are not able to sustain because of "the enchainment of past and future / Woven in the weakness of the changing body" which "protects" us "from heaven and damnation / Which flesh cannot endure" (33-6). The empty space between "endure" (36) and the "Time" of the next line could function as the representation, again, of our liminality, which endures between time.
The third section would logically be a description of the future, and I think it is that; however, it is a meditation rather on a different kind of time, a time which has become "Time before and time after" (III: 2) rather than "time past" or "time future." I think this is the time surrounding existence. It is death. Perhaps it is a kind of purgatory or even damnation that the souls could "Descend" (25) into. Perhaps having to remain in the world—the mention of certain locations indicates a worldly attachment— while not being of it is a kind of hell Either way, it seems to be one method of escaping time, this living in "Internal darkness" (28).
The fourth section also seems to be a kind of reference to death, and perhaps both represent the future because all futures hold death. The fourth stanza represents a brighter type of future, however. Here, "light"(9) is present, and we are perhaps full of light, as it is possible that the "sunflower" and "clematis" may "turn to us" (3).
The final fifth section, I would argue, is not a part of the poem proper—it is supplementary to the quartet as a fifth piece of it. It is outside the literal "time" of the poem, as it has no rhyme scheme whatsoever. "The Word in the desert" (V: 19) almost has to be the word of God, which is placed in contrast to human words that "strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden" (13-14). I think this stanza thus describes the active pursuit of the salvation that would result in the death of Section IV.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Unity and Division in To the Lighthouse

Division as Unity in The Lighthouse

As Mark Hussey notes in his introduction to To the Lighthouse, Woolf insisted that she "meant nothing by The Lighthouse” (lx). I must admit I had a difficult time accepting that it meant nothing in particular. Woolf's explanation that she uses the figure of the lighthouse as "a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together" (lx) makes it even more difficult for me not to ascribe meaning to the lighthouse, since it is this kind of line that Lily Briscoe finally uses to unify and complete her painting. As Hussey also points out, "most readers of To the Lighthouse have understood, Lily Briscoe's efforts to create a painting while staying with the Ramsays are analogous to Virginia Woolf's own efforts to create a novel" (xli). Perhaps Woolf would have wished for her readers to avoid limiting the lighthouse's symbolism by assuming it represents only one thing. I would argue that the lighthouse means different things from different vantage points. At a distance, the lighthouse seems to represent a unity and autonomy effected through the division of space. The lighthouse as a dividing line sits in juxtaposition to marriage, which is supposed to create unity, but in fact, in its unification of social space, creates the opposite, voiding autonomy and mental unity alike. In this respect To the Lighthouse and A Room of One's Own seem to have a great deal in common. Up close, however, the lighthouse dominates space instead of dividing it. Seemingly large and monolithic at close range, the lighthouse is rendered completely impotent; within the unified space of the small island upon which the lighthouse stands, it is impossible to see the light the lighthouse projects so that the lighthouse loses its significance.
It seems significant that Mrs. Ramsay gains a sense of peace and of autonomy from the lighthouse, not by going to it, as her husband later does, but by having the painter's perspective of it, by observing it at a distance without being able to characterize it completely. It is in the division, the in-between space the lighthouse casts through its beam, that Mrs. Ramsay has real freedom: "Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience. . .but as a wedge of darkness. . . pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke. . .which was her stroke" (66). Thus separate from herself, perhaps the created self she must act within her marriage, Mrs. Ramsay achieves mental unity or clarity: "She. . .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 heart, purifying out of existence that lie, any lie" (66).
This allowing division to achieve unity is impossible for Mr. Ramsay, who mistakenly sees closeness as the path to unification with his wife. Always needing her, always breaking down the dividers in actual space, Mr. Ramsay increases the mental disjunction between them. After Mrs. Ramsay has died, Mr. Ramsay's journey to the lighthouse itself shows his inability to appreciate the division of space; he does not even bother to look up from his book until they are so close to the lighthouse that its significance is altered. Lily, on the other hand, is, from a distance, able to finally realize what Mrs. Ramsay had realized but was unable, because of her marriage, to act upon. In death, Mrs. Ramsay seems to have acquired distance. Indeed, it is through her contemplation of Mrs. Ramsay at a distance interposed by death that Lily is able to enact the division of space that bring unity in life. Before Mrs. Ramsay's death, Lily believed that "bringing in the line of the branch across so. . ." might cause "the unity of the whole" to be "broken" (57); afterwards, she is able to see that one single solitary line helps the whole of her painting to hang together. Significantly, it is after realizing that distance in human relationships helps those relationships to prosper that she is able to complete her painting.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Not Just the Androgynous Man

For some reason, Virginia Woolf always makes me reflect upon the reasons I did not like Howards End. A Room of One’s Own clarified my own anger just as Mrs. Dalloway did. I was, like Woolf, “ confused and disturbed by the woman-hating of her [Woolf’s] homosexual friends” (Marcus 177). Forster depicted the Schlegels as educated witty women, but there is definitely an undercurrent of misogyny, difficult to place, in the novel. Forster seems to suggest that the liberation of women, their independence, requires the complete destruction of the vigorous man, Henry Wilcox. The women in Howards End must have his house. Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is a rebuttal, though not necessarily an intentional one, of Forster’s obscured claim that female power necessarily destroys the man from which women wrest that power. Woolf herself, as Marcus explains, does not wish to merely “reverse sexual prejudice”; her desire for women is small—one room as opposed to an entire house, one moderate income as opposed to the control of multiple incomes.
I didn’t feel, however, as Marcus argues, that the “male reader must deny his own gender and Shakespeare” in order to “find a place for himself” in the text (173). I think Woolf attempts to have even the patriarchal and misogynist male identify with the text. There are certainly instances of sympathy with him, which seem to cushion the blow of disapprobation. After being barred from the Oxbridge library, which certainly makes the narrator angry, she catches herself in the midst of her anger, saying “and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in” (24). This thought suggests a moment of sympathy with patriarchal men; she is acknowledging that these men are not entirely in control of themselves.
The narrator’s anger with Professor von X contains similar moments. Angry at the professor, the narrator pauses to look at the less than flattering image she has created of him, and, instead of denouncing him, takes the time to understand him. This suggests at least some level of sympathy. Indeed, the narrator wonders if women could be complicit in the creation of his anger: “Could it be his wife, I asked, looking at my picture. Was she in love with a cavalry officer?” (31). Of course, women are not to blame, but that the narrator considers it as a possibility is illustrative of Woolf’s empathy. Interestingly, the situation is not exactly Professor von X’s fault either. Susan Gubar has linked Professor von X’s behavior to the “psychosis of fascism” (24), and indeed, it seems as if Woolf does not lay the blame for male behavior entirely upon them. Their behavior is a kind of sickness, for which they cannot be entirely responsible for until that sickness has become clear to them: it is “an anger that had gone underground. . .anger disguised and complex not anger simple and open” (32) and an anger that is “ an eagle, a vulture , forever tearing the liver out and plucking out the lungs” (38). I would argue that part of A Room with a View’s project is to show men to themselves. It is in part because they do not know themselves that they do such damage to women. Men are sick rather than evil.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Proportion in Mrs. Dalloway

What struck me most about Mrs. Dalloway is its resistance to proportion. This novel helped me to pinpoint more exactly what disturbed me so much about Howards End. It was the insistence upon proportion when the observance of proportion, its enactment, seemed somehow cold, inhumane, and unnatural.
Woolf's resistance to proportion comes through clearly not only in the novel, but also in her essays "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" and "Modern Fiction." In a sense, her claim that Many" of the "young Georgians" like "Mr. Forster and Mr. Lawrence. . .spoilt their early work because, instead of throwing away those tools, they tried to use them. They tried to compromise" ("Mr. Bennett" 246) is a condemnation of proportion as an approach to the act of writing literature itself. Her implication seems to me to be that Forster, who describes houses in Howards End at much the same length as Mr. Bennett seems to in his novels, fails because of his Edwardian focus on the "fabric of things" (245), which he attempts to place in equal proportion with the less tangible inner lives of his characters. In "Modern Fiction," Woolf explains the dilemma that the Modern novelist faces: having to forge new tools for expression because "the essential thing. . .refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide" (3).
Mrs. Dalloway succeeds where Howards End failed precisely because Woolf discards proportion, both in her approach to writing itself and as a thematic structure. The inner life in Mrs. Dalloway does not meekly submit to the outer life—its is disproportionate, overflowing as it actually does. The outer world, instead of solidly existing, is filtered through the minds of her characters. The character Septimus is a striking example of the resistance of Woolf's writing to proportion. When Septimus sees Evanas "behind the railings," or behind the screen, Woolf does not intercede to impress reality or proportion. She does not interfere to say that what he sees is or is not there. We only have the minds of other characters to turn to, and whether the reality of those minds is more or less correct is left to us interpret.
Thematically, Mrs. Dalloway is anti-proportion. Indeed, Sir William Bradshaw for whom proportion is a mantra, is the most universally detested character of the novel. He is its primary evil force. It is in describing Bradshaw's "Worshipping" of "proportion" (97) that Woolf allows herself to intervene, adding at the last minute only that it was "Rezia Warren Smith" who "divined it," i.e. the presence of proportion's "sister": "Conversion is her name and she feast on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace" (97-98). When Septimus finally recovers from his shell shock, or seems to be in the process of recovering, it is the perceived imposition of proportion that forces him to his death. It hardly seems accidental that it is after this episode that Peter thinks "One of the triumphs of civilization" (147). Woolf seems to be arguing that proportion and its sisters conversion are what is behind the destructive imperialism of the English—only she sees the impulse working both internally and externally. Clarissa's party is, I think, in some ways a refutation of such impulses.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"He'd willingly make rubble of the earth / And swallow up creation in a yawn"

Although I've read The Waste Land before, I have always been taught that it is a poem expressing the so-called "'disillusionment of a generation,'" an idea which Eliot himself calls "nonsense." Because of New Criticism, among other things, we have come to expect to extract from a poem one tiny nugget of meaning which can serve as summation of the whole. With The Waste Land, such a paring down is impossible. As Misty wrote in her blog, we could easily devote an entire course to the reading of the works to which the poem refers in order to approach the poem.
Without being reductive, it has been difficult for me to arrive at a satisfactory meaning. I was thus encouraged by Eliot's own approach to a difficult work in his essay "Ulysses, Order, and Myth." He writes, "All that one can usefully do. . .is to elucidate any aspect of the book—and there number of aspects is indefinite—which has not yet been fixed" (175). I wouldn’t dare to say that any portion of The Waste Land has gone unexamined (has "not yet been fixed"), but I think the idea of attacking one "aspect" at a time is particularly useful to attempt understanding the poem.
I attempted to understand the poem's positioning of boredom ennui as the ultimate sin. Brooks's argument that the last line of "The Burial of the Dead" taken from Baudelaire is meant to complete "the universalization of Stetson begun by the reference to Mylae" by showing that "Stetson is every man including the reader and Mr. Eliot himself" seemed to me an incomplete interpretation. I think, in light of the Baudelaire poem "To the Reader," that this line is an accusation—a universal one, yes—of the worst of sins, which is not lust necessarily, as I think Brooks would argue, but boredom. Lust functions as a result of boredom—it is a symptom rather than a cause. Lust is evil, but it is not the root of evil.
In the poem, this boredom as the worst of sins is most apparent in "The Fire Sermon" where the typist allows herself to be subject to the clerk's lust simply out of boredom: "The meal is ended she is bored and tired" (236). If lust were the driving sin of the poem, we could expect more emphasis to be put on the clerk, but once the act is over, he disappears. It is the woman and her ennui that are subject to the poet's censure. In calling her the "'lovely woman'" who "'stoops to folly'" (253), the poet seems to suggest that she ought to kill herself as the subject of Olivia's song should, "her guilt to cover." Instead, the typist "puts a record on the gramophone" (256). Later in the section, the same type of relationship occurs between Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester, and again, it is the object of lust who bears blame rather than the man who lusts. She is the one who can "connect / Nothing with Nothing/ la la " (301-303). The "la la" seems to be a restatement of her boredom, a restatement of the diversion from boredom that her relationship to Leicester was. While he weeps, she remains bored, indifferent. The following burning of St. Augustine, which eventually leads him back to salvation, is something the Queen figure cannot experience. Neither the typist nor the Queen actually do anything in this section—they allow things to be done to them, and this calls their very existence into question. As Eliot writes in his essay on Baudelaire: "'So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist'" (qtd. in Brooks 186). The idea of boredom and the resulting inaction as ultimate sin makes sense in light of the "aboulie" (inability to act) from which Eliot suffered during his breakdown and his writing of the poem.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Inner and Outer Selves

In her "Writing the Secret Self," Angela Smith views the "secret self" of Mansfield's stories as a self in touch with "a darker vision" (415); the access to this dark vision, she writes later, can be seen in moments of "insecurity and terror" occurring in the home, where the characters mistakenly "thought they were safest" (419). She cites as one of these moments Linda's encounter with the wallpaper in "Prelude." While Smith seems to view these moments of terror as glimpses into the secret self, I would argue, especially in Linda's case, that these are not glimpses at all—they are, rather, manifestations of the reversal of the inner self and the outer self. Though the tension between inner and outer selves is present for all of Mansfield's characters, for some of them the inner life has become or threatens to become the outer life, and that is why the moments to which Smith refers are so terrifying—they are signs of a takeover, so to speak.
These reversals are most evident in "Prelude." The Burnells and the Fairchilds are vulnerable to these reversals not because of the home in itself, but rather because of the isolation of their home. The outer self is, it seems, dependent upon the gaze of others to sustain it. This is why, though she cannot articulate it, Beryl is upset by having had to move from the town to the country. She has been dominated by her outer self, and without any one to see her, she becomes increasingly absurd to her inner or "real" self, which she cannot quite access. Because of her separation from the gaze of others, Beryl is forced to gaze upon herself, watching herself play guitar in her mind's eye. Ironically, it is the mirror that shows the falseness of the outer self, or makes Beryl conscious of it.
Linda, on the other hand, avoids the mirror precisely because the outer self that shields from the vision of the inner self is not fully present. Again, the reversal has everything to do with Linda's isolation—her sickness forces her to keep to herself so much that the outer self had long ago parted with the sustenance of the other's gaze. The move to the country seems to complete the reversal already present. Indeed, Linda's distaste for her husband is, in a way, a rejection of what little remains to her of the other's gaze. The incident with the wallpaper poignantly shows how the inner life has become more real to her than the outer life, so much so that she can actually touch it: ". . .she traced a poppy on the wall-paper with a leaf and a stem and a fat bursting bud. In the quiet, and under her tracing finger, the poppy seemed to come alive. She could feel the sticky, silky petals, the stem. . ." (91). Although Linda still seems to have some resistance to the inner self's complete takeover—she mentions being frightened of the "THEY" who are outward manifestations of the inner life—she does not try to shatter her sense of isolation as Beryl would, by talking, or singing to herself. She allows it, and can even see the "coming alive of things" as a benevolent force: "They listened, they seemed to swell out with some mysterious important content, and when they were full she felt that they smiled" (91).
For Linda's daughter Kezia, this process is in its more nascent stages. Fittingly, her inner life thus threatens to take over in the form of "IT" rather than "THEY." She encounters "IT" in the empty house from which they are moving (again, a locus of isolation). Of course, before the inner life can take over, Lottie (an "other") disrupts the process and resumes the gaze that sustains Kezia's outer self. Kezia's reaction, later in the story, to the decapitation of the duck is perhaps emblematic of her increasing fear, of which she is unaware, that the outward life of the body and the inward life of the mind could become disjoined. The duck, literally rent from the physical mechanism of its inner life, continues grotesquely in his outer life, his body traveling to the pond without his head. Kezia's plea "'Put head back!'" (106) can thus be read as "Put the inner life back!" Already, it is clear that Kezia, though afraid of the disjoining of selves, has begun to privilege the inner life, as her mother does. In this struggle between selves, the idea of children's play takes on a new significance. Play is not diversion—it is essential to the fashioning of the outer self. It is when children decide what they will outwardly be. Each game is a sort of catalog of options, a trying-on of outer selves. I saw the snail, present after the children's dinner party game, taking on a new significance in Mansfield's story. The snail is a sort of symbol of the inner and outer selves' fusion. The inner life, the snail's body, is somewhat amorphous—there is a formlessness and flexibility to it. The shell, which the snail builds, represents the outer life that the children build in their play. Interestingly, the snail's body eats the remains of the children's discarded "outer life"—the "geranium plate" (102)—showing how the inner life has the potential to "digest" or subsume its opposite.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Modernism, Marks, and Nausea

Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall" stood out among the short stories of Monday or Tuesday, for me for a number of reasons. In terms of its Modernism, the story seems to be a good example of the break from narrative form and from art that imitates the outer state of things. Of course, it is clearly not a break from mimesis in that the story's aim is to chronicle the inner life of its narrator. The mark itself strikes me as an example of Eliot's objective correlative or Clive Bell's significant form—it is a vivid image that encapsulates the emotional content of the story. That we do not know for most of the story what the mark is seems to affirm Bell's notion that significant form need not be representational to be effective. Indeed, it is the mark's form that is suggestive, and though the narrator has the impulse to decide what the mark actually is, the mark's actual nature is secondary in importance to its form. I found myself wishing at the end that I did not know that the mark is a snail, and I wonder still why Woolf would have included that information other than to highlight the idea that the mark's "true" nature is secondary.
This particular story also arrested me because I identified with the woman's contemplation of the mark on the wall. When I was younger I spent my fair share of time staring at the shapes I perceived in the popcorn finish of the ceiling, and though these shapes did not cause me to question the nature of reality then, the tendency to try and make sense of the haphazard, random, and really senseless things has led me in more recent times to the thought that perhaps nothing makes sense.
In this context, I cannot help but to place "The Mark on the Wall" as a sort of precursor to Sartre's Nausea. Having myself placed Existentialism as a sort of "masculine" philosophy, it was strange—and wonderful—to find it in Woolf. When the narrator writes, "How shocking and yet how wonderful it was to discover that these real things, Sunday luncheons, Sunday walks, country houses, and tablecloths were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms" (51), I immediately thought of Roquentin sitting under the chestnut tree thinking about the inadequacy of the word "root" to describe the thing that almost assaults him with its uncompromising presence. The "intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom" strikes me as an example of a kind of nausea, though one that is not cast as negatively. Even the narrator's description of the stalks of flowers and her inability to distinguish these from people or trees reminds me of the scene in Nausea where the trees seem to become these grotesque phalluses…
On another topic, I noticed that the predominance of green and blue in the Woolf stories in general is also a feature of Nausea, and I wonder if Sartre actively appropriated Woolf, or if not, if those colors are used to represent what you see if everything in vision becomes blurred. The sky and the earth blurred appear as nothing but blue and green perhaps?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thinking About Posts

In thinking about Modernism in terms of the first Post-Impressionist exhibition, it has become even more clear to me that Modernism contained the seeds for Post-Modernism. The quest for unity that seemed to preoccupy Moderns like Pound, Eliot, and Hulme clearly begins to fall apart with the Post-Impressionists. The name Fry attributed to Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, the Nabis, and others in itself represents an inability to locate a unifying principle.
As MacCarthy explains in his introduction to the exhibition of 1910, the apparent paradigm shift was one from trying to represent nature to one of self-expression. Classical detachment gives way to romantic individualism once again, but it is a romantic individualism not contained by the standards of an academy. The lack of coherence that results from the juxtaposition of individual expressions makes the Post-Impressionists impossible to pin down. I think Picasso's cubist paintings, detached and analytical (classical) as they were, makes the unity of the grouping even more suspect—he seems to contradict and embrace the paradigm shift Fry believed in at the time of the exhibition. I suspect that this is why Picasso's cubist paintings were left out.
The attempt to combine individualism with a unity of purpose continues after the exhibition with Clive Bell's idea of significant form. Again, the movement away from complete artistic detachment is apparent; instead of approving of the separation of inspiration and creation, Bell seems to want to close the gap between the two as much as possible, though he recognizes them as separate moments: "The creative impulse is one thing; creation another. If the artist's form is to be the equivalent of an experience, if it is to be significant in fact, every scrap of it has got to be fused and fashioned in the whit heat of his emotion" (103). The emotions, though they must be channeled, cannot be allowed to cool. Bell's "significant form" seems to be the equivalent of Eliot's objective correlative, except for this emphasis on keeping the emotional fire stoked. Instead of emotion followed by detachment, we get emotion and detachment coinciding at once—creation is fractured rather than linear.
What I found most refreshing about Roger Fry as an art critic is that he is able to adapt, to allow for contradiction in his own thought. In his "Retrospect" he writes, "Fortunately I have never prided myself upon my unchanging constancy of attitude. . ." (397). Of course, it is important to not the "but" after this utterance: ". . .but unless I flatter myself I think I can trace a certain trend of thought underlying very different expressions of opinion" (397). This "trend of thought" is a form of unity certainly, but I think the trend of thought to which Fry is referring is his constant attempts to be honest to himself about his reactions to art: "One can only watch for and try to discount these, taking every opportunity to catch one's sensibility unawares before it can take cover behind prejudices and theories" (398). In other words, what Fry was trying to do—admirably I think—was to react as an individual rather than letting prevailing theories or opinions blind him.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Whatever Happens to Isabel Archer?

If we can assume that the lady in Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" is an Isabel Archer figure if not the Isabel Archer portrayed in the Henry James novel, then Eliot's poem can serve as a kind of answer to the above question. Interestingly, this poem also seems to function as an illustration of what will happen to Prufrock should his indecision become decisive inaction.
The novel The Portrait of a Lady ends with Isabel rejecting Caspar Goodwood's passionate plea (with its attendant passionate kiss) that she leave her cruel and loveless husband Gilbert Osmond and stay with him (Goodwood) instead. Of course, at the time I read of her decision to go back to Rome and to Osmond, I was disappointed, but it made sense for Isabel to do the passionless thing. Anthony Mazzella has argued convincingly that Isabel's rejection of Caspar Goodwood had everything to do with her fears of "annihilation of the mind by the erotic" (611). As Mazzella also mentions, this kiss provokes a sense of "archetypal drowning" (611): "The world. . .seemed to open out all around her, to take the form of a mighty sea, where she floated in fathomless waters" (Portrait 489). It is this fear of the erotic and its encroachment upon the mind that seem to be the most significant links between the James novel and the two Eliot poems.
In Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady," Isabel, or someone like her, is living with the consequences of her rejection of passionate human connection. She has apparently befriended a young gentleman (I assume it's a gentleman?), but she can only hope for a limited connection: "But what have I, but what have I, my friend,/ To give you, what can you receive from me? /Only the friendship and the sympathy/ Of one about to reach her journey's end" (lines 64-7). The gentleman is as much averse as she once was to human connection. His reaction, ". . .how can I make a cowardly amends/ For what she has said to me" (69-70) along with the later callous references to her probable death—"Well! And what if she should die some afternoon"(114)—seem to indicate that this offering of herself is to the gentleman the "fornication" the epigraph portends. The lady becomes the object of the same kind of revulsion that motivated her own rejection of someone like Caspar Goodwood. She finally offers herself and it is too late—her life becomes a "'dying fall,'" a decrescendo, the opposite of triumphant. Like Prufrock, who has "measured out" his "life with coffee spoons"(51), she embraces the mundane, repeating, "I shall sit here, serving tea to friends" (68, 108).
Whereas the lady in "Portrait" no longer has a choice in the matter, Prufrock is still undecided. In the closing stanza, he expresses his fear of the human connection using the same image James uses to describe Isabel's distress—that of drowning: "We have lingered here in the chambers of the sea. . .Till human voices wake us, and we drown" (129-31). Tellingly, it is the human voice and not the sea itself that causes the drowning. As Prufrock explains earlier, the sea is not an unwelcoming place to inhabit: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas"(73-4). Of course, the condition is that the seas must be silent. Of course, Prufrock is ambivalent, and he has not decided what his answer to the "overwhelming question" (10) will be. I think the question has to be Should I connect? or possibly Is there salvation in connecting? If he does not connect, he will end up like Eliot's Elizabeth Archer--willing to offer himself when it is really too late.

The citation for the Mazzella article:
Mazzella, Anthony J. "The New Isabel." The Portrait of a Lady: Norton Critical Edition.2nd ed. Ed. Robert D. Bamberg. New York: Norton, 1995. 597-619. Print.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Well vs. the Bucket
In the past when thinking about Modernism, I tended to think about the removal of limits: vers libre, stream of consciousness fiction, enormous canvasses, etc. What I see in our reading for this week, however, is the very opposite: modernism as an imposition of limits. These are limits that echo Forster’s emphasis on “proportion”; however, Hulme, Eliot ,and Pound explain more concretely how this proportion is to be attained.
Having always associated the Victorian with the moral, the urgent call for an art that derives its structure from religion (present in both the Hulme and the Eliot essays) at first shocked me; after all, did the Moderns not immediately follow the Victorians? I have begun to see, however, that for the Moderns religious feeling had simply become divorced from its forms so that the forms themselves are no longer useful as a structure on which to build art. For Eliot, this disjunction is a “dissociation from sensibility” (64); for Hulme, it is the false idea that man is a “well” capable of infinite progress rather than (as he is properly) “a bucket” incapable of anything much without religion and tradition (94). The limiting factor called for, then, is the finitude of man in a God-centered system of thought. Like Hulmle, Eliot (in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) emphasizes tradition as yet another structure necessary for the production of sound art; for Eliot, the forming canon must engage in a dialectic with the existing canon and form a synthesis in which “the relations, proportion, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted” (par 4).
In terms of how the actual works are created, Pound, Hulme, and Eliot all seem to agree on that precision is of the utmost importance. Hulme’s description of how to think precisely is a process struck me as being nearly identical to that which I have learned to apply to drawing an image. Hulme writes, “There are then two things to distinguish, first the particular faculty of mind to see things as they really are, and apart from the conventional ways in which you have been trained to see them”(101). Distinguishing between the idea of an object gained through common knowledge and its actual appearance is one of the foremost obstacles to the creation of realistic visual art; the idea (or “ideal form,” if you will) gets in the way of accurate portrayal. When drawing the human form, for instance, the general knowledge of proportions (the ratio of the size of the hand to the size of the head, for instance) often obstructs the ability to draw what actually appears when the figure is seen from an oblique angle. Thinking like a visual artist seemed to enable the Moderns to use language with precision. As Pound wrote, the “’Image’” allowed expression of “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (59). Eliot, in his “Phillip Massinger,” calls for a similar immediacy of thought when he praises Donne’s era, when the “intellect was immediately at the tips of the senses” (156). Additionally, Pound’s insistence upon using “no superfluous words,” another limitation, functions to uphold the vibrancy of the image—such words can only “dull” it (60). Even in something as supposedly dry as criticism, the image seems to gain supremacy. In fact, I cannot get Hulme’s image of the “well” vs. the “bucket” out of my head.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Forster's Howards End and Marx's The Communist Manifesto

Having read these two works concurrently, perhaps it was inevitable that I would see a relationship between them. Marx's claim that the "history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (473) seems especially true of the society of Howards End. Of course, what English novel does not deal with class on one level or another?
It seems to me that the Wilcoxes in Howards End represent an ascendant middle class (or bourgeoisie) that oppresses a growing lower class (a sort of proletariat), represented by the Basts. The former intellectual ruling class that the Schlegels represent has becomes obsolete, and ridiculous even, in the face of this middle class and its ruthless practicality. While the Mr. Wilcoxes of the increasingly industrializing city have completely lost touch of the personal and think only in terms of the laws of economics, the former ruling class is too concerned with ideals no longer applicable to the conditions of the society in which they are living to accomplish anything.
This plays out most tragically with the interaction between Helen and Leonard Bast. She, clinging to the ideal of justice in a society no longer concerned with justice, is ill-equipped to save Bast from the economic machine that has flattened him. He is at first unable to attain upward mobility because he has such long working hours that he cannot educate himself. When Helen and Margaret mistakenly try to help him with a tip from the impersonal, exploitative bourgeois Mr. Wilcox, he becomes utterly ruined financially. Because his work at the insurance company had been so specialized, he is unfit for working at a bank and loses his position. Helen further demoralizes him by trying to help him gain a position with Mr. Wilcox. Helen, unable to accomplish anything with her ideology, turns to her body as the last resource, making the failed mental unification of the ruling class and proletariat a physical one. Of course, this fails also. The shame derived from these experiences, drives Bast to permanent unemployment and then to death.
Considering the tragic nature of the collisions of these classes, it was disturbing to me that once Leonard dies, the Schlegels and Wilcoxes suddenly live together in harmony. Margaret marries Mr. Wilcox and Helen, pregnant with Leonard's child, lives with them. Is this supposed to be a class reconciliation? How does the senselessness of Leonard's death (a bookcase falls on him and causes a heart attack) lead to the idyllic existence Forster describes at the close of the novel? I guess Forster's solution to class strife is to remove oneself from the city where the economic mechanism operates—it seems to be the house itself that saves them. Still, it seems implausible. I had the same feeling upon reading Marx's solution to the problem and its outcome. For Marx, abolishing private property would destroy the bourgeoisie so that "we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (491). In both cases, the violence it takes to get out from under the economic machine would seem to make a peaceful existence impossible.

Monday, August 24, 2009

My critical introduction to Modernism was via Clement Greenberg, the author of the notorious article "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." At the time I was an artist just beginning, and as seems to be pretty standard now for many artists, I started learning from the Moderns rather than from the Renaissance masters. In the sculpture I produced that year—when I was seventeen—my primary influences were works like Constantin Bancusi's Bird in Space and Marcel DuChamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase (incidentally, both of these were far too representational to have met Greenberg's narrow standards). Although my parents were very supportive of what I wished to do at the time, I suppose the reason I was attracted to Clement Greenberg's insistence that art represent only itself was due to the difficulty I had in trying to justify what I was doing. Of course, my unease was derivative, since, as Pericles Lewis implies, the raison d'ĂȘtre of art was a pressing concern for the Moderns (6-7). As an artist, it is very tempting to believe in what, as Lewis explains, Kant termed "the autonomy" of art (9). In other words, it is tempting to believe that art should exist for its own sake, especially if you happen to be the one making the art. And if you read Greenberg's mission statement for the avant-garde artist ("heroic" indeed, Dr. Reed), it becomes even more clear why an artist struggling with these questions would claim allegiance to someone as intolerant as Greenberg: "The avant-garde poet or artist tried in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms" (Greenberg 6). I know we are getting into blasphemous territory—I apologize. Nonetheless, if you are an artist of any kind, believing in and adopting such a mission is akin to being freed from the Platonic (Socratic?) contention that artists are "twice-removed," as Lewis puts it (6), from anything real. If you are an artist or writer, and you buy into the conventional Modern theory that an artist should and can create something that exists "on its own terms," then you suddenly feel that what you are doing is justifiable. You feel that you are breathing life into something with vitality, something the acolytes of Ezra Pound might call “New.” The irony is that to create something new, you have to create something that represents "nothing but itself" (Lewis 4). And my question is, is such a thing really possible? My artwork, though non-representational to a degree, clearly had antecedents in other artists' works (that is a nice way of saying that my work was painfully derivative); it also clearly references the human figure. The other problem, especially with the abstract painting of artists like Rothko, is that broad fields of color tend to signify emotions. And we human beings cannot claim to create emotions, as we are so often unwillingly and without warning at their mercy. Even works as underworked as the Malevich Lewis mentions (3) cannot represent only themselves: the blank canvas is immediately associated with other blank canvasses, not to mention the concept of the void, of blankness, of beginnings. Any anyway, is what any work of art, literary or otherwise, represents even up to the artist? If not, nothing can ever be non-representational, because the average viewer or reader will inevitably attempt interpretation even in instances when no meaning is intended.
With literature in particular, all of this becomes even stickier. I cannot fathom how a word can do anything but signify something else, despite what Sassure thought of as the "arbitrariness" of the link between "'the signifier' and 'the signified'" (qtd. in Lewis 10). The only writer who might have hit upon something close to such writing that I can think of would be Gertrude Stein, but then, I wouldn’t dare claim to have any great insight into Stein’s work. Furthermore, I doubt seriously that the critical community would be content to stop at saying that Stein meant to illustrate the above-mentioned arbitrariness and nothing else. Greenberg seemed to think that metafiction and stream-of-consciousness writing were the literary equivalents to avant-garde art (Greenberg 7), but I tend to apply what Lewis said of free verse to both forms, and to the latter especially—they were "undertaken in the name of mimesis" (5).
Because of these kinds of contradictions, I in short order abandoned the avant-garde and embraced kitsch, which also meant embracing the avant-garde art which has become kitsch (which is most of it). In fact, I think the formal simplicity of the avant-garde Modernists’ works made them particularly susceptible to mass production and mass commoditization, which was the very sort of thing they wished to avoid. Indeed, Modernists like Motherwell had quested to destroy “the century-long tendency of the French to domesticize modern painting” and believed that the adoption of “large format” had accomplished this task (qtd. in Reed 3). Of course, they were wrong. I guess that Modern newness is impossible to sustain if not impossible in the first place.