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?

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