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.