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.