Sunday, April 13, 2008

Four Quartets

In considering last week’s discussion of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I am still quite struck by the notion of Empire and the relationship between the masculine and feminine in the novel. Again, the incongruous dichotomy of the Victorian era – a female figurehead over the masculine stratification of power – serves to reinforce the societal gender roles. Indeed, previous discussions of gender play into this. If sex is genetic while gender is social, then the gender roles presented are learned. Men in this society are trapped into become “men of the house” – patriarchs – while the women become their obedient angels in the house choir. The evolution of this society funneled it toward this form.

I think that is quite key that the dividing line between the two most concrete phases of the novel, the first section and the third, are set before and after World War I. The Great War upset the whole of British society. The microcosm itself transitions from the Victorian to the “Modern” (or as close to it as Mr. Ramsay is willing to go) as a result of the upheavals of the war.

Now, in considering T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, I must first address my own reactions to them. I am not sure if I would place these poems above The Waste Land in his opus. Indeed, I would put the two along side each other as companion pieces. The Waste Land may not be quite as refined the later poems, but it has the virtue of a directed, brash gusto. It’s the work of a man presumptuous enough to write The Waste Land. Four Quartets is the work of that man many years later. It does not ooze brash presumption. It feels older, more well-worn.

When I read the Four Quartets, I hearken back to another poem: Tennyson’s Ulysses. Eliot’s voice in all four of these poems creaks with a withered and wizened age. The odysseys of experience that the speaker goes through in each poem feel the musings of Ulysses as he considers his time as king. Eliot makes many references to time, past, present, and future. Perhaps he is commenting on himself. Eliot knows that he is no longer the man who wrote The Waste Land.

Brooks says that the four poems are meditations on the religious. This much is understandable considering Eliot’s conversion to devout Christianity. Despite this, the sense of age dominates. If anything, I feel that the religious aspects are tempered by the “experience” of Eliot. If The Waste Land was his odyssey through the desolation of modern life, then the Four Quartets feels like his reconciliation with his maker – ars moriendis – the art of dying. If the world was neutered by World War I, then Four Quartets may present a funeral dirge to the modern era in the midst of World War II. The sense of eternity is profound. Indeed, the most common reference Eliot makes is to the fluid relationship between past, present, and future. The reader teeters on the edge of the afterlife.

Digression: I am somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of these poems being religiously (or, perhaps properly, spiritually) inspired. I myself did not perceive that aspect until after I had read the Brooks essay. Still, it does not sit right with me. Perhaps this is a result of my late Twentieth Century upbringing where a cornucopia of religious references in a creative work would not necessarily imply a religious inspiration. For me, the sense of Eliot the elder poet dominates far more than Eliot the religious man.

Monday, April 7, 2008

To the Lighthouse

In reflecting upon the Politics of the Modernists – especially Bloomsbury, I am still struck by the mild, cruel joke that time played on the Woolfs. Situated between the hammer and the anvil, they remained near the shore, bracing for impact. Yet, still, I am perplexed why the remained. Was it a – not romantic – emotionally dependent clinging to their home? Had they become like so many old married couples in that they felt wedded to their home as well as each other? Additionally, I researched Operation Sealion – the German plan to invade the United Kingdom. Hitler had come to view the plan as impossible by 1940 (though he did not withdraw the troops assigned to this duty until 1942 – romantic notions abound). How ironic.

But, still, I cannot get past the sense of defeat that pervades Woolf’s behavior. She refused to fight, then remained in a war zone, and then killed herself partly due to the stresses of war.

It feels like her suicide had roots much further back.

In considering To the Lighthouse, one finds much fodder for thought. In particular, the explicit implicitness of her critique of the British Empire resounds quite fully. If Katharine Mansfield portrayed her society as hostile to women, then Woolf shows the entire society to be a car both broken-down and out of control, sputtering towards its final resting place. Mr. Ramsay, for example, stands as dominant and domineering patriarch. He is learned, but for all of his learning, he rarely seems active – not unlike an empire that spread its culture far and wide but fell apart. Likewise, he comes across as profoundly impotent. Despite the fact that he is the head of the household and possesses the ability to veto actions, he is constantly chasing approval – validation of his learning – and fleeing to the arms of his wife when it is not forthcoming. Later, when she dies, he is adrift for his true source of power has vanished.

Digression: Mrs. Ramsay, while lacking the power to vote, certainly influenced her husband. This portrayal of “power behind the throne” during the pre-suffrage era seems less than coincidental.

Return: Also, the constant mutterings of Tennyson also point to the breakdown of empire. “Some one had blundered.” The Charge of the Light Brigade seems doubly significant. The poem itself marked one of the greatest sea changes in the structure of the British military as well as opened up the leadership to questioning from the public. The notion of the noble commander, unwavering in his certitude, was no longer accepted. That Woolf cites it once is important; Mr. Ramsay’s quoting of it – almost in bewilderment – shows him desperately clinging to the past.

Consider: Mr. Ramsay is the patriarch who quotes Tennyson, but the poem he quotes is no paean to the Empire’s former glory but a bemoaning the breakdown of the Empire and the betrayal of its subjects.

In addition, one also senses that Woolf is marking the before and after the event that signaled the twilight of the Empire: World War I. If the events in the first third of the novel seem distant and diffuse, and the events in the second feel like an old wound finally healing, then the events of the middle third treat the war almost like the elephant in the room. The disruption it causes is mentioned in passing – not unlike something the people within the story are actively trying to ignore but cannot.

Also, one last observation. The journey to the lighthouse, especially with the healing that takes place there, has echoes of the Grail myth and the Fisher King – the father/king and his son find reconciliation as other members of the family find their attitudes changed. Memory is accepted. There is a wholeness at the end that did not exist at the beginning.

I may want to reflect on this further.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Modernist Politics

In reviewing the previous week, one is struck by several things in A Room of One’s Own. In the contemporary sense (our contemporary period, not that of Virgina Woolf), one is forced to wonder how Woolf would react to the notion of Affirmative Action. I suspect that Woolf would be supportive of the idea, though perhaps with deep ambivalence. Her assertion that women have been hindered - and must be caught up – lends credence. Indeed, her passage of the two runners, one bound, one not, with the unbound runner saying that he would unbind the other once she has caught up could easily be a ringing philosophical endorsement of the policy.

Had Woolf taken a program of study at Cambridge, I wonder which one she would have chosen – the normal or protractedly-paced course. Would she choose to be a lady or a governess?

I suspect lady.

Concerning the politics of the Modernists, one is indeed struck by Blair’s noting of the fact that Modernism’s definition, so fluid, makes easy categorization of the its political bent difficult. One finds the conservatives (Pound, Eliot, Lewis) drifting toward (if not wholeheartedly embracing) Fascism. One finds the progressives reaching toward socialism – even the “moderation” that Forster projects leans that way. I believe, however, one can find a single unifying force on all sides.


Take, for example, Leornard Woolf’s “Fear and Politics.” “Civilization consists in acting and thinking like the ordinary man – the ordinary man being, in this connection, obviously an ordinary man or woman of the upper middle class.” Look also to Woolf’s contention in A Room of One’s Own that a woman needs 500 pounds per year to write. Both place their worldviews firmly among the establishment – part of the dominant structure that will protect and value their lifestyles. Consider Fascism and the Heroic Modernists – a stratified power structure embraced by those who would put themselves forward as the ubermensches of the literary world. Both seek a monolithic society that serves their purposes.

Is there not a chilling, depressive acknowledgment of this at the end of “Fear and Politics” when the elephant proclaims the virtues – the essential security – of captivity? Leonard seems too intelligent to argue for so simple a claim, but the element is troubling. Indeed, recalling his rejection of the paternalism of colonialism, one finds it difficult to believe that he would argue for yet another suffocating master. That said, his contention that political and societal evolution can be boiled down to fear and the reaction to said fear is probably one of the most apt sociological analyses ever written.

Forster himself acknowledges the desire for structure: “I believe in aristocracy.” Yea though he rejects an aristocracy of power, is not any ordering or stratification an affirmation of power or influence? He proposes that the erudite have power, not the forcibly mighty.
Would that not place the power in his hands – he, among the most erudite of his age?
Is there truly any real difference between Forster’s desire for an aristocracy of the sensitive and Eliot’s desire to be the great literary taste maker of his era?

When faced with conflict, though, one sees the deftness of the Woolfs’ flexibility. Indeed, during World War II, they were faced with one of the great conundrums for the pacifist: What if your foe is actually as terrible as one can imagine? World War I was a conflict custom-made for conscientious objection – it was a war whose provocation (Archduke Ferdinand’s bullet-riddled corpse aside) existed wholly on paper. World War II, however, was fought against one of the few groups that could be viewed as genuinely evil – the Nazis. Refusing to fight a German who fights merely to support his country is one thing. Refusing to fight a genocidal fascist is another.

And, yet, Woolf finds hope and humanity even during an air raid. Woolf remarks that a downed pilot may be courteous and that his English captors may offer him tea. This peace – almost comical, were it not so desperately hopeful – seems to explain the Woolfs’ pacifism. If enemies can share tea after an air raid, perhaps peace among nations is not so unlikely.

Heaven save us from great men.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Mrs. Dalloway

Last week’s discussion of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land left me with many questions, and I wish we had had more time to fully explore the vast depths of the poem – partly due to the fact that it will, undoubtedly, be a part of the oral exam but also due to the fact that it is one of the great poems of the 20th Century – some would even say that it is the greatest. That being said, I enjoyed the discussion of The Waste Land in light of the Cambpellian monomyth. The notion that the poem is a part of the heroic cycle – but mired in the middle section – casts an interesting light on the poem. If all of Eliot’s works are intensely autobiographical, then The Waste Land places him as hero crawling out of the darkness that is his milieu of modern London.

Rumination: Consider the notion of “meta” with regards to The Waste Land. If The Waste Land is Eliot’s great striving to work, then his “battle” create it is his descent into deepest darkness, and his publication of it and the notoriety derived from it are his Return/Embrace – his gateway to “kingship” and immortality.

After the creative sturm und drang of The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway creates a marked contrast in form and tone, though the central themes of suffocation and entrapment within London society remain. Rather than the heroic emergence and realization of Eliot’s narrator, Woolf ends Mrs. Dalloway simply and reflectively.

“It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.”

We see inside her, but the journey is a gentle flow of impressions and memories, not the tumult of an “artistically” tortured soul. Indeed, If one were to look for a character that might find a home in or around Eliot’s psychic neighborhood, one might look to Septimus. His tortured soul ponders the great questions and thrashes about. In particular, his reverie about addressing the Prime Minister and Parliament exemplifies this. He imagines stating that trees are alive – a plainly obvious fact. He then declares crime to be nonexistent – wishful thinking in the speculative sense, though it does raise the question as to whether Woolf was implying that the rigid set of mores and class created a stifling legalistic structure that suppressed true expression. Finally, he declares love – almost a truth and condition unto itself. I doubt that Woolf had any intention of pronouncing something so facile and sentimental, though, considering the fluid nature of relationships in her circle as well as the devotion of her marriage, one can’t help but see the mere simplicity of “love.”

A later episode with Septimus and Rezia shows a deep ambivalence about love – especially with regards to children. “One cannot increase suffering, or the breed of these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions. But only whims and vanities, eddying them now this way, now that.” Septimus recoils at the notion of children with Rezia. He knows love as a concept, but he is unwilling to partake in the making of it (either physically or emotionally) with his wife. It is almost as if love is a pre-existing force of nature that mankind is unable to grasp.

Perhaps mankind is merely the conduit, and Septimus, in his depression, is unwilling or unable to recognize the conduit as a vessel for the quality he craves.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Eliot's The Waste Land

On the subject of last week’s class, I was struck by the biography of Katherine Mansfield. In a way, her life and her work seem so intertwined as to be inseparable. Compared to, say, the works of Woolf or Eliot, Mansfield’s works seem to stem directly from her autobiography; Woolf and Eliot used theirs’ as launchpads while Mansfield used her life as template. In part, I attribute this to the fact that her greatest literary champion, John Middleton Murry, was also her husband, and his efforts to magnify her importance seem to reflect not just esteem but devotion (as well as no small amount of name-dropping self-promotion, as well). The relationship created the reputation, in a sense. Likewise, the themes throughout her short fiction seem to derive quite directly from her own life, be it the ambivalence she felt toward domestic life, the appreciation of home (HER home) or the relations between men and women. More than most, Mansfield’s biography seems central to understanding her fiction.

Now, onto “The Waste Land,” a poem that one might view as the Hamlet of 20th Century Poetry.

In reading “The Waste Land,” one finds a deeply profound ambivalence – indeed, though Eliot himself, according to Headings, stated that “The Waste Land” was not an allegory for his generation in Western Europe, one is tempted to perceive it as a psychic cutaway of the human condition. Also, despite Eliot’s use of foreign languages thoughout, one might view it as a pre-mortem autopsy of the England he has come to know – The Fisher King myth, though continental, became grafted integrally onto the Arthurian mythos and thus part of the illusory English Cultural Mythology. In borrowing from this but then removing it from the sweeping landscapes of chivalric adventure and placing it into the urban milieu of London, Eliot may have tried to make a statement about England in such dispiriting times – implicitly and instinctively if not overtly.

Also, one might find some interest in the following link:

It’s an edition of the BBC’s In Our Time that covers the Fisher King and its influences, including “The Waste Land.”

Another major note that I had, beyond the vast ambivalence of the poem entire, was the gulf between the sexes. Male and female seem barely human to each other – presaging, perhaps, Pound’s pronouncement that Eliot had shut out the ladies from modern poetry. While this deadening of the sexual relations (noted by many as indicative of the sterility of the poem that mimicked the Fisher King) is prevalent throughout, the greatest illustration lies within Part III: The Fire Sermon. Eliot portrays an encounter between a clerk and a typist. The typist gives in to the clerk’s advances, and sexual congress ensues. Eliot describes the emotions not of the act but around the act – there is no savor to this lovemaking for there was no love made. The clerk leaves, expended but not spent (for, as Eliot portrays him, he has invested little in the occasion) and the typist is glad that it’s over. There seems to be no fulfillment – only achievement.

In considering Eliot’s life and his desire to make poetry of it by making private eyes to public pearls – even directly referencing The Tempest within “The Waste Land,” one might draw the conclusion that Eliot and his views of sex have seeped into the poem. As previously mentioned in class, Eliot suffered from physical maladies that yielded sexual dysfunction. As a man who was unable to savor the exercise of his desires, he would naturally manifest an ambivalence toward the act and those with whom he would share it. Thus, the infertility motif and the emotional sterility of “The Waste Land” seem almost a reflection of the void that Eliot would have felt in his own relations and relationships.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Mansfield's Short Stories

Last week’s class was highly educational. Having had almost no background in Virginia Woolf, I valued not only being exposed to her work but also having it synthesized in context. Virginia Woolf surprised me in many ways – the greatest being her successful (though ultimately pyrrhic) battle with poor mental health. Indeed, I find the Leonard and Virginia Woolf relationship to be completely fascinating, and I wonder if anyone has adapted it to stage, screen, or novel. Such incredible faith and devotion is… striking.

Love is a collection of mutual needs.

I am both surprised and unsurprised that two such people of such great needs found each other – one who needed to maintain a delicate order, and the other who needed to order everything.

I am haunted.

In her work, though, I found the wordplay to be extremely entertaining – perhaps even to be expected. As stated, Woolf spent the early part of her day translating Greek. Is it not reasonable to think that one who spends that much time teasing out the meanings of foreign words would naturally enjoy playing with her own words – perhaps as a means of transmuting private eyes to public pearls?

On the subject of Katherine Mansfield, it was interesting to examine the background presented in Lee’s depiction of her and Woolf’s relationship, and it lends clues to her major themes. In particular, the “wild” life she led compared to Woolf’s also seems to inform the contrasts between their works.

If Woolf’s short fiction portrayed a sort of exploratory rumination of domesticity, then Mansfield’s short fiction feels more like a vehement reaction to domesticity – understandable considering her turbulent life, her early death, and the fact that she was married to John Middleton Murry – womanizer extraordinaire – as opposed to Woolf and the supportive, nurturing relationship that she shared with Leonard Woolf. Where the “home” provided order and succor to Woolf, Mansfield probably did not have such reassurances.

Take, for example, the home life depicted in “Prelude.” It seems almost hostile. The animals in the environs of the house will not leave one in peace. The husband’s friends create a stodgy, stifling atmosphere, and even the procurement of a meal is a horror. Witness the episode of something so commonplace as killing a duck for dinner. This would have been normal during the era before the supermarket, and any estate house would have been fed with freshly-killed animals onsite. This duck, however, does not go peacefully; it sprays blood everywhere, waddling around until the life is pumped out of it. One could easily see the duck, fat, moist, and perfectly prepared, as a parallel to Beryl who is slowly having the life pumped out of her in the house but also by the greater traditions of the society at large. Being her husband’s wife and lady of the house brings her little joy. Beryl’s attraction and disgust in “At the Bay” also seems to showcase a deep ambivalence to this social system.

Bertha’s condition in “Bliss” seems quite similar. While she dutifully views her husband as a friend, there is no spark, no fire that satisfies her. Indeed, it is not until the end of the story that she, for the first time in her life, views him with desire. Mansfield contrasts this with Bertha and Eddie’s guests, who seem to have intimate rapport. Bertha’s bliss is tinged with the knowledge of her own vacancy.

There is also an implicit criticism of female domesticity in “The Later Colonel’s Daughters.” Where in the other stories the masculine social order has merely dissatisfied the women within, in this story, the women have been hobbled by their place in the social structure. They are creatures of the house chasing after crumbs – not unlike the mouse at the start of the story. They have never been given either the tools or the opportunity to define themselves outside of the dominion of the Colonel. Once he is gone, they are even more trapped in their circumstances that they were before.

One senses that Mansfield viewed the domestic life as a trap for women, one that would eventually kill them, either spiritually or physically.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Woolf’s Short Stories

The previous class period provided much food for thought, both in the completion of my project as well as in viewing Allison’s presentation on Bloomsbury’s contemporaneous cinema. I did appreciate learning about the prejudice leveled against the burgeoning medium of film by Pound et al. One notion struck me: I detected a certain fear in the dismissal of film. If theatre is a “living” art that disappears when it’s over while literature and painting are static arts that are repeatable, then the advent of film presents a certain dilemma to writers. The public may be able to fulfill its need for narrative entertainment via the picture show rather than settling down with a book or short story – or so one might think hastily.

Or, perhaps, it was merely classist bigotry, as we teased about in class.

On the matter of Virginia Woolf’s short stories, one finds a very direct yet light touch with the language – almost as if she had perfected the notion of rumination into an equation and applied it directly to the page.

One key theme that I found was that of filtered perception – echoes, shadows, mirrors, and, mistakes. Small observations turn on the objects that set everything in relief – in some ways, not unlike many of the Post-Impressionist paintings seen last week.

Take, for example, “The Mark on the Wall.” The narrator meditates on a small mark on the wall, wondering how it got there and what it could mean. The narrator then, almost in free association, makes connections between elements of “her” observation that the outer world. With each level of observation, one is forced to reconsider the mark on the wall. Indeed, even the narrator notes how far afield some of these connections are. The mark, in being a mark, becomes much more than a mark while retaining its nature as a mark. It is almost like a linguistics game. At the end, when that mark, which the narrator had guessed to be a nail turns out to be a snail, the reader must then shift perceptions retroactively while remaining conscious of how the nail and the snail became related. Likewise, reflections and hazy perceptions figure into the other stories. “Kew Gardens” features not only a couple in reflection, but also another snail meandering through the flora, picking up pieces of the conversation. In “An Unwritten Novel,” one quote stands out for me:

“Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of – what?”

There is something remarkably defined-yet-indefinite, like a zen koan, in those words. Perhaps that is at the heart of the reflections in these stories – something being expressed while being hidden.

Another thing struck me in these readings: The War. It is mentioned, but it seems almost alien. In one sense, it almost seems to set the milieu by stating that the War exists and is a simple fact of life, almost like the tides. That being said, the “distance” of the War makes these stories that inhabit this world makes it seem almost an alien thing, and that the deep internal life within these stories serves as a reaction to the tumult without.