Mysticism in Woolf’s Waves

Virginia Woolf perhaps does, as Walter Allen suggests, look to art to make order from chaos, substituting art for religion with the “mystic’s intuition.” Allen bestows Woolf with the agency of a mystic, assuming that intrinsic intuition is the medium from which her art is wrought. Definitively, a mystical visionary strives to bring the human experience of the phenomenological world to a place painfully out of reach for even (and maybe especially) the most outstretched finger. Mysticism, as an act of self-surrender, aims to uncover truths that lie beyond the human scope or ordinary experience. Mystical writers, like W.B. Yeats, for example, strive to illustrate the shortcomings of the human consciousness by actively undermining language in a medium that relies upon language to communicate. To transcend the earthly ties of language a mystical writer may emphasize style – the form – as the mystic’s tool: the mind’s eye, not the mind’s mouth.

Yeats’s poetry, for example, often centers on the complications of the ego as it attempts to surrender the “self” by stalking through uncertainty and cosmic darkness. In “Man and the Echo,” Man seeks absolution, acknowledgment, and reassurance in his quest for happiness by attempting to uphold language as spectacular (as spectacle). Man struggles to establish an elite identity by showing his relationship with/to words, trying to prove that his use of language manifests a kind of reality; “Did words of mine put too great strain/On that woman’s reeling brain?/Could my spoken words have checked/That whereby a house lay wrecked?”

In the poem Echo responds with terse repetitious phrases to Man’s paroxysms: “Lie down and die,” she says. For Yeats the nemesis of ego is death and old age.  However, there are other sponges by which ego becomes absorbed. “Meditations in Time of Civil War” shows both the constructed, artificial world (“rich man’s flowering lawns,” “a grey stone fireplace,” “my house,” “my table”) and the natural world (“the bees,” “the mother birds,” “white glimmering fragments of the mist”) as obfuscating forces to the identity of a once “growing boy.” Yeats juggles ego with the sublime or the beautiful so consciousness is negotiated – it is beyond language.

If Woolf creates art through the mystic’s intuition then she, like Yeats, should illustrate a sacrifice of ego in her texts which amounts to an absorption of consciousness into something more obscure and perhaps more significant. In The Waves Woolf juxtaposes consciousness with the natural flux of the ocean tide. She initially establishes six individual ego systems, shown through six different characters, to blur the boundary between self and other. The narratives of Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis begin in youth where they as characters and we as readers struggle to establish their identity. Woolf mocks both her characters’ and her readers’ desire to distinguish one consciousness from another. She posits that we/they cannot count on language to define an ego. Yet by allowing each character her own set of qualities, Woolf invites the illusion that individual human consciousness is possible.

Each character does seem to possess unique markings. Bernard is easily identifiable by his phraseology and reliance on language; “I require the concrete in everything.  It is so only that I lay hands upon the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence.  Yet I think it is likely that the best are made in solitude.” While he seems stalwart in the belief that he possesses an individual, separate consciousness from the other characters, there are moments in which he is able to transcend this ideology. Bernard mentions, “I am only superficially represented by what I was saying tonight,” and “the truth is that I need the stimulus of other people. Alone, over my dead fire, I tend to see the thin places in my own stories.” Bernard has moments of epiphany, like these, that transform the representations of his individual consciousness into a lie. He remains unaware of using other characters’ linguistic refrains in his own language. When he uses the word “hoarder,” for example, he is unaware of both Susan’s and Jinny’s reference to their hoards. Similar to Bernard, when Louis “tore the date from the calendar” he makes no reference to Susan’s antics of tearing calendars in her youth. Each character believes that his actions or thoughts belong to himself.

At some point in the novel all six characters embrace Bernard’s utterance that “I am one person — myself.” But these collective thoughts are complicated by Rhoda’s obsessive identification with the vanishing, nonexistent, or merged self. Bernard later reflects Rhoda’s philosophizing when observes that “to be myself (I note) I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” Bernard, perhaps, changes more than any other character in The Waves, as his movement from one extreme to another shows his attempt to embody ideology (as Byron in particular), individuality (as himself), universality (as everyone else), and his failure in each of these endeavors. Woolf chooses Bernard to house all other characters’ conscious experiences by the conclusion, giving the impression that he has reached the highest plane of truth. He has recognized other’s consciousness, he has deconstructed his own, and he has built an empire of language and torn it down again. In this way, Bernard showcases Woolf’s use of the mystic’s tool. As in Yeats’s poetry, Bernard’s final narration is a motion to negate ego.

The similarities, however, end there.

Bernard shelves the egos of others and discovers the contradictions of his own ego in this way. He finds his voice amidst other human voices. Ego becomes dissolved by ego. Woolf ironically leaves the phenomenological element of “other” right outside Bernard’s door, but he fails to recognize it. His consideration of the waves, which symbolize an ultimate surrender of ego and consciousness, amounts to a mere acknowledgment without understanding, an aesthetic observation; “But for a moment I had sat on the turf somewhere high above the flow of the sea […and had seen] the waves breaking.” An old nurse tells Bernard, “‘Look. This is the truth,” but his narration continues to use language in the same form. Despite the waves outside his window he fails to move beyond this collective – shelved – consciousness which persists in taking the ego as foundation.  Even his last apostrophe, “O Death!” arises from an extensive linguistic and egocentric remembrance of the past. In this way Woolf, unlike Yeats, does not use the tool of the mystic’s intuition to create art, as Walter Allen suggests, but rather to reaffirm the stronghold of an intelligible world: a reality shaped by the intersecting voices of history, perception, experience, and nature. Bernard’s louder voice is that of the solo white male.

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The Hunger Games: Starving for Love

My students this semester have been really open to the exchange of literature.  Every week I await the handing-over of a new favorite book from a student as we make an exchange of books.  Most recently, I have read the first book of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, which is timely since the film is about to be released.

I was pulled in by the timeless Orwellian plot of a country fat with too much surveillance, and reminded of Takami’s Battle Royale with Collins’s mingling of children and violence as entertainment.  But what intrigued me the most about the tale was Katniss’s — the main character’s — affinity (and also her distaste) for love.

I was once a sixteen year old girl and I was in love with the idea of being in love, but not so eager to actually commit.  Katniss is definitely a sixteen year old girl.  Like me, her first love is her younger sister, whom she covets too fiercely.

She feels that she must live and die for her sister, Prim.  She must protect her from the cruel world where not everyone loves her.  This love makes her an animal. It primes her to walk the line between brutality and love — the mixture that makes a winner in the Hunger Games.

When she is in the games, Katniss must again take a love object or she can’t reach her full potential of brutality…or of love.  Her love interest, Rue, is Prim-like: small, girly, reliant on her, a healer.  But then, Katniss discovers that Rue is not Prim; she is cunning, quick, animated, capable of surviving.  Suddenly Katniss makes a key observation that Rue is a lot like herself.  And she dismisses — usurps — Prim with Rue.  Pretty much entirely.

Part of winning the Games depends on how Katniss can manifest a love that she doesn’t quite feel for her district partner, Peeta, and the Capital’s censorship of the love that she does feel for Rue.  Peeta is portrayed as truly loving Katniss but Katniss can never really make her play at love for Peeta real.  She must learn the gestures of love without the emotion.  And this is what wins her the game, because sponsors are drawn to their affair.

But wait.

That isn’t really what wins Katniss the game.  Katniss wins, really, because Thresh (a contender from Rue’s district) spares her life when he learns that she showed her love for Rue.

Katniss’s “real” love — for Rue — is the saving love.  Yet, her loving act of decorating the young girl’s body with flowers, is censored from viewers: dismissed as if it were too dangerous.  The normalized love between a young obsessive boy and a shy girl is what viewers want in the victors.

Love is the overarching theme, for me, in this book: the kind of love that is right and the kind that is wrong.  I look forward to reading about how love plays out for Katniss in the next two books

Emma Courtney’s Memoirs of Stalking

Mary Hays is an eighteenth-century author obsessed with proving that she — like her romantic contemporaries — can use highfaluting language as an argument for virtue: her own virtue.  Memoirs of Emma Courtney is not an easy read although it is short, but the pay-offs are big.  My jaw was hanging down to my feet from practically the first page.  I have rarely — never? — encountered such a female heroine in English literature in my oh-so-many dimly-lit reading frenzies.

At first, there is nothing really astonishing about Emma Courtney, a well-read, imaginative orphan who blames her heightened sensibilities on her education.  You think, of course, of Victoria de Lauredani or Oliphant’s Hester, or Isabel Gilbert. Except, there never was such a sentimental heroine in all of human existence.  Marianne Dashwood, stand back!

When I learned about the “cult of sensibility” in my “Making Sex” class at Clark University many years ago I wish that Professor Kasmer had made me read Hays’s novel.  There never was such a clear exploration of sentimentality, such a over-the-top articulation of the power of a girl gone wild with emotion.  Hays’s novel, which is often in an epistolary style, becomes repetitive and excessive as Courtney actually makes her obsessive love apparent to a young man she has only seen in a portrait, stuffing a letter into his hand before he departs his mother’s estate, where Courtney is hiding out from her cruel caregivers.

I was shocked.  Never before have I read of a woman from the eighteenth century who is so bold as to confess her plump lust and love for a man.  But she goes on to expound about her passion many times over yet Hays never calls into question her heroine’s virtue.  Contrarily, Hays insists, like Courtney, that she is an exemplar of virtue and is blameless of the havoc wreaked on characters, including a man she marries to rescue herself from poverty.

The novel was not pleasant to read: overwrought.  Yet, reading this novel is a must for anyone interested in gender play during this time in England.  I was floored.  Here is a heroine — virtuous, no less — who throws herself at a married man, drives a husband to suicide, neglects her daughter for love, and blatantly tells off her elders and superiors (men, no less).  To say that Courtney is “a romantic enthusiast” as she “melts into tears” at every turn, is a bit of an understatement.  She won’t leave the object of her passion alone, stalking him endlessly until I had a headache.  She practically masturbates herself through the whole novel.  Three cheers.

The Devil is a Woman, Part IV: Sorrow is Power

That I have named this very blog after Marie Corelli — and her “electric creed” in the novel A Romance of Two Worlds — speaks to a fact that I don’t really need to reveal: I am in love with Marie Corelli. The pleasure that reading her books brings me is one that can only be had through reading Corelli.  But I will save my love-song for Corelli for another post (you’re welcome!).

Having just finished her novel The Sorrows of Satan reminded me of my blog series, “The Devil is a Woman, but only Momentarily.”  This is my fourth installment in the series.

The “sorrows” of Satan are many in this text, as the fallen angel takes the form of Lucio Ramanez and is bound to carry out a pact with God based on an accusation that he uttered in haste.  To the best of his ability, he must tempt man to surrender his soul, all the while longing to redeem himself in God’s eyes.  He tempts Geoffrey Tempest, who is an idealistic writer on the verge of starvation, with five million dollars (which he accepts).  All the while that Ramanez pushes Tempest toward more sin, he secretly wishes (and at one point even provokes) Tempest to reject his services. When man rejects his offers Satan is closer to regaining his seat in heaven: a position which he desires very much — so much so that Ramanez turns to brooding and  consistently iterates his feelings: “Judge then, how, under the peculiar circumstances of his doom, this ‘Lucifer, Son of the Morning,’ Satan, or whatever else he is called, must hate Humanity!”

Rimanez may hate humanity very much for its constant indulgence in sin but his most violent feelings are directed explicitly toward a certain kind of woman: the “New Woman,” like Sybil — the wealthy and “soulless” lady who marries Tempest in order to get closer to her love interest, Ramanez.  When Ramanez visits the Tempests after their marriage Sybil throws herself, shamelessly, on his person, begging for erotic love.  He, in turn, is repulsed: “I hate you, and all such women as you! For you corrupt the world — you turn good to evil — you deepen folly into crime — with the seduction of your nude limbs and lying eyes, you make fools, cowards and beasts of men!”  He tells Tempest, earlier, about his deep anthropomorphic feelings toward women: “But do not forget why I hate them! It is because they have all the world’s possibilities of good in their hands, and the majority of them deliberately turn these possibilities to evil.”

In this way, clearly, Corelli polarizes Satan with woman.  Ramanez detests “New” women who have been brought up on “French” literature and have given up their true calling, which is to guide men in moral practices. These new women are simply “the female of man [who] have no real soul save that which is a reflex of his, and being destitute in logic, she is incapable of forming a correct opinion on any subject.”

Yet, Ramanez himself is very womanly — even “New-” womanly.  In the first place, Ramanez’s defining characteristic is his attractiveness in Tempest’s eyes.  This is a point that Corelli never fails to repeat throughout the novel.  When Tempest first encounters Satan, he has “a strong and singular attraction” to this “good-looking” man with his “wonderful eyes,” “handsome presence,” “extraordinary good looks,” and “admirable build.”  Tempest goes so far as to compare his wife’s — Sybil’s — beauty to Ramanez’s. In a word, Tempest finds Ramanez HOT (pun, yes?).

Ramanez, additionally, constantly fingers the “glittering beetle body” of what readers are supposed to understand is the soul of a sinful Egyptian woman.  Later, when Tempest and Ramanez visit Egypt, Corelli suggests that this grotesque bug is the soul of Sybil, whose mummy is excavated.  Surprisingly, Sybil has been right all along. She doesn’t seem to have a soul.  That soul seems to be the “sprite” pet of Ramanez.  He even refers to “the radiant bat-shaped thing” as “an Egyptian female mummy,” with a “vampire soul” (he later tells Sybil that her “vampire soul” called to him), and is careful to identify it as “an evil creature.”

Nevertheless, he clings to her as she — the insect — clings to him. They seem to have a kind of equal relationship.

Moreover, Ramanez admits time and again that he — granted, against his will — has the agenda of doing the precise thing that he accuses the new woman of doing: corrupting and misguiding men.  He and Sybil are doing identical work.

In this way, the devil is a woman.

But then, there is one thing — and one thing only — that differentiates Ramanez from Sybil.  His sorrow.

Perhaps nineteenth-century literature hasn’t known such a pitiful Satan since Byron and Lamb. Corelli gives a new meaning to the Satanic hero: he is so sad.  The scene that reveals the depth of his sadness is when his services are rejected by the ephemeral and morally-superior Mavis Clare who is, not surprisingly for Corelli, a popular yet critically-bashed writer of fiction.  He tempts her.  She rejects him.  Then, he gets down on one knee before her and beseeches her to pray for his soul.  His redemption is possible, here, through the sympathy of a pure woman.

Reading The Sorrows of Satan I felt bad for Ramanez. But then, too, Corelli does not want me to only feel bad for Satan; she wants me to extend my sympathies to Sybil as well — because the predicaments of Satan and the New Woman are not dissimilar.

After she is rejected by Ramanez, Sybil decides to poison herself and write down her experience of death, as she dies. Her reflection reveals one very clear truth: that Sybil is not ashamed of her actions and that she is, despite her sins, an extremely truthful woman.  For example, when Tempest courts her she tells him blatantly that she is evil and damaged and will not be the kind of woman that he needs.  When Tempest catches her throwing herself at Satan she is forthcoming about her desire.  She even goes so far as to tell Tempest on their wedding day that she will tell him who she loves very shortly (even though it isn’t him).  All and all, Sybil has the presence of mind and sharp critical awareness enough to articulate herself as a product of society.  Corelli seems to want readers to pity her to some extent, especially since she earns the pity, eventually, of both Mavis Clare and Tempest: the novel’s obvious heroes.

Yet, Satan is also heroic — at least in the way that Sybil is heroic.  Satan, Sybil, and women in general are pawns in the same game, apparently.  For Corelli, at least, these figures are terrible but they are also products of male desire.  The real demonization is of men and, ironically, the devil somehow comes out clean.

Jane Eyre Does Not Cry

A couple days ago I took some students in my class to see the latest cinematic attempt to bring Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel Jane Eyre to the public.

At the opening scene of Cary Fukunaga’s film my heart sank down into my heels and then, from there, I only stomped the ground with a red face throughout the rest of the film, trying to crush and smother the disappointment and anger that swelled through my body.

What I love about Bronte’s novel is her ability to articulate the position of a woman who is the kind of caged bird that Maya Angelou, more than one hundred years later, uses to express her abusive past.  Jane Eyre is my hero.  The world has tried to smash her to pieces and yet she perseveres in the staunchest ways possible.  At moments she may put on the garb of moderation or even indifference but never for long.  No garb can hold her spirit.

Fukunaga’s film begins with Eyre running through the English countryside away from Thornfield.  She is crying and even curls up into the fetal position.  I almost walked out of the theatre.  JANE EYRE….CRYING!!!???  Never.  Not Jane Eyre.  Not even Rochester can subdue her pride, her passion, her spirit.  (Well, maybe St. John can, but that is neither here nor there right now.)

Eyre appears to be from another world for many reasons.  She is from another world.  No character in Victorian fiction can match her uncanniness. No heroine can parallel her fierce passion.  My god.  The pages can hardly hold it.

I have never seen a film that does Eyre’s passion justice.  It actually brings tears to my eyes.  When one student said that Jane Eyre was just like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I almost threw up.

Coming home from the film, I felt like the caged animal.  When will directors of Bronte’s masterpiece read the novel?

Adventures in Emotion: Death in Venice

When I was called out for teaching some provocative contexts in my “Strange Children” course this quarter, my supervisor came to my defense by saying, “Well, it’s not like you’re teaching Death in Venice, or anything.”  I had heard of Thomas Mann’s novella — and really enjoyed reading the obscure The Transposed Heads, which I consider a really masterful work despite some scathing criticisms to the contrary — but had never read it.  I headed to the library and checked it out right away.  Would Mann prove to be more dirty and provocative than Alice’s Adventures? Was it possible?

Death in Venice is plenty provocative and dirty, alright, if you’re into affect theory. If you’re a gender or sexuality theorist, however, I must say, it misses the mark somewhat. The story alarmed me much more for its depiction of feeling than it ever could have for its wispy, barely lukewarm invocation of pedophilia.

After four pages of Mann’s text I was struck by his fierce exploration of both hidden and blatant affect — which occurs sometimes simultaneously.  (In fact, I am determined to teach it as a course on emotion in literature.)

The foreboding lifelessness that stretches itself out before Gustav Aschenbach’s life can be summarized by a series of words/phrases that arise consistently or at key moments, such as: “red,” “false midsummer,” or “diseased city.”  But the “unchastity and fury of decay” that epitomizes Aschenbach’s experience in Venice — and with the sickly Polish “god” with whom he falls in love from afar —  is best articulated through Mann’s overuse of adjectives that relate directly to rampant emotion and, conversely, emotionlessness.

Feeling is a sense like smell. The graying legend Aschenbach is surrounded by smells (of hospital, gaiety, food, beach) that bring out depth of affect which runs the gamut of “sinister revels of emotion:” sympathy, fear, pity, hopelessness, desire, shame, elation, anxiety, satisfaction, etc.

For Mann’s protagonist, “passion is our exultation” but also his demise.  Passion is the strong feeling of desire or excitement, but I am also reminded of the definition of passion from House of Leaves: “Passion has little do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance.  Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance.  It means to suffer.”

Aschenbach’s passion reflects both definitions: it is suffering and jubilation.

Yet, despite the war of feeling that he locks in his aged body, he shows little external signal of such power until, on the day of his death, he heads to the salon to be made up in a fashion that reflects the grotesque fop whom he criticizes on the ship. The disease that finally kills him seems less the sickness of Venice from the Middle East (which reminded me somewhat of Bruges-la-Morte) and more the inevitable finale of emotion of this caliber.

Death is the ultimate portrayal of patience.

Is it, then, a useful symbol of passion?  For Aschenbach, such seems to be the case.

How beautiful.

So beautiful, in fact, that I almost forgot about the Platonic “beautiful boy,” that god Eros who catalyzes the war.  Then again, Mann suggests that this war was raging before Tadzio comes along, doesn’t he?  I was inclined to toss Tadzio away.

He is like the wine that brings out the flavor of an aged and beautiful cheese.

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The Pleasure of Hating

William Hazlitt is notorious for writing criticism that doesn’t hold back.  A kind of rogue who received a large number of threats for his blatant opinions concerning authorship and culture, Hazlitt ruminated about the darker aspects of human experience.

In his best-known work, The Spirit of the Age, he appears more tame than in other essays, such as “Reason and Imagination.”  Although he does frequently praise his contemporaries for certain noble attributes, Hazlitt is much more in the habit of ripping them to shreds.

Yet, he rarely elevates himself above these decapitated philosophers.

In “The Pleasure of Hating,” I find Hazlitt at his best.  I also ponder about the function of hating in Victorian society, and its use today.

Hazlitt values a marriage between reason and imagination, viewing neither as superior yet both absolutely necessary to happiness — if happiness can be had.  When reading “The Pleasure of Hating,” I wonder if he thought such a complicated enterprise — of striking the balance between reason and imagination — was worthwhile at all.  If happiness was possible.

He argues that we — humans — “cannot part with the essence or principal of hostility:” the “brute violence.”  The “cure” has been sought through “fine” writing, yet somehow it continues to fail or evade writers.  The natural world is against us: it is made up of “antipathies.”  He posits that “without something to hate,we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men.”  Hazlitt believes that we “hanker” after hatred because “hatred alone is immortal.”

What strikes me first about Hazlitt’s philosophy is, of course, how it reflects the Victorian Age.  Most critical essays and books written by Victorians about their own period tend to praise it as the center of civilization and progress.  So Hazlitt — and essayists like him — offers some refreshment that breaks up the common flat-liner response to such a changing world.  On the other hand, he also conforms to Victorian norms, calling humans “wild beasts” that have truths that “no Jermemy Bentham Panopticons” can survey.  He finds that “the pleasure of hating […] eats into the heart of religion.”  At last, we “come to hate ourselves.”  Hatred does, indeed, seem to be just as integral of component of civilization and progress as, say, the train.  Hazlitt contextualizes it through evolution, religion, and law.

Despite his stalwart call-to arms in support of hatred, he ends his essay sounding like a wounded child: “It is because pleasure asks a greater effort of the mind to support it than pain; and we turn, after a little idle dalliance, from what we love to what we hate!”

I can almost feel Hazlitt sobbing into his cuffs.

He bawls: “What chance is there of the success of real passion?  […] Have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed, I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.”

Phew!

I mean, Hazlitt degenerates in this essay from soldier-like philosopher to scared and disappointed child hiding under the bed crying until he chokes himself.

He is disappointed.  Frustrated for harboring hope.

He, tellingly, never admits that he DOES harbor hope.  This is partially what makes it so apparent.

He is mad at himself for being too trusting, too hopeful, too loving.  And he wants to kill these feelings through rationalizing that they do not do him good.

I think about the way that hatred functions today.  Don’t you?