Tides of Consciousness- Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

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My initial reaction to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was akin to a sense of drowning, overwhelmed in the depths of a vast sea, and compelled by the current further and further away until any and all view of solid ground disappeared over the horizon. The characters, objects, and actions seem everyday and commonplace on the surface, but are so enriched by a deep and observant voice of distinct conscious attention that it rends the veil into a state of mind I’ve wondered at constantly, yet never been privy to enter. And upon gaining entrance, it was more than I could comprehend.

In chapter 7, Mrs. Ramsey’s observations of Mr. Ramsey show the magnitude of this inner force in Woolf’s writing. “There he stood, demanding sympathy. Mrs. Ramsey, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare. He wanted sympathy. He was a failure, he said. Mrs. Ramsay flashed her needles. Mr. Ramsay repeated, never taking his eyes from her face, that he was a failure. She blew the words back at him. “Charles Tansley…” she said. But he must have more than that. It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life…” (Woolf 37). Within this passage alone, volumes are written on the inner landscapes of these characters. Mr. Ramsay’s artistic genius mixed with his equal artistic insecurities (something I can relate with pretty intimately) overpowers everything else within his psyche, casting all other people as characters enwrapped in his personal drama and objectifying his entire environment as supplement to his creations. But Mrs. Ramsay sees through his raw egotism and knows him simultaneously for his gifts and talent, but also as a wanting little boy, dependent upon her sympathies as an infant to the breast. She must be his mother first and then his submissive wife, constantly on the lookout to safeguard his feelings. He sees neither the efforts that she takes nor the miraculous “rain of energy” she pours out to do so. These qualities together manifest as the spirit of grace inherent to those women we love and admire, appearing with a sort of magic, all the while failing to grasp its source. Within the dichotomy of oppression and expectation forced upon women, a magnificent growth of spirit has taken place. Caught between such intense dual pressures, the coal has transcended into diamond. Mrs. Ramsay’s depth surpasses anything that her “sterile male” husband, despite his intellectual prowess, could ever comprehend. How could he? He’s like a “beak of brass” focussing his entire energy into a single point. As the cone enters into the water, the only way it can know the water is by the ripples. Those ripples change according to the depth in which the cone chooses to plunge. But how can ripples on the surface express the totality of the ocean?

“It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life… they must be filled with life” (37). Man, on his own, tends to isolate himself to the cold, harsh realities of life- the great fight for survival: kill or be killed, the constant flux of expanding and contracting dominions; war, empire, economics, colonialism, genocide- necessary accomplishments to earn the title of “Great” in the annals of history or Male history that is. Thus asserting his genius dominates Mr. Ramsay’s mind. But without women… Without Mrs. Ramsay, the sterile world of male creation withers and dies on the vine. To flower and bear fruit, we’ve made the work (and duty) of women. Something we are incapable of ourselves? Is this why we’ve made this the definitive expression of women’s role on this earth? But this is only one of the myriads of talents women possess. Mrs. Ramsay fulfills this role without effort, all the while meeting Mr. Ramsay intellectually, understanding the “great metaphysician” and surpassing him in depth, through a reproach instantly reducing him to that of a child while simultaneously beaming with feminine generosity. And for all this insight and wisdom, Woolf flings upon her page in the form of passing thought– bursting with subtext gushing as a fountain.

At this point in the book, I felt mesmerized. My usual logical network seemed to break down. I couldn’t track plot and symbolism. My attempts to define what I was reading were continuously swallowed into the churning waves of ink. I begin to question myself intensely. Have I misread every interaction in my life? What else can I be missing? How often do I fail to notice the flowers, subtle aesthetics and shades of color? Why can I not understand her? Why can I not understand anyone? Does anyone understand? Does Virginia Woolf understand everyone? My mind continues to circle until I come back to the realization I’ve read 30 pages without reading a word. I retrace myself back through the book to the last passage I marked: “Children never forget” (62). “I must not be a child,” I think to myself with a grin. “It was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself” (62). *Note to self: You are not ready for kids. Wow, is that what it’s like to be a mother? Every waking moment you think of other people? I’m not sure I ever think of other people. That’s not true. You do all the time. Just not that much. “”Children don’t forget, children don’t forget”-which she would repeat and begin adding to it, It will end, it will end, she said. It will come, it will come, when suddenly she added, We are in the hands of the Lord. But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who said it? Not she: she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean” (63). Holy shit. That’s intense. Your only prayer for the little ones you’re supposed to love with all your heart is “this too shall pass”. Man, what if you had kids? Would you feel the same way? Probably. I don’t even want to think about it. Isn’t what you always say though? Yeah, but… But what? Dude, read Virginia Woolf. You have to write a really good analysis on it. Right. Right. “It will end. It will end” (63). What is this book even about? I honestly have no idea. I like the way it makes me feel though. And the way it spins my mind off. Is that supposed to be the point? Probably not. Focus. Shit. Am I gonna get trapped into saying something I don’t mean? I can always write “creatively.” Yeah, but there’s a fine line between creative and just fuckin’ off. Yeah, just saying… Focus. Focus… Focus. Alright. Here we go.

“She guessed what he was thinking– he would have written better books if he had not married” (69). Probably true. Whoa. Is that what I think or her? What mindset does it take to be an incredible female writer and put yourself into the mind of a woman who supports a male writer drowning in mediocrity? That’s an incredibly intense thing to know that someone thinks of you. I wonder who she thinks that about? Probably herself. Artists usually just shatter themselves into little bits called characters and flesh them out with the characteristics of others. Just like God. I mean, she probably spends all her time thinking about the same thing everyone else thinks about– being God. “Brooding, she changed the pool into the sea, and made the minnows into sharks and whales, and cast vast clouds over this tiny world by holding her hand against the sun, and so brought darkness and desolation, like God himself, to millions of ignorant and innocent creatures, and then took her hand away suddenly and let the sun stream down” (75). BOOM! I was right. See, everyone thinks they’re god. At least artists. Just like every child is a giant when they eat asparagus. It just makes everything go down a little easier.

But… “such was the complexity of things. For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel was one; that’s what I feel was the other” (102). Holy crap. I swear she’s in my head right now. That’s exactly what it’s like spending time with the Ramsays. I have no idea what I’m doing or thinking anymore. I think I just flushed my fucking credibility down the toilet and I couldn’t tell you or myself why. It just feels so… hollow. A lot like love. Although the only person who’d agree with me there would be Virginia Woolf (ref. ——–> “asked nine people out of ten they would say they wanted nothing but this– love; while the women, judging from her own experience, would all the time be feeling, This is not what we want; there is nothing more tedious, puerile, and inhumane than this” (103)). Yes! Exactly. That’s what I’ve always thought! I guess most women agree. They just don’t say any differently. I’ve always wondered why people just can’t come straight out and say shenanigans. I mean, our entire generation is the result of the divorce. So what the hell are we supposed to think? “Yet it is also beautiful and necessary” (103). Well, almost had someone in my corner. It is beautiful to think about. Is it necessary? Who knows, really? It sure does seem outdated. I mean, it literally refers to owning someone and listing them as your property. I just don’t really see how that bids well with equality. It really is a degradation. I could never do that to anyone. So I won’t.

I really need to get on track here. What is this book about? It circles and circles and the characters circle and circle. Too bad we’re not zen masters. I could just paint a enso and count myself a mystic. Everyone else would get smacked for trying to explain life with words. But that’s just it, isn’t it? No one can sit in silence. “So they sat silent. Then she became aware that she wanted him to say something. Anything, anything, she thought, going on with her knitting. Anything will do” (122). I don’t know how you say anything about this? Because this anything is everything. Almost the entire purpose we’re drawn together and need each other is this anything. Just be here, say anything. I don’t care. But circle in and in. What’s beyond the anything? It’s the nothing. And because of the nothing “he snorted. He felt about this engagement as he always felt about any engagement; the girl is much too good for that young man” (122). And why would he not be. Is not she everything and he is nothing? “Why is it that one wants people to marry? What was the value, the meaning of things?” (122). Is there any meaning of things? Is there anything at all to this anything that must be said while sitting doing nothing? “A heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so- it was not so. It was only that she never could say what she felt” (123). But if she can not say what she felt and simply says the “anything” else, does she not always say the “nothing” and only express the one thing? And what is love if it is never expressed? Can you feel the feelings of another’s heart? No. You can only hear their words! Are words only to be interpreted as the negative space to feeling? Is feeling only the negative space to nothing? What does that make the anything? What does that make this?!

But they need neither the anything or the nothing. “And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it (although he doesn’t say it). And smiling she looked out the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)- Yes, you’re right. It’s going to be wet tomorrow” (124). My guess is he was just thinking about the weather. But here Mrs. Ramsay “triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew” (124)- the not nothing in full expression.

“He must have reached it… Ah but she was relieved. Whatever she had wanted to give him, when he left her that morning, she had given him at last… There it was- her picture… It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? She looked up at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas: it was blurred” (208-209). My mind spins in a thousand directions once again. Empty? Beginnings? Endings? Meanings? Plot? Character? Theme? Nothing? Blank. Blank. Blank. “She saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue. I have had my vision” (209). Clarity? Where’s the line? I don’t get it? I’m missing my clarity! My clarity is gone! I’m gonna have to read this entire novel over again!!! Oh, no… I seriously don’t have time. What’s going to happen to me? My mind is in a vacuum. Yet twisting round and round and round. I can only see the ripples. I’m the cone! I can’t see the ocean! I’m so lost! I’m so lost… Damn you Virgina Woolf!!! What am I going to write?

Works Cited

Woolf, Virigina. To the Lighthouse. Mariner Books, 1981.

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