Monday, May 11, 2009

Mrs. Dalloway

I began rereading Mrs. Dalloway, a novel by Virginia Woolf, yesterday. Oh, what a lovely novel! What a linguistic and cultural and epistemological and ontological and philosophical and theological adventure!

A novel by a supposed atheist about an atheist within whose sensibility we discover the world and human experience as largely a mystical continuum. A mystically connected, remarkably fluid, largely spiritual mode or place or dance.

We inhabit the minds of many characters as Clarissa Dalloway makes her way through her day, but always come back to her experience, her purpose, her place, her history, her sense of things as the center, as our principal agency of knowing in the novel.

And as I made my way again through the beginning of the novel, I was delighted to dive deeply into this remarkable author and swim about in her imagination. Swim about in a world she has made for us from which we can look out into and re-experience the world.

And as I read, it occurred to me that the semantic recalcitrance that we experience in texts, in linguistic objects, begins with the semantic recalcitrance of the world itself. Of the world we partly experience and partly create or make in the experiencing of it. The world we make in the linguistic constructs we create in the act of our experiencing it.

A world in which events are both trivial and momentous. In which the real events of note are our experiences of the visible or auditory. Of the olfactory or tactile. Of the recordable events we all believe we should be able to agree on. Events such as a smoking airplane writing an advertisement for toffee in the sky, or a man hearing the birds sing, or people noticing a car carrying someone important as it makes its way through the crowded street.

As I began this extraordinary experience again, it occurred to me that each of these characters were spirit-beings through which all kinds of intangible things were passing. History. Emotion. Ideas. Perceptions. Urgencies. Purposes. Opacities. Good intentions. Conflicts. Grief. Love. Civilizations. Evil. Incomprehension. Ignorance. Imperfect understanding. Meaning.

And it seemed like these characters. These simulacra of real people. Were more like elements in the vast hydrodynamics of a planet than they were discrete individuals. As if they played the role of sentient nodes in the enormous spirit-work of creation.

Sentient and self-creating nodes, to some extent. But created nodes also. Nodes created by someone else. Some other agency that is largely secret and imperfectly known. Only hinted at in the confines of this particular infinity. This particular linguistic object.

So who is Mrs. Dalloway? Well, that is of course the question provoked by the title. Along the way we are given a number of answers. Partial answers. Here is one: "She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. . . .far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day."

And here is another: ". . . at any moment the brute would be stirring, this hatred, which, especially since her illness, had power to make her feel scraped, hurt in her spine; gave her physical pain, and made all pleasure in beauty, in friendship, in being well, in being loved . . . quiver, and bend as if indeed there were a monster grubbing at the roots . . ."

And here is something specifically about the opacity of things or the finality or perhaps fatality of things in the mind of Clarissa Dalloway: "So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying "that is all" more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body . . . says too, That is all."

This last passage is most interesting, isn’t it? It is to me. The heart. The human heart. In the sounds and the rhythms it makes. Is a metaphor for ocean waves building and falling. Or are the waves a metaphor for the heart?

Or are the waves—an emergent reality created by the interaction between water and wind, the largely substantial and the largely insubstantial—more a metaphor for the human heart taken figuratively? Taken as an element of the soul?

What goes on here? Isn’t there an admixture of figure and ground? Isn’t there a confusion of the literal ground of the metaphor with the thing (substantial or insubstantial) being illuminated? What is human sentience? That half created, half made up sense of who we are and where we are and what we are about and what is happening to us and what we are doing that gives us our uniqueness? Our personhood? Our being?

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