Saturday, October 20, 2018

Woolf and the Great Subjective

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

No novel (aside from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu) has had a greater, more lasting influence on my thinking and writing than Woolf’s 1927 paean to the griefs and glories of the subjective mind. Beginning just before the onset of the Great War and ending a few years after the war has ended, the novel is composed of three discrete glimpses of the Ramseys, a cultured middle class English family passing their summers in a modest house on the rugged coast of Scotland. 

At the heart of the novel is the bright, maternal Mrs. Ramsey whose acute, nearly omnipotent perspective defines the first and longest section of the book, setting the mold and tone for everything to come. As Eudora Welty writes in her introduction: “From its beginning, the novel never departs from the subjective… The interior of its characters’ lives is where we experience everything.”

Whereas in most novels the internal, subjective world of its characters is balanced (if not checked) by the evidence of an objective, material world, in To the Lighthouse the realm of wars and cities and trains is all but effaced, overwhelmed, by the force and primacy of the characters’ thoughts and impressions, that is, by the essential modernist problem of seeing. Writes Welty: “Inside, in this novel’s multiple, time-affected view, is ever more boundless and more mysterious than Outside.”

Part of the brilliance and challenge of this novel is the way that the narrative perspective switches without warning, often without the aid of conventional cues, so that the reader is swept along on the turbid current of the various characters' feelings. It is just one of the ways that Woolf blurs the boundaries of the world we know (or thought we knew) in a manner that reminds me of those traditional Japanese houses designed with moveable walls to create the illusion that inside and outside are one. She strove, in writing this novel, and after hours of tracking her own restless thoughts, to simulate the way an individual actually thinks and sees, the way ‘reality’ itself is constructed—a billion times a day—in the depths of every human brain. 

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cheer Up!

Good Books for Hard Times

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Volume I (Thinking)

Lester J. Cappon (editor) The Adams-Jefferson Letters

Jim Crace, Being Dead

Don't despair.  Soon it will all be over.

Meanwhile, here is a book for the soul, a book for the mind, one to feed your nostalgia for bygone days, and one to cheer you up--at least you're not a corpse. I've been reading or rereading these books lately--an antidote to the news.

I can't think of a better book to feed one's soul than Huxley's classic collection of quotations, with extensive commentary, from the world's spiritual literature.  Published right after World War II, when, if anything, things were worse than they are now, Huxley's judicious anthology organizes the wisdom of the ages by topic from "That Thou Art" to "Contemplation."  All of the great figures are here, from William Law and Thomas Trahane to St. Catherine of Siena.  The best parts are those that Huxley writes himself, the links that make sense of the quotations, the reflections of a secular man on the world's religious traditions. Huxley, who saw so many things before anyone else (Soma! Mass Stupidity!), finds in the denominational squabbles of religion a great unifying message, the simple truth that if we will  let down our guard we can find meaning in the world. Huxley makes palpable for those of us who are routinely secular a spiritual sensibility that is comforting and non-dogmatic. His own modesty and life-long search for truth, the courage he displayed in looking inward, make Huxley the perfect guide to a philosophy that transcends the turbulence of the moment. Way better than self-help or "mindfulness" [when there's an app for it, it's phony] is the wisdom of genuine seekers and mystics and thinkers.

I have been reading Hannah Arendt steadily, with great pleasure, since the spring. Her prose is lucid (in her third or fifth language, depending on whether or not you count her Latin and Greek), her ideas stimulating, her boldness as a thinker deeply in contrast to the timidity typical of today's "thought leaders." The fact that she read everything and somehow worked into a view of the world that was intensely political while at the same time profoundly philosophical make Arendt the perfect antidote to the mendacious times in which we live.  The Life of the Mind is my favorite of her books. It's informed by her studies with and of Heidegger, Jaspers, and others--Merleau-Ponty, Buber, Husserl--but also by her abiding interest in politics. Arendt's biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, informs us that Arendt, though trained in philosophy, preferred thinking and writing about the vita activa

Reading Arendt, enjoying her seriousness, the clarity of her thought, is like swimming in cool, clear water--revitalizing for the mind and the body.

Though they served on the committee of five that produced the Declaration of Independence and though both were patriots determined to sever America's ties with England, Adams and Jefferson were bitter political rivals for nearly two decades. After the War of 1812 they once again became colleagues (if not exactly friends: their temperaments were too different), and commenced a remarkable correspondence that ended only with their deaths, which famously occurred on the same day, July 4th, 1826.  Adams was a prickly gentleman, prone to express  his New England rectitude with a forcefulness that contrasted with Jefferson's more courtly manners. Adams was pro-British, a republican but not a democrat.  Jefferson, the paradoxical radical and egalitarian, the slave owner who believed passionately in the rights of man, seemed to Adams to be a dangerous leveler, a tool of French extremism and an enemy of rational (that is, Federalist) politics.  They attacked on another mercilessly; when Jefferson became Adams' Vice-President in 1796 he actively plotted an invasion of England with his French colleagues and founded, with James Madison, a newspaper whose specific purpose was the undermining of Federalist policies.  Partisan politics!  

Yet, with their gradual reconciliation--traceable in these remarkable letters--one  finds that the two men had more in common than they supposed, especially during the period after 1814 when America was nominally a one-party nation but, in fact, bitterly divided in terms of both domestic and foreign policy.  While in the 1790's the two quarrelled over the writings of Thomas Paine, in the eighteen-teens they exchange notes on their readings in history, philosophy, and science in the spirit of retired college professors. 

Listen to this: pious John Adams writing to Deist Thomas Jefferson (Nov. 4, 1816): "We now have, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James's Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity than to propagate those Corruptions in Europe Asia, Africa, and America?"

This thick volume, beautifully produced by The University of North Carolina Press, is full of such gems: "I cannot contemplate human Affairs, with laughing or crying. I choose to laugh. When people talk of the freedom of Writing Speaking, or Thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed." (John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, July 15, 1817).  Reading these letters takes one back, not necessarily to a better time in our history, but to a time when statesmen existed, when enemies could correspond with a sense of common purpose, and when those who led the country actually knew something beyond the limits of their own egos. 

The English author Jim Crace writes poetic novels that aren't like anything else you've ever read. The Gift of Stones, set in the neolithic age,  nonetheless manages to be a novel about storytelling and modernity.  In Quarantine, Crace recasts the story of Jesus's time in the wilderness as a fable about how ordinary life can cross paths with the miraculous and not even blink. And that's what Crace does in Being Dead as well.  Two corpses, husband and wife zoologists, occupy the center of this macabre but moving story of death and bereavement.  Crace works the details of Joseph's and Celice's life into what is primarily a story about being a corpse, a feast for insects and worms. I've read over some of the more forensic scenes several times both to get the willies and also to appreciate Crace's mastery of tone and style. His descriptions of the murdered pair--a long-married couple who go off to have sex in the dunes and are murdered for no good reason--decaying in the sun over the course of an interminable week, are medieval in their intense evocation of our dewy flesh. That writing about something so disturbing could bring so much pleasure proves once again that style and technique and talent can make beauty from any subject, however unlikely.

George Ovitt (10/3/2018)