Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Modernist Politics

Leonard Woolf’s “Fear and Politics” provoked a variety of responses from me. I was wondering as I read through it how acerbic he intended his humor to be. As I read part of it to my roommate (in order to share my enjoyment), I found myself saying that I didn’t think he intended it to be taken too seriously or literally (this in reference to the section about killing or not killing Germans) as it would then become highly offensive, my assumption apparently being that a discussion of offing the entire German population was too exaggerated to be taken seriously. And ultimately I think my initial reaction was correct in that I think he was intentionally exaggerating the posed position he gave to the political right as represented by the rhinoceros and company.

However, after I made that statement to my roommate, I had a mental double-take, and my mind immediately went to Voltaire’s Candide and its black comedy. Leonard frames/words the passage on the Germans so hysterically that it has the same effect as one of Voltaire’s many passages in which his characters offhandedly lose a limb. You feel tricked into laughing at what, after you think about it, is a truly horrendous description or assertion. This stark contrast between the humor and the stark, mindless violence forces you to reconsider whether, even in light of a presumably purposeful exaggeration, such a characterization doesn’t more closely resemble the reality than would a less straw-man-like one. And if so, again, exactly how eviscerating is Leonard trying to be? I’m not sure exactly where to go with this question. I don’t think he treats every position as severely as he does the conservative, though he does mock the Mandrill in his assertion that Lenin and Trotsky might also have “blue wrinkles on [their] nose[s] and . . . sky-blue rump[s]” (146).

In general, he seems to treat the whole episode with cynicism. The bestiary genre calls to mind the moralizing fable, but that does not seem to apply as directly as would a connection with Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles: a debate amongst animals that ends on an unsatisfactory note. I imagine that Leonard would support the voice of the owl (a traditional figure of wisdom), but the elephant gets the last word—his interruption even prevents the owl from finishing his statement. Thus the closing argument comes from a character who makes similar claims to validity as does the rhinoceros (appeal to age), and it frames the issue in troubling language, painting “BORN INTO CAPTIVITY” as a positive. Furthermore, I believe that Leonard worked very actively in favor of a united nations, which the elephant dismisses. Nonetheless, his dichotomy of fear and security (in this case termed captivity) bears persuasive force, undermined only by the terminology. Is Leonard deconstructing the binary by presenting it through a non-normative voice (or is that my modern interpretation), or is he merely presenting a cynical view of how the political process stymies the voice of reason whenever it gets the opportunity to speak and superficially satisfies everyone (the zoo animals do applaud) by appealing to defunct, but still respected, political metaphors—where people feel safe. I’m tempted to try and apply the Zizek reading we had for Dr. Morrissey’s class this week in which he criticizes what he terms as para-politics: the rule-governed debate that prevents real politics from occurring, but I would probably botch it, and I’m not sure that it would work anyway, so I won’t.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mrs. Dalloway

After reading Woolf’s “Moder Fiction” essay, I couldn’t help noticing the relationship between her treatment of convention in writing and her characterization of Sir William Bradshaw. Bradshaw’s “divine proportion” (97) becomes the governing force that demands and compels conformity—her sister goddess is conversion, who “is even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance” (97). This proportion, or as Woolf framed it in her essay, this “series of gig lamps systematically arranged” (4), which is not life but convention, prevents a writer from “writ[ing] what he chose, … work [based] upon his own feeling” (4).

Furthermore, the descriptions of the two cement the connection even more. In conforming with convention, “life escapes” (3) resulting in “embalming the whole” (3) of the text. And the efforts specifically geared toward satisfying the conventions of realism are “but labour misplaced to the extent of obscuring and blotting out the light of conception” (3). Perhaps it is a stretch to frame this last statement in terms of childbirth, but I would assert that the terms of labor and conception are grounds enough for at least making the observation that Bradshaw similarly “forbade childbirth” (97) by his mental patients. More directly, the images of death invoked in the embalming come up explicitly as in the position of the proper hostess, Clarissa is mortified at hearing the Bradshaws talk about death at her party.

A little more abstractly, Clarissa sees Sir Bradshaw as “very distinguished,” “a great doctor,” “a man absolutely at the head of his profession, very powerful,” a man who “had been perfectly right; extremely sensible” (178); and yet she resists him, dislikes him even though she does not know exactly why. He is oppressive, even claustrophobic—“what a relief to get out to the street again!” (178). Similarly in her essay, Woolf describes Mr. Bennett as “perhaps the worst culprit of the three, inasmuch as he is by far the best workman. He can make a book so well constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can creep in.” Thus his the very skill and success of the labor acts as an insidious veil to conceal the faults.

So what? Assuming you accept my comparison, how does it apply? Well, if Sir Bradshaw stands for a figure of convention and conformation, then Septimus becomes a figure of modern fiction trying to break free but in this case ultimately unable to do so except by way of self-destruction. Bradshaw becomes the one truly mad: “this is madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of proportion” (97). In jumping from the window, Septimus tries to escape Homes and Bradshaw, whom he has conflated. “He did not want to die. Life was good” (146), but in order to escape convention, some self-mutilation becomes necessary and in the process renders the work “horribly mangled” (146) in the perspective of convention.

In addition to the internal and psychological nature of the novel, the lack of chapters may be one of Woolf’s attempts to break with convention, creating what might be confusion for readers not prepared to receive it. However, in their place the toll of the hours echo throughout the book: “shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion” (100). Thus in one sense Mrs. Dalloway represents Woolf’s argument in novel form for a break with convention in fiction, and a real tension exists between the labeled madness of Septimus and the true madness of Bradshaw’s all-encompassing proportion. Though Septimus dies, his death for Clarissa “was an attempt to communicate” (180), which according to Woolf’s essay is the sign of a writer: “any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express” (5).

“She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away” (182). But what had he thrown away? Something in which we are all invested, something requiring great daring to cast aside. Was it his life, or was it the system, the convention of living? After all, life itself was good.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Eliot's The Waste Land and the Need to Exist

I find that every time I read The Waste Land I get caught up in the footnotes, which, though informative and helpful, prevents me from reading the poem fluidly. On a personal level, I often wonder if Eliot would have done his readers a better service had he let the poem stand alone without ever publishing the footnotes. I suppose that I ought to follow Eliot’s own advice from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, in which he says that “the more seasoned reader . . . does not bother about understanding; not, at least, at first” (93)—that by way of introduction.
Rather than try to take the whole poem on, I thought I’d address a few issues that came up as I was reading the poem and the articles. Throughout his paper Brooks makes a big point out of the Eliot quote he introduces at the opening: “‘So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least, we exist [italics Brooks’]’” (186). I really like the observations he draws from the poem in relation to this statement. However, I am struggling with the consistency between this reading as applied to a section of the poem and another statement he makes later in his paper.
My confusion arises when Brooks says that “the comments on the three statements of the thunder imply an acceptance of them” (203-4) and then proceeds to quote three lines of the Datta (give) section:
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Brooks treats this section negatively as far as I can see. The “mere ‘existence’” (204) represented here is insufficient for him, an example of man’s inability to “be absolutely self-regarding” (204). However, Brooks’ overarching emphasis on the primary need to exist regardless of whether such existence results from good or evil action seems to oblige you to read this section as positive. After all, through this “moment’s surrender” the speaker did achieve existence, the mere being a qualification added by Brooks (I think deriving from the use of only, which does not apply the existence, but to the action). And though this section is not immediately connected with the injunction to control, a positive reading would seem to present a contradiction (a moment’s surrender=good as opposed to the need to control=good). Whether Brooks would appreciate what I’ve done here is no longer the point. Now it’s a matter of personal inquiry: can the ideas of ascetic control and imprudent abandon both be accepted?
If I were to try to reconcile them, I would do so by returning to the beginning of the poem. As a young child, Marie was afraid of sledding at the arch-duke’s. However, when her cousin (the arch-duke?) told her to “hold on tight . . ., down [they] went” (16), and “there you feel free” (17). The control obtained through holding on allows for the subsequent freedom and defeat of fear. Perhaps you could parallel the fear factor of sledding in the mountains to an imprudent surrender, but I’m not sure. I could justify the connection of control with the sledding image by the fact that when Eliot writes about control in section five, he uses the image of “the boat respond[ing] / Gaily, to the hand of the expert with sail and oar” (419-20). The guidance of a boat and of a sled are so similarly framed by the hands as controlling agents that I feel the stretch not too outlandish. However, if the connection between the surrender and sledding does not hold, if the surrender must be a negative action, then I would be forced to call into question Brooks’ championing of the existence motif in the poem.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Howards End

Forster’s Howards End demonstrates a very powerful sense of the modern and modernity as a growing force in London and represents Forster’s attempt to confront and assimilate it into a stable world view. One of the more salient ways in which Forster frames his discussion is through Margaret’s impulse to connect. Modernists confronted a fracturing world, and though they recognized the reality of the situation, they yearned to piece it back together—they sought some form of unity among the pieces as a defense against the instability epitomized in the continual flux of London. Thus as Eliot famously wrote, “these fragments I have shored against my ruin,” so Margaret agonizes over the possibility of “building . . . the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion[, without which] we are meaningless fragments” (134). There is a seemingly innate desire to collect/connect the pieces of a broken modern world in such a way that will create some saving meaning. And it is within this paradigm that Forster makes his rhetorical power plays.

As already mentioned, Forster represents London as undulating, almost seething, not in the positive image of a living body full of activity, but as suffering from erosive decay, buildings being “swept away in time” as the waves of “humanity piled . . . higher and higher on the precious soil of London” (8). Howard’s End provides a very strong contrast in that (though it changes, significantly, because of the intervention of the masculine and with the implication that it would have been better off if left alone—the stable being turned into a garage particularly), it remains a stable and safe space immune to the flux as well as the prying and oppressive eyes of a hypocritically moralistic society. The great wych-elm tree with its embedded pig’s teeth roots the house deeply in the past, an image somewhat connected with the women of the house as they are the only ones who notice it; however, Forster denies a strict binary: “house and tree transcended any similies of sex. . . . To compare either to man, to woman, always dwarfed the vision. Yet they kept within the limits of the human” (148). The emphasis again falls on connection, here a connection between, not preeminence of, the sexes.

Addressing that constructed preeminence of the male, Forster does challenge the social structure of gender. Henry’s inability to connect his failure with Helen’s largely derives from his (and contemporary society’s) view of gender, the cause of the double standard of sexuality for men and women inherited from the Victorians. Margaret clearly elucidates the male (and societies) response when she contemplates a butler at the Evie’s wedding: “he, as a handsome young man, was faintly attractive to her as a woman—an attraction so faint as scarcely to be perceptible, yet the skies would have fallen if she had mentioned it to Henry” (176). Forster here dares to acknowledge and justify female sexuality.

On a different level, Forster also challenges an elitist aesthetic in the character of Leonard Bast. He makes concerted efforts to prevent “Romance [from] interfere[ing] with his life” (101). He wanted to maintain forced boundaries between the culture he revered and the life he lived. Margaret thought that he “tried to get away from the fogs [the daily grey] that are stifling us—away past books and houses to the truth[, but Leonard] fail[s] to see the connection” (104). Thus in reality he is left only with the “husks of books” (106), the external vestiges of culture, the essence of which he can never realize. Thus he exemplifies an abortive culture that fails to banish that daily grey that continuously resurrects itself throughout the novel.

Virginia Woolf's Short Stories

This post may lack any strict logical coherence, which in many ways seems to be the only possible response to Virginia Woolf's short stories. I say this not in any derogatory sense but simply as an opening observation. They do leave you as a reader very much on the outside by default in the confusion of your attempt to orient yourself in what frequently appears to be the inner monologues of some character or characters, and yet precisely by that psychological element, you are pulled inside, detached from the outside, physical realm though it remains visible. Perhaps more concretely, Woolf often reveals fundamental elements of her narrators, but we would be almost entirely unable to recognize these individuals if we met them. Of course, such a description can't apply perfectly to each story, but it is my initial holistic reaction.

In regard to similarities between Woolf's short stories and Eliot's early poetry, “The Mark on the Wall” offers a possible parallel to “Prufrock” in its narrator who uses this arbitrary mark as a distraction from some thought or memory brooding in the back of his mind: “that old fancy” of war in medieval terms stained red, which “rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted” (47). The speaker avoids confronting some idea or possibly a reimagined memory by interposing a Dickinsonian fly, as it were, anything to redirect his or her attention. And the narrator's great attention to the identity of the mark seems to indicate a real interest on his or her part to know what it is (an interest that I definitely possessed), but this conjecture ultimately represents an attempt to hold at bay those more troubling visions. Though he or she suggests many possible explanations for the mark and even expresses the need to find out exactly its identity (“I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is” (52)), the narrator argues him/herself back to inertia, hinting at the fear of “some collision with reality” (52)—to solve the riddle will leave the narrator defenseless. Nature urges action as “she perceives . . . [a] mere waste of energy” in a “train of thought” (52), but the speaker bears an innate distrust of action which presumably rules out thought. “Still, there's no harm in putting a full stop to one's disagreeable thoughts by looking at a mark on the wall” (53). I can't really decide how to interpret the narrator's reaction to the revelation that the mark is a snail. It would make sense for the approach I'm taking for the closing line to be one of disappointment at having lost that focal point of distraction, especially in light of war being reintroduced immediately prior (though this new and unidentified character seems to dislike war out of boredom as opposed to the narrator's red fire-conceived vision of knights and castles). However, I don't see any clear indicators to inherently validate such a reading.

“An Unwritten Novel” shares some similarities with “The Mark on the Wall.” The narrator similarly desires some form of denial of consciousness—she asks the woman on the train to “play the game—do, for all our sakes, conceal it!” (19). Newspapers also receive suspicious and somewhat cynical treatment with the assertion that they know all along with the juxtaposition of peace after The Great War with a train wreck. However Woolf further complicates the identity of the narrator of “Unwritten Novel” is further complicated by an identity with the question of “when self speaks to the self, who is speaking?” (28). I'm left wondering if I've been listening to the same person or different levels of that person (again, similar to possible interpretations in “Prufrock”) the whole time.

I did notice quite a few references to color (Sandra Kemp commments on this a couple times in her article), which addresses some of my uncertainties from last week's readings on the influence of art. Woolf seems particularly fond of red and blue which she uses frequently, though all three primary colors are thrown in together in the flowers of “Kew Gardens.” I'm not sure I can draw any meaningful observations from that fact at the moment, though.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Modern Art

In his chapter entitled “The Visual Arts” in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, Glen Macleod points out that “painters were the first to explore the revolutionary possibilities of Modernism, so that painting became the leading art form” (194). For some artists this movement from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism and thence to Cubism and Abstract art represented a necessary, “great spiritual revolution” (Macleod 205), an idea that resonated with writers such as Pound and Wallace Stevens and can also be seen in others like Yeats. And it is from these very “depths of mysticism” that others like Roger Fry pull back: “On the edge of that gulf I stop” (“Retrospect” 407). Fry felt comfortable considering the idea of an aesthetic emotion (a concept similar with that of Eliot); however, if probed too deeply it might lead to that mysticism he wished to avoid. Thus he sought to isolate it from other attendant emotions (“the compounds in which it occurs” (406)), and in a very Kantian moment, he also distinguishes it from “ethical values” (407). To so isolate art seems quite in conflict with the social and political orientation of writers like Woolf and Forster, to name just two. Both had significant statements to make about the world in which they lived, and thus it seems unlikely that they would buy into a theory of art that relegated the artistic merit merely to the formalism of the piece and an esoteric (even from the perspective of Clive Bell and Fry) emotion provoked by that formalism.

In contrast to S. P. Rosenbuam's editorial note in which he presents Fry's “Retrospect” as “one of the best summaries of Bloomsbury aesthetics” (398), Jane Goldman sets out (as indicated by the title of her book, The Feminine Aesthetics and Virginia Woolf) to distinguish the aesthetics of the women (specifically Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) from those of the men of Bloomsbury, the difference lying mainly in the issue of color. Though Fry’s organization of the 1910 exhibition evidences his dependence on “the romantic colour theory of Meier-Graefe” (Goldman 131), the 1912 exhibition reveals (as Goldman argues) that he had shifted his emphasis away from color to Clive Bell’s significant form, which though comprised of “‘lines and colours combined in a particular way’” (134), yet removes the focus from the colors themselves to the shapes that those colors, aided by the lines, create. Woolf and Vanessa Bell, on the other hand, retain a marked interest in the colors themselves as illustrated by the many references Goldman provides.

Whether this distinction between the men and women and their respective predilection for form and color can be extrapolated to the remaining members of Bloomsbury and whether those differences influence the way they write (considering Woolf was the only novelist of the four specifically dealt with in Goldman’s article), I am uncertain. Goldman does indicate a close association between the sisters’ work, and at one point she mentions color as a parallel metaphor in Bell’s painting and one of Woolf’s texts. Perhaps the connections will become more apparent as I read more of the literature, and my personal ignorance of art history and the characteristics of modern art (mitigated somewhat by the readings) definitely plays a part, but at the moment I have difficulty following explicit connections between the art and the literature on the basis of color and form. And without more context, I’m inclined to question a strict gendering of the two.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Eliot's Early Poetry

In his essay “Eliot’s Essays: A Bridge to the Poems” James Torrens makes multiple connections between Eliot’s personal criticism and his poetry, associations which as Walton Litz notes, the relationship between the two virtually demands. Specifically, Torrens briefly reads “Prufrock” in terms of Eliot’s essay on Hamlet, pointing to Eliot’s claim that criticism of the play ought to take a holistic approach rather than focusing on Hamlet as a character, the implication being that the poem “Prufrock” rather than the man ought to be the focus of criticism. However apt such a relation (between essay and poem) might seem, I think it relevant to point out that Torrens makes this connection largely based on comparisons and contrasts between the actual characters of Prufrock and Hamlet (48), illustrating the difficulty for critics of both Hamlet and “Prufrock” to disassociate the characters from their namesake texts. Such a treatment of the two would be even more ironic if we take seriously Prufrock’s emphatic assertion of “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” (111), though the very nature of Prufrock begs the reader to question any absolute statement he makes; and of course, Eliot's statement that the Hamlet passage may have been one of the earliest written fragments definitely indicates a potentially integral connection between the two characters.

Even so, taking Torrens (and Eliot’s) advice to look at the poetry holistically reveals some general relations between “Prufrock,” the “Pervigilium” excerpt that Eliot removed from the poem, and some of his other early works. Eliot’s predilection for circular time sequences evidences itself in a comparison of the “Pervigilium” and the “Preludes.” The latter starts at six pm, and the stanzas filter through a twenty-four hour period with particular focus on the transformation of night to day (yet without the optimism usually associated with dawn), the poem eventually “trampl[ing] by insistent feet” through the hours back to six pm. The “Pervigilium” does not complete a full twenty-four hour cycle but focuses (as does the “Preludes”) on the shifts between night and day. Starting at dusk, “when the evening fought itself awake” (10), the poem follows the speaker (who would have been and perhaps still is Prufrock ) through his paranoia in (and of?) the dark which seems about to attack him in the third stanza until dawn inadvertently saves him—when it “at length had realized itself” (25). Yet he is saved only for “Madness” (29), though he has some desire (born out of a sense of claustrophobia or suffocation?) to get to “the window to experience the world” (28), an urge similarly expressed in the “Prelude” as an “impat[ience] to assume the world” (47); yet it is a world about “to fall apart” (Pervigilium 32). Both poems thus evince this tension between not-quite-night and not-quite-day and the anxiety attendant on the instability of the transition as expressed in the speakers' angst and depicted in the putridity of the surroundings (Eliot's ubiquitous fog), particularly of the speakers themselves—“muddy feet,” “soiled hands” (“Preludes” 17, 38), and “broken boot heels stained in many gutters” (“Pervigilium” 31).

A comparison of “Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady” also reveals a number of similarities illustrative of Eliot's early poetics. In “Portrait” Chopin replaces Michelangelo as the topic of elitist and unfelt conversation, though this time explicitly spelled out instead of merely alluded to. The lady herself appears suspiciously like a female Prufrock, her “voice . . . like the insistent out-of-tune / Of a broken violin” (56-7), her hesitation evident in her constant false starts and repetition. She may in fact be one of the women of Prufrock's imaginings whose voices die with a “dying fall” (“Prufrock” 52; “Portrait” 122), though in “Portrait” the music of this singular voice is deemed “successful” (122). Eliot apparently has a fascination with paralyzed characters, Prufrock being speared to the wall with his ornate tie pin and the Lady being caught forever “serving tea to friends” (108). Also, alluding back to Eliot's preoccupation with passing time, “Portrait” begins in frozen December and cycles through the seasons back to October, the pending death at the end of the poem perhaps bringing us back to winter.

Just as a final note, “La Figlia che Piange” seems to contrast with the general grim aspect of Eliot's early poetry. Though it is not uniformly optimistic (the failure of a love relationship and contrasting night and day), yet it has a much more open feel to it aided by the flower imagery and the “weav[ing of] sunlight in [the girl's] hair” (3).