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).