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.