About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 25 - Modern Music iii

Stravinsky and Schoenberg, the two most compelling masters of modern music, have fascinated me from the beginning of my listening life, to the extent even that I imagined them as characters in my novel Hungry Generations about the tense friendship in Los Angeles between a young studio composer and the family of a virtuoso classical pianist, a European émigré and friend of both composers. Also, especially Schoenberg haunts one of the stories, “Contrapuntal Piece,” in my new novella and story collection Acts of Terror and Contrition. As well, his conception of atonal music is one subject in my critical study Fullness of Dissonance: Modern Fiction and the Aesthetics of Music. Modern music, then, has been central to my imaginative and intellectual life for many decades, let alone a source of great pleasure.

Before I turn to Stravinsky and Schoenberg, I’d like to offer a bit more commentary on the connection between Debussy and Mallarmé, a connection which my last post mentioned in too hurried and compressed a way (I'll try to work on that tendency!). Particularly for the poet’s work, consciousness can seem wavering and tenuous and to verge toward a state of non-being. That ‘state’ can be both a symptom of and a response to a culture dominated by technology, materialism, and war, when the human can seem reduced to the condition of an automaton or an animal. The experience of modern life as a sort of spiritual death-in-life prompts and frames the struggle to express, to preserve, to “deliver up the volatile scattering which we call the human spirit, who cares for nothing save universal musicality” – in Mallarmé’s words. Each of the poet’s characteristic elegies (for Poe, for Gautier, for Wagner, etc.) confronts the pervasive sense of death in his era and renders it paradoxically as both a sign of modern paralysis and an opening toward transcendence, whose adepts have incurred the ultimate and universal payment. (This idea is evident also in Proust’s meditation about Swann, music, and “not-being” as “perhaps our true state:” if so, as we perish, “we have for our hostages these divine captives” of music. And the idea is present too in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus I, 3: different from the voice of passion, “true singing is a different breath, about / nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.”)

In “Literature and Music,” Mallarmé writes that there is no adequate language to render the paradoxical experience of modern consciousness except through a joining of poetry with music. For example in “The Afternoon of a Faun,” Mallarmé and Debussy, in his setting of the eclogue, evoke nymph and satyr, the sensual inhabitants of the imagination, by employing an evanescing stream of both sensuous sounds and silences: “these nymphs, I would make them endure…hovering yet upon the air / heavy with the foliage of sleep,” projecting paradoxically a “sonorous voice” on the edge of “silence.” The sinuous, intentionally disintegrating ‘voice’ of both the poetry and the music “hovers” on the edge of disappearing; it enacts yet transfigures the potential erasure which is everywhere possible in the modern period. Even as modern consciousness and the spirit may seem on the verge of disappearance, music – the weightless, airborne, least “materialist” art – becomes the sign and sanctuary of the human, “now vanishing into obscurity, [yet] now radiating unconquerably.” (Here’s a YouTube link to the opening of the Debussy – Gergiev/LSO: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xK0F5KkfT4&feature=related - here, also, is a great recording with Boulez conducting: Debussy: Images / Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune / Printemps - The Cleveland Orchestra / Pierre Boulez.)

Stravinsky and Schoenberg offer two differing ways to confront the disintegration of traditional language and inherited convention in modern music. Stravinsky saw himself as shepherding classical music into an era of new opportunities to refresh inherited forms. In view of the riot the initial performance of The Rite of Spring provoked, he notes (in Poetics of Music) that “the tone of a work like The Rite may have appeared arrogant, the language that it spoke may have seemed harsh in its newness, but that in no way implies that it is revolutionary….If one only need break a habit to merit being labeled revolutionary, then every musician who has something to say and who in order to say it goes beyond the bounds of established convention would be known as revolutionary….To speak of revolution is to speak of a temporary chaos. Now art is the contrary of chaos.” This paradoxical argument is illustrated by the extraordinary precision Stravinsky’s scores require of musicians as they execute new ideas of rhythm (abrupt shifts, surprising syncopations, and unprecedented time signatures) and render unstably shifting, newly dissonant harmonies. [A powerful example of “harshly” innovative intensity joined with control is evident in the following YouTube excerpt from Salonen conducting the ending of The Rite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi16suM21jQ&feature=related.] No matter how radical his new means sounded to listeners, Stravinsky saw himself imperturbably as “daring” but never “disorderly,” a model of autonomous art never given over to “gratuitous excess.”

Like Picasso, he continually sought inspiration in past or primitive art (in an earlier note - 14 - on the modern period, I suggest how a laying bare of essential form is at work in both modern art's primitivism and its experimental abstraction). An appropriated and concerted primitivism is evident in the erotic sensuality of his adaptation of Russian folk melodies in The Rite and other scores; the result is a sensuous array of sounds and sensations which repeatedly well up unexpectedly with intentional violence. [In the following YouTube excerpt from Boulez conducting the ballet, listen particularly to the powerful transition at 3:38: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrOUYtDpKCc]; his wonderful Cleveland Orchestra performance is available here: Stravinsky: Petrouchka / Le Sacre de printemps (The Rite of Spring) ~ Boulez.] In the 1920s Stravinsky turned to earlier music (Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Pergolesi, Vivaldi and Bach) in order to create a sometimes grotesque hallowing; for example, he both masters and parodies 18th century Baroque style in the Violin Concerto, through allusion, inter-textual quotation, distorted imitation, and joining Baroque conventions with modernist dissonance and explicitly machine-like rhythm. In such acts of travesty, the pastiche of the past supplies an otherwise unavailable sense of unity and centeredness. [Here are YouTube excerpts from Gil Shaham’s performance of the first and third movements: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErxgHH2eeFQ&feature=related and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cS0rMOXD5mg&feature=related. Here’s a link to a Stern recording: Stravinsky: Violin Concerto / Rochberg: Violin Concerto / Stern / Previn. There’s also Peter Serkin’s brilliant recording of the piano sonata: Stravinsky: Serenade In A, Sonata / Lieberson: Bagatelles / Wolpe: Pastorale, Form IV ("Broken Sequences"), Four Studies on Basic Rows, IV: Passacaglia.]

Stravinsky’s sense of sometimes grotesquely-achieved centeredness, unity, and objective mastery distinguishes his music from Schoenberg’s intentionally difficult and harmonically uncentered music. The latter presents almost no stabilizing repetitions of consonant harmonies and little sensuous celebration of dance rhythm and melody. Even the decadent dancing around the Golden Calf in Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron is leaden and spikily dissonant. To confront the 'world' of pure dissonance and to avoid any back-sliding into worn-out 'invalid' harmonies, he developed a “serial” scheme of rendering the twelve half-tones of the scale as a means of ordering his atonal music, but it does not diminish the sense of struggling integrity his music conveys as it faces the dissolution of traditional harmony, explores the “chasms in its clichés,” and fiercely opposes music for easy mass consumption. Descended from Sinai and witnessing the Golden Calf, Moses’ final ‘spoken song’ – “O word, thou word, that I lack!” – embodies a “surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked” (in a phrase from Adorno, who elevates Schoenberg music above Stravinsky’s, which he argues tends to promote “the illusion of authenticity and unity”). Much of Schoenberg’s work mourns the modern loss of sacramental human speech and meaning. [Moses’ last utterance is at about the 5 minute point in this YouTube excerpt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kLFz5b13RU&feature=related. And here is a fine recording: Schoenberg - Moses und Aron / Pittman-Jennings · Merritt · Boulez.]

Another example of Schoenberg’s struggling ‘integrity’ is the String Quartet No. 2 (from 1911). The fourth movement (1911) opens with a reduction to the barest elements of the scale, then yields the accompanied song, which constitutes the first completely atonal classical music. This music embodies the difficult autonomy and abstraction which are central characteristics of modernism, as the singer here recounts a traversal of the painful breech between woeful modern reality and the possibility of an alien transcendent joy like that which Rilke and Mallarme evoke: “I feel an air from other planets blowing,” the soprano sings (in Stefan George’s words – sung after the 3 minute point in this excerpt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90cgDmMhh0E.) [There is a great recording by the LaSalle String Quartet available: Schoenberg; Berg; Webern - String Quartets – and also at Amazon is a wonderful Glenn Gould recording of Schoenberg’s piano works, including the opus 25 Suite, Schoenberg’s successful foray into Neo-classicism (and, as explained above, travesty); particularly Gould's performance brilliantly projects a wide expressive range, from the tragic even to the joyous: Schoenberg: Piano Works.]

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 24 - Modern Music ii

One of the stories in my new collection, Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable, imagines the fate of an emigre virtuoso pianist in L.A., Alexander Petrov, who is a friend of Stravinsky and Schoenberg; he is at the center also of an earlier work of mine, Hungry Generations: a novel, which partly tries to convey my pleasure in the history of classical music and especially modern music from Wagner forward. About Wagner, as my previous post tried to show, the evident gigantism in Wagner’s extraordinary operas participates in the modernist impulse to create art which surveys and encompasses the entire span of civilization, reaching back to its mythic origins and moving forward to the present world which is judged to be disintegrating from the mid-nineteenth century onward – and increasingly so, as the two World Wars were fought. This ambitious and audacious vision of human experience announces the current disintegration of traditional thought and received conventions. Such is the vision in Wagner and so too, for example, in Joyce’s Ulysses, with the qualification that Joyce’s creation of Leopold Bloom – as much a mockery of Odysseus as he is – celebrates the character’s struggling humanity. As a result, Joyce’s exposure of the vast, disintegrating edifice of civilization yet leaves some room for the ordinary human being. Such a paradox is not central in Wagner’s work (despite some superficial elements of it in Meistersinger).

However, in Mahler, a composer deeply influenced by Wagner (as every German-speaking classical composer was), we do encounter that paradoxical face-off between the individual versus the massive forces which can crush the human. The individual’s features are reduced to often primitive and, therefore, bitterly ironic markers of expressiveness, yet they survive. I am thinking of the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, in which a naive children’s tune is transformed into a deeply sad minor-key funeral march, and so its sweetness is converted into a beautiful but bitter gesture of yearning. Soon in the movement, we hear klezmer-style carnival tunes, and their primitive contours are made to convey a similar yearning for expressiveness, despite their grotesque transformations. (Here is a Bernstein performance of the movement on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEPERXpOqiU&feature=related.) What we hear here is travesty: the children’s folksong and the carnival dance music are mutilated and mocked, and yet they are clung to as embodying the last possibilities of expressiveness and meaning: deformed as they are, they become a lyrical hallowing of the mundane and the clichéd as all that humankind has left of meaning.

The transition from the utter silence at the end of this funeral march to the last movement’s apocalyptic thunderclap is a primal gesture of disruption, and it yields another sort of tragically inflected and travestied march. (Here is a Dudamel performance on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VY_g69mzv2E.) Mahler’s grotesque version of a victory march is, in Adorno’s image, a march as heard and witnessed from the point of view of the vanquished, the victims, who yearn for an alternative to brutality. Mahler’s music becomes an act of mourning for the passing of a "human" world. His symphonies employ huge orchestras, which can dwarf any semblance of the individual, and yet he makes us hear the individual instruments with chamber-music-like clarity. A most eloquent version of this meeting between gigantic resources in sound and the bared individual voices of instruments is to be found in his Symphony No. 3, the fourth movement, in which the mezzo-soprano sings Mahler’s setting of the “Midnight Song” of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The world is deep, / Deeper than day had been aware. / Deep is its woe;” yet joy is “deeper even than agony. / Woe implores: Go! / But all joy wants eternity - / Wants deep, wants deep eternity.” (Here is Abbado’s great performance with Anna Larsson, on YouTube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCEr2mWhYs8&feature=related.) An estranged minimalism (which is ironically a bit at odds with Nietzsche's yearning for the fertile, unbounded spirit) is at work in this movement after the gigantic structures, in terms of both time and sound, heard in the previous three movements, estranged because its “wisdom” is so dwarfed, so close to silence, though all the more moving to the modern ear for that. (There are many great interpretations on cd of the first and third symphonies; here are links to Abbado's [recently] conducting   Mahler: Symphony No. 3 and Bernstein conducting Mahler: Symphony No. 1- Titan / Symphony No. 10 (Adagio).)

Travesty and the tension between gigantism and minimalism are important also in an alternative classical music tradition to that in Germany, Austria, etc. In France, Debussy and Ravel employ features of modernist art with a quite different aesthetic, one based in a sort of floating aleatory associativeness, a graceful, sinuous welcoming dance of fragmentation. We can hear a powerful example of this alternative approach to travesty in Ravel’s “La Valse,” which presents the demonic destruction yet celebration of the mundane clichéd form of the waltz. Ravel disintegrates the form even as he simultaneously adheres to it as a last grotesque source of expressiveness. (Here is the second half of Dror Biron’s brilliant performance on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdaU-_vFH3g&feature=related# . There is also a wonderful performance available on cd of Argerich playing Ravel’s La Valse with Freire: Rachmaninov: Suite No. 2, Op. 17 / Ravel: La Valse / Lutoslawski: Paganini Variations ~ Argerich / Freire.)

Debussy, the greatest modern French composer, can employ a large orchestra (as he does, for example, in La Mer, or even in his setting of Mallarmé's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune), but he always maintains a clear, supple, associative flow of musical gestures, a sort of stream of consciousness emphasizing unexpected individual "voices." His music continually opens itself to the possibility of an alternative pentatonic harmony independent of classical music’s customary harmonic vocabulary and to the potential logic of synesthetic sensations joining the senses and separate from the ordered development of musical themes, which are always on the verge of fragmenting. (Here is a fine orchestral cd of Debussy: La Mer / Nocturnes / Jeux / Rhapsodie pour clarinette et orchestre - The Cleveland Orchestra / Pierre Boulez.)

Above all, Debussy’s minimalism becomes a means of maintaining individual expressiveness in the face of the experience of fragmentation, of sustaining the pared-down search for “meaning” in the face of chaos. His minimalism is very far from the rather gently beautiful impressionism with which he is sometimes identified. It veers abruptly from the delicate to the violent and back, for example, in Debussy’s Prelude for piano, the 12th in Book 2 - Feux d'artifice, or fireworks. (Here is a fine Maurizio Pollini performance on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1m1_IPErT-U. There is also a very great performance on cd of Sviatoslav Richter playing this prelude along with all of Debussy's Book 2: Richter in Spoleto.)

In my next post, I’ll attempt briefly to discuss Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 23 - Modern Music i

In the course I teach on modernism, students are often stirred and surprised by the radical departures from convention in the modern music they hear in a series of ‘YouTube’ excerpts which I assign (and which I’ll present in a few posts here). Their responses are a more accepting version of the responses of early audiences to the most radical early examples of such music. Famously, there was a riot at the first performance in 1913 of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” and by 1918, Schoenberg had founded the Society for the Private Performance of Music as a venue for the elite contingent of the initiated to listen to his and his students’ demanding atonal music.

Of course, the novels of Virginia Woolf I've been discussing in recent posts are also quite difficult works of art; in many respects, her modern novels 'select their own society' of readers – literary, intellectual, and critical “free-thinkers.” (Woolf’s challenging work reminds us that Bloomsbury was an elite existing more or less on the edge of society and comprised of avant-garde artists, vanguard reformists, bohemian writers, feminists, homosexuals, Jews, etc. The challenging “post-impressionist” art they celebrated and created reflects those roots in a sort of outsider “aristocracy” – as E. M. Forster wrote – “of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.”)

Similarly, the classical music composed in the first three decades of the twentieth century sharply challenged its listeners. This spiky and difficult music often contains dissonant harmony, off-centered angular rhythm, and new structure. In the next few posts (as in the course I teach), I'll try at least to suggest some of the main features of modern music. I also try to evoke the achievements of this difficult music in both my 1994 critical study Fullness of Dissonance: Modern Fiction and the Aesthetics of Music and in my 2004 work Hungry Generations: a novel, about musicians and composers in Los Angeles in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Europe. And music and musicians are the topic of at least some of the fiction in my 2011 collection Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable.

The composers I’ll explore too briefly in these posts are Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartok.

Wagner’s break from customary musical practice involves a pervasive chromaticism: it is an opening up of melody, etc., to all twelve of the half-tones in a scale [i.e., on the piano all twelve keys, both black and white, within an octave between say C and C]. This “fullness of dissonance” - this destabilizing enlargement of the harmonic field - is a precedent for radical artistic innovation which Thomas Mann (in his essay on the composer) sees as the subversive breakthrough and model of freed experiment for all the arts in modernity. The opening melody of “Tristan und Isolde” offers an example. (Here’s a link to Barenboim conducting the Prelude, on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZNHPwS4vmU&feature=related .) The melody's reach up, then down, then searching further up the scale does not achieve a resolution until after several slightly changing repititions; we are made to experience an emotional yearning and instability rendering Isolde’s ultimately mortal passion for Tristan. The passage's flux and flow of chromatic dissonance enact the ravaging yet creative power of the restless, unceasing passion of the lovers (who, according to Wagner, inhabit a sort of Schopenhauerian world of the will).

Wagner’s other break with convention involves the use of such a phrase as a recurrent marker – a leitmotif – embodying Isolde’s emotion; the structure of Wagner’s unfolding “arias” and all the movements of the opera are based on the deployment and interplay of such motifs. It is as if previous ordering forms in classical music and particularly opera had become moribund, in Wagner's view, and required the new ideas about form his "art work of the future" enacts. The climax of the opera is Isolde’s beautiful “Liebestod” or ‘love-death’ with its own characteristic leitmotif, which forms the basis of a powerful aria of immense yearning and orgiastic passion, as multiple repetitions of the melody move through the chromatic scale. (Here is a YouTube version – listen at least from the 3 minute point to the end: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8enypX74hU&NR=1.) Baudelaire describes the listener’s sensation here as experiencing the “joy…of letting myself be penetrated and invaded, in a truly sensual delight resembling that of rising the air or revolving in the sea.”  (Here's an Amazon link to Barenboim conducting all of the opera - Wagner - Tristan und Isolde.)

Wagner’s rendering of the experience of a ‘love-death’ partly echoes the role of death for modernsm, plus something more; there is death's emdodiment of mystery, yet of a pervasive sense of spiritual mobidity in modernity, also of absolute experience beyond reason, and of the haunting result of spiritual extremity, the risk of severing the bonds to community. In the face of these multiple ambitions of Wagner's music, Nietzsche “contra Wagner” emphasizes, however, another sort of death enacted by what he heard as the manipulative “embrace” of such music (which he yet calls "indispensible" here, a view "The Birth of Tragedy" demonstrates). In Bayreuth, which was built for the Wagnerian operatic "rites," he observed in Wagner’s listeners not truly a death of the ordinary self and an entry into an alternative life, but rather a “disease,” a “self-extinction,” and “a fear-repulsing narrowness and…hebetation” – all of this where Wagner would have his listener “yield himself” to the “wonder” of “the human heart,” which “encompasses” and “reconciles” him to existence as he experiences the “ultimate completeness” of the “highest collective art work.” The “all-embracing” theater, mythic drama, poetry, and above all beautiful music created by Wagner’s operas aim to constitute a total work of art: a “Gesamtkunstwerk.”  Nietzsche, of course, rendered his own encompassing "myths" (Apollo and Dionysus and Zarathustra and, finally, himself), yet his fiercest objections to Wagner involve the "all-embracing" gigantism in the composer's use of "Aryan" myths (and also, Nietzsche interestingly complains, to the composer's "descending" to "antisemitism"). So once again we encounter a powerful and spiritually risk-taking gigantism in modernity. Wagner's proto-modern "gigantism" finds its apotheosis in the mythic nature of his imagination and in the resulting "magnification" of the structures, themes, and characters in "Tristan und Isolde" and in the "Ring" cycle. (Here's an Amazon link to the Nietzsche texts: The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner.) I'll later try further to explore Wagner's significance, beyond this sketchy account.

I'll turn in my next posts to Mahler (and the issue of Wagner's influence), the relatively minimalist (!) Debussy, and Ravel, and then to Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 22 - Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse"

Of the many possible approaches to discussing Woolf’s novels, some concern her portrayal of men and women, her vision of “moments of being,” her ways of rendering characters’ consciousness, and her understanding of how art infuses and illuminates lives. In my earlier posts on modern fiction, I have emphasized a sort of gigantism both of modern novelists’ ambitions and of their created characters’ selves, in the face of modernity’s paradoxical combination of enormous growth and encompassing disillusionment, due in part to the Great War’s millions of lives lost. That sense of the modern novel as a process of “magnification” is evident in Woolf’s work; I’ll be focusing my comments here on her most developed novel after Mrs. Dalloway (1925): the great To the Lighthouse, published in 1927 (her fine 1931 novel, The Waves, resonates with similar themes though it is perhaps less realized “as a novel” than the earlier two). In many respects, both of these later novels are acts of mourning and, in a sense, homages to her late parents in the 1927 novel and to her late brother in The Waves.

To the Lighthouse is dominated by three characters – Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. There are many subordinate characters (the Ramsay children, friends of the family, etc.), but the moments of deepest vision and richest human contact involve those three characters in one way or another. Both women are artists, Lily literally and Mrs. Ramsay in terms of her shaping of the human relations around her and also her imaginative sensitivity and receptivity. Both characters are, in different ways, attuned to the neediness of Mr. Ramsay and the other male characters, though Lily explicitly rejects the “angel in the house” role of bolstering and soothing the male ego and compensating for instances of male sterility (for example, Charles Tansley’s insecure and compensating ego). Mrs. Ramsay, in contrast, triumphs in precisely those activities, certainly in protecting the bright but poverty-stricken Charles and particularly with regard to her husband, Mr. Ramsay, but Mrs. Ramsay does so as part of the larger project of nurturing all the humans connected to her, male and female alike, so that falsifying Victorian sexual politics seem to have loosed its grip on her. The novel's great example of her project is her family dinner, exactly at the center of the novel, where boeuf en daub is served and each member and guest is made to feel part of the living continuum of human relations she “orchestrates.”

Central – and thrilling – in this novel, however, is Mrs. Ramsay’s imaginative self-consciousness and self-accounting; these reveries loom and envelop the first half of the novel, a wonderful instance of Woolf’s magnifying a character’s consciousness into a “giant in time.” Images of death repeatedly register in her consciousness as do images of living possibility (along with those of thwarting chaos and failures to communicate). The imagery which embodies these perceptions shoot through her magnified consciousness, and they are additionally remarkable for being unwittingly shared by Lily, the also self-searching summer guest who is painting a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay.

This shared imagery within the enveloping consciousness of each character establishes an unconscious connection among Woolf’s main characters, often independent of class, gender, or role: an “underground” structure of shared humanity, which is in part Woolf’s modernist response to the pervasiveness of alienation and death in the period.  For example, there are the waves Mrs. Ramsay hears, which “like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life.” Soon Lily sees “the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves…[where] behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water.” Later, when Mr. Ramsay stands there demanding “sympathy,” Mrs. Ramsay “seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her [knitting] again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself.” Later still Mrs. Ramsay senses “dully, ominously, a wave fall, how it came to this” exhaustion she now feels; this occurs just before Lily sees the family before her “like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.”

This shared imagery helps to unify the novel’s unfolding structure of consciousness, or rather its process by which each character's consciousness is unfurled and displayed in all its rich verbal tapestry. (As you can see from the clash of terms, temporal and spatial dimensions face off against each other in this novel, so that in the second part of the novel, images of time’s action devastate both character and plot.) The culmination of the imagery woven through the novel’s first hundred and twenty pages occurs when Lily attempts to complete the portrait, she searches for some representation of Mrs. Ramsay’s “unity,” her capacity to compose all their lives, and she paints a dark “triangular purple shape” to balance the composition. This image is echoed at the end of the evening, when Mrs. Ramsay wants finally “to be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.” Then she looks out at the lighthouse, responsive to the light from it, the plan to visit it, the living promise of the visit.

The novel’s imagery, then, takes up entire lives – of Mrs. Ramsay and all who surround her – and helps to transform them into a beautifully unified composition. Of course, not only the imagery works in this way, for the internal monologues which bear the images within them are themselves flowing and brilliant constructs, great envelopes of self-critical awareness, as we’ve seen. (Woolf portrays Mr. Ramsay himself as a scathingly self-critical consciousness; the noted philosopher struggles against the failure of reason to account for existence. The results are his piteousness and his bitterness and even his refusal to take his son James to the Lighthouse the next morning.)

Of course, the visit does not occur that morning. In fact, the novel’s first part – “The Window,” with its domestic vantage point – gives way to the short, abrupt “Time Passes,” which in twenty pages chronicles the abandonment of the summer house in the following years. The sentences here contain clipped, abrupt phrases of turbulence and grief interspersed with terse, bracketed announcements of death [Mrs. Ramsay’s, their newly married daughter Prue’s, and in World War I, their son Andrew’s]. Time becomes a ruthless character in this second part of the novel; it is as if the richly composed first part of the novel were a fending off of time and death, “magnified,” shot through with premonition, yet a beautifully constructed oasis nonetheless.

“The Lighthouse,” the seventy-page third and final part of the novel, narrates the return of what remains of the family to the summer house, and it focuses on Lily Briscoe’s effort to confront the loss of Mrs. Ramsay and the grip death has on them all. She realizes both that sympathy might remedy their grief and that life and art, too, are nakedly vulnerable to the “waves,” to the reality of death. By the end of the novel, Mr. Ramsay, too, faces that vulnerability to an empty lonely universe. And on the sailboat finally nearing the lighthouse, he and his son James and his daughter Cam witness the fisherman’s son holding up a caught fish, mutilated and alive. Each character in this section is “extraordinarily exposed” to reality, and each faces how both violence and beauty can flash forth from ordinary experience. Here is Lily’s vision by the end of the novel: “to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.” The huge infusion of imaginative consciousness achieved by Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is a struggling yet beautifully composed and partly sacramental response of modern art to the modern period’s terrible disclosure that the world of things, like the world of people, is potentially a dead world. Here's a link to the novel: To the Lighthouse (and to The Waves).
 To the LighthouseThe Waves

Monday, May 2, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 21 - Woolf and Bloomsbury

Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a respected intellectual in the last decades of the Victorian era, and it is significant for her development that this late Victorian patriarch opened his considerable library to her without restriction. (Yet her extensive reading there did not prevent her from believing that she was yet uneducated – a feeling she give to Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway.) Intellectually, the ‘father’ who influenced her development most was Walter Pater (incidentally, Pater’s sister Clara was Woolf’s first tutor in Greek and Latin, suggesting how interconnected the community of intellectuals was – and perhaps remains – in English life). The notion of “moments of being,” central to Pater’s thought about the nature of consciousness and art, remained important to Woolf throughout her life, as a conception of aesthetic experience and of how the stream of experience attains its potential fullness and intensity. (See my earlier post on Walter Pater.)

In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf chronicles her earliest experience of such “moments:” She begins with the image of lying in her nursery bed and listening in a sort of “rapture” to the “waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind.” Soon her account of these intense “moments of being” extends to the experience of violation and death. One of “these sudden shocks” involved the child abuse she suffered at the hands of her cousin Gerald (“His hand explored my private parts too. I remember resenting, disliking it….This seems to show that a feeling about certain parts of the body…must be instinctive. I proves the Virginia Stephen was not born on the 25th January 1882, but was born many thousands of years ago; and had from the very first to encounter instincts already acquired by thousands of ancestresses in the past”).

“These exceptional moments [occasioned particularly by contact with death] brought with them a peculiar horror and a physical collapse.” Yet, she writes, the “shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it…; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole.” Her “philosophy” as a writer is “that behind the cotton wool [of daily life] is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are all parts of the work of art.” An extraordinarily communicative being survives the traumatic “shocks” and is stirred by them to create a vision of wholeness and connection, which recognizes the deep patterns below the false boundaries on the surface of life with its “cotton wool” of insulated egos and habitual behavior.

After the death of her father in 1904 and a mental collapse which followed, she and her sister, Vanessa, moved from their darkly Victorian parental home to a well-lit house in Bloomsbury square, near the British Museum at the time, and it was here that a group of friends dedicated to subverting and transcending those ‘false boundaries.’ The Bloomsbury group formed around the sisters and their charismatic brother Theo, who brought his friends down from Cambridge. In 1906, he died of typhoid fever on a trip with his sisters to Greece, the second death within two years of a beloved family member. The agonized human struggles of the Stephen family and, generally, of the Bloomsbury friends only deepened their faith in one another. Guided from the start by the ideals of friendship and personal affection voiced by the Cambridge dons G. E. Moore and G. L. Dickenson, the Bloomsbury circle came to believe in a sort of liberal aristocracy made up of people like themselves, comprised that is – to quote E. M. Forster – of “the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky,” i.e., the courageous (famously, he wrote that he would rather die for his friend than for his country). True civilization, Forster and his friends believed, existed only within the cracks in the edifices of power, which needed liberal reform but not revolutionary abolition.

That attitude can be found in the influential thought of the major members of the Bloomsbury circle, beyond the gifted novelist Forster – for example, the economist J. M. Keynes (who helped to found the modern field of economics) and the brilliant art critic Roger Fry (who initiated the English-speaking world into the experience of post-impressionist art), the preeminent English post-impressionist artist Duncan Grant, and several other highly influential English intellectuals. (Acquaintances included the philosopher Bertrand Russell (who wrote Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead, invited Wittgenstein to Cambridge, and later became a stalwart anti-nuclear leader in the “ban the bomb” movement.)

Yet Bloomsbury was hardly a purely cerebral group of friends. The art critic Clive Bell fell in love with the Stephen sisters and particularly Vanessa, whom he married (a few days after her brother Thoby’s death). The brilliant Leonard Woolf (who helped to found the modern Labor Party) fell in love with and married Virginia, whom he saw as beautiful and demur on the outside, showing great intelligence in her eyes – on the inside, satirically witty and hypercritical. Lytton Strachey, the bohemian homosexual writer and acerbically realistic biographer, opened the floodgate of conversation about sex when, in 1910, he pointed to a white stain on Vanessa’s dress and said matter-of-factly: “Semen.” (It was not for nothing that D. H. Lawrence was an acquaintance – however critical and questioning – of several members of Bloomsbury, Forster above all.)

This post presents more background than I’d intended to offer, for I’d like to locate some of the crucial “moments of being” created in Virginia Woolf’s novels – I’ll try to do so in my next post. (By the way, you can read "A Sketch of the Past" and a good selection of essays and novel excerpts in The Virginia Woolf Reader.)
The Virginia Woolf Reader