Woolf, Wolves, and Us

Melkon Charchoglyan & James Soderholm

MC: I love the dinner scene in To the Lighthouse. How everyone gropes to understand one another but never quite does; the resulting tension; the huge distance between the characters' perspicacious thoughts, feelings, and the disappointing or reticent way those thoughts and feelings play out in the real world (like when you're dreaming – a punch that never lands, no matter how hard you swing). And the crowning moment at the end, when Mrs Ramsay realises that everything before her has already lost its immediacy and become crystallised as ‘the past’, which turns out to be in part a comforting thought, because although the dinner – the human connection – has not succeeded, it will at least exist in the comforts of memory (better to be remembered for something than not at all?). I wonder if there's enough meat on the bone for a conversation here.

JS: Plenty of meat and some marrow inside as well. Woolf delights in little daily miracles that unite people in salutary ways, especially after the Great War had blown so many people—friendships, marriages, dinner parties—to smithereens. The ‘party’ for Woolf is a kind of grail, not holy, but not wholly unholy. Like her creatures—Mrs Ramsay and Mrs Dalloway—Woolf tries to resurrect patterns and rituals to get life back on track and to give it some aesthetic dimension. Men often foil these attempts at meaning and order, to the great consternation of Woolf’s heroines. The novel itself is a great coming together of disparate energies, a prose-party filled with impressions, insights, cutting remarks, generous wit, and a constant struggle to make human beings fathomable to one another. 

Let us get down to cases and examine some suggestive passages from her novels. After all, our dialogue is already a “table for two” at the banquet of literature and ideas. 

MC: What is so wonderful about Woolf is that this idea – of crafting patterns, cohesion – plays out on multiple planes. The most interesting character in this respect, I’d argue, is Lily Briscoe (in whose artistic endeavours and doubts we can hear echoes of Woolf’s own challenges as a writer and a woman). Lily tries to bring artistic order to her painting just as Mrs Ramsay tries to create human cohesion in her household. The painting becomes a symbol, perhaps a barometer, for this.

The following scene is telling – when Mrs Ramsay feels pity for and engages William Bankes in conversation, and the observant Lily muses: 

And it was not true, Lily thought; it was one of those misjudgments of hers that seemed to be instinctive and to arise from some need of her own rather than of other people's. He is not in the least pitiable. He has his work, Lily said to herself. She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That's what I shall do. That's what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the table-cloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree.

Lily’s mind is incredibly astute. She sees what Mrs Ramsay is doing, which Woolf makes clear in the respective vocabularies of the two heroines. Mrs Ramsay, summoning up the spirit to engage Mr Bankes, sees herself as a simultaneously weary and willing ‘sailor’, whose fulfilment is inextricable from the dangers of the sea; meanwhile Lily watches them as one watches a ‘ship’ and discerns that Mrs Ramsay is both wearied and brought to life by feelings of pity. Disagree though Lily might with her host’s strategy, there is nonetheless a deep, mutual understanding, an understanding that they wish to impart on their company.

What’s more, Lily, as an artist, catches something that Mrs Ramsay has missed in her assessment of Mr Bankes. There is a moment of realisation, of silent connection, here as she finds her own reflection in his image. He has his work as she has her art; neither is pitiable for their loneliness; both are free. This notion inspires her with confidence, comfort – all is well with Mr Bankes, and all is well with her, to put it simply – and manifests itself in a decision to move the tree to the middle of her putative painting, to create order in the composition. It is a statement of purpose.

And so, in high spirits, she aides Mrs Ramsay in her battle. She asks pleasant questions and tries to draw everyone into conversation. But it won’t be so easy. Their resolve is tested throughout the dinner by, as you say, Dr Soderholm, men who do not wish to communicate or understand the delicate dance that is taking place: men who are self-centred and concerned only with the cold reality of the exterior world. Notably Mr Tansley.

The tree and Mr Tansley become one, in a way, and at first it looks like the composition is a success; the tree’s ‘middleness’ becomes Mr Tansley’s:

“ [he lay] down his spoon precisely in the middle of his plate, which he had swept clean, as if, Lily thought (he sat opposite to her with his back to the window precisely in the middle of view), he were determined to make sure of his meals.”

But the Tansley-tree refuses to yield:

“What damned rot they talk, thought Charles Tansley.”

He doesn’t want to chat about the mail, doesn’t want to invite them to the lighthouse, doesn’t want to play nice. He merely wishes to assert himself and be praised – because he is Charles Tansley, a hard-working man who’s never cost his father a penny since he was fifteen, who supports his own sister, doesn’t believe in the empty formalities of the eccentric upper-class Ramsays and was studying diligently upstairs in his room before they called him down to this lousy dinner, thank you very much!

There is a cold, forensic somethingness about the likes of Charles Tansley. The belief that the world is forged through progress, work, gravitas. The spiritual battle between him and Lily reminds me of the clash between the humanist Ludovico Settembrini and the radical totalitarian Leo Naphta in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. On what values will the new, post-war, 20th century society be built?

JS: Woolf probably married one of the few good, sensitive men in the world but in her fiction she does not suffer most of them gladly. And why should she? As you have so perceptively demonstrated above, most men are almost all Ruiners of Patterns, Killers of Rituals, Murderers of Insight, and not the life but the Death of the Party. Witness the reaction of a young man to the dreadful comment from his father that the beautiful and life-affirming excursion (a lovely party) to the lighthouse might be cancelled because of bad weather.

"But," said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, "it won't be fine."
Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgement.

The (Oedipal?) rage of James no doubt is some kind of echo of Woolf’s (and Mrs Ramsay’s) own bitterness and hostility toward the world of supercilious and judgemental men. To be observant is all. I think Nabokov said, Art is just paying attention. But can a novel change people? Can a novel save the post-WWI world? I wonder if Woolf thought that her novels, so ingeniously observant, would teach people how to notice more of everything around them, especially the thoughts and emotions of someone standing six inches away.

MC: The late war reporter Robert Fisk once asked whether we as a species permit the horrors of war as a sort of blood-letting, catharsis run amok. Or as Cormac McCarthy wrote in The Blood Meridian, “It makes no difference what men think of war… As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

I don’t think Woolf is at all naïve about this. Strife, war, is ever-present in the novel. Most terrifyingly, it has an evolution, or a suggested evolution. We find it in the wonderful passage you quoted as a seed of compulsive anger in James Ramsay. On the other end of the scale is his father. His ego wounded, covered in the battle scars of life, he now makes a nuisance of himself by thundering around the house and quoting Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. It seems harmless enough until we realise that it is the tail-end incarnation of war, war, war; half-way between James’ festering hatred and his father’s veteran-like romanticism is the ultimate trade in all its reality. And as I say, Woolf isn’t naïve about this, because Mr Ramsay’s seemingly harmless tomfoolery soon begins to disturb Mrs Ramsay’s language, thoughts and household:

“But what had happened?
Some one had blundered.
Starting from her musing she gave meaning to words which she had held meaningless in her mind for a long stretch of time. "Some one had blundered"--Fixing her short-sighted eyes upon her husband, who was now bearing down upon her, she gazed steadily until his closeness revealed to her (the jingle mated itself in her head) that something had happened, some one had blundered. But she could not for the life of her think what. He shivered; he quivered. All his vanity, all his satisfaction in his own splendour, riding fell as a thunderbolt, fierce as a hawk at the head of his men through the valley of death, had been shattered, destroyed. Stormed at by shot and shell, boldly we rode and well, flashed through the valley of death, volleyed and thundered--straight into Lily Briscoe and William Bankes. He quivered; he shivered.”

Does Woolf’s writing make a difference? Fisk’s? Anyone’s?

JS: If war is our necessary blood-letting, then it must take many forms to relieve its pressure. Running a broad-sword into someone is at one end of the spectrum, and cutting them in a drawing room is at the other, perhaps? The one end tends to be the domain of men and male ambition, while the other tends to be the battlefield where both men and women enjoy being violent, usually in verbal ways, but also with looks that kill, and dead[ening] silences. 

And what kind of violence is represented by the act and the art of writing? Does it even register? Is it an outlet for violence or a way of civilizing violence out of existence? The war of the sexes almost always present in her novels suggests that she is rather sick of the world of men and their fantastic ability to blow one another to bits, or to blow up a promising pattern, a moment of order, a tiny ritual that makes a day cohere into a thing of beauty. 

Here is Mrs Dalloway trying, in the tangle of her soul, to make sense of the suicide of Septimus in such as way as not to ruin her party.

It held, foolish as the idea was, something of her own in it, this country sky, this sky above Westminster. She parted the curtains; she looked. Oh, but how surprising!--in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her! She was going to bed. And the sky. It will be a solemn sky, she had thought, it will be a dusky sky, turning away its cheek in beauty. But there it was--ashen pale, raced over quickly by tapering vast clouds. It was new to her. The wind must have risen. She was going to bed, in the room opposite. It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her? It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed. She pulled the blind now. The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. There! the old lady had put out her light! the whole house was dark now with this going on, she repeated, and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him--the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.

Clarissa must be a genius of noticing (like Woolf) or she will go mad. And she must somehow assimilate the death of Septimus so it does not only not ruin her party but so that it actually intensifies her life. 

How exhausting all this effort must be! But do Woolf’s readers learn anything from her about how best to cope with men, violence, and death? I really haven’t a clue. Do you?

MC: We are in high seas now! 

I’m not surprised by Woolf’s life-long attraction to the coast. What she does better than any other writer in the English language is highlight how quickly the lapping waves can smooth out the sand, as though nothing had happened. Death and violence, if not observed and made sense of, become mere parentheses, normalised. (To then fester and manifest in yet more violence?) Septimus’ suicide scarcely makes itself heard between the striking of the clock. And the cast of To The Lighthouse is blown to smithereens in a few, brief middle-chapters that run as quickly through time as though something were forcing the hour hand. So what is the cure?

I think Woolf would be mortified by the idea of her writing as violence. Writing can be violent, so can language, but for my part I think of hers as an exercise in sobering, if not civilising. Aristotle would argue that by relishing in violence on the page, you blow out the excess steam and return into the world a less angry person. Yet I think this is a terribly imperfect solution. It is the equivalent of letting a racist beat a black robot, lest they act on their racism in real life. 

Let’s look at this passage in The Waves, spoken by the inimitable Bernard: 

Lord, how unutterably disgusting life is! What dirty tricks it plays us, one moment free; the next this. Here we are among the breadcrumbs and the stained napkins again. That knife is already congealing with grease. Disorder, sordidity and corruption surround us. We have been taking into our mouths the bodies of dead birds. It is with these greasy crumbs, slobbered over napkins, and little corpses that we have to build. Always it begins again; always there is the enemy; eyes meeting ours; fingers twitching ours; the effort waiting. Call the waiter. Pay the bill. We must pull ourselves up out of our chairs. We must find our coats. We must go. Must, must, must--detestable word.

How quickly a scene turns sour, a dinner-table becomes a graveyard. What Woolf does is shed light on violence, entropy, in all its insidious complexity. One must understand a thing to treat it. Though not cure it. Ritual, observation, assimilation for her is – you caught the right word – a coping mechanism. To put it simply, Woolf shows us that violence is not a thing happening there, to someone else and far away but a very real part of everyday life. Acknowledging this is the first step to (and this will sound very dewy-eyed of me!) enlightenment.

I suppose the very fact that we are engaged in this dialogue means that her work does make a difference. Do you think, Dr Soderholm, if the moment came, you would be able to act on your literature? That is, would you reject violence because you have read Remarque, Woolf, Vonnegut? I like to think I would. But then again, humans are very apt at self-delusion.

JS: That’s an intriguing question: can reading a novel soothe the savage breast, as music is said to do, but certainly did not in the case of the Nazi commandants who killed Jews all day and listened to Bach and Beethoven at night. Has Art ever really civilized people is that too much to ask of it? Certainly, the combined novels of Dickens did wake up his fellow Victorians and a few new laws probably found their feet because of his depictions of the urban poor, especially children. But that is a rare case of a work of literature having any effect at all in the so-called real world. And Woolf is not nearly as popular—or readable—as Dickens. Hers is a coterie audience, at best. 

And, yes, human beings are so good at ethical obtuseness and self-delusion, that I wonder if literature can really play any part at all in their lives. Possibly reading just keeps them off the streets. But—as you suggest—Woolf would claim that their drawing rooms simply repeat the violence in the streets in more subtle forms. James wants to run a poker through his father’s heart. Instead, he runs it into his own heart and is miserable. That’s how people are. And reading a novel about them isn’t going the change anything. Am I being too severe?

MC: Not too severe at all. I keep vacillating between optimism and pessimism. I suppose the difficulty is that violence often comes from a place of love or sense of justice (often misguided, in both cases). The violence we inflict is generally purposeful; rarely is it gratuitous. And we justify the means with the end. Chinua Achebe’s ‘Vultures’ comes to mind:

Praise bounteous
providence if you will
that grants even an ogre
a tiny glow-worm
tenderness encapsulated
in icy caverns of a cruel
heart or else despair
for in the very germ
of that kindred love is
lodged the perpetuity
of evil.

I wager that any one of us would turn to violence if our home were broken into, loved ones threatened and a club to the assailant’s head were the only way out. Slip a little down the slope and you have James, indignant, yearning to defend his mother’s memory and drive a knife through his father’s chest. It’s love that drives him first and foremost.

JS: The remark that first comes to mind is Kafka’s wonderful hope that “Art is an ice-axe that breaks up the frozen sea within us.” I love that idea and love even more Kafka’s way of putting it. But I do wonder if it sounds truer than it is. Poetry—and rhetoric—are terribly good at that. And, yes, love often generates hate, and we need no Othello, come from Venice, to tell us that.

I’m not sure I can agree that most of our violence is purposeful and not merely gratuitous. In poetry and fiction, I think you are largely correct, possibly because stories have plots that drive characters to have more or less teleological motives. But in that shabby affair called “real life” I am afraid human beings are capable of obscenely gratuitous forms of violence. As my old teacher John Gardner put it in Grendel, referring to the men of Hrothgar’s meadhall, “No wolf was ever so cruel to other wolves.” World War I has nothing to do with love/hate and the way people can picnic on one another’s entrails in drawing rooms—or back alleys—suggest that a little Jack the Ripper—or James the Stabber—smolders in all of us. We can be far worse than wolves, most of us sheepishly attired, adding the salt of dishonesty and hypocrisy to the gaping wounds we produced with our swords and words.  

In novels, people do tend to try harder to make sense of the world and the world of others and that strenuous effort no doubt attracts us and possibly gently animates what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Woolf also tries to make us alive to the sheer vitality of life, of possible life, in going for a walk in London, as this now-famous passage demonstrates.

For having lived in Westminster--how many years now? over twenty,--one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can't be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

I now work in Westminster within easy earshot of Big Ben, and the swing, tramp, and jingle Woolf so memorably evokes. The intense vitality of Woolf’s/Dalloway’s London impressions temporary puts Death to bed and gives one little time for cruelty and hatred. Life is just too lovable, especially if your entire day involves preparing for a party and buying some flowers.

MC: I agree – it would be far too strenuous to live life as characters do in novels, be as observant. And that is, you’ve rightly said, why we read them. Perhaps to experience life as it should be rather than as it is, in the hope that it rubs off on us. I remember holding back tears as I read in War & Peace of Prince Andrei seeing his foe Prince Anatole dying on the operating table, and at that moment loving him with a sort of godly, enlightened love. I think that brief passage made me a slightly – even if microscopically – better person, and perhaps the sum of all these microscopic effects will one day add up to something. But could I love my enemy the way Tolstoy’s protagonist does? How far does Kafka’s ice axe really sink? I think anyone who actually responded to literature, Woolf ’s or otherwise, in the ideal way we dream of or talk about – well, I think we would be very suspicious of that person indeed. Ben Lerner puts it best in Leaving the Atocha Station, where the main character sees a stranger break down in front of a painting at the Prado in Madrid:

“Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?… Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual art-works and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity…
[The man] stood before The Garden of Earthly Delights, considered it calmly and then totally lost his shit… 
What is a museum guard to do, I thought to myself; what, really, is a museum guard to do?… On the one hand you are a member of a security force charged with protecting priceless materials from crazed kids…; on the other hand you are a dweller among supposed triumphs of the spirit and if your position has any prestige it derives precisely from the belief that such triumphs could legitimately move a man to tears…I could not share the man’s rapture, if that’s what it was, but I found myself moved by the dilemma of the guards: should they ask the man to step into the hall and attempt to ascertain his mental state, no doubt ruining his profound experience, or should they risk letting this potential lunatic loose among the treasures of their culture…? ”

I’m afraid this is precisely the dilemma I face now. Am I kidding myself when I wax lyrical about Woolf’s sobering effect on me and other readers, or does art really nurture the better aspects of mankind? I suppose one way to get to an answer would be by trying to find a society without art (if there is one in human history – which I doubt). Is it any more violent?

JS: The Art of Violence would be an interesting book to write. I think Plato hoped in his rational, utopian way that if the youth of Athens were fed a steady diet of beauty and gracious forms—including form of the Socratic dialogue—they would grow up to be rational citizens of a harmonious polis. Aristotle hoped for the same thing but, as you know, rejected Plato’s alleged rejection of poets and artist (they told charming lies, not philosophical truths). You have earlier mentioned the human need for catharsis and indicated that violence—real and imagined—might be an ineradicable dimension of human society, or indeed of human beings. Violence makes us feel better. Christians will never understand that. But everyone else on the planet has. But we must recall how many pagans and infidels were slaughtered when they refused to alter their beliefs, so it’s not as if Christians have no feeling for the art of violence when the time calls for it, as it also did during the Spanish Inquisition, for example.

Now, we are attempting to identity the function of Art and what a “proper” response to it might be. I don’t think those questions can be answered in any wholesale way. I remain highly sceptical of Art having any particular designs on us other than to divert us for a minute or hour or two and keep us from wolving one another down in lumps. In rare case, the weeping or ecstatic art consumer may gentle his or her condition by taking in a painting or a symphony or voluptuous statue. Better still to be a Lily always on the look-out for “treasures” that come her way as patterns or insights, or patterns of insight (which is not a bad subtitle of any of Woolf’s novels). Epiphanic moments can be considered the opposite of physical, brutal violence, and the more of the former you can pile up in a lifetime perhaps steals time away from one’s capacity to be worse than a wolf. Perhaps. 

Any final thoughts?

MC: Better indeed to be a Lily Briscoe. Readers of this dialogue may have found me without conviction – fluttering between opinions, perhaps self-contradictory, though out of caution more than ineptitude, this being a dialectic rather than eristic discussion – but the one thing I can put my seal of approval on is that is indeed better to be a Lily Briscoe. I still agree with you that to be as observant as Lily or any other literary character would be too strenuous, but to aspire to something of that ilk is the best we can do. Observe, assimilate, be present in the everyday ritual, listen for the peal of Westminster Abbey. It might turn life into a novel but it’ll probably make it more tolerable, and occasionally beautiful. Ivan Goncharov’s words come to mind: “Life and fairy-tale became mixed up in his head and [Oblomov] lamented at times – why life isn’t a fairy-tale and the fairy-tale isn’t life.” C’est la vie.

I think it’s no coincidence that Lily is an artist. We never really see or figure out what her painting looks like; there is no ekphrasis of it, no Shield of Achilles. We know that throughout the novel she is striving to convert her purpose and conviction onto the canvas but whether she achieves that with total efficiency and fidelity; what sort of effect that painting might have on a would-be viewer; whether they would see and share Lily’s resolve, enlightenment –well, we cannot know and we shouldn’t expect to know. This might be a slightly overblown metaphor but I can see Woolf acknowledging the imperfection of art, hers or anyone’s, in Lily’s painting. It will not save us, but we must continue making art at all costs if we are to make sense of this world – and of one another. 

What was the problem then? She must try to get hold of something that evaded her. It evaded her when she thought of Mrs. Ramsay; it evaded her now when she thought of her picture. Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything. Get that and start afresh; get that and start afresh; she said desperately, pitching herself firmly again before her easel. It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.

That’s the ticket: heroically one must force it on. 

JS: For miserable machines, both Woolf and her Lily did very well for themselves. When Woolf could no longer make her machine work and turn jarred nerves into novels, she became Ophelia.