I’m reading To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I read the novel years ago without understanding. I know that for certain because I’m reading it now with little to modest comprehension. It’s a great enjoyable challenging read, moving obliquely, as it does, from tangles of sensations to things, moving from the swirl of feelings and musings and reveries to objects like books, trees, oceans, children, windows, and so on. It’s a profound novel. I sense how profound it is, I sense it when I read it, and I sense the world around me becoming profound when I read it. Experiences and things mysteriously conspire or happen in parallel; they goad and anticipate each other in surprising ways. I sense all this when I’m reading at lunch as I’ve been doing every day this week, sitting on a bench that’s perched on a spit of land near the bay, slowly rising and eating away at the shore where I sit, alone. And while I sit and read at the edge of the sea, I come upon this miraculously-phrased passage, which performs the very thing it’s been describing all along: “It was his fate [Whose: his or mine?], his peculiarity [Yes, yes.], whether he wished it or not, to come out thus on a spit of land [!!!], which the sea is slowly eating away, and there to stand like a desolate sea-bird, alone.” Him or me, or both? And how comes it that the bay and the sea rise up at just that moment to meet on a spit of land, where I’m perched on a bench reading, alone—wait, no, together-alone with a novel and my own reveries? I close the book and smile on my ignorance and the serendipity of it all.
Simple language, complex effects.
A poem about a story about a man
Whose song becomes a never-ending poem.
That is, a poem about a poem.
Ars poetica, indeed.
This unending poem is like a home that protects and shuts out the world,
With an attic “where aesthetic and spiritual innuendoes / Float.”
Leakages occur across the inside-outside divide,
Life and art with their competing demands.
This poem by Terrance Hayes deserves a wide readership.
But remember to open the windows
And let the world in.
This isn’t a compliment. There’s a tincture of the self-hating scholar in me, a result of being a reformed wannabe academic.
How this came about is a long and longer story. It gets bigger with each telling.
Of course I’d be happy to share it with you, but I’ve read Middlemarch and have ingested its lessons and know that I don’t know what I think I know, and know, too, that you don’t know what you think you know.
That is, obscurity happens at the moment when transparency is most ardently desired, and perhaps most then. Desire is tricky that way. It plays the black magician with us all.
If I were a literary scholar, I’d devote my life to Middlemarch. That’s a plain fact. It’s an absolutely stunning work, filled with so many pleasures and ideas that one could plunder its pages for years without ever exhausting its treasures.
If in good Casaubon-fashion I were to write The Key to All the Sentences of Middlemarch, I’d write probingly on the subtle shades of difference between mentorship, patronage and subordination.
I’d write about secret hidden thoughts and fugitive feelings and their role in motivation, and show how Eliot’s treatment of the unconscious is superior to Freud’s right at the spot where he think he’s strongest.
I’d write on hunger and desire, on self-deception and rationalization, and draw parallels with Schopenhauer who, like Eliot, has a fine eye for the wily ways of the will and its power to summon the intellect to justify egoism.
I’d write about transparency and obstruction pace Rousseau.
I’d write about searching for love and striving for achievement, and the difficulties and collisions that result from shifting perspectives.
But mostly I’d write about idealism, not in the Kantian transcendental sense, but in the Elitonian phantasmagorical sense, i.e., the power of images, hopes, expectations, illusions and delusions to posses our minds and lead characters in Eliot’s universe, including her insignificant readers, astray, confusing thoughts for things.
Between the subject and the world is a layer of thought and perception, feeling and imagination — and so I would write on the promise and perils of connection, society and vulnerability.
Thank god I’m not a scholar.
The tweets are piling up, fast. Apparently it’s International Woman’s Day. This is fantastic news for me. I love women. That sounds odd, I know. But I’ll let it stand like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man whose joke drops, too, with a thud. I especially love women who are pseudonymously named George. Nothing blunts desire (intellectual! spiritual!) more rapidly than a 90-MPH curve ball. I’m reading Middlemarch, you see. And although I’m only four chapters deep—I’ve just dappled the surface of this 800-page ocean—I’m already benefiting greatly from her insight. Self-knowledge isn’t an easy injunction to fulfill. “Everyone’s skin is so particular and we are so largely unimaginable to one another,” says J. Harrison in Legends of the Fall. I agree and Eliot does, too, but with this very important addition: We are largely unimaginable to one another the more richly imaginative we are. Take a peek at Dorothea. Her head is aflame with all kinds of ideas, drawn from poetry, philosophy, history, theology and so on. But despite this generous light, she steps in all the wrong places, all the shadows, preferring, for instance, Mr. Casaubon, the gray-haired Lockean lookalike, over Sir James Chettam, the blooming, red-whiskered Englishman. Dorothea even fails to see that the latter is courting her in earnest. As her sister remarks, “You always see what nobody else sees … yet you never see what is quite plain.” Because I love women named George and know that stepping in shadows is easy to do, I won’t enthuse about Middlemarch until I’m done. “For there is no knowing how anything may turn out.”