Time Passing, Time Stopping

February 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just finished: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.

Reading next: Tales of the Unexpected, by Roald Dahl.

Some alternate titles that popped into my head while reading To the Lighthouse:

Ulysses Takes a Holiday.

Daddy Dearest.

Art Is Hard.

People Thinking.

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.

None quite right to summarize the entire book, though.  It’s a demonstrably great work of literature; a work great enough to title its tour de force middle section covering the years of World War I “Time Passes,” the ultimate boring title.  As it happens, time passing is one of the main areas of inquiry for Woolf, one of the central mysteries of life as a human.

“Time Passes” is beautiful, full of gorgeous allusion and lyricism, in fifteen or so artful pages documenting the death and misery of the Ramsay family as World War I approaches and ends, and the decay in their vacation home, which sits abandoned for ten years.  Nature’s operations on the island form a kind of expressionist depiction of the war.  Deaths occur in subordinate clauses, in passing.

This short section comes between two much longer sections which each document less than a day each, slowing time to a crawl, skipping from one mind’s workings to another, as not much of anything happens.  As incredible as “Time Passes” is, it’s much easier for me to understand how it was written, and to see myself writing something similar to it, than to understand how Virginia Woolf could possibly have had the patience to write out the excruciating details of interpersonal minutiae which, to be honest and more than a little ashamed, drive me crazy about so much of the English high modernists.  I simply cannot imagine myself sitting down and facing the blank page day after day and continuing to write about nothing happening, continuing to parse every single motion and interaction for its sexual, socioeconomic, political, and/or generational significance.  To build up a collage of impressions of the eminent Victorians, the Ramsays, and the doubtful artist, Lily Briscoe, from symbols, and flights of mental fancy, and memory and dream, as time stands still for pages on end.  It would drive me to despair.

As an example, there are the long, comma-larded sentences like this:

Mrs Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm, braced herself, and, half turning, 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 stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare.

Sentences like this provoke in me equal parts exasperation and awe, a mixture that seems unique in my experience to reading modernists such as Woolf, Forster, and Beckett, though oddly hardly ever Joyce (with whom I hardly ever feel exasperated — well, maybe the “Oxen of the Sun” section of Ulysses).   The transition into and out of “Time Passes,” with its wonderful and elegiac  movement, lyricism, is so beautiful and poignant as to justify the investment in such sentences, the investment in the fine web of allusion and symbol that Woolf creates.  The way in which time passes only very slowly in the rest of the book is precisely the point: the capturing in amber of the days in which art is created, insights discovered, people remain alive, learning how to live and understand each other.

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