The Virginia Woolf Reading Group discussion

Mrs. Dalloway > Woolf and Words and Beckett, even

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Woolf said, I think in The Common Reader, something about how after the War "our emotions had to be broken up for us, and put at an angle from us, before we could allow ourselves to feel them in poetry and fiction."
I have been thinking about these lines from the novel (about Septimus and his writings) since finishing it last night: "Universal love: the meaning of the world. Burn them! he cried. But Rezia laid her hand on them. Some were very beautiful, she thought. She would tie them up (for she had no envelope) with a piece of silk." Words would endure, though they express a person's broken mind, to be kept for something or someone, to be shared for a later time. It's like the broken words of love heard from the old woman in the Tube station, a love "which has lasted a million which prevails..." Though words seem to fail the way old love relationships do (Peter, Sally), there will always be the need to share and gather and collect (fragmented love songs, remnants and hat fabrics, old and new friends, old memories): "[Septimus] made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter." Communication and human connection have never mattered more in a world bereft of meaning and "universal love", though they may fill one with "terror" and "ecstasy" and "excitement": "It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was."

Beckett seems to be saying the same thing in his play "Happy Days" where Winnie, in a weird kind of nervous optimism that reminds me of Clarissa or maybe even Rezia on a good day when Septimus only briefly thinks "outside" himself (Winnie: "Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!"), demonstrates the importance of a shared communication in order for language to have meaning or significance at all. But Beckett seems to be saying other things, too, which I have yet to think about more since it's been a few years since "Happy Days" (that sounds kind of strange). That old woman in the Tube in Dalloway is like a Beckett character, I think, in need of a "pause" or two (or three or four)--I wonder if she's a bag lady--must check). Anyway, I kindly invite anyone to discuss Beckett here, too, as I would hate, at the risk of making myself crazy in doing so, musing all alone. Thanks very much!

message 2: by Phillip (last edited Sep 14, 2008 03:45PM) (new)

Phillip Great observations, Molly. I'm going to sit on these thoughts and let them brew a bit before responding, but as usual, your ability to pay attention to the essence of a literary thing is insightful and shows a great sensitivity to the interiors of any given character.

I would agree without further reflection that Beckett's characters (or anti-characters, as in works like play, or The Unnameable), are as fragmented as characters can get. And yet these shards of selves reflect so much humanity in their frail, broken utterances.

message 3: by [deleted user] (last edited Sep 14, 2008 08:14PM) (new)

Beckett's "shards of selves". I like that description a lot and appreciate all your thoughtful and generous responses to these meanderings. Really.
I picture Woolf and Beckett like this: if Woolf's characters have taken the "plunge" into the sea, they drift and fold, ebb and flow, sometimes, not very well, but well enough. Beckett's--well, they just drown painfully slow or their heads bob up and down above and below the surface. And just when I think, in cruel paradox, "Thank God(!), the poor man has drowned for good!" that head pops up again! Then I do not know whether to laugh or cry for the poor living/dying thing. There is a different language, a different aesthetic even, coming from each writer to communicate what I visualize, yes? What kind of courage must these characters possess to endure what they must endure in their sea of troubles? (This is more question than statement.) But I am sorry to ask too many questions, again. I impatiently await your response, as always. Goodnight.

message 4: by Phillip (new)

Phillip Molly,

Yes, I said yes.

Yes, the idea of the plunge - and perhaps with many of the modernists, yes, they were plunging in a vast sea that is reflected in the expansion of form and the various acts resulting from their negotiation with time.

It's as if they took the novel and spread it across the wide world, where anything could happen to anyone and it could be told in a new languages that draw upon all languages (as in Finnegans Wake). *Everything had been done* (a phrase we so often hear) and the form of the novel had burst wide open.

I think of Beckett and a lot of other postwar writers as the descendents of the bomb: the literary bomb, the atom bomb, the time-space continuum bomb....(consider Einstein and the idea of folding space, how did that influence the pos-war novel?). They inherited a form that had been stretched in all directions to the point of bursting.

And it seems to me that Beckett and the postmodernists have been content to examine the fragments and the shards of the broken world that was passed down to them from the modernists.


But alas, I haven't answered any of your questions, really...

What kind of courage must it take?

I think the kind of courage they were exploring is the courage that it takes to truly asssume complete responsibility for your actions. Despite the depiction of said drowning and bobbing of heads or being buried up to your waist in sand in the middle of the desert, or to have your self reduced to the apeture of the human (female) mouth, these chracters take responsibility for their actions (or non-action). They may whine a bit, but they usually tire of their whining and move on to more important matters - following the moment. Keeping their radar tuned in. How else could a mouth (or a head perched on top of an urn), "carry on"?

And the real miracle in Beckett is that they continue on after their body has abandoned them, after all of their desires have abandoned them.

To bring this back to Woolf, I'm reminded of the ending of Mrs Dalloway, where Clarissa affirms her life in the end, (despite all the fits and stops and starts..."she had to go up to Lady Bradshaw") that I can't help but think of how it's the same "yes, i said yes" when Beckett says (in the post-war trilogy) "I can't go on.....I'lll go on".

That final affirmation is Beckett's ability to ressurect himself again and again, despite the difficulties. Woolf explored that path...she made sure that Clarissa showed up. She gave the party. People came (even royalty!). Sally and Peter talked (about the past, certainly).

message 5: by [deleted user] (last edited Sep 15, 2008 07:46PM) (new)

Hello Phillip,
I was thinking about Septimus again and your words about courage: "Look, the unseen bade him, the voice which now communicated with him who was the greatest of mankind, Septimus, lately taken from life to death, the Lord who had come to renew society, who lay like a coverlet, a snow blanket smitten only by the sun, forever unwanted, suffering forever, the scapegoat, the eternal sufferer, but he did not want it, he moaned, putting from him with a wave of his hand that eternal suffering, that eternal loneliness."

I have been thinking of your definition of courage in the last post. I then realized that the definition of courage rests heavily on what defines the subject, what constitutes the individual subject and all his actions relative to this notion of the 'self'. When Septimus rejects the eternal suffering and loneliness, he does not surrender to the fragmentation of his psyche. Though it is horribly broken, he will put away with the wave of his hand the despair which lurks so ominously. Despair does not define him, it does not define the 'self'. I find this self-affirmation courageous. I find time and memory restorative and creative in the construction of the self. I believe that we can feel what we feel through words and poetry and fiction, as Woolf believed, if we hold our emotions before us "at an angle". And I do not believe such things are illusions only.

I would like to know more about the courage you explained, the "postmodern" kind, since the notion of the "subject" for Beckett is far more "problematic". I am sorry that I do not know Beckett well enough to really engage in this discussion, but I can recall a number of years ago struggling to grasp Beckett's notion that failure is what constitutes the modern artist's world view. His anti-characters suffer from perpetual amnesia, they disintegrate and dissolve in their struggle against words and signification, they speak of nothing as if it was something. I do not know how such beings endure except to seek "relief" in the pauses and silences that can only be unearthed through...words, words, words--and then the compulsion and sometimes even manic impulse. And so on and so forth.

My mind has never really been able to understand a world in which language and reason are constantly reaching an impasse, beating their heads against a wall. It makes my head hurt so.

Maybe that's why I never "understood" (I am not even sure what verb to use) Beckett, and so my intellect has always resided with the modernists. I do not think I want to take a step beyond the edge of reason unless it is made clear to me somehow that humanity and hope still rest somewhere on the other side--I do not like darkness. But perhaps I am foolish and naive, as some thinkers would be more inclined to judge, since after the wars there was nothing but barbarism and shattered souls, and all those shards and fragments you describe. "What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! ..." More like: "What pieces of men! how ignoble in reason! how infinite in destruction!"

Oh God, Phillip, where is this going? I do not even remember where I meant to go. I never know if I ever mean to go anywhere. But thanks for reading again. Perhaps I could tell you one day what my point was...

message 6: by Phillip (last edited Sep 19, 2008 08:32AM) (new)

Phillip golly, molly,

going back to your first post, you seemed curious, or interested in exploring how fragments are gathered in a cohesive whole. in particular, you were talking about how words express feelings, and how feelings can be fragmented, and how it takes words to gather those feelings back together again. you cited how beautifully woolf does this in mrs dalloway (with regard to septimus, in particular).

i posited that beckett does this for me. you had some concerns about beckett, and mentioned his "darkness" and how his *characters* aren't really characters (in the typical sense), or how "subject" in beckett is problematic.

the main concern (with regard to beckett's fiction) in your last post was perhaps best summarized in this statement:

"My mind has never really been able to understand a world in which language and reason are constantly reaching an impasse, beating their heads against a wall. It makes my head hurt so."

the thing i can't quite get my head around is that you don't find the same kind of darkness in woolf. goodness gracious - septimus is driven to suicide by his fragmentation. none of beckett's characters take that route.

i identify with his characters, perhaps, because they represent (along with society at large) the life of the artist - individuals who feel they must reveal something about themselves even if they spit it out in broken fragments. the world presses down upon them (as it has a habit of doing) and yet they endure. not only do they endure, they seem to retain their sense of humor.

this, i fear, is where we part as readers of these two fine writers. i see a enormous sense of humor in beckett, and you find darkness. but the world we live in is a dark place. and i want to experience a literature that helps me find the light in a world that is rife with suffering and deception - beckett shines that light for me.

as an artist, i feel the kind of fragmentation beckett describes in the role of outcast in our society. most people simply do not understand why anyone would dedicate their life to art, while resisting higher pay (for easier work), resist parenthood (this is my choice, not every artists' choice btw), and resist many other things that people enjoy in this life to stay committed to the path of self examination and self expression. the world sees us, rather, as self-indulgent riff-raff, alcoholics, drug addicts, late night carowsers, card carrying members of the over-inflated ego network. in short, not someone you want your daughter to marry. and yet we work extremely hard, study our craft throughout our entire lifetime (it's often said that doctors make more money because they have to study for a longer period of come that doesn't pay off with art?) and are willing to make great sacrifices just to *do our work*.

of course there are a few people out there making buckets of money caught up in the process of expressing themselves, but most of those folks are entertainers, not artists.

but i have no interest in being a martyr for art. instead, i am interested in maintaining a healthy existentialism. beckett resisted this label, and it's kind of funny: so many conflicting camps want to *claim* him: the existentialists and nihilists - the modernists and the postmodernists (in terms of literary criticism).

i see beckett as the last modernist. in fact, there is a biography of him with such a title (written by anthony cronin). i also see him as an existentialist. his characters, who live in a world of chaos, design their own code of ethics and morals based on their own unique experience (as sartre said: existence precedes essence). i have learned a great deal from this perspective.

back to the artist as martyr construct, which i happily reject. i have learned from beckett and a few others that the only road to live on is your own road. don't worry if no one understands you - and in return you have to allow others the same freedom to be themselves. i don't have time to waste criticizing others because they're different than me. i'm too busy living my life and staying focused on my work, which i love dearly. this frees me up from worrying about what country i should invade next.

i feel lucky to be alive. i long for each new day. i see that in beckett's "darkest" characters...there's something about them that longs for the light, something within them that remembers the beautiful moments despite the slings and arrows that rain down upon us. those moments are gone and can no longer even be considered a fragment. and because they are not part of the ever present, we find that we eventually must discard them. for we all have a lot to let go of before we reach the final glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

i think it is the oppressive nature of what beckett's characters must endure that creates a psychic friction for you that you don't enjoy. i am not saying his characters don't endure the loss of reason and other useful aspects of the self. but what good does reason do in the face of death? i've buried both of my parents and logic and reason gave me no solace whatsoever in the face of their deaths. a good friend of mine survived her boyfriend's suicide, and she tries so hard to make sense of it....she's never going to make sense of it. existence is beyond logic and reason. i would be a fool to say that logic doesn't have a place in our existence. but we're talking about feelings, or rather you were talking about feelings when you opened this thread.

i hope, if nothing else, i have expressed why i enjoy beckett and also woolf. both writers shine so much light upon us. i would be less human if not for their writing. i'm not trying to convince you of anything, by the way, just thinking and reflecting and moving my digits. please respond in any way you see fit. i look forward to your post.



from malloy:

It was a chainless bicycle, with a free-wheel, if such a bicycle exists. Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation. I don't know why. It is a pleasure to meet it again. To describe it at length would be a pleasure. It had a little red horn instead of the bell fashionable in your days. To blow this horn was for me a real pleasure, almost a vice. I will go further and declare that if I were obliged to record, in a roll of honour, those activities which in the course of my interminable existence have given me only a mild pain in the balls, the blowing of a rubber horn - toot! - would figure among the first. And when I had to part from my bicycle I took off the horn and kept it about me. I believe I have it still, somewhere, and if I blow it no more it is because it has gone dumb. Even motor-cars have no horns nowadays, as I understand the thing, or rarely. When I see one, through the lowered window of a stationary car, I often stop and blow it. This should all be re-written in the plu-perfect. What a rest to speak of bicycles and horns.

message 7: by [deleted user] (last edited Sep 19, 2008 08:54AM) (new)

Thank you for your very thoughtful response. You have given me much to think about.

I am thinking. I should have liked to live my life according to the world of Beckett’s characters. There are times when I wish that I could laugh when I cannot, when I should like to suffer a perpetual amnesia which brings forth the briefest torment, followed then by an equally brief sense of relief--whatever it was that I should have remembered does not matter anymore.

I just realized that there is a true liberation in that, the way you describe the life of the artist--the perseverance, the sense of humor, and yes, hope. It would bother me so that for Beckett, words have lost their currency, that a writer’s words or an artist’s work are spent and spent and spent all for nothing, with no meaning to be had or earned or gained. But the artist asks for nothing in return except to be as he is and to do as he must. That is Beckett, is it not? And that is you, yes?

For that would truly be the brightest of all places when all that the artist expects of the world (meaning, love, or even the means to an end) rests entirely on what he has to give and all that is left, which is only himself. With the value I place on life, I see no bankruptcy in that but a perpetual hope.

For reasons that are deeply personal (and where I shall expound elsewhere), I cannot say that existence is beyond reason for me. What has sustained me has been a constant need to care, perhaps too much, to be understood. It is not a healthy existence, but it is me; my desire for life has depended on the pursuit of meaning and understanding outside of myself, meaning which depends more on reason and others, and less on the emotions which have betrayed me too often and which therefore I do not trust—and that is my deepest weakness and greatest strength.

message 8: by Phillip (new)

Phillip It's alive if you want it. Any thoughts?

I don't know if there is a Beckett group, but if you start one, please invite me. I'd like to be a part of such a group.

message 9: by Phillip (new)

Phillip Absolutely!
Invite me to your group already!

message 10: by Phillip (new)

Phillip i'm sorry to report that she left goodreads.

message 11: by Phillip (new)

Phillip i can't accurately communicate how sad i am that our dear molly has left the building. but alas, like beckett informs us, i will go on.

surrendering to silence isn't the end of the road. it can often allow us time to reflect before using our voices again. i have had to take time off from playing. there are times when you just don't have anything to say. i'd rather hear silence than someone muttering half-formed thoughts.

message 12: by Phillip (last edited Sep 25, 2008 02:48PM) (new)

Phillip of course, making an attempt is always better than giving up. one tries, and that is the best we can do. i often look back at things i wrote and think, wow, just keep your mouth shut next time. i suppose it has something to do with getting older and not wanting to waste anyone's time, which is so precious to all of us. and i have learned to embrace silence, as the meditation of focusing on it allows me to be better at listening, which is something we all could improve upon. so many times the question isn't even pondered before people start reaching for answers.

either way, i'm glad you're here and are interested in keeping a discussion alive. i'm sorry i haven't replied sooner, i am just getting over completing a rather large project and have several coming up on the horizon. i'm just trying to get a little rest and clear my head.
but please, feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

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