To The Lighthouse

“Here sitting on the world, she thought, for she could not shake herself from the sense that everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last time, as a traveller, even though he is half asleep, knows, looking out the train window, that he must look now, for he will never see that town, or that mule-cart, or that woman at work in the fields, again.”

Virgina Woolf, To The Lightouse

One hundred years ago this week James Joyce unleashed his Ulysses on an unsuspecting world. Five years later, Virginia Woolf said “hold my cocktail” and dropped her masterpiece To The Lighthouse.

To The Lighthouse is not a story. It is two stories stitched together with a half-a-story between them that serves as a temporal bridge. Each part could stand alone but the thin strand that holds them together gives them a power they do not have without the other.

Picasso and Hopper and Kahlo and Munch and Dali were taking penknives and chainsaws to the representational art that had defined their artform for centuries. The world of words was going through a similar breakdown. Heroes and villains that had carried the narrative thread since the days of mythology were evaporating with the gods and demons that had inspired them.

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford

The first lesson of great art is timelessness. Like beauty, and love, it does not get old. But every work of art, like every moment of beauty and love, is confined by mortality. It is a paradox that finds expression in this passage:

“The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension.”

Unlike most artists, Love is not a subject of wallowing for Virginia Woolf. She is more likely to get into the practical aspects of partnership but understands the more ethereal aspects and shares those insights in these two passages:

“For what could be more serious than the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death; at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be danced round with mockery, decorated with garlands.”

“Love had a thousand shapes. There might be lovers whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed complicated things over which thought lingers, and love plays.”

One of the interesting currents that runs through To The Lighthouse is the determination of the character Lily Briscoe to paint the scene where the book’s events take place. Woolf’s sister Vanessa was a painter and most likely an inspiration for Lily. The blank canvas to a painter, like the blank page to a writer, can be intimidating or inspiring, and in this passage Woolf beautifully captures the moment it turns from the former to the latter:

“Her mood was coming back to her. One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled. One most hold the scene – so – in a vice and let nothing come and spoil it. One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, 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 miraculous ecstasy of a chair and a table through the eyes and brush of Vincent Van Gogh

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