“All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being one’s self, a wedge-shaped core of darkness.”
Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse. Oxford World Classics. p.52.
Mrs. Ramsay has just put her child to bed and takes up her knitting. When I first read this passage I had thought of another passage in literature — one from the other vantage point, one in which a child speaks of feeling the enormity of his grandmother’s love when put to bed:
..alors ma grand-mère entra; et à l’expansion de mon coeur refoulé s’ouvrirent aussitôt des espaces infinis
[she] came in; and to the expansion of my constricted heart, there opened at once an infinity of space.
Note that refoulé plays distantly on the French word for ‘crowds,’ or les foules which denotes claustrophobia and limited space. The passage is from Proust. The comparison between the Proust and Woolf passages that I’m groping towards is that of perception. If we were to enter a room and see a woman knitting I doubt that we would see her as a “wedge-shaped core” of anything; and none of us, as children, would have seen our grandmothers as complex, dark, or complicated women in their own right. Woolf reminds us that there are depths to each human being, hidden from others and likely, hidden from Self. In both Lighthouse and Swann’s Way the death’s of these two women are horrific. Mrs. Ramsay’s death is literally a parenthetical aside whereas grand-mère is debilitated by a stroke and declines and declines in long Proustian passages. Her death will haunt the narrator.
Lighthouse — for all the other discussions on the sea imagery, sexual sublimation, and stream of consciousness writing — also offers, like all of Proust, an engaging presentation of the visual arts. Eric Karpeles discusses Paintings in Proust in his book, available on Amazon. Lily Briscoe in Lighthouse, like our narrator in Swann’s Way, will discover that she is an artist.
“Instead,” she thinks, “there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” p.133. The past dark imagery of never knowing another, never knowing Mrs. Ramsay returns at the end to the reader. The optimism is that Lily finds purpose and our friend of Swann rushes home to write his novel.
I think of Claude Monet, later in life, with his painfully arthritic hands to which he tied rags so he could paint his canvases. Monet spent his last two decades painting water lilies. I don’t think ‘obsession with flowers,’ but think back to his 32 paintings of Rouen Cathedral. That was Obsession. Thirty of the painting depicted various states of shadows on the cathedral façade while the last two paintings were concerned with medieval buildings attached to the cathedral; they were destroyed in the bombardment of World War II. Monet’s Rouen canvases show a fascination with shades, shadows, and states of fog. It is certainly a metaphor for life, death, and knowledge. When asked why flowers he is rumored to have said that for years he studied the darkness whereas with the water lily he wanted to understand the light. A beautiful way to end life. Woolf is not so obviously positive (she struggled with depression and did commit suicide) and Lighthouse, through sea imagery, does speak to the relentless tyranny and futility of trying to control Time.
Yet when I read about Lily and those matches I am reminded of optimism and hope, reminded of the match that not only illuminates against the darkness, but also provides momentary warmth in human contact, purpose in life, and self-knowledge. She will paint. We may never know another or their hidden “wedge-shaped core of darkness” but we, for ourselves, can hope for…