Blog #198: Of Seals and Walruses in To the Lighthouse

I read a great deal, I say: all the big books I have read I have read in the country. Besides this I write—with greater ease, at times, than ever in London. But the books are the things that I enjoy—on the whole—most. I feel sometimes for hours together as though the physical stuff of my brain were expanding, larger & larger, throbbing quicker & quicker with new blood—& there is no more delicious sensation than this. I read some history: it is suddenly all alive, branching forwards & backwards & connected with every kind of thing that seemed entirely remote before. I seem to feel Napoleons influence on our quiet evening in the garden for instance—I think I see for a moment how our minds are all threaded together—how any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind. Then I read a poem say—& the same thing is repeated. I feel as though I had grasped the central meaning of the world, & all these poets & historians & philosophers were only following out paths branching from that centre in which I stand. And then—some speck of dust gets into my machine I suppose, & the whole thing goes wrong again. I open my Greek book next morning, & feel worlds away from it all—worse than that—the writing is entirely indifferent to me. Then I go out into the country—plodding along as fast as I can go—not much thinking of what I see, or of anything, but the movement in the free air soothes & makes me sensitive at once. As long as one can feel anything—life may lead one where it likes. In London undoubtedly there are too many people—all different—all claiming something or losing something—& they must all be reconciled to the scheme of the universe before you can let yourself think what that scheme is. Of course, people too, if one read them rightly, might illuminate as much as if not more than books. It is probably best therefore in the long run to live in the midst of men & women—to get the light strong in your eyes as it were—not reflected through cool green leaves as it is in books.

A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1909
July 1st, 1903

Briefly, I want to crawl out of individual tunnels. I want to take a deep breath and look around me. Even though I still have work to do on, I want to write down a few thoughts about Virginia’s broader enterprise. The impetus, oddly enough, comes from looking forward to Henry James. While chipping away at Meredith and probing and charting a couple more unexplored crevices, I started to think about who to map next. I’ve now reached a point where I almost feel that To the Lighthouse encompasses all literature written before 1927, and all I need to do in order to find a major writer is to look. Among others, I’ve already charted the presence of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Scott, Proust, Forster, Wharton, Conrad, Shelley, Peacock, Joyce, Dickens, and Meredith, so why should I not find signs of writers such as Austen, Hardy, and Mansfield.

Given his literary stature, his friendship with the Stephen family, and his visits to St. Ives, Henry James came to mind as a strong candidate and, sure enough, with the help of Mark Hussey’s Virginia Woolf A to Z, I quickly found traces of James in To the Lighthouse. Hussey notes Daniel Vogel and Harvena Richter as two critics who have explored Jamesian elements in To the Lighthouse, and a quick skim of Covert Relationships: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James (1990)and Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage (1970) suggests that I will have little mapping of my own to do. In charting the presence of Henry James, all I will have to do is to record the explorations of Richter and Vogel.

Before doing that, and also before finishing with Meredith, I want to note a few thoughts about what Virginia is doing with all these authors. Why all those voices? Why did she work so many writers so deeply into the fabric of her novel? Is To the Lighthouse a literary version of the DNB? Is it a literary acrostic puzzle? Is it an attempt to create a grand unified literary theory? What makes To the Lighthouse so sane when it could easily disintegrate into a schizophrenic cacophony of ancestral voices run amok?

Vogel, fresh in my mind, prompts possibilities. Vis a vis Henry James, Vogel reads Virginia through a Bloomian filter. “Anxiety of influence” is at work, and Virginia is “engaged in conscious and unconscious deception, in covering [her] own tracks, and in repression.” So often, though, Virginia is not covering her tracks. On the contrary. She deliberately sets out tracks for us to follow. Minta leads to Aminta, leads to Meredith. Mrs. Bast leads to Leonard Bast, leads to Forster. Marlow leads to Heart of Darkness, leads to Conrad. Again and again, Virginia playfully drops clues for us to follow–allusive clues which, instead of concealing, call attention to influence.

For Virginia, influence was guide, goad and glory. Yes, of course, there was anxiety, anxiety which she openly noted and acknowledged. For instance, of Proust she wrote, “And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.” When trying to ascertain and record her thoughts and feelings, no matter how faint, she was always unflinchingly honest. She did not hide from fear of influence and the anxiety attendant on that fear. Rather, she embraced the fear, and in so doing made the most of the influence. “Books,” as she noted in A Room of One’s Own, “have a way of influencing each other,” and she was quick to welcome and celebrate the influence.

As guide, influence exposed Virginia both to techniques and to ideas. She was always dissecting other writers to see how they achieved their effects. She was always measuring and testing her ideas against theirs. As goad, influence challenged her to excel. Techniques were to be mastered and improved upon. Ideas were to be challenged and expanded or overturned. And all the while, as glory, influence was to be embraced. It was to be savoured and celebrated. To be influenced is to be connected, is to become, however slightly, part of the web of culture and civilization. To acknowledge influence is to pay tribute to tradition and to help keep the light burning. Books are what one brings to the lighthouse.

I opened this meditation with a lengthy quotation from one of Virginia’s early journals. I’ll close with an even earlier one:

I must now expound another simile that has been rolling itself round in my mind for many days past. This is that I am a Norseman bound on some long voyage. The ship now is frozen in the drift ice; slowly we are drifting towards home. I have taken with me after anxious thought all the provisions for my mind that are necessary during the voyage. The seals & walruses that I shoot during my excursions on the ice (rummaging in the hold) are the books that I discover here & read.

A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals 1897-1909
August 1899

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