Blog #130: Mired in a Myriad Details–From Panama hat to liftman; from one-armed poster hanger to Cashemere shawl

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

[F]or fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

A Room of One’s Own

I’ve wasted over a dozen hours trying to write today’s blog, and with these words I am now starting over. Sad, and most painful. Part of my problem is that I find writing difficult at the best of times. I find it hard to discern and then to hold on to the larger patterns I want to create. I also get overwhelmed by the details, by the myriad decisions involved in saying what I want to say as accurately and as well as possible. I get stuck in verbal ruts, or paralysis sets in.

Writing about Virginia magnifies my writing problems. She says everything so accurately and so brilliantly. Worse than that, her patterns are so powerful, and so interconnected. I start by picking away at a tiny corner of her web, and before I know it I am entangled in a myriad strands. Myriad. As I type, my mind is subtly demonstrating my level of entanglement. I already pointed out in an earlier blog that myriad isn’t my word; myriad is Virginia’s word. She uses it twice in To the Lighthouse, once when Mrs Ramsay is thinking about male intelligence and “the myriad layers of the leaves of a tree,” and once when Cam drowsing in the boat thinks of “all the myriad details.” Both these uses connect to “Modern Fiction,” where Virginia thinks about the mind, which “exposed to the ordinary course of life, receives upon its surface a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel.”

To the Lighthouse exposes my mind to a myriad impressions. In front of a blank screen, I’m in the same position as Lily when she faces the blank canvas. All that “in idea [seems] simple [becomes] in practice immediately complex.” One word placed on the screen “[commits] me to innumerable risks, to frequent, and irrevocable decisions.” Paralysis sets in. Also, I feel frustration and sadness at the loss of the dozens of hours I have already invested.

The answer, I think, is to stay true to myself. I am no Virginia, capable of weaving dozens of threads into a web large enough and strong enough to capture reality. At best, I’m a Theseus, and what I have to do is to follow single threads. By doing that perhaps I can make some sense of the To the Lighthouse labyrinth. By doing that perhaps I can avoid tying myself into knots. By doing that perhaps I can keep Virginia from permeating, from prevailing, from imposing herself. To see her clearly, I must see her at a distance. To see her clearly I must simplify. To see her I must achieve perspective.

In the mangled drafts which the dozen hours produced are skulls and Cashemere shawls and mammoths and Heart of Darkness and Romans and London and caves and Athena and brooches and A Passage to India and so much more. Each of these snarled strands connects. To cease my lament and to test my new found resolution, I will seize one strand. I’ll tug on the Cashemere shawl. The Cashemere shawl will be my clue for today.

Quickly then, let me make my marks. Let me find my rhythm. Let me engage this truth, this reality, which emerges “stark at the back of appearances.” Behind the green Cashemere scarf is the black pig’s skull. The beauty of the present moment is often a product of deception or willed blindness. Civilization is often built, in part at least, by plunder and exploitation. Beautiful circus posters are put up by mangled men, men who have lost an arm to reaping machines. “The liftman in the Tube is an eternal necessity.” Behind the artist’s Panama hat, a hat which Roosevelt helped to popularize, are we not conscious of “a lack of balance” (“Body and Brain,” 1920)? Cashemere shawls, for all their delicacy and beauty, are a by-product of British imperialism. Civil illusions mask uncivil realities. “The horror! The horror!” is also the Intended’s name. The Ramsay summer home is made possible by economic sources similar to those which paid for Satis House, Howard’s End, and the Intended’s grand and lofty rooms.

At best I am an impressionist critic, a pointillist, setting down single details in the hope that you will see aspects of To the Lighthouse as I see them.

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