Blog #135: Looking back to riff on silver drops and carpet holes

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes word to fit it.

Letter to Vita Sackville-West, March 16th 1926

She was not inventing; she was only trying to smooth out something she had been given years ago folded up; something she had seen. For in the rough and tumble of daily life, with all those children about, all those visitors, one had constantly a sense of repetition—of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.

To the Lighthouse

Tunnelling is more than its own reward. Sometimes I discover new, strange treasures, mammoth tusks or bast shoes, and other times I see old things anew. Last week’s ghost tunnel exercise had me looking for traces of Hamlet, and in the process I noted three passages which seemed faintly to echo the passage where Hamlet leaves Ophelia’s chamber, “head over his shoulders turn’d.” Thinking further on those passages, I’m struck by the number of echoes which Virginia introduces into her text. Repetition is such a powerful tool for her, and by means of repetition with variation she makes her text suggestive, opens it up for interpretation. The first and third passage, in particular, bear upon the past, and the willed effort to hold on to the past, even as the present slips through our fingers. Time is an glacier of sorts, which keeps flowing forward even as we try to freeze it.

Thinking about the first and third passages, I really do think they are instanced by Hamlet. Hamlet’s looking back is an attempt to fix the moment and not to let his vision of Ophelia go. In one of the passages Virginia heightens the link by having Mrs. Ramsay take Minta’s arm, a detail suggestive of Hamlet’s reluctance to relinquish Ophelia’s wrist. That the detail could also be suggestive of Orpheus not wanting to let go of Eurydice is partly irrelevant. As stated so often elsewhere, Virginia welcomed multiple meanings, intended or not. Hamlet was certainly part of her mental furniture, and to see a connection to the play reinforces and builds her meaning, hence, whether consciously intended or not, the perceived link deepens my relationship with the text, helps to solidify it in my consciousness, alters atoms of my brain in ways which are in harmony with the perspective she sought to present.

Interesting as Virginia’s ideas are about theories of the moment, and about how we register and interact with the past, it is the third passage which particularly holds my interest. In part this is because until I started looking for the possible presence of Hamlet I had never fully noted the passage. Because of its beauty, I had simply read it over without weighing it, without attending to what it actually said. I had read it as description and had feasted on the beauty of those “running and rippling lights.” I hadn’t attended to what the “phantom net” might mark. Now, alerted by repetition and looking for meaning in the repetition, I let my mind run deeper into the passage, turn the sense over and over, and try to understand how it might fit with other elements I see or feel in Virginia’s structure. In doing so, it is not so much Hamlet that comes to my assistance, as it is the story of Lot’s wife. The biblical past erupts into the present of the novel, and the lights of the town and the harbour which Mrs. Ramsay looks back upon connect to the fire and brimstone raining down upon Sodom and Gomorrah.

Mrs. Ramsay’s backward glance does not turn her into a pillar of salt or leave her daughters vulnerable to incest. Instead, looking back at the town, she thinks about how “all the poverty, all the suffering had turned to that.” It is the town and not Mrs. Ramsay which is transmuted. The beauty she sees is built upon the poverty and suffering of the people in the town. Her enjoyment is tempered by knowledge of the lack of adequate hospitals, drains and dairies. Her thoughts are tangent to Mr. Ramsay’s earlier thoughts about the eternal necessity of the liftman in the Tube, but where Mr. Ramsay feels his thought distasteful and wants to avoid it by disparaging Shakespeare, Mrs. Ramsay loses herself in propping up Mr. Ramsay. Together yet each alone, each kind, each well meaning, each filled with idealism and noble intentions, as a couple they are united in their failure to come to grips with social inequality. Though more practical and more clear seeing, Mrs. Ramsay is also more strongly at fault for perpetuating the worst elements of the existing system. She continues to embrace her role of angel in the house, continues to raise her children in the best of imperial traditions, and continues to endorse and support traditional marriage.

These ideas about Mrs. Ramsay, about the Ramsay marriage, and about the society which they represent deepen and change as I think about them in relationship to previously explored tunnels. The more I think, the more tunnels I see, until I become Theseus without a thread, without a clue, Theseus lost in mazes of amazement. In this instance, however, another repetition comes to my rescue. The metaphor of lights “rippling and running as if they were drops of silver water held firm in a wind” sends me forward to “The Lighthouse” section and the moment “like a drop of silver in which one dipped and illumined the darkness of the past.” The darkness is both metaphorical and metaphysical. In looking at the town, Mrs. Ramsay thinks of the poverty and suffering which underlie the beauty of the lights; in thinking about Mrs. Ramsay and the past, Lily gains perspective on the extreme obscurity of human relationships.

These two passages are pure poetry. A rash, an extreme, a generous state of mind is needed to apprehend their extremities and extravagances. The senses are called for, not just the intellect. Illumination is found in the fusion of thought and feeling. In dipping into her memories of Mrs. Ramsay, Lily achieves a moment of perfection, an extraordinarily fertile moment which allows her to gain the perspective necessary to express herself. “Drop of silver” echoes “drops of silver”, and the hole in which Lily buries the perfection of that fertile moment connects, even without Mrs. Ramsay there to take her arm, to Minta’s “little round hole of pink heel,” connects to the carpet with a hole in it, and ultimately connects to me deepening my understanding of To the Lighthouse and of Lily “tunnelling her way into her picture, into the past.” Both well before and well after Nabokov, master artist and happy reader spontaneously embrace. The embrace is not uncritical, however. Even in my happiness, I note how clumsy, how infelicitous, how ugly almost, the sand hole-sock hole-carpet hole sequence is. Deliberate clumsiness? Perhaps. From the poetry of the past, of the preserved and perfected moment, we are pushed forward to the fluidity of life and the prose of the present.

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