Blog #160: Anna Karenina and To the Lighthouse (blog 3 of several plus 1)

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Life dominates Tolstoi as the soul dominates Dostoevsky. There is always at the centre of all the brilliant and flashing petals of the flower this scorpion, “Why live?” There is always at the centre of the book some Olenin, or Pierre, or Levin who gathers into himself all experience, turns the world round between his fingers, and never ceases to ask, even as he enjoys it, what is the meaning of it, and what should be our aims. It is not the priest who shatters our desires most effectively; it is the man who has known them, and loved them himself.

“The Russian Point of View”

I ended my last Anna Karenina blog with a promise of at least three more to follow. Today’s blog will focus on the “at least” part of that promise. Motherhood, courtship and Grimm will all have to wait their turn while I examine the relationship of beetles to ants.

My contention is that the scene of Lily playing with the ants is built upon that of Levin observing the beetle. In having Lily toy with the ants, Virginia is playing with Tolstoy. She is turning Tolstoy’s world round between her fingers and trying to understand how her conception of life differs from his. In measuring life, his angle of vision becomes part of her own triangulation.

Part of Virginia’s objective is simply to oppose Lily to Levin. Lily is Levin rewritten and transformed from a robust, vigorous, intellectual, land-owning aristocrat, who has just become a new father, into a poor, shrivelled, old-maidish, spinster artist. This rewriting intensifies Lily’s heroic status. The contrast in personalities and circumstances could scarcely be more extreme, yet by opposing Lily hindering the ants to Levin helping the green beetle Virginia establishes a powerful equivalence and imbues Lily with Levin’s heroism. Lily on the lawn, painting and watching the sail boat, struggling with words which flutter sideways, is Levin striding along the highway after working with the peasants. She is Levin upon whom Fyodor’s words had acted “on his soul like an electric shock, suddenly transforming and combining into a single whole the whole swarm of disjointed, impotent, separate thoughts that incessantly occupied his mind.” Levin and Lily are both wrestling with the meaning of life, both struggling to articulate or, through painting, to realize an absolute. Where Levin is impelled by the death of Nikolai, Lily is driven by her attempts to come to terms with the death of Mrs. Ramsay. Both are left tearful by the intensity of their feelings, with Levin “brushing away the tears that filled his eyes” at the end of Chapter 13, Part 8, and Lily shown with tears running down her face at the end of Chapter 7 in “The Lighthouse” section.

Tears are not the only thing Lily and Levin have in common. Lily’s interaction with ants and Levin’s interaction with the beetle both follow on moments where Lily and Levin contemplate remarks about brotherly love. In Anna Karenina, Levin interacts with the green beetle shortly after working with the peasants and talking to Fyodor, the man operating the threshing machine. The peasant’s words set “undefined but significant ideas…whirling through his head, blinding him with their light,” and it is while contemplating the nature of goodness that Levin lies down on the grass and notices the beetle. Similarly, Lily starts disturbing the ants with her brush while thinking about Charles Tansley “preaching brotherly love,” Charles Tansley, “lean and red and raucous, preaching love from a platform.” Comparing Lily to Levin underlines Virginia’s feminist rewriting of the scene. Whereas Levin is led to help the beetle and to bend a leaf of goutwort out of the beetles way, Lily, at the memory of the misogynistic Tansley, uses her brush to interfere in the ant’s cosmogony, thus reducing them “to a frenzy of indecision.” At this point in the narrative, Lily’s actions are a veiled and ironic enactment of Virginia’s feminist impulses.

Also, in opposing Lily to Levin, Virginia is doing far more than rewriting gender roles and relationships. She, like Tolstoy, is turning the world round between her fingers. She is both commenting on Tolstoy’s world and sketching out her own vision. When it comes to considering the meaning and the aims of life, she is replacing one large, continual miracle with many small, transient ones. Where Tolstoy gives us Levin thinking:

“And I looked out for miracles, complained that I did not see a miracle which would convince me. A material miracle would have persuaded me. And here is a miracle, the sole miracle possible, continually existing, surrounding me on all sides, and I never noticed it!

in To The Lighthouse, Lily, standing on the lawn and painting, thinks:

“What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, “Life stand still here”; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)— this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said. “Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!” she repeated. She owed it all to her.”

Virginia is not willing to follow Tolstoy into the world of divine revelation. The Russian conception of the “cloudy, yeasty, precious stuff” of the “soul” is alien to her. Life is as miraculous and precious to her as it is to Tolstoy, yet rather than try to affirm a constant vision she chooses to celebrate “moments of being.” In her fiction, Paterian moments substitute for divine apprehension.

Blog Epilogue:

Damn! Virginia has done it to me again. More echoes and more vibrations. Awe doesn’t begin to describe what I feel. Shock and awe comes closer. In jotting the above thoughts, and in rereading the little daily miracle passage, I’ve had another moment of illumination. A memory sparked, I did a quick google search, and now I have much more to disentangle. Floating like flowers come these words from E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India:

The revelation was over, but its effect lasted, and its effect was to make men feel that the revelation had not yet come.

They are dark caves. Even when they open towards the sun, very little light penetrates down the entrance tunnel into the circular chamber. There is little to see, and no eye to see it, until the visitor arrives for his five minutes, and strikes a match. Immediately another flame rises in the depths of the rock and moves towards the surface like an imprisoned spirit: the walls of the circular chamber have been most marvellously polished. The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone.

These lines will demand yet another rethink of To the Lighthouse, and also a rethink of A Passage to India. Read with To the Lighthouse in mind, A Passage to India deserves consideration as a feminist novel, even if Forster was only embodying his homosexual outsider status in female form.

The lines also remind me that I had already seen a possible trace of Forster’s novel in To the Lighthouse. In Blog #128, I wrote the following:

Also, the memory calls our interpretations of reality into question. Mrs. Ramsay’s inability to perceive whether the floating object is a cask, a lobster pot, or an upturned boat has disturbing parallels with Wuthering Heights, where Lockwood sees a heap of dead rabbits as “an obscure cushion of something like cats,” with Heart of Darkness, where Marlow mistakes skulls on stakes for round ornamental knobs on the top of fenceposts, and A Passage to India, where Adela Quested confuses “the withered and twisted stump of a toddy-palm” for a snake.

The fleeting Arthurian reference in To the Lighthouse (Something would emerge. A hand would be shoved up, a blade would be flashed. It was nonsense of course.) may also owe something to the mention of Monsalvat in A Passage to India, not to mention the Fisher King aspect of the whole novel.

These flickers of possible contact between the two novels lead to thoughts of Lily as Adela Quested, Mrs. Ramsay as Mrs. Moore, and even, why not, Charles Tansley as Ronnie Heaslop. Exciting rereads ahead!

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