“And she wanted to say not one thing, but everything. Little words that broke up the thought and dismembered it said nothing. ‘About life, about death; about Mrs. Ramsay’—no, she thought, one could say nothing to nobody. The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the objects inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again: then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there?”
Many poets, philosophers, and even theologians have reflected on the inadequacy of words to capture the essence of things. But the idea may never find a more beautiful, more visual expression than it does in the excerpt above from “To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.“ Woolf may have believed her words failed to strike the heart of ideas or experiences, but I often find myself turning to her work with the feeling that she has the answer—she has beautiful words for something I can’t even begin to explain.
I don’t know how many times I have re-read “To The Lighthouse”. I’ll pick it up, read a few pages, maybe a few chapters, always searching for something. What I am trying to figure out is hard to articulate. It’s some ineffable thing. Maybe some unspeakable thing.
Virginia Woolf understands the unspeakable things. She captures (to the extent words can) essences—a moment, a gesture. She seems, miraculously, to hold light and color in her hand.
“[…]but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotized, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!”
She steals into the secrets of the mind revealing the thoughts we all have but hide:
“Lily felt that something was lacking; Mr. Bankes felt that something was lacking. Pulling her shawl round her Mrs. Ramsay felt that something was lacking. All of them bending themselves to listen thought, ‘Pray heaven that the inside of my mind may not be exposed,’ for each thought, ‘The others are feeling this. They are outraged and indignant with the government about the fishermen. Whereas I feel nothing at all.’”
I was on the beach in San Diego a few weeks ago, watching the sun set over the water with a friend. We stood there for a long time just staring, bewildered by the number and intensity of the colors and by how so many people could walk or run or ride their bicycles down the beach without becoming smitten and transfixed by the colors. I read a passage from To the Lighthouse to my friend so that he would understand what I meant about the way Virginia Woolf captures things:
“They came there regularly every evening drawn by some need. It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some sort of physical relief. First, the pulse of color flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam, only the next instant to be checked and chilled by the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves. Then, up behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water; and then, while one waited for that, one watched, on the pale semicircular beach, wave after wave shedding again and again, smoothly, a film of mother of pearl.”
“Shedding again and again, smoothly, a film of mother of pearl”—that’s exactly how the water looked on that beach in San Diego. The waves left behind a pearly iridescence on the shore that looked almost exactly like mother of pearl, though that image would have never occurred to me (likely because I don’t look at things closely enough). I had to read it to see that it was true.
Virginia Woolf paid attention. I don’t imagine she could ever ride her bicycle past the sunset without being smitten, without noticing exactly what colors are present and where (the water was purple but just on the edges of the waves). I imagine that she too would be bewildered, perhaps even outraged by how infrequently we allow ourselves to be smitten by beauty. We should be outraged too.
Virginia Woolf possessed a facility with and obvious love for language—rare even among great writers. She covets the richness and complexity of words and images and as a result many of her books, especially To The Lighthouse, are like paintings:
“The Graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in meadows of asphodel to compose that face.”
To say the novel is a meditation on life is both accurately broad (she muses on so many questions and mysterious elements of the psychology of being alive) and hopelessly vague. Touching, even briefly, on the multitude of themes she explores would require pages and pages, maybe even a whole book. But to demonstrate the depth and breadth of Woolf’s observation and discernment, and convince you that To The Lighthouse is worth reading for the articulation of those ineffable qualities and experience of life that we have all witnessed but failed to articulate to ourselves, I feel compelled to provide a few examples of the passages which seem to hit directly at the center (though she may have felt they miss the mark).
The book deals broadly with questions about significance. What, for example, is the significance of a person:
“And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr. Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the hedge, into the intricacy of the twigs.) Who then could blame the leader of that forlorn party which after all has climbed high enough to see the waste of the years and the perishing of stars[…]-who will blame him if he does homage to the beauty of the world?”
Or a work of art:
“Here she was again, she thought, stepping back to look at it, drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers—this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded her attention. She was half-unwilling, half-reluctant. […]before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servant’s bedroom. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa.”
Or of life itself:
“And, resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularize itself at such moments as these, when she released faculties that had been on the strain, stood over her, paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life? That was —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.”
“And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too[…]how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.”
What is the boundary between objects, between people, between moments in time?
“Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought…”
How is it that we know people at all?
“Mrs. Ramsay sat silent. She was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships. Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge?”
“How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all?”
In a way that becomes clear only by reading the book, the significance of the story (and life) reveals itself in the little details—the turn of a bird in the sky, a flower in a particular light, a wave breaking, the way a character looks at a tide pool or a staircase, the light from the lighthouse sweeping through the rooms—as if the weight of the inarticulable meaning condenses itself and makes itself known and understood only in the tiniest of moments.
“Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was the very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything.”
Can art get directly at this jar on the nerves?
The book is beautiful, visionary. It jars my nerves. Speaking about it, however, is like trying to talk about reality by pointing to a shadow of a picture. It is too far removed from the thing itself. “To The Lighthouse” is the picture, so accurate, so convincing, that you may stop and ask, is this not the thing itself?