I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” last week. Apart from some fifty experimental-ish pages toward the middle, it was stunning. Especially the closing. In fact, if anyone is interested in reading it but doesn’t have time, the last chapter is fifty pages and gives an ample taste of the complete work.
Above is a passage that captures the essence of the closing scenes. One of the novel’s principal themes is the often combative relationship between rational, scientific knowledge and emotional intimacy. Writing two years after the end of World War I, it is no surprise that Woolf gives little credit to the absolute, or our search for it. Deep questions of reality and how we approach it were shattered in the shallow trenches of the war.
Instead, Woolf ascribes significance to human relationships, regardless of their complications and intermittent drama. In the “now” Woolf was living in, this is what she felt was real, what was important. Yet, despite its high valuation of human connections, the novel goes to great lengths to show that even these cannot and need not be defined.
The Ramseys, who as a married couple act as the main character in “To the Lighthouse,” go through countless internal changes in how they relate to one another. Their relationship is always marked by respect, but it is interlaced with dependency, mistrust, judgement and enervation, to name a few emotions. They both admire and reject one another in a single sitting. But, in the end, it is their love that is real.
Lily Briscoe, their friend and observer, is the character sharing her thoughts in the passage above. There is little doubt that Lily’s is Woolf’s voice in the novel. She is a painter who never married and who is devoted to her art. Specifically, she is most concerned with the distance between objects.
Lily believes that distance changes how we relate and how we see one another. For her, and so for Woolf, intimacy was sometimes only possible from afar, or in retrospect. But this shouldn’t worry us.
Human connections of any and all kind are valuable. It is upon this intimacy that we build a life of “daily miracles,” perhaps without the great revelation that History and Philosophy hoped for, but with the elementary meaning that keeps us aching for more.
Read Bogotá 2014