How Far We’ve Come!

Well, it’s a pretty bleak ending to the semester.  I mean, pretty much all the stuff we’ve read for Modernism has been bleak.  The Joyce short stories.  “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”  The chaos of “The Waste Land.”  Alienation in To the Lighthouse.  But Endgame feels worse.  Beckett takes things a step further than the Modernists; they posed questions, and he gives an answer.  The Modernists were responding to industrialization, to the horrors of war, to all these sudden breaks in the established order; they were asking questions, doubting old certainties, wondering where to find meaning, struggling to cope with the chaos.  There is a sense of uncertainty, and often anxiety and stress.  If the Modernists’ writing can be characterized as an anguished cry—“Is there meaning?  Is there hope?”—then Beckett’s writing is a hollow laugh—“No, of course not.”  Actually, similar dialogue takes place in Endgame:

HAMM. We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?

CLOV. Mean something!  You and I, mean something! [Brief laugh.] Ah that’s a good one!

Wilfred Owen denounces patriotism and honor in the modern world, refers to it spitefully, bitterly as “the old lie.”  Like he’s upset, mad, confused.  The characters in Endgame denounce honor too, but they just laugh at it.  Cynical, emotionless, not upset.

NAGG. You swear?

HAMM. Yes.

NAGG. On what?

HAMM. My honor. [Pause.  They laugh heartily.] (2600)

            Endgame has a sense of resigned hopelessness and cynicism.  They say things like, “To hell with the universe” (2598) and “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that” (2601).  It is grating to read or watch—uncomfortable, awkward, pitiful, sad.  The characters are shadows of men—weak, purposeless.  Of course, it’s not all resigned hopelessness and cynicism; there is some sense of weariness in the repeated question, “Why this farce, day after day?” (2585), and there is a small hope in Hamm’s wish to think that “perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing” (2593).  But that hope is quickly extinguished, and you just have to embrace the farce of life.  Human life is an absurd paradox.  We search for meaning in a universe that offers no meaning.

And to think—we started the semester so sure and secure and happy and clear!  I mean, sure, whatever, compare Beckett to the Modernists—but then think back to Robinson Crusoe.  Like, how long ago was that??  He was just puttering around, organizing stuff, all Enlightenment idealistic, talking about how great man is, how much better than the animals because he has thumbs and can make tools, and how he’s conquered nature and everything.  How awesome do we think humans are now?  And technology?  What a joke.  Idiot Robinson Crusoe.  C’mon man.

Slavish Master in “Shooting an Elephant”

In one of my other classes, we read “The Handbook” by Epictetus, who was a Greek slave and a Stoic philosopher in the late 1st and early 2nd century AD.  Stoics’ big thing is duty.  The key to happiness, they say, is realizing what’s up to you and what isn’t.  The only thing that’s up to you is your free choice in accord with nature.  Your free will—nobody can take that from you.  They believe in providence—a universe that has order.  You can’t control how other people respond to what you do, you can’t control other events in your life, and you shouldn’t try to; all you have control over is your own free choice.  You just do your duty.  You don’t decide which part you get in the play of life, but you do have control over how well you play that part.  So anybody can be happy—not just the wealthy or the powerful—even slaves can be happy if they accept their place and do their duty.  That’s the basic idea.  In his book, Epictetus gives the example of a master who is constantly anxious about his slaves—whether or not they’ve obeyed him, did they make a careless mistake, etc.  He writes:

And it is better for your slave-boy to be bad than for you to be unhappy. Begin, therefore, with the little things. Your paltry oil gets spilled, your miserable wine stolen; say to yourself, “This is the price paid for a calm spirit, this the price for peace of mind.” Nothing is got without a price. And when you call your slave-boy, bear in mind that it is possible he may not heed you, and again, that even if he does heed, he may not do what you want done. But he is not in so happy a condition that your peace of mind depends upon him.

If a master is so stressed out about the behavior of his slaves, if his peace of mind rests upon them performing rightly, then in fact, he has become enslaved to them.  He’s trying to control something he can’t control, and has thus become a slavish master.  His slaves might be more “free” than he is, if they have a right understanding of what they have control over.  If they just focus on doing their duty and don’t worry about the rest.

Anyway, that’s what I thought of when I read this part in “Shooting an Elephant:”

I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.  I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.  He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.  For it is the coordination of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives” and so in every criss he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.

The narrator, and perhaps the empire itself, is a slavish master.  He seems to be the one with the power, with control over the situation, but in fact he is enslaved to the people over which he rules.  Enslaved to their expectations.  His peace of mind depends on them.  He doesn’t want to be laughed at.  He has to perform how they expect him to.  He isn’t really free.  I mean, it’s all just kind of high school cafeteria stuff.  Everybody’s concerned with what people think of them.  Nobody wants to be laughed at.  People want to be respected and taken seriously.  We don’t always do what we really think is the right thing to do because we decide to do what the crowd expects or wants us to do.

I don’t know if this Stoic reading of the short story really makes all that much sense.  I guess Stoics would argue against the whole premise—against empire-building.  One should accept the role that providence gives him or her and do one’s duty in that role, and not go seeking to gain more power for oneself.  And the narrator was technically following procedure—doing his duty.  But he wasn’t doing what he thought was right.  He was just swayed by the crowd.  And in that scene shows “the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.”

“Dust in the Wind”: Life is A Kansas Song in “Time Passes”

            Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse presents three different sections, spanning a decade, each told in a different way.  The second section, “Time Passes”, although rather short, makes its way through ten years including World War I, whereas “The Window” covers only an evening or so.  While the “The Window” addresses time as relative to one’s thoughts, emotions, and consciousness, “Time Passes” is told from the perspective that time is independent from human life.  That is to say that the hours, days, and years that make up time will continue to pass by at the same rate that they always have. 

            Throughout the passage, Woolf personifies inanimate objects such as the draft that sweeps through the house during the time when the family is away.  She describes the drafts as “smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wall-paper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) the torn letters in the waste-paper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking, “Were they allies?  Were they enemies?  How long would they endure?” (126).  She also touches on the isolation and confusion which WWI wrought.  A sense of personal and national identity was lost during the war, especially in England.  Similarly, Woolf posits how the objects in the house have lost their identity because the people who give there lives meaning are gone.  Woolf elaborate continually through the section on how time infects all things such as “some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes- those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated” (129).  She also hints at the emptiness of the post-war world as all of the material items of the millions of young men lost to the war remain and how they are the only reminders of their lives.  While “Time Passes” puts a large emphasis on the role of time in nature and in aging the house, it gives very little consideration to the Ramsays and their friends.  References to them are given in brackets, such as “[Prue Ramsay, leaning on her father’s arm, was given in marriage.  What, people said, could have been more fitting?  And, they added, how beautiful she looked!]”  Human life is more or less an afterthought in the grand scheme of life.  Time continues to push forward, thrusting humanity along with it, regardless of whether or not people are ready for it.  People and things may fade, but time marches on.                    

“Eveline” and “In a Station of the Metro”

(I just remembered I forgot to do this one so here it is.)

One of the elements that most connected “Eveline” by James Joyce and “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound was the voyeuristic nature of them. In Pound’s poem, the speaker is reflecting upon “…these faces in the crowd” (Pound) and experiencing how it feels to view them. Similarly, in “Eveline”, the titular character spends the majority of the story staring out the window, reflecting upon her life while viewing others’ lives happening all around her. Both of these visual experiences seems to invoke a deeper emotion than one would expect. Pound takes a single moment in time, standing in a metro, and posits on the way it makes the reader feel, while Joyce uses the image of Eveline, sitting “at the window watching the evening invade the avenue” (2222) to relate to a multitude of past experiences in her life.

Furthermore, both pieces deal with dehumanization. At the end of “Eveline”, she stands, paralyzed, unable to get on the boat with Frank. As this happens, the narrator describes her composure: “She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition” (2225). In this singular moment, Eveline loses her humanity and, in a way, ceases to be anything at all. The idea of dehumanization is echoed in the way that the face in Pound’s poem lose any sense of individualism: “Petals on a wet, black bough” (Pound). Here, the faces of strangers become plant material stuck to a tree branch, being stripped of all humanity as well. Both of these instances happen just for a brief moment, but neither author offers up any sort of explanation or deeper meaning; the reader is left to decide what it all means.

Time Travel in Virginia Woolf

In the chapters that compose “Time Passes,” Virginia Woolf seems to create her own timeline in which a number of gaps and holes appear. These gaps are not inconsistencies, nor are they inaccuracies when compared to the historical account of World War I. Rather, these holes appear when Woolf describes one scene that seems to exist on two separate occasions, yet are viewed simultaneously. An example of this is the description of Andrew Ramsay’s death. Woolf paints the picture of “ominous sounds like the measured blows of hammers dulled on felt…then again, silence fell; and then, night after night, and sometimes in plain mid-day…there seemed to drop into this silence, this indifference, this integrity, the thud of something falling” (133). Each of these instances of bombings are viewed simultaneously by the reader though they could take place over a period of days, months, or even years. Similarly, Woolf mechanically mentions that in France, Andrew was killed when “a shell exploded” (133). Again, this event could have taken place at any time during the war, yet the gap in the timeline is completely jumped.

This tactic of jumping through holes in the timeline allows Woolf to, essentially, time travel, and with stunning results. By utilizing obscurity of dates, Woolf is able to condense an entire decade into a mere twenty pages and shower her audience with experiences of World War I. This technique can even be viewed when Mrs. McNab is depicted cleaning the house. During her visits, she takes notice of all of the things in the house (the books, the cloak, the shawl, etc.) and their process of decay (135-136). As a reader, it is impossible to tell whether these descriptions are all from one visit, or whether these are observations of Mrs. McNab as she cleans the house over the course of an entire decade. Either way, time seems to exist all at once as the descriptions are absorbed by the reader. It is ironic that, though time passes, Woolf uses these elements of time travel to give the appearance of standing still.

Time Passes Slowly in War

The chapters in “Time Passes” directly reflect the mood of the English public regarding the Great War. The vivid imagery, like in all of Woolf’s work, is profound and penetrating even without reading the fine print that dealt heavily with the mindsets of the English during and after the Treaty of Versailles inked the end of the conflict. The section is aptly named, for Woolf’s portrayal of time passing simulates the same heavy, dragging trickle of time felt by the soldiers fighting [“Night after night, summer and winter, the torment of storms…”] on foreign soil, and certainly for their anxious and heartbroken families at home. “How long, she asked…how long shall it endure?” (p131) The question of Mrs. McNabb evokes the sentiments of all those involved in the war, longing with desperation for its end, however bleak it could be.

Woolf also writes of the agonizing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by the soldiers. Whilst many men lost their lives, the ones who returned were left with deep, cankerous scars, both mentally and physically, and had to endure the horrifying episodes of remembrance. Though they were covered in wounds and filled with terrorizing memories, upon returning they felt hollow and numb to the new post-war world. “What people had shed and left…those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated.” (p129) The visuals given by Woolf are terrifying, especially when one realizes soldiers, sailors, and pilots still go untreated for PTSD despite the sacrifices they made and were willing to make in the line of duty.

Times Passes

Yeah, “Time Passes” is a pretty weird section, a pretty stark contrast to “The Window.”  “The Window” takes 120 pages (in our edition) to tell us about the goings-on of one evening—3 or 4 hours pass, maybe.  “Time Passes” takes about 20 pages and spans 10 years.  In “The Window” there is lots of introspection and little action; we are constantly in characters’ heads, being made privy to layer upon layer of convoluted thought processes and distinct perspectives.  In “Time Passes” those same characters who we’ve come to know so intimately are abruptly, casually ripped away; they are literally a parenthetical thought, an aside—like “Oh, and I forgot to mention…”  Because what’s really important is that we focus on our attention on the house.  The building itself.  That’s what “Time Passes” is all about; we watch the house fall apart and decay and rot, and the maid thinks surely the Ramseys will never come back, and they couldn’t honestly expect her to keep up that whole big house by herself anyway, but then they are coming back, and she gets some help from her friend and her son and they clean up the house for the return of Lily and Mr. Carmichael and someone named Mrs. Beckwith (we don’t know who she is yet, right?).  So there’s not a ton of action in this section either.  There’s definitely just as much philosophical thought as there was in the first section.  It’s really a pretty interesting section.  Just a really innovative way of moving the story along; can’t think of anything I’ve read that has done something like that.  Certain parts are really beautiful.  The whole thing’s got kind of an eerie feel to it.  And it’s not insignificant to focus on the house, and on its decay!  I don’t mean to write about it in such a tone as if to say that I think it seems silly or unimportant.  Woolf (obviously) knew what she was doing.  Tara already talked about how effective it is to make the characters’ deaths so abrupt and how that reflects what it’s like living during war time and how common death becomes and how desensitized one can become towards those horrors.  So I think it’s appropriate to turn readers’ attention away from the characters and towards the house, which serves as a really powerful symbol, a poignant image.

There are all these questions repeated throughout: “When would it fall?” (126) “whether they would fade” (126) “How long would they endure?” (126) “Will you fade?” (129) “Will you perish?” (129) “How long shall it endure?” (131).  And we watch throughout the passage the house get worse and worse—we see boundaries crossed, sacred things defiled.  The “airs,” when they first enter the house as night falls, are initially barred from entering the bedrooms: “But here surely, they must cease.  Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast.  [...] here you can neither touch nor destroy” (126).  And loveliness and stillness, they clasp hands in the bedroom, and say to each other, “We remain,” and “Nothing it seemed could break that image, corrupt that innocence” (129).  But of course the image is broken, and the innocence is corrupted, and by page 138, “Nothing now withstood [the airs]; nothing said no to them.”  So even those bedrooms we thought to be so sacred and incorruptible are now rotting, and Mrs. Ramsey’s shawl, having been loosened, now flaps in the wind, and the pig skull on which it hangs is exposed (which is a pretty creepy image).  And the maid laments, because surely the Ramseys would expect “to find things just as they had left them” (136).  But no; everything has changed.  Everything has fallen apart.  World War I has changed everything.  And the passage talks about dreamers down on the beach staring at the sea, searching for answer to their questions, demanding to know the meaning of all this suffering and horror, trying to find stability, wanting to believe that “good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules” (132).  We hear about “incorrigible hope” (131) and we hear that “dreams persisted” (132), and yet we have to imagine that those dreams were eventually tossed aside, and that that hope was corroded just like everything else.  Because the sea tosses like Leviathans playing an idiot game (symbolizing the destruction and meaninglessness of war), and Nature is cold and indifferent and unstoppable, and because God offers only a brief glimpse behind the curtain—and what we do see, “it seems impossible [...] that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole” (128).  Just like Eliot!  Fragmentation.  How we gonna put the pieces back together?  And yet the house gets cleaned up, and people try to carry on with their lives, and well, maybe we can convince ourselves that “it all looked [...] much as it used to look” (142).