Blast

The content for Blast is the most revolutionary. The content reflects a movement that is a response to another movement; specifically one against new technology and conformity. However, the approach is revolutionary. The page set up and design layout reflect their content perfectly: it is a series of idiosyncratic, self observant, contradictions. The purpose of the magazine is to be “Beyond Action or Reaction”(Blast 31), yet allude to the fact that “Naturalists, Impressionists, or Futurists…depend on the appearance of the world for…art”(Blast 7)–a reaction. They also claim to be “NO-MAN’s” “Cause”(Blast 31), yet consistently allude to current events at the time and “ENGLAND’S history” and state of artistry (Blast 37). These series of contradictions fuel a type of vortex, and at its center is the magazine. This perfectly embodies a movement that is trying to champion the individual, but still requiring unity, and trying to push for self-fueled art, but is at the crux of political turmoil. While many movements in the past have had contradictions create beautiful art, none of them have ever relied on contradictions to produce art. That’s what makes it revolutionary.

BLAST’s Revolution

Both the content and technique of BLAST are revolutionary. The graphics of the magazine are certainly abnormal for the era; rather than focus merely on getting the information on the page, the designers of the magazine used different fonts and sizes to emphasize certain words. The industrial revolution’s innovations in regards to printing certainly aided in the decision of the designers to attempt something so revolutionary. As more became possible with printing, the people composing BLAST decided to take advantage of opportunities unavailable to past magazines by experimenting with graphics.

The content of BLAST was just as revolutionary as the design. “We do not want to change to appearance of the world, because we are not Naturalists, Impressionists, or Futurists … and do not depend on the appearance of the world for our art” (BLAST 7). Essentially, they say that they do not mind if their works have no significant impact on the world; they do not allow the world to influence their works, either. This sentiment seems revolutionary in that most, to this point, would create works which were either based in reality or aimed at affecting reality; their aim seemed to be to do neither.

Time Passes

Time Passes is the shortest part of “To the Lighthouse” yet the longest span of time. The first part focuses on one day yet is over a hundred pages long whereas Time Passes is less than 25 pages. Also unlike The Window, it is told through a nonhuman perspective, focusing mainly on the house and the changing weather. In the first half there are many different perspectives from the people staying in the house. They wonder about their life and how much they have done. They think about their impact in the world and in this section of the book Woolf provides the answer to that. One way she does this is by mentioning the deaths in brackets saying how Mrs. Ramsey, “died suddenly the night before,” or how “Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay.” They seem to be after thoughts and give us an idea of how much time has passed and what is going on in the world. How she introduces them shows the insignificance they hold compared to time. Time keeps moving on no matter what else is happening and is portrayed in a somewhat mechanical way.

The deterioration of the house and Mrs. McNabs struggle to clean it conveys feelings of WWI. Mrs. McNab is an old woman and is seeing this grand house and the remnants of the people that stayed there decay and be taken over by nature. It talks about how rain came in, things had gone mouldy and the attics being inhabited by rats. Finally Mrs. McNab gives up, thinking, “It is too much for one woman, too much, too much.” This portrays the overwhelming feeling that WWI brought and the inability to deal with it. This could also pertain to the “shell shock” that soldiers experienced and woman’s struggle to deal with them due to lack of knowledge on PTSD during that time. Just like the house, men’s minds deteriorated and like Mrs. McNab, women felt that they could not help them by themselves.

The deaths during Time Passes also show the effects of WWI. Mrs. Ramsay’s death is the fall of the Victorian woman. She played the domesticated wife whose duty was to nurture her children and worry over men, and her death marks the fall of these characteristics. Prue’s death comments on beauty, youth, and fertility. Andrew whose future was so bright in his parents eyes shows how war ended that hope. Overall their deaths and the state of the house convey uncertainty and lack of hope for the future.

To the Lighthouse

Time is a recurring theme throughout Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In Part I (The Window), Woolf stretches time, devoting the first 124 pages to a single day. This reflects the desire of some of the characters for time, that day, to stand still.  Mrs. Ramsay in particular wishes for them to always be together as they are in the dinner scene and for her youngest children, Andrew and Cam, to never grow old and suffer as she has.

In contrast, in Part II (Time Passes) ten years are compressed into approximately 20 pages. The passage of time is reflected by the deterioration of the house on the beach. While only a few words are devoted to the lives of its former inhabitants, the house’s increasingly poor state reflects their own experience over this period. The series of tragedies in the background of WWI are sudden and confusing. Their presentation in a short, objective, bracketed form disrupts the narrative and generates this effect. These years and events are then condensed into a few pages as they are slowly processed over many years. This reflects the way in which the world attempted to process the events and implications of WWI. In its aftermath a strong sense of confusion, shock, and disillusionment was felt. Nature seemed disrupted, as it is around the abandoned house: “…(for night and day, month and year, ran shapelessly together) in idiot games, until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself” (134-5). This processing was extremely gradual. Likewise, Woolf’s compression of ten years into 20 pages suggests that little changed over the course of these ten years as the characters, most likely, grappled with these sudden tragedies and, to some extent, the disruption of nature itself (the loss of the constant, binding force of Mrs. Ramsay in many ways represents this disruption of nature in their lives). Time moved on, but many people did not and so the narrative focuses on the state of nature and the beach house as opposed to the characters.

Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

In T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, many aspects of the aftermath of WWI are present throughout. One of the first notable places is a questioning of identity in Line 12: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” Because Britains felt that the war was waged unnecessarily (or for an unnecessarily long time), there’s a sense of displacement–they’d lost hope and pride in their country, so questioning identity becomes prominent. I also wonder if in this way, showing so many types of people/languages/age groups exemplifies just how widespread the first world war expanded. If that is the case, the poem is unifying the groups of people by their reactions to the war–despite their differing circumstances, many of the reactions are the same. This is displayed in different areas of Part I and II. The theme questioning states of living and of death (and of some sort of in between) present themselves. Lines 39-40 portray a girl and boy, and the girl describes herself as “neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing”, while line 126 shows a man asking “‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'” Eliot may be getting at the state in which soldiers from war returned. They were often described as “shell-shocked”, and these descriptions of living while dead reinforce that.

Another anxiety in The Waste Land–and probably the most obvious, is the fear and remembrance of death. So many British men lost their lives in WWI, which is exhibited in lines 62-63, where “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” The deaths were not only numerous, but many British citizens felt that the deaths were unwarranted. They felt that the deaths were unjustifiable. The overwhelming confusion about where to go from that point stems from this loss. Confusion also stems from other fears as well. Eliot incorporates fear of the unknown, where he shows something “different” from one’s “shadow at evening striding behind” them, or one’s “shadow at evening rising to meet” them, he plans to show “fear in a handful of dust” (lines 27-29). The media initially tried to play the war off as some glorious service, and as deaths grew and as publications came out with gruesome information, people didn’t know what to believe of the war.

Another fear would be of the future, but more importantly, of the now. Line 59 projects from a clairvoyante, Madame Sosostris, that “One must be so careful these days.” So The Waste Land also introduces the fear that no one is safe any longer. The overwhelming rule of the British Empire had already been declining, but the first world war shut it so completely. The sense of power and importance that Britain once had was gone, and now people weren’t sure what protocol was for living, and for being. Eliot incorporates the stresses people had of future generations as well. Specifically, when Lil describes that she looks unappealing because of “them pills” she took, it is slantly referring to her aborting a child (line 159). Eliot the poet responded to Lil by asking “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (line 164). She may have gotten the abortion because she felt the world was unsafe to bring a child into, she may have been unfaithful during the war, or she may just be done risking her life for childbirth (as she’d had five kids and almost died with the last one) but as it isn’t explicitly stated, it’s hard to know.

The last thing I want to comment on is the return of the nightingale (in relation to John Keats). It’s interesting to see the nightingale return in lines 100-102, harmed but still singing with an “inviolable voice”, like how after the war people had to keep living. In Keats’s poem, the Nightingale sung, ignorant of human suffering, and here, the nightingale is singing despite her suffering. Yet there is a sense of deliberate ignorance of what was happening, a numbness to the aftermath of the war as an attempt to preserve oneself: “‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?” / Nothing again nothing” (lines 119-120).

The Waste Land and WWI

The Waste Land is a very complex poem that uses multiple voices and quotations to connect with the reader and share a point about World War I. The entire poem begins with a Latin reference to an ancient Roman figure, Sybil, wishing she could die, which sets the dark tone for describing the aftermath of World War I. The poem then follows with rotating narration that cycles from a woman describing April with German quotations to the description of a hyacinth girl to a tarot card reading, and finally to a man walking through London who is able to see a dead man he knew from the war. The purpose of so many voices could be to show the vast impact of the War; it seems to me that what appear to be unconnected stories come together in the last bit of Part 1 with the French quote “hypocrite lecteur!- mom semblable,- mon frère!” This statement stood out to me most because I saw it as a way of bringing attention to how everyone was affected by the war. Particularly how it is not just the soldiers who have lost and carry the weight of many dead ones on their shoulders.

Another tactic Eliot uses is quotation for indicating speaking of characters in the poem. This stood out to because it is not something I typically see in poems. Particularly, the section in Part 2 where the woman wonders “Where the dead men lost their bones. What is that noise?” She seems to be going slightly insane and with the reference to dead men alludes to the fact that the war and the significant number of dead might be having an effect on her mental stability. This point is only further proven when she later wonders, “What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do?” The sentiment this woman expresses likely mirrors how must of Europe was feeling in the wake of this catastrophe as they questioned what now becomes of their lives.

Endgame

Through the detachment from history and absence of time Beckett establishes in his play Endgame, Beckett is able to illustrate the meaninglessness found across Western Civilization post World War II. Just as Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land” emphasizes meaninglessness and numbness, Beckett’s play profoundly demonstrates that life post-world war no longer holds meaning. Both Beckett and Eliot’s works demonstrate that society found their means of coping with the emptiness left by the war through the mechanical routine of day to day life. Beckett’s characters’ actions and dialogue are almost painfully mechanical and minimalistic; yet it is so to exemplify the mechanical, numb routine society had fallen into. The play begins and ends with Hamm in the exact same position, “motionless,” demonstrating the play’s theme of stagnation and meaninglessness.

Beckett’s use of time or rather, his purposeful lack of time and place in history is a different approach than Eliot took in “The Waste Land;” yet both works equally communicate the futile sense of existence that hung over society due to the world wars. Beckett’s characters lack purpose and meaning in their lives to the extent they are looking forward to death, “finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished” but the future as well as the past is illusory (2579). The past, present, and future is illusive because of the absence of time, making it impossible for the characters to find hope in their present state or in the future because death is taking so long to come.

Detachment as Time Passes

Through the use of a very detached perspective, Woolf engages with the desensitizing effects of WWI in Book 2, “Time Passes.” Perhaps the most obvious example of desensitization is the use of bracketed text to describe all the events happening to the characters while the house is abandoned. By using the brackets, Woolf makes the important events in the lives of the characters an after thought. The deaths of three important characters, Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew are all mentioned within brackets and with very little description, almost as if they have no meaning. Take, for example, the description of Prue’s death: “[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with child-birth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, They said nobody deserved happiness more.]” (380). Her situation mirrors that of the millions of soldiers who died in WWI. To the world, the death of one soldier is merely a drop of water in a vast ocean. Yes, it is sad; but death so pervade the world that hardly anyone notices. People are detached and desensitized.

Another way the Woolf uses a detached perspective to show the effects of WWI is by keeping her characters out of the summer home during the war. Left almost entirely to the whims of nature, the house falls into shambles. Rats invade the attic, “plaster fell in shovelfuls,” mold grows on everything, and the rooms fill with a “yellow haze.” The Ramsay family detach themselves from the house, a place for happiness and peace, during the war. Similarly, Europe also loses internal and external peace during the war. Through the Ramsay family and their detachment from the summer home, Woolf creates a microcosm representing Europe throughout World War I.

To the Lighthouse and the Desolation of the War

In “Time Passes,” Woolf uses the abandonment and decay of the house to foreshadow the desolation and loss of identity that England experiences following World War I. From the very opening the darkness that the war has brought to England is suggested. In the first chapter, all of the lights are put out. Following that, it begins to rain, and it seems as if “Nothing… could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness” (125-26) that comes creeping in and blurs all distinctions. The blurring of distinctions represents the loss of a clear sense of identity that has befallen the English. The house, abandoned by the fractured family that once maintained it, falls further and further into disorder as the family breaks up more and more. This represents England’s steady fracturing of identity which will make the country unable to forget what happened and return to the way things were.

There is a hint that the decay is contested in the person of Mrs. McNab who is first introduced as coming “to open all windows, and dust the bedrooms” (130). Being an older person, Mrs. NcNab probably represents the attempts of the older generation, and older traditions, to hold this new, desolate England together. However, as the war progresses, she eventually gives up. The task is “too much for one woman” (137), especially a woman who creaks and moans as much as the house itself. She  is forced to leave “the house alone, shut up, locked” (137), mirroring England’s own frozen, gloomy state.

At the same time, “Time Passes” demonstrates how the War renders human life meaningless, and yet nature does not care. The major events that will forever define and divide the family occur in brackets, almost as afterthoughts. It is a jolt when the reader suddenly learns that Mrs. Ramsay has “died rather suddenly”, leaving Mr. Ramsay to stumble in the dark (128), that “Prue Ramsay died that summer of some illness connected with childbirth” (132), that “Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsey” (133). The change of the seasons and the slow reclaiming of the house by nature become the main focus of the story. As the title tersely states: “Time Passes.” Humans’ petty lives are of secondary importance.

The Death and Destruction of World War I

In the section “Time Passes,” Virginia Woolf detaches the story from many of her main characters and uses descriptions of nature and the decaying house to illustrate the disruption and death brought by World War I. Woolf depicts the dehumanizing impact of World War I on England through the narration’s shift from her focus of the main characters to a focus on the despondent passing of time as the war breaks the family away from their peaceful past. Woolf shows the turn from the contented, love-filled lives of the Ramseys to the “confusion” and questions that ask “what, and why, and wherefore” brought on by the war.

Woolf demonstrates this disruption of peace and beauty brought by World War I through the death of the story’s heroine, Mrs. Ramsey. Woolf also shows how the war dehumanized death by only briefly mentioning the death of Mrs. Ramsey, Prim, and Andrew. Woolf shows the loss the war brought to society by not only showing the massive amounts of death on the battlefield, “among them Andrew Ramsey,” but also the destruction of the home through the deaths of Mrs. Ramsey and Prim.

Arnold and Eliot

         T.S. Eliot’s fragmented and broken poem, “The Waste Land” contrasts greatly with Arnold’s notion of culture as the “study of perfection” (Arnold 1596). While Arnold’s view of culture is based in his idea of the perfection of man through the “idea of the whole community, the State,” Eliot depicts in “The Waste Land” that there is “nothing” that is able to hold culture together, the individual nor the state, in the face of war. Eliot demonstrates that Arnold’s idealistic views of a culture not in the “bondage of machinery” and rather immersed in “sweetness and light” are not able to stand in the face of “the agony” brought by the machines of World War I (Arnold 1596, Eliot 324).
         In T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” Eliot illustrates the chaos and brokenness of England and English culture that has been brought about through the horror of World War I through a blending of high culture and low culture. Eliot takes lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night,” to illustrate  the insanity that has descended on the culture destroying the idealistic view that man should be in a constant state of striving for “sweetness and light.” Than Eliot also employs the low culture of an Australian war song, “O the moon shone right on Mrs. porter and on her daughter/ they wash their feet in soda water,” in his depiction of World War I’s trenches. Eliot’s blending of high and low culture contrasts with Arnold’s strong belief in the “lightness” of high culture.
         The contrast between Arnold and Eliot is also seen in their depictions of the individual. While Arnold believed that a subtle loss of individualism to form a more united state would spare the country from “anarchy,” Eliot’s poem suggest that the loss of individuality leads to anarchy and destruction.

A New Culture

In Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold states that culture is “a study of perfection,” and “the pursuit of sweetness and light.” However, if one applied that simple description to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” he would quickly come to the conclusion that Eliot’s poem is anything but an example of culture. Brokenness, confusion, and darkness reign in “The Waste Land;” this poem is certainly not a study of perfection. If anything, it is a study of the widespread imperfections in 20th Century Europe. The dark subject matter, fragmented language and use of quotation all contribute to the notion that though “The Waste Land” is far removed from Arnold’s idea of what culture should be, it remains culture.

Throughout the poem, Eliot quotes from a wide variety of famous literary works, writings that Matthew Arnold would certainly consider “culture.” For example, he often quotes and references ancient Greek and Latin stories, sometimes using the original language. Arnold absolutely loved the Greeks; in fact he considered the Greeks the grandfathers of all western culture, and their Hellenistic society something to be desired by Victorian English society. However, rather than using this classic culture to add clarity to his poem, Eliot uses it to add confusion and fragmentation. The epigraph is composed of a mash-up of Latin and Greek, giving the poem a jarring jumble of two different languages. The actual translation of the epigraph is equally unnerving; it consists of the Sybil’s request to die, a feeling mirrored by many WWI soldiers plagued with PTSD. Within the epigraph, Eliot sums up modern culture. He emphatically states that culture is not all about sweetness and light. Rather, culture is a fluctuating concept that changes with the prevailing mood of society. For post-World War I Europe, culture is darkness, fragmentation, and despair.

Eliot critiques education, isolation of individuals

Arnold believed that through education men could become (more) perfect individuals. As such individuals, they would be concerned with the social welfare of those around them and would work hard (within their respective classes and spheres) to better themselves and others morally and intellectually. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot presents the failure of this notion of culture. He depicts a place lacking in knowledge, and any kind of emotional attachment, occupied by isolated individuals.

The lack of knowledge, or the failure of education, is stated beginning on line 19: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stormy rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images…/ And the dry stone no sound of water” (19-24). Here, education is depicted as being thoroughly inadequate; men have no notion of their history (symbolized by the image of roots), or even of themselves in the present time (symbolized by the branches). Rather than the real, useful, knowledge and education that Arnold believed in, Eliot depicts a world in which men have only “A heap of broken images” for guidance. The lack of knowledge is further seen in the lack of water (“no sound of water”). Eliot emphasizes this towards the end of the poem, saying: “If there were water we should stop and drink / Amongst the dry rocks one cannot stop or think” (335-36). As water is often associated with knowledge, the inability to find any spring, pool, etc. anywhere to drink from symbolizes the ignorance of the modern age.

The fragmentation of culture is also reflected throughout the poem in the lack of any kind of emotional connection between individuals. Eliot describes London and a crowd in that “Unreal City” (60), but as the crowd moves “..each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (65), suggesting that there is no connection and no desire for connection among anyone. Everyone is only interested in his own business. This is also reflected in the interaction between the typist and the “young man carbuncular” (231). They sleep together but have no real connection; the typist “is bored and tired” (236) and the young man “makes a welcome of indifference” (242). This scene presents both an emotional and a moral decay. Whatever culture these two are a part of, it has not made them better human beings.

The ignorance of the isolation together help to undermine any kind of culture that unifies individuals to become some “people” who work for the public good and ordaer. Instead, every human thinks himself a prisoner (“We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (414-415) ). In this manner, Eliot critiques Arnold’s notion of culture, showing that it leads only to confusion and the fragmentation and withdrawal of the individual from others.

BLAST, the Individual, and WWI

 

To me, reading BLAST was more heartbreaking than it was interesting or surprising. The magazine represents the beginning of a tenuous attempt to glorify the individual, to make every individual, no matter his or her class, into a human being capable of art and artistic feeling. These individuals are not isolated though; they are united in a community of other individuals while maintaining their own individuality. The last line of “Long Live the Vortex” reads: “Blast presents an art of Individuals.” This struck me particularly hard. I feel a certain kinship I had not expected to feel; these authors seem to share my own zeal for the right and the worth of the individual. And yet, in a terrifying irony, these men, who believed so strongly in the individual, who founded a movement devoted to the individual, were about to enter into a war that would destroy the individual. WWI was a time of machines and statistics that showed horrific human fatalities. The concept of the individual that started to blossom in this magazine was buried beneath the overwhelming mass of the dead.

The way the magazine focuses on the individual is also found in the Manifestos. I read the contradiction of “blasting” and “blessing” the same thing simultaneously as an acknowledgment that good and evil exist in all things, and it is up to the individual to piece out what is worthwhile from what is broken and suffocating. Again, these individuals are part of a larger collective of individuals who transcend sides: “We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours” The individual is even sometimes promoted over countries, to the point where the magazine proclaims: “Blast First… England” (later England is blessed). This is gut-wrenching when one thinks of the war that is to come, and how it shall bind people more tightly than ever before into nationalistic units in an attempt to survive the carnage. Clearly, the magazine wished to knock the individual out of complacency, out of the mechanized, divided, modern times, but all of this was undone by WWI. Such notions of the individual as an artist and as on no particular side became vulgar and contemptuous, divisive when the country needed to stand strong. I cannot help but wonder what this movement would have become, what England and European literature were building towards in this and other similar journals, before the war interrupted.

On reading BLAST

In reading through BLAST magazine, I was very impressed by how well the editors illustrated their revolutionary ideas throughout the magazine. As others have already commented, it is most interesting that  Pound and Lewis were striving for a literary revolution  through “violent” writing just months before the literal violence of World War I broke out.  

BLAST boldly demonstrates a push towards a revolutionary model of modernist writing through the individualistic, satirical style and the playful imagism employed. The “Manifesto” is primarily comprised of short, extremely satirical sentences, phrases, and words that fall under the authors’ characterization of “blast” or “bless”. I was pleasantly surprised by the comical value of the work, particularly seen in the manifesto. The style of the work clearly employed clever imagism in the concise, choppy writing style that still manages to flow and pop off the page from their revolutionary typography. The interesting typography of the magazine adds to their individualistic style and emphasizes the satire and imagism of their work. 

Confusion and Ironies

Within the pages of BLAST, I found a great deal of dissatisfaction, frustration, and contradiction. Without diminishing the art (for it is art), “Long Live the Vortex” and “Manifesto” reminded me of poetry written by an angst-ridden teenager. The writers behind these works make so many negative comments the people of the world, from calling humanity as a whole unconscious and stupid (7), to cursing the middle-class, proletariat, and aristocracy (13). However, immediately after giving a lengthy list of people and institutions they wish to “blast,” the authors begin a long string of blessings that includes English humor (26), hairdressers (25), and France and her “masterly pornography” (27). Only a very confused, frustrated person would make these somewhat-bizarre comments, unless of course the reader is meant to understand them as tongue-in-cheek. That would certainly make them easier to understand. However, I want to believe that these works are more than just teenage-style ranting or a random assortment of sarcastic comments. Given the overall “couldn’t care less” attitude though, I’m not entirely sure what to make of them.

With the knowledge that World War I looms on the horizon, I find it a bit ironic that these writings are so saturated with dissatisfaction and frustration. In a few short months, writers across Europe will have far greater complaints, terrors, and frustrations about which they can write. Going back to the teenager analogy, it seems as if the pre-WWI British modernists feel like the world is collapsing all around them, just as teens are notorious for making an enormous deal out of a relatively small problem. Unfortunately for them, neither teenager nor these pre-WWI writers have the luxury of wallowing in their problems forever. The real struggles of adulthood and living through a savage, brutal war are imminent. I’m very interested to see if and how these writers change their attitudes after World War I.

World War One in To The Lighthouse

The only explicit references to the war while it is happening in the novel are in parenthetical references which give the impression that they have been added as an afterthought, simply for the necessity of accounting for the absence of a few major characters. When the third part of To The Lighthouse is so consumed with explaining and recovering from the absence of Mrs. Ramsay, for example, why is it here that only a single sentence is devoted to her?

And regarding Andrew, the only sentence he gets is this one, “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]“, and this seems to be getting at the idea that his death was insignificant in the grand scheme of things, which it is, if the novel is considered the grand scheme; we are led to believe that the action that takes place on the island after the war would have been hardly different whether Andrew had lived or died. This is why he is mentioned in an offhand way, in the middle of the parenthetical aside, merely as a concession to the reader who might have been wondering about him.

The whole section “Time Passes” borders on rudeness in the way that it focuses on an abandoned house, and a fairly insignificant housekeeper, instead of the Great War. Just as the world comes to terms with its horrible modernness during the war, the house comes to terms with its climate and the environment; the books grow moist and moldy with the salty sea air, and the shawl which had covered the skull on the wall of the children’s bedroom slowly begins to come untied. However, this all happens beyond the knowledge of those who live there, as if the home which had treated them well in the first section of the novel has suddenly become rotted to its core in the third, with only the deaths of the Ramsay characters to account for the change.

WWI and To the Lighthouse

While reading this complex novel, I did not see much that engaged with WWI until I got to the second part, “Time Passes”. For me, I felt this section was quite direct in its engagement with WWI and its aftermath. One of the lines that striked me the most in this section was obviously the one concerning Andrew Ramsay. “[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous]”. Through this perspective on the war, you get a glimpse of how dangerous it was and how easily one could die. Adding to this is a couple of lines that I really felt engaged with the aftermath: “but everyone had lost someone these years. Prices had gone up shamefully, and did not come down again neither.”

Another line in this section that striked me was, “questioning 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?” I found it really interesting that while describing the house at night, Woolf takes simple objects and asks if they are allies or enemies, as if they are participating in the war. It made me think that these were most likely questions that common individuals had probably wondered themselves when it came WWI.

To the Lighthouse: Perspective & Narration

The issue of narrative perspective is an important aspect of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  She appears to primarily use the literary technique in her quest toward high modernism.  She takes a step beyond Joyce’s stream of consciousness narration that we saw in the Dubliners to craft multiple and simultaneous streams of consciousness.  She describes it by saying, “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day” (text 2333).  The result is nothing ordinary – it becomes an exhaustive account of the main characters’ inner thoughts to tell the outward action.  Woolf masterfully captures the random, wandering thoughts, musings, reactions, emotions, and memories of a group of people in minute detail as they interact with each other.  Rather than providing a traditional dialogue to move the action along, Woolf makes it difficult to read (a prerequisite for modernism) by writing in a fragmented style that mimics a bumpy road of associative leaps that constantly occur in our mind to tell the story in addition to winding back and forth among the character’s thoughts.  The novel that emerges portrays the love and resiliency of humankind in the aftermath of one of the worst periods in British history – World War I.

So how does this type of narration engage with WWI and its aftermath?  The new technology introduced in WWI caused mass destruction unlike any war previous.  Flamethrowers, bombs, and gas attacks were especially sadistic and cruel.  Almost fifteen hundred British soldiers died each day in the four year war.  The British War Poets and the emerging mass media gave those at home a close look at the horrors of war.  Those who survived were scarred by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  After four long years of war, people responded with “bitterly rebuffed idealism” and “a sense of physical and moral exhaustion” (text 2112, 1928).  It seems the joie de vivre left most Brits, and Woolf ingeniously captures the undercurrent of this malaise with her unique style of narration.

The story centers around the Ramsay family – the mother, father, and children – and an array of friends gathered at a summer home at the coast near a lighthouse.  The novel describes the activities that take place over a day before the war, a synopsis of action during the war time, and then another day’s activities after the war.  To answer the question at hand, the first person narrative that is used in the first and last sections is a perfect vehicle to capture the malaise that many felt as a result of the war.  Mr. Ramsay, for example, is one who fails to adapt and move on after the war.  Before the war, he admonishes his family who are eager to make a trip to the lighthouse.  The narration from his mind’s eye shows a man who is master of his household:

He had “a splendid mind.  For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q.  He reached Q.  Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q…After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance.  Z is only reached once by one man in a generation…On to R.”  (Lighthouse 33-34)

He has the final say on the family going to the lighthouse, which is no.

During the war described in the middle section, like most Brits, Mr. Ramsay suffers loss – his wife and two of his children – one to war, and one to childbirth.  The narration takes on an impersonal third person narrative to briefly describe the deaths.  The “courage, truth and power to endure” that he lived by challenges him to his core (Lighthouse 4).

Ten years after the first section and after the war, Mr. Ramsay and two of his children return to the summer house.  He tries to recreate the past by now insisting on a trip to the Lighthouse:

“Then he reminded them that they were going to the Lighthouse tomorrow.  They must be ready, in the hall on the stroke of half-past seven.  Then, with his hand on the door, he stopped; he turned upon them.  Did they not want to go?  He demanded.  Had they dared say No…he would have flung himself tragically backwards into the bitter waters of despair.” (Lighthouse 148)

By using the third person subjective narrative in this section, Woolf can show the feelings of malaise especially through Mr. Ramsay’s thoughts and what others think of him.  Their thoughts are more revealing than their actions, so Woolf is able to sharply define his misery.

Virginia Woolf: Perspective and reflections of WWI

The section “Time Passes” speaks most clearly to me about WWI and its aftermath. Much of the imagery denotes the sense of a transitional period, being at a point of change, such as the changing leaves on “autumn trees” and the passing glimpses of a beautiful moonlit night (p. 127). The following page comes Mr. Ramsey’s perspective, as he is musing in his typical philosophical way, but has strong undertones of the sentiments of those reacting to the chaos and death of the war: “Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer” (128). In the aftermath of this event, there simply were no answers to such questions asked by those reeling from the loss. Likewise, the suddenness of death and temporality of life, made more evident by the war, comes out in a bracketed statement. While Mr. Ramsey is“stumbling along a passage one dark morning” with his arms stretched out hoping for his wife, he is left alone, his arms still empty, because his wife had suddenly died. In the passing of just one night, she was gone and he is left alone.

The clean-up and later unsettled, tense house following all the deaths — Mrs. Ramsey, Andrew, and Prue — likewise reflects the painful aftermath of dealing with the losses from the war, both loss of life and of innocence/faith in society. Taking a look of the house in ruins (“too much work for one woman”) and reflecting on the deaths and sinking state of the country, Mrs. McNab muses, “But, dear, many things had changed…many families had lost their dearest. So she was dead; and Mr. Andrew killed; and Miss Prue dead too…but everyone had lost some one these years. Prices had gone up shamefully, and didn’t come down again neither” (136). Life is moving on, different. Many are dead, things have changed, but only for the worse and with no improvement in sight. Society felt exhausted after the war, and this old woman mirrors that exhaustion: “She creaked, she moaned,” and everything before her “was too much for one woman, too much, too much” (137).

WWI Second Life Experience

I thought the most surprising thing I saw was the fact there even was a World War I Poets Exhibition in Second Life.  Additionally, the recordings and research of these poets in that section indicated quite a bit of effort was put into this exhibition.  I was amazed at the quality of the sound for being recorded from such a long time ago.  Hearing the words with images and sounds made some of the poems, especially “Dulce et Decorum Est,” more graphic than the words alone.  A gas attack must have been horrible to experience.

I have read about World War I and all the atrocious conditions the soldiers endured, and this site helped to remind me of that time as well as give me the British perspective.  Reading ahead, I was surprised at how many of the poets on the reading list were soldiers.  Only Teresa Hooley was spared the first-hand experience, but, being a mother, she felt the pain and sorrow of loss that war brings.  It was also surprising how many of the poets experienced what we know today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It certainly affected the pessimism in their poems.  It was interesting to me how this pessimism was portrayed in Second Life.  The poems and the war exhibition remind me that most wars start out glorifying the reasons for the conflict, but the horror and loss always creates an alternate reality that eclipses everything.

World War I exhibit

I found the War Poets Exhibition on Second Life a very interesting technique to reach people with the stories of war and poetry. It works well for our technological world and I think it makes these war stories much more accessible than they might otherwise be. It was well done and I’m glad we experienced it.

That being said, exploring the camp, trenches and trench hospital was rough. It’s always hard to listen to war stories, feeling the hurt and wanting to help somehow even though it was so long ago. The stories of disease and amputation, mixed with the photographs, the sound of rainfall and animated rats scurrying across the screen brought to life the saddness indirectly described in Vera Brttain’s “The German Ward” and Siegfried Sassoon’s “Does it Matter?”. I found in interesting that both these poems show a saddness for the war, and mourn the losses from it while not pitying the subject. The words are almost indifferent in the poems, while the underlying tone obviously feels much more regretfulness for the tragedy of the Great War.