Emerson, Woolf and The Ordinary

lighthouse

Another of my essays for the MOOC course on Modernism. Title: Compare the approach to the ordinary in Emerson and Woolf.

The word ‘ordinary’ is somewhat Janus-faced. It can stand for the conventional, which Ralph Waldo Emerson (born 1803) raved against, and it can suggest the ‘unspoilt’ and ‘the unexceptional’ which Virginia Woolf took as her raw material. In this essay, I explore how Emerson and Woolf encompass some of these meanings.

The very title of one of Emerson’s essays, Self-Reliance, signals his revolt against convention. He writes,

Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times. . .

A paragraph later he wonders why we attach so much importance to royalty and the aristocracy. This is the familiar Enlightenment denunciation of privilege which came to a head in the American and French Revolutions.

Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day’s work; but the things of life are the same to both. Why all this deference to Alfred and Scanderberg and Gustavus?

In other words we are all subject to birth, disease and death on the one hand and moments of happiness on the other hand. It makes little difference whether we are kings or commoners. (Although historians often point out that those born in poverty have had a huge handicap. Anyway, Emerson was attacking the upper end of the social strata in this paragraph.)

Emerson’s view of the innate goodness of humankind can also remind us of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage.’ He writes:

What is the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded? [. . .] We note this primary wisdom as intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.

In calling upon us to be self-reliant Emerson is pointing to the opposite state of affairs; that we are mostly slaves of convention and the ideas of others. He describes us as weak figures in contrast to what exists in nature:

Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say ‘I think, I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage […] These roses under my window make no reference to former roses. . . there is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.

Along with Kant, Hegel, Diderot and Voltaire, he recognises the challenge of thinking for oneself. Remember Kant’s Sapere aude! – ‘Dare to find out.’ In this sense, the ‘ordinary’ is conflated with consensus thinking; with the dead weight of historicism. Like Rousseau he wants us to have the courage to be ‘ahistorical’ – to act from the ‘divine spark’ within. (Yes, Emerson believed in God; albeit his was a pantheistic belief.)

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motive of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a task-master.

He downgraded the tendency to seek virtue from past exemplars:

Whenever a mind is simple and receives divine wisdom, then old things pass away – means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now and absorbs past and future into the present hour. [. . .] The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul.

Virginia Woolf not only embraced ‘the ordinary’ but, like a Zen Master, elevated it to ‘the extraordinary.’ In one of her last diary entries, written in 1941, she more than hints at her technique of writing fiction:

I mark Henry James’ sentence – observe perpetually. Observe the outcome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. I find that it’s seven and I must cook dinner, haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.

Other lexical relatives of the word, ‘ordinary’ include, mundane, humdrum and routine. The repetitive, oppressive nature of life has been humorously portrayed in the film, Groundhog Day and more chillingly in Albert Camus’s essay, Sisyphus. Woolf’s evocation of the extraordinary amongst mundane, transient phenomena can be regarded as her revolt against the temporal and the tendency to ‘package’ experience as ‘this’ or ‘that.’ Woolf often achieves this expansive view of life by describing details in a decidedly mystical tone. Here in The Waves:

You hear me breathe. You see the beetle too carrying off a leaf on its back. It runs this way, then that way, so even your desire while you watch the beetle, to possess one single thing must waver, like the light in and out of the beach leaves. . .

One of the chief characteristics of modernism is its abandonment of religious faith and moral certainties. Lily, in To the Lighthouse, expresses it well:

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.

In the novel Lily’s painting is symbolic of the aesthetic outlook; to make something permanent within the impermanent:

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.

To bring some of these themes up to date: to live without a ‘comfort blanket’ belief in God is not difficult today. But to live a life of self-reliance and scepticism towards all consensus thinking requires inner resolution and courage. To resist rampant consumerism and negotiate a path through fake news and outright lies tests one’s faith in humankind. What can we rely on, apart from our own moral compass amidst today’s cultural convulsions? In the ordinary course of life we too easily think that what we have is permanent; status, health, possessions, relationships and so on. It can come as a shock that nothing we have is permanent. Woolf portrays this aspect of contemporary life vividly in her novels.

Emerson had a bulkhead against modernist angst – he had a religious faith. Woolf, on the other hand is more representative of modernism’s uncertainties and shifting sands. Her ‘despondency’ ended in suicide.

The etymological roots of the word ‘ordinary’ include the verb ‘to order’ in the sense of to arrange. Woolf’s existential/secular independence resulted in a modest, limited solution to the challenges of existence. She selected and ‘ordered’ words in paragraphs to create a fictional world which reflected the fragmentary, subjective world revealed by science, psychology and politics in the twentieth century.

Virginia Woolf Versus Sigmund Freud

Virginia-Woolf-dog

Another essay for my MOOC course on Modernism. The title is: Freud wrote that art was a ‘palliative measure’ that helped people cope with suffering. Discuss his view and how it compares with the views of art and aesthetics of Virginia Woolf.

Sigmund Freud’s and Virginia Woolf’s views about art are diametrically opposed. Freud views art as ‘escapism’ or ‘sublimation’ whereas Woolf sees art as a means of shedding light on the human condition. If we go to see a production of Hamlet, we don’t feel we have been merely entertained; we feel that the play has delved beneath the surface of experience and revealed complex truths about life. Yet, Freud would not elevate the experience in this way. He relegates art to being a soporific prophylactic; a mere diversion from suffering. His psychoanalytical ‘science’ alone is the means by which truth is revealed.

Freud had read Darwin and he, therefore, positioned human beings alongside the rest of the animal kingdom in primarily seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. In Civilisation and its Discontents he explicitly writes that art is a sublimation of the libido:

Another method of guarding against pain is by using the libido-displacements. . . This kind of satisfaction, such as the artist’s joy in creation in embodying his fantasies. . . has a special quality which one day we shall be able to define.

He sees the artist as expressing feelings in the form of fantasies and the recipient (viewer, reader, listener) merely tunes into those same fantasies! As consumers of art he says this:

Those who are sensitive to the influence of art do not know how to rate it high enough as a source of happiness and consolation in life. Yet art affects us but as a mild narcotic and can provide no more than a temporary refuge for us from the hardships of life; its influence is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.

We may concur with the very last phrase but the overall tone is reductionist. This devaluation of art has a long history (Plato banned poets from his Republic!) and can be noted today in various examples of ‘escapism’ – listening to background music, reading detective novels, watching ‘reality television’ and soap operas. Even ‘serious art’ is often regarded as ‘the icing on the cake’ – not to be compared to the pioneering advances in science and technology.

It is not that Freud dismisses art; he just takes a biographical, psychotherapeutic approach to artistic creations. Hence, he analyses Shakespeare and Leonardo in terms of neuroses and defence mechanisms. He admires Dostoevsky but has nothing to say about landscape or abstract art. He is seemingly indifferent to the value or quality of the art-as-object itself. He does, however, see the compensatory value of art as positive as it acts as a safety valve for unconscious desires which otherwise would be expressed in violence or other anti-social acts. (Is this view tenable today?)

Where one can agree with Freud is in his view of the palliative effect of appreciating art – an engagement with art provides considerable pleasure – Schopenhauer even went so far as to say art was the only thing which mitigated against the misery of life! Unfortunately, Freud allowed his psychoanalytical work to obscure the many other attributes of art; there is a whole philosophy of aesthetics which would have left Freud floundering had he been exposed to a fraction of these ideas. (see, for example, Aesthetics by Colin Lyas.)

In To the Lighthouse, Lily would seem to portray Woolf’s position regarding art. Throughout the novel, she is intent on finishing her painting and at the very end of the novel she ‘draws a line there.’ in a moment of intensity and says, ‘It was done; it was finished. . . I have had my vision.’

It is a small epiphany and parallels Woolf’s completion of her novel. Earlier, Lily shows she is aware of the difficulties of authentic expression in art, talking of the imagination:

It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on. . . let it come, she thought, if it will come.

Yet, she also seems to have done what William Blake did; see the world anew, if not in each moment, occasionally:

One wanted to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.

Visual artists are practised in seeing the world in this way; they notice subtle tones of colour and textures. They use their eyes with great intention and deliberation. Lily at one point is ‘screwing up her eyes and standing back as if to look at her picture, which she was not touching.’ Woolf’s writing is quite visual; there are the descriptions of close up details and of far distant views. This switching of viewpoint is a method of portraying the complexity of life. Lily muses: ‘So much depends on distance; whether people are near us or far from us.’ And James says about the lighthouse when it looks different from a previous view, ‘For nothing was simply one thing. The other was the Lighthouse too.’

Woolf, along with many artists, sees the creative process as mysterious:

[…] here I am sitting, crammed with ideas, and visions, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now, this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it [. .]

R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) argued that making art comes before having concrete ideas or feelings. In this view, making art is an exploration and the artist does not know in advance what the outcome will be. The motivation is not the discharge of a neurosis; it is an attempt to make a representation of experience; to say something about the human condition and society. The means of saying this is as important as the content.

Woolf uses the ‘stream of consciousness’ to suggest the transitory, the numinous and a spiritual dimension to life. Freud dismisses religious experience as infantile and has a reductionist agenda regarding all spiritual experience. In contrast, Virginia Woolf sees her task as ‘cleansing the doors of perception’ (in William Blake’s words) so that everything might appear infinite. Hers is an expansive vision; Freud’s is claustrophobic.

Additional References:

R. G. Collingwood, Quoted in Art Theory; A Very Short Introduction, Cynthia Freeland, Oxford University Press, 2001

Colin Lyas, Aesthetics, Routledge, 1997.