Might be a rabbit, might be a mole.

In trying to convey to you something of the flavor of Mrs. Ramsay and then Mr. Ramsay, I suspect you have seen what an odd couple they are, and that must be how Virginia remembered them. Mrs. Ramsay has a richness and generosity, a lyrical warm affirmative feeling about her, generousness. Whereas, Mr.Ramsay comes to us as much more of the professional philosopher, much more of an abstract, arid, perhaps stingy figure, self absorbed, less capable of giving and needier. An odd couple.

What about the proposition that every couple is an odd couple? What makes us think that couples are not intrinsically odd? Why should we assume that couples are normal? Manon Lescaut, a tragic love story, filled with misunderstandings, sort of articulated really. The plot was nothing but a series of separations, how they’re pulled apart from each other. I wonder how Prévost could have written what they were like when they were with each other. Woolf’s books have a kind of gentle comic texture to them as well. It’s not always as throbbing and violent as some of the passages I’ve cited. There is, in her work, a kind of intuition that something quite miraculous happens whenever we actually make sense to each other.

Now, when I think about the books I have read, think about the way dialogue is usually written in novels, you have people usually pronouncing correct sentences, subject, verb, object,And the interlocutor hears it, and responds to it. It’s neat, it’s clean, it looks like a kind of bridge of sorts that is successful between A and B. And yet, compare or contrast that with your own experience with the conversations that you actually have. How often do you think conversation works? Works in the sense of you really attending to the specifics of what you’re hearing or the person you’re speaking with doing that for you. And it’s not that we’re bad listeners. It’s rather that we are frequently distracted by the fact that there’s a lot of noise outside and inside of us. And that we construe or misconstrue what people say, because of our own agendas. We get in our own way when we are with others,not just in conversations, but doubtless in all of the exchanges that take place from the verbal, to the emotional, to the sexual. How much do we ever really connect with, or to take it to its furthest extension, fuse with another? Now these are complex matters, or maybe they’re simple matters, it’s hard to know, seems to me that perhaps they’re both and they are certainly quotidian issues for all of us.

That short of living by yourself in a cave or in a room, a room of one’s own, Woolf might have said, you’ve had some firsthand experience with these matters. There’s a kind of buzz that takes place in our own brains that is between us and the people we talk with, and Woolf has the genius to write that. And so I want to quote for you two sequences which are among the most lovable moments in this novel – because this is a marriage novel, unlike Manon Lescaut,  this is a novel about marriage, about a man and a woman who do love each other;but we’ve come to see what a miraculous event that is, not because they’ve got great moral qualities, but because it is such a challenge for two people to be able to make sense to each other, for each other.

And so one of the passages, they both have to do with Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay taking a walk, pedestrian, literally pedestrian moment. They’re on their feet. They’re walking together. They’re speaking a little bit. They’re sort of joking about poor Charles Tansley. One moment of fear is expressed that maybe he’s going to woo one of the daughters,they hope not, because they think that even if he’s Mr.Ramsay’s student, he’s something of a fool. And then the text moves into the mind of Mr. Ramsay as they’re walking together. Mrs.Ramsay, we know, thinks a great deal about flowers. And so this is how Woolf writes it, “He,” Mr.Ramsay, “-did not look at the flowers which his wife was considering, but at a spot about a foot or so above them. There was no harm in him, he added, and was just about to say anyhow that he was the only young man in England who admired his-” Now we have to pinch ourselves here. Well, wait a minute. It’s not flowers. “There was no harm in him, he added.” And that, of course, is a reference to Charles Tansley. Now why would Mr.Ramsay reference Charles Tansley? Because Mr.Ramsay needs people who admire him. “Anyhow, he was the only young man in England who admired his-“ Woolf puts in a dash, “-when he choked it back. He would not bother her again about his books. These flowers seemed creditable, Mr. Ramsay said, lowering his gaze, and noticing something red, something brown.”

To me, it’s just a delicious passage. Here is this man, filled with his own business, like, what is my particular sort of stake, or stature in the intellectual world I inhabit, Charles Tansley is at least one way of validating it, anyway, at least he thinks I’m brilliant. That’s what’s on his mind; it’s on his mind all the time, I’m sure he dreams of that. But he’s walking with his wife, and they’re looking at flowers, and he knows that she loves flowers. And so, with considerable, I think, discipline, he tries to push aside that which he cares about, which is Charles Tansley’s estimate of himself, a philosopher, and instead, tries to move towards her. “These flowers seemed creditable, Mr. Ramsay said, lowering his gaze, and noticing something red, something brown.” I don’t even think it’s satirical, because I think it’s mostly tender. He can’t get further than that. He cannot describe in any detail these flowers. He doesn’t know how to make that trip. It’s not a trip to the lighthouse. It’s simply a trip to the field of vision and field of interest of his own wife, but he tries.

And I think Woolf suggests that all of us stutter, try, something red, something brown. We don’t always get very far, but maybe it’s the most epic voyage in human life, which is to exit your own precincts by dint of love into those of another. And maybe it matters less how far you get then that you even seek to do it. Certainly she understands him. Then Woolf continues this conversation in an even more remarkable fashion. She too has her own running commentary in her mind, just as he does, just as all of us do. And so whereas he is thinking about Charles Tansley as the student who admires him, she’s thinking about a lot of other things. About the fact that they need money, that this property is getting rundown, that there are expenses. And then she’s looking as well at the terrain where they’re walking.
She thinks as well about his, her husband’s strange habit of all of a sudden screaming out poetry to people who don’t see it coming. And as they’re walking up a hill, Woolf writes it like this, “Intimating by a little pressure on his arm that he walked up the hill too fast for her,
and she must stop for a moment to see whether those were fresh mole hills on the bank.”

Now this was in her mind. He’s moving too fast. Her arm is on his. She squeezes it a little bit. It’s a very sweet tender notations, physical. Because she wants to look at these holes that she’s seeing, molehills, “-for a moment to see whether those were fresh mole hills on the bank. Then, she thought, stooping down to look, a great mind like his must be different in every way from ours. All the great men she’d ever known, she thought, deciding that a rabbit must have got in, were like that, and it was good for young men (though the atmosphere of lecture-rooms was stuffy and depressing to her beyond endurance almost) simply to hear him, simply to look at him. But without shooting rabbits, how is one to keep them down? She wondered. It might be a rabbit, it might be a mole.”  I think this passage is prodigious. She, like he in the earlier passage, is in fact trying to keep her mind on her husband. Yes, he’s a great man. Great men are different from others. Students need people like that. At the same time, she is also noting these holes in the terrain and trying to determine whether it’s a mole or a rabbit. “-deciding that a rabbit must have got in, were like that, and it was good for young men simply to hear him, but without shooting rabbits how was one to keep them down? Might be a rabbit, might be a mole.”

Well, nothing could be more muddled and messy than the passage I just quoted. Is it about Mr. Ramsay? Or is it about rabbits? Or is it about moles? If someone were to write a paper using the same principles of composition that we see in this passage, they would fail the test. However, what papers seem to fail is the reality test. What’s exquisite about what Woolf has written is that she has conveyed the actual living, pulsating, muddle of the mind. Logic says, either Mr. Ramsay or rabbits and moles; the mind says, oh no, it’s all mushed up,  flowing up together. And so, rational order compartmentalizes things, keeps them separate, which is the way we think we can corral and order the world around us. But the brain is promiscuous. The brain mixes things up. Life comes to us in many colors, and many categories are put together, fused together. Now I have argued that fusion, that’s how I began this piece of the talk, fusion between people is perhaps impossible. And yet what our eyes and what our brain takes in all the time, is fusion, is an unholy mess in which everything cohabits, coexists next to everything else. The very project of order, of compartmentalizing, of sorting things out, which we pride ourselves on, is also a way of distorting reality. Reality, itself, is fresh, intermixed, interwoven,except that, ordinarily, we don’t have a clue of it. Woolf’s writing reminds us of what a spectacle our actual world is, inside and outside.

Q to R.

 In order to pick up from where we left Mrs. Ramsay, I’d like to return for a moment to the passage that I cited which depicts a man, a woman and a child. And I did my utmost to convey to you its incredible violence, its sort of lyrical intensity, as we see this encounter between a hungry man who is desiring, who needs sympathy, needs approval, and needs love, and this woman who is prepared to give it to him, and then the son who resists it.

Note how tame and boring my terms are in contrast to the terms that Woolf uses. A kind of scimitar, a male beak, a flow, a kind of energy, a column of spray. She finds words to convey something of the violence and something of the splendor of this encounter. Now one might say, well, here’s a writing that goes underneath the surface, that shows us what’s taking place on the inside. But I believe you can take that formulation and perhaps upend it by suggesting that maybe surface notations are the cheat. That maybe the surface, docile depiction of things is what locks us out of the teeming, throbbing, affective, emotional, libidinal world that we also inhabit because it inhabits us. And that relationship is precisely the arena where all of this comes to the force, where it speaks. Once again, relationship can be thought of, sort of, theorized as A and B. What is so fascinating in Woolf is the bridge, the commerce, between A and B, what it gives rise to.

And we see how far it goes in the passage that I quoted. Here is this brass beak, this sterile male. Here is this woman who offers the kind of
either love or support or affection or herself, that is required. And we see this as a kind of flow, we see this as a flow that is outright generative. The text suggests that she creates life, she creates the rooms, bids him, take his ease there, the rooms are filled with children.
I think this goes beyond motherhood. This is not a question of the, sort of, archetypal role of the woman in 1925, of the mother, it’s also the creation of life in the very intimate intense encounter between two people. I think that Woolf offers us in this image of him as he has had his fill, seeming like a man, a child, an infant who has suckled and her with her petals, as a woman, sort of, in a moment of post- coital exhaustion. We see in this encounter something as barbaric and primeval as the mating rituals of peacocks, or of strange animals who signal their interest and passion for each other in ways that must seem exotic to us,except maybe they’re not. That this passage suggests that that too is our domain, that these too are the fields that we inhabit.

So Woolf’s book is almost colonializing in that way. It annexes entire arenas of experiences that we all do in fact partake of, but it finds words for it even though this had never appeared in any kind of photograph or any kind of literal account of human exchange. I think she makes a mockery then, of the kind of dry, arid categories that we customarily use to either depict or, in a sense, imprison human experience. So with Mrs.Ramsay, we get this really vivid rich language of human creation, she is the fertile source of the novel, of life. She’s not just Virginia’s mother, but she seeds, which is customarily male work, she seeds and nurtures the life force of the novel. And against her, we have a remarkable portrait of her husband, Mr.Ramsay, based again on Leslie Steven, with his insatiable need for approval. And he is a much more angular figure, a very ambitious figure, a philosopher, who is presented to us in his philosophical quest.

And Woolf puts it in a rather satirical way, because it’s described in a passage like this. “For if thought-“ this is Mr.Ramsay’s thought, his mind, “-for if thought is like the keyboard of a piano divided into so many notes,or like the alphabet is arranged into 26 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 had reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q.” Well, of course, now his grand challenge is how to get beyond Q, how to make good on his quest. “But after Q, what comes next? 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. Still, if he could reach R-“ which follows Q of course, “-if he could reach R, it would be something. Here at least was Q.He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q – R – Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the handle of the urn, and proceeded. ‘Then R,’ he braced himself, he clenched himself.”

How do you depict the mind trying to go one step further? Which of course, is what the project of philosophy can be. Note the way Woolf writes this, right after the passage I just quoted, “Qualities that would have saved a ship’s company exposed on a broiling sea with six biscuits and a flask of water – endurance and justice, foresight, devotion, skill, came to his help.” So immediately paralleled with a kind of desperate situation at sea where heroism is required, “R is then. What is R? Quality that in a desolate expedition across the icy solitudes of the polar region would have made him the leader, the guide, the counselor, whose temper, neither sanguine nor despondent, surveys with equanimity what is to be and faces it,” And all these images of heroes, “-it came to his help again, R-“ And we see this man clinched, straining – seeking to deliver, seeking to produce and coming up short, being stuck in his tracks, not being able to go the next step.

Now, many readers have understandably taken this to be a form of satire. That the business of philosophers is to try to get from A to Z, or from Q to R. If we add to it that R is his last name, Ramsay, we could in fact, if we chose to read this as a kind of parable of the failure of self-knowledge. He cannot get to R, he cannot get to himself, he cannot take his own measure. We can’t miss seeing that this is a kind of puffed up form of prose. And it’s also narrow. It’s puffed and narrow, if I can say that. That there is a kind of egoism in it, a kind of egomania as he presses his brain, squeezes it, strains it, tries to make it yield one more insight, one beyond what it can and seems to be stuck. So, many readers have taken the view that that kind of rather lean, angular, schematic, dry language of Q to R, that language is quite poor, impoverished in contrast with the rich throbbing lyricism that is used to denote Mrs. Ramsay’s achievements. And so we may have the feeling that this philosopher comes across really as a much more limited figure, which is exactly the way I think Virginia felt about her father, and which is the way Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell, who read the book, felt also. And yet they both felt that father had also been given his proper portrait.

I’d like to suggest that this philosopher, father, is arguably a more interesting figure than it’s easy for us always to see, that there is a sense in which his efforts are also moving,that he is, we overhear this man thinking at times, he’s musing now about Shakespeare. “If Shakespeare had never existed, he asked,” he’s asking himself, “would the world have ever differed much from what it is today? Does the progress of civilization depend upon great men?” this is a good question that we don’t ask enough. “Is the lot of the average human being better now than in the time of the Pharaohs? Is the lot of the average human being, however, he asked himself, the criterion by which we judge the measure of civilization? Possibly not. Possibly the greatest good requires the existence of a slave class.” We watch all these ideas sort of flitting through his mind. “The lift man in the tube was an eternal necessity.” And then we watch him think, “the thought was distasteful to him. He tossed his head.”

And so, you watch this man moving through his own mind, thinking what he’s going to, as he says, dish up for the students in the next semester in his courses. And we overhear him, we overhear the quite lively thought processes of a man who inhabits a world of mental constructs, but that has some imagination as well. Would the world be better off with or without Shakespeare? Could we ever document that the great achievements in the arts have added one wit to the actual texture or quality of life for human beings? I am not sure that we have answers for those questions. But I do want to say that this man who can appear so angular, and arid and sterile in contrast to his wife, seems to me, he’s an interesting partner for her. And that he is a character whom we can also saddle up to and learn something from.

The Complete Philosophy of Religion … in one teeny-weeny post.

This is primarily an attempt to structure all the ideas related to religion, in my head, and I will, therefore, take the privilege of considerable license with regards to brevity and/or intelligibility. Most of the ideas outlined below constitute the mainstream of philosophical thought pertaining to religion and I have tried to prevent my own agnostic sensibilities from coloring the discourse.

Arguments for the Existence of God

1. Ontological : Conception of God — “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived”  — Since a being which exists is greater than that which is only in our imagination. The concept of God must exist!  God’s existence is uniquely necessary.

Criticisms — “A most perfect island” . Anselm says that the element in the idea of God which is lacking in the notion of the most perfect island is “necessary existence”. An island is part of the contingent world, a dependent reality, which can without contradiction be thought not to exist – hence the ontological argument doesn’t apply.

Descartes treats existence as a property or predicate, the presence or lack of which is open to inquiry. His argument says that existence is a defining feature of God’s existence (God’s essence). Existence is an essential attribute of a perfect being.

Kant’s criticisms of Descartes run on two levels —

a.) To posit a triangle and yet to reject its three angles is self-contradictory; but there is no contradiction in rejecting the triangle together with the three angles. The same holds true for the concept of an absolutely necessary being.

b.) Existence is not a predicate. It does not add anything to the concept of thing. Russell has shown that although “exists” is grammatically a predicate, logically it performs a different function — “Cows exist” means “There are x’s such that “x is a cow” is true.” Cows exist does not attribute a quality to a cow, but asserts that there are objects in the world to which the description cow applies. Hence existence cannot be a defining predicate of God, and the question of anything in reality corresponding to God remains unanswered. The Ontological proof fails.

2. First Cause and Cosmological  Arguments : Aquinas.  Everything has a cause, blah blah … fails because of Infinite Regress.

Some contemporary reinterpretations of Aquinas say ” If fact A is made intelligible by fact B, and so on, at the back of the complex there must be a reality which is self-explanatory, whose existence constitutes the ultimate explanation of the whole. If no such reality exists, the universe is a mere unintelligible fact” .   …. Two problems, who said the universe has to be intelligible!! Second, it depends on a certain understanding of causality. For ex. if causal laws state statistical probabilities, or if as Hume suggested, causal connections are mere observed sequences or Kant’s projections of the structure of the human mind, the argument fails.

3. Design or Teleological Argument : Analogy of a complex watch and the world. Some intelligent creator must have engineered it. A contemporary jackass makes this argument ” The Ozone gas layer is a mighty proof of the Creator’s forethought. Could anyone possibly attribute this device to a chance evolutionary process?”  Hahahahaa …. he inverts causality! Life evolved because .. there was ozone. (which is wrong, since primitive life existed in environments far different from today)   Hume attacks this by saying that the universe consists of a finite number of particles in random motion. In unlimited time these go through every combination that is possible. If one of these combinations constitutes a stable order, this will be realized and we will find the orderly cosmos.

4. Moral Argument.  —  The claim that anyone seriously committed to respect moral values as exercising a sovereign claim upon his life must thereby implicitly believe in the reality of a transhuman source and basis for these values. Kant argues that both immortality and existence of God are postulates of the moral life. To recognize moral claims as taking precedence over all other interests is, implicitly, to believe in a reality of some kind, other than the natural world, that is superior to oneself and entitled to our obedience.

This is not a proof of God’s existence, but a move towards some transcendental reality. It can be questioned on the basis of there existing perfectly naturalistic explanations for morality, as psychology increasingly shows.

Arguments against God’s Existence :

Durkheim’s Sociological Theory of Religion — Gods are imaginary beings unconsciously fabricated by society as instruments whereby society exercises control over the thoughts and behavior of the individual. Attributes of a deity — a symbol for society and communal interests over the individual, necessary for survival. Australian aborogines — tribe or clan was a psychic organism, where individuals were not yet fully separated from the group mind. In advanced societies this primitive unity has enjoyed a partial revival in times of war, nationalism taking religion’s place.

God as people’s final succor and security — the way in which the individual is carried and supported in all aspects of life by society. The Human Animal has created God in order to preserve its own social existence.

How do you account for the fact that “god loves all human beings” being a teaching, if religion is supposed to develop from tribal instincts? It also does not account for moral prophets who seem to go against the society’s collective impulse and seem to be inspired by divinity.

Freudian Theory of Religion —  religious beliefs are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind. It is a mental defense against the threatening aspects of nature. The human imagination transforms these forces into mysterious personal powers. The solution adopted in the Judaic-Christian tradition is to project upon the universe the buried memory of our father as the great protecting power. The face that smiled at us in the cradle, now magnified to infinity, smiles down upon us from the heaven. Thus religion is the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity, which may be left behind when at last people learn to face the world, relying no longer on illusions but upon scientifically authenticated knowledge. Faith is a psychological crutch.

The final argument against God is Science. Evidence is the final arbiter of knowledge. There are no miracles. There is no verifiable proof of God.

The Problem of Evil — Why is there so much suffering?  The common defense is that moral evil is related to human freedom and responsibility. To be a person is to be a finite center of freedom, with the choice to act wrongly. But there is no contradiction involved in saying that God might have made people who would be genuinely free but who could at the same time be guaranteed always to act rightly.

If all our thoughts and actions are divinely predestined, then however free and responsible we may seem to ourselves to be, we are not free in the sight of God and must be like puppets. Such freedom would be comparable to patients acting out of posthypnotic suggestions. It is suggested that God could have created such beings – but there is no point in doing so if God wanted to create sons and daughters rather than puppets.

Augustinian Theodicy (attempts to solve the theological problem of evil) : Evil always consists of the malfunctioning of something that is in itself good. For ex. blindness. As God originally created the universe, it was in perfect harmony, with a graded hierarchy of higher and lower beings which were good. Angels and men had free will and then they turned from God. At the end of history, on judgement day, many will enter into eternal life and the others into eternal torment. Evil stems from culpable misuse of creaturely freedom in a tragic act.

But how can finitely perfect beings turn to evil? How is evil self-created? Why did some of the angels not turn away and remained steadfast? Did they receive less of God’s grace? Scientifically, we know that humans evolved from lower life forms and were not angelic beings in paradise who suddenly fell into evil. The idea of eternal hell, which is affirmed to be the fate of a large portion of the human race, serves no constructive purpose. It does not solve the problem of evil, but builds the sinfulness of the damned and the evil of their pains and sufferings, into the permanent structure of the universe.

Irenaean Theodicy : It identifies two stages in the creation of the human race. The first was the creation of humans as intelligent animals endowed with capacity for immense moral and spiritual development. They were not perfect pre-fallen Adam and Eve, but immature creatures. In the second stage, they are gradually being transformed through their own free responses into “children of God”. Human goodness has to come about through the making of responsible and free choices – and that kind of development is intrinsically more valuable than a goodness created by God. The human situation is one of tension between the natural selfishness that arises from the instincts for survival, and calls of both morality and religion to transcend our failings.  The World has so much suffering because it is necessary for genuine development of humanity. Only a world like ours provides an effective environment for the purpose of God.  Is it worth it?  The answer must be in a future good enough to justify all that has happened in the past.

Process Theodicy : God acts non-coercively, by persuasion and lure, and the exercise of God’s power is limited by the structure of reality, basic laws of the universe.  Universe is an uncreated process, which includes the deity.  The ultimate reality is creativity continually producing new unities of experience out of the manifold of the previous moment. Each wave of actual occasions, constituting a new moment in the universe’s life, involves an element of creativity or self-causation. God’s power over each occasion, and in directing outcomes is necessarily limited, and the reality of evil in the world is the measure of the extent to which his will is thwarted. Evil is a lack of harmony in the universe, and the divine impetus is to continually maximize harmony. The good that was created in the course of the world process could not have come about without the possibility of the evil which is intertwined with it. God’s goodness is vindicated in that the risk-taking venture in the evolution of the universe has produced enough good to outweigh all the evil in the process. ?? (is this valid?)

There is a moral elitism here – majority of humanity lives in hunger and suffers and is it worth it that some good is created on the way? Some great people are born? some finer possibilities of human existence have been realized at this cost?

Revelation and Faith — Two distinct views about revelation —  The Propositional View : The content of revelation is a body of truths expressed in statements or propositions. Revelation is the communication of some truth by God to a rational creature through extraordinary means.  Faith is the obedient acceptance of these divinely revealed truths. It conveys the notion of an intellectual assent to the content of the revelation. Natural theology is all the theological truth that can be worked out by the unaided human intellect. Revealed theology was held to consist of those truths that are not accessible to human reason. The most popular way of bridging the gap between revelation and the lack of evidence, is by an effort of will. Faith is distinguished by the entertainment of a probable proposition by the fact that the latter can be a completely theoretic affair. Faith is a “yes” of self-commitment, it does not turn probabilities into certainties; only a sufficient increase in the weight of evidence could do that. But it is a volitional response which takes us out of the theoretic attitude.

Voluntarist accounts of Faith — Pascal’s wager (or as Denny Crane once pointed out — if God exists and you believe in him, you are blessed. While if you are an atheist, you are screwed.  If there is no God, everyone is screwed. Hence, believe in God. Higher expected utility! )

Tennant distinguishes between belief and faith — Belief is more or less constrained by fact or actuality that already is or will be independently of any striving of ours, and which convinces us.  Faith reaches beyond the actual to the ideally possible, which in the first instance it creates, like a mathematician posits his entities, and then by practical activity may realize or bring into actuality. Faith always involves risks, but it is only by such risks that human knowledge is extended.

This bracketing of religious faith and scientific “faith” is highly questionable. Scientific faith is significant only as a preliminary to experimental verification. There is no objective verification for religious faith.

Tillich’s conception of faith is one of ultimate concern. Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or non-being, not in the sense of our physical existence but in the sense of – the reality, the structure and meaning of our existence. Ultimate concern is unconditional and total and infinite. There is no respite from it, no place to flee. God is already present to us as the ground of our being, and yet at the same time he transcends us. To know God is to overcome the estrangement from the Ground of our being. To be ultimately concerned about God is to express our true relationship to Being.

(Or you could read and try to decipher Heidegger’s Being and Time.)

Non-Propositional View of Faith -The content of revelation is not revealing a body of truths about God, but God coming into the orbit of human experience. Theological propositions are not revealed, but represent human attempts to understand the significance of revelatory events. But why does God not reveal himself in an unambiguous way?

The process of becoming aware of God, if it is not to destroy the frail autonomy of the human personality, must involve the individual’s own freely responding assent and insight. Therefore, God does not become known to us as a reality of the same order of ourselves, for then the Infinite being would swallow our finite self. Instead, God has created space-time as a sphere in which we may exist in relative independence and within this sphere, God is self-discovered in ways that would allow us the fateful freedom to recognize or fail to recognize his presence. Divine activity always leaves room for the uncompelled activity of faith.

P.S. Maybe I will need one more blog-post for this. Until then, cheerio.

Neruda Interlude.

I Do Not Love You
(Pablo Neruda)
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the Earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you, without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

Mrs. Ramsay

Everybody knows the famous line in Hamlet: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” It seems to me that it’s not all that far-fetched to say that the operative line in To the Lighthouse is, “to go or not to go.” We will have plenty of time to wonder what it means to go to a Lighthouse, what a Lighthouse is, whether or not one goes.

This book starts and closes with that particular query and with all that is implied by it. The first line of the book, “yes of course, if it’s fine tomorrow, but you’ll have to be up with the lark.” That’s of course, Mrs.Ramsay speaking to her young son James. She is sitting there with him, he’s cutting out little pictures from a magazine, she’s also knitting, it’s a wonderful domestic moment. But on the second page of the novel, Mr. Ramsay, the husband, the father, steps out in front of the drawing room window and says, “but it won’t be fine.” So, to go or not to go.

Woolf writes James’ response to his father. “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it.” Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence. And Mr.Ramsay is consistently conveyed as the truth seeker, the man who indulges in no fantasies, no escapism whatsoever. So, there too, I raise the question, what could you have seen, had you been, a spectator in this particular moment? You would have seen, Mr.Ramsay step out, and say, “but it won’t be fine.” You would not have seen an axe or a poker, or any hole being gashed in the fathers breast, because it didn’t happen. It was only desired, it was only felt, It was only wanted. It only expresses the intense violent anger of the son when the father puts down this particular desire and fantasy of his. It’s not even a fantasy, it’s a project, a joint project being put down. You know, in the simplest sense this is really, again, what literature brings to the table. This is an entire, sort of, landscape on the inside – axes, pokers, holes being gashed – that conveys the violence of our emotions, our sentiments and sensations, which we do not, most of us, act out. That life is punctuated by these bouts of affect and anger or desire, most of which again escapes any observation and escapes language. Woolf provides a language for that.

She also, in the passage I just quoted with James’s anger at his father, offers us a kind of Oedipal tension that is really as strong as anything in Kafka’s letter to his father. I suggested that Kafka’s work is shot through with a kind of warfare, lethal warfare between father and son,and the son almost invariably goes down. And Woolf, we also have a sense of the terrible conflict between the generations. This book is a tribute to the generations, this book makes it possible for the children to actually deliver a portrait of their own parents who are dead. It’s overcoming time, it’s like almost an Orphic trip, where you go into the underworld and retrieve your dead loved ones. Well, that is accompanied as well by tremendous violence, by the day to day tensions between generations, and between husband and wife. Woolf finds a remarkable discourse for conveying the circus, the merry-go-round, the roller coaster that takes place 24/7 between ourselves and our loved ones, inside -none of it usually crosses the threshold of language.

And so, I’m going to quote one of the most explosive passages. This is, once again, the same trio: it’s James, the son, the young son, and it’s Mrs.Ramsay, and it’s Mr.Ramsay. And I’ve already said that Leslie Stephen, Virginia’s father, was a man who had this voracious need for reassurance, and for being proven not just right but, but being validated in the eyes of his wife until she died, and then the eyes of of his daughter afterwards. And so, he comes, and the only word I know how to use here is that, he storms his wife. She’s sitting there with James, and Woolf writes it this way:“There he stood, demanding sympathy.” And Woolf has written, “nothing would make him move.” Now, how does Woolf then write Mrs. Ramsay? “Mrs.Ramsay, who had been sitting loosely, folding her son in her arm braced herself and, half turning, seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy.” Now, you just try visualizing this. You can’t, there is no visual, you know, component here. These are all figures, metaphors. “-to raise herself with an effort and at once to pour erect-” erect usually a male term, “-pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly as though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare. He wanted sympathy. He was a failure, he said. Mrs.Ramsay flashed her needles. Mr.Ramsay repeated, never taking his eyes from her face, that he was a failure.” I don’t think it’s actually being spoken, this is the unspoken commerce between the two. “She blew back the words at him. ‘Charles Tansley,'” of course that’s his acolyte, the graduate student who worships him, “He must have more than that. It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken within the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life- the drawing room; behind the drawing room the kitchen; above the kitchen the bedrooms; beyond them the nurseries; they must be furnished, they must be filled with life.” Here is the narrative that is un-announceable. It can’t be articulated and yet she finds word to articulate it.

This is what he needs, she is the earth mother, the light source, she’s the generative figure. I said she’s being stormed by her husband. There’s no combat, in any kind of visual, ordinary, realistic sense. And yet it’s a combat nonetheless between a man and a woman, a man having to get his fill of the nurturance that she might offer. “Flashing her needles, confident, upright, she created drawing-room and kitchen, set them all aglow; bade him take his ease there, go in and out, enjoy himself. She laughed, she knitted. Standing between her knees, very stiff, James felt all her strength flaring up to be drunk and quenched by the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of the male, which smote mercilessly, again and again, demanding sympathy.” I mean there’s something archaic, barbaric in this sequence between this man and this woman and this child. Each one knows what is at stake. She is finding this language for the tumultuous feelings that course inside us,that rarely, as I say, cross the threshold into spoken language. But this has all of the violence of warfare, or all of the violence of sexual encounter. Because you can’t have missed the bitonal images, scimitar beaks, but also spray energy. And the man continues to plunge, and finally he gets all that he needs, “filled with her words, like a child that drops off satisfied,” that’s a child whose finished suckling at the breast, “he said, at last, looking at her with humbled gratitude, restored, renewed, that he would take a turn; he would watch the children playing cricket.” And if you’d been there, that’s all you would’ve heard. I’ll take a turn now, I’ll watch the children playing cricket. “He went,” this is how Woolf describes Mrs Ramsay after his exit, “Immediately, Mrs.Ramsay seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in on another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself,so that she had only strength enough to move her finger, in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion, across the page of Grimm’s fairy story,while they throbbed through her, like the pulse in a spring which is expanded to its full width and now gently ceases to beat, the rapture of successful creation.”

This is as close to sexual intercourse that is not consummated as anything that I’ve ever seen in writing. This has been a contact between the man and the woman. He has sought her softness, her giving, her feeling, her nurturance, her love. She has given it, nothing has been spoken, it’s just been felt between the two. This has been a prodigious exchange. How has it taken place? Between a man who comes and says virtually nothing, a woman who was reading a fairy tale to her son while knitting, a totally domestic scene and she has satisfied all parties. Here then, is why I compare this book to Lear. It has the same violence, what I just quoted to you, as Leer’s experience on the heath. And yet it is all within a domestic setup between a man and his wife and a child, we don’t need a heath for this. Here then is the richness of Woolf’s discourse, her language, what she brings to literature, and therefore to us, to enlarge but also deepen our sense of our actual commerce with those whom we love or those whom we hate.

To the Lighthouse. II

I’ve suggested that Woolf succeeds remarkably in conveying to her readers something of the texture and feel of her mother and father. And that I tried to also argue that that’s really a much more epic achievement than we might initially think. But that’s not a reason for reading the book. How many of us really care about Virginia Woolf’s mother and father?

I also implied something about time, that Mrs.Ramsay, her excellence may seem quite different to a generation in the 21st century, particularly women readers, than it might have in the mid 20th century, because roles change, because books have their own historicity. But of course time matters still more than that. That time is arguably the greatest and most tragic force that regulates, perhaps cashiers human relationship. And whether or not Mrs.Ramsay is our perfect image of a mother, the relation between children and parents has a kind of timeless dimension to it. Yet, even that perhaps is not ultimately the most important reason for reading her.

One reads her, I believe, because no one has ever quite written like this, that her language is simply remarkable, stunning; it challenges our notions of how we think about and talk about our lives. And to try to situate that, I’m going to quote you a passage from Kafka. I used the adjective cold in describing Kafka, and this was something Kafka wrote about his own work, about what sort of unreality in a sense he was trying to achieve.
“Somewhat”, I quote, “as if I were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say ‘Hammering a table together is really nothing to him,’ but rather, ‘hammering the table together is really hammering a table together to him but, at the same time it is nothing.'”

Against that, I’m going to quote a passage late in To the Lighthouse. One wanted, and this is Lily Briscoe, who is really the surrogate figure of Virginia – she is not the daughter of Mrs.Ramsay but she’s the figurative daughter and she’s the artist, so clearly she stands in for Woolf herself -and this is Lily trying to complete her painting at the end of the book.
“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, 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.”
And I think Woolf pulls that off. Now miracles and ecstasy are terms that may seem a little bit banal to you. That is to say, do they really convey great writing? And so I want to look at some of the ways in which Woolf conveys Mrs.Ramsay’s uniqueness, but also conveys something of her own prodigious style, and really the kind of revolutionary mark that she brings to modern fiction, a new way of trying to write, brings – hers is the most throbbing, full-throated language of any text that I’ve looked at yet. She, I think, makes us re-imagine what lyricism might be and what human senses and imagination might be and might produce, because those are really on the page here.

So, I want to start with a tamer passage, it’s where Woolf is getting Mrs.Ramsay across through the perceptions of other people. In this case it’s William Banks, who is a friend of the family. Mr. and Mrs.Ramsay – this book takes place at their summer house in the Hebrides, and one of the guests is William Banks, or one of the friends who’s over – and Woolf writes, this is in a quotation mark within a parenthesis,“‘Nature has but little clay,’ said Mr.Banks once, much moved by her voice on the telephone, though she was only telling him a fact about a train,’Like that of which she molded you.’ He saw her at the end of the line, very Greek, straight, blue-eyed. How incongruous it seemed to be telephoning to a woman like that. The Graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in meadows of Asphodel to compose that face. He would catch the 10:30 at Euston.”

If you’re confused by the passage, then there’s reason for this. That it persistently conflates two totally different scenes and languages. One is the pastoral, classical past, the Graces, Greek, meadows of Asphodel and the other is the modern, technological, industrial London telephone, taking a train that gets in at 10:30. Now, the most famous poem in the early 20th century, Eliot’s The Wasteland, derives much of its power from the kind of dissonance between a rich past and an impoverished technological present.

Woolf makes poetry of that. That this conflation of the modern London and the Arcadian past, all come together in the figure of Mrs.Ramsay. We’re seeing her through his eyes and he can only imagine her in some sense as a synthesis of an older pagan culture and the modern moment. Perhaps, a still more interesting version of how she’s conveyed -she’s conveyed through the impact that she has on others – is done with through her impact on Charles Tansley, who was a guest at the summer house. Charles Tansley is a graduate student who was studying under Mr.Ramsay, Professor Ramsay, the philosopher. He’s a rather unlikable figure; he’s quite insecure at this summer house. And in particular, the sequence I want to read to you is quite early in the book, where he has been asked to accompany her, Mrs.Ramsay, as she goes on an errand in town. And immediately this man who, is insecure, senses that this woman has a kind of stature that is – I don’t want to use the word gender -it’s physical it’s a stature of beauty,it’s a kind of presence and that he feels something quite special to his surprise in walking next to her. He thinks maybe he should carry her purse. And as they’re walking, all of a sudden, the prose simply stops. We leave Charles Tansley, and the prose writes about something else. She’s looking at something. Tansley’s trying to tell her about his own professional ambitions, that he wants to be a professor one day, and he thinks, well what’s she looking at?

And the prose says, “at a man pasting a bill. The vast flapping sheet flattened itself out, and each shove of the brush revealed fresh legs, hoops, horses, glistening reds and blues, beautifully smooth, until half the wall was covered with the advertisement of a circus.” This is the Woolf style. You simply have hoops, legs, horses and finally you’re told, this is a poster of a circus. And then you read the circus poster, 100 horsemen, 20 performing seals, lions, tigers. All of this breaks into the text, the circus is coming to town. I think that’s a phrase one could use for Woolf’s prose. Well, Mrs.Ramsay is delighted when she looks at this. “‘Let us all go!’ she cried,” but poor Tansley was never much taken to circuses. He tries to do his part, “Let us all go to the circus,” he says but he couldn’t put much into it, “He couldn’t say it right. He could not feel it right.” This is Mrs Ramsay, wondering now, why does he feel so lame or so limp? “Why not? What was so wrong with him then? She liked him warmly at that moment. Had they not been taken, she asked, to circuses when they were children? Never, he answered, as if she asked the very thing he wanted, had been longing all these days to say, how they did not go to circuses. It was a large family, nine brothers and sisters. And his father was a working man. ‘My father is a chemist, Mrs.Ramsay, he keeps a shop.’ He himself paid his own way since he was 13. Often he worked without a greatcoat in winter. He could never ‘return hospitality’ (those were his own arched stiff words). He had to make things last twice the time other people did.”

Woolf is sometimes thought of as a kind of effete writer. I think she has a remarkable sense of class differences. We are getting a portrait of Charles Tansley: he smoked the cheapest tobacco; he worked hard seven hours a day; “his subject was now the influence of something upon somebody.” This line to me is delicious, “The influence of something upon somebody.” That’s how people do their business in the University. They were walking on, and Mrs Ramsay did not quite catch the meaning, only words here and there. Dissertation, fellowship, readership, lectureship. That’s the way professors talk. That’s the way graduate students talk.

Here’s what Woolf writes about it. “She,” Mrs Ramsay, “could not follow that ugly academic jargon that rattled itself off so glibly, but said to herself that she saw now why going to the circus had knocked him off his perch, poor little man,and why he came out, instantly, with all that about father and mother and brothers and sisters, and she would see to it that they didn’t laugh at him quite as much anymore.” There’s a kind of intuitive understanding here about what this young disgruntled, angry, defensive man is like, and why he is like that. And so as they continue walking, she goes in to do an errand. She comes back out of the house, she’s been helping a woman who is ill and he looks at her, Charles Tansley, and Woolf writes it like this, With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets, What nonsense was he thinking? She was 50 at least; She had 8 children. Stepping through fields of flowers and taking to her breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen; with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair – he took her bag.

To me, it’s one of the sweetest notations in the book. It, again, uses the same kind of conflation of two different worlds. Stars, pastoral flowers, buds and yet, she’s 50, she has 8 children. This is not a romance but it is a moment of imagination and lyricism as he sees this woman and he takes her bag. As he sees this woman, and he takes her bag. What if you’d seen this woman? What if you’d been there watching this scene? What would you have seen? You’d have seen a woman coming out of a building, and a younger man standing there, taking her bag. And therefore, you would have seen nothing. What you would never have been able to see, because it’s not visible, is the way Woolf wrote this, which is, stars, wild violets, cyclamen, veils in her hair. This is the internal landscape of this young, disgruntled, insecure man who is experiencing something magic with this woman and he takes her bag. Taking her bag has a kind of significance that is emotional, moral, lyrical, and nothing in our own sort of retinal sense of the world could deliver that. That’s what literature does.