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.