This is the second in a series of two posts about the ‘subject’ and ‘objects’ of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in relaiton to the literary studies unit on modernism I will be teaching this coming semester.
Literary criticism, in step with Cartesian dualism, has tended to operate according to a dichotomy of active subjects and passive objects (If that sentence didn’t make any sense to you, have a look here). On the one hand there are people, who among all the objects in the world have the unique property of thinking (Descartes used the Latin term res cogitans, ‘thinking thing’), who act and will and operate in the world, and on the other hand there are objects, animals, and human bodies, (singular: res existensa, literally’extended thing’, i.e. it has physical dimensions, as opposed to thought which, for Descartes, has none) that are acted and operated upon, passively.
One of the major trends in thought at the moment is what is called the ‘new materialism’, and one impetus within new materialism is what is called ‘object orientated ontology’ (or OOO for short). Drawing inspiration from the thinker, sociologist and historian of science Bruno Latour, OOO challenges the idea that the world is made up of a dichotomy of entities: human agents who will and act, and passive objects that are merely acted upon (it’s all in Latour’s ground-breaking work from 1991 We have Never Been Modern).
Anyway, what all this has to do with To the Lighthouse is that it offers us an approach to texts which aims to give objects their due. Traditionally, literary criticism, obediently trotting along behind Descartes, has had one set of terms and concepts for active “characters”, and another for passive “setting” or “objects”, and never the twain shall meet (I’m caricaturing a bit to make the point; there are exceptions and counter-examples). But what if we approach a text with the aim of discerning not only how the characters act upon each other and upon their setting, but also how objects display agency in relation to characters and to each other. If you like, you could call this an object oriented literary criticism (or OOLC, to follow the fashion for acronyms in this area) or, if you prefer, just think of it as a way of trying to understand the complex relations beween ‘scenery’, ‘objects’ and ‘characters’ in a novel.
The first thing that struck me on reading To the Lighthouse in preparation for the modernism unit was the prominence and importance of objects. We might be tempted to call Woolf’s novel a ‘subjective’ text on account of its ambiguous narrative position and free indirect style, but it would make a very interesting research essay to approach it as a novel of objects. The first section of the first chapter, for instance, could be entitled ‘from a refrigerator to a bag’.
The refrigerator, or rather a magazine picture of a refrigerator, makes its appearance in the book’s second paragraph, and is immediately charged with a peculiar emotional intensity:
James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling–all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he had already his private code, his secret language, though he appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity, with his high forehead and his fierce blue eyes, impeccably candid and pure, frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty, so that his mother, watching him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator, imagined him all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.
There would be much to comment on here: the magazine (bourgeois? cheap? disposable?); the neatness of the cutting (almost a whole personality and destiny is read into the adjective ‘neatly’); the de-contextualisation and re-contextualisation of the represented object achieved by the cutting; the resonance (intended or not) with modernist collage; the unexplained aura of joy that this fetishized representation exudes, like an apparition or a halo. A reading in terms of situationism or Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘aura’ in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and the Marxist account of commodity fetishism would be an interesting exercise.
Objects carry, communicate and create meaning. Take the closing two paragraphs of the first section of the first chapter, with their hammering emphatic repetition of the final phrase:
With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets–what nonsense was he thinking? She was fifty at least; she had eight 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 had hold of her bag.
“Good-bye, Elsie,” she said, and they walked up the street, she holding her parasol erect and walking as if she expected to meet some one round the corner, while for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; a man digging in a drain stopped digging and looked at her, let his arm fall down and looked at her; for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman. He had hold of her bag.
The bag here is a quasi-object (a term from the French thinker Michel Serres, described by the Cambridge English professor Steven Connor in this essay). It doesn’t just reflect a relationship or state of affairs that would exist in its absence. Rather, like a ball in a game of rugby it creates and maintains a set of relationships and interactions (players, referee, crowd, television audience, advertisers, stewards…) that could not exist without it.
Previously in the section we have seen Mrs. Ramsay’s bag as a token of her independent social crusading activity:
she ruminated the other problem, of rich and poor, and the things she saw with her own eyes, weekly, daily, here or in London, when she visited this widow, or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a note-book and pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment
When she goes for a walk with “the atheist Charles Tansley” (that’s how he’s introduced to us the first time we meet him: we learn of his atheism before we know his name), the bag becomes the no-man’s land of trench warfare, the fought-over territory of the couple’s ever-so-understated power struggle:
she made him feel better pleased with himself than he had done yet, and he would have liked, had they taken a cab, for example, to have paid the fare. As for her little bag, might he not carry that? No, no, she said, she always carried THAT herself. [emphasis Woolf’s]
A little further on, the bag wars intensify:
So Mr. Tansley supposed she meant him to see that that man’s picture was skimpy, was that what one said? The colours weren’t solid? Was that what one said? Under the influence of that extraordinary emotion which had been growing all the walk, had begun in the garden when he had wanted to take her bag, had increased in the town when he had wanted to tell her everything about himself, he was coming to see himself, and everything he had ever known gone crooked a little. It was awfully strange.
As I quote the following paragraph in full, notice who is the subject of the different verbs, who observes what passively, and where the bag (now become a trophy) fits:
There he stood in the parlour of the poky little house where she had taken him, waiting for her, while she went upstairs a moment to see a woman. He heard her quick step above; heard her voice cheerful, then low; looked at the mats, tea-caddies, glass shades; waited quite impatiently; looked forward eagerly to the walk home; determined to carry her bag; then heard her come out; shut a door; say they must keep the windows open and the doors shut, ask at the house for anything they wanted (she must be talking to a child) when, suddenly, in she came, stood for a moment silent (as if she had been pretending up there, and for a moment let herself be now), stood quite motionless for a moment against a picture of Queen Victoria wearing the blue ribbon of the Garter; when all at once he realised that it was this: it was this:–she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.
What does Tansley do in this paragraph? He stands waiting ‘where she had taken him’: the object of Mrs. Ramsay’s action. He hears her quick step, again the passive receiver of the traces of her absence. He hears her voice, looks round, waits, looks again, hears her, sees her, realises she is the most beautiful person he has ever seen. Passive, passive, passive. Apart from one clause: ‘determined to carry her bag’. This is no simple bag. It is Charles Tansley’s one grasp (quite literally) at agency, at asserting his equality (or rather his dominance) by taking from Mrs. Ramsay that token of her public life, her independence, her social conscience. Never since The Devil Wears Prada has so much social and interpersonal significance been invested in one small bag.
And so the final two paragraphs of the section strike like a brace of hammer-blows driving nails into the coffin of Mrs. Ramsay’s control of Tansley: ‘He had hold of her bag… He had hold of her bag’. The bag here does not just reflect a social reality; it is not just a symbol of a relational transaction, it constitutes that reality and creates the desire for, and possibility of, that transaction, just as concretely as the ball in a game of rugby constitutes the game as its sine qua non.
So keep your eyes open for the agency of objects in To the Lighthouse, this most subjective of novels.