Modernism Unit: Alain Badiou on Krapp’s Last Tape and “the space that lies between French and English”

To accompany the lecture on Beckett in the modernism unit, here is a lecture by Alain Badiou on Krapp’s Last Tape, in which he also reflects on “the space that lies between French and English”, a space he describes as “a perpetual torment”. He provides a commentary not only upon the play, but also on the negotiation of working in and between multiple languages, which is of course also an important consideration for us in this international unit.

Working across languages is a irreducibly ethical undertaking of hospitality and welcome that implicates the reader both as host and guest. To read across languages is to welcome the foreigner, to welcome difference, to permit linguistic and cultural immigration, and it lays upon the shoulders of the reader the ethico-political responsibility that inevitably comes with the double possibility of welcome and rejection. To read across languages is also to set out on a voyage, to emigrate, to make oneself vulnerable, to be exposed as (and to) the foreigner, to risk incomprehension, and to become beholden to the hospitality of another way of thinking and writing. It is an existential voyage that brings about a change in the voyager, creating a “before” and “after” that is only ever the effect of a genuine encounter. There is something both beautiful and visceral about this privilege and responsibility of reading what has come to be called “world literature”: it is not to be taken lightly.

Lu Xun, Modernism and Madness

Madman's diaryLu Xun’s ‘A Madman’s Diary’, one of the set texts for week on Chinese modernism in the modernism unit, raises the interesting question of the relation of madness to modernism per se. It is already becoming clear in the course that the discourse around the limits of rationality is central to many different trends within modernism, often drawing (more or less loosely) on Freud’s topographic or structural theories of the psyche. Madness is frequently figured as a liberation from the customary constraints of productive, rational, conventional thought and, along with automatism and dreams, it can speak a truth deeper than the surface appearance of things. There are here distant resonances, perhaps, with the Shakespearean fool…

This does not mean to say, of course, that madness is never negatively connoted in modernist literature, or never presented as (also) destructive or dangerous. However, as we saw in the session on Dada and Surrealism, destruction and danger themselves are not always negatively connoted either.

It would make a fascinating research project to consider one or more of the many presentations of madness in modernist literature, with Lu Xun as a promising starting point. Louis Sass’s Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought  (New York: Basic Books 1993) would also be an important starting point for research in this area (the university has a couple of copies).

The blurb for Sass’s book reads as follows:

A stunning revelation of the eerie likeness between schizophrenic insanity and the sensibility of modern art, literature, and thought, Madness and Modernism presents a vivid and highly original portrait of the world of the madman, along with a provocative commentary on modernist and postmodernist culture. Sass, a clinical psychologist, explores the bizarre experiences of schizophrenia (and related conditions) through a comparison with the works of various artists and writers, including Franz Kafka, Paul Valery, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Giorgio de Chirico, and Marcel Duchamp, and by considering the ideas of philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. The similarities between madness and modernism are striking: defiance of authority and convention; an extreme, often dizzying relativism, which can culminate in paralysis; nihilism and all-embracing irony; a tantalizing, uncanny, but always frustrating sense of revelation; obliteration of standard forms of time and narrative; pervasive dehumanization; and disappearance of external reality in favor of the omnipotent ego or, alternatively, dissolution of all sense of selfhood. This rigorously argued, gracefully written book offers a startlingly new vision of schizophrenia, an illness long recognized as the greatest challenge to psychiatric or psychological understanding. Conventionally seen as a loss of rationality, perhaps involving a return to some infantile or bestial condition, schizophrenia, according to Sass, is better understood as, in a sense, a disease of hyperrationality, with detachment from action, emotions, and the body and entrapment in forms of acute self-consciousness and heightened awareness. Sass refuses to romanticize the schizophrenic as a heroic rebel, mystic, or passionate Wildman, arguing instead that this condition echoes many of the most alienating aspects of modern life. In an epilogue and appendix, he considers whether modern culture might actively contribute to the genesis or shaping of schizophrenic forms of pathology, and he discusses the possible role of abnormalities of the brain.

You might also be interested in the reviews in the New York Times and London Review of Books.

Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’ and the authoritative discourse of the liminally human

Perhaps it is because I have just finished the delightfully written To the Lighthouse, but reading Kafka’s ‘A report to an academy‘ this week for the up-coming modernism unit I am struck by the ambiguous narratorial position of the ‘former ape’ giving the report. Kafka’s brilliant conceit positions the speaker on the limits of humanity, which the story constructs as a position of authority and dignity, a liminal centrality. This is not a talking ape, neither is it a human talking about an ape. It is a human, who was formerly an ape, reflecting on “his” previous experience. The former ape clearly senses a continuity of selfhood between his former and current state (working from the English translation, we assume he is a “he” because he wears trousers), between “my existence as an ape” and his current state, and indeed he talks of “my previous life as an ape”.

This raises fascinating questions about the relation between language, humanity and animality, with the idea of man as the ‘speaking animal’ going all the way back to Aristotle’s zoon logon echon and the bestowal of language on humanity in the complex mise-en-scène of the spoken word in Genesis 1 and Adam co-naming the animals with Elohim, all the way through the animal rationale and down to contemporary debates. Is syntactic language what “makes us” human? It also raises questions about the translatability of experience across species, and provides a very fruitful site of reflection for colleagues and students working in areas like critical animal studies.

What interests me in this post is the way that the speaker is positioned neither fully inside nor fully outside the normal limits of human discourse. This is by no means an unusual position in modernist literature (or the literature of other periods, for that matter). The first comparison that comes to mind is Lucky’s extraordinary monologue in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

Lucky is treated and named as an animal (remember Pozzo’s “Think, pig!”, in French the alliterative “Pense, porc!”).

Those who speak from the limits of the human frequently speak the truth that others cannot, or dare not, utter, somewhat in the manner of the Shakespearean fool. It would make a fascinating student research project to explore the liminarity of discourse across modernist literature, perhaps with Kafka’s ‘A report to an academy’ as a main reference.

See the Independent article ‘Kafka’s Monkey: Finding the Inner Ape‘,which discusses an adaptation of the story being staged at the Young Vic (London) in 2014:

See also Kari Weil, ‘A Report on the Animal Turn’, differences 21:2 (2010) 1-23. Weil discusses ‘A report for an academy’ throughout the article, but here is the paragraph in which it is introduced:

But how do we bring animal difference into theory? Can ani-
mals speak? And if so, can they be read or heard? Such questions have
deliberate echoes of the title of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s seminal essay
in postcolonial theory, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” where she warns that
the critical establishment’s attempt to give voice to dispossessed peoples
will only result in their speaking the language of Western intellectuals
or being further dependent upon Western intellectuals to speak for them.
Her essay may serve as a warning to some who, for example, would try
to teach apes to sign in order to have them tell humans what they want.
Long before the existence of the Great Ape Project, the problematic was
exposed in Franz Kafka’s 1919 story “A Report to an Academy.” Red Peter,
the story’s narrator and protagonist, is presented as a representative of a
minority or subaltern group: he is an ape. But the appropriateness of any
of these designations is immediately brought into question as we learn that
he is an ape turned human who has been singled out by the “academy” to
give a report about his former life. Such a report, he admits, he is unable
to give. His memory of his life as an ape has been erased as a result of his
efforts to adopt the manners and language of his human captors. Instead,
he can only describe the process and progress of his assimilation from
the moment of his capture to his current success as an artistic performer
who smokes, drinks red wine, and converses like an “average European.”

Have a look also at this documentary about Koko the ‘talking’ gorilla:

Finally, here is Judith Butler on Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes:



The excess of meaning over language in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

The uneasy relation of language to meaning that is characteristic of much modernism punctuates Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Taking  walk with “the atheist” Charles Tansley, Mrs. Ramsay, tired of being talked at, begins to let her mind wander in a way that detaches Tansley’s words from their intended meaning, first with the words taking on a materiality that dislocates them from the smooth flow of intended meaning, before finally detaching themselves altogether from Tansley’s expression:

He could never “return hospitality” (those were his parched stiff words) at college. He had to make things last twice the time other people did; he smoked the cheapest tobacco; shag; the same the old men did in the quays. He worked hard–seven hours a day; his subject was now the influence of something upon somebody–they were walking on and Mrs. Ramsay did not quite catch the meaning, only the words, here and there … dissertation … fellowship … readership … lectureship.

In the following passage describing Mrs. Ramsay reading a story, the word ‘flounder’ detaches itself from its original context through incessant repetition, taking on an alienating materiality for the reader as well as for Cam:

 She read on: “Ah, wife,” said the man, “why should we be King? I do not want to be King.” “Well,” said the wife, “if you won’t be King, I will; go to the Flounder, for I will be King.”

“Come in or go out, Cam,” she said, knowing that Cam was attracted only by the word “Flounder” and that in a moment she would fidget and fight with James as usual. Cam shot off. Mrs. Ramsay went on reading, relieved, for she and James shared the same tastes and were comfortable.

“And when he came to the sea, it was quite dark grey, and the water heaved up from below, and smelt putrid. Then he went and stood by it and said,

‘Flounder, flounder, in the sea,

Come, I pray thee, here to me;

For my wife, good Ilsabil,

Wills not as I’d have her will.’

‘Well, what does she want then?’ said the Flounder.”

On a number of occasions, words appear to the book’s characters as inadequate (but necessary) vehicles of a complex emotional reality that exceeds them. In one passage, Lily Briscoe struggles to apprehend linguistically the flow of impressions that assails her:

How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all? Standing now, apparently transfixed, by the pear tree, impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil, and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things, so that even the fissures and humps on the bark of the pear tree were irrevocably fixed there for eternity.

To say that one “likes” a thing is a crude linguistic calculation that flattens out nuances of feeling lost in the brutality of the blunt linguistic instrument. But all language is ready made in this way: a heap of off-the-peg words trying to do justice to made-to-measure emotions. It is what the philosopher Jacques Derrida called the iterability of language as opposed to the singularity of people and events: no two lovers, perhaps, have loved in exactly the same way, and yet all reach for the same iterable formula “I love you” to describe their commitment and feelings.

We see the inadequacy of langauge once more in Mrs. Ramsay’s assessment of William Bankes:

But then he cared, well, Mrs. Ramsay sometimes thought that he cared, since his wife’s death, perhaps for her. He was not “in love” of course; it was one of those unclassified affections of which there are so many.

I love the term “unclassified affection”. How many such affections–not quite love, something approaching anger and pity combined, melancholy with a little scorn–must flash through our consciousness each day.

In the third section of the novel, Lily Briscoe has another brush with the inadequacy of language:

What does it mean then, what can it all mean? Lily Briscoe asked herself, wondering whether, since she had been left alone, it behoved her to go to the kitchen to fetch another cup of coffee or wait here. What does it mean?–a catchword that was, caught up from some book, fitting her thought loosely, for she could not, this first morning with the Ramsays, contract her feelings, could only make a phrase resound to cover the blankness of her mind until these vapours had shrunk. For really, what did she feel, come back after all these years and Mrs. Ramsay dead? Nothing, nothing–nothing that she could express at all.

Perhaps the most poignant instance of this failure of language in the novel is the chatter about Prue Ramsay’s marraige and death:

Prue Ramsay, leaning on her father’s arm, was given in marriage. What, people said, could have been more fitting? And, they added, how beautiful she looked!


Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.

These two observations could be read as simply evoking local gossip, but I think that something else is happening in these brief, trite remarks. The predictable and largely uninformative platitudes that circulate about Prue’s marriage and death signal the inadequacy of language to capture and present such events. Whatever one says, in the face of death, risks sounding similarly platitudinous. Language cannot capture the truth of death, or of the most intimate family relations. It must resign itself to watching at a distance, dumb and mute as it gestures towards transcendent realities in its regular reductive chronicling of ‘births, marriages and deaths’. It is what Martin Heidegger in Being and Time calls ‘idle talk’: a phatic chatter that speaks much but says, ultimately, nothing.

We learn of Mrs Ramsay’s death in a subordinate clause

Given the length at which To the Lighthouse dwells on the everyday thoughts of its characters, it comes as a brutal shock to read in the grim second section that:

Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.

Mrs. Ramsay’s death, note, is not even dignified with a main clause. This death, recounted en passant as a way of explaining why Mr. Ramsay’s arms were not filled in their usual way, is all the more arresting for the brevity with which it is dealt. But how could it be any other way in a novel the business of which is to inhabit and explore the thoughts of (living) characters?

What is love? tedious, puerile, inhumane, beautiful and necessary

In the passage below, which I present without further comment, Woolf offers her reader a glimpse into the contradictory intricacy of “love” with an astounding economy of expression:

Such was the complexity of things. For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now. It is so beautiful, so exciting, this love, that I tremble on the verge of it, and offer, quite out of my own habit, to look for a brooch on a beach; also it is the stupidest, the most barbaric of human passions, and turns a nice young man with a profile like a gem’s (Paul’s was exquisite) into a bully with a crowbar (he was swaggering, he was insolent) in the Mile End Road. Yet, she said to herself, from the dawn of time odes have been sung to love; wreaths heaped and roses; and if you asked nine people out of ten they would say they wanted nothing but this–love; while the women, judging from her own experience, would all the time be feeling, This is not what we want; there is nothing more tedious, puerile, and inhumane than this; yet it is also beautiful and necessary. Well then, well then? she asked, somehow expecting the others to go on with the argument, as if in an argument like this one threw one’s own little bolt which fell short obviously and left the others to carry it on. So she listened again to what they were saying in case they should throw any light upon the question of love.

Rhythming To the Lighthouse

What is ‘rhythm’? It is neither a ‘thing’ (a material object) nor necessarily related to a human action. We usually think about rhythms in time, but the term need not be temporal. The OED gives one of the definitions as ‘Regularity in the repetition in time or space of an action, process, feature, condition, event, etc’ (my emphasis), as in this quotation found in an article from Nature in 1881: “That the chief novelty is an absolute rhythm in the spectrum; instead of lines irregularly distributed over the spectrum, we have groups which are beautifully rhythmic in their structure”. Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis uses the idea of rhythm to understand  social spaces and everyday life, and Michel Serres entertains an extended meditation on rhythm, meaning and movement in Genesis.

Furthermore, the term has senses both natural (the intervals of a heartbeat or of waves lapping on a shore) and cultural (the rhythm of a piece of music or of a spoken sentence), and also has a verbal sense (‘to set to verse’ or ‘to make rhythmical’, according to the OED). In relation to this latter meaning, the OED provides a quotation from Woolf herself. In a diary entry from 1922 she writes of the modernist poet T. S. Eliot that “Eliot dined last Sunday & read his poem. He sang it & chanted it rhythmed it.”[1]

So what, then, is rhythm? Here is one attempt at a rough and ready umbrella definition. Rhythm is the creation or modulation of structure; it introduces a play between regularity and irregularity, between repetition and difference, between pattern and chaos, between monotone and white noise. Rhythm, to short circuit a long argument, is meaning.

So what of rhythm in To the Lighthouse? Perhaps the most striking rhythms within the world of the text are those of the waves on the shore. In one passage beautiful for its own rhythmicity Mrs. Ramsay apprehends

the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you–I am your support…

These are the same waves that “like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life”. Here the notional division between natural and cultural rhythms is effaced as we slide from the insistent lapping of the waves into what Mrs. Ramsay later strains to hear:

One moment more, with her head raised, she listened, as if she waited for some habitual sound, some regular mechanical sound; and then, hearing something rhythmical, half said, half chanted, beginning in the garden, as her husband beat up and down the terrace, something between a croak and a song,

At one point during an excruciating dinner party Mrs. Ramsay summons up the energy to lubricate the social wheels by

giving herself a little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking–one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with a news-paper.

Life is a series of concentric and inter-related rhythms. Nested rhythms of the waves and tides, rhythms of language and song, rhythms of the weather, inextricable rhythms of nature and culture.

Then there are the rhythms of Woolf’s language, the perfectly weighted and effortless symmetrical clauses that pepper her prose. Here is one at random: “with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair”. Four anapaests lapping like waves on a shore. There are other textual rhythms in the novel, both within and between chapters and within and between sections. Rhythms of time, of place, of the repetition of certain words and the return to certain motifs or conceits. A ‘rhythmanalytical’ reading of To the Lighthouse would make for a promising research essay.


[1] Woolf, it appears from the OED, in responsible for inventing eight new words (‘irreticence’, ‘nibful’, ‘road-running’, ‘tweeze’, ‘vagulate’, ‘vagulous’, ‘veneartingly’, and the splendid ‘scrolloping’, which means that which is ‘characterized by or possessing heavy, florid, ornament’).

Modernism: Objects and quasi-objects in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

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.

Modernism: Narrative point of view in To the Lighthouse

This is the first substantive post related to the unit in literary modernism I am teaching next semester. These posts are not intended to be proto-essays, nor necessarily particularly deep. I just want to jot down quick thoughts about what struck me in reading through the set texts, with the hope and intention of stimulating further reflection and disagreement.

I want to begin with a pair of posts about the ‘subject’ of the novel (in the sense of its point of view), and the ‘objects’ described within it.

Students of modernism will soon become familiar with the literary gymnastics writers perform around the notion of narrative point of view. Rather than speaking and writing about ‘narrators’ the student of modernist literature soon learns to retrench to the more cautious, less committal notion of ‘narrative voice’, and the notion of an omniscient narrator quickly seems a quaint feature of an exhausted tradition. Finally, no course on modernism would be complete without banging the drum of ‘free indirect style’ or ‘free indirect discourse’ defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms as:

A manner of presenting the thoughts or utterances of a fictional character as if from that character’s point of view by combining grammatical and other features of the character’s ‘direct speech’ with features of the narrator’s ‘indirect’ report. Direct discourse is used in the sentence She thought, ‘I will stay here tomorrow’, while the equivalent in indirect discourse would be ‘She thought that she would stay there the next day’. Free indirect style, however, combines the person and tense of indirect discourse (‘she would stay’) with the indications of time and place appropriate to direct discourse (‘here tomorrow’), to form a different kind of sentence: She would stay here tomorrow. This form of statement allows a third‐person narrative to exploit a first‐person point of view, often with a subtle effect of irony, as in the novels of Jane Austen. Since Flaubert’s celebrated use of this technique (known in French as le style indirect libre) in his novel Madame Bovary (1857), it has been widely adopted in modern fiction.

So what of the narrative voice in To the Lighthouse? Well, it’s complicated.

To begin with, free indirect style always introduces an element of doubt when there is more than one character in a scene: who, precisely, is thinking each thought? This uncertainty sometimes creates what we could almost call a common psychic ether: certain sentences just hang in the air between the characters, belonging fully and finally to no-one exclusively and as if they exist independently of individual thinkers. Two examples of this from the opening chapter of To the Lighthouse are the underlined phrases in the following two quotations:

“There’ll be no landing at the Lighthouse tomorrow,” said Charles Tansley, clapping his hands together as he stood at the window with her husband. Surely, he had said enough. She wished they would both leave her and James alone and go on talking.


The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. “Damn you,” he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might.

In both cases we can make an intelligent guess as to whose thought is being recounted in free indirect discourse (in the first case it is most likely Mrs. Ramsay, and in the second Mr. Ramsay), but that’s not really the point. The point is that we don’t know definitively; we simply can’t tell for certain. And this does something very interesting to our experience of the novel. For one thing, it means that we find ourselves filling in the gaps, concretising the ambiguities in the text and deciding who ought to be thinking what, even though the text gives us no definitive command. Secondly, it means that thought somewhat detaches itself from individual characters and, at times, can be read to take on an existence of its own that is not straightforwardly anchored to individual characters.

How much does the narrative voice in To the Lighthouse know? Can it ever have “access” (the term is a clumsy one) to more than one individual’s thoughts at the same time? Once more, the answer is not definitive, but there are passages that could be interpreted that way. Take Mrs. Ramsay’s reflections on her advancing years:

She was now formidable to behold, and it was only in silence, looking up from their plates, after she had spoken so severely about Charles Tansley, that her daughters, Prue, Nancy, Rose–could sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, of ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother’s eyes, honour her strange severity

Is the reflection that ‘there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry’ a moment of free indirect discourse, relating Mrs. Ramsay’s understanding of her daughters’ attitude? It is likely so but, once more, it is not certain. It becomes problematic to make crisp distinction between the narrative voice and the character’s voice; we have to forfeit any definitive response to the question “who is speaking?”

Is it correct to speak of a ‘narrative voice’ at all, in cases like this? We have already retreated from the more categorical concept of a ‘narrator’ to the caution of narrative voice; do we need to withdraw further? Perhaps. The question, at any rate, is important to pose. The notion of a ‘narrative voice’ assumes that there is one source of discourse among others, discernible and localisable, that should be attributed to this peculiar beast we call the “narrator”: a peculiar persona that is located inside the story but outside it, part of the story, but only in the way that a window through which we look is part of the landscape beyond it. The “narrator” is, notionally, that without which there would be no narrative, but not itself part of the narrative. The OED gives three definitions for ‘narrator’:

1. A person who narrates or gives an account of something.

2. spec. a. The voice or persona (whether explicitly identified or merely implicit) by which are related the events in a plot, esp. that of a novel or narrative poem.

By some writers this is reserved as a term in Literary Criticism for an explicitly personified or characterized narrative voice.

b. A character in a play or film who relates part of the plot to the audience. Also: a person who speaks a commentary in a film, television broadcast, etc.

The notion of narrator is closely tied to the concept of the person or persona (Latin for ‘mask’, ‘character’ or ‘role’). In the light of this, perhaps it would be illuminating (certainly it would be interesting) to think of the ‘narrator’ not as a vehicle of revelation but as a veiling, a masking of identity and a confounder of truth. That is certainly a thought which would draw Mr. Ramsay’s ire.