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.