Sunday, February 8, 2009

Nietzschean Perspectivism and The Waste Land

Note: I was reminded of this paper while drafting my discussion of Virginia Woolf's short story "A Haunted House" (click here to read) last week. It was written in late 2003 for an introductory graduate-student seminar presided over by Professor Martha Rust at New York University. The view of modernism that informs it was first addressed in a paper I wrote on the photographer Brassaï for Professor Tamara Machmut-Jhashi at Oakland University, which I'll post once I gather the jpegs of the images required to illustrate it. These papers were intended as the first volleys in a larger discussion of modernism I'd hoped to parlay into a doctoral dissertation. However, the real world cannot always be reconciled with one's aspirations, and financial realities forced me to abandon my academic ambitions shortly after the paper below was completed. Reading it over again, I don't think it's half-bad. It suffers a bit from an excess of erudition, but given its subject and my graduate-student status when writing it, there are probably worse sins. I certainly think it's worth converting to html and sharing with the larger world.

For those interested in reading the text of The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, please click here.



Nietzschean Perspectivism and The Waste Land

Friedrich Nietzsche, in a passage from his 1887 work On the Genealogy of Morals, set the stage for twentieth-century thought and rejected the possibility of an absolute, objective truth:

There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our concept of this thing, our “objectivity” be. (119)
Nietzsche’s goal in this passage was for his readers to make greater demands upon themselves in their explorations and evaluations of subjects; he insisted they consider a multiplicity of viewpoints in the process of formulating their own. One, however, also infers that an individual perspective takes only a relative view of its subject: it is inherently idiosyncratic and limited, it enjoys no privilege over other views, and, ultimately, it is reflective only of the circumstances in which it is made. These notions came to dominate all areas of twentieth-century discourse. They are present in scientific inquiry1, the evolution of ethics and morality2, and as the guiding principles for the creation of works of art. Film3, the fine arts4, literature--all became characterized by the adaptation of Nietzsche’s ideas (or their equivalent) into artistic technique.

T.S. Eliot was unusual among his artistic peers in that he explored the philosophical and spiritual implications of relativistic thought in his work. Relativistic principles--defined as the inherent idiosyncrasy and limitations of an individual perspective and the achievement of a “more complete” objectivity through a multiplicity of viewpoints--characterize the work of such contemporaries as Marcel Proust5, James Joyce6, and Virginia Woolf7. The work of these authors, however, is informed by these ideas on a strictly formal level. Eliot, in The Waste Land, moved beyond using such ideas as guiding principles for the work’s construction; he asked what such concepts mean in terms of the definition of self. The poem dramatizes a quest to locate a centrality of meaning or identity beyond the multiplicity of viewpoints within one’s consciousness, a quest that becomes associated with a search for objectivity and, ultimately, God.

Eliot implicitly accepted Nietzsche’s view of a “more complete” objectivity being embodied by multiple perspectives8. In his 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (for the complete text of the essay, click here), he describes the poet’s mind as “a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together” (8). In poetry, he writes:

experiences are not "recollected," and they finally unite in an atmosphere which is "tranquil" only in that it is a passive attending upon the event. […] Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. (10)
In short, poetry is the coalescence of multiple perspectives into a single, coherent, and, above all, objective view.

The Waste Land begins by travelling through at least eight different perspectives in its first forty-two lines. The narrator, however, is unable to locate a single, unifying viewpoint; he can find no secure foundation from which to present himself. Opinions and memories fail him, music provides no satisfaction, and he cannot even decide upon a gender. The most sustained persona, lasting eleven lines, is apparently the voice of God, but it functions as the narrator’s self-rebuke. Its most ominous statement, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” (30), is its most revealing. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot’s equivalent for Nietzsche’s term “perspective” is “particle”; after all, what is dust but a collection of particles? Judging from Eliot’s statements in “Tradition,” a poet’s greatest worry would be the inability to unite disparate perspectives into a coherent whole; the “fear in a handful of dust,” therefore, is the terror borne of this failure. The narrator, as he taunts himself in the voice of this faux-Deity, cannot see “the roots that clutch, what branches grow” (19) from the “heap of broken images” (22) that constitutes his viewpoint. He wants absolute meaning and the unity of identity, but the presence of a multiplicity of perspectives speaks, before anything else, to the absence of such things. The narrator cannot take the next step into the unification that objectivity provides; as such, he cannot become unto God and create. The episodes following the poem’s opening section delineate the quest described above: to find a unified perspective, to locate objectivity and a sense of a higher meaning, and to discover an identity within God. The journey, in which the narrator looks to and experiences outside perspectives, is not a comfortable one; in between episodes, the narrator, as the poem shows, is thrown back to the “heap of broken images” that comprises his point of view.

The narrator first seeks to know himself from the perspective of eternity, outside of time and from the standpoint of God, so he consults a latter-day oracle, “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante” (43), who reads the narrator’s fortune from a deck of Tarot cards. The narrator’s card turns out to be “the drowned Phoenician sailor” (47), which Cleanth Brooks identifies as “a type of fertility god whose image was thrown in the sea annually as a symbol of the death of summer” (142). Madame Sosostris ends the session by telling the narrator, “Fear death by water. / I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring” (55-56). There is no comfort to be found in either image. The fertility god, which ostensibly represents the hope of a renewed life, is seen by the narrator as only as a drowned corpse whose bones are picked by the sea’s currents (315-316), and whose ultimate destination is the whirlpool (317-318), a symbol of turmoil, confusion, and ultimately ignorance. The vision of the circling crowd alludes to a passage in the Inferno (3.40-69), in which Dante depicts those who lived their lives without distinction for either good or ill. In so doing, i cattivi9, as Dante calls them (3.62), reject life; the afterlife, therefore, rejects them: Heaven doesn’t want them, and Hell won’t take them (3.40-41, 63). They spend the afterlife in the vestibule of Hell, running eternally in circles behind a moving banner while insects sting them and worms consume their blood and tears (3.52-57, 64-69). Madame Sosostris’ warning suggests that the narrator’s life, like that of i cattivi, is one bereft of meaning or accomplishment. In the next stanza, the narrator directly experiences Dante’s vision in the setting of twentieth-century London (Eliot’s home), with office clerks (Eliot’s occupation at the time of The Waste Land’s composition) playing the roles of i cattivi; the vision reflects the narrator’s worst fears of himself and his circumstances. He ostensibly sees himself from the perspective of eternity, only to find his personal sense of meaninglessness reinforced.

In the poem’s second section, “A Game of Chess,” the narrator attempts to find meaning by adopting perspectives within the lives of others, but these also serve only to reinforce his sense of a meaningless life. The subject of the section’s first episode, the wealthy couple, experience lives that, despite the beauty of their home’s interiors (the décor is languorously and obsessively described), are as devoid of purpose and meaning as those of Dante’s i cattivi. The wife is a babbling neurotic, repeatedly nagging her husband with questions like, “What are you thinking of?” (113), “What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?” (119), and “What shall I do now?” What shall I do?” (131). The narrator enters the husband’s perspective, but this offers, as the wife accuses, nothing (“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / “Nothing?” [122-123]). The husband muses, “And we shall play a game of chess, / Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door” (137-138); this is an existence defined solely by anxiety and the empty gestures of games. The second episode’s focus, the conversation of some working-class women in the pub, also has nothing to offer. The women are represented as little more than animals or children, preoccupied entirely with sex and personal vanity; their conversation revolves around maintaining a husband’s sexual interest, and how the drugs used to induce an abortion ruin one’s looks. These are values, a sign of a unified viewpoint, but they are nothing to which to aspire. The episode’s protagonist, a young mother named Lil, is despondent over her loss of sexual attractiveness; her farewells at the episode’s end are, as Cleanth Brooks notes, those of Shakespeare’s Ophelia (151). Brooks, however, identifies the allusion as a statement by Eliot that Lil’s words, like Ophelia’s, are verse borne of suffering; he overlooks the fact that Ophelia’s farewells (“Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; / good night, good night” [Hamlet 4.5.71-72]) are the character’s final words before killing herself. The allusion suggests that Lil shares the same fate. Her values, in their self-absorption, lead her straight into death. They are limited values; they do not lead to a higher understanding. Rather, they lead her into the abyss of an empty life and, ultimately, suicide. The perspectives offered by these episodes offer no route to a transcendent viewpoint; they are, to paraphrase Nietzsche, only perspectives seeing and not perspectives knowing. They are nothing but broken images to add to the heap.

In the central episode of “The Fire Sermon,” the poem’s third section, the narrator identifies himself with the mythological figure of Tiresias10. In his notes for the poem, Eliot writes that “Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a “character,” is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest […] What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem” (Waste Land 23). The event Tiresias witnesses, a dinner and an affectless sexual encounter between a clerk and a typist, seems of little importance. However, what Tiresias sees is his perspective, and, if one takes Eliot’s note at face value, the nature of that perspective is what is of interest. Tiresias offers what seems to be, in Eliot’s terms, the ideal poetic perspective. His is a single viewpoint that embodies multiple viewpoints: wisdom, physical blindness, knowledge of the past, knowledge of the future, masculine, and feminine. Furthermore, his first inclination, as demonstrated in the episode, is to attend passively on the events before him, escaping both personality and emotion in the context of his perspective. Given this, he also embodies Nietzsche’s ideal of a “more complete” objectivity: this “perspective seeing,” this “perspective knowing,” embraces, by its nature, multiple affects and multiple eyes in its observations.

The narrator’s perspective merges with Tiresias in the episode, and it observes dispassionately and objectively. The clerk is described, somewhat sarcastically, as, among other things, “the young man carbuncular” (231), but an impartial, impersonal tone is maintained. This lasts until the couple has sex. At that moment, the outward perspective turns inward and Tiresias’ objectivity collapses into subjective self-consciousness:

And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead. (243-246)
Tiresias’ perspective abandons its incorporeal state, as well as its objective standpoint, and returns to the subjective prism of its physical state and lived experience. Eliot, one recalls, defined poetry--the successfully unified perspective--as “an escape from personality”; Tiresias, in this passage, lapses into self-dramatization. He escapes from objectivity into “personality” and the unity of his perspective unravels. His point-of-view shortly returns to its outward tack and the dispassionate tone returns, but the “escape from emotion” Eliot describes as characterizing the unified perspective of poetry is gone. Tiresias now evinces an emotional attitude towards the couple, referring to the clerk with contempt and treating the woman with pity. The particles of his allegedly unified perspective disintegrate into Eliot’s “handful of dust.” The ostensibly objective viewpoint devolves into self-dramatizing subjectivity, which then shifts into an emotion-based, judgmental mindset. Subjectivity overrules objectivity, and even this most unified of viewpoints cannot locate a consistent, guiding sense of meaning or identity to serve as a foundation for its point of view. A sense of meaninglessness reigns.

The narrator determines that a transcendental, guiding perspective is an impossibility. He cannot find it within himself; he cannot find it in the lives of others; he cannot even find it within the supposed exemplar of a unified perspective that Tiresias represents. There is no apparent alternative to the horror of being one of Dante’s i cattivi, a being with no guiding purpose or meaning. In the aftermath of the Tiresias episode, the narrator’s consciousness unravels to a degree not seen elsewhere in the poem. Diverse images succeed one another in rapid succession. The manner and frequency of the interruptions suggests panic. This frenzy of disparate perspectives ends in fragments of sentences taken, as Eliot acknowledges in his notes (Waste Land 25), from St. Augustine’s Confessions. The fragments allude to Augustine’s account of his own time within a spiritual “wasteland” (Conf. 2.10), a period when, the Church father writes, “Within me I had a dearth of that inner food which is thyself, my God” (3.1). The remainder of The Waste Land, which presents a series of examinations of religious imagery and culminates with a tenuous realization of faith, suggests the narrator’s identification with the predicament Augustine describes. The narrator equates his inability to locate a single, unifying perspective--his inability to find a logos for himself--with alienation from God.

The journey towards faith, depicted in the poem’s final section, “What the Thunder Said,” is not a comfortable one. The narrator begins by repeatedly attempting to assimilate religious perspectives into its consciousness. Assimilation is synonymous with subjugation; it is a form of conquest, and these perspectives will not submit. The narrator refuses to simply accept what he sees, and he is estranged from identification with these perspectives by his own sense of irony. He sees the image of the dead Christ on the cross (“He who was living is now dead” [328]) and quips, “We who were living are now dead / With a little patience” (329-330). He also parodies the perspective of the two travelers to Emmaus, who met the resurrected Christ and did not recognize him. (One infers this from Eliot’s notes [Waste Land 25].) Finally, though, God’s voice, the logos, is heard, speaking Sanskrit words translated by Eliot in his notes as “Give, sympathise, control” (Waste Land 25). The narrator obeys: he abandons his aloof attitude, accepts his circumstances, and submits to God’s guidance. What is most striking about the poem’s conclusion is that the presence of God does not dispel or unify the disparate perspectives within the narrator. God reveals the logos, but the logos is not assimilated--subjugated--in the narrator’s consciousness. The poem ends with him in the presence of various disparate perspectives, what it now calls “The fragments I have shored against my ruins” (431), chanting "shantih," a Sanskrit word Eliot translates as “The Peace which passeth understanding” (Waste Land 26). The “heap of broken images” remains, but it is no longer all the narrator knows. The narrator’s personal logos is still a void, but God’s logos lies beyond; acceptance and faith of this are the only comfort, the only absolute meaning.

The Waste Land dramatizes that, in terms of human consciousness, the concept of a completely unified perspective is a chimera. As the Tiresias episode in particular demonstrates, multiple perspectives may coalesce into a larger whole, but absolute unity in the consciousness, the presence of a single consolidating logos, is beyond one’s capacity. The presence of a multiplicity of perspectives does not add up to Nietzsche’s view of a “greater objectivity”; it adds up to a demonstration that, within the consciousness, there is no central underlying point-of-view. A multiplicity of perspectives not only demonstrates the lack of unity in a logos, it actively serves to undermine a logos. In so doing, it also denotes the lack of a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life. The poem almost functions as an illustration of Jacques Derrida’s dictum that:

The “rationality” […] no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in that of the logos. (10)
Eliot, though, takes this view beyond language and into the practical issue of how to live one’s life. A notoriously absolutist temperament, he can acknowledge the absence of transcendent meaning in one’s knowledge, but only by acknowledging the existence of transcendent meaning beyond man’s understanding; he turns to God when unable to find a logos within. Acceptance of the meaninglessness behind the multiplicity of perspectives employed in the quest for knowledge became, for him, an act of humility in God’s presence. He went beyond the work of his peers, who essentially used the relativistic techniques derived from Nietzsche’s thought to create striking and, at times, profound surfaces for their subjects; Eliot considered what meaning, if any, existed beyond those surfaces. In recognizing that no meaning existed beyond the surface complexity, or, further, recognizing that no deeper meaning existed because of the surface complexity, he functions as a bridge between the proto-modernist thought of Nietzsche and the post-modernist thought of Derrida. Unlike them, however, he could never embrace the nihilism he saw; his response to the nothingness was a traditional, if not reactionary, turning to God.

Notes

1. It is generally accepted that the most prominent scientific mind of the twentieth century is Albert Einstein. His major work, the Theory of Relativity, posits “The quantitative dependence of observations on the relative motion of the observer and the observed object” (OED). More specifically, he argues that space and time are relative concepts and need to be considered as such in evaluations of the motion of objects.

2. Social conservatives, who are, by their nature, most sensitive to changes in society, have identified the relativism of ethics and morality as the most characteristic shift in the century’s mores. The two most notable exponents of this view are probably Paul Johnson, the author of Modern Times, an inflammatory, rightist--though thoroughly researched--treatment of twentieth-century history, and the considerably more thoughtful Allan Bloom, the late author of The Closing of the American Mind.

3. All films are collections of photographic footage edited together. A shot sequence is simply a series of juxtapositions between multiple perspectives.

4. Most, if not all, of the twentieth century’s major artistic styles--expressionism, surrealism, et al--can be linked in their technical application to relativistic thought. The most conspicuous example is Analytic Cubism, formulated by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, which appears to be a direct transposition of Nietzsche’s ideas into artistic technique. In their History of Modern Art, H.H. Arnason and Marla F. Prather write:

Cubism altered forever the Renaissance conception of painting as a window into a world where three-dimensional space is projected onto a flat picture plane by way of illusionistic drawing and one-point perspective. The Cubists concluded that reality has many definitions, and that therefore objects in space—and indeed, space itself—have no fixed or absolute form. Together, Picasso and Braque translated those multiple readings of the external world into new pictorial vocabularies of remarkable range and invention. (181)
Picasso’s goal in developing Cubist technique was, according to André Salmon, “to give us a total representation of man and of things” (203). In other words, one can say, the intent was to present a “more complete” objectivity.

5. Edmund Wilson, in Axel’s Castle, his seminal 1931 study of twentieth-century literature, writes that Proust, in the seven-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past, “has recreated the world of the novel from the point of view of relativity: he has supplied for the first time in literature an equivalent on the full scale for [referring to Einstein’s relativity theory] the new theory of modern physics” (189).

6. In the same volume, Wilson lauds Joyce in Ulysses for “showing us the world as his characters perceive it, to find the unique thought and rhythm which will represent the thoughts of each” (203).

7. To pick one example of her work, the 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, Woolf constructs the narrative by orchestrating juxtapositions of the various characters’ points-of-view. In the novel’s most spectacular scene, featuring a perfectly mundane dinner of family and friends, Woolf builds these juxtapositions of the various perspectives to a climax akin to a symphony’s crescendo.

8. Eliot received his academic training in philosophy. The writings of F.H. Bradley, the subject of his doctoral dissertation, build upon the relativistic principles one derives from Nietzsche. For a fuller discussion of the similarities between Bradley’s thought, the ideas Eliot explores in his dissertation, and The Waste Land, see Milton Miller’s 1969 essay “What the Thunder Meant.”

9. Eliot has confirmed that this is a group of office clerks and that his intent was to evoke an Inferno-like scene in contemporary London (“Dante” 128).

10. Tiresias is a figure from Greek mythology best known from his appearances in SophoclesOedipus the King and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Oedipus the King, he is a figure of knowledge; he is the one person who knows the truth about Oedipus’ past and the nature of the plague that is afflicting Thebes. He is also blind, and, as a symbol of knowledge walking hand in hand with blindness, he foreshadows the play’s conclusion, wherein Oedipus emerges both blinded and enlightened. In the Metamorphoses, he is presented as a man who was changed into a woman and then back again. He is also granted, as compensation for his blindness, the power to see the future (Met. 3.316-338).

Works Cited

Arnason, H.H. and Marla F. Prather. History of Modern Art. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall and Abrams, 1998.

Augustine, Saint. Confessions. Trans. Albert Cook Outler. Mineola: Dover, 2002.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Touchstone, 1987.

Brooks, Cleanth. “The Waste Land: Critique of the Myth.” Modern Poetry and the Tradition. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1939. 136-172.

Dante Alighieri. La divina commedia. Ed. Charles S. Singleton and E.H. Grandgent. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Corrected ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.

Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Essays: 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt, 1932. 3-11.

---. The Waste Land. Ed. Michael North. New York: Norton, 2001.

---. “What Dante Means to Me.” To Criticize the Critic. New York: Farrar, 1965. 125-135.

Grene, David and Richmond Lattimore, eds. Oedipus the King. The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles I. 2nd ed. Trans. David Grene. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. 9-76.

Johnson, Paul. Modern Times. Rev. ed. New York: Harper, 2001.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Miller, Milton. "What the Thunder Meant." ELH 36 (1969): 440-454.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1967.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. A.D. Melville. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and Andreas Mayor. 3 vols. New York, 1981.

“Relativity.” Def. 2. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

Salmon, André. “Anecdotal History of Cubism.” La jeune peinture française. Paris: Société de Trente, 1912. 41-55. Rpt. in Theories of Modern Art. Ed. Herschel B. Chipp. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. 199-216.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Mineola: Dover, 1992.

Wilson, Edmund. Axel’s Castle. New York: Scribner’s, 1931.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. San Diego: Harcourt, 1927.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Comics Review: Nate Powell, Please Release

Nate Powell's cartooning has a lovely improvisational feel. He is a highly skilled draftsman, with rendering and design skills to match, but one never catchs him exercising those skills for their own sake. One never stops to look at Powell's panels and pages as works of art in themselves; they're completely in service to his narratives, and the exuberance of his visuals carries one along in the manner of a good jazz solo. One never knows quite where he's going, and one suspects he doesn't know, either; all that can be done is to ride the notes and rhythms out to wherever they end up.

The style is beautifully suited to Powell's subject matter. The four stories in Please Release are confessional pieces, and the jazzy visual treatment reinforces the exploring, reflective tone. Powell depicts himself as a nomadic artist and musician who supports himself working as a direct care provider for the developmentally disabled. One sees him grappling with loneliness and dissatisfaction with where life has taken him--he's heading into his late twenties, and he still has yet to settle down in any conventional way--but for all the self-pity of statements like "I'm terrified of existing ... and even more afraid of being forgotten," he remains intensely engaged with life as he lives it, whether it's playing and listening to music, or tackling the challenges involved in the care of the group-home clients with whom he works. The stories shift from melancholy to moments of active engagement to epiphanies of satisfaction in times of extreme doubt, and they're remarkably fluid and all of a piece. One might even call them lyrical.

However, as impressed as I am by Powell's work here, I can't shake certain reservations about it. The best confessional work in comics--Harvey Pekar's various strips with Robert Crumb and Chester Brown's I Never Liked You are what immediately come to mind--play the ostensibly autobiographical protagonist against the outside world with all its various personalities, mores, and challenges. The drama in Powell's stories comes from within himself. The outside world provides a setting for Powell, but it doesn't create his conflicts. It simply complements the self-portrait he presents. Confessional work can quickly become tiresomely narcissistic, and part of me wonders how patient I'd be with Powell's self-absorption if his wonderfully loose cartooning wasn't sweeping me along. I'm not going to claim that Please Release is a triumph of style over substance, but the suspicion is definitely there.



Other reviews of work by Nate Powell:

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fiction Review: Virginia Woolf, "A Haunted House"

The text of "A Haunted House," by Virginia Woolf, can be read by clicking here.

The technique of "close reading" was created by critics such as F.R. Leavis and Cleanth Brooks, and it's not a coincidence that it came to the fore in the wake of High Modernism. If one didn't engage in "close reading" of authors such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or William Faulkner, one couldn't read them at all. Old techniques such as reading for the plot result in one getting to the bottom of the first page of one of these writers' works and saying, "Huh?" I had this experience again when reading Woolf's brief 1921 story "A Haunted House" the other day. I hadn't sat down with a piece of high-modernist writing in five years, and I was confronted with how slothful a reader I'd become in the interim. I know from experience that writers such as Woolf aren't incomprehensible; one simply needs to rise to the occasion of reading them. "A Haunted House," which runs just shy of 700 words, is an excellent place to start getting one's discipline back.

A key difference between Woolf and other, more conventional writers is that she doesn't introduce elements simply for the sake of setting a scene. If she describes a room as having a chair, it's not the only time one is going to read about that chair. She'll return to it again and again, looking at it in a new way each time. She does this with every item, idea, or phrase she introduces, building her effects and the stories through the juxtapositions of the various elements and the development that comes from returning to and elaborating on them. Woolf's pieces are most aptly compared to symphonies: she introduces and reintroduces themes, juxtaposing them to create unisons and discords, which she ultimately builds to a crescendo.

"A Haunted House" tells of the experience a young couple (particularly the wife) have with a ghostly couple that haunts their home. In the second sentence, Woolf describes the ghosts with, "From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure [...]" Woolf plays with the word "here" in what follows: "'Here we left it,' she said. And he added, 'Oh, but here too!' 'It's upstairs,' she murmured." Woolf leaves the word "here" undefined, but the repetitions give it emphasis and signify its importance. She also introduces the word "it," which is left undefined, too, and the repetitions signify this word's importance as well. The story progresses through the development of the elements--the themes--of the words "here" and "it."

Woolf carries the reader along by defining everywhere "here" both is and is not; the ghostly couple find "it" and "here" in the garden, in the drawing room, in the house's upstairs, but the living wife, who narrates, can find neither in these places. "My hands were empty," she says repeatedly. Woolf creates a mystery: What is the "it," and how can many places be "here," if "here" is where "it" is? As the story progresses, we learn that the "it" is a "buried treasure," another vague reference, ostensibly concrete, that turns out to be just as abstract as "it." Woolf develops the reader's sense of the "treasure" and its value as the story continues. The piece climaxes when both "it and "here" are defined: the narrator realizes what they refer to in the final sentence.

Woolf ends on an epiphanic note, and it's a particularly modernist epiphany: one achieves a higher understanding by adding a different perspective to one's own. The narrator adds the ghosts' perspective to her view of things, and she's left with a greater understanding of "it" and "here" and "treasure" than that with which she started. Woolf implicitly has her narrator also recognize that feelings and sentiments are at least as valuable as material wealth. The story is a fine (re)introduction to the world of modernism: it demands the utmost attention on the part of the reader, reality is defined through many eyes, and it explores abstraction and the adventures of the mind. My readng life has definitely been poorer over the last five years.

Other posts discussing Virginia Woolf's works (click title to read):