Samoan Barish, Ph.D.
I have long wanted to title a paper “Into the Flare and Glare” and at last I have the opportunity to do so.
Why did this phrase, uttered by Mrs. Dalloway’s former boyfriend of her youth, Peter, grab me so? I think it is because it is such an animated and beautiful rendering of Winnicott’s well-known concept of “going on being” (1956, p. 303). It was as if Peter were calling out to us (the readers) that regardless of disappointments, one’s “developmental tendencies start to unfold” (1956, p.303) and can continue to unfold as we can surmount “impingements” of all sorts, particularly if we can view life itself as a great gift to be lived fully and creatively.
While in the process of walking along on a balmy evening in June, Peter, who has freshly returned to London after many years in India, delights in the beauty and life of the city. He hears music, sees young people embracing and he reminisces about his youth with Clarissa. He notices cabs darting by and young people all about in the soft yellow-blue evening light. Though middle aged, he too is going out. He’s going to Clarissa’s party. “Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life” (Woolf, 1997, p178. ). Peter proceeds along and thinks to himself, “And so on into the flare and glare.”
Upon reading this segment of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I had a sense of elevation, joy and possible discovery, fully embracing life and its’ possibilities. I, as the reader, felt the warm air, saw the fading city lights, the gentle activities of young people going to and fro, full of anticipation and possibilities for a happy evening ahead; London was astir, coming awake. If only each of us could capture and maintain that life spirit and force as we go on into the “flare and glare” of our lives.
In keeping with our theme for the conference, “Necessary Fictions”, I have chosen to discuss Mrs. Dalloway from somewhat of a biblio-memoir perspective. Interestingly, I have read this novel at different stages of my life and will discuss the different reactions and impacts it has had on me.
First, let me briefly summarize the novel, which is a short 200 pages and takes place over just one day in mid-June 1923 in London. There are no chapters, but it is roughly composed of twelve sections. Although all the events occur within a day, the characters’ memories go back as far as eighteen years. The story opens with the phrase, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her” (Woolf, 1997, p.1). And, with that, the story is launched. Using the then new technique of stream of consciousness, Woolf gives us the opportunity to learn about the characters from their own perspectives, while also being privy to the social context in which they live.
The novel presents a double narrative, two parallel strands. The primarily line follows Clarissa, as she goes about preparing for her party that evening. We walk along with her in the streets of London. Her rich internal musings accompany her, and us. In the parallel second line, we meet Septimus, a traumatized veteran from WWI, who is in the throes of terrifying flashbacks and deeply disturbed thoughts. We experience his torment and utter anguish following him towards his eventual tragic suicide. The novel ends as Clarissa’s party is winding down and her two old friends, Lady Rosseter and Peter, are preparing to leave. Sally says, “What does the brain matter, compared with the heart” (1997, p.212 ). Peter is hanging back for a bit and he suddenly experiences intense feelings, “What is this terror? What is this ecstasy?” He wondered to himself, “What is it that is filling me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa he said. For there she was” (p212. ). Indeed, having been exposed to the rich layers of Clarissa’s and the other’s multilevel, variegated thoughts, feelings and actions is an “extraordinary and exciting” experience!
Mrs. Dalloway was a very popular and well-reviewed novel upon first publication, given high praise by critics and lay readers alike. For example, quoting from the N.Y. Times book review by John Crawford (perhaps the Michiko Kakutani of those times?) on May 10, 1925, he entitled his review, “The Perfect Hostess.” and writes, “Virginia Woolf is almost alone in the intricate, yet clear, art of her composition. Clarissa‘s day, the impressions she gives and receives, the memories and recognitions which stir in her capture in a definitive matrix, the drift of thought and feeling in the point of view of a class, seem almost to indicate the strength and weakness of an entire civilization.”
From my first reading to my last, over a more than 40 year span, I always felt invited into the story, being given the special insight into the characters, as they open up their minds to the reader, by and large without being interrupted by an external narrator! Each character is given a distinctive voice and significance. The reader is exposed to a dazzling array of perspectives, bringing home a message that all of us, characters in the novel in 1923 and in real life in 2015, experience reality differently in making sense of ourselves, our lives, our loved ones, our social world and the broader world. Indeed, the very embodiment of “psychic reality and mentalization”.
It is interesting to reflect on the ideas of the recipient of IFPE’s 2014 Hans W. Loewald Award, Thomas H. Ogden , concerning what the reader brings to a text. As I was reading Ogden, the following statement jumped off the page at me, “The reader of a novel creates the character” (Ogden, 2013, p. 628). I felt as if I had been given my own “precious gift” (Mrs. Dalloway, p.37).“And she felt she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it….a diamond, something infinitely precious…” But this was my own diamond to relish, to marvel at and to delight in its many facets, reflecting prisms of light. Maybe that’s why I was always a little out of sorts watching the well-made movie version with Vanessa Redgrave, and couldn’t quite explain why. I thought the movie makers had done a rather good job of conveying the essence of this short novel and yet?? Then, I understood, upon reading of Ogden, where he said, “It is almost always disappointing for me to see a film that is based on a novel I have loved and I’m left with someone else’s images, which have little to do with my experience of reading and My Very Personal Connection with the Characters that the Author and I have Created” (Ogden, 2013, p. 628)
These notions are akin to Ogden’s development of the concept of “the analytic third” and the paradigm of the mother and infant creating a third mind to which each contributes and from which each accrue individual meanings. Thus, a main idea that runs through much of Ogden’s work is the notion that “It takes at least two people to think” (Ogden, 628). Ogden takes the leap and suggests that any text as experienced by an individual reader becomes an individual and original text and thus a new creation as it were. His conception of intersubjective thinking and feeling (analytic third) goes some distance for me in understanding what Mrs. Dalloway has meant to me. I never thought of it before in the light that I have participated in creating “my Mrs. Dalloway” with the enormously gifted, tormented, and long dead, Virginia Woolf..
I first read Mrs. Dalloway in my early twenties, and I liked it very much at the time. I was particularly entranced with Virginia Woolf’s writing style. Her analogies, similes and metaphors simply took my breath away. I remember writing some of them down in a little notebook that is now long gone. I was taken with the mystique of Virginia Woolf, her early feminism, her interest in androgyny, bisexuality and her stream of consciousness writing, not to mention her illustrious family, her traumas growing up that included sexual molestations at the hands of her older half-brothers. There were also her wondrous diaries, her mental anguish and suffering, and finally her tragic suicide. As much as I was taken with Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway on this first reading, it did not affect me as profoundly as on later readings.
Much had changed in my life by the time I reread Mrs. Dalloway when on the cusp of entering middle age. This time, I found myself identifying with Clarissa in a way I could not have imagined earlier, being just a bit older than her daughter in the novel. Now, I was nearly the same age as Clarissa, and I had an entirely unexpected affective experience. I was simply stunned! I don’t think I have ever responded to a novel quite that way before or since.
My husband and I had recently moved to another area, which was very exciting, but a huge life change for us. In this ‘up’ frame of mind, I vividly recall going to an upscale grocery store for ingredients for my daughter’s first Passover dinner and I stopped to give myself a treat. I decided to have a cappuccino and a piece of cake, at which time I continued my reading of Mrs. Dalloway. Suddenly, I was taken aback by my strong reactions and feelings. As I read, I felt I was in the process of being given a treasured and “infinitely precious” gift, even though the strength of my reaction was totally unexpected. In retrospect, I believe I completely resonated with the life affirming nature of the novel.
At various times, I have thought about the impact this novel has had on me. In conjunction with my analyses and life experiences, I came to realize that that this work of Virginia Woolf opened up and enabled me to value certain ways I am that I had never been able to acknowledge before. In fact, these ways had gotten played down in my earlier years. Now, I was more able to identify the nature of my own gifts and place a higher value on them. Truly, I was now able to locate myself in the “ebb and flow of things.”
I saw Clarissa as claiming herself, the nature of her gifts, what she had to offer, her love of life, her vitality and appreciation of every minute, despite the men in her life, not really understanding or appreciating her motivation for entertaining and having parties. Knowing full well that others did not value her full worth, she was in a psychological space where she could own her gifts and did not need these important to confirm them. I found myself very much resonating with this, as I was beginning to value my own life more.
Mrs. Dalloway, upon returning home after choosing flowers for her party says, “It was her life, bending her head over the hall table, she bowed beneath the influence, felt blessed and purified, saying to herself, as she took the pad with the telephone message on it, how moments like this are buds on the tree of life….(as if some lovely rose has blossomed for her eyes only)…one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments….”(Woolf, 1997, pp. 29-30). Reading this became an “exquisite moment” for me. Clarissa’s words became “nutriment for” my thinking as Ogden (2013, p. 628) would say. After reading Ogden’s idea of creating ourselves in others writing, I realized that was just what I had been doing, unbeknownst to myself.
Early on in the novel as Clarissa is walking through the streets of London, she finds herself thinking about her lack of worldly knowledge, her limited education, believing she was not especially clever. BUT, she goes on to acknowledge to herself that “her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct.” As the party drew closer, Clarissa thought about how her husband Richard and her former suitor Peter had both devalued her for liking to throw parties. Peter thought she gave the parties because wanted to associate with famous people, while her husband Richard thought it was foolish, childish and not good for her health (Woolf, 1997, p.131). But, “Both were quite wrong. What she liked was simply life….That’s what I do it for … They’re an offering ….What did it mean to her, this thing called life? … She’s thinking of someone she knew in different parts of town who didn’t know each other and she felt what a waste…what a pity, if only they could be brought together, so she did it. It was an offering; to combine; to create.” She knew full well, for all of Richard’s and Peter’s judgmental critiques, that neither of them would be capable of “giving a party for no reason”, but she could!
With surprise I realized that I had similar desires. I have always loved to create a social environment where I could introduce people to like-minded folks and derive pleasure from doing so. I’ve always liked to entertain and set up an atmosphere for interesting and lively conversation. The decisions of who to invite, “to create and combine,” as well as the preparations, have given my life meaning and purpose.
I always thought this characteristic in me was a bit strange, especially because I have so many other aspects of my life that give me meaning and purpose: my family, our friends, my work, my profession, my husband’s work ,our commitment to what we do, our travels, etc. But, I’ve come to see there’s also something else that contributes to our rich life .There’s something particularly enlivening for me to have a group of people around a dining table sharing parts of our lives and experiences. It’s a pleasure and a joy. I never thought about it before reading Mrs. Dalloway and to be sure the times are different, our social classes are different, my preparations extend far past “going to buy the flowers,” not to mention the after party clean up. But, Clarissa’s life giving aspect is something I share and had never valued before.
Thank you, Virginia Woolf!
Interestingly, my current rereading of Mrs. Dalloway has found me in yet a different place. I continued to respond to her exuberance and her heightened sense of being alive. “What a lark. What a plunge.” Mrs. Dalloway recalls her summers in Bourton and when she and her young friends would open the French doors and go bounding out into the fresh country air and the effervescent quality of being. But now, I found myself also very aware of the undercurrents of awareness of mortality. I imagine this both because I am older and more sensitized to my eventual demise, and because of the paper I gave last year at IFPE, entitled “The Edge of Space,” which heightened my awareness of the inevitability of death for me, and for all of us and our loved ones.
After having returned from her walk in the city, Mrs. Dalloway goes up to her room, takes off her hat, places it on her bed, and thinks to herself “narrower and narrower would her bed be.”(Woolf, 1997, p.32) That phrase lingers in my mind. Of course, we readers are confronted with Septimus’ unspeakable mental/emotional suffering, his horribly insensitive psychiatric treatment and his ultimate suicide. Thus, in many different guises throughout the novel, death is in the air and indeed in the very streets of London, and in Clarissa’s party that very evening.
“A young man has killed himself. He had been in the army. .Oh! Thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death,…”(Woolf, 1997, p200. ).
Last year in Philadelphia our conference was entitled “Transience and Permanence”. My presentation title, riffing off Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Of Mere Being,” was a phrase in this short poem, “The Edge of Space.” He wrote this poem during the last year of his life, when he knew he was dying of stomach cancer. The poem is brief, only 12 lines, and conveys the liminal world between living and dying. It expresses something that is actually beyond our comprehension, our dying. Exploring the limits of our living and dying “at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought”, and “on the edge of space.” The poem is ambiguous and ineffable. In the paper I was trying to create a space from which we could begin talking about our own deaths and the possible benefits that could accrue from engaging in such a daunting inquiry. It’s oft been said that we can only fully appreciate the living of our lives when we can grapple with its ending.
Thus, hand in hand with Mrs. Dalloway’s love of life and appreciation for every moment was her awareness of her mortality. Walking towards Bond Street, Clarissa asks herself, “Did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely all this must go on without her…Was it consoling to believe that death ended absolutely, but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived?” (pp. 7-8).
Later on in the novel, after appreciating her gifts, “her offerings for the sake of offerings,” she goes on to ponder, “All the same, that one day should follow another… that one should wake up in the morning, see the sky, walk in the park, meet her old friend Hugh; then, suddenly in came Peter, and Richard unexpectedly and he gave her the roses. It was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!-that it must end and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how every instant … ”
Rebecca Mead in her biblio-memoir entitled “My Life in Middlemarch” tells us that George Elliot “has given me a profound experience with a book…. I have grown up with George Elliot. I think Middlemarch has disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance. Middlemarch inspired me when I was young, and chafing to leave home; and now in middle life, it suggests to me what else home might mean, beyond a place to grow up and grow out of”(2014, page 266).
According to Mead (2014, p. 265), George Elliot, whom Virginia Woolf greatly admired, wrote in a condolence letter, “I try to delight in the sunshine that will be when I shall never see it anymore.” This is much like the beginning Zen koan that grabs the opposite in a seemingly visual way, dislocating us from our identity: “What was your original face before your parents were born?” Zen practitioners focus on this as if it were a mantra, until they can answer it based on a crisp intuitive insight (not an abstract exercise).
For me, upon my most recent rereading of Mrs. Dalloway, I realized that I was being given an opportunity to grab the opposites, working with life and death, coming together.
Once again, thank you Virginia Woolf!! Your “precious gift” endures, enriching me and mine through all these many years.
Ogden, T.H. (2013). Thomas H. Ogden in Conversation with Luca DiDonna, Rivista di Psicoanalisi, 2013, LIX, 3., pp. 625-641.
Winnlcott D. W. (1956). Primary maternal preoccupation. In: The maturational processes and the facilitating environment, p. 300-5. New York: lnternational University Press, 1965.
Woolf, V. (1997/Originally published in1925). Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co. (Harvest Editions).
If you would like to contact Samon Barish, her email is SamoanB@verizon.net