Wednesday, October 30, 2013
On Thursday, I surprised myself and my students when I observed that without time there are no existential questions. They looked at me blankly for a few moments and then scribbled madly in their notebooks.
We are working away at To the Lighthouse, which I have had to see in an entirely new way, imagining how an undergraduate would experience it, not how a 63-year-old scholar would attempt to explain its aesthetics. This creates a funny kind of doubleness for me, since I think one of the novel's most intense and characteristic concerns is voiced by adolescent James just as he, his sister, and his father are about to arrive at the lighthouse. When he had been young, this place he so badly wanted to travel to was
"a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening. Now--James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it? No, the other was also the lighthouse. For nothing was ever simply one thing."
But it was the "Time Passes" interlude that we were working on. I'd pointed out that toward the end of "The Window" existential questions began to rush in, with Mrs Ramsay wondering "Where are we going to?" and Mr Ramsay musing, "What was the value, the meaning of things? There's also a figure in the "Time Passes" section that comes back three or four times--a figure who cannot sleep and so who walks down by the beach pondering even more existential questions: "Meanwhile the mystic, the visionary, walked the beach, stirred a puddle, looked at a stone, and asked themselves 'What am I?' 'What is this?' and suddenly an answer was vouchsafed them (what it was they could not say)." After war begins, a purplish stain upon the sea intrudes "into a scene calculated to stir the most sublime reflections and lead to the most comfortable conclusions....It was difficult blandly to overlook [the changes wrought by the war], to abolish their significance in the landscape; to continue, as one walked by the sea, to marvel how beauty outside mirrored beauty within." The war, it seems, has changed even our relationship to beauty, questioning the Kantian notion that the beauty of the world has been arranged to appeal to the beauty of our souls. It's not only that time makes existential questions possible; history demands such questions.
As I drove through Wascana Park on the way to the university a few days later, I thought again about time passing and existential questions, thinking that in some ways fall is the most existential of seasons. Perhaps because we know we are heading for winter and have no idea whether this year will bring six feet of snow into our back yards or two weeks of 30 below, we watch time and change eagerly, apprehensively. Every day brings change. My eyes adapt to the beauty of trees and their naked architecture; at the same time I search the Wascana Lake shoreline for the bronzy gold of an aspen or the grey-green of the stubborn Russian Olives. My garden has been shutting down for a month, yet the leafless trees let more light into my kitchen and allow me to see the birds at the feeder. If we think the nights are getting longer for us, how much longer they are getting for them.
At other times I become a student of light. How many ways can I write about light? I've been sitting in my bedroom, which faces south and west, watching the late afternoon light turn from blue and silvery gold close to the horizon, which I can now see because the elm tree across the street is now bare, to blue and brilliant, improbable pink. Earlier this week, I drove through the park to see the lake all still and pewter, like an elegant silver-haired woman in grey. This morning, when I drove through early for my breakfast with Katherine, the trees were a complex calligraphy, an inky black next to the lightening horizon that had no colour I could name: it was simply and purely light.
When I am not studying light, I simply feel empty. I have written only two posts this month--the least I've written since I started the blog. Except when I am teaching, I seem to be thinking nothing except how to get my marking done and how to plan my days so that the machinery of teaching and preparing and writing up assignments and marking those assignments doesn't break down. I keep saying "I've got this. I'm on top of this." But a question lies beneath or behind that assertion. Perhaps there is a different way to understand what I told my students: without time to reflect, the questions disappear. What replaces them?
at 10:43 PM