Saturday, August 27, 2005

To the Lighthouse and Beauty

Indeed [Mr. Ramsay] seemed to her sometimes made differently from other people, born blind, deaf, and dumb, to the ordinary things, but to the extraordinary things, with an eye like an eagle's (107).
There's this excellent interplay between beauty (Mrs. Ramsay) and intellect (Mr. Ramsay) in To the Lighthouse that I'm ashamed to say I completely missed the first time around. Sometimes Woolf seems to say: beauty is ordinary and intellect is extraordinary, as she does in the passage above. For now, let's focus on the former.

In a way, human beauty is extremely mundane. Beautiful people lack the imperfections, the abnormalities that most people have - at least on the outside, they're so normal that they're abnormal. I think this is one of the reasons why beauty is so sought-after: it solves the typical high school conundrum of how to stand out yet still fit in. Simply standing out is too lonesome; simply fitting in is too anonymous. The solution is to be acceptably exceptional.

Mrs. R is such a convincing character because of the way she deals with her beauty. Mr. Bankes's perception is accurate:
…or if one thought of her simply as a woman, one must endow her with some freak of idiosyncrasy - she did not like admiration - or suppose some latent desire to doff her royalty of form as if her beauty bored her and all that men say of beauty, and she wanted only to be like other people, insignificant. He did not know. (48)
Yet she feels offended when Augustus Carmichael snubs her:
And after all - after all (here insensibly she drew herself together, physically, the sense of her own beauty becoming, as it did so seldom, present to her) - after all, she had not generally any difficulty in making people like her… She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered; and after all, veil it as she might, and shrink from the monotony of bearing that it imposed on her, her beauty was apparent. (64-65)
These two quotes seem contradictory, but they both go back to the same impulse mentioned earlier. In the former, she's trying to fit in; in the latter, she's trying to stand out. Much of her day seems to be a balancing act between these two things - for whether she admits it or not, she wishes to be liked and admired as much as her husband, in spite of her 'extraordinary' beauty and his 'extraordinary' intellect.

Monday, August 22, 2005

My grandma would pwn Thoreau at Freecell, though.

Right now I sleep in the same bedroom as my grandma, and last night I asked her why so many people stop making friends and getting together with their own friends after they graduate college and start their own families.

She discussed many reasons – about how white-collar workers use their brains so much during the day that they just need to relax and not use their brains anymore when they’re off from work, about how there’s simply no time, or when there is time the other person doesn’t have time, about how there’s this sort of embarrassment among adults past a certain age to talk about anything more profound and relevant than “How are the kids?” and politics and so on.

I tried to ask if adults found it lonely, but due to language barriers it came out as “Do they find it boring?”

And she said no, because adults are a lot more capable of independent thought, which as she elaborated struck me as a pretty satisfactory answer to the intended question, as well.

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. (p. 108, Walden)
Thoreau would probably disdain my grandma since she’d old, and my grandma would probably disdain Thoreau for being that oxymoron, the intellectual American. But they’re pretty much of one mind on this point: they both think that their own thoughts are more companionable than actual people.

On the one hand, this seems like a rather selfish and/or arrogant philosophy. Both Thoreau and my grandma seem to like holding forth on their own opinions, despite the fact that they easily tire of the company and opinions of others. Like: why should we listen to them when they don’t want to listen to us?

But then, how nice it would be to have such fruitful thoughts that one needs no conversational stimulus to set the mind afire! And how nice it would be to be so self-sufficient, companionship-wise. I sort of hope I’ll attain the companionship of my own interesting thoughts at some point, but maybe without the weariness of society that seems to accompany it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Harry looked around; there was Ginny running towards him; she had a hard, blazing look in her face...

This post from The Valve talks about the appeal of Harry Potter. Before Rowling, there were books about school, books about magic, and books about school and magic, but never books about magic schools.
[Little kids] want the comforting, rather repetitive opportunity to feel the way they want to feel about fairly ordinary things - school friends and hard classes and homework and mean teachers. But they also want the fantastic.
As Holbo says, the fantastic is a reason in itself for Harry Potter's appeal. But it's not enough - a book simply about Hogwarts the magic school with episodic bad-guy attacks (a la Sailor Moon) would not have made J.K. Rowling this rich. What makes the Harry Potter books such page-turners is that the ordinary occupies an elevated position; schooltime has become essential.

In other young-adult books about school and magic (e.g. K.A. Applegate's Animorphs or the Spiderman series), the scenes which took place in school were mostly background, to get you to sympathize and identify with these heroes that are just like us. Both the character(s) and the reader usually just spent classtime worrying about what was happening outside - Have the Yeerks taken over my parents yet? Is Doc Oc at this very moment torturing helpless citizens? If we cared about what went on in these scenes at all, it was only because we cared about the character. These series also had both the fantastic and the ordinary, but they weren't inextricably linked. Peter Parker could have dropped out of school, and it wouldn't have adversely affected his ability to stop crime.

But with Hogwarts, it's all of a sudden necessary that Harry stay in school and hone his Quidditch skills because he'll need all this in his final battle. The school scenes are just as exciting and fun as the fight scenes because learning has become part of the fight. Throughout the entire book, something is at stake - Rowling even tries to make a case for the necessity of the love-affair subplots:
'You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!' said Dumbledore loudly. 'The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort's! In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, just as pure as you were at the age of eleven, when you stared into a mirror that reflected your heart's desire, and it showed you only the way to thwart Lord Voldemort, and not immortality and riches.' (478)
It's treacly, but now we know that even Harry and Ginny's heart-warming puppy love is crucial to Harry's success.

In short, Harry Potter gives you, vicariously, a little bit of what you've always wanted - the assurance that the everyday activities and problems you go through have a deeper importance. They probably don't, but that's what escapist fiction is for.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Thank You For Tuning In (Henry James's The Europeans)

Attempts to answer my original question ("What is the consequence of being self-contained and unaffectable by outside circumstances?") re: Henry James's The Europeans have proven pretty tricky. I think it can be answered, but I'll need to explore it in more detail than we are accustomed to.

This post will focus exclusively on married couple #1: Felix & Gertrude, and you can decide whether you care this much. A good portion of the novella is spent on this relationship - they are the Mr. Bingley and Jane of the novel, if we are to use the Pride and Prejudice analogy. It is actually a good analogy here because, although they encounter their fair share of obstacles, the love that the sunny Felix and eccentric Gertrude feel for each other never falters and only grows stronger. All obstacles to their love are external; viz., a jealous ex-suitor, a disapproving father.

It may seem counterintuitive, what with the madcap passion that Felix feels for Gertrude and his willingness to stay forever in America for her, but I maintain that Felix has not changed by the end of the book. The key, I think, is this:
[Felix's] sentient nature was intrinsically joyous, and novelty and change were in themselves a delight to him. (53)
See? It's in the nature of Felix to be affectable by outside circumstances - by changing, he's still being true to himself.

With Gertrude: Although she is not as pliant as Felix, she too readily changes in the direction that she wants herself to change in. She has always wanted to be more extroverted, more uninhibited, and Felix helps her to be these things. By the end of the novel, the quiet Gertrude has become wry and opinionated. But you still sense that she is on a certain predetermined path - when Mr. Brand (the aforementioned jealous ex-suitor) tries to tell her that she is cruel, she feels only rage.
She said to herself that it was quite right that she should not allow him to make her believe she was wrong. (102)
She's willing to re-evaluate herself, but only under a certain light.

Mr. Wentworth, Gertrude's father, warns his family from the very beginning to be wary of these newcomers, Felix and Eugenia.
'You must keep watch. Indeed, we must all be careful. This is a great change; we are to be exposed to peculiar influences. I don't say they are bad; I don't judge them in advance. But they may perhaps make it necessary that we should exercise a great deal of wisdom and self-control.' (48)
But even though both Gertrude and Felix have changed, it's only been in the direction that their nature has dictated - they have not been radically altered from what they probably would have become anyway.

My original question has to be answered in light of this - the way that Gertrude and Felix have changed, but not really. Are they any better or worse than the person (i.e., Eugenia) that doesn't change because it's in her nature to stay the same? Or is Eugenia simply being perverse and greedy, since it's in everybody's nature to change? All these exciting questions and more will be answered (to some extent) in a future installment.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Easily the Most Disjointed Post on this Blog

People seem to think that these new Dove billboards, featuring "REAL women with REAL curves," are either some sort of aesthetic revolution, or they wish that Dove would stop giving them an eyesore.

I think that these billboards really won't change the way that we perceive beauty fundamentally, and that doesn't seem so bad.

By fundamentally, I mean that whether it's by changing your body to meet some universal standard of beauty, or changing that standard to meet your body, everybody still wants to be beautiful. It doesn't matter how hard you try to revise or expand that definition - most people will still feel like they don't meet it as fully as they'd like to.

But aren't unattainable ideals the stuff that life's made of? Truth, love, justice, etc. - so many of them seem to have been given the boot by so many people, yet everyone still appreciates beauty. Like Thoreau says:
In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high. (Walden, p. 24)

But here's the problem with what I've written so far: I argue that people should struggle for ideals, but is the person who struggles to be beautiful actually struggling for an ideal? Or is she merely struggling so that someone may think that she is "easily the most beautiful person in the room"? In other words, does she want to be beautiful, or does she only want other people to see that she is beautiful? (Let's not get into whether or not those two can be separated.)

Milan Kundera said in Immortality that fashion has ceased to be art because it makes no progress; I think the metaphor he used was that it's become a pendulum that goes back and forth. Human beauty can't really be art then, either, unless you count plastic surgery as progress.

So if beauty isn't an ideal, or an artform, there must be another reason why everyone is so preoccupied with it. This is a pretty spoony answer, but it's the best I can come up with: maybe it's because it's a uniting struggle. If everybody's self-conscious and worried about beauty, then it's something that people have got in common and can bond over (see: girls and shopping, boys and girl-watching).

I see problems with this answer too, but I think I'll just shut up and go back to reading Henry James.