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.