Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Waves, Virginia Woolf

        "How strange," said Susan, "...Something irrevocable has happened. A circle has been cast on the waters; a chain is imposed. We shall never flow freely again."
        "For one moment only," said Louis. "Before the chain breaks, before disorder returns, see us fixed, see us displayed, see us held in a vice.
        "But now the circle breaks. Now the current flows. Now we rush faster than before. Now passions that lay in wait down there in the dark weeds which grow at the bottom rise and pound us with their waves." The Waves, p.142
In all the books I've read by Virginia Woolf, there's some variant on this occurence: a social event brings the characters of the book together, but the event ends up being nothing more than a chaos of individuality. Then, abruptly, the characters are bonded for a few moments before it all falls apart again. (See, for example, this passage in To the Lighthouse:
Some change at once went through them all, as if this had really happened, and they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against that fluidity out there.)
But I'm fond of the above passage in The Waves because it emphasizes how the bonds that develop between people at such gatherings can also be chains, forcing you to behave in accordance with everyone else, to obey the dictates of the perceptions they have of you. Or more often, there's no bond at all, but you're chained to the charade of pretending a bond exists.

Observe last-period Biology, Thursday afternoon. Half the class was sitting on stools around a lab table, for we had been given a free period. I forget what they conversed about - college, or how we're all bad drivers, or how unfair our parents are. But from my vantage point on the other side of the room (where I was ostensibly reading The New York Trilogy), patterns surfaced. The conversation went in waves. As in, somebody would say something, someone else would say something, then someone would interject with a witty comment, and everyone would break out into laughter. Repeat. It was an ineluctable rhythm.

Although these bonds/chains may structure interaction, they completely inhibit self-definition. All individual opinions and thoughts are impatiently shoved aside rather than probed. People become traits, for it is too tiring to explore what one really wants to think and do. Instead, one trims off all the excesses and becomes the cynical one, or the silent one, or the stupid-funny one. This way, one doesn't have to worry about oneself, whose complexities interfere with the bonding. And then if everyone else does the same thing you don't have to worry about getting to know their complexities, either. That's really how it's always been, and lately it's just gotten exhausting.

The solution, I concluded, was to be more solitary. When you're alone, you don't have to simplify yourself. You can ooze in whichever direction you'd like. And that's how you explore, that's how you fashion a self.

When I was done reflecting, the first thing I did was search out a friend, so that we could disdain social interaction together.
We are more complex than our friends would have us to meet their needs. Yet love is simple. The Waves, p.89

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

School Fosters Anti-Intellectualism

But the reason you haven't heard about it is because instead of protesting, we watch Nip/Tuck with glazed eyes.

Friday, September 09, 2005

To my older self

When Thoreau first went on about how he had never learned a single thing from old people, I pooh-poohed him. But lately, it's come to my attention how alarmingly silly many old people are. So when Proust says in The Guermantes Way:
How many women's lives, lives of which little enough is known (for we all live in different worlds according to our age, and the discretion of their elders prevents the young from forming any clear idea of the past and taking in the whole spectrum), have been divided thus into contrasting periods, the last being entirely devoted to the reconquest of what in the second had been so light-heartedly flung to the winds! (249)
I have to admit that he makes sense - absence does make the heart grow fonder. It is possible, then, that instead of being wise and perceptive I will become one of the vain old women on Nip/Tuck who require monthly Botox injections. Or a money grubber, a pretentious dogmatist, or one of those insipid suburban moms who do nothing but drive their kids to soccer practice and read chick-lit. Nobody really wants to be these people; yet they exist.

It's a dreary thought. Far from improving upon my flaws and bad habits, growing older might cause me to develop new ones.

So just in case it turns out that I am wiser now than I will be later (God forbid!), or because I might have a better vantage point from which to comment on certain things since it's all so far-removed, I think I'm going to start writing down notes to myself. Plastic surgery is ridiculous not only because it's self-indulgent and a waste of money, but because it propigates beauty stereotypes and makes other people feel unattractive, thus causing an endless feedback loop. Plus, just looking younger doesn't make you younger - you'll have to deal with the fact of old age sooner or later, so you might as well learn to live with it sooner. And anyways, nobody takes nubile women seriously. Stuff like this seems so intuitive right now, but I'll write it down just in case I think differently later. That way, I'll at least have a reason to reconsider.

Now if only my older self could write notes to me.

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.