Imaging Figures: #2

If Woolf points, in “Walter Sickert” (1934), to the reciprocal stewardship of persons and things, adumbrating how the one can only be the custodian of the other, what manner of seeing structures the import of custodial care? We are meant, I think, to interpret care not in the penitentiary sense, not as though the two categories were locked in a mutual keeping founded on the compulsion to comply with, to assent to, the imposition of being kept: rather, Woolf asks us to intuit that we glean “perspective” by admitting entities other than ourselves, that to look encompasses something in addition to the looker, that by augmentation we enlarge the probe of our view whose components must guard over, watch over, wait on each other in order for the viewable to endure. By implication, Woolf counsels us to suppose that “seer” and seen dovetail in a corresponding gaze, though the semantics of the grammar accessible to us conventionally forbids us the opportunity of saying that the things we observe look back and meet the decisive flare of our attention. But, in their postulating a multiple ministry of the ocular (the twinned glance, concentrated, poised), Woolf and the Conrad with whom she resonates exhort us not to confuse the means of seeing with an end.

Conrad’s Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897) adjures us to concede that the “power of the written word” can make us “hear,” and, “before all,” it can make us see” (52); thus, through the concussion of the “eye of the mind and of the body,” under the impulse of, in the presence of, vision, all our senses are loomed together. If–to rearrange the figure–“fiction” transmits the “appeal of one temperament” to “all other temperaments,” the drive to address “must” be conveyed through the envoy of the “senses,” since the network of the sensory cables our connection. Yet to what end?

As “art” may “be defined” as the “single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect,” both maker and the made commit themselves to the service of a “universe” of forces absolute to the extent that no “temperament” can command the jurisdiction to loosen, check, or subdue its sway (49). Nevertheless, the “universe” of the human “binds” the “dead to the living,” the “living to the unborn” (50), so that the notion of the “visible” incorporates the unseen, the intimations of “the other world” (237) which Woolf reads in Sickert’s paintings and which, semaphored by “line and colour,” contribute to the somatic world afforded us by the exertions of our eyes (242).

While Conrad and Woolf accord us a way of thinking about contiguity and distance, never effacing the utility of our struggle to distinguish them, the Proust of Contre Sainte-Beuve (1908-1909) maintains that the provinces of “art” and selfhood are identical, that both function to reassemble a “seer” who cannot accept the authority of time, which will always refuse the right to such convocation. Under the impress of the appetite for assembly, there are no others here–no stone, leaf, branch, or “pot.” Each must replicate the self which, conflating the means of sight and its desired end, discovers itself in what it is not, however confined, however avid for liberation. But the things themselves cannot look back, obliterated by a pair of eyes refusing them the rectitude of a devoted watch.

Consolidating means and ends, insisting that the perceptual act must be amalgamated with a reconstitution of the self beyond the mathematics of duration, the voice with which Proust presents us describes the imaginative transference which power exacts when its business is to commandeer, to dispossess. When that voice–under the auspices of the answered gaze–mimes the vigor of an intensity always unconditioned by what we ask of it, the art of making arrogates to itself the very time whose vitality it disallows. Indeed, to disallow the unstoppable is to mask a longing for its prerogatives, for the potency to stay the self’s dissolution; so that, converted into a sort of plenum, the self evacuates the fact of anything outside it. Yet evacuation consequently empties the appetitive arena in which we replenish the pool of our energies–and, without access to the radius outside us, we starve ourselves of the food we need. Hence, Proustian selfhood represents power as satiety, a surfeit voiding the ability to nurture its own continuance, unless it should embark on a self-devouring, which would occasion the decline whose mournfulness, whose powerlessness, it so strained to circumvent. In “Sympathy” (1919), however, Woolf evokes another way in which the limited can “picture” a near-junction with the illimitable:

But how death has changed everything!–as, in an eclipse of the sun, the colours go out, and the trees look thin as paper and livid while the shadow passes. The chill little breeze is perceptible and the roar of traffic sounds across a gulf. Then, a moment later, distances are bridged, sounds merged; and as I look the trees though still pale, become sentinel and guardian; the sky arranges its tender background; and all remote as if exalted to the summit of a mountain in the dawn. Death has done it; death lies behind leaves and houses and the smoke wavering up, composing them into something still in its tranquility before it has taken on any of the disguises of life. So, from an express train, I have looked upon hills and fields and seen the man with the scythe look up from the hedge as we pass, and lovers lying in the long grass stare at me without disguise as I stared at them without disguise. Some burden has fallen; some impediment has been removed. Freely in this fine air my friends pass dark across the horizon, all of them desiring goodness only, tenderly putting me by, and stepping off the rim of the world into the ship which waits to take them into storm or serenity. My eyes cannot follow. (109-110)

We can earn a “perspective” from Woolf’s story by orienting ourselves towards the kindred pathos to which its title conducts us, towards the “withness” of companioned feeling, which attempts to enunciate the energy animating the inexpressible and which the above passage depicts as an analogue of the observable. We can note the beneficence of analogy at work in the unidentified first-person voice as it refrains from the collapse ushered in by equivalence–for, struggling to remark “how death has changed everything,” it introduces the likeness couched in “as,” in “so,” and demonstrates that encountering what cannot quite be seen or said promotes likening the unknowable to the known, even while the former bolts from similitude due to the failure which the effort to liken presumes. I say “presumes” because the endeavor to assert resemblance, when it does not conceal a ravening hunger for making the (almost) seen identical with the viewer’s experience of it, for an entwining in which one element vanishes into another, counters the human wish that parallelism should be synonymous with equality.

The erasure summoned by identity is precisely all that Woolf’s modeling subverts: further, her speaker’s miscarriage with regard to striving to “follow” what will not be followed reconceives what success might look like. Informed by the newspaper of Humphrey Hammond’s death (the man who seemed always to mean “something that he could not say”), the voice we read calls on the “fancy” to build up the “moment in other people’s lives that one always leaves out,” the “moment from which all we know them by proceeds” (108). Thus, our speaker–whose namelessness drafts a simulacrum of personhood–guesses at “the meaning” of the “outward sign” of Hammond’s widow, the Celia for whom “emptiness” has “its ghost” both sensate and incapable of decipherment (108). A type of the indecipherable, death may lie “behind” things and function as a “composing,” distributive order, but Woolf’s project in “Sympathy” presages the declaration of Simone Weil when she ruminates on the Pater Noster in Attente de Dieu (1942): “il faut seulement changer la direction du regard” (167). For Woolf advises us that this is what success looks like–to look, only to look again.

Safeguarding, reciprocal stewardship, the necessity of revelation: my terms betoken risk, its correlative devotion–seeing that staving off a needless ruin warrants the magnetism of our concern–and point to the voltage which fires them, which we know merely by reference to its effects, suggesting that to deny the diction of jeopardy, to rescind the devotedness which defends what we can and cannot see from oblivion, is to vacate both of their contents. To look again, always again, thus assumes our capacity for comprehending how we have looked at all, as to alter the direction in which we look supposes the potential multiplicity of our vantage points. And the thing which merits our notice, the Celia who “wears the white veil still,” the Humphrey Hammond supine on a bed when “one bee” hums “through the room and out again,” the stone sitting on the ground in our way, shares with us in being a receptor for geomagnetic and superlunary voltages recognizable solely by means of what follows from their burgeoning charge (111). So that to repudiate the fact of the thing is to revoke the electrical enkindling whose origins our eyes cannot give us, to proceed as though the seen were not supported by the invisible.

Such support calls to us throughout Woolf’s story when death merges “sounds,” bridges “distances,” fuses “boundaries” (110), strips life of its intimacy with semblance, with seeming, and confers on our speaker the certainty of a coupled “stare.” Woolf’s speaker is “ours” because our predicaments are isomorphic: newspapers lie, or we misread them; analogies founder; the things we “fancy” we see “deceive” us (111). Yet deception enforces our reassessing “stare”: Humphrey Hammond lives, and Celia is no widow, but mourns the “father-in-law” whose name was identical to that of her husband (111). Hence, we and Woolf’s narrating “I” must revisit the act of looking in order to right the ruin we have made and which it is the toil of “Sympathy” to picture for us.

Much of the above may appear contradictory, given my contention that Woolf’s unnamed narrator quests for a likeness antithetical to identity whose attainment the story itself withholds. But withholding, when wakened to, revivifies our chronicler’s appetite for allying readerly practice with the text that elicits it. My use of a phrase associated with conjunction assumes that to partner, to marry, to combine, stipulates two parties together with the gap between them, as it is by reason of the interstitial that we enact the enterprises of longing and by means of it that we rouse up our ability to construe desire’s dictates. Nevertheless, our hazard mimics that of the Woolfian reporter who conjures it: with ease, with the familiarity posited by ease, we can choose to contract the distance between the desire to identify and to verge-on, since the reporter’s images themselves, in their prodigality, seem to quicken an equality between two differential desires, to maintain that the seen cannot conflict with the “how” of seeing.

Yet these difficulties–and the recalcitrance in which they result–will not be tranquilized by our wish to silence or to still them. Moreover, the failure to image what exceeds visualization attests to the story’s probity and to that of the voice that surrenders it to us, however unwittingly. For we commit ourselves to error when we absorb the world in the pictures we make of it. As Weil tutors us while she meditates on the Pater Noster, “nous sommes desir” (168): we may be made of desire, hewn by its shaping impulses, but the rigor of our watching-post should oblige us to interrogate the manner of our desiring.

Bruce Bromley’s book, Making Figures: Re-imagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us, from which this material is excerpted, will be published by the Dalkey Archive Press in 2013. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Out Magazine; Able Muse Review; Gargoyle Magazine; and in Environmental Philosophy, among other journals. He is Senior Lecturer in expository writing at New York University, where he won the 2006 Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence. The painting above is by Neil Merrick.