Thinking of one of Cezanne’s still lifes, say his Pommes of 1878-1882–which John Maynard Keynes bought “on his own behalf” after purchasing, for the National Gallery, nineteen works from the Degas collection auctioned in Paris in March 1918–I am reminded of its disembarkation-tale, which Quentin Bell reports in “A Cezanne in the Hedge” (1992, 138).
On the evening of 28 March, “deposited” on the “walk up to Charleston” (138), Keynes stood the Cezanne in a “hedge surmounting” a “deep ditch” (136), where it remained, due to an abundance of “luggage” which Keynes could not “manage,” outside the home of Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, until Duncan Grant and David Garnett “rescued” it after dinner (138). We can now find it on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
There, we discover what Woolf terms, in her 1918 Diary, “the 6 apples in the Cezanne picture,” whose coloration ripens “redder” and “rounder” and “greener” under the duration of our looking (140, 141). Because the picture asks that I hang on its clustered luminosity, I delay addressing Woolf’s troubled numeration. But I ponder how Woolf amends the defect of her numeracy by delivering to us, thirteen years on, in The Waves (1931), six individuals circling round a Percival whose presence they and we can palpate, yet whose voice is denied us, just as we are refused the identity of the novel’s narrator but for the typographical indices that she was there. Like Percival, her quotation-marks redouble a superaddition to the visuality that cannot quite be accounted for, even as the book represents it, this inability on our part to explain, to reckon, to reason out with sufficient exhaustiveness. Though the Cezanne yields seven, not six, apples, with Woolf we inquire: “what can” such “apples not be?” (140).
The world–of which apples here are figurative shards–will not be exhausted or drained away by the precept that it should defer to our explanations of it. Alongside Woolf, we can begin to “wonder” whether the roundness (140), the rubicundity of these fruit (scrabbled with green) is meant to reference Atalanta’s mythic course to a marriage she imagined avoidable, to memorialize and multiply the beauty, then plumply golden, she could not withstand plucking from the ground; or whether Cezanne’s apples, in their curvaceous plenty, can be seen as descriptors of the amatory exertions incumbent on our desire to realize what personhood prescribes for us, the admittance, as Simone Weil, for example, formulates it in her Cahiers (1933), that to labor is to feel with our whole selves the existence of the world, that to love is to feel with our whole selves “lexistence d’un autre” (18). If we see the painting subject to the radiance of this latter vision, its apples become visual synonyms both for the persons realized through their adherence to the twofold covenant of laboring and loving and for the bounty that adherence produces. Its maker’s apples visualize more than an intensified “we are,” given that, unlike Eve ensnared in the circuit of her ecstasy, we cannot choose to eat them: they endure the strain of our eyes. And it is the conception of “ecstasy” that takes us to Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past” (1939-1940) in her Moments of Being, because the pedagogy of the shock which attends it coaches us for what it is to look and for what may be said to do the looking (65).
My scrutiny starts with an examination of Woolf’s title, the limen through which we enter the “little platform of present time” that slides “over the depths of the past” (85, 98). Already, however, we light upon a temporal platform–undulant, liquefied–as difficult to divine as the “invisible presences” whose “depths” uphold it (80). To sketch the “impression,” the pressing in, the bearing down, of such upholding is to understand its recorder (the “person to whom things happened”) as the deputy of “any human being” who endeavors to study, from the guardhouse of the moment, a past that diverges from and sustains his look-out (65). Thus, I see Woolf’s textual industry as representative of her readers’ dilemma, to the extent that those readers militate against failing to allow for the toilsomeness of gazing back at what seems so gone from them. As I concentrate on all that Woolf’s title connotes, the sketch–in its preliminariness, in its accepting the irresolvable through never being finished–qualifies the past as it images a depth, an entirety, it cannot compute. In this sense, Woolf apprehends “relation” to mean the angle at which we picture a totality beyond our power to measure within the boundaries of any frame, implying that our vigilance lies in accounting for the space that angularity posits. Hence, any picture angles us towards what it cannot enclose and is, by definition, fragmentary, a definition that it is our human business to recollect. But what of the person engaged in recollection? How can we characterize her?
I commence by adjoining two ideas–the idea of the expanse posited by the angular and that of the being put beyond, pushed outside, the precincts of the sensory which “ecstasy” appears to impose upon us, so that under the force of ecstatic experience we are as though withdrawn to the breadth we could never decisively represent. Nevertheless, Woolf sketches both the extra-sensory. the being ousted from the sphere of the senses, and the memory that musters its refluent “impression” (65), the “firstness” of her mother sitting “in a train” while it speeds on to Cornwall, of lying “on her lap” and therefore seeing the “flowers she was wearing very close” (64), though this “firstness” is challenged by the following:
If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills–then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery in St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive. (64-65)
Given the bifurcated nature of “the first memory,” forked by “red and purple flowers” on the “black ground” of her “mother’s dress” and by the metamorphic enterprise of the above passage, Woolf exhibits that to “begin” by visualizing the inaugural image is to spawn a plurality of images (64), that there will always be more than one picture assignable to our own beginnings, that incipience occurs within a continuity, inside an “immense . . . force of life” from which each thinking body emerges and into which each is born (79). Thus, inauguration means our envelopment in a continuousness inescapably antecedent to us, to which our “relation” must be prepositional, intransitive, indirect: thus, the pictures through which we describe our experience are always at an angle to what they could never orbit round. Because many of us (often) equalize “picture,” “relation,” and “world,” the impossibility of the orbital image can only be understood as a failure to which we should capitulate. But, for Woolf, the capitulation to the “impossible” may be cast in different terms, regardless of those terms’ nearness to contradiction.
I say “contradiction” since, if we consider the “ecstasy” which Woolf impresses upon us, we confront opposing systems of discourse and of the self that resorts to them. Woolf’s recourse to depicting “ecstasy”–the delight that heaves us away from the body, though the latter springboards us into exaltation–propels its account to the verge of the ineffable. To heed the words shut in the mouth of the past, to regain the experiential images described by those words, to lever up the body: Woolf devotes herself to a eidolopoeia, to a form-making, which, while it cranes towards the inexpressible, must be grasped in accordance with some communicable foundation. If the past is never silent, if it murmurs in the ears of the present, that past, with respect to its listener’s notational exertions, assents to communication and its exigencies. Taking such a past, however, as one name for what outdoes exhaustive description, we find how the supra-discursive reaches a settlement with what it is possible for us to say, how to render that settlement (that speaking picture) with patience and distinction is to motion towards its very impossibility. And, in this manner, Woolf’s use of the conditional guides us in our reading.
When turning to the logic of if/then, Woolf hypothesizes all that follows from it. She administers, within the category of metaphor, the metonymic transfer of “life” to “base” and “bowl,” as though tendering an understructure clarified, in a limpid light, the trough both additively filled and disposed to further transmittal. But here pattern performs the work of light: it beams at the sequence that ramifies from a framework beneath which it cannot probe. That incapability of probing reflects the character of the target, missed, the aim, evaded–and rebounds on the writer whose sentences traverse a vigor they cannot “explain” (72). Such is the seemliness of Woolf’s “if” as it measures out a sentential series, each prefaced with an “it is” that conveys the memorial weight carried by the whole. The benefit of “lying” between sleep and wakefulness, between inside and out, becomes the recognition that their abutment is porous, there in the room where the sea breaches walls while it breaks on sand. Through the conditionality that orders her descriptions, the self seems “one” and “two,” an antiphon to the liquid rhythm “behind” and before the “yellow blind,” since “lying,” “hearing,” and “seeing” broadcast an accord as “impossible” as the “I” who apportions and is pervaded by it. “Ecstasy” thus designates a pervasion in which the sense are seized, only to be escaped from. We can avow that seizing; to retail our escape is to hazard the threshold of what, with Woolf, we can “conceive” but not altogether say.
Yet Woolf’s “next memory” broaches another sort of seizure (66):
It still makes me feel warm; as if everything were ripe; humming; sunny; smelling so many smells at once; and all making a whole that even now makes me stop–as I stopped then going down to the beach; I stopped at the top to look down at the gardens. They were sunk beneath the road. The apples were on a level with one’s head. The garden gave off a murmur of bees; the apples were red and gold; there were also pink flowers; and grey and silver leaves. The buzz, the croon, the smell, all seemed to press voluptuously against some membrane; not to burst it; but to hum round one such a complete rapture of pleasure that I stopped, smelt; looked. But again I cannot describe that rapture. It was rapture rather than ecstasy. (66)
If the Latinity underpinning “rapture” levels our attention at a stoppage triggered by an onrush of the sensory, this passage shows the self’s transfixion before a “whole” that voids motility as a proof of its duress. The young girl of “August 1890” and her author are transported to a “stop,” a halt, a desisting from withdrawal whose effects may be listed by reference to how they strum on human skin, ear, nose, and eye, though a total articulation of their phenomenal and emotive cause will elude any catalogue (67). The perceptible superabounds with an ebullience comparable to that of its receptor, as the latter is both suspended in her veinous skin and lexically diversified. And superabundance warrants a “stop” put to the progress of our reading, signals the question–what is this selfhood that boils over, that redoubles its representations?
Combined, the two passages forward our harking to the primacy of a sumptuous awareness, as if the hospitable “bowl” of the body were a satellite dish, a basin for the reception of impulses actuated by a “life” that stood always outside transmissive instrumentality. The first passage positions its “I” in the vicinity of the “impossible”; the second couples determinate personhood with a “one,” generalized because of its global individuality and abstract because the “hum” that spirals “round” it draws a course which words “cannot” dispatch. But the “one” who deploys them can, by their use, discriminate “rapture” from “ecstasy,” differentiate between the being riveted to sensation and boosted beyond the body’s ambit–and such activities, correlative due to their dispensing “one,” are encrypted in the semicolon usage so prevailing in the second excerpt. As semicolons punctuate a series of verbal materials whose members require internal commas; as they station, within the flexure of the sentence, independent clauses not linked by coordinating conjunctions–they arbitrate between organ and body, distribute part to “whole,” and spring back on their distributor. Intermediate between the mind’s moving forward and the attainment of an idea’s full “stop,” they also notate the intake of air essential to the long exhalation of a sentence and, with regard to clauses, witness correspondences they do not elucidate. As such, they make a gift to us of the elucidating act.
Leashing together all these significations, we find how the passage mounts variants of them on the page: sentences one, four, and five recruit the semicolon to demarcate successive elements, both phrasal and participial, devised to qualify what it is to “feel” when seized by the current of the observed. Hence, their combined constituents should aid us in ascertaining the properties of the pronoun–or, in the case of sentence four, those of the scene–they modify. Yet combination posits a “whole” which mathematics will not award us.
Woolf’s unconventional semicolon employment, her string of participles and incomplete clauses, tells us that here we meet with the myopia of an eye fixed on the part. And, since linguistic indicators of personhood, sometimes discrete, sometimes multiplying discreteness, parallel the treatment of the seen–the ways in which its concatenated units “stop” on the page before the “whole” they surmise, its pieces sieved by the senses of touch, sound, sight–we are countenanced in taking the categories of person and environment as counterparts of wholes, abstract in so far as both seem deducted from, and summaries of, ever more voluminous entireties.
Thinking later of her father, Woolf will commend to us the dual abstraction I am propounding: she culls “from a whole single qualities” which form “part of that whole,” the “whole” being “different from the qualities” of which it is “made” (110). If any depiction ratifies its referents, however notionally, infelicitously, Woolf’s culling obliges us to tarry in our study of abstraction and its purposes. I thus rephrase my earlier questions: who are these persons insusceptible to the arithmetic of their “qualities”?
Before making a rejoinder to my query and discussing what Woolf dubs the “ancestral” (68), those “exceptional moments” magnified by the “sledge-hammer” thumping of their “blow[s],” I enlarge upon the commonplace wisdom which construes the abstract in antithesis to the real and which utilizes opposition as a taxonomic principle (72). My taxonomies at once allude to the substantives they invoke and to our propensity for depicting them–to the enigmatic “conception” laboriously limned, to the thing behind or ahead of us in the space whose scale cedes us the benediction of movement (73). But if to think the concept is to commit it to becoming an apprehensible thing; if to think the object is to seal it in thought, in thought’s classifying concerns, the antagonism so habitually stressed appears predisposed to dissolution. We are parties to this undoing because of the certainty that concepts are not things, though we beget the latter by means of them, that our creations overtake their makers when, disregarding the process of their begetting, we reconceptualize them as adherents of the ground, as heirs of a nature authenticated by a radiance which will not be “stopped.” Such rethinking can, of course, function inversely: we may confound the organic object with the “conception” by whose agency we order it, so that–suborned by the play of a “force” which oppugns our possession and by which we are quickened–object and “force” are remade as simply ours. Regarding these fabulations and their consequences in the veridical world, Woolf’s approach to the “picture” will assist us in adjudicating the concord or the dissonance between abstraction and what we girdle round with the term “reality” (66, 137)–and in realizing how adjudication submits to “paint” (66).
If she “were a painter,” Woolf would stain her “first impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green,” their federation seeping “blind,” “sea,” and “passion flowers” on canvas (66). She “should make a picture that was globular” in its semi-transparency; “should make a picture of curved petals” and “shells,” of “things that were semi-transparent”; she “should make curved shapes, showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline” (66). And “everything would be large and dim”: “what was seen would at the same time be heard; sounds would come through this petal or leaf–sounds indistinguishable from sights” (66). Woolf brakes the fluency of her image-making when she remarks, farther on, that “picture” is “not the right word” for what flows from it: the ocular and the auditory, “so much mixed” (67), counsel us that we follow a synaesthetic “whole” which the conditional brush could not impart to us and which a conjurer of words “cannot describe” in the present indicative accessible to her (66). Though “what makes all images too static” is their being steeped in the fixity of their surfaces (79), their misapprehending what we “cannot analyse” slants us in the direction of the “indescribable” (111, 79), so that the abstract and the real–the palpability of “paint,” of canvas, of words on the page–seem inclined to run “together” (123).
I listen to the anaphoric pulse of Woolf’s “first impressions,” to the way in which receptive insistence marks what it cannot enumerate, the “many other than human forces” endlessly “at work on us” (133). I think of Iris Murdoch who testifies, in “Art Is the Imitation of Nature” from her Existentialists and Mystics (1997), that “abstract paintings,” their objects “dissolving into something else,” are not mere “idle daubs or scrawls, forms wandering round at random in spaces”: they tilt towards “light,” “colour,” “space,” their makers residing “not in a state of total freedom” but “relating” themselves “to something else,” to the “world where we normally take colours to be parts of objects” (256-257). Yet what can be said of personhood as it dissolves into that “something else”?
Up to this point, we have sifted through the incarnations of images from which time has been absented, the “movement and change” attributable to “one of the invisible presences” which tug us “this way and that” and which “position” us, preserve us in a meshwork of dynamics greater than–in the case of time–our globe’s axial revolutions round a burning orb (80). Hence, whether by the lip of a figurative “bowl” or by membranous tissue, the Woolfian self envisaged here conceives a twofold curb, that of a “life” measured by the “container” of its vessel and of an outside that cannot quite get in without exposure to the subjection of measurement (67). But the limitation inherent in these pictures answers to their virtue and to their poverty: human lives overleap and are overleapt by their representations, the self is not all, and I recall the “no way out” which James Hillman associates with myth in his A Terrible Love of War (2004), even as “A Sketch of the Past” institutes a different set of images for what it might mean to brave the butt intrinsic to a phrase so removed from a “state of total freedom.”
The intervals in the “nursery,” in the “garden” among the “hum of bees,” may induce astonishment at the self’s “impossibility,” at a feeling inimical to narration in the explanatory sense (70); such intervals may look to “meaning without explanation,” initiate discernment of the “unreasonable,” though their pertinence to the idea of others and to a life “lived in common” remains uncertain (83). Nevertheless, the imagistic collection subsequent to them convokes the intractable, nearly “unveiled,” “intensified” (93) by the “sudden shocks” (72) at all that Woolf and those who read her cannot “pass” or “escape,” and illustrates that the impassable constitutes much of what we live “in common” (71). Abstract because of our difficulty in grasping it, the impassable is thus akin to “reality,” just as Woolf’s predicaments typify our own.
Indeed, suicide, a sometime impotence inside the shadow of a lunging fist, and sexual molestation should not be unknown to us. As human possibilities, they are at least parts of the imaginable world. Whether as probability or as fact, they wrest from us our admission of what will brook no denial and are “ancestral” since, together, they comprise a portion of our inheritance with respect to how our species moulds time, shapes time, crafts time as though its periodic pattern were “stuff”–and merely ours. Seen in this last light, each of the above actions becomes a vestige of the mythic, given that each is instigated by the dominion of a human hand replicating, in diminished form, the “unreasonable” there seems “no way out” of. But, picturing these actions, Woolf wants us to reexamine our need to extrapolate from the particular to the generalized, to assess the ways in which extrapolation impugns our putative individuality. Thanks to the calculus essential to extrapolation, to how mind speeds along thought and its embranchments, Woolf fuses the “suicide” of “Mr Valpy,” a Cornwall neighbor, with the “apple tree” whose “grey-green” bark swells at once with maturation and resultant decay, networking man and “tree” due to their filiation from a common “force” (71). She recalls “fighting” with her brother “on the lawn”: while observing the impulse to “hurt another person” in a “trance” of apperception, the girl she was expanded into a “person” who revoked the principle that punch should retort upon punch, even as her fallen fist “let” her brother “beat her” (71). Yet if velocity of mind projects a thought forward, it can also move by retrogression, figuring an occurrence against the backdrop of its origins.
What shadows the aforementioned events, what precedes them, reveals a retrograde line of reasoning and remonstrates that our singularity is a lie.
“There,” on the “slab outside the dining room door,” Woolf’s half-brother begins to “explore” her “body” (69). He digs down “under” the “clothes” into “certain parts” which “must not be touched”; the sense that “it is wrong to allow” them to be fingered “must be instinctive,” inborn, of an agedness greater than the duration discoverable in the girl “stiffened” on a “slab” (69). But if instinct, in its priority, “proves that Virginia Stephen was not born on the 25th of January 1882,” such a confederacy of the instinctual “proves” that her readers join her in being “born many thousands of years ago,” that we had “from the very first to encounter instincts already acquired by thousands of ancestresses in the past,” that the self is backlit by its antecedents (69). I am an otherness amid what I think I know, a plurality which pre-dates myself, and everything I seem to have is not mine, but theirs.
All this the “shock” of the outside coming in makes “real” for me–and for the “us” I am (71, 72).
Bruce Bromley’s fiction was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Out Magazine; Environmental Philosophy; Gargoyle Magazine; the Journal of Speculative Philosophy; State of Nature Magazine; Able Muse Review; Glasschord Magazine; and in Pif Magazine, among other journals. Dalkey Archive Press will publish his book, Making Figures: Re-imagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us, in 2013. He is Senior Lecturer in expository writing at New York University, where he won the 2006 Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence.