Imaging Figures #5

Montauk Lighthouse at Night

“There,” on the “slab outside the dining room door,” Virginia Woolf reports in A Sketch of the Past (1939-1940), Gerald Duckworth, her much older half-brother, begins to “explore” her “body” (69). She is still “very small” (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 age greater than the duration discoverable in this 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 all of us, in diverse ways, “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 predates 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).

Or so Woolf would have us think.

Yet to read such moments with sufficient fullness, to detect how they are “connected,” we must struggle, always, to reassemble them (71). Reassembly centralizes our attention on parts tending towards a “whole” which undoes their mere totaling up; it also underscores our participation in what envisioning means, since we will have remade the “scale,” the “scaffolding,” by which any human life is upheld, even if it must be more, that life, than the metaphors appendant to it (72, 73). Our metaphoric profusions, the ways in which we transfer the attributes of one thing to another along a line of likeness, of kinship, nevertheless affect the comportment of our thought together with that of the behaviors conjugated by it–and all dispense the vision that we undertake in common. Adapting Thomas Hardy’s Moments of Vision, and Miscellaneous Verses (1917), Woolf neither replaces “vision” with “being” nor conflates the two terms: in its collective significations, “vision” signposts “moments of being” and the “shock” which heralds their advent (73). To undergo exhumation, to succumb to our unearthing from a tumulus of inattention, to accept that the pictures of our succumbing will always be unfinished: these verb phrases meet in the momentary “being” of sudden sight. But the far-sightedness open to us must be prepared for, equipped with our cognizance of an apprehending eye, mind, and the “shock” which actuates both. However brief the “blow[s]” that enkindle me into “being,” I can remember them; out of their sequencing, I initiate a thinking through the irradiation of their images (72). Doing so, I rally what it was–and will be–to have been.

With Woolf, we can recognize: I irrupt into an outside forever incomplete with respect to me. When my sense-faculties encroach on completeness, on within and without consummated, divisionless under the rush of feeling, my body foils its anticipated union: the almost impossibility “that I should be here” reinstates an “I” inevitably unyoked from a “whole” it cannot recover (65). Enraptured, that “I” may be unable to relate the thoroughness of its arrest, yet it can educate itself in the slow “stop” over the details of the visible and learn not to covet their capture (66). Thus far, “shock” names a psyche bruised by where it cannot go, what it cannot do; such negations nevertheless instruct me that to think calls for things exterior to the thinker, forerun my collisions with an outside whose “horror” it is possible for me to meet (71). The interiority of mind required for that meeting shows me what thinking can effect, as ascertaining the “suicide” of a “Mr Valpy,” of someone else seen by though unknown to me, I struggle my way into watching the moment before declination, speculate on thoughts amassed before a succeeding fall (71)–the world contains nothing but my despair of it, or anything except my skills in abiding an extent wide enough for a mind that imprints itself on, that excises itself from, a span I do not know how to match. Such speculations, notwithstanding their accuracy or imprecision, demonstrate the imperious belief that loss must be repaired by the spotting of its ocular equivalent, such as “the apple tree” that Woolf links with the death of her Cornwall neighbor (71). As if human minds were slung together, the one compensating for what the other could not persevere in, I revive, remake the lost in the kin I propose for him, an aging tree, a fallen branch, any object fashioned and subverted by time, whose progressive infringement on things is all I grasp of it.

A probable definition of “horror” here, out of so many, is that the lost is not mine; a thing among things, he declines the restoration I ordain for him and the pronouns by which I submit that he was there. In that lies his gift to me, as both he and the world are unequal to my need that they should be requisitioned. But there are other forms of restitution, of revision, and these can be tested under the searchlight of “reason” (72). Furthermore, “reason[‘s]” practice of parsing out–of resolving–an ensemble into its constituent elements through engrossed cogitation inserts an indefinite hiatus in the midst of action, signalizes the trial of a new “shock”; so that, if the outside will come in by means of a penetrative fiat, I at once suffer that piercing and behold it from a prepositional standpoint, from a mental distance, in order to “explain it” (72). Of course, to “explain” my penetration is to recast those actions within my reach, as well as that “I” fledged by the mindful interim between itself and the inescapability of its penetrator. There is a yielding which consorts with rejection: when my brother or any other figure hurls himself at me as though to enforce the nuptials of one punch and another (71), I can–as my fist unclenches, descends to the ground–disdain that enforcement and reclaim the capability of failing to be requisitioned, an aptitude I retain while the pumping volley does not “stop,” since (for my antagonist) I am solely a shred of matter under the gravity of his will. And if the “instinctive” can be contemplated, its liaison with what uplifts it allows for a reasoning out, a winnowing out, a “revelation of some order” beneath its drift (72). Even when overmastered, I can think in concert with all that the body appears to tell me.

Yet, in regard to syntax, to its customary organization in the air and on the page, “mind,” “body,” “I,” and “me” are discriminative terms, moored to articles fixed by their severance from one another, whereas my overmastering rejoins the once separable and furthers thought under the aspect of what it is to act. Despoiled of interiority by a subject whose prodding maintains that inside will replicate out if both are converted into a redundancy of flesh, a void of stuff raided from diverse positions by what must go on looming over it, I am, for my violator, the evacuation he assigns to me. But even under his fingers–those of my half-brother, of his behavioral counterpart–I am not the lacuna he makes of me nor identical with my despoliation. For the incantation of my “resenting, disliking it” befogs my capacity for lighting on “the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling,” which, because of its dumbness, of its hybridized properties, appears so large, so monumental, that its anteriority subvenes in this very moment when I sit propped on a “slab” (69). I intuit myself, by means of a depredator’s hands, of the instincts they smart in me, as a meditative body that retrogresses from effect to cause: since the former outbalances its patent instigation, effect and cause seem preponderated over by prehistories I cannot know, he cannot know, though one description of duty may be our recognizing how the prehistorical neighbors on us, renders us more populous than two individuals latched to a singular event. We can each temper “feeling” with the cognitive distance fundamental to reasoned, reflective thought; and such a feat will carry us, if we let it, to the intuition of origins whose remoteness seems to belie the lone particularities we understood we were. Yet, lowering my eyes, I see a man who pinpoints his concentration on plundering an integrity already vaporized before he touches it. While his hands–inspectorial, motivated by a hunger more unsparing than its name–dig under my clothes, while a finger starts the slow push in, he perceives neither the psychic footage between himself and his exertions nor what could otherwise have been done with it, how, under the gravitation of desire, he need not have become equivalent to that desire’s object. Going in, he finds nothing but himself, a thing mechanized by an autocracy he failed to contemplate and to be responsible for.

The “shock” of his entry nevertheless goads me to retrace those other “shocks” startling “being” into play: I have lain in a fetal bed between house and sea, among the intercommunion of sound and sight; have stood in a “gummy” film before a world I did not know how to reach (66); stirred at the “horror” of a death I could not change; rejected a fist pounding out its disregard for that rejection; and, penetrated, I have sat suffused with instincts not simply mine. “Being,” however, appears unthinkable without the backdrop of having-been; tracking the “instinctive” and its derivations back through distinguishable time-scales, through variable circumstances, social conditions, I discern countless bodies compassed by repetitive despoilments. Each pair generalizes impulses animating the assault precedent to it; each re-enacts a primordial moment almost remembered. Going further in my descent, I come to how we begin inside a coherence which each birth dismembers, so that to be born is to look in both directions, behind and ahead of the single parturition detached from a “whole” all the while in contact with it. If this “intuition” is true (72), it “proves” that though we repeat “ancestral” behaviors, we are individualized according to the degree and manner in which we honor, recollect, the cohesion which backs us and from which we originate; that deliberative thought trained on the instinctual is a form of action; that “one’s life is not confined” to the “body,” to “what one says and does”; that we live “all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions”; that “there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool,” underlying what we may neglect to see (73). How we meditate on “relation,” then, will determine the personhood within our imaginable reach.

Such ideas bring Woolf and her readers to what she “might call a philosophy” (72);

at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we–I mean all human beings–are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock. (72)

I want to slacken the pace of the “we” so noteworthy in the above passage as well as to suggest that the thinking “behind” Woolf’s pronoun has an “ancestral” history, that the “truth” she cites counts the multiform among its possibilities. If “moments of non-being” outnumber those which countercheck them, “shock[‘s]” foremost strength belongs to how it heaves us into consciousness out of the fuzz of our own stolidity, out of the “nondescript cotton wool” in which each of us is “embedded” (70). Ejected from–ousted from–the humus of our indifference, we wake to an influx into “being,” whose plenitude may be thought out while experienced, remembered after its copiousness appears to dwindle, once we revert to the recumbency inherent in our natal soil. Since plenty, recalled, accomodates analysis and what can be born by virtue of it, the spell of “being,” however abridged, expands when memory’s composing powers remake it, refashion it, set it free in the “work” which materializes our ripeness for fecundation. Thus, the importunity of “being” is generative if we prolong its experience in the mind. But, with her emphasis on the “work of art,” does Woolf simply asetheticize its potential maker, notwithstanding the latter’s corporate features?

It seems to me that Woolf saves herself from this indictment because of the “horror” she rates deserving of the lengthened concentration expended on it, a “horror” whose liberality–its abundant fact, which will not be wished away–mentors her acquaintanceship with how many of our human actualities, of which suicide, the clash “on the lawn” (71), and molestation suffice as models, are structured by us, made by us, hence accessories to those who propagate them. And, giving us “the other face in the glass,” Woolf does not retreat from implicating herself in that “horror” (69). Though it may appear, whether “dream” or authentic event, that the “incident of the looking-glass” imitates Jacques Lacan’s insight concerning the specular image in his Les Complexes familiaux dans la formation de l’individu (1938), Woolf neither idealizes nor squares herself with the projection shuddering “in the glass,” which seemed so different from the young girl she was (69). Such disavowals measure out a prime lesson: severing itself from the “background” and moving as though “alive,” the thing enciphered in the mirror, the “animal” domiciled in the mirror (69), prefigures Simone de Beauvoir’s conceptualizing, in Le deuxieme sexe (1949), the socially calibrated alterity of the female body and exhibits that any human corpus, like the universal beauty propounded by Simone Weil, in Attente de Dieu (126, 1942), must be other than our expectations regarding it. I do not dismiss the “relation” of sex to those expectations; I take Woolf’s difficulties as paradigmatic of all our own, given that she repudiates glossing the relational as parity by another name, that the patterned subsists on the ground of what fringes it, that mirrored animality mimes in degraded form the otherness of our provenance, that Woolf’s “we” expounds our membership in the word. But, if we are “something” else (69), “something” other than our wellhead, the tract stretched between “we” and its source can be expressed reciprocally: our inception must differ from the “human beings” effectuated by it. On account of the prominence granted here to distinction, is it the case that Woolf exalts either of her divisions to a transcendent order? To respond to that question, to illuminate Woolf’s use of the first person plural, I turn to James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War and its engagement with the mythic (2004).

Hillman disambiguates the mythical and the ways in which that sector pertains to what it is not. When an impasse coerces us into the conviction of there being “no way out” (9) our catapulting “leap of imagination” into “myth” may aid us in seeing the certitude of deadlock with eyes revitalized by myth’s “meaning without explanation” (9, 11), since that phrase solicits our attending to a “meaning” beyond “explanation,” greater than the intelligibility which sense-making stipulates. As “norms of the unreasonable” (9), however, myths must be in contraposition to the reasonable, to terrestrial “reason” and its performances, the one high above the other due to its altitude; thus, the two fields remain in isolation, except for the human “imagination[‘s]” supplicating “leap.” And Hillman implies the unidirectional quality of movement itself: that which excels us, ensphered by its own elevation, abstains from descending to the districts below it–the transcendent will not come down. Yet, if transcendence qualifies all that we entitle by myth, by what refuses to be reasoned away, Woolf, Weil, and Iris Murdoch (for instance) pose how the real and what climbs above it, what lifts above it with respect to eminent rank, join in interplay, in mutual intervention. With them, I advocate that such reciprocity, regardless of its demonstrable truth-value, benefits those who observe it. Unlike Hillman, all three authors speculate on the equivocal nature of the relationship between the mythic and the verifiably tactile. The two will be difficult to scissor up, so interwoven; one advantage of equivocalness rests on its asking those who admit it that they should risk the snags fundamental to reading an ambiguity deserving of decipherment by more than a single light. Risking readers, in acceptance of that ardency, may envisage “relation” as something other than simple opposition or identity, terms that nullify the very concept they purport to define. But Hillman’s bounding “leap,” sprung into distance, pits myth against its contrary, ensures their antipathy, and forsakes the means by which “imagination” nears on embodied minds in action.

“La source des actions,” what Woolf calls, in “Memories of a Working Women’s Guild” (1930), “the child of the flesh” (233), our imaginative faculty emerges from all that Weil diagnoses, in her notebooks written while in America and published as La Connaissance surnaturelle (1942), under the name of “la souffrance,” which inspires “horreur,” “le malheur” we endure against our will, seek to escape, beg to be spared (26). Nevetheless, our attention to it teaches us that to sustain “un choc,” this individualized “shock,” is to induce an “imagination” disposed to recognize how the asymmetry between the transcendent and the real–which Weil and Woolf do not deny–need not render their interconnectivity impossible (26). Indeed, we participate in that intercommunication, with or without reference to the “shock” acknowledging it and, in company with the things around us, do so according to a common rhythm. The raying out of the sun stores itself in the tree, as Weil reminds us, wood being at once a transformer and conserver, a reservoir of light (210). We may unite with her in longing for the chlorophyll through which we might feed on luminosity, “comme les arbres,” though our suspension in desire ought to trigger the remembrance that each green leaf, each fruit within the circles of our mouths, enacts our capacity for eating the transmuted light by which we remain alive (245).

Much would follow from these observations, if we were to keep to them. We would support the claim that diffuse forces enwreathe, saturate the human subject and the thing inert on the path before her, both maintained by intensities beyond all evidence of their sustaining powers. Like Murdoch when she writes of Platonic discourse in “The Fire and the Sun” (1976), we would hold high “our ability to use visual structures to understand non-visual structures,” an “ability” central to “explanation in any field” (445), seeing that the “original role” of Plato’s Ideas “was not to lead us to some attenuated elsewhere but to show us the real world,” the “work” of being here (427). As a thing, Woolf’s “we” is “connected with” that “work” through the mutuality she upturns over the hierarchy implicit in a conventional understanding of transcendence. For, together, the “visual” and the supra-visual extrude the world, as well as what we make of it.

Montauk Point at Night

Bruce Bromley is senior lecturer in expository writing at New York University, where he won the 2006 Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence. He earned his BA from Columbia University, and his MA, MPhil, and PhD from NYU. He has performed his music throughout Europe and the US. His essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in such journals as Out Magazine; Able Muse Review, which nominated his fiction for a 2013 Pushcart Prize; Gargoyle Magazine; Environmental Philosophy and the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, among many others. He is the author of Making Figures: Reimagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us, published in 2014 by Dalkey Archive Press, from which this essay has been excerpted and altered.