III. Being There Together
Last time I spoke about some of the challenges made to us by the idea that the void is the underlying, the ultimate, the only real reality. And that the person who sees that truth and recognizes how it undermines the games and fictions with which we people our lives is the only undeluded—the only real—knower.
I recalled some of the modernist counter-challenges to such a position, and to the idea of the poet as a “seer” in touch with a transcendent Beyond that is more real than the world of “mere” substantiality.
Today I shall speak about power and plenitude.
We hear a lot about about power these days, and about how everything is “really” only a struggle for power, a war of ideological fictions in the service of personal advancement.
And for some people that is evidently how things are.
But perhaps power isn’t quite that simple
When Borges on several occasions draws our attention to Spinoza’s concept of the conatus—in Borges’ words, the fact “that all things try to keep on being themselves; a stone wants to be a stone and the tiger, a tiger” —, he is pointing to something that is central not only to his own work but to a lot of other modern works that I have talked about, and to the constellation that they form.
Spinoza’s conatus, Schopenhauer’s Will, Nietzsche’s Will to Power—with all of them we are indeed reminded of how we inescapably exist in time as dynamic organisms, and of what Nietzsche calls the “necessary perspectivism by virtue of which every center of force—and not only man—construes all the rest of the world from its own viewpoint, i.e., measures, feels, forms, according to its own force....”
But what we have here—or can have—is not a mere infantilistic striving for total freedom and a total dominance over others—a reduction of them to instruments of our own Sadean gratification. It is a desire for plenitude, for fullness of being, for a realization of potentials.
As I have been suggesting, a good deal of modern art—and of earlier art seen from a modern perspective—affirms what Gerald Graff calls “the fact of the coerciveness of reality, that power possessed by objects outside of ourselves to compel human interpretations and judgments to move in one direction rather than another.”
I want to say a bit more now about the communal aspects of the striving for plenitude, and about what Hubert L. Dreyfus calls “our shared skills for coping with things in a shared context which Heidegger calls the world.”
If, during those turn-of-the-century decades about which I have mostly been talking, there was an intense concern with consciousness, and a greatly enlarged repertoire of ways of rendering its multifariousness, there was also a powerful concern with consequences.
In effect, there was a shift back towards the speeded-up interconnections between thought, deed, and physical results in Renaissance drama.
Ibsen, of course, was the theatrical modern master of interconnections—the web of deed and consequence, of abrupt forkings, shifts in relationships, unendurable revelations —just as H. G. Wells was the master of the physical working-out of an abstract notion (time-travelling; becoming invisible), in ways that were taken further by writers like Kafka and Borges.
And in “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886) that master of long-term interconnectings, Tolstoy, had presented brilliantly in a small compass the parable-like relationship between the ostensibly “small” incident—Ilych slips and gives himself a knock while hanging a picture—and the physical and spiritual agonies of death by cancer.
But it was in novelists like Conrad, Forster, and Lawrence, those unabashed utilizers of the melodramatic, that we especially see a testing-out of value-systems in terms of their incarnate consequences, including the Ibsenesque-Strindbergian fact that bad sexual relationships can be lethal.
And the Great War of 1914-18, and the political horrors that followed it, intensified the concern with ideologies and their consequences.
Those virtual coevals Céline, and André Breton, and F.R. Leavis, and Jean Giono, had all survived that war conscious of the gulf between the smooth romantic-classical rhetoric about Duty, Patriotism, Glory, and so forth and the flesh-and-blood realities of the trenches.
And power relations were central to writers like Arthur Koestler and George Orwell in the war-filled Thirties and Forties.
In Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, that classic novel of a growing existential awareness of other selves and of, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “Things ill done and done to others’ harm/ Which once you took for exercise of virtue,” the Old Bolshevik Rubashov is confronted at one point with a broken fellow-prisoner: “The essential point was that this figure of misery represented the consequences of his logic made flesh.”
If the melodrama of power has been a growing presence in modern fiction, and if we are fascinated by autobiographical accounts of political imprisonments and torture, it is because in the confrontation between prisoner and interrogator we see at their most concrete the relationship between ideology, power, and the suffering self—and the will to annihilate the self of another, not only physically but spiritually.
“Nihilism,” too, is a matter of consequences: sometimes literally life-or-death ones. A consciousness of the void, of the collapse of meaning and values, is indeed there, waiting to pounce.
It is always possible to feel, with the narrator of Dostoevski’s story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” the “conviction ... that nothing in the whole world made any difference.... I suddenly felt that it made no difference to me whether the world existed or whether nothing existed anywhere at all.”
It is always possible to be invaded by Mrs. Moore’s sense in A Passage to India that “Everything exists, nothing has value.”
And you would have to be very fortunate, or rather insensitive, or both, not to feel from time to time, with William James, that “our happiness rests upon undermined ground.”
But the caverns that lie below that ground are not a void; they are peopled. And for some of us—perhaps many of us—the alternative to reaching forward is not the cool professional irony of the comfortably tenured academic, but deterioration and collapse—collapse into alcohol, or drugs, or sexual disasters.
When Professor Rath in Joseph von Sternberg’s movie The Blue Angel missteps, his subsequent voyage brings him not to philosophical “truth,” but to the night-club stage on which, in a clown’s costume and make-up, he stands before his former pupils in the audience and crows hoarsely when an egg is broken upon his forehead.
And the modern literature of deterioration and collapse is by now considerable.
Céline’s fever-ridden, fantasying, masturbating narrator at the outset of Death on the Installment Plan; the junk-stupified William S. Burroughs of the introduction to Naked Lunch; Jean Rhys’s anguished heroines; Kurtz in Heart of Darkness lost in the ultimate horror of cannibalism; Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach, rouged, painted, obsessively and hopelessly pursuing his Tadzio; the appalling human wreckage in Hubert Selby, Jr’s, Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Room—they and others writhe before us in our modern Inferno.
As do all those “art” suicides that are now part of our collective consciousness: Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Mark Rothko, John Berryman, Diane Arbus, etc.
In Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight, the narrating Sasha reminds the reader that,
I’m not talking about the struggle when you are strong and a good swimmer and there are willing and eager friends on the bank waiting to pull you out at the first sign of distress. I mean the real thing. You jump in with no willing and eager friends around, and when you sink you sink to the accompaniment of loud laughter.
In Lawrence’s reworking of Jude the Obscure, The Trespasser, Siegmund Macnair, whose psychology Lawrence himself put so much intellectual effort into escaping from, feels at one point, during his disastrous would-be-spiritual sexual escapade on the Isle of Wight,
detached from the earth, from all the near, concrete beloved things; as if there had melted away from him, and left him, sick and unsupported, somewhere alone on the edge of an enormous space. He wanted to lie down again, to relieve himself of the sickening effort of supporting and controlling his body.
It is a preliminary tremor, pointing forward to his emotional paralysis and suicide after he returns, guilt-poisoned, to his loveless suburban home.
Moreover, to be ontologically fragile is to be vulnerable to invasion by others: by guilt-inducing voices or half-voices, with their conflicting imperatives, such as clatter away in the heads of the protagonists of Beckett’s Eh, Joe and Not I, and which, in a writer, can lead to the kind of blocking in which you endlessly write and rewrite the same paragraph in an attempt to meet sensed objections, with each rewriting starting up a further swarm of objections.
Kafka, like Beckett, knew all about such invasions, and embodied some of them in an early sketch in the figures that he called confidence tricksters:
How persistently they blocked our way, even when we had long shaken ourselves free, even when, that is, they had nothing more to hope for! How they refused to give up, to admit defeat, but kept shooting glances at us that even from a distance were still compelling! And the means they employed were always the same: they planted themselves before us, looking as large as possible, tried to hinder us from going where we proposed, offered us instead a habitation in their own bosoms, and when at last all our balked feelings rose in revolt they welcomed that like an embrace into which they threw themselves face foremost.
And you can be destroyed by those manipulations, just as you can be destroyed by the political interrogator.
In Kafka’s “The Judgment,” Georg Bendemann does all the “right” adult things—running a business, demonstrating concern for his friend, getting engaged, looking after his toothless, grubby old father.
But when he is faced with the trickster-like challenge of that father, it all becomes an absurd play-acting. And with the revelation of the dominative and unworthy attitudes of his own that underlie his ostensible virtuousness, all routes to public action on Georg’s part are blocked, and he goes into the embrace of the river.
You can destroy others, too, as you try to escape paralysis.
At the party of roistering former classmates, Dostoevski’s underground man, an intrusive unwelcome presence, paces the floor in mute passive-aggression for three hours. Later that evening, he takes his revenge on a young prostitute at the brothel to which they subsequently go.
That quintessential modern figure Hamlet, so popular in fin-de-siècle Symbolist Europe, sends Ophelia before him into the grave.
But if disintegration and collapse are possible, and if we are always at risk (“We didn’t need Nietzsche to tell us to live dangerously,” F.R. Leavis recalls of the Scrutiny group. “There is no other way of living”), resistance, self-affirmation, and forward-reaching are also always possible, if the will to them has not been undermined.
During his frightful depression of 1869-70, William James wrote in his diary:
Not in maxims, not in Anschauungen [contemplations], but in accumulated acts of thought lies salvation.... I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power. My belief, to be sure, can’t be optimistic—but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world. Life shall [be built in] doing and suffering and creating.
A lot of the works that I have discussed fortify that confidence, fortify the conatus, fortify a desire for plenitude, strength, and action.
They celebrate self-preserving aggression.
In none of them are chronic feelings of guilt and unworthiness presented and endorsed as desirable.
They don’t reinforce the guilt-feelings in T.S. Eliot’s earlier poetry or in The Trial and The Castle, where Joseph K’s spurts of aggressiveness on his own behalf are too often misdirected and silly or nasty.
As do critics like Pound, and Leavis, and Winters, and Mikhail Bakhtin, they help us to resist homogenization and intimidation, the sought domination of single systems with their claims to total truth.
And modernism offers us its heartening success-stories as well as its lacerating paradigms of failure.
Attending always to the reality of how he does feel, in contrast to how he is supposed to feel in terms of this or that ideology—religious, political, literary, familial—, Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist finds his way through the labyrinth of voices clamouring for his allegiance and telling him what he must be and feel.
The timid, short-sighted, unfairly punished little boy who, energized by images of heroic greatness, makes the decisive turn into the “low dark narrow corridor” leading to the Rector’s room, grows into the formidable (if still sometimes silly) Stephen of debate, daring, and aspiration, prepared in the name of a glimpsed future self to run the risk of making “a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.”
Shy young Willy Yeats transforms himself into the formidable public man who confronts the yelling demonstrators at the Abbey Theatre’s first performance of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World and calls in the police to prevent the suppression, in the name of Irish freedom, of the free speech of art.
And, like the young Ursula Brnagwyn of The Rainbow, Lawrence himself copes with even more complex dangers and imperatives, including the imperatives of Nietzscheanism, in ways that enable him to avoid the impasses in which Nietzsche found himself and continue creating freely up until the end.
If we especially cherish writers like Kafka, Beckett, and Rhys, it isn’t only because they discovered how psychological malfunctionings that stood in the way of making “normal” art (and of becoming a “normal” person) could themselves become subjects of art.
It is also because they show us, Kafka especially, what it means to live with potentially devastating dreads and double-binds and not be destroyed.
In Kafka’s “trickster” sketch, we have the build-up of the would-be dominance by the prime confidence trickster, with his sinisterly snapping teeth, his smiling silence, his self-complacent sense of being part of an army.
And then comes the heartening release of, “‘Caught in the act!’ said I, tapping him lightly on the shoulder! Then I ran up the steps, and the disinterested devotion on the servants’ faces in the hall delighted me like an unexpected treat.”
In the sketch “Eleven Sons,” there is a Nietzschean tenor to the father’s complaints about the deficiencies of most of his sons that becomes explicit when he praises one of them for acting
With understanding; thoughtfully; brusquely; cutting across questions with satirical vivacity; in complete accord with the universe, an accord that is surprising, natural and gay; an accord that of necessity straightens the neck and makes the body proud.
That is an ideal, of course; but for Kafka there are also realizable possibilities.
In “A Report to an Academy,” in which a clothed, erect, self-employed ape explains how he came to be what he is today, the ape’s shipboard cage after his capture in Africa is a real one; and a cage destiny seems at that point to be ineluctably awaiting him when the ship gets to “civilization.”
But by learning how to talk, he succeeds in making a “way out” (“without it I could not live,” he says) and achieving an uncaged way of life and a position of equality with, or superiority to, his lecture-hall audiences.
In the process of self-liberation that he describes, he displays impressive powers of observation, imitation, manipulation, and ruthless self-discipline; and the address itself is noteworthy for its analytical clarity.
It is not a happy address, let alone a boastful one, and there is no intimation that he is better off now, or happier, than when he was a free ape in Africa.
But he is far better off than he would be were he a caged ape in a zoo or a trained ape displaying the “insane look of the bewildered half-broken animal.”
And as he observes, “There is an excellent idiom: to fight one’s way through the thick of things; that is what I have done. I have fought my way through the thick of things.”
So did Kafka himself. That he could write so sustained and flawless a masterpiece as “Josephine the Singer” during the last dreadful months of his tuberculosis is one of the triumphs of the creative spirit.
In these various victories we have examples of what Heidegger is talking about when he says that Nietzsche “‘ascribes to no thing a value unless it knows how to become form’.... Nietzsche explains such becoming-form here in an aside as “‘giving itself up,’ ‘making itself public.’”
Which brings me back to the individual and the communal, and to the kinds of energizings and fortifyings that make possible a forward momentum; in effect, the will to plenitude.
As I said earlier, we have heard a good deal about the inevitable non-satisfaction of desire; and about the seeming absurdity of desiring at all in a world in which values are not authenticated in transcendental terms.
Sartre, for instance, tells us how “Desire by itself tends to perpetuate itself; man clings ferociously to his desires. What desire wishes to be is a filled emptiness”—and how repletion always brings disappointment. The filled stomach will always empty itself and clamour or ache to be filled again.
And Camus offers us the parable of Sisyphus, interminably pushing the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down again.
But it is curious that so much should have been said philosophically about desire, and so little about enjoyment, given the reality of enjoyment.
Enjoyment—enjoyment of the good seminar meeting, the glorious day’s outing to the coast, the great theatrical, or musical, or athletic event—may be temporary, and less frequent than we could wish, but it is there, and it is real, and we know what it feels like.
And the image of Sisyphus, with the absence of qualitative changes in his pseudo-progression, seems a remarkably inappropriate emblem for a good deal of actual living. It is hard to see in what sense the struggles and rewards of successful parenthood, or of work, that you enjoy (such as university teaching) can be considered Sisyphean and meaningless.
If it is true that, as Thomas Nashe says in “Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss” “All things to end are made,” and that “Worms feed on Hector brave” and “Dust hath closed Helen’s eye,” it would still be very odd to suggest that Mozart’s brief career ended where it began—ended in nothing.
It “ended,” if that is the word for it, in the whole corpus of Mozart’s music, just as the career of Napoleon ended in the Code Napoleon and a good deal else, and the career of Marx ended in Marxism and even greater social transformations.
In “Among School Children,” Yeats poses a famous rhetorical question:
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap...,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?—
As Auden remarked in his elegy to Yeats, “You were silly like us,” and it’s really a pretty silly question when you stop to think about it.
Some mothers mightn’t, but others very well might. It would depend on what kind of man the child had become.
A “pure, will-free knowing” (I quote from Schopenhauer apropos of the contemplation of the beauty of nature) is not “the only pure happiness which is not preceded either by suffering or need, or ... followed by repentance, suffering, emptiness, or satiety.”
Nor do you have to be trapped in a reductive dichotomy in which the sincerity of the voiceless orgasm—the “truly” interior—is opposed to the brittle falsity of the social carapace.
Or to be dominated by the paradigm of desire as a moving-towards-orgasm sexual desiring; with the yearning imagination striving to transform everything, itself included, into the radiance of a perpetual shudder in the loins and a radically different mode of feeling.
Collectively, the works that I have discussed in these lectures demonstrate the hollowness of talking about the “meaninglessness” of values in terms of a universal fictiveness and falsity, as if fictiveness and values were logically incompatible.
Behind such a challenge lies the same kind of craving for certainty that I spoke of apropos of Heart of Darkness and that Borges speaks of in “The Library of Babel” apropos of the quest for the key book, “the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest.”
And the move involved is like saying that since all cuisines are conventional in the sense that there is no transcendent, revealed law as to whether sheep’s eyes and raw grubs are delicacies, all cuisine decisions are therefore equally arbitrary and meaningless.
We not only live among fictions, games, codes, we live through them, as the great Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga and others have pointed out.
And they have consequences—consequences, ultimately, for the body, as Oscar Wilde discovered during the torment of his plank bed in Reading Gaol after he failed to take seriously enough the game of the law.
Games are serious; which is why we can, and do, and in a sense must play them with full commitment and an undivided consciousness, at least if we want to play them well.
When Nietzsche speaks, shorthand fashion, in The Will to Power, of “‘Play’, the useless—as the ideal of him who is overfull of strength, as ‘childlike’”, we know what he means.
There is no need for figure-skating competitions, and for those prodigies of care, and craft, and innovation that have gone into the performances of Torvil and Dean.
Or for the hours and hours of practice, week after week, that go into the supreme artistry of a snooker player like Stephen Hendry.
But when someone says dismissively that something, the writing of poetry maybe, is “just” a game, a false analogy may be involved.
In the free-form games of childhood—Spacemen and Aliens, say—the rules can keep changing or be renegotiated (“‘Pow! You’re dead!’ ‘No I’m not, I’m only wounded!’ ‘Well, O.K., you don’t have to be dead.’ ‘Anyway, I don’t want to be an Alien.’ ‘O.K.’”); and you can leave the game at any point (“I don’t want to play any more”) or collectively terminate it at will.
The players are not “really” spacemen and aliens. Edward and Harry playing pirates in Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica are not “really” pirates:
“I am armed with a sword and a pistol!” chanted Edward:
“And I am armed with a key and half a whist-le!” chanted the more literal Harry.
So that to say that poetry, or politics, is only a game carries with it the implication of pretence, of a disjunction between the emotions pretended to and the players’ “real” consciousnesses.
But in games in Huizinga’s sense, whether poker, or football, or the activities that go on in courts of law, the players are not pretending to be poker players or lawyers, they are poker players and lawyers.
And the games have rules which you cannot change while playing them.
Things lock into place.
It is indeed purely arbitrary whether an ace in a particular game figures as high or low, just as it is purely arbitrary that red signals “Stop” at a stop sign.
But you can make a tidy sum if you have an ace in your hand at the right time, just as you can smash up your car, and perhaps yourself, if you ignore the even more arbitrary red light (why not blue, or white, or green?) at an intersection.
In Camus’ The Outsider, Meursault, while feeling the total arbitrariness of the verdict at his trial, notices how “from the moment the verdict was given, its effects became as tangible as, for example, this [cell] wall against which I was lying, pressing my back to it.”
Nor, having voluntarily entered a game, are you free to challenge the moral authority of the rules of the game. As Hans-Georg Gadamer observes, “A game partner who is always ‘seeing through’ his game partner, who does not take seriously what they are standing for, is a spoil sport whom one shuns.”
And even the free-form “pretend” games of childhood have their own rules and moralities with regard to what is “fair” and “unfair,” “proper” and “improper” in the agreements by which the games are set up (“But I was an Alien last time”) and the way in which they are played.
It is especially ironical that Borges should have been taken as proffering as a vision into the heart of things the fact that there is no heart but only fictions and games, and that all fictions and games are equally arbitrary and weightless, and that all values too, being fictive constructions, are equally unread.
As I said earlier, he does indeed reject the idea of a “heart,” a single, secret (but discoverable) truth or system of truths like that presumed by its questers to inhere in the magic volume in the Library of Babel.
And he is indeed the modernist writer who has been the most fascinated with games, and the most ingenious in contemplating the logical implications of arbitrary or “absurd” postulates.
But games in Borges are not confined to the jeux de quilles of Pierre Menard (author of Don Quixote), such as transposing Valéry’s “Le Cimitière Marin” into alexandrines. They also include armed combat—warfare, duelling—in which flesh-and-blood men can die or disgrace themselves if they are not skillful, or committed, or brave enough.
And Borges takes the moral dimensions of such doings seriously. Cowardice and treachery are serious matters in his stories. As is the possibility of transcending them.
Nor was Nietzsche himself merely “playing” in his What If speculatings and his shiftings from mode to mode, some of them light ones.
He was not engaged in a nudge-nudge wink-wink game of professional self-advancement.
He was struggling obsessively to speak complicated truths and define complicated values.
And the struggle was heroic and ultimately tragic.
Furthermore, if we structure reality in terms of games and codes, distinctions still persist between fictions and physical actualities.
For three-year-old Rachel in A High Wind in Jamaica, the marlin-spikes, rags, bits of oakum, and the like that she assembles aboard the pirate ship do in a sense become her children, so that she is in agony when one of them plummets to the deck.
And when she metamorphoses other items on the ship—a windlass, a bosun’s chair—into household objects,
what she had marked as her property no one might touch—if she could prevent it. To parody Hobbes, she claimed as her own whatever she had mixed her imagination with: and the greater part of her time was spent in angry or tearful assertion of her property rights.
But when her siblings determine at one point that the lower parts of the ship’s deck “are” water and that you can only pass across them by making swimming motions with your arms, they are well aware—while scrupulously abiding by the rules—that they are not in fact in danger of drowning.
And Rachel too is aware of boundaries between fictions and physical realities. At one point, ten-year-old Emily, exasperated by Rachel’s refusal to take part in one of her fictions, comes at her with a piece of iron:
“Do you know what I’m going to do?” she asked in a strange voice.
At the sound of it Rachel stopped scratching and looked up.
“No,” she said, a trifle uneasily.
“I’m going to kill you. I’m turned a pirate, and I’m going to kill you with this sword!”
At the word “sword,” the misshapen lump of metal seemed to Rachel to flicker to a sharp, wicked point.
She looked Emily in the eyes, doubtfully. Did she mean it, or was it a game?
And knowledge, “real” knowledge, is possible.
When the narrator Borges, in “The Aleph,” recoils back into the complexities, ironies, and lacunae of the real and non-Alephized world and the sets of relationships that constitute it, he does so without any feeling that what he has there is less true or meaningful than what he obtained through the Aleph.
Likewise in Heart of Darkness we see Marlowe indeed “knowing” something very well, namely how to navigate a steamboat up a treacherous river with the aid of the kind of seamanship encapsulated in Towson’s Manual of Seamanship.
He does not “know” the Congo River in the way that Mark Twain’s pilots, including Twain himself as a young man, came to know the Mississippi.
But the difference is only one of degree.
And there is nothing mystifying about the extraordinary, the really marvellous acquired knowledge and skills of the latter as described in Life on the Mississippi.
Or anything fictive about its dangerousness.
The detailed anatomy of the Mississippi, as Twain explains to us, would indeed not be there for the riverboat pilots without their elaborate structures of acquired, transmitted, and changing knowledge.
Nor would Emily’s earthquake in A High Wind in Jamaica have been there for her as an earthquake had the name and some earthquake material not been available to her and her coevals.
But it wouldn’t on that account make sense to say that a riverboat sank with the loss of two hundred fictive lives.
Or that the reefs and snags that Mr. Bixbee avoided during his incomparable piece of night-time piloting were “really” as fictional as the reef-like wind-made ripple that panicked Twain as a cub-pilot. Or as the shoal water that Mr. Bixbee terrifyingly “created” for him, as an object lesson about knowledge, with the aid of false soundings provided by the leadsman.
The threat to Emily’s continued existence that is posed by the hurricane is unaffected by whether or not she can give a name to it.
And a concealed snag will rip the bottom out of a riverboat in complete indifference as to whether the pilot hadn’t known of its existence, or had known but forgotten, or had been told but didn’t believe it existed.
For that matter, a German Chancellor who served a French President sheep’s eyes at a state banquet would be unlikely to escape a diplomatic crisis by talking philosophically about the equal conventionality of all cuisines.
Nor are roles merely fictive and arbitrary, or strait-jackets or carapaces for the free, the real self.
Disjunctions occur, of course—ultimately the kind of disjunction that R. D. Laing observed in one of his schizophrenic patients:
By then the central issue for him had crystallized in terms of being sincere or being a hypocrite; being genuine or playing a part. For himself, he knew he was a hypocrite, a liar, a sham, a pretence, and it was largely a matter of how long he could kid people before he would be found out.
The kinds of Nietzschean escapes that I spoke of above—especially those in A Portrait of the Artist—involve a rejection of roles into which the hero cannot or will not fit.
As does the intransigent “perverseness” of Jean Rhys’s heroines who cannot (even when they would partly like to) be either traditional “good” women or simply sensual “bad” girls.
And a novel like Conrad’s The Secret Agent derives its comedy—its serious comedy—from role disjunctions and slippages.
Mr. Verloc is too fat (in the eyes of his embassy employer Mr. Vladimir) to be a secret agent.
The Assistant Commissioner, who is having trouble settling into his role as a Whitehall desk-wallah, outrages Chief Inspector Heat by refusing to abide by the tacit rules of the relationship between (nominal) superior and subordinate.
Heat feels “like a tight-rope artist might feel if suddenly, in the middle of the performance, the manager of the Music Hall were to rush out of the proper managerial seclusion and begin to shake the rope.”
But the roles (and rules) on shipboard in Conrad’s “Typhoon” are life-or-death ones, requiring an unquestioning and wholehearted carrying out of commands if the Nan-Shan is to come out on the far side of the appalling vortex.
And though the young sea-captain in his first command in Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” has grave doubts—as does the one in “The Shadow Line”—about his ability to play his role successfully, by the end of the story he has entered deeper into it and, by an act of total concentration and fine-tuned observation, saved his new command from being carried upon the night-hidden rocks.
Moreover, for all three skippers, as for the young Mark Twain learning the art and craft of piloting, their work is where they can be most fully themselves.
We have also had modernist reminders enough of the possibility of people being together, in enriching ways, inside more or less formal structurings, in which you can escape from your isolation and increase your identity, your being.
In his 1909 sketch “Aeroplanes at Brescia,” Kafka recalls that happy occasion when he and his two friends “ jump into the aerodrome rather than walk, in this enthusiasm of all our limbs which sometimes suddenly seizes us, one after the other, in this country, under this sun.”
And we observe the heroic ordered energies of a structured public occasion that provides a focal point for the cravings of the crowd in general and for the narrator’s—Kafka’s—participating self.
We see the possibility of single-minded and in a sense impersonal heroic doing that is at once intensely individual and collective.
When the great Louis Blériot is in the air,
Devotedly everybody looks up to him, there is no room in anybody’s heart for anyone else. And everybody looks with outstretched neck at the monoplane, as it falls, is seized by Blériot, and even climbs. What is happening? Here, above us, there is a man twenty metres above the earth, imprisoned in a wooden box, and pitting his strength against an invisible danger which he has taken on of his own free will.
The flyer is totally focussed on the craft of flying, his mind reaching out to the tips of his machine so that it becomes an extension of himself riding or “swimming” through the air.
He is doing something that serves both practical needs—the advance of flying technology—and the collective desire for self-transcending wonder and admiration.
And, admiring him, others partake of his being.
Part of the thrill of recordings of great live performance of music comes from that kind of participation.
We are simultaneously there on the stage and in the audience with the Weavers in Carnegie Hall, and with Pete Seeger and Sonny Terry in Carnegie Hall, and with Yves Montand in the Théâtre d’Etoile (his greatest record), and with Edith Piaf and Judy Garland passim, and with the orchestra and choir and Colin Davis and that host of young people on the last night of the Proms ecstatically singing works like “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Jerusalem,” and going absolutely through the roof with joy during the final bow-takings.
And these sharings and empathisings are a sharing in complex cultural definings, given the stylistic and variousness of the works performed on each of those occasions, and the rich variety of cultural experiencings and values embodied in those works.
Moreover, you can go beyond both the one-to-one relationship (whether of perfect communion or of dominance and submission) and the diffusion of self into the crowd.
As Dommick LaCapra, rebuking Sartre for his failure to see this, points out, there can be modes of relating that “mediate and supplement human relations in ways that are ... simultaneously structured and open to contestation.”
It is noteworthy how little in Being and Nothingness Sartre says about face-to-face discourse—to-and-fro discourse, not simply an attending, or non-attending, to monologues.
And how, for that curious phenomenon Stanley Fish, academic discourse is simply an affair of one person trying to impose his or her “position” upon another, and not a process, part agonistic, part collaborative, in which each of you may learn from the other and modify what you had previously thought.
After watching him in action on one occasion, I remarked to a colleague that Fish’s role model appeared to be Jimmy Cagney in his gangster mode.
“No,” he replied, “it’s Leo Gorcey” (of the Bowery Boys).
If our consciousnesses are permeated by games—as those of intellectuals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not—this is partly because games, when rightly played, epitomize the possibility of doing things with others in a public context with complete and non-destructive concentration.
In games you can be fully present in ways that eliminate the consciousness of a gap between the doing and the observing self.
As Heidegger says, bodily states can “lift a man out beyond himself.”
In games, as Lance Morrow observes of the Olympics, it is possible at times to see “something close to perfection; athletes utterly inhabiting the instant of the act.”
In such instants—and in the instants described by Eugen Herrigel in Zen in the Art of Archery (1948) and celebrated by Hemingway in his accounts of “good” bull-fights—, we have what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow calls
the Japanese concept of muga... the state in which you are doing whatever you are doing with a total wholeheartedness, without thinking of anything else, without any hesitation, without any criticism or doubt or inhibition of any kind whatsoever.
That, it seems to me, is the true antithesis of nothingness. Nor is it confined to bodily doings.
If we have had modernist assertions aplenty about isolation and the impossibility of communication (“We think of the key, each in his prison/ Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison”; thus T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land), we have also had an abundance of tacit counter-assertions and demonstrations.
Modernism has been an affair not only of heroic solitary endeavours in which, like Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, artists figuratively ride into the valley of death with the Six Hundred, or struggle to advance from Q to R (“On, then, on to R”).
It has also been an affair of groups—of Futurists, Imagists, Dadaists, Surrealists; of the Bloomsbury Group, the Black Mountain group, and so forth—and of collectively-created manifestoes, and collaboratively edited little magazines, and shoe-string experimental theatres.
In Paris in the 1890s, Valéry recalls, a young writer
would go to one of those cafés—only a few have survived—that played such a great role in elaborating the countless literary schools of the period. A history of literature that failed to mention the existence or function of such establishments would be dead and valueless. Like the literary salons, the cafés were true laboratories of ideas, the scene of interchanges and collisions, the medium for groups and differentiations, in which the greatest intellectual activity, the most fertile disorder, an extreme liberty of opinion, clashing personalities, wit, jealousy, enthusiasm, pitiless criticism, laughter, insults, all contributed to an atmosphere that was sometimes intolerable, always stimulating, and strangely miscellaneous.
Some of the modernist groups had a lot of fun together, too, like the Surrealists exploring the music halls and the Grands Boulevards in search of the marvellous, or the Bloomsburies giggling, and gossiping, and talking seriously and freely together, knowing each other’s weaknesses of the flesh, and not seeking to take intellectual advantage of that knowledge.
We have had some memorable celebrations of friendship, too, in novels like A Passage to India and poems like Pound’s “Exile’s Letter” and Yeats’ “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” and, for that matter, Beckett’s signature play Waiting for Godot, abstracted from the work of the most enduringly and endearingly funny of the classic film comedians, those friends despite everything, Laurel and Hardy.
So you can see why Virginia Woolf should have placed a dinner party at the centre of that quintessential modernist text To the Lighthouse.
If we again and again come up against a void in the Romantic, or Romantic-derived, philosophical-aesthetic formulations about pleasure and desire, it is because of the vagueness and crudeness with which such pleasures are conceived of and rendered.
In Pushkin’s Eugène Onegin, it is obvious that those romantically yearning young men are yearning for a blank with respect to women.
And a good deal of disillusionment comes down the road once the idealized “beautiful soul” that can mingle with your own and become one with it, so that instantaneous perfect communication is possible, is replaced after marriage with a flesh-and-blood young woman of limited education and experience, who wants to talk about the drunken cook’s misdoings and the children’s need for new clothes.
So too with those Romantic vapourings about contemplating landscapes without the assistance of structuring concepts (the names of flowers and trees, an understanding of the weather) or an aim to the looking (as in the hunter’s or naturalist’s walk through the woods).
And some of the Germanic vagueness about pleasure—and assertions about its delusoriness—was no doubt related to the inferiority of German cuisine to French.
In literature, to speak again of “concreteness,” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is of course still the great literary paradigm of conviviality.
It convincingly presents persons engaged in pleasurable collective doings on the hunting field and in the banqueting hall.
And it demonstrates how the ability to make fine discriminations in those doings, with the aid of shared codes of behaviour and a rich and precise vocabulary, can carry over into the more intimate negotiations of the bed-chamber.
Its richness shows up all the more the poverty of the doings and feelings available in Paradise Lost in the celestial court (“large but insufficiently furnished apartments filled by heavy conversation,” as T. S. Eliot acidly described them) and the supposed paradisiacal Garden of Eden.
And while “effectiveness” is clearly involved in conviviality (giving a successful party is very satisfying), the feeling of effectiveness, as with good sex or an enjoyable conversation, comes by way of giving pleasure to others.
Someone can be brought to full presence in the enjoyment of a dish or a joke, as well as in the moment of orgasm.
There is another way, too, in which the successful party or discussion group is emblematic.
For a good while, one of the prime images of collective happiness for a good many intellectuals was the traditional jazz group, especially when improvising in jam sessions. The lead instrument, whether trumpet or tenor sax, was simply primus inter pares, and everyone contributed to the development of a theme. And there was such a lovely poetry of place and social interaction in what they played—“Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” “High Society,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Royal Garden Blues,”on and on—and such an abundance of tragic life in the blues, and such a plethora of gorgeous melodies, those greatest organizers of emotion.
Part of the happiness of a lively dinner party or seminar discussion in which people are not seeking to dominate each other in a neo-Nietzschean fashion or play politics is that you discover anew the created nature of values and perceptions, in a process that is in a sense disinterested. People are not primarily focussing on one another, though they are attending to what others say. They are focussing together on a common subject—on a current political scandal, or the metrics of Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain,” or whatever.
And if the image of the crime-caper has been so popular, it is not because the would-be bank robbers are all buddies. It is because they are working inside a structure of conventions, rules, and roles which, as in a sport’s team, or a ship’s crew, or a jazz band, or even (sometimes) an academic committee, makes it possible for people who may not like one another at all to co-operate for limited purposes and with respect for one another’s expertise.
Furthermore, if we keep coming back mentally to Socrates in ways that we don’t with Aristotle, it is because the Platonic texts are dialogues.
In some of them, admittedly, such as the insufferable Republic, the dialogue-form is simply a rhetorical device—partly a way of avoiding the tedium of pure monologue, partly a specious way of giving “authority” to what is said.
It is Socrates saying these things (and we know how wise he is); and what he’s saying is made even wiser by his stooges’ unfailing agreement with him.
But the great dialogues, such as the Gorgias, are genuinely multi-perspectival and agonistic.
And the reality that is demonstrated in them is not the hyperreality of the Ideas or Forms, or the alleged reality of a historical Socrates saying these things (with Plato there as his Boswell).
It is the reality of people—these speakers, other possible speakers—discoursing together.
It is these explorings, enterings into, openings-up, these sort-of-end-points reached in arguments, these moves and manoeuvres in wrestling-like power struggles.
And from them—again I am speaking of the best dialogues—we construct, or allow to emerge, the totality that we call “Socrates,” in all his textual gusto, curiosity, courage, trickiness; the man whose comportment when the jailer brings him the cup of hemlock still moves us profoundly.
This is the reality that gets most fully affirmed and demonstrated in the dialogues—not the reality of the Ideas.
And it is not undercut by the putative existence of the Ideas.
You have no inclination to say that all this is “merely” human and approximative, and that it doesn’t “really” matter whether Socrates recants and lives or drinks the hemlock and dies.
Any more than you do when reading in Boswell about the English Socrates, Samuel Johnson, and his always-hovering depression, and his lethargy (by his own account), and his heavy drinking at one point (by his own account), and his terror of death, and his hunger for companionship—and also his passion for truth, his love of argumentation, his courage, humour, insatiable interest in so many human doings, present and past.
It is in and through discourse that our stabilizings occur, the stabilizings both of our “selves” and of our values.
We come alive (as we put it) when we lose ourselves happily in an unexpectedly enjoyable conversation with a stranger at a party.
A seminar discussion picks up momentum and draws us out of our dry-as-dust solitude, so that we suddenly discover that we do, after all, have things to say and feel about “During Wind and Rain.”
No irony is intended in Beckett’s Happy Days when Winnie, buried up to her waist in sand, and unable to see Willie, or to get more than an occasional few words of response from him, exclaims: “Ah well what a joy in any case to know you are there, as usual, and perhaps awake, and perhaps taking all this in, some of all this, what a happy day for me ... it will have been.”
It is through that sense of an auditor that you reach forward—that you are able to speak and be.
We know what it means to be fully present in our words in the same way that we are fully present in the movements of a game; particularly in the intensifications of humour and indignation.
When Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, knitting a stocking for her son James, says, “‘Stand still. Don’t be tiresome,’ ... he knew instantly that her severity was real, and straightened his leg and she measured it.”
It is an I/Thou stabilizing that we see in the prodigious letter-writing of authors like Lawrence and Woolf
They are engaged in an ongoing shaping, articulating, reaching forward.
While things are happening (a temporary blocking with a book, a row with a housemaid), they are already “talking” about them in their head, or feeling the shapes of a potential talking-about.
The stabilizing goes on, too, in the journal-keeping of Woolf and Mansfield and others.
It is a talking-about that is not simply a talking to yourself, but a talking fit to be overheard—or, at some future point read—by someone else, perhaps an ideal Other who sees what you are trying to do and is tolerant of your inadequacies.
It is what used to be available to people in prayer: “Sing ... Sing your song, Winnie.... No? ... Then pray.... Pray your prayer, Winnie.... Pray your old prayer, Winnie” (thus Beckett’s Happy Days).
In a moving account of a brain-damaged patient who came “alive,” came back to himself in prayer, the neurologist Oliver Sacks observes that “Memory, mental activity, mind alone, could not hold him, but moral attention and action could hold him completely.”
For many of us such stabilizings (like those of the confession box) are no longer available, at least in quantity.
But it is still in the act of communicating that the self can come to full presence and being; whether in the “private” intimacies of love and friendship, or in public debate, or good seminar discussions, or the right kinds of writing.
And in poetry, particularly the poetry of address, we can still enter into I/Thou voicings, with no sense of seeing something past, as if through the wrong end of a telescope.
Those hanged men of François Villon’s great fifteenth-century ballade are there on that Paris gibbet addressing us, their frères humains (human brothers) and admonishing us not to scorn them.
Abraham Cowley’s grief still speaks to us from the seventeenth century in “On the Death of Mr. William Hervey” ( “My dearest Friend, would I had died for thee!/ Life and this world henceforth will tedious be”) as it did to Yeats, who took over Cowley’s stanza form for “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.”
Rihaku’s eighth-century river-merchant’s young wife, as reanimated by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound, still tells him (and us) how
At fifteen I stopped scowling
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever
And the best of Hardy’s poems of love, and remorse, and an unsentimentalized self-forgiveness addressed to his recently dead wife in 1912 and 1913 are by general consent among the greatest twentieth-century poems in English.
It is in discourse too—in the act of remembering, memorializing, celebrating—that we are given the most intimate public reminders of where a species of immortality is to be found in a world without any supernatural transcendence.
Death may indeed, as Wallace Stevens says in “Death of a Soldier,” be “absolute.” Virginia Woolf gives us something of that absoluteness in the famous passage in To the Lighthouse in which we read how: “Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.”
But if death is absolute, it need not be (Stevens’ poem again) “without memorial.”
Mrs. Ramsay goes on living and working in the minds of others:
She lives on for Lily Briscoe, pondering her charms, her values and urgings (“One must get married!”), her mistakes in judgment
— lives on for her daughter Cam in the subliminal echoings of her comforting words when putting her to sleep as a child;
—lives on for Woolf herself writing the book that her sister Vanessa, as Woolf put it later in her journals, found “an amazing portrait of mother; ... has lived in it; found the rising of the dead almost painful.”
I have touched a number of times on “incarnation”: on those processes by and in which ideas, values, possibilities are embodied in the physical—this child, that edifice, those modes of rule-governed behaviour at the meetings of groups.
It is in such embodiments—in Borges’ epitomizing moments, in Yeats’s “Character isolated by a deed/ To engross the present and dominate memory”—that values live for us.
As Sartre observes, “I can achieve an intuition of values in terms of concrete exemplifications; I can grasp nobility in a noble act.”
I have also referred a number of times to the modern concern with recollecting and memorializing—in poetry, above all, in the work of Hardy and Yeats.
It is here, in the valuings of others, that we can escape the void of death, in contrast to the dreadfulness of feeling that when you go into the dark you will indeed cease to be—that like poor Jude in Jude the Obscure or George Gissing’s sad, failed, low-energy novelist Edward Reardon in New Grub Street (1891), you will soon be forgotten except as an “object” or a case. That you have had no effect.
And the process is a double one. The Yeats who revised his style so as to permit of particularity, and who immortalized Robert Gregory, and his mother Lady Augusta Gregory, and others in whom he saw certain values epitomized, also came to incarnate in himself some of the values, the modes of being, that he admired.
And he and those whom he celebrated live on for us. A gap closes here.
As Wallace Stevens puts it,
When Horatio says,Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
are not the imagination and reality equal and inseparable?
In a well-known passage, F. R. Leavis observes of Lawrence (no stranger himself to the experience of negation) that his
‘insights’ were a matter of being able to see what was there as only genius can, and they went with an extraordinary power of relating insights, and not only of understanding situations comprising elements difficult to get at and recognize, but of understanding whole comprehensive and complete fields of experience.
I have been suggesting (with the austerity of those cold white peaks of art in mind) that the “full” is more challenging than the “empty.”
The formless, the unshaped, the uninviduated isn’t the true form of how things really are, any more than houses are “really” only bricks, and bricks are really only clay, and clay is really only—well, whatever the scientists have to tell us about molecules, and atoms, and sub-atomic particles.
The circus in Huckleberry Finn, with its marvellous skills and elaborately incarnated fictions, is not less real than the squalid, low-energy Arkansas village outside. It is more real, in the sense of being more charged with meanings.
In that respect, Huckleberry Finn, with its constant enrichments, including the circus, the admired elegance of the Grangerford household, and the decencies of the Phelps’ plantation, represents a journey into civilization and not a journey away from it.
And if writers like Mallarmé and Nietzsche allure and disquiet us, it is not because their oeuvres are like water in a bathtub endlessly swirling away down a hole into vacancy, but because of the rich and various individuations of “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune,” and “Le vierge, le vivace, et le bel aujourd’hui,” and so on, and all the rich insights that come via the multiple languages of a book like Beyond Good and Evil.
When we value such writers, it is not on account of an absence which they have experienced or to which they point us.
It is on account of a presence, the rich presence of their art.
Nihilism, nausea, the great denial are always there, they are always possible.
When Marlowe was out in the jungle at night trying to persuade the fevered Kurtz to return to the steamboat with him,
“Don’t you see [he tells his listeners] the terror of the position was not in being knocked on the head—though I had a very lively sense of that danger, too—but in this, that I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low.”
It is frightening to be reminded that, in one sense, values are indeed beyond the reach of argument, in that someone cannot be argued into empathy, and that in that sense there is indeed nothing inevitable about the human contract.
And “value”—a sense of the charged, significant three-dimensionality of things, and the possibility of moving forward in dialogic relationships with others—is always at risk.
As R. D. Laing notes, we are only three or four degrees of fever away from the experience of derealization. And, when you gaze into it too long, the abyss may indeed gaze back at you—and swallow you.
There is a melancholy wisdom in Yvor Winters’ reference, apropos of a poem by Ben Jonson, to “one of the elementary facts of life: the fact that a middle-aged man of intelligence is often readier to die than to live if he merely indulges his feelings.”
It is always possible to find yourself sitting with Mrs. Ramsay at the dining-room table at the start of the dinner party in To the Lighthouse:
At the far end, was her husband, sitting down, all in a heap, frowning. What at? She did not know. She did not mind. She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him. She had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything.... It’s all come to an end, she thought....
When value, worth, meaning have drained away, it may be as hard to argue with yourself on their behalf—that is, to imagine a realizable future of significance—as it was for Marlowe to argue with Kurtz.
Even Marlowe’s “You will be lost, ... utterly lost” (which worked with Kurtz) may not be enough to save you. Ultimately Virginia Woolf loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the river.
And creative momentum can be lost.
At one point, says the narrator of H.G. Wells’ Tono-Bungay, George Ponderevo, “I had a very bad time.... I suffered, I suppose, from a sort of ennui of the imagination. I found myself without an object to hold my will together.”
If spatial metaphors or depth and height and distance keep cropping up with respect to thought, whether the river of Heart of Darkness, or those chilly peaks (Swiss, no doubt) of Clive Bell, or Mr. Ramsay’s sense in To the Lighthouse of making his way with increasing difficulty through the letters of the alphabet (“In that flash of darkness he heard people saying—he was a failure—that R was beyond him. He would never reach R. On to R, once more. R—”), it is because they accord with the experience of risk in any large undertaking whose worth and outcome you can’t be sure of at the outset, and which you fear may be beyond your capacity to accomplish.
In Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the narrator suggests that “Whosoever would undertake some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already accomplished, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.”
It is that kind of momentum, with its existential commitment, that nihilist irony, however masked with talk about “rigour,” seeks to block and break when it intimates that all journeys are essentially the same, that all paths lead to the same goal, and that that goal, “the desolation of reality” of Yeats’s “Meru,” is already known.
After his visit to the English bookshop in Paris, and his enormous meal in the “English” restaurant, Huysman’s Des Esseintes decides that he may as well give up his projected trip to London and return to the environment of fictions that he has constructed for himself in his country house.
But art—including modern art—admonishes us not to accord the wrong kind of value to the demoralizers.
As Forster tells us of Helen’s concert and those nihilistic imagined goblins in Howards End,
Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and amid vast roarings of a super-human joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.
If we value Mrs. Ramsay, it is not because in her moments of aridity or terror she has seen through the veil to that real nature of things that we do our best to ignore.
It is because of how she refuses to give way to her feelings of fragility and impermanence, and continues living in a familial world of other consciousnesses and bodies whose feelings and doings matter—a world of consequences, and of obligations to intervene.
The void is indeed there in Mrs. Ramsay’s sense of flux and formlessness and the precariousness of her own identity.
There are gulfs and gaps between the characters. They misunderstand one another, fail to say what they feel, are puzzled by one another. They threaten each other with their being: demand responses, are so powerful themselves (like Mrs. Ramsay) that someone like Lily Briscoe must fight to preserve—and value—her sense of her own identity.
But people come together as well, in the ongoing doings of the day and in the larger patterns of their relationships. Talk matters, quality matters (whether in a book or the triumphant boeuf-en-daube at the Ramsays’ dinner party), things and doings always have value.
And when (to arrive now at my own final closure) Mrs. Ramsay overcomes her sense of weariness, aridity, and alienation, and gradually transforms those around her, the party becomes, like the boeuf-en-daube, a triumph, and a permanent part of our consciousness—our modern consciousness:
Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right. Just now (but this cannot last, she thought, dissociating herself from the moment while they were all talking about boots) just now she had reached security; she hovered like a hawk suspended; like a flag floated in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather, for it arose, she thought, looking at them all eating there, from husband and children and friends; all of which rising in this profound stillness (she was helping William Bankes to one very small piece more, and peered into the depths of the earthenware pot) seemed now for no special reason to stay there like a smoke, like a fume rising upwards, holding them safe together. Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.