Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Between the Acts, Woolf

Between the Acts
Virginia Woolf

“And if we’re left asking questions, isn’t it a failure, as a play?”

I can’t help but feel that critics have missed the point of Virginia Woolf’s fiction altogether, and when I think about that I find that I’m not surprised she ended up killing herself. I don’t mean that killing herself was the right thing to do, or that I fully understand why she did it, because of course we should all be brave and carry on, and because of course I am personally not able to write like Virginia Woolf. Still, when I read proclamations like the one on the back of my copy of Between the Acts, I feel deep sympathy for the famous writer: “Miss La Trobe is Virginia Woolf’s burlesque of herself as artist, and through her she states the truth about the artist and his increasing endeavor to make his audience see.” Probably I’m missing a great deal of Walter Allen’s argument because I’ve only read this single sentence on the back of my book, but based on this excerpt I have to wonder if he’s read the book at all, or any of Woolf’s other novels. Surely Allen is correct that Woolf presents aspects of herself as artist through the character of the playwright, Miss La Trobe, but I find the idea of assigning the person of “Woolf” to just one character at best limited, and at worst to miss the point of every Woolf novel I’ve ever read.

A short novel, Between the Acts is set in a single day in 1939. As in all of Woolf’s work however the passage of time and the “spirit” of the various ages play as much of a role as the present moment, giving the reader a broad-lens view of the world as well as a close-up of a variety of characters. On this particular day there is to be a play on the grounds of the country home of the aging brother and sister, Bart and Lucy. The plot consists mostly of these two, along with some friends and family, attending the play. The narration is omniscient, giving us a great deal of insight into the major and minor characters’ thoughts. A second, somewhat more accurate, blurb on the back of my book says that “during the performance the spectators are held together. Unity appears to be triumphant. But not for long. When the play ends they fall apart again. And even between the acts the semblance of unity is lost…” I agree with the essence of this statement, but not the tone. It seems to me here to be presented as a pessimistic message, but it is only gloomy if read without the lens of Buddhism. With “right thinking” in terms of Buddhism, one can observe the truth of reality without judging it. Unity and disunity, pain and pleasure, beauty and ugliness are real, present, and constantly in flux. This book dwells on impermanence but hints that it is not a cause for despair. Instead, Woolf suggests, we should look to the present moment, not the past or future, for our enjoyment of life and all its fleeting charms.

The recurring image of the church is the most conclusive evidence to support my point that Woolf is exploring larger spiritual questions here than merely the role of the artist. The profits raised by the play, we and are told, will be used to install electric light in the church, thus “illuminating” it (i.e. “enlightening” it?). Convention, in this case symbolized by the Christian church, works as a blind which veils reality. Though Woolf questions the church, and its adherents’ unexamined belief in it, she doesn’t ridicule believers. Lucy, in her earnest search for spiritual meaning via her Christian faith, is respectfully and sympathetically rendered. Yet her brother’s thoughts about her - “How imperceptive her religion made her! The fumes of that incense obscured the human heart. Skimming the surface she ignored the battle in the mud.” – also carry weight. And still, again, we must consider that it is the Reverend who, at the end of the play, offers what is (in my opinion) a plausible interpretation not only for the play, but for the novel itself. “…we are members one of each other. Each is part of the whole. […] We act different parts; but are the same.” The Buddha himself can hardly explain interconnection better. And isn’t it lovely that it comes from a man of God in Woolf’s vision? What do you make of that?

For reasons as yet unclear to me, Virginia Woolf was either unaware (partially, perhaps, but surely not totally), or unable to accept or openly acknowledge the teachings of Buddhism, despite the fact that they crop up all over her work: nothing is solid, everything is constantly changing, true reality is hidden, everything ends, the past and the future are no longer with us; all we have is the present moment, and that is often painful. Or maybe the truth is that she understood Buddhism, but also recognized the necessity of finding another, and another, and still another way to convey these truths in order to reach as many audiences, and as much of herself, as possible. Most probably, it is all of these, and more. Between the Acts is conflicting, unclear, momentary, fleeting, weighty, beautiful, and melancholy because that is how life is. It is the work of a brilliant mind trying and, in my opinion, succeeding at inventing a new plot – that of exploring life as it really is: troubling, tense, and full of contradictions.   

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