Thursday, August 23, 2012

Rhoda and Bernard, The Waves and The Second Noble Truth

I have left Rhoda and Bernard for last because they are special cases regarding the concept of attachment. They have by no means fully reached enlightenment, but Woolf indicates that they may be further along the path than their companions.

Of all the characters in The Waves, Rhoda is the most difficult to generalize about. She doesn’t fall into the standard female roles like Jinny (whore) and Susan (mother), except perhaps for the tragic figure of the crazy woman. Certainly, Rhoda has an incredibly difficult time dealing with everyday reality, as the following quote from her demonstrates. "I cannot make one moment merge in the next. To me they are all violent, all separate; and if I fall under the shock of the leap of the moment you will be on me, tearing me to pieces. I have no end in view. … But there is no single scent, no single body for me to follow. And I have no face. I am like the foam that races over the beach, or the moonlight that falls arrowlike here on a tin can... But since I wish above all things to have lodgment, I pretend ... to have an end in view" (94). Undoubtedly, we are meant to feel sorry for Rhoda, but I don’t think it’s for the “simple” reason that she is unable to adjust to the world or, as critics have made so much of, because she might be a lesbian. Rather, we are meant to feel sorry for Rhoda because she understands or senses more about the true nature of the world than the others do, and it is her solitude in that understanding that is crazy, not Rhoda herself.  

 In a sense, Rhoda’s lack of attachment to any one person or thing, her lack of a “face,” is an advantage along the path to enlightenment. Despite her discomfort in every possible scenario, Rhoda repeatedly expresses an understanding that life is an “illusion," that there is something beneath the surface that the rest of the characters do not perceive or, if they do, do not find as troubling: "This is here and now. This I say is the present moment; this is the first day of the summer holidays. This is part of the emerging monster to whom we are attached" (46). Rhoda has got the mindfulness thing down; she is aware of each moment as a part of a greater whole. Interestingly, she calls this sum of moments a “monster to whom we are attached.” This phrasing calls to mind the Buddhist concept of life as suffering (surely, such is the case for Rhoda), and that it is precisely our attachment to it which causes our suffering. Thus, Rhoda is a woman in constant conflict; she longs for a fixed place ("lodgment") while fighting with her own understanding that no such fixity is possible. 

Sadly, far from providing comfort and direction for Rhoda, her insights only separate her further from the rest of the world. Towards the end of the book we learn that Rhoda has committed suicide, as Virginia Woolf herself would do ten years after the publication of The Waves

If one can use traditional novelistic terms to speak of The Waves, then Bernard is its main character. In the last section, this would-be writer attempts to “sum up” his waning life. “The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life” (176) says Bernard. Yet, he goes on, “But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story – and there are so many, and so many – stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true. Yet like children we tell each other stories, and to decorate them we make up these ridiculous, flamboyant, beautiful phrases” (176). Like Rhoda, Bernard believes that there is something beyond the veil, beyond the words we use to describe reality. He recognizes that our attempt to name or describe things is in a sense futile; look again a moment later and the thing will be different. You will be different; you will not see it or understand it in the same way from moment to moment.  

Bernard seems particularly aware that “our eternal flux,” as he calls it, impermanence, change is the nature of reality. Perhaps Bernard’s fatal flaw is the same as Rhoda’s - that he desires permanence, to stick things in place with words. But as he nears the end of his life he begins to understand that this will never be possible, not just because he is not the writer he wants to be, but because of the nature of reality. Words and phrases are only symbols; they can never come close to the real thing. Thich Nhat Hanh seems to be express the same idea in a book I picked up from the library yesterday: “In Buddhism, we speak of nirvana. We are not supposed to speak of nirvana because it is the level of the noumenal where all notions, concepts, and words are inadequate to describe it. The most we can say about nirvana is that it transcends all notions and concepts” (Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers). Nirvana, heaven, God, the meaning of life - surely these are the most important things we can know, and yet our only device for considering them - words - is woefully inadequate. 

At the end of his life, Bernard wrestles with the inadequacy of his medium for the task he has set himself. “Let us again pretend that life is a solid substance, shaped like a globe, which we turn about in our fingers. Let us pretend that we can make out a plain and logical story, so that when one matter is dispatched – love for instance – we go on, in an orderly manner, to the next” (186). Yes, Bernard, let’s do. For how else are we to make our way in the world? And certainly, how in our writing? “But it is a mistake, this extreme precision, this orderly and military progress; a convenience, a lie” (189). Underneath it all is “a rushing stream of broken dreams, nursery rhymes, street cries, half-finished sentences and sights” “alive too and deep” (189). Bernard, the writer, wants to convey something specific, real, timeless, with clarity and precision depth. Yet “how impossible to order them rightly, to detach one separately, or to give the effect of the whole,” especially when one understands that life is not like that, at all (190). Is this Woolf’s problem as well? Was the difficulty or perceived futility of her task, her life’s work, perhaps, part of the frustration which led her to take her own life?

And yet Bernard/Woolf offers a solution straight from the pages of Buddhist scripture: “To see things without attachment, from the outside, and to realize their beauty in itself – how strange! And then the sense that a burden has been removed; pretence and make-believe and unreality are gone, and lightness has come with a kind of transparency” (195). Non-attachment releases Bernard from the burden of clinging to the desire to create and be appreciated for his art. But now, once the vision is attained, Bernard faces the bigger problem, perhaps the same problem Rhoda was dealing with, though with less clarity: how to continue living in the world among a population with blinders on. “How can I proceed now, I said, without a self, weightless and visionless, through a world weightless, without illusion?” (212). Bernard finds he cannot “describe the world seen without a self” “save that it fades, save that it undergoes a gradual transformation” (213). Bernard’s description could be applied to the project of The Waves itself.

Bernard seems well on his way to complete enlightenment, yet only a few pages later he crashes sharply back to earth again. “My hat is off – I have dropped my stick. I have made an awful ass of myself and am justly laughed at by any passer-by. Lord, how unutterably disgusting life is! What dirty tricks it plays on us, one moment free; the next, this” (217). Isn’t this the nature of insight for most of us? One moment, you know, the next you are worried about the people laughing at you for tripping up the stairs. Bernard still cares about what the passers-by think of him – he is brought back to the wheel of suffering by his desire to appear a certain way to those around him.

Next up - Percival, and the Third Noble Truth: the truth of the cessation of suffering. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Waves of desire, the 2nd Noble Truth

The Waves and the Second Noble Truth, part 2

“Louis was disgusted by the nature of human flesh; Rhoda by our cruelty; Susan could not share; Neville wanted order; Jinny love; and so on. We suffered terribly as we became separate bodies.” – Bernard’s summing up

First, an update: it seems like as soon as I wrote that last post about my job search, the interview requests started coming in. I was offered several classes and accepted two each at NYC College of Technology and Marymount Manhattan College. Two more weeks to full time teaching! I’m nervous, but very much looking forward to back-to-school (and back to bringing in a paycheck…).

Meanwhile, back to our friends in The Waves. If you’ll remember from last time, I told you that the second Noble Truth in Buddhism is the truth of the origin of suffering. Suffering comes from somewhere; it comes from our inability or unwillingness to let go of desire. In The Waves, Woolf returns to her characters’ desires again and again. Very often, they state their longings specifically and straightforwardly, usually accompanied by the suggestion that desire, and/or the character’s inability to fulfill desire, causes them to suffer. For example:

Jinny is a sensuous being, attached to matters of the flesh, of sensation. From the very beginning, when they are small children, Jinny is particularly aware of physicalality. “The back of my hand burns, but the palm is clammy and damp with dew” (4). “I burn, I shiver, out of this sun, into this shadow” (6). In addition to what is happening to her own body, Jinny is constantly monitoring how others respond to her physical presence. In a way, she is detached from the worries and preoccupations of the mind that plague her counterparts, yet she is not completely free, after all; she must be wanted by men to feel secure. "Only when I have lain alone on the hard ground, watching you play your game, I begin to feel the wish to be singled out; to be summoned, to be called away by one person who comes to find me, who cannot keep himself from me…" (32). This need is what separates Jinny from complete happiness since, as she admits freely, eventually she will grow old, and the male gaze will no longer be a constant.

Like Jinny, Neville, too, wants love. But the type of love he desires is different. A passing tryst is not enough for Neville; he desires full possession of another, a soul-love: "But by some inscrutable law of my being sovereignty and the possession of power will not be enough; I shall always push through curtains to privacy, and want some whispered words alone" (42). At first, his love object is the silent Percival, admired by all the characters but particularly worshipped by Neville. As my epigraph from Bernard suggests, another of Neville’s desires is “order,” a quality he also finds epitomized by Percival. "The reign of chaos is over. [Percival] has imposed order" (88). As we all know, order is not something that can be maintained at every moment, thus, Neville’s grasping for it gets in the way of his happiness. As, too, does the fact (or his perception) that he “excite[s] pity in the crisis of life, not love” (93). 

A good little hippie like me is inclined, at first, to feel like Susan is the one who’s got it all figured out. Her desires are so wholesome, so natural, that initially they almost seem selfless. "I want to give, to be given, and solitude in which to unfold my possessions" (37). "I shall go upstairs to my room, and turn over my own things, locked carefully in the wardrobe; my shells; my eggs; my curious grasses. … So gradually I shall turn over the hard thing that has grown here in my side" (38). How can one find fault with a person whose prized “possessions” are shells, eggs, and grasses? And yet, freedom from desire is not about desiring the right things, it’s about not clinging to desire at all. Susan clings to the Earth and eventually to her children, whose lives are, naturally, more dear to her than her own yet whose needs and wishes, one might argue, usurp her ability to be free of wishes altogether. "I shall never have anything but natural happiness. It will almost content me. … I shall be debased and hide-bound by the bestial and beautiful passion of maternity. I shall push the fortunes of my children unscrupulously. I shall hate those who see their faults. I shall lie basely to help them. I shall let them wall me away from you, from you and from you. Also, I am torn with jealousy.  ... I love with such ferocity that it kills me when the object of my love shows by a phrase that he can escape. He escapes, and I am left clutching..." (95). Here Woolf’s language strongly echoes that of Buddhism; Susan’s “ferocious clutching” keeps her from finding true peace. 

Louis constantly reminds the reader, and himself, that he is different, isolated from the other characters by his father, “a banker in Brisbane.” As an Australian, Louis, though technically British, would have been seen by most in England in the 1930s as inhabiting a lower position in the English class system than those who were born on the British isle. The desire to be embraced as an equal among his peers is at the forefront of Louis’s desires from a young boy: "Yet that [the boasting boys] is what we wish to be, Neville and I. I watch them go with envy" (32), to an old man: “Life has been a terrible affair for me. I am like some vast sucker, some glutinous, some adhesive, some insatiable mouth. I have tried to draw from the living flesh the stone lodged at the centre” (147). Interestingly, Louis seems to realize that there is some benefit to ceasing to desire, and even to exist, yet he expresses doubt that such peace will ever be his. “Perhaps I shall never die, shall never attain even that continuity and permanence […]” (148). He will likely not, I should think, until he stops seeking continuity and permanence in a world that so rarely provides such comforts.

But to fully appreciate the extent to which Jinny, Susan, Neville, and Louis are caught up in the circle of desire, thwarted fulfillment, and more desire, we must have something to measure them against. Rhoda, Bernard, and the silent, off-stage specter of Percival provide just such a contrast. Be looking for a post about them later this week!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Why I Hate Food: A Polemic
Mary Rechner

The primary reason I refuse to place “eating correctly” at the center of my consciousness is because in doing so I would lose ground on my essential life project: living a dogma-free existence while maintaining psychic (and actual) time and space to write fiction.

This is not a book, but I read this essay today and got excited, and wanted to share it with you because I think it’s an excellent example of good non-fiction. Not because the arguments the author makes are “right,” or because I agree with every single one of them, but because of the bravery required to craft an intellectual argument about personal matters that challenges the status quo. People in Portland, OR, where Rechner lives, and where I lived, until a few months ago, are absolutely obsessed with eating local, organic food, recycling, cycling, and any other green initiative you can think of. (You know that “is it local?” spoof on Portlandia? It’s funny because it is so, so true). And all of that is great! And a huge part of the reason I loved living there. Still, I think Rechner has a point: “The rise of civilization was made possible in part by the division of labor, which in turn made art and literary production possible. If some people grew and procured food, others could spend time doing other things, among them writing and sculpting. Of course very few artists were women, who throughout millennia have disproportionately taken care of childrearing and the majority of food procurement.

Rechner goes on to argue that the new obsession with not just buying local, organic food, but the social pressure to become an urban homesteader disproportionately falls on women. Rechner admits that we place these pressures on ourselves and on each other as much as men or patriarchal systems place them upon us, for religious, historical, personal, and probably genetic reasons. But still – the ultimate question Rechner’s asking is what is life for? For Rechner, and for me, it’s about creating art. “If women are spending all of their time planting gardens, tending chickens, and canning (i.e. living our lives in the most laborious ways possible), how are we ever to catch up as writers, visual artists, composers, and directors?” Not to mentions engineers, scientists, doctors, and politicians.

I responded to Rechner’s article because I recognized myself in it. Probably because I do not yet have children, the pull of urban farming that was admittedly strong in Portland didn’t bother me too much, but the pull of radical political activism in college did. I will always be grateful for the incredible activist professors and fellow students I met and learned from at St. Lawrence University, but it took me a long time to let go of the guilty feelings I developed there by not spending all my waking hours working to change the world. My desire to make things better has not gone away, but my tendency to beat myself up about not spending more time on activism has. Now I realize that all we can do is what we can do. If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do for the world is to arrange your life in such a way that you create the best fiction you possibly can. If you want to be a fashion designer you can make sure the fashions you create are ethically sourced, crafted, and that you arrange your life in such a way that you are able to add beauty to the world. And on and on. All we can do is what we can do. If you find satisfaction in growing vegetables, in phone banking for causes you believe in, or in bicycling to work in the rain then that’s awesome, and you should do it. But don’t tell me that I have to do the same. I’m doing what I can do, too.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

First Look: One Hundred Years of Solitude

I’m about half way through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I must say that I’m enjoying it a lot more than the other one of his I read, Love in the Time of Cholera. It was many years ago now that I read that one, but if I remember correctly what bothered me about it was that the magical realism elements seemed to come in out of nowhere randomly, and I couldn’t tell for what purpose. More trying on my nerves, though, was how it just seemed to drag on and never, even at the end, offered any redemption or catharsis, either for the characters or the reader. Not that I have to have my stories with happy endings, but I guess I just found it an odd mix of animism and post-modernism that I couldn’t make any sense of. But I digress. One Hundred Years of Solitude is better.

Two things about it have been bugging me so far, though. 1) The way the narrative jumps back and forth through time makes the story hard to follow and, 2) The fact that so many of the characters have the same names also makes the story hard to follow. These things have somewhat thwarted my enjoyment of the tales of a fascinating and varied family. Lately, though, I’m beginning to get the sense that the jumbled quality and fuzzy lines separating characters and timelines may in fact have a thematic purpose. I wonder if it’s linked to an idea about the pervasive, timeless nature of solitude. About how character, era, and circumstance may in some ways be unique, but that the ultimate situation of mankind is solitude. We are all alone together. But that’s just a guess for now. Tell you more later.   

Has anyone else read this book? What do you think Marquez is on about?  

Sidenote: I was inspired to read this book by my recent trip to Colombia, Marquez’s country of origin. I wanted to read it there, but it cost upwards of $30 to buy in English, so I had to wait. Meanwhile, when I was in Cartegena, I got to see Marquez’s house. And Shakira’s, too. :P 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Into Thin Air, Krakauer

Into Thin Air
Jon Krakauer

“As I gazed across the sky at this contrail, it occurred to me that the top of Everest was precisely the same height as the pressurized jet bearing me through the heavens. That I proposed to climb to the cruising altitude of an Airbus 300 jetliner struck me, at that moment, as preposterous, or worse.”

            Most of us spend our lives seeking comfort. I am no exception. So it was a little weird to read this book while worrying about what furniture would look best my new apartment, and how to arrange my things in the most aesthetically pleasing way. In a way it made life easier for me, because the people I was spending time with during my reading hours were freezing and sick and gasping for air up on an unforgiving mountain, and so my little apartment without air conditioning, in comparison, seemed downright luxurious.
            Into Thin Air is a non-fiction book about the tragedies that occurred during climbing season on Mt. Everest in 1996. You may have heard of it; it was a bestseller. The author, Jon Krakauer, is an amateur climber, but his primary role on the Everest expedition was supposed to be as a reporter (he had originally intended to remain at Base Camp, but the allure of the summit was too much for him and he ended up climbing to the top, too). Commissioned by Outside magazine, Krakauer was to write an article assessing what many “purist” climbers referred to as the “commercialization” of Everest. He does a good job of filling us uneducated readers in on the argument between people who believe that only those who are able to climb without the aid of a paid guide should do so, and others who see no problem with Everest being run as a kind of extreme amusement park (there is a secondary debate, too, about whether using supplemental oxygen to reach the summit is cheating or not). Krakauer wrote his article for Outside immediately after returning from Everest in 1996, but found that he could not put the experience to rest. Twelve people had died, and Krakauer and many of the other climbers were still struggling to understand why. The book is the result of its author’s need for clarification, insight, and meaning. It attempts to offer the same to its readers and, at its best moments, succeeds.
            I haven’t read many “adventure” books, so I won’t pretend to be an expert on the genre. However, the type of tone and content that I would have expected from such a book was completely missing from Into Thin Air. Instead of larger-than-life characters, Krakauer seeks to humanize every person he meets on the mountain that spring. The reader is left with an impression not of heroic, impossibly strong mountaineers to be admired, but instead of real, often weak, eminently human men and women, attempting to summit the world’s tallest peak for a host of reasons, some more admirable than others. There are depressingly few moments of romantic vistas and awe-inspiring natural scenery; the few there are are almost completely outweighed by descriptions of dirty, festering camps, aching muscles and heads, broken bodies left behind in the snow, and the cruel ice, wind, and snowdrifts of Mt. Everest. There’s no doubt that the results of the climb soured Krakauer’s view of the entire experience, but it was fascinating to read a book written by someone who admittedly loves (loved?) climbing told in such a dark, almost angry tone.
Other climbers who were there that spring have since denounced Krakauer, claiming that his version of events is not entirely true (mostly this has come from one of the guides who believes Krakauer painted an unfairly negative portrait of him). Clearly, I don’t know whether what Krakauer writes is 100% “true” or not, but I am convinced that he is reporting to the best of his and others’ knowledge. He seems desperate to find the truth at whatever cost to himself or others’ views of themselves, and I find that convincing evidence of his impartiality. Krakauer wants to know why, but not so badly that he twists the story to create a clear-cut, specific reason that explains it all. Instead, he tells what happened, moment by moment and day by day, and we must decide for ourselves along with him about what went wrong.
One of Krakauer’s central claims seems to be that the accidental deaths that occurred on his trek to Everest were not, contrary to popular belief, all that unusual. “If you can convince yourself that Rob Hall [the expedition’s leader] died because he made a string of stupid errors and that you are too clever to repeat those same errors, it makes it easier for you to attempt Everest in the face of some of the rather compelling evidence that doing so is injudicious. In fact, the murderous outcome of 1996 was in many ways simply business as usual. Although a record number of people died in the spring climbing season on Everest, the 12 fatalities amounted to only 3 percent of the 398 climbers who ascended higher than Base Camp – which is actually slightly below the historical fatality rate of 3.3 percent.” Perhaps it should seem obvious to us that climbing the world’s highest peak is a life-threatening task. But, this late in the game, I think many of us have the sense that if we pay enough for something (and the people on Rob Hall’s expedition paid upwards of $65,000 for their opportunity to reach Everest’s summit), and if we are important enough (there were many, many doctors and a minor celebrity upon the mountain that spring) then we simply won’t die from taking an extreme vacation. It seems like there are safety precautions in place for everything; planes can fly anywhere, and if something goes wrong, we will sue somebody. Into Thin Air reminds us that sometimes things go wrong anyway, and that sometimes there isn’t any one person or company at fault; sometimes you just have to live with death. It turns out there are still are places that are truly wild, and untamable. I guess that’s why people go out there to seek them, to find those places where all bets are off, where it isn’t necessarily going to be okay, where every tiny movement you make is the difference between life and death. I can understand that, I think. It’s something primordial, a desire to be back at the beginning, when it was just man and woman vs. wild, and all of these other, silly, side issues, like how many people are reading our blogs and whether or not we impressed our boss, didn’t even exist. When you’re focused on survival, you can finally let all your other cares go.   

            A quick Google search of “climbing Mt. Everest” reveals that despite the danger, people are still interested in reaching the summit. Call me crazy – and there’s no way I’m ever trying to go to the top – but this expedition to Everest Base Camp sounds pretty good: 30th birthday trip, perhaps? ;)