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.