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!