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To the Lighthouse - Another Book Club at The Spaniard
A few years ago I was having brunch with some friends at The Spaniard in the West Village. I happened to bring up that I had picked up Don Quixote again. Two of these friends said, hey, I’d pick it up again (for one) or for the first time and read it with you. We could talk about it when we finish. Maybe even here at the Spaniard! It’d be so fitting. Thus Book Club was born. We’ve been meeting for several years now.
For those of you out there considering a Book Club type thing I can share what we do in a future post. Perhaps there’s something helpful for others interested in experiencing the same. For now, I’d like to share more about what we talked about, my takeaways from the conversation.
After a friend picked the book I found myself wondering what Virginia Woolf was all about. I couldn’t remember much about the book from reading it in college. I knew nothing about her except that she’s still read as a sort of standard, or a writer of “classics”. I couldn’t have answered why we still read her works before I (re)read this.
If I had to answer now, after rereading and our conversation I’m left with the answer that she was an innovator. She pushed the art form of literature forward. One way she did this was in the structure of the work. Another way was in the stream of consciousness style she uses to portray what’s going on in characters’ minds. As for the above question of why we read her, I think there is a fundamentally human theme at the core of this work at least. I’m going to call it intimacy. Maybe I can come up with a better word, but we’ll get to that.
My friend who picked the book surfaced a few questions from his wife who’s a well-versed reader of high literature and a professor of early modern drama at Columbia University. One used the title to point to the kind of narrative we get in the book. Take a Campbellian basic hero’s journey as a comparison. The proverbial hero’s journey begins with the call to adventure. That call is followed by the refusal of the call which is followed by the crossing of the threshold in which the moving towards an amorphous goal, but movement from the call in a certain direction. Think Odysseus (a name it turns out, I cannot spell without the help of Google) finally leaving Troy to head home. The title “To the Lighthouse” serves as the organizing principle like Ithaca does in the Odyssey (got that one with the help of the name).
The question we didn’t cover too much, was, what kind of story do we get here? Continuing the comparison to the Odyssey, Odysseus makes steady progress towards home. We’re left with the question at each turn in his journey, will he make it home? Similarly, and especially in the first part of To the Lighthouse, we’re left with the question, will they make it? Indeed, many times the question is asked somewhat explicitly. We also get an explicit no most of the times the question is asked not dissimilar from the Odyssey in which we see Odysseus run into another roadblock, “nope, not this time” we’re left with as readers.
The difference is that in the Odyssey he’s moving, he’s out and about, he’s heading home in some wayshapeorform. In To the Lighthouse they’re going to go tomorrow, maybe, if the weather holds, but it probably won’t. They’re not really going to the lighthouse for most of the book. A bit towards the end, but not for most. So if the book is titled “To the Lighthouse” but they aren’t really moving towards it much, what is this book? What is this narrative? Why is it called “To the Lighthouse?”
By not following the standard narrative structure I see Woolf as innovating on the art form of the novel, of literature. I see her choosing to do so with a purpose in mind. One I’d like to come at from a different angle in a later part. But first into the streaming consciousnesses of the characters.
Woolf publishes this book in 1927. The Brothers Karamazov was published in 1880. A difference of 47 years is a lot when it comes to innovating in literature. Many writers are reading each others’ works and playing around with what makes sense to do, what themes and styles they might vary upon. Nearly 50 years prior and on the other side of Europe, Dostoevsky, in Brothers K, is inside his characters’ heads. Psychology and emotions are central forces moving the book forward. However, the reader does not get a stream of seemingly neverending thoughts.
Woolf gives us a deluge of consciousness. I will look into how many authors before her displayed the chaos and ambivalence within our minds in so central a way as she does in To the Lighthouse. But I think the centrality of stream of consciousness is another innovation of hers. If she isn’t one of the earliest to choose this style I wonder if she’s known as one of the most effective to do so. She chaotically moves the reader from one character’s stream of consciousness to another, moment to moment, sometimes very very quickly.
Thought to thought. Mind to mind. Even within one stream, we’ll get opposing opinions and feelings. Feeling love towards a father then the strongest kind of hate when the father says something mean. As a reader we find ourselves not standing on terra firma, by a long shot. It’s much more like we’re in a boat at sea, sloshing around, about to fall over.
Throughout the work, the reader is confined to a given perspective, a given view of a character’s stream of consciousness. Stuck inside, flowing down the various streams. The questions all this floating left me with in our conversation at The Spaniard was: Do the streams ever converge on a delta? On the sea? Do they ever get to the lighthouse?
The Lighthouse (spoiler alert)
When we discussed whether they ever get to the lighthouse in the book we dove deep into the passage where they’re getting close to it towards the end. The scene itself, not the end of the work as a whole, ends with a “spring”. A leap from a boat floating, not on a stream but a bay, to a rock, I’m assuming an island where the lighthouse is. It feels like a cliffhanger to me. Maybe, Mr. Ramsey and his kids never make it. Maybe they do. Maybe the arrival isn’t important. Woolf chooses to describe 0 of their time on the rock or exploring the lighthouse. We’re left midair nearly arriving at it. We’re also left in the last chapter with two others, associated with the family, back at the house, thinking the same thought, “he must have reached it”. Does Woolf point to the impossibility of reaching the lighthouse? Does she believe these streams of consciousness can ever meet?
To ask this another, less symbolic way, does Woolf believe that we as individuals can ever be intimate with another? Can we ever know another? Can our streams ever come together? Can we ever come together as one? Not just be married as Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are. Not just as parent child an ever so close bond. But can we grow together when we’re separated into our various streams of consciousness? To answer this question I think we can point to Mr. Ramsey’s spring into the air toward the rock the lighthouse is sitting on. To me, ending here, Woolf is saying, we cannot, but we can leap across the void of the air and try. What a powerful insight.
In our conversation over brunch, someone continued to bring us back to the idea that while we cannot share another’s perspective nor jump into their own stream of consciousness, we can’t ever truly walk a mile in their shoes, what bonds us, what we all do still have in common is that we have perspectives. We each flow upon our own streams of consciousness. We’ll always have that fundamental commonality as humans stuck in our heads leaping into the air toward true intimacy. No matter what we’re stuck. But no matter what we may leap toward one another. Reach out as the social animals we are. I think Woolf’s message is that we might never get to the lighthouse, but we can try. What a message. What a work.