Thursday, August 23, 2012

Love is complicated.



I heard “Every Breath You Take” by The Police the other day, and it made me think about the tension between Peter Walsh and Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.  Each clearly still loves the other on some level, but the complicated layers of their past and present prevent them from being together as a healthy couple, yet their friendship suffers from the strains of unresolved emotions.

Sting sings about watching someone, and that someone belonging to him, and it’s not really a love song despite the yearning tone and the music itself.  If you revisit the lyrics, such as
Every move you make, every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I'll be watching you”,
you will note that if you are pining away for somebody, chances are you don’t accuse them of breaking vows or faking smiles because we know those habits aren’t lovable.  To each his own, I guess, but in my book, those habits are not lovable.  They are needly, prickly and snarky statements by someone who’s hurt, angry, and perhaps spiteful.

Almost stalkerish in his repetition of the phrase, “I’ll be watching you,” Sting creeps me out a bit on this one.  If someone were to repeat to you “I’ll be watching you” no matter what you do, you might be tempted to call the actual police.  However, because it’s Sting and because the poetic sounds of the notes captivate us, we as listeners are deceived into construing the words as those of merely a man with a broken heart.   Side note: I saw Sting live at a poetry reading at Lincoln Center a few years ago, and he was not creepy at all; on the contrary, he was congenial with the audience and there were no criminal undertones to the poetry he read.

Sting brings me to Peter Walsh of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway because he can’t move past his past with Clarissa, nor she with hers.  Peter’s inner monologue (see below) is what gives him away to the reader, but his words are mostly friendly and warm to Clarissa.  He fakes his smiles, pops in for an impromptu visit on her doorstep, and yet his attitude toward her intrigues me; he is the one who went to her when in London, yet he can’t stand her, or he resents her so much for choosing another life, another husband, that his visit is more of a test for himself.  On page 40 he thinks:

“Here she is mending her dress; mending her dress as usual…here she’s been sitting all the time I’ve been in India; mending her dress; playing about; going to parties; running to the House and all that, he thought, growing more and more irritated, more and more agitated, for there’s nothing in the world so bad for some women as marriage, he thought; and politics; and having a Conservative husband, like the admirable Richard.  So it is, so it is, he thought, shutting his knife with a snap.”

You can love someone and be angry with the person, but to be perpetually agitated?  That’s complicated.  Is he conflicted because he can’t have her?  Is that okay sometimes, to be so annoyed by the person you love?  That’s the complication of an unresolved past.  Perhaps it’s best, or at least easier, to avoid contact with the other person, but Peter seeks out Clarissa; it was his choice to visit.  Maybe such agitation is okay only in the thinker’s head because it’s temporary.  You high schoolers don’t know this firsthand yet, but marriage is hard work.  You might witness the hard work that marriage is, but unless laws have changed in Connecticut, not one of you is married. 

The way Woolf captures the tension between Peter and Clarissa is astounding, and one of the ways she does it is by capturing their internal monologue and transitioning seamlessly between their thoughts.  We know that Clarissa has unresolved feelings on several pages, and one of those examples is on page 41 when Woolf ends a paragraph with Peter’s thoughts and begins a new one with Clarissa’s:

“For why go back like this to the past? he thought.  Why make him think it again?  Why make him suffer, when she had tortured him so infernally?  Why?
‘Do you remember the lake?’ she said, in an abrupt voice, under the pressure of an emotion which caught her heart, made the muscles of her own throat stiff, and contracted her lips in a spasm as she said ‘lake’… She looked at Peter Walsh; her look, passing through all that time and that emotion, reached him doubtfully; settled on him tearfully; and rose and fluttered away, as a bird touches a branch and rises and flutters away.”

The tension builds as the two sit next two each other, all the while thinking of the past while trying to maintain a happy fa├žade replicating the present.  This scene continues until Peter announces that he is in love on page 43, but not with her, and he ends up crying with Clarissa there to comfort him, and she kisses him on page 45, and she thinks, “If I had married him, this gaiety would have been mine all day!” and she means it – although she thinks Peter’s letters to her are dull.  So, yes, in love there is conflict, as proven by Peter and Clarissa, and Woolf depicts such tension as if she has lived it herself.

We all have an internal monologue running most of the time, married or not, and if an occasional inner thought is less then loving toward one’s partner in a moment or period of tension, that’s just an emotional and momentary expression.  It doesn’t mean the love is all gone; it’s just morphed into handling differing types of feelings, such as disappointment or frustration.  That expression “the honeymoon is over” actually means something, and someday you might know about that, but not now.

The honeymoon never happened for Clarissa and Peter because it was over before it began.  When Woolf deepens the other Dalloway characters of Sally Seton and Septimus Smith (was Woolf a fan of alliteration?), you learn even more about layers of love and how complicated it can be, but that’s a thought for another day.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Only a Novel?

"'...And what are you reading, Miss -- -? Oh! it is only a novel!' replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame...in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language" (Austen 25). ~ Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey. Pub. 1817.


Northanger Abbey, although well known by title if you're an Austen fan, has little recognition as a coming of age novel when compared to other similarly themed novels like The Catcher in the Rye.  One of the reasons N.A. appeals to me is because it contains nuggets of Austen's true and timeless wisdom such as the one quoted above.  I can't decide what I like best about this quote - that it represents an impressive narration style and the author's intent is clear?  That it lends itself in context to illustrating how our protagonist Catherine Morland belittles her sense of self and value of reading?  I think it's both for me.  


The way Austen speaks to the reader in Northanger Abbey is unique; every so often she inserts a reminder that she is our tour guide through Catherine's learning experience.  It's as if Jane is my Great Aunt Claire, a woman I don't recall meeting but imagine her to resemble Jane Austen, and we've spent an afternoon as women did in those days: exploring the nuances of the human condition over tea.  Great Aunt Claire would likely have told me, just as my grandmother Marjorie Rose actually did, stories of young girls who learn the hard way what Catherine Morland does in Northanger Abbey:  that true friendships are hard to come by, that we shouldn't trust just anyone who claims to be a friend, and that we shouldn't belittle anything we hold so dear.


Only a novel?  I should say not.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Something to Consider

“There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.” But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

“These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for is good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defense, not God’s, that the self-righteous should rush.”(Life of Pi by Yann Martel, 89-90)

I have always found this passage to be thought provoking, especially in light of all of the conflict, past and present, which has arisen due to theological differences. Even in class discussions, I have seen students react with anger and possessive pride when issues have arisen concerning faith and religion. I have noticed that I, too, have fallen victim to this reaction when issues have arisen with friends and colleagues. Why do we feel the need to be right and then convince everyone else of our belief? Does the “Ultimate Reality” need to be defended by us? Or do we do a better job of defending our faith by showing love and caring toward others, especially those in need?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Beginning with an Ending

To begin this blog, I'll start with an ending, and it's without hesitation that I share my thoughts about Fitzgerald's ending to The Great Gatsby:
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Fitzgerald's poetic sound keeps us transfixed for chapters, and his ending doesn't disappoint. Not only does the novel end with an effective image, but it speaks to all of us who have the hope of a better tomorrow whether our goals are tangible or not. No matter the challenges we encounter, we muster the courage from our own past and recall that we, too, have a green light; we, too, feel the tension of our past tugging at our present. Like Gatsby, we embody flaws and feel nostalgia. Because Gatsby is fictional, he has the luxury of going for it, of striving to recreate his past, but for those of us who are flesh and blood, well, that sort of risk-taking isn't such a great idea.