The Transience of Things

I once heard a term: mono no aware. It means recognizing the transience of things and the bittersweet sadness at their passing.

It’s the sort of theme inspires rainbows, the last days of summer, and that farcical “bag scene” in American Beauty. Since I discovered this little phrase, it has been my favorite theme, and I look for it everywhere- in books, films and even in the people I meet.

In all my reading, though, no where do I find this theme of transience more prevalent than in the works of Virginia Woolf. It is why, considering all her works as a whole, she is my favorite writer. And the work that I believe is most exemplary of this theme is in Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse.

Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. –Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)

It’s one of my favorite last lines I’ve ever read and, if you don’t take my word for it, the American Book Review lists it as the tenth best last lines in all of literature:

In a conversation I had with Julie Crosby, professor of English at Columbia University and director of the Women’s Project (the very woman who produced Freshwater), she summed up one reason to her what the ending was so meaningful to her: “One of my favorite moments is near the end of To the Lighthouse. I take such comfort in Woolf’s idea that the artistic visions of women can be realized with such deep satisfaction.”

The reason, though, why it is my favorite line is that, up until this point, Lily has suffered the “extreme fatigue” of life; she has seen the aging of children, the deaths of people she cares about, and withstood innumerable failures. The beauty of that one singular moment in Lily’s life is at the cost of all the hours, days and months that came before it. And even though her painting will one day be “junk in someone’s attic,” Lily acknowledges the value of what she has accomplished and literally sees her “vision” through her painting. She achieves something that even her male counterparts, Mr. Tansley and Mr. Ramsay, who are plagued with Thoreau’s quiet desperation, have not done. It is what all of us strive for- a moment of being, in which we experience our personhood and our art (whatever it might be) in relation to the world. What’s more is that Lily is able to express that in her painting and, like Woolf, in her words.

I know in my life, I live, if for nothing else, in anticipation of these moments. And while probability is against me, and I may never achieve “my vision,” I am still grateful for the worthwhile occasion when I am able to experience a version of that vision through remarkable characters like Lily and in learning about great writers like Virginia Woolf.