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.

Today, I scrambled through my folder looking for secondary readings to blog about--but to my dismay, nothing was really sparking any ideas. Eventually, I came across Mr. Cowper's poem "The Castaway," mercilessly shoved in the back of my folder with a dog-eared corner, a crease along the side, and the doodle of a forlorn-looking bunny in the margins.
"This looks promising!" I thought to myself, and then proceeded to read over the poem a few times to help generate some blogging ideas. I remember reading over the poem in class, I remember taking notes about it, and I remember an extensive conversation regarding domesticated rabbit poetry--but I had forgotten how much I love this poem. And finally, I decided that I want to retrace our class discussion about Mr. Ramsay, specifically how Woolf takes Coooper's poem (written well before her time, in 1799) and applies it to Mr. Ramsay's grief about his own life.
While I agree that Mr. Ramsay is a pretty ridiculous character for the most part, I think Woolf's incorporation of Cowper's poem does more than highlight Mr. Ramsay's melodramatic flair for eighteenth century poetry recitations around his beachouse. I think Woolf is also showing how Mr. Ramsay is a "castaway" within his own family.
It's funny to think of Mr. Ramsay marching around on a sunny beach occasionally barking out lines from tragic poems. How can he possibly relate his comfortable, beach-house-owning life to that of the Light Brigade from Tennyson's poem or the castaway from Cowper's? The idea seemed silly then--but now I'm not as sure. In the third section of To The Lighthouse (aptly entitled, "the Lighthouse") Mr. Ramsay is sitting with Cam and James on the boat, feeling like, "...a desolate man, old, bereft..." (169) murmuring the last two lines of Cowper's poem loud enough for his two children to hear:
But I beneath a rougher sea
Was whelmed in deeper gulfs than he
Of course Mr. Ramsay's situation isn't like that of the perilous castaway from Cowper's poem; but, are his feelings all that different than the one's expressed by Cowper? At this point in the novel, Ramsay has lost his wife and he cannot emotionally connect with his children (in fact, his children kind of hate him). Essentially, he is alone on that boat, in the middle of the water, much like a castaway. He isn't under any mortal peril, but another kind of threat is present. There is the threat of him losing a slow battle against his own life; a life of unfulfilled intellectual aspirations, and a life where he is sinking under the waves of emotional incompetence towards his family. I don't think it's all that ridiculous for him to connect with this poem, because while he is a rather self-absorbed man (taking into account only his own grief throughout most of the novel, and demanding sympathy from everyone else), I think his self-woe is what makes him one the most realistic characters in Woolf's novel. Woolf uses Cowper's poem so that Mr. Ramsay has something to hold steadfastly onto; he doesn't have his wife, his children, or the kind of emotional consolation he needs. He has his knowledge, he has eighteenth century poetry, and he has the memorized lines of Cowper to express his innermost grief.

Hey Neil Simon

I'm aware that Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest alludes heavily to Mrs. Dalloway.  As I read through "The Window" section of To the Lighthouse and got to know Mr. Ramsay, however, the narrator of The Mystery Guest and his sentimentality over the flowers rolled around in the back of my head, and I thought of the contrast between he and Ramsay.  I also inexplicably felt the urge to go on YouTube and watch the opening theme to The Odd Couple.  

The contrast between these two men is stark, to say the least.  In the scene with the bouquet of roses, Bouillier's narrator is caught up in a Woolfian "moment of being."  His language attempts the "purest ecstasy" that Woolf describes in her memoir "Sketches of the Past" (Moments of Being, 75).  In that text, she writes, "I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me.  But I should fail" (75).  The protagonist of The Mystery Guest seems to be caught up in the same kind of sublimity:

Yes, suddenly it began to seem as though our separateness was bringing us back together, managing the impossible while we stood in front of that bouquet, in that silence.  And during those freighted seconds everything grew more and more beautiful and harmonious and red and white and orange between us, and I wanted to believe in it...  (78-79)

The beauty of the passage lies in the feeling of its transience, as if the narrator's happiness and comfort lasts only in front of that bouquet of roses.  It reflects a level of observation and keen emotional intuition in him that is lost in most men.  (I feel somewhat confident in the area of dudes and emotional expression.)  In the grand scheme of things, however, the reader should be able to sense a certain melodrama in the narrator's placement of such import on a vase of flowers, as if they could actually "bring us back together."

On this note of constructive cynicism, the dissonant cadence of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison gnaws its way back up my spine as I turn away from Bouillier and back to To the Lighthouse.  In a scene that I find quite poignant, Mrs. Ramsay is watching over James as he cuts pictures out of a catalogue, reassuring him that they will try to go to the lighthouse the next day.  Enter Mr. Ramsay.  Ever the pragmatist, he says, "James will have to write his dissertation one of these days," effectively ruining the moment and fueling James' hatred for his father (To the Lighthouse, 31).  "There [isn't] the slightest possible chance that [you] could go to the Lighthouse tomorrow," Ramsay says later (31).  

In terms of masculinity, Bouillier's storyteller and Mr. Ramsay provide a sharp counterpoint to one another.  However, I think there are several reasons for this.  To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, and it seems to me that in the character of Mr. Ramsay, the reader is meant to see the fading of the stern Victorian era; he is more of an uninvolved overseer of his family, rather than an affectionate father.  He is also reminiscent of the dour Leslie Stephen, Woolf's father; this opinion is based on the knowledge I have from class, as well as from the reading of Virginia.  Bouillier's The Mystery Guest, on the other hand, was published in 2004.  Based on casual observation, Bouillier's rendition of a man in love makes me think that Zach Braff would be the protagonist of the film version of this novella; he's that guy who's constantly lovesick, and tries to sum up significant portions of his life with sprawling inner-monologues.

The clash between these two men is obvious.  Mr. Ramsay shatters a potential "moment of being" with his practicality, while Bouillier's narrator is grasping for a "moment of being" where it seems one doesn't exist.  It might be entertaining to watch the two of them share an apartment though.