Friday, 31 May 2013

There She Was

Mrs. Dalloway explores mortality without grimacing or shying away from it yet simultaneously affirms life. This, for me, is the heart of the novel, the challenge for us to wrangle with as we attempt to make sense of and meaning from the novel (in spite of its Modernist futility). 

At the very end of the novel, several characters consider young Elizabeth Dalloway. Peter says, "There's Elizabeth" and "she feels not half what we feel, not yet" (171). This book in so many ways has been about how much and how intensely individuals feel. The heroes of this novel (even if they're Modernist anti-heroes) are those who are capable of complex thought; sensitive, deep reactions and feelings; fluid movement between joy and anguish. Peter and Clarissa are certainly most prominent among them. 

'I will come,' said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he though to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was. THE END (172).

Terror, ecstasy, and excitement are overlapping; the world is pluralistic, not singular; it cannot be divided into good and evil or right and wrong. This, too, is one of Woolf's very Modernist thoughts, yet she develops it uniquely in Mrs. Dalloway. Pluralism, multiple perspectives, and the variability of truth look different for Eliot, Joyce, Faulker, and the rest. 

Here are some examples of things (seemingly contradictory) that are simultaneously true and overlapping (as opposed to mutually exclusive and non-overlapping) in the novel:
  • "Are we not all prisoners?" (170)
  • "We know everything" (171).
  • "Somehow it was [Clarissa's] disaster--her disgrace" (164).
  • "Death was defiance" (163). 
  • "Perhaps there was somebody there. But there was nobody" (162).
  • "They looked; that was all. That was enough" (157).
  • "She hated her; she loved her."
  • " is certain we must die" (155).
  • "...still these semblances, these triumphs."
  • "That was satisfying; that was real" (154).
  • "Every one was unreal in one way; must more real in another" (151).
  • "Life was that--humiliation, renunciation" (148).
  • "Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life" (144).
Woolf's project, it seems to me, is to proclaim the connectedness of joy and anguish, life and death, loss and triumph--the ways in which they are one and the same, not opposites. I love how C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed and Surprised by Joy writes about how one must understand pain in order to truly know love, how grief and joy and interrelated. Lewis and Woolf in this are immensely brave.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Connecting Mrs. Dalloway to This Week at School

I keep thinking about our high school's struggle to contend with the news that one of our recent graduates has been charged with multiple counts of aggravated sexual assault at his college. I am not bringing this up to focus all over again on his particular case, nor do I want the conversation to be about him--who he is, whether or not he did it. 

As I reread Mrs. Dalloway this year, I'm thinking a lot about the life of the mind, our interior worlds, the things that make up our lives, the relationships and environments that determine them. Clarissa calls her parties "an offering"; she feels "quite continuously a sense of [other people's] existence" and she feels "what a waste" and she feels "what a pity"; "if only they could be brought together." The parties are an offering; "to combine, to create; but to whom?" (107)

This novel acknowledges--in rich, profound, heartbreaking ways--people's love of life as well as their anguishes. The novel, Virginia Woolf, makes important the life of the mind, our inner worlds and feelings, everything that has ever happened to us, how it feels, what it means. She shows the simultaneous meaninglessness and meaning of one life. 

This, to me, is the ultimate affirmation of being human. 

Rape is exactly the opposite. It is a denial of humanity, an assault on another person's humanity. When someone rapes, he (or she) is failing to honor, in the most horrific and offensive way, an individual's personhood, what is sacred, what is felt, what makes us human. 

I will be haunted all my life by the rapes of women I love and have loved. 

One of my college roommates, a friend I cherish, transferred to my school as a sophomore because she was raped at her first college as a freshman. She knew the guy. His fraternity often mixed with her sorority. He was powerful and known. She didn't press charges. Her parents, learning that she was in hospital, put her long-distance boyfriend on a plane to see about her. I still get chills. I got in her car one night in the pouring rain; we drove away from the dorm, and she told me the story. 

One of my friends from high school, our class speaker at graduation, hugely loved and admired, was raped our senior year of high school when she visited her sister at college. She fought an eating disorder and self harm for several years in the aftermath--I remember seeing the marks on her lovely legs and arms--and has emerged in adulthood as one of the most loving, passionate leaders in her field and one of the most loving, passionate people I have known. 

I was "rufeed" right after college (when I was twenty-two): Halloween, costumes, snow, a big tent party in the ski town where I lived, and I took a drink from a cute guy I didn't know wearing a Rasta costume. I can still see his hovering figure sometimes. I woke up screaming in my apartment, half-clothed, with stitches in my face. My roommate and her boyfriend, my saviors, told me what had happened: how they had crossed the icy parking lot; how I was bleeding, had broken a heel, was falling, was trying to get away and being pursued; how my roommate's boyfriend challenged the guy and pushed him away from me; how they took me to the emergency room to get my face sewn up; how I was practically catatonic for hours. I remember nothing, not even shades of that night after I took the drink. 

I didn't go to the police. I didn't understand what had happened. I blamed myself. I had been drinking. My sister said over the phone from Tennessee, "God is punishing you for wearing that outfit."

The stories proliferate. I could write several further posts all about the girls I've known in high school and college who suffered assault. Some of them got away (like my sorority sister who escaped a cab driver who locked the doors and tried to crawl into the back seat with her), and some did not. All try to heal. Everyone wants to be free. 

I don't want to scare anyone. I want girls and guys, my students, all of us to go into the world boldly, with love, with hope, without fear. 

Mrs. Dalloway advocates for life, even as it explores death. They are two sides of the same coin. 
All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!--that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how every instant... (108)

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Thinking (As Ever) about Mrs. Dalloway & The Hours

If there is a novel from which I will never recover (in terms of its beauty as well as its anguish), it's Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. And perhaps not unrelatedly, if there is a film from which I will never recover (in terms of its beauty as well as its anguish), it's "The Hours," based on the novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham, which is based on Mrs. Dalloway

Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf so movingly and memorably in "The Hours" that her performance retains its magnificence in my mind year after year. Meryl Streep, typically, also becomes her character, a modern-day Clarissa Dalloway in New York City (as opposed to London). Julianne Moore is likewise astonishing. The three of them juxtaposed transcend everything we've ever come to expect or understand about what is possible in film.

I'm rereading the novel, of course, in Women's Literature this spring. And we're in London. And we're approaching June. It's all too perfect--and a bit too much. 

I open the novel and reread the line, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself," and the beautiful, anguishing world of the novel pops instantly back to life; takes me in (1). The city and its people are somehow the same city and people Clarissa (and Woolf) knew in 1917, in spite of the various wars and years between us. 

Clarissa and Septimus feel and see and rejoice and hurt with the same intensity as anyone today--anyone, that is, who experiences life with extraordinary intensity, the highs and the lows. (Is this, some readers wonder, manic depression or bipolar disorder?)

"Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To dance, to ride, she had adored all that," Clarissa feels, on one hand (4). Yet it is just as real and just as intense when she feels that "often now this body she wore [...] this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing--nothing at all." Woolf continues, "She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street..." (7-8). 

Somewhat similarly, Septimus feels everything, too. was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signaling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks. (17-18)
Sometimes the beautiful and the anguishing merge into one, so that life and death are intertwined in one gorgeous, painful feeling. Though I do not suffer from mental illness (as far as I know), all of this seems incredibly poignant and real to me as a reader. Woolf captures how it feels to be in the wild, bustling, lonely, wonderful world: "life; London; this moment of June" (2).

Friday, 10 May 2013

Greedy with Wants & Reckless from Hope

"There is nothing I can do," Jasmine says at the end of Mukerjee's novel, Jasmine
Time will tell if I am a tornado, rubble-maker, arising from nowhere and disappearing into a cloud. I am out the door and in the potholed and rutted driveway, scrambling ahead of Taylor, greedy with wants and reckless from hope (241). 
At the end of The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf recommends being greedy, too: 
How to begin? Let's be shameless. Be greedy. Pursue pleasure. Avoid pain. Wear and touch and eat and drink what we feel like. Seek out the sex we want and fight fiercely against the sex we do not want. Choose our own causes. And once we break through and change the rules so our sense of our own beauty cannot be shaken, sing that beauty and dress it up and flaunt it and revel in it: In a sensual politics female is beautiful (291). 
Eve Ensler, too, calls us to a celebration, a feast, a revelry. From one of her interviews near the end of The Vagina Monologues, she writes: 
To love women, to love our vaginas, to know them and touch them and be familiar with who we are and what we need. To satisfy ourselves, to teach our lovers to satisfy us, to be present in our vaginas, to speak of them out loud, to speak of their hunger and pain and loneliness and humor, to make them visible so they cannot be ravaged in the dark without great consequence, so that our center, our point, our motor, our dream, is no longer detached, mutilated, numb, broken, invisible, or ashamed (118). 
There is something going on here. These writers all describe a woman-loving world--a safe, whole, celebratory, nurturing, vibrant place for women (and men) to thrive and be strong. Is it "greedy" to want these things: freedom (political and otherwise), safety (in our bodies, in our communities), agency? 

Maybe hearing Jasmine and other women talking about choosing themselves, their own wants and needs, makes us uncomfortable because it is so strongly normalized for women to submit themselves to the needs and wants of others. Women's literature, in many places and in many ways, challenges that norm, calling for the kind of world in which a woman or a man can be free, own her or his body, and make her or his choices.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Women's Lit Poem & Freedom for Jasmine

Little Women's Lit Poem

If Virginia Woolf were water, she would be an ocean--which
one is the deepest? That one. One that harbors movement,
glances through the dim, granular void, to the surface. And
Eve Ensler would be the smoke-rich music in some safe,
underground space where listeners and speakers peer gently
into one another's faces under twinkles of light. On a long
road into another world, Margaret Atwood pedals, practically,
on a symbolic bicycle, passing a cigarette to Gloria Steinem. 

AND... somewhat (mostly) unrelatedly...

"It thrilled me," Jasmine writes of seeing the Hayeses' apartment in Manhattan for the first time. "Sunlight smeared one wall of windows. It spoke to me of possibility, that one could live like this and not be struck down" (160). From the beginning, Taylor and his life represent freedom from the fates of India. Remember her saying, “If we could just get away from India, then all fates would be cancelled,” which made us wonder if they would—or could (85).

Perhaps that is where Mukherjee subtly leads us: freedom.

After she murders Half-Face, Jasmine says, "The pitcher is broken" and that she begins "[her] journey, traveling light" (120, 121). Perhaps this is the turning point, then, even if it is precipitated by horror. Jasmine passes through a portal to the other side (her tongue sliced down the middle), where Lillian Gordon, the Christ figure (if you're up for this sort of literary analogy), offers mercy and resurrection. 

This is Mukherjee's introduction of Lillian: "At that moment, an old white lady came out of the barracks [...] 'How dare you speak to a young lady in such a despicable fashion. She asked for water--well, get her water man!'" Like Jesus, who washed the feet of the unwashed or drew water for the woman at the well (and so on), Lillian has compassion on Jasmine, who has been shamed and abused by America (for all of its promise) until now. 

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Is Jasmine Free?

The question Mukherjee raises about her main character and narrator, Jasmine, on the first page of her novel by the same name endures throughout the novel: essentially, is she free (in what ways and to what extent)? And it seems to me that a lot of literature, and--to be sure--a lot of women's literature, grapples with this essential question. 

"Lifetimes ago, under a banyan tree in the village of Hasnapur, as astrologer cupped his ears--his satellite dish to the starts--and foretold my widowhood and exile [...] 'No!' I shouted," the novel begins. The astrologer cackles, "What will happen will happen," and Jasmine whispers, "I don't believe you" (3). 

And though Jasmine (now Jyoti) says, "I was nothing," she soon retracts it: "I didn't feel I was nothing" (3, 4). We need to hang onto this Jasmine in Mukherjee's novel; it's easy to lose track of her.

Perhaps I just have Hamlet on the brain, but Jasmine, like him, questions her existence--its nature, its meaning, its significance--again and again. Also, she often references Hindu notions of reincarnation with literal and metaphorical implications. Life and death are locked in a tango. On one hand, Jasmine's existence can't matter terrifically if she's going to destroy it (or accept that it is destroyed) before remaking it: "There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself. We murder who we are so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams" (29).  

After we see Prakash's death in her arms and her brutal rape by Half-Face, Jasmine's seeming complacence makes more sense: "What was fated to happen would happen," she quotes the astrologer. "My mission, thank God, was nearly over" (111). Yet the self who says this will be no longer, live no more. In order to "survive," "adapt," Jasmine "rebirths" herself. Part of this transformation is seeing herself in the mirror and slicing her tongue (118). 

So have there been moments of agency, of freedom, for this young woman along the horrible way? She does feel "a buzz of power" at times, like when she faces off with the attacking dog as a girl (54). At one point, she even thinks, "Let it come. Let him pounce. I had the staff" (55). This scene is reflected again when Jasmine stabs the rapist to death through a sheet (119). 

I, for one, don't find it difficult to see or appreciate this character's extraordinary fortitude. If she has never known freedom, how does she know she wants it? Yet I think she does.