Saturday, October 22, 2011

Courage and Silence

I have a new reason for avoiding my dissertation and it is one I am loathe to confess. A few years ago I was delighted by the silence constructed and maintained by the Ramsays in To the Lighthouse. I marveled then at their proficiency in circumlocution. I still see the love there and I am not entirely disenchanted. Or, if I am disenchanted, then it is in the best of possible ways: I see how Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are not magical; they are, insofar as fictional characters can be, terribly, wonderfully human and they fail and succeed as other humans do.

When I last read the pre-prandial conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, I found myself wishing they’d said more, that they’d challenged themselves and each other more. Specifically, I wish Mr. Ramsay had said to her—

Then, he wanted to tell her that when he was wakling on the terrace just now—here he became uncomfortable, as if he wer breaking into that solitude, that aloofness, that remoteness of hers. . . . But she pressed him. What had he wanted to tell her, she asked, thinking it was about going to the Lighthouse; that he was sorry that he had said “Damn you.” But no. He did not like to see her look so sad, he said. Only wool gathering, she protested, flushing a little. They both felt uncomfortable, as if they did not know whether to go on or go back. She had been reading fairy tales to James, she said. No, they could not share that; they could not say that.

I see now, as I did not see before, that this is a failure in the silent communication between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Intimacy requires a willingness to brave discomfort for the other. The other things Mr.and Mrs. Ramsay resist mentioning—the bill for the greenhouse roof, the possibility that Mr. Ramsay would have written better books had he not married, and the things they do discuss instead—Andrew’s future, Prue’s beauty, the flowers—are part of a shared conversation they’ve built over time. The bit quoted above shows a spot of tenderness, something that resists even a careful eye or a gentle finger. They have no conversation to cover over this tender spot, this bruise in their union. Now, a few years after my first readings of To the Lighthouse, I find I wish Mr. Ramsay had been brave and forged ahead, had told Mrs. Ramsay how he felt about her solitude, about that fundamental remoteness from which he could never protect her; I find I wish Mrs. Ramsay had been strong and acknowledged her thoughts; had told her husband that she thought, first, that “there was no treachery too base for the world to commit, that “no happiness lasted.” That she  thought, shortly thereafter, watching the light, that “she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness,” and ended in an ecstasy of “It is enough! It is enough!”

Had she known how it pained him to feel their fundamental separateness, would she have seen his concern differntly? Had he known that in her separateness she was capable of holding nadirs and zeniths, would he have seen her protectiveness differently?

I am being made to see that I needed the Ramsays’ silences to justify my own. Moreover, now that I am finding that explicit speech is sometimes required, I am newly critical of the Ramsays. I had not realized that my dissertation was an attempt to affirm my own proclivities, and now I see that, at least in part, it has been so. This makes me more than a little uncomfortable and I am uncertain how to move forward.


Basso said...

Most dissertations are attempts to affirm the authors' own proclivities. Which dissertations are not? The ones that lack passion, that are nothing more than means to degrees! Fare forward...

philosophotarian said...

your point is well taken, basso. I suppose I hadn't seen the extent to which mine was/is just such an attempt. I thought myself rather clever for finding in silence a project. Perhaps now that I don't find it nearly so clever I can go on to actually produce it.