The time of insularity in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

© Elise Fimbel

© Elise Fimbel

They finally made it to the lighthouse. It took them the whole novel to get there but when Mr Ramsay and his children reach the shore, the destination – “a stark tower on a bare rock” – pales in comparison with the craggy and drawn-out journey that led up to it. This beautiful novel set on an island off the coast of Scotland (The Hebrides) is my first attempt at reading Woolf’s fiction, and arguably a compelling introduction to her writing. The main plotline seems to revolve around the question of whether the weather will be fine enough for the Ramsays to make that long-anticipated boat trip to the disquieting silhouette looming in the distance.  But this deceivingly trivial climatic element is only one functional motif in the misty ambiance Woolf establishes through the characters’ perceptions of reality. I guess what matters ultimately in this book is not so much that Mr and Mrs Ramsay fail to reconcile their conflicting personalities and aspirations in the middle class drama, that the children James and Cam feel ambivalent about their father’s overbearing authority, or that despite her admiration for Mrs Ramsay’s beauty Lily Briscoe can’t seem to conjure up the right mix of colors to paint her portrait faithfully, as how all these issues are informed by the natural landmarks of the island and the dislocation of time that results from that insular environment.  The constant ebb and flow of the waves seems to metaphorically reflect the characters’ idiosyncratic relationships with time. Time does seem to stand still on this island and yet there is a sense that everything has already been experienced and can only be missed or recreated through melancholic recollection. Mrs Ramsay knits her way through domesticity like an impatient Penelope not waiting for her Odysseus but struggling to gain a sense of herself around his (Mr Ramsay’s) dominant presence. A boeuf en daube takes twenty or thirty pages to be finally eaten while speculation runs high as to whether the latecomers to this pivotal dinner, Paul and Minta, got engaged in the meantime. By moving to this island, Mr Ramsay has turned away from the accolades of scholarly recognition but he is restlessly craving the attention and praise of his wife and children and intent on teaching those “young men at Cardiff” a lesson or two. Through it all, one family member gets killed at the western front of WW1, others from childbirth or diseases, only to resurrect later in the next wave of reminiscences. Divided into three sections – The Window, Time Passes, The Lighthouse – the novel has all the Proustian knack for evocative metaphors and detailed characterizations. The underlying theme seems to be the perception of reality and how each character strives to see and remember in a natural environment that dictates the progression of time and what the characters will be able to accomplish in its changing rhythms. Will Lily Briscoe ever finish her painting? Is it too late for Mr Ramsay to make amends and take his children to the lighthouse?  Although Woolf equips her characters with acute vision, shapes and objects dissolve as if washed away by the tide shifts of the sea. Here’s Lily Briscoe observing Mrs Ramsay:

“Lily Briscoe watched her drifting into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible and yet their going inflicts such a chill on those who watch them that they always try at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon.”

I can’t really elaborate on this novel as much as I intended. Oh well, books need to be read not commented on, right? By blurring the line between the vastness of the surrounding space and the smallness of domestic life, between the slow rhythms of insularity and the instantaneous flashes of the lighthouse, Woolf wrote an important novel. To say that her writing ranks alongside the 20th century modernists like Proust or Joyce is probably a truism but one we don’t hear that often (women of the 21st century, revolt!).  I can hardly wait to ride The Waves.

Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (copyright 1927; A Harvest HBJ Book, 1989). Any edition will do, of course.

Days of destruction Days of Hope, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco

Days of Destruction Days of Revolt

* Caveat: While this post has a clear political content, yours truly intends to stick with the music/arts focus of this blog

Are we doomed to live in a society where the world’s ruling elites seem determined to turn humans into disposable commodities, where entire mountain ranges get a facelift in order to line the pockets of a handful while the people get sick from polluted water and coal dust-infested air, where a form of slavery is overtly reestablished with the complicit silence of the corporate state, where the mass-media-driven distraction of consumerism and entertainment hides the dire reality of an increasingly disenfranchised people gradually stripped of their most basic rights? This ominous script is already unfolding in the beleaguered America depicted in Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s scathing book Days of Destruction Days of Revolt. If that sounds all gloom and doom, it’s because it is. Set successively in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Camden, New Jersey, Immokalee, Florida, and Liberty Square, New York City, the book explores the broken lives of individuals bearing the brunt of a corporate oligarchy desperate to secure its survival at any cost. Sacco’s graphic illustrations give the book a gritty quality that makes the text even more compelling. What Hedges calls the “sacrifice zones” feel like war-torn places usually associated with countries devastated by the combination of political corruption and endemic poverty. Except this is the United States of America today. At least, part of it. Through his trained eye as a war reporter who has covered conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and Central America, Hedges leads us into the lives of ordinary Americans grappling with living conditions unimaginable in the world’s most opulent country. Granted, anyone remotely familiar with US past and current history knows that the American dream has not exactly been fulfilled, and on that score, the book drives the point home with unassailable force. But with the dramatic example of America, Hedges hits on something broader, reminding us in Orwellian fashion (often quoted in the book) that a security state driven by profitmaking can and will take on its own citizens, even physically so, for the sheer survival of an idea. That financial value trumps any other value, including human value. From the annihilation of Native American culture in South Dakota to the destruction of mountains in West Virginia to the tent parks of Camden, New Jersey on through the enslavement of migrant farmworkers in Florida, Hedges and Sacco deliver a hard-hitting report. Sacco’s comics are equally powerful, capturing complex emotions and situations with minimal photographic snapshots. I’m looking at one right now: A man, Larry Gibson, overlooks a mountain blasted into a moonscape by the coal industry, flanked by his dog, who looks on with equal distress.  Through it all, it is the resistance of these (extra)ordinary people that is particularly striking given the horrid circumstances.

The book ends on a more hopeful note, taking us into the heart of the Occupy movement and giving us a genuine insider’s look into its organic organization. The people we meet there are living embodiments of Thoreau’s civil disobedience philosophy. Pretty amazing. Sometimes, the text feels slightly redundant – a criticism mitigated by Hedges’ sincere anger – crowding out comics that might have worked better and are generally too sparse, i thought. I also wish the authors had looked at the aftermath of Katrina but that might be a subject for another book.

I grew up and live in a country once lauded and envied for its social protections and cultural model. While the scale and magnitude are definitely not comparable, there are glaring examples of similar destruction in France, from urban decay to corporate assaults on the environment to dwindling paychecks. You name it. No matter where you stand politically, the record is overwhelming. Hedges and Sacco are calling for revolt. Now, I don’t have a damn clue what forms that should take but I guess the smallest acts of defiance, including reading thought-provoking books in the 21st century, will always make more sense than speculating on our own destruction.

But I promise, next time I’ll talk about jazz.

Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction Days of Revolt, Nation Books, 2012

En français: Jours de destruction jours de révolte, Futuropolis, 2012, traduit par Sidonie Van den Dries et Stéphane Dacheville

Between the tropics

It all started with an eye-catching book cover sticking out from a stack of English language novels in a cluttered used bookstore in the French town of Le Mans. Be sure to check out this funny bookseller if you’re visiting, the guy has some well-hidden treasures in there. Shockingly, I had never read a Henry Miller book before, until I stumbled onto Black Spring, written between Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn (the back cover informs me) and making for a very pleasing introduction to the writer’s literary work. Divided into ten chapters, this stream-of-consciousness autobiographical novel chronicles with no apparent logic a succession of milestones in Miller’s eventful life, mainly in his native Brooklyn and Paris. A recurring motif throughout the book is the deep sense of disconnection from the motherland,  “I am a man of the old world, a seed that was transplanted by the wind, a seed which failed to blossom in the mushroom oasis of America”, and an offbeat embrace of Parisian back alleys and nighttime carousing. However, Miller seems to strive for a much larger liberation, a break from a “Coney Island of the mind” (So that’s where Laurence Ferlinghetti got his inspiration from…) that doesn’t amuse him at all. Alongside the comical situations that recall some of Céline’s juiciest moments in Mort à credit (Death on credit), a dark veil is cast over the epic journey.

Bloody and wild the night with all the hawk’s feet slashed and trimmed. Bloody and wild the night with all the belfries screeching and all the slats torn and all the gas mains bursting. Bloody and wild the night with every muscle twisted, the toes crossed, the hair on end, the teeth red, the spine cracked. All the world wide awake twittering like the dawn, and a low red fire crawling over the gums. All through the night the combs break, the ribs sing. Twice the dawn breaks, then steals away again. In the trickling snow the oxide fumes. All through the streets the hearses pass up and down, up and down, the drivers munching their long whips, their white crapes, their cotton gloves.

 The narrative jumps around a lot and it is sometimes hard to keep track of what’s actually going on, but Miller’s poetic style imbues every situation with Surrealist humor and wit. Whether he comments on the merits of Parisian urinals, introduces us to a cast of idiosyncratic characters, walks us through a watercolor lesson or strays into daydreaming abstraction, Miller’s hilarious scenes work as a foil for the Maldoror-like visions that haunt his world. Now I wonder what life is like in the tropics. Also, whoever designed this book cover is a minimalist genius.

Henry Miller, Black Spring (Copyright, 1936, published by Panther Books in 1974)

Laying low

The virtual world is an unfathomable place (to me). Before you know it, your audience builds without you contributing anything to the blogosphere.  I was going to shut down this blog but then I hit the phenomenal number of 22 followers worldwide and I thought I should at least acknowledge those loyal readers out there. Thank you so much for reading, folks. But be prepared for more sporadic posting and  a possible shutdown eventually. Inspiration is failing me and more urgent endeavors call me away.  So how about a few random recommendations of things that have kept my brain going in the last few months. Enjoy.


– Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance.

– Don De Lillo, Mao II

– Rilke: a comforting presence on the bookshelf. Just read this guy.


– Vijay Iyer Trio, Historicity

– Julius Hemphill and Peter Kowald, Live at Kassiopeia

– John Coltrane,Transition. Some sick McCoy Tyner on this.

– Paul Motian, Live at the Village Vanguard Vol 2; On Broadway Vol. 4. Paul Motian sure had an elastic sense of swing!

– Steve Reich, Double Sextet 2 X 5

Dance show:

Ohad Naharin, Batsheva Dance Company, Sadeh 21. Amazing. Modern dance at its most inspired.

On a last note, if you happen to be visiting Paris before June 9th, be sure to drop by the Musée d’Orsay and check out the current exhibit on dark romanticism, from Goya to Max Ernst. A wide-ranging collection of pieces that document the genre extensively and relevantly. You’ll come away thinking what a great idea to display so much darkness in Orsay’s radiant glass structure.  Grab a vélib on your way out and ride away.

Ursina Commedia

Credit: Rick Smit, Creative Commons License

Credit: Rick Smit, Creative Commons License

I seem to be obsessed with animals these days. But when one of them happens to be a talking bear that plays the alto sax and waxes philosophical about the human, uh, bear condition, I feel compelled to go ahead and look under all that fur.

The Bear (or alternatively Bear), as he is simply referred to in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home (Norton, 1998) has gotten sick and tired of the freak show routine under the friendly supervision of his sidekick Jones ( a human).  Getting up on his hind legs to impress the incredulous crowds is a bit undignified for a bear that can play the clarinet part of the Mozart quintet with a few snout adjustments. But the musical odyssey he embarks on with the benevolent assistance of Jones, now become a proactive manager, presents an equally daunting challenge: Coming into his own on the saxophone without compromising his musical vision, making it through the late-night gigs as police squads prowl around, keeping a band together as the success of a recording contract comes with the drawback of touring US backwaters where mediocre gigs are sapping group morale. To add insult to injury, Bear is in love with the stunningly beautiful and tormented Iris, and this improbable but passionate relationship is proving too overwhelming for his big-hearted self. Their dialogue often has a bantering yet fairly intellectual edge:

“My thoughts ain’t worth that much,” he said.

“I don’t’ believe you.”

“You know that line of Rilke’s? Beauty is nothing but the beginning of a terror we are just able to bear?”

“You think it might be a reference to you? That’s rich.”

Amazingly enough, for all the Bear’s quirks and witticisms, there is never any doubt about his genetic identity. He is a bear, a talking four-legged mammal striving for beauty and love in the tumultuous world of humans.  And it is precisely his hard-edged humanness that causes him to experience the most uplifting moments of life (playing his heart out alongside his musical heroes, making love, rambling through the wilderness and teaching a bird how to sing Monk right!, etc) as well as the darkest hours (a dreary time in prison with a wacky German doctor who has “trouble with ze dipdthssong”). Meanwhile, Jones, also has his share of troubles and when a gang of angry kids beat up on him in Washington Square Park, he comes to reflect on his own humanity:  “How to be human, how to be human, I don’t know how it’s done. What is a man anyway?”

The bear, “on the other paw”, is incessantly engaged in a soul-searching quest to transfigure his gigantically awkward self into a caring and dependable presence (for Iris, Jones, or his band members). Filled with humor and insightful descriptions of the tribulations of jazz life, the book features an impressive cast of fictitious and genuine characters including bassist Charlie Haden or drummer Billy Hart among others. This is obviously a gem for music lovers, replete with highly detailed musical analysis and jazz memorabilia. But the book doesn’t let down the neophyte, who will also find food for thought aplenty. As he picks his way through a second solo during a fast and eventful tune, Bear ponders on the music playing out around him, revealing the compelling urgency at work in the most fervent artistic pursuits:

            “Listen to these guys, he thought, hearing Haden and Billy’s accompaniments and insinuations, the flex of beat, the suggested harmonic divagation, the threat or promise of distant thunder, eventual rain. Where else could you find a music like this? Where else encounter such simultaneous discipline and abandon? It was a whole rich multifarious world, and if you went outside its visible parameters you could draw from anything out there and bring it back in without bowing obeisance to any foreign gods. All you had to do was be able to play. All you had to do was know how to put it together. All you had to do was see how it already was together in potential, articulate and complete, and at the same time throw yourself wholly into the maelstrom of unknown process. All you had to know was the little secret that made it swing. It was no big deal. It was life, is all, no more no less.”

 By the end of the novel, the Bear is still struggling with the vagaries of life but he seems closer than ever to resolving the existential dilemma: “Who could have imagined how large joy is once you’re cut loose from the farce of having to be someone”. While the book does get a little lengthy in places, the serpentine sentences have a musical quality that seems entirely justified here. Jazz fans will revel in the inside stories sprinkled in throughout the narrative and the characters’ dialogue but beyond the music, or accompanied by it, it is the bigger picture of social alienation and the quest for the healing power of art that is depicted here. That should speak to quite a few of us furless humans.

The Bear Comes Home (Norton, 1998) is the first novel by writer and jazz drummer Rafi Zabor. Thank you D. for hipping me to this one. Amis francophones, le livre est paru sous le titre Un Ours à Manhattan (Denoël, 1999, traduit de l’anglais par Philippe Rouard)