Beauty anyhow. Not the crude beauty of the eye. It was not beauty pure and simple - Bedford Palace leading into Russell Square. It was straightness and emptiness of course; the symmetry of a corridor; but it was also windows lit up, a piano, a gramophone sounding; a sense of pleasure-making hidden, but now and again emerging, when, through the uncurtained windows, the window left open, one saw the parties sitting over tables, young people slowly circling, conversations between men and women, maids idly looking out (a strange comment, theirs, when work was done), stockings drying on top ledges, a parrot, a few plants. Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.
Here I am a day late for the Mrs. Dalloway edition of Woolf in Winter, hosted by Sarah of what we have here is a failure to communicate. Grrrr. I had to work all day too, and we can't use the Internet except on lunch break, not even to check email. And my desk faces in to everyone else's, so I can't even sneak it. Now I feel like I missed a party. Darn darn darn. It's all Octavia Butler's fault.
So anyway - Mrs. Dalloway! The problem with Virginia Woolf is that I never know where to begin with her. This is my third Woolf novel, following Orlando and The Waves, and once again I am left feeling confused. I just don't understand how it is that a woman who could write so beautifully and creatively about the "infinite richness" of life, who could articulate the inarticulate, who could link one character's internal world to another's and weave such an intricate tapestry - how could this woman have committed suicide? Of course there is a darkness to Mrs. Dalloway in the form of Septimus Smith's vividly-rendered mental illness, but the overall impression is that of an author in love with life and deeply understanding of the human soul. This isn't Poe and his overwrought masochism or Plath and her foreboding verses. Every Virginia Woolf novel I read is an homage to the Human Infinite.
I find myself comparing Mrs. Dalloway to The Waves. Though their stories differ, both use the stream-of-conscious method to blend multiple characters into one book-long chorus. It's not a collective consciousness (like some hive mind or the Borg). I'd say it's an omniscient perspective, like some all-seeing force has stepped back and is observing people think, move, interact, and grow old - like someone standing on a mountaintop and looking down at all the trees, lakes, crags, and the tiny village in the distance. In The Waves, however, the characters are already bound together as a group of schoolmates who remain close throughout their lives. By contrast, the two pivotal figures of Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway, never meet and never will. Mrs. Dalloway never even learns his name, only that he is a "young man who had killed himself." And yet Woolf is able to show us how they are connected, and how the news of "the young man who had killed himself" brings an odd measure of peace and self-understanding to Mrs. Dalloway, alone in the midst of her grand party.
It's like "the butterfly effect" of chaos theory: the idea that small and seemingly insignificant actions within a system can nevertheless have large-scale, long-term effects on other aspects of the system. I think part of what Woolf is asking us to do here is consider our place within society and what we do in it. Mrs. Dalloway the novel really doesn't offer us any transcendental truths or metaphysical notions of the cosmic and the divine. Clarissa Dalloway has a sudden vision of a man desperate to preserve his own happiness, and then realizes that her own life has been nothing but a performance. It is her individual truth, nothing more. But most people's lives are not epic.
Mrs. Dalloway is life and life only. It is about the rhythm of the everyday and slow, subconscious dance that takes place as people live and work together. That's it. But we are large, we contain multitudes.