Saturday, March 02, 2013

"The Mark on the Wall" by Virginia Woolf

It is now March, and I am exceedingly thankful. It has been a dreadful winter, full of accidents, deaths, blow-ups, blow-outs, major furnace problems during the coldest days of the winter, and just general bad fortune for many people around me. The bright spot has been my doctoral work, and much of my academic life. The latter takes up much of my time, so blogging has once again taken a back seat. Now that my papers for this week are finished, conference proposals are in, and class prep complete, I can take some time to do my favorite morning thing--tea and a blog post.

When I take a break from the stressful routine, it's usually to go out for lunch or dinner, and to bring a book. Most places that I frequent around here automatically give me a table away from the noise of the bar area, and some are even nice enough to keep children out of the room where I'm reading, if it's possible. (I don't ask them to do this, they just do it as a courtesy.) If there is some noise, I can usually adjust. One of the benefits of meditation is that you can learn to tune out your surroundings.

This past week, I've been reading a collection of Virginia Woolf short stories, and the one I'm writing about today is called "The Mark on the Wall". Reading Woolf is a marked contrast to the epic poetry of Homer that I am constantly re-reading for my Mythology class. For Homer, all internal thought processes or decisions are made via conversational exchange with a god or a body part. (Seriously). Usually the body part is the heart, and he uses 4 different Greek words for heart to convey the type of emotion produced (courage, fear, sadness, grief, etc.). And of course, epic poetry is meant to be sung by a bard--it is rhythmical, and it's pleasant sound and cadence are an aid to memorizing the saga. Plato was opposed to such poetic learnings, as he felt they didn't encourage listeners to be rational or analytical. Which makes me wonder how Plato's work got to be the foundational concept for all esotericism, though it's highly rational in its supposed irrationality. But I'm digressing again.

Virginia Woolf's writing is the total opposite. As I mentioned in my last post about Katherine Mansfield (a modern contemporary of Woolf), the style is stream-of-consciousness. A woman sits by the fire on a winter evening, smoking a cigarette, and notices a mark on the wall. She vividly recalls her environment--she describes the fire as "a steady film of yellow light upon the page of my book; the three chrysanthemums in the round glass bowl on the mantelpiece." The smoke rising from her cigarette reminds her of a cavalcade of red knights riding up the side of a black rock.

There is the wonderful line: "How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, then leave it..." She is very metaphorical, and free-associative. She does not simply look at an object; the object becomes pregnant with meaning, it stirs the pot of memory and experience. It is consciousness looking back on the external world, bringing forth a very private interpretation of events.

We all have these kinds of interpretations, these layers of meaning. For instance, if I look at my immediate surroundings, I see a Christmas cactus on my right, and an antique writing table on my left. When I look at the cactus, I think of my former co-worker Bob. When he quit his job, he asked if I would take the cactus sitting on his desk. Not long after leaving his job, he died--heart failure, I think. It was rather sad, so the cactus evokes the memory of a sharp-witted, cynical man, who liked to joke around but was never quite happy. The table belonged to my ex-husband. We brought it from his parents' house when we moved in together, and it followed us from apartment to apartment, until we split up. He couldn't fit the table in his car or his sister's van when he left, so he said he'd come back to New Jersey and pick it up. To the best of my knowledge, he's never returned to New Jersey. So, now I have carted it from my apartment to this house I have lived in for almost 10 years. I use it mainly for decoration; any attempt to use it for writing is usually thwarted by a cat.

So, the plant is not just a plant, or just a particular kind of cactus; nor is the table just a table. My consciousness interacts with them by recalling experiences associated with them. Sometimes we have very happy associations with objects or places, and want to return to them. Other times the associations are negative, and we avoid the place or the object, no matter how externally beautiful or valuable it might be. Things and places are what they are; they gain meaning and purpose through our own interpretations, things that have nothing to do literally with the objects themselves. It is not much different from dream interpretation. The things we see in our dreams, no matter how bizarre, have some kind of association for us. The mind works in symbols, and that is what Woolf conveys so beautifully in her writing.

Our narrator first thinks the mark is a nail, and imagines the picture that might have hung there, and the previous owners who might have put it there. Then she thinks the mark too large for a nail hole, and suddenly becomes melancholy about her lack of knowledge: "once a thing is done, no one ever knows how it happened. Oh dear me, the mystery of life, the inaccuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity." She suddenly thinks of the things she's lost, how lucky she is to even have a home, what life after death must be like. She then wonders if the spot is dust, and recalls the dust that buried Troy three times over. So, Homer was not such a digression after all.

She goes back and forth, feeling she should get up and find out what the mark is, but she somehow can't bear to know. She looks at the wood, and thinks pleasantly of trees, then of cows and meadows, then of a storm. She then starts slipping into underworld imagery, fields of asphodel, and she feels she is losing herself. She is snapped back to ordinary consciousness by someone--presumably a man, perhaps her husband--standing over her and saying he is going to buy a newspaper. At this moment he drops in two bits of reality--there is a war going on, very likely World War I--and the fact that the mark on the wall is a snail.

Woolf never says that the other person is a male. She says "someone is standing over me". Erich Neumann, one of Jung's proteges, once described rational consciousness as masculine, and the world of the collective unconscious as feminine. Perhaps it is for this reason that I see that very literal voice from the external world as masculine. The narrator is lost in the feminine world of images and symbols--very much akin to the underworld. We tend to think of the underworld as evil in our culture, but it is the storehouse of everything that makes us human, it contains the mystery of consciousness. All of our restlessness, thoughts, dreams, and anxieties are reflected in the outside world. It is through the Dark Mother that we learn the mysteries of life. And Woolf is a master at showing us how this works.

No comments: