Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Edith Wharton

I’m still slogging through Hermione Lee’s eponymous biography of Edith Wharton (2007), having picked it up last May and returned to it sporadically up until . . .well, now.  Don’t get me wrong—it’s a wonderfully written biography.  But I do feel that, just as Lee’s portrait of Wharton is of someone who is in some ways “‘inaccessible’” to those who knew her (558; Vintage, 2008), so there is something inaccessible to the reader about Wharton.  When reading Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf I didn’t have this problem of having to put down and return to the book: almost every page held something vulnerable and telling about Woolf, and part of me thinks this has to do with Woolf’s character itself as something fragile, erratic, and charming.  Probably the difference between the two biographies also has to do with the materials available to Lee; Woolf has diaries and diaries to draw from, whereas with Wharton there are mostly letters (some of which, notably those written to Henry James, she had destroyed).  But I can’t help feeling that, even with this issue of available materials and with the possible ways in which the biographer’s craft can enhance the reader’s interest in the subject, the attraction of the reader to the biography will depend on the attractiveness of the subject herself.  (I realize my feelings toward Wharton in Lee’s biography may be mine only—may be subjective—but I do think there is something slightly uninviting about Wharton’s character, less inviting to being known than Woolf.)  By contrast with this emphasis on the potential attractiveness of the biographical subject, up to now I’ve thought of biography as more like fiction-writing—as works measured not by the potential attractiveness of their subjects to readers, but by the craft of authors.  I am weary, though, using this term ‘attractiveness’: I think I’m assuming that my reader interest in Wharton as a biographical subject coincides with my personal sense of her attractiveness as a personality.  I’m not sure how to separate these two things; I wonder how they could be separated.

Large portions of Edith Wharton are dedicated to cataloguing gardens, architecture, and interior design that Wharton admired or such projects as she undertook.  While these can sometimes be tedious to read, design was a big part of Wharton’s life and fiction.  There are a few really interesting passages in which Lee describes the relation between Wharton’s passion for design and her character; these, in turn, speak to some of the central themes of Wharton’s works.  Lee’s quotation of Daisy Chanler on Wharton’s renowned garden at Ste Claire in Hy√®res, France, makes some sense of Wharton’s gardening:

‘“What are you saying about my garden?” she [Wharton] seems to ask, and I hardly dare to say more.  She could do it so much better herself, but I doubt if she would try to describe it.  It would be telling something too intimate, for her garden is somehow an image of her spirit, of her inmost self.  It shows her love of beauty, her imagination, her varied knowledge and masterly attention to detail; like her, it is somewhat inaccessible.  Her garden is a symbol of the real Edith.’ (557-8)

Lee makes explicit Chanler’s latent comparison:

it might not be too fanciful to think that gardening and novel-writing have something in common.  The mixture of disciplined structure and imaginative freedom, the reworking of traditions into a new idea, the ruthless elimination of dull, incongruous or surplus materials, and the creation of a dramatic narrative, all come to mind . . . John Hugh Smith reported to [Percy] Lubbock, in 1938, that ‘she told me that she thought her gardens were better than her books.’ (559)

The artistry of the garden—or of interior design, or architecture, for that matter—is similar to that of the novelist.  Although I don’t know Wharton’s works well enough to say how widely Lee’s comparison applies to Wharton’s fiction, I am immediately reminded of House of Mirth (which I had to read for a course this last term, American Literature 1865-1914) and one of Wharton’s short stories, “Souls Belated” (1899).  The big issue for the heroine of House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is, of course, that she cannot reconcile her desire to break free from the constraints of wealthy society with the opportunities for self-realization wealth allows her.  Lily’s best self lies in her artistry, and this artistry finds expression in expensive objects and their design: “the setting she had pictured for herself” is

an apartment which should surpass the complicated luxury of her friends’ surroundings by the whole extent of that artistic sensibility which made her feel herself their superior; in which every tint and line should combine to enhance her beauty and give distinction to her leisure. (110; Penguin, 1986)

We cannot separate Lily from her social set and its physical surroundings.  And Lily’s best audience, the person most equipped to appreciate her artistry, is Sim Rosedale, a Jewish magnate in social ascent.  Somewhat similar to Lily in predicament, Lydia in “Souls Belated” doesn’t have the strength to leave her lover, Gannett, and the comfort they’ve achieved pretending to be a married couple in a kind of high society colony on the Mediterranean.  Although it is not suggested that Lydia requires her social trappings for the same reasons Lily does, it is impossible for us and for Lydia to conceive of her outside the story’s particular social milieu.  Lydia and Lily, then, embody something of the way in which Wharton insists on the relationship between self-realization and the social.  Judging from Lee’s portrayal of the attitudes of Wharton and others to Wharton’s gardens and houses, Wharton’s own individual self-expression has strong thematic presence in (at least some of) her works. 

Lee reveals much of Wharton that feels very personal, for instance, the intimate details surrounding her affair with Morton Fullerton.  But it would seem that we are also supposed to get a strong sense of Wharton through the description of the gardens and houses she puts together and admires.  Perhaps this (inevitable?) figuration of Wharton through what are essentially art objects—gardens, houses and their rooms—contributes to my feeling of her inaccessibility; perhaps Wharton in some way comes across as more like a series of objects than a person.  Putting down Lee’s biography yet again I do feel as though I understand Wharton—I just don’t sympathize with her.  This brings up questions of the aims of biography: whether these involve reader sympathy; to what degree reader sympathy can be differentiated from understanding the subject; and to what degree reader sympathy can be separated from reader interest, my measure in the first paragraph of this post.  I think these questions are a re-articulation of my problem with using the word ‘attractiveness,' above, and may get at the heart of my issue with reading Edith Wharton. 


Sunday, December 28, 2008

On Being Ill, Attempt #2

I found some brief quotations that will clear up what is meant by 'illness' in On Being Ill and in my last post, as well as how illness is connected to Woolf's idea of the poetic process. These are taken from Kate Flint's introduction to the 1992 Penguin edition of The Waves.

-"[T]he thought of death has the capacity . . . to remove distinctions between mental and physical sensations" (xxviii). Here, I think the "thought of death" is equivalent to the indifference to life Woolf describes in OBI. The loss of "distinction[ ] between mental and physical" is the state of illness Woolf describes--something with mental and physical symptoms that are indistinguishable from each other. This loss of distinction between seemingly distinct entities also has to do with Woolf's concept of identity and how the loss of self (depersonalization) is related to poetry and indifference to life.

-"Woolf makes analogies between the sense of one's body and the use of language. When one is most conscious of one's body's materiality, one is least likely to use words figuratively or speculatively" (xxx). So, when one is least conscious of one's materiality--one's physical body, when one senses its loss of distinctness from one's mental state, and from the physical bodies of others, one is in a liminal state of poetry. At the same time, Flint suggests that Woolf is conscious of the fact that, in order to give shape to such poetic liminality, one must assume a subjective position--one must insist on boundaries between oneself and others, even on boundaries within oneself. There is, then, a relationship between "creativity and possessiveneess" (xvii), of the kind of I spoke of below, in Orlando. Words can enter into the free play of poetry, rhythm, liminality, but in order for them to take on any communicable shape of thought or form they must inevitably reduce (they must choose a subject matter, then represent only one or a few aspects of it)--representation is always linked to reduction. I think this explains why the ill spring to life at the thought of "frost about their toes": they have to live, have to insist on breaking the liminal state of illness, in order to express.

-Flint says that in "The gestation of The Waves . . . [Woolf] documented her sense of its development and progress with the close, concerned attention of someone monitering a set of 'symptoms,' as she herself called them. 'I want to trace my own process,' she recorded" (xvii-xviii). The writing process is compared to illness, having symptoms; but this is just the process. In "A Sketch of the Past," Woolf talks about 'making things whole' through writing about them, about making sense out of traumatic experience through writing about it. I think perhaps the same can be said of illness and writing. The writing process is one in which things are brought to mind, like symbols, symptoms, particular markers of a painful memory. But the written product may be something more than this (it must be given shape, as I said above). So, I think illness is a state of fluid identity and therefore fluid thought--poetic imagination, and writing is something that comes out of this imagination. The Lady Waterford, sketching her husband, is engaging in something that comes out of rather than is constituted by "anarchy and newness."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On Being Ill: Ice Within and Without

I’ve just finished reading Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill (Paris Press, 2002), with an introduction by Hermione Lee (Oh I love her). I left the essay sort of confused—part of the intended effect, I think. I was trying to pinpoint exactly what Woolf was trying to say about the state of being ill. Illness is sometimes pain, and it has no existing language to express it (something Woolf says explicitly, early on). It is also a state that allows the privileged ill person to perceive something like the inexorable prehistory of Between the Acts (Woolf’s posthumously published novel). The latter state, for Woolf, seems to imply or accompany the ability of the ill person to find in words their “sensual[ ]” significance (22), their poetry, before and privileged above their grounding in meanings associated with reality and the healthy, the “army of the upright” (12).

Woolf’s notion of sympathy is connected with this army. I think Woolf is implying that sympathy is reducible to a tool of evolutionary self-preservation*: in encouraging the forging of social relations, it is linked to civilizing and productivity. Outside sympathy—or opposed to it—is the absoluteness of the metaphorical frozen landscape that abides before, during, and after all life, a landscape that is described as both within the ill person (a “snowfield” (12)) and recognized by the ill person as something that exists, absolutely, truly, outside the daily wash of so-called healthy normality. So there is an idea of things as they are, ultimately and absolutely; there is the state of illness, which allows one to recognize this; and then there is illness as it allows one to access in oneself a mirror of the above idea of things, that “virgin forest” in each of us (11).

The ending of the essay, centred around the Lady Waterford, makes of the Lady a type of ill person; she goes through the pain of the loss of her husband, for which there is no language, we are reminded. But Woolf’s presentation of the lady’s day-to-day life as a matter of (literally) sketching people from the margins suggests that women (throughout history, and in Woolf’s day) are metaphorically ill people, free to imagine and observe from outside the rush of life. The Lady sits, seemingly devoted to her Lord, sketching him in the private and figuratively exposed position of his head half-hidden in a soup bowl. Another potentially devoted picture of wifely contemplation gives us a glimpse of the lady’s internal snowfield, a thought to the world after life and death: “Off he would ride again, stately as a crusader, to hunt the fox, and she would wave to him and think each time, what if this should be his last?” (27-8). Woolf here elaborates on something she mentions earlier, that “in [women] the obsolete exists so strangely side by side with anarchy and newness” (10); devotion lies side by side with the anarchy and snowfields of the ill (and, Woolf implies elsewhere, of the poets).

Woolf’s configuration of poetic imagination can seem sometimes almost nihilistic in its association with death, suicide, and things beyond death, evident in this work and in others. But I think it is ultimately oriented toward transformation rather than nihilism, toward the kinds of transformations that take place when imagination—the “anarchy” of the ill—has free range. I’m thinking here of the strange carnivalesque element in Orlando, motivated by the suspended flux of the period in which the Thames is frozen over (ice! Snow!), and correspondingly characterized by Orlando’s shifting figurations of Sasha as a fox, a pineapple, an emerald, etc.

Orlando thinks of Sasha as a fox, and pursues her—wishes to possess her—as the Lord Waterford goes to hunt his fox before he is killed. There is a tension here between the poet as some kind of hunter, someone who ‘captures,’ and the poet as someone who participates in an anarchy of symbolism (the fox, the pineapple, the emerald). In a similar and somehow related way, there’s a tension between Woolf’s imperative to live—to “wriggle”—and her idea that we live for a “Heaven” that can be produced only by the poets and the ill, those people of ice and indifference to life:

The cows are driven home to be milked. Men thatch the roof. The dogs bark. The rooks, rising in a net, fall in a net upon the elm trees. The wave of life flings itself out indefatigably. It is only the recumbent [the ill] who know what, after all, nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will lie thick upon the factory and engine; the sun will go out. Even so, when the whole earth is sheeted and slippery, some undulation, some irregularity of surface will mark the boundary of an ancient garden, and there, thrusting its head up undaunted in the starlight, the rose will flower, the crocus will burn.[**] But with the hook of life still in us we must wriggle. We cannot stiffen peaceably into glassy mounds. Even the recumbent spring up at the mere imagination of frost about the toes and stretch out to avail themselves of the universal hope—Heaven, Immortality. . . Heaven-making must be left to the imagination of the poets. (16-8)

My reading of this passage is, however, confused by "frost about the toes." Why do the ill spring to life at the thought of frost about their toes? Why do they want to live? This could all be cleared up, I think, by looking more closely at Woolf's concept of the artistic process. (For instance, frost might be at the root of the poetic process, but one must live in order to execute it . . . ). But I won't do that now.

*This statement on Woolf's idea of sympathy may itself be somewhat reductive, I think. But she does seem pretty down on sympathy in this essay.

**Flowers are elsewhere associated with nature’s indifference; the flower bursting through the ice is not the imperative to live I’m talking about.