Saturday, January 26, 2008

Clarissa: existentialist heroine

I promised to revisit my essay on Clarissa Dalloway as existentialist heroine in the context of Lucio P. Ruolto's treatment of the same.

Ruotolo and I both draw upon the same existentialist pantheon to establish the boundaries and essence of the philosophy, including Kierkegaard, Sartre, and, more than anyone else, Heidegger. However, Ruotolo's main secondary source appears to be William Barrett's What Is Existentialism? whereas mine is Anthony Manser's article in the old Dictionary of the History of Ideas.

Ruotolo says explicitly what I imply, that Woolf's novel is extraordinary existentialist literature. Most works in the genre are pessimistic. They depict the mass of humankind as passive and tragically self-deceived. They depict life as an absurdly futile interval between the vacancy that precedes birth and the vacancy that succeeds death. They may have a main character who possesses innately, or works to achieve an ability to perceive all that's wrong, but they generally show this person as lonely victim of persecution -- an outcast.

Ruotolo points out that Clarissa Dalloway is unusual in that Woolf gives her an existential triumph, not of course by defeating adversaries but by permitting herself to confront and to respect the absurdity of life and the inevitability of death; to dislodge and examine her own personal strengths and weaknesses; and to closely observe both the superficial attributes and underlying foibles of others and to find within herself a unpassionate love for each in their full individuality.

Ruotolo shows us Clarissa's emerging self-realization partly, as I do, by revealing the incompleteness of the novel's other characters, but he does this much more thoroughly. On the other hand I more than he try to show the transformation which Clarissa undergoes during the course of the day. He brings in other writings of Virginia Woolf to explicate his thesis, particularly the Diary and a lecture she gave at Cambridge in 1924, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. I do not.

Ruotolo is more prudent than I in maintaining the boundaries of the frame we've chosen. He writes about Clarissa as existentialist hero and doesn't let his imagination wander on to the other pathways which lead to authentic living -- those of the religious mystics, Zen masters, and even Samurai warriors. Whereas I . . . . well to quote myself,
For me, Zen is existentialist. Its end product is overcoming dread of nothingness and of death by facing up to both. It is subjective practice aiming at a transcendent objectivity. It values the absurd and is enemy of complacency. Zen adepts are fully conscious of the choices they make; if there is self-deception among them, it is conscious self-deception.

And I use this amplified frame to show something Ruotolo doesn't bring out: that in the end, Clarissa, now enlightened -- in the Zen sense -- is back where she began. She has given herself time and space in which she can transform -- move gracefully from cherished memories of the past, through each precious moment of time in which she finds herself, into a future which is indetermined, but in which she knows she will be both different from whom she was time past and is time present, but also, paradoxically, the same. She is, that is to say, not transformed out of her life, but into it. Accepting this paradox is a heroic achievement, an existentialist triumph.

Ruotolo more than I stresses the presence Clarissa has attained. He uses the Heideggerian term "being there" to describe this and he closes his essay by emphasizing the importance of the phrase with which Woolf closes the novel:
Peter and Sally, however, are no less human by virtue of their inauthenticity. The fear that drives them to dominate others is stamped upon Clarissa's world and no doubt our own. If Peter has denied (more than once) the sanctity of the human heart by reducing Clarissa to "the perfect hostess," on other occasions he has responded to such mystery. Early in the book he describes the magical quality of her parties. Clarissa, he confesses, has "that extraordinary gift, that woman's gift, of making a world of her own wherever she happened to be." During her parties it was not what she did or said that one remembered but rather the extraordinary sense of her being there, "There she was" (pp. 114-115).

In the closing scene, as Clarissa moves from her small room toward Peter, her miraculous presence fills him once again with an undefinable sense of terror and ecstasy; reduced to wonder he can only exclaim: "It is Clarissa." The novel's last words, reiterating Peter's messianic invocation - "For there she was" - challenge each critic's effort to fathom Mrs. Dalloway. Is the statement a final irony - Peter's romantic affirmation of a presence that sustains his melancholy - or does the reader respond with similar apostolic fervor to Clarissa as being there in some special way? Since Virginia Woolf sought to portray the mysterious reality of character it is fitting that, finally, this question remains unanswered.

A few more differences as afterthought: (1) Ruotolo very nicely brings in support from Ludwig Wittgenstein:
Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics. The connection between Woolf and Wittgenstein is tenuous but Ruotolo says "In a letter dated July 28, 1965, Leonard Woolf informs me that although he and his wife did not know Wittgenstein well they spent some time with him when the philosopher stayed with Maynard Keynes in a house close to their own." (2) And also brings in support from Sigmund Freud. He says "Freud's late comments on the artist, quoted by Ernest Jones, seems particularly relevant: 'The artist, like the neurotic, had withdrawn from an unsatisfying reality into this world of imagination; but, unlike the neurotic, he knew how to find a way back from it and once more to get a firm foothold in reality.'" (3) I make more of the Shakespearean quote Fear no more the heat o' the sun. (4) He does not point out as I do that Clarissa, in counterpoint to the fearful sun, is a radiant being (Clarissa = "clear," "bright," "famous").

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