Sunday, February 17, 2008

Clarissa, samurai

Not long ago I made a case for Clarissa as existentialist hero and found I was not alone in holding this view.  I drew some parallels between existentialist authenticity and religious insights: the visions of mystics as to the wholeness of things, of eternity and emptiness, of life and death. I linked both to Zen Buddhist percepts and made a final connection with the goals of samurai warriors and the guides for achievement of those goals, particularly Musashi's Book of Five Rings

There's no evidence that Virginia Woolf was directly influenced by Kierkegaard, Heidegger, or another of the existentialist thinkers (so-called), nor by any practitioners of Eastern philosophies; and it's a good guess that she never read a samurai sword fighting manual.  It's true that some of the popular philosophies of the day were congruent with existentialism, mystic perceptions of wholeness, and the Japanese ethics of Zen and samurai.  The influence on T.S. Eliot of the philosophies of India are well known and, during the years VW was developing her ideas for and then writing Mrs. Dalloway, her complex relationship with Eliot was evolving into a close friendship.  At the same time G.E. Moore was writing and speaking about his ideas on intuition and collective states of mind which have something in common with Eastern thinking.  And he too was part of Woolf's circle of friends.  But these are tenuous connections.  VW might have absorbed some of her ideas on continuity and expansion from others, but nothing even remotely tending toward the writings of Miyamoto Musashi.  The parallels I find in Mrs. Dalloway and existentialism, Zen, and samurai training are coincidental ones.  They're nothing she intended.

But present all the same.

In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa's personal growth and final realization are those of a samurai.  To be sure, there is much about her that protests this characterization.  She is far from the time and place of the samurai, a creature of 20th-century England.  She is a woman and samurai are men.  Moreover the cultural milieu of Japanese society in the time of the samurai was resolutely masculine.  Women were subjugated to second-class status. 

Still, she possesses what we used to think of as aristocratic attributes --  poise, bearing, dignity, humility.  Peter points out these attributes in her.  The samurai aspired to the same. 

She has an unselfconsious grace.  During the course of the novel, she becomes more and more self-possessed.  The reader can visualize development of her senses of balance and rhythm, an ability to dispel inner tension so as to become relaxed and alert, self-respect sufficient to keep her from being easily intimidated, ability to empathize, freedom from prejudice, clear-headedness, ability to resist mindless adherence to social conventions, ability to be either reticent or communicative as occasion calls for.  One might debate the extent to which VW shows Clarissa's personal growth to include all these abilities to which samurai aspired, but they belong to her as a cluster of traits in greater or lesser degree.

There's no doubt that she shares with samurai her highly-developed powers of observation and perception, an instinctive awareness not just of the objective world but of its moral, aesthetic, and metaphoric content.  WV tells us how Clarissa sees things and Peter does not, how she must make him put on his glasses to see what is around him.  But more than seeing, she comprehends.  As VW tells us, she knew people by instinct, "If you put her in a room with some one, up went her back like a cat’s; or she purred." 

And she has a samurai ability to remove herself from the context of the moment, to release herself from the busy noise of thoughts running through her mind, to shake off distracting complacencies, and to make instantaneous, intuitive judgments.  As VW says, "She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day."

Clarissa knows how to position herself so as to remain grounded, as when she is receiving her guests, has the knack of perceiving her milieu all at once, of experiencing emotions fully and not blocking off their free flow through her and out of her. 

She knows that she is not strong -- not physically strong (particularly so as a recovering invalid), not strong by right of political or social accomplishment, not strong by fame or inherited position -- but her weakness is not a liability.  During the course of the novel she comes to understand the samurai (and also Zen) paradox of weakness as a source of strength. 

All these are samurai affinities that Clarissa possesses, comes to possess, or shows aptitude for possessing as she continues he life-path.

Clarissa's eventual ability to accept unflinchingly the pointlessness of existence and, beyond that, her faith in goodness without promise of religious rewards is also samurai.  As VW has Peter think, "To see your own sister killed by a falling tree ... before your very eyes, a girl too on the verge of life, the most gifted of them, Clarissa always said, was enough to turn one bitter. Later she wasn’t so positive perhaps; she thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness."

As I say, it's quite common for religions to tell of adepts (mystics, say) who can achieve a sense of oneness with the universe and all that it contains.  But both Zen and samurai (neither of them a religion of mystical revelation handed down by God) take this a step further.  They see the possibility that people can achieve this completeness repeatedly in the affairs of ordinary life.

Eiji Yoshikawa expresses this in his novel, Musashi.  He presents the swordsman as a brash youth who gets put on the path to enlightenment by an eccentric Zen monk who treats him abominably. He demonstrates his Buddhist reverence for all life forms by tricking Musashi, tying him high up in a tree, and to all appearances leaving him to die of exposure. This tough love works, turning Musashi from a thug into a devoted student of samurai. Thereafter , in hundreds of sword contests Musashi is never defeated but his amazing success does not lead him to believe he has mastered his art.  Frequently these fights are over a microsecond after they start.  Musashi parries an attack and counters with such blinding speed that no one present sees what has happened, even his adversary can't immediately comprehend how rapidly he has been defeated.  Gradually, Musashi comes to understand that there are men who can overcome him without use of any weapon, merely by force of personality, by intangibles of which he's only vaguely aware, such as the breadth of their understanding,  their creativity, their mastery of high art, all conveyed wordlessly in the way the hold themselves, by their calm dignity -- a kind of charisma, though that is not quite the right term for it. 

We say that the possession of charisma gives a person power over others.  Stated this way it sounds like charisma is an attribute, but samurai charisma is better seen as a fullness, an authenticity, a freedom from self-deception.  This form of charisma isn't something you aim to get so you can have power, but something that conveys a gentle self-possession -- not authority, nor strength, but rather a state of being vulnerable without being weak.  It's only perceived as power.

I'm less than half-way through the book, but eventually I believe Yoshikawa will describe how Musashi develops a technique called "no-sword" based on this understanding of artistic achievement. 

VW shows us that Clarissa is developing a skill in no-sword contests with an opponent in her encounters with Peter.  Always bickering -- his puncturing of her aesthetic, emotional joys -- flowers as vegetables, his preference for men over cauliflowers, his trivializing Clarissa's moment with Sally as star-gazing.  Their first encounter is a contest with everything that's important left unsaid, but intuited all the same.  He with his knife out.  She with her sewing needle, her scissors. 

Clarissa and Peter confront each other not just with weapons, but with their emotions, memories, the weaknesses that give them strength.  And, in this contest and as the novel progresses, Peter remains what he is and has been, while Clarissa develops her competence, learns how to exist fully in the moment, how to be real.  This growth and its culmination in authentic being -- with the gift of a the life of a stranger, thrown away -- bring Clarissa not just to existential fulfillment, but also to a samurai mastery, the mastery of a Zen art.

You can imagine two warriors facing off for a contest in VW's descriptions of Peter and Clarissa. 

Her recall of his past thrusts at her: "Cold, heartless, a prude, he called her. Never could she understand how he cared. But those Indian women did presumably— silly, pretty, flimsy nincompoops. And she wasted her pity. For he was quite happy, he assured her—perfectly happy, though he had never done a thing that they talked of; his whole life had been a failure. It made her angry still."

His positioning himself defensively: "Then, just as happens on a terrace in the moonlight, when one person begins to feel ashamed that he is already bored, and yet as the other sits silent, very quiet, sadly looking at the moon, does not like to speak, moves his foot, clears his throat, notices some iron scroll on a table leg, stirs a leaf, but says nothing—so Peter Walsh did now. For why go back like this to the past? he thought. Why make him think of it again? Why make him suffer, when she had tortured him so infernally? Why?"

Their first moves. first his: "'Well, and what’s happened to you?' she said. So before a battle begins, the horses paw the ground; toss their heads; the light shines on their flanks; their necks curve. So Peter Walsh and Clarissa, sitting side by side on the blue sofa, challenged each other. His powers chafed and tossed in him. He assembled from different quarters all sorts of things; praise; his career at Oxford; his marriage, which she knew nothing whatever about; how he had loved; and altogether done his job. "

Then hers: "She flattered him; she fooled him, thought Clarissa; shaping the woman, the wife of the Major in the Indian Army, with three strokes of a knife. What a waste! What a folly! All his life long Peter had been fooled like that; first getting sent down from Oxford; next marrying the girl on the boat going out to India; now the wife of a Major in the Indian Army—thank Heaven she had refused to marry him! Still, he was in love; her old friend, her dear Peter, he was in love.

And at the end, Clarissa's ability to be fully vulnerable, gives her an edge: "Take me with you, Clarissa thought impulsively, as if he were starting directly upon some great voyage; and then, next moment, it was as if the five acts of a play that had been very exciting and moving were now over and she had lived a lifetime in them and had run away, had lived with Peter, and it was now over."

And it is all quickly over.  Clarissa has bested Peter, but not so as to defeat him: "Now it was time to move, and, as a woman gathers her things together, her cloak, her gloves, her opera-glasses, and gets up to go out of the theatre into the street, she rose from the sofa and went to Peter. ... And it was awfully strange, he thought, how she still had the power, as she came tinkling, rustling, still had the power as she came across the room, to make the moon, which he detested, rise at Bourton on the terrace in the summer sky."

This power of Clarissa's is ineffable.  As the rest of the novel unfolds, it's possible, more and more, to see in it the elements of samurai greatness.

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