Thursday, February 07, 2008

Clarissa's Party: conversation

Clarissa's Party

1. Conversation, communication, communion, threads of connection

Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway continues to occupy my thoughts.

Clarissa's party, which is the climax of the story, is not simply a social gathering. She and those who serve her spend the day preparing for it.

She sends invitations, orders the flowers, mends her dress, and sees that the rooms are ready to receive her guests.

Clarissa cannot call this conversation into being by herself; rather she creates conditions that are favorable. She uses her skill and intuition as an artist; her party is a creative venture. Virginia Woolf helps us see this:
What did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?

She has decided to have no music, no dancing. And, despite a second-guessing about this decision, she's right to leave entertainment to the guests themselves. She has brought together a mix of people at this particular place and time for one main purpose: to converse.

What seems superficial conversation is much more. The word conversation, in this context, has overtones from its antique meaning: it's the action of showing one's character, displaying one's course of life. To converse, in this context, has overtones of another antique meaning: to move within a circle of acquaintances, to establish and maintain threads of connection.

What happens is not just talk.

This is communication, in a broad sense, the sense that John Dewey gives it. He said it's the way people make links among themselves, acknowledging and sharing a common experience. They establish and reinforce these links as they converse. The process enhances each person's sense of self -- individuality -- and also gives the group a sense of its collective existence and it strengthens the ties that bind the group together. More than that, he said there's no pure individuality. We're all an inextricable mixture of personal and social attributes. There's no perceptible point at which an individual's sense of self ends and that person's sense of belonging begins.

Virginia Woolf shows us the guests arriving, each publicly announced by name to the assembly. At that point their individual identities are most pronounced. And this identity decreases as their participation in the communal flow grows.
Every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another. It was, she thought, partly their clothes, partly being taken out of their ordinary ways, partly the background, it was possible to say things you couldn’t say anyhow else, things that needed an effort; possible to go much deeper. But not for her; not yet anyhow.

Her party shows us the hum of existence, complex interactions of individuals.

People circulate through the rooms. Everyone talks animatedly.

Earlier in the novel, Virginia Woolf has given us the image of a thread -- the thread of a spider, or of the fine silk thread Clarissa uses to mend her dress. After lunch at Millicent Bruton's, Hugh and Richard remain connected to her by this ethereal link. The connection is a single spider's thread, stretching and getting thinner as they walk down the pavement. She, in releasing her consciousness into dreams, loses hold on her end of it "as a single spider’s thread is blotted with rain-drops, and, burdened, sags down." A few moments later, Richard's love for Clarissa figuratively manifests as a single spider’s thread, which, "after wavering here and there attaches itself to the point of a leaf." Woolf uses the image again to show us the esoteric communication of the old woman's love song at the Regents Park tube station: "Cheerfully, almost gaily, the invincible thread of sound wound up into the air like the smoke from a cottage chimney, winding up clean beech trees and issuing in a tuft of blue smoke among the topmost leaves." Woolf associates these threads with the bonds of affection, but also the life force itself, the "thread of life" as she expresses it.

The novel also gives us images of flight and wind. Birds take flight, an airplane writes diaphanous messages in the sky, the warm June breezes blow, gentle and strong. In Clarissa's home "gently the yellow curtain with all the birds of Paradise blew out and it seemed as if there were a flight of wings into the room, right out, then sucked back. (For the windows were open.)"

And of windows -- windows that open out to the world, shop windows displaying merchandise, the curtained windows of the Prime Minister's car, the window across the way which Clarissa looks into to observe her friend, the old lady who lives there, the window out of which Septimus jumps to his death. Windows open to the ecstasies of her youth as, in her memory, she steps through French windows at her beloved Bournton. One is also imagined as helping the soul of a dead woman regain the unknown space from which it came: a woman "opening the window of the room where [another] had just brought off that act of supreme dignity."

And bells. Big Ben which, when we hear it, locates locates us in Westminster; which tolls to mark each moment of precious time, which tells of the day's many events. Bells always signify clocks and clocks signify measurement, the antithesis of the imponderable flow from eternity past into eternity future. Bells are the beat of time kept by clocks.

In using the images Woolf helps us understand the greater meaning of the party as it unfolds. The images help us to visualize the many interconnections among the party's guests, growing more intense as more people arrive until finally a sort of critical mass is achieved.

Clarissa observes the exact moment when this occurs: when Ralph Lyon beats back the curtain: "The curtain with its flight of birds of Paradise blew out again. And Clarissa saw—she saw Ralph Lyon beat it back, and go on talking. So it wasn’t a failure after all! it was going to be all right now—her party. It had begun. It had started. But it was still touch and go. She must stand there for the present. People seemed to come in a rush." For Ralph Lyon, the flow of time is no longer of consequence; his concentration is on the conversation of the moment, however long that moment might stretch out in time. Clarissa's creativity has made it possible for the party to have its own being, temporarily outside time.

At the moment Ralph Lyon beats back the curtain, Woolf reminds us of the images she has been using: birds, flight, a breeze, the window. The threads of connection are not mentioned but implicit. For as she stands, greeting the individual guests as they arrrive, she has a momentary thought, one that's interrupted before she gets to its conclusion: "a sense one had" she says to herself, and Woolf adds "as they came up the stairs one after another." Obliquely to be sure, this succession of arrivals suggests the thread-of-connection image. So does the motion of Clarissa, circling around the packed rooms, moving from one little group to the next, to the next.

She has created the conditions for this moment through her own and her servants' careful preparations. One of the most important of these is the list of invited guests. This importance is seen in the problem of Ellie Henderson. Clarissa does not want to invite her because she knows Ellie will not be an active participant. She is a dangerous guest, in Clarissa's view, because she is disengaged. For the party to succeed, everyone must contribute to make the whole come alive as an organic entity, a creation to which Clarissa contributes her virtuosity, but which is ultimately made by them all.

The importance of this detail shows also in the actions of Peter and Sally. Both were last-minute additions to the list of invited guests. A bit confusingly, Clarissa tells Peter she will not invite him, but then does. She has no choice in this. But they resemble Ellie more than they resemble the other guests. The are not part of the flow, don't enter into the community of conversation. Instead they take themselves apart, speaking only to each other -- and briefly to Clarissa. Their isolation helps show the social cohesion of the others.

Guests arrive over an extended period of time. One of the last couples, Sir William Bradshaw and his wife, might be thought to be as unwelcome as Ellie Henderson, but this is not so. Clarissa disliked Bradshaw; he coerced people; he was evil. Yet these were not reasons to keep him from her party. He converses, making connections with the others in the room, showing himself as he is, contributing to the scene as it evolves.

Woolf shows the importance of Bradshaw, the enemy, being present when Clarissa thinks of another enemy, "Kilman" -- the man killer whom Clarissa, with all her impeccable manners, cannot bring to call "Miss" when she comes to mind. Of Kilman she now thinks "she hated her: she loved her. It was enemies one wanted, not friends." How is this? Partly at least the cause is Clarissa's growing realization of about the chain of being -- the community which Clarissa has made possible is an instance of this chain. She has arranged for it to welcome active participants whose presence, whether by reinforcement or contradiction, helps its individual members realize their real, genuine selves.

Peter's thoughts show us Clarissa at this moment, as she moves about the rooms. She has "the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element." And she has "that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed." It's a gift of hers to be able to manifest in her bearing, her presence, all that is right in the occasion -- her party.

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