Saturday, February 23, 2008

Vietnam through Hayden's eyes

I recommend an article called The Old Revolutionaries of Vietnam by Tom Hayden (from the March 10, 2008 issue of The Nation). People my age remember Hayden for his SDS presidency and the Port Huron Statement, his arrest at the 1968 Chicago convention, his political work in California and, most of all, his opposition to the war in Vietnam. We also remember that he likes to be in front of cameras and is attracted to Hollywood celebritydom. He divorced his first wife to marry Jane Fonda and when they divorced he married another actress. Reading his bio in wikipedia, I found that he's done some admirable low-profile political work which belies the publicity-hound image you might get of him from the many headlines in which his name has appeared over the decades.

The article is short and relatively free of bombast. It shows Hayden's nostalgia for the ideals of the 1960s and his current opposition to our culture's superficiality and the growing inequality of haves and have-nots. It also shows the difficulty he has in coming to terms with the quick-growth economic policies of the current socialist government in Hanoi. He says, "far be it from me to question the desire of Vietnamese to share our globalized consumer culture like everyone else," but it's obvious that's not the outcome he would have wanted.

He tells of secular Santa Clauses and Christmas carols in Hanoi's shopping district and quotes a young Vietnamese blogger: "I have only one dream is buy one of brand new Harley-Davidson, now I waiting for Harley-Davidson deal to open in Saigon. I need a Fatboy."

Much of the article is given over to reminiscences with Vietnamese members of the old guard whom he sought out on a visit to Hanoi last Christmas. They, like he, are saddened by the younger generation's loss of revolutionary fervor, its wholesale adoption of American values, and its growing passion for material possessions.

One says, "Look carefully now at the peace we have, painful, bitter, and sad. And look who won the war. To win, martyrs had sacrificed their lives in order that others might survive. Not a new phenomenon, true. But those still living to know that the kindest, most worthy people have all fallen away, or even been tortured, humiliated before being killed, or buried and wiped away by the machinery of war, then this beautiful landscape of calm and peace is an appalling paradox." Another says, "The government is trying to reduce poverty, but it's already a reality. The rich are getting richer because they have the means. And the poor don't. We are better off materially, but not mentally, ethically."

In the end, he resists the temptation to bludgeon the reader with the old-timers vs. youngsters dichotomy. Here are the closing paragraphs:
Finally, there was a visit to my oldest friend, Do Xuan Oanh, who first greeted me at Hanoi's airport on a December day forty-two years before. He went through a "bitter period" after retirement, someone told me, but was feeling better, having recently translated into English an edition of Vietnamese women's poetry. He lived alone, his wife having died after many years of illness, his three sons all abroad. As I remembered him, Oanh loved America in unique ways. For example, after learning English from the BBC, he translated Huckleberry Finn into Vietnamese, a massive challenge. A musician, he could sing many American protest songs. A romantic, he wept easily and became close to many Americans.

Now, in a carload of old revolutionaries, I traveled along a narrow cement path past houses, until we came to the gate of Oanh's home of fifty years. He was standing in the door, a thin shadow of the Oanh I remembered. Taking my hand, he led me into a windowless room where a couch and piano were the most prominent fixtures. There were alcoves for painting and a kitchen. We sat and looked at each other. He held my hand on his knee, while the others sat in a quiet circle. It was more a last visit than a time to renew an old conversation.

"Do you want some booze?" Oanh asked with a low chuckle, pointing to a half-bottle of Jim Beam. I deferred, worried what might happen after a few drinks. My wife said Oanh seemed fit and energetic for an 85-year-old. She asked if he would play the piano, and he performed an original piece in a classic European style. He gave me a copy of the song, signed to his "precious friend," and a small carving of a beautiful Vietnamese woman carrying a student briefcase, which he said reminded him of his wife "before the revolution." He repeated the phrase, then relaxed. Gradually, the others began to reminisce about the old days. I wondered if we would ever meet again. I remembered an e-mail from Oanh's son in San Francisco: "I believe God assigned my father and myself to serve the American people." His son would come for a visit in the summer, Oanh said.

We walked back along the dark path to the street filled with motorbikes and strolling couples out for a coffee. Oanh looked at me intently, pointing a finger for emphasis. "Nothing can be predicted," were his last words before we said goodbye.
Hayden has his own website and he blogs on Huffington Post. Noting that he was a community organizer in Newark, New Jersey, in the mid-1960s, at the same time Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) was there, I did a Google search and turned up a fascinating bit of history. This comes from Alan Ginsburg's description of his FBI file:
Ginsberg said that some of the papers in his file come from related customs and Treasury Department investigative bureaus. His file crisscrosses those of other writers. "They include Leroi Jones, who was the victim of much more attack than people understand and, in that context, his anger is understandable," Ginsberg said. "Most people don't realize what he and other black literati have been through, assuming that all past injustices have been redressed or somehow disappeared out of mind. The waste remains, the waste remains and kills. The section on Tom Hayden in Newark intersects with Jones, since Jones was influenced by an FBI misinformation campaign to denounce Hayden as an [FBI] agent and drive him out of Newark.
{Source: Allen Ginsberg's FBI file from Herbert Mitgang, Dangerous dossiers : exposing the secret war against America's greatest authors (New York : D.I. Fine, 1988)}
Addendum: Leroi Jones comes up in a post on this blog a few months back: two women. I was given his book, Blues People, as a Christmas present and have half a thought to do a blog post on him one day.

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.

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.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

shared space

Shared Space

I live on a street that's barely two lanes wide. That is, two on-coming cars can pass each other but two large trucks cannot. It's a two-way street with parking on one side. When cars approach from opposite directions, one must usually pull over so the other may pass.

The street has sidewalks and during much of the day, the sidewalks have pedestrians: women and children going to and from the school at the end of the block and its playground; commuters going to and from the major bus route at the end of the street; people running errands; and various helpers -- caretakers, maids -- who come and go to their work in the neighborhood homes.  It's a family-friendly place.  And it's quite unusual. Streets in new residential neighborhoods, ones that meet current standards, are more than twice as wide. We have about 30 feet from the edge of one sidewalk to the edge of the other across the way. The standard calls for this width to be 70 feet. But 70 feet, though appropriate from a traffic engineering point of view, is not a humane distance. It doesn't foster community. The new subdivisions with enormous streets, feel sterile and unwelcoming compared to our more human-scale space.

Our environment isn't teeming with humanity like the Mulberry Street of 1900 which I blogged not too long ago, but it's not as empty as the new subdivisions farther out in the suburbs.

Its streets have shared space in the sense that they aren't totally dominated by the needs of motor vehicles. This gives them quite a bit in common with experimental shared-space urban areas in Europe and other places.

Here's a definition
of the term: "Shared space is a term used to describe an approach to the design, management and maintenance of public spaces which reduces the adverse effects of conventional traffic engineering. The shared space approach is based on the observation that individuals' behaviour in traffic is more positively affected by the built environment of the public space than it is by conventional traffic control devices (signals, signs, road markings, etc.) and regulations.


Since it has stop signs, my neighborhood doesn't have shared space as outlined in this definition. It's also almost entirely residential. It isn't a mixture of apartments and commercial space -- places where people go to drink coffee, shop for books, buy bread, and the like (though it does have shops within walking distance).

This shared space exists in , where we spent some time last June.

Some of the characteristics are also present in Kensington, a town a bit to the north of us.

It's pleasant to fantasize about a life both free of traffic control and also blessed with people who are civil to one another -- considerate, unhurried, convivial. But outside the special situations created to ensure that -- as much as possible -- the second condition accompanies the first, I don't see this happening. In fact, as a bike commuter, I'm sure I wouldn't appreciate the time I would lose if my crossing of every intersection had to be negotiated with appropriate politesse.

It's a concept that works in my neighborhood -- at least most of the time. And it's one I treasure in cities and towns that I visit. But until everyone lives within walking distance of job, merchants, service organizations, and other needs -- or until humankind has learned to get about by means other than cars, it ain't gonna happen.

Here are some shared-space links:

- Shared Space: home page for seven pilot projects in: Province of Fryslân (Lead Partner, the Netherlands), Municipality of Emmen (the Netherlands), Municipality of Haren (the Netherlands), Municipality of Ejby (Denmark), Municipality of Bohmte (Germany), Suffolk County Council (United Kingdom) and Municipality of Oostend (Belgium).

- Wikipedia article

- Lose the Traffic Lights to Improve Our Streets?, Written by Joshua Liberles.
Wednesday, 23 January 2008

- A civilising influence, By Clare Dowdy. Published: April 20 2007 18:37 | Last updated: April 20 2007 18:37

- "Shared Space" Traffic Calming: Counterintuitive, But It Works, Erica Barnett. January 4, 2008 2:46 PM

- Sharing street space for a safer Bohmte, Posted by: Jeannie Choe on Friday, January 25 2008.

- A Green Light for Common Sense, To Slow Drivers, German Town Drops Traffic Signals and Lane Markers. Monday, December 24, 2007.

- The shared-space: Shared Space is a European project with the purpose of developing new policies for the planning of public space. For this purpose, a new view regarding the planning of public space is applied in seven pilot projects. The essence of the new approach is that people’s behaviour in the street is stronger affected by expression of the surroundings than by the application of the usual traffic instruments such as speed bumps, traffic islands, or pedestrian crossings.

Photo from the Washington Post:
Bohmte, Germany, has been tearing out stop signs, traffic lights and sidewalks since September to force drivers and pedestrians to share the pavement, in an approach known as shared space. Several towns across Europe have undertaken similar measures.
Bohmte, Germany, has been tearing out stop signs, traffic lights and sidewalks since September to force drivers and pedestrians to share the pavement, in an approach known as shared space. Several towns across Europe have undertaken similar measures.
(Photos By Craig Whitlock -- The Washington Post)

Here's a shared-space video link.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Clarissa and a man named Smith

I'm working on a post I'll call "Clarissa and Virginia" in which I'll give my thoughts on how Clarissa evolved and how she counterbalances Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway. This quick post concerns one little corner this thinking: how Virginia Woolf perceives "reality" in literature. She participated in a lengthy debate with Arnold Bennett about description from the outside vs. from the inside in the modern novel. Woolf argued that the author should let the reader see chacters' thoughts, feelings, and memories -- their and multi-layered sense of the present moment. Bennett accused her of being too clever and too fanciful; he said she intellectualized where she should have been "genuine." She smarted under the accusation because she did want to be genuine (this is her word), but she wanted to depict the whole of reality, not just its surface.

There's a section in one of her essays that deals with the reality that lies below the surface. In it she says there's no single reality that we all acknowledge to exist. In fact truth is frequently more fanciful than prosaic: "We know indeed that this reality is a chameleon quality, the fantastic becoming as we grow used to it often the closest to the truth, the sober the furthest from it, and nothing proving a writer's greatness more than his capacity to consolidate his scene by the use of what, until he touched them, seemed wisps of cloud and threads of gossamer."

This treatment of truth, with its conclusion that a writer achieves greatness when able to direct the reader's perception below the surface without sacrificing verisimilitude, leads me to see what what it was that Woolf was attempting to achieve -- did achieve -- in her characterizations of Septimus and Clarissa.

She gives both these characters a intense perception of their surroundings. For Septimus, the perception is not hallucinatory, but he sees it as an aberration, a heightened sense of reality that normal people do not possess. For Woolf, this is one aspect of his insanity. Clarissa also has an intense awareness of things, but she is the author's "sane" character.

The difference between the two seems to lie in the degree of each character's self-control. Septimus has no control. He is emotionally drained, prey to his perceptions. Woolf described an episode of this nature from her own life. It appears in her diary entry for a day in the period in which she was writing Mrs. D. The entry shows Woolf herself to have an uncontrolled Septimus-like stepping outside normal reality with heightened awareness of what's around her. I've put the entry at bottom of this post.

Clarissa does not have attacks of this nature. She perceives things brilliantly but is not a victim of the "the old devil" who "has once more got his spine through the waves" (Woolf's words in the diary entry).

As I see it, Clarissa has found the method of controlled perception as does Woolf's imaginary playwright in the following passage. That is, she can let her fancy range free and also keep herself grounded in that reality which, to the Bennett's of the world, is genuine. She can perceive both poetic and prosaic truth. She can, as the passage has it, both wander in the land of the unicorn and also keep one toe touching Liverpool.

This passage is from an essay on which she was working while she was writing Mrs. D: NOTES ON AN ELIZABETHAN PLAY


At the outset in reading an Elizabethan play we are overcome by the extraordinary discrepancy between the Elizabethan view of reality and our own. The reality to which we have grown accustomed, is, speaking roughly, based upon the life and death of some knight called Smith, who succeeded his father in the family business of pitwood importers, timber merchants and coal exporters, was well known in political, temperance, and church circles, did much for the poor of Liverpool, and died last Wednesday of pneumonia while on a visit to his son at Muswell Hill. That is the world we know. That is the reality which our poets and novelists have to expound and illuminate. Then we open the first Elizabethan play that comes to hand and read how

I once did see In my young travels through Armenia An angry unicorn in his full career Charge with too swift a foot a jeweller That watch'd him for the treasure of his brow And ere he could get shelter of a tree Nail him with his rich antlers to the earth.

Where is Smith, we ask, where is Liverpool'? And the groves of Elizabethan drama echo "Where '?" Exquisite is the delight, sublime the relief of being set free to wander in the land of the unicorn and the jeweller among dukes and grandees, Gonzaloes and Bellimperias, who spend their lives in murder and intrigue, dress up as men if they are women, as women if they are men, see ghosts, run mad, and die in the greatest profusion on the slightest provocation, uttering as the fall imprecations of superb vigour or elegies of the wildest despair. . . .

Is it not that literature, if it is to keep us on the alert through five acts or thirty-two chapters must somehow be based on Smith, have one toe touching Liverpool, take off into whatever heights it pleases from reality? We are not so purblind as to suppose that a man because his name is Smith and he lives at Liverpool is therefore "real". We know indeed that this reality is a chameleon quality, the fantastic becoming as we grow used to it often the closest to the truth, the sober the furthest from it, and nothing proving a writer's greatness more than his capacity to consolidate his scene by the use of what, until he touched them, seemed wisps of cloud and threads of gossamer. Our contention merely is that there is a station, somewhere in mid-air, whence Smith and Liverpool can be seen to the best advantage; that the great artist is the man who knows where to place himself above the shifting scenery; that while he never loses sight of Liverpool he never sees it in the wrong perspective.

-- From: The Common Reader, First Series, by Virginia Woolf (1925), pp 74-75.

From the Diary:
Monday, 15 October, 1923 -- -- Hogarth

This last entry seems long ago. And I meant to record for psychological purposes that strange night when I went to meet Leonard & did not meet him. What an intensity of feeling was pressed into those hours! It was a wet windy night; & as I walked back across the field I said Now I am meeting it; now the old devil has once more got his spine through the waves. (but I cannot re-capture really). And such was the strength of my feeling that I became physically rigid. Reality; so I thought, was unveiled. And there was something noble in feeling like this; tragic, not at all petty. Then cold white lights went over the fields; & went out; & I stood under the great trees at Hord waiting for the lights of the bus.

And that went by; & I felt lonelier. There was a man with a barrow walking into Lewes, who looked at me. But I could toy with, at least control all this, until suddenly, after the last likely train had come in I felt it was intolerable to sit about, & must do the final thing, which was to go to London. Off I rode, without much time, against such a wind; & again I had a satisfaction in being matched with powerful things, like wind & dark. I battled, had to walk; got on; drove ahead; dropped the torch; picked it up, & so on again without any lights. Saw men & women walking together; thought, you're safe & happy I'm an outcast; took my ticket; had 3 minutes to spare, & then, turning the corner of the station stairs, saw Leonard, coming along, bending rather, like a person walking very quick, in his mackintosh. He was rather cold & angry (as, perhaps was natural). And then, not to show my feelings, I went outside & did something to my bicycle. Also, I went back to the ticket office, & said to the humane man there, "Its all right. My husband caught the last train. Give me back my fare" which he did. And I got the money more to set myself right with Leonard than because I wanted it. All the way back we talked about a row (about reviewers) at the office. ( & all the time I was feeling My God, thats over. I'm out of that. Its over. Really, it was a physical feeling, of lightness & relief & safety. & 'j there was too something terrible behind it -- the fact of this pain, suppose; which continued for several days -- I think I should feel it again if I went over that road at night; & it became connected with the death of the miners, & with Aubrey Herbert's death next day.* But I have not got it all in, by any means. . . .

* On 25 September 1923 the No. 23 Redding Pit near Falkirk was flooded and 41 men lost their lives. Lt.-Col. Aubrey Herbert MP (b. 1880), died on 26 September 1923; he was a half-brother of Lady Margaret Duckworth.