I’m reading Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, again.
I am always fascinated at how she shifts from the consciousness of one character to another, sometimes in mid-sentence. We’re introduced to them, not just outwardly, from Clarissa’s perspective, but often when Woolf reveals to us their unspoken thoughts and emotions, the inner speech that runs through all our brains and never truly stops. The entire novel is one long stream of her characters’ consciousnesses, and though we experience the mind of Woolf’s title character, Clarissa Dalloway more than anyone else, we see into everyone we meet. The inner life of each new mind is presented to her readers, all of them looking for someone with whom to converse, but most often talking only with themselves. Each so different: some light and frothy, perhaps a bit fragile; others dark and mysterious or sad or dangerous. And then there are the ones with minds as blank and vacant and open as any summer landscape one might gaze upon while driving across the flat lands of Nebraska or Kansas.
At the moment, I’m observing Mrs. Dalloway and her thoughts, and then the thoughts of her former beaux, Peter Walsh, who still loves her, still wants her, and yet still retains such bitter feelings because Clarissa rejected his proposal when Clarissa was of an age when women of her era were expected to marry. She saw him as unstable, and he – well he was in his way, a man who failed to live up to the expectations of the English upper class back when Britain was still an Empire. Woolf shifts back and forth between the two of them, moving from their present to what they each remembers of their shared past. Woolf lets us wallow a while among the very separate and distinct memories each recalls regarding Clarissa’s closest female friend, Sally, the wild child who Clarissa in a moment of unusual spontaneity for her once kissed and then imagined that unexpected event was a sign pointing to who she loved best. But now, looking back to that singular moment in time, she views her younger self as only a child who was just old enough to masquerade as an adult, acting the part expected of her, exhibiting a pretense of maturity, blind to the fact that, despite believing her experience was unique and special, it was, in truth, no different than what all young people experience, whether they lived in Edwardian England before the Great War, or today amid the riot of iPhones and tablets and other instantaneous communication devices to which our age has provided us.
And then I’m interrupted by a different reality. I turn away from the world of Mrs. Dalloway because a small black bug, in appearance like a miniature beetle, crawls near my open eye, the one that was reading Woolf’s book as my head lay atop a pillow. I stop to watch the creature, marking slow progress across the surface of my pillow as it fumbles upward toward a goal I cannot determine, clinging to the tiny cotton threads of the pillow case as if they were steps of a ladder of infinite length. It wobbles from side to side on its six legs, which cannot be seen immediately; and I marvel at its perfection. The tiny black head; the much larger carapace that flows from that head; and the stick-like legs, showing themselves only for the briefest of instances before movement and its great body (great in proportion to those legs if I ignore its size relative to my own) again obscure them from my view.
In my mind, I imagine Clarissa Dalloway seeing the same scene, but in her world, the world of well born gentry and servants in a London that was the center of the English speaking world. But I also I imagine the other, smaller worlds within which Clarissa had caged herself: her marriage to a stolid, competent, well settled husband, and her daily routines, the parties she threw and, of course, her incessant need for flowers, flowers she must select herself. I think about her possible reaction to the little creature I see in my world, one that she would believe was formed by God or at least by the semblance of one, that eternal but absent watchmaker who set the gears of the universe in motion once upon a time among the vacuum that lies between the stars.
And I ask myself, “What would Clarissa do?”
A foolish question, really, since I already chose to take the tiny animal and smother it between my fingers, feeling only the slightest of sensations, as though its small form existed in two dimensions, not three. Then I begin to think that I’d imagined everything (Mrs. Dalloway, the book, the pillow, the little black bug and the fingers held closed so tightly), and I open those fingers, the index finger and the thumb of my right hand. And there it appears as the perfect specimen, no longer alive but not crushed either, still and motionless and quiet, outside of time and space, in that eternity the Tibetans named the Bardo , of which only the dead have any knowledge.
* * *
The legend told about of Virginia Woolf as regards Mrs. Dalloway, speaks of her great crisis while writing it, a crisis not physical but psychological, a crisis of the spirit, one she agonized for days. What was it? No less than the question of who must die in her overwhelming, preposterous novel— that is, which character must be her sacrificial victim—not for purposes of advancing the plot, but to appease the author’s own capricious nature. For days it’s said, she sat in her chair at her desk, her pen poised in midair over a piece of paper, when suddenly she spoke aloud to no one but herself: Someone must die. But who? Who must die? Then she gasped in astonishment, not outwardly so much as inwardly, a gasp one might have seen expressed only as the briefest flash playing across the irises of her eyes, like a solar flare – the moment when she knew which one it must be, and why it must be that particular poor sod and not another of her creations.
Later that morning she tells her husband her decision has been made. He knows the story, knows all the characters already, knows that she has been struggling to find a dramatic climax against which to contrast the lives of her characters and bring them into focus, a counterpoint to all their internal joys and sorrows and banality of their lives; and he says simply, Who?
The poet, she says. The poet is Septimus Warren Smith, a war veteran, a man traumatized by his experience, the character who knows that he is going slowly, inevitably mad. He hears voices no one else can hear and sees the ghosts of his dead comrades, the ones he loved and yet could not mourn. In his hallucinations they come to him to offer the only grace he is willing to accept for having survived the war when they did not. Suicide.
Today a doctor would be diagnose him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and handed him a prescription for one of many antidepressant medications — likely one of the selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors such as Sertaline, Fluoxetine, Paxil, Celexa, etc. In addition, therapy of some kind would be offered, whether individual counseling or group therapy with others who share his affliction. This outcome assumes, of course, that our present-day military psychiatric professionals, resisting pressure from those higher up the chain of command (for whom our mentally ill poet warrior would be seen as a future liability of undetermined and unknown expense and not as a human being to whom some measure of respect and dignity is owed) would be willing to make that diagnosis.
But PTSD was not recognized as a mental illness in the years between The Great War and WWII, and there were no specific chemicals to adjust one’s brain chemistry to stave off depression. As for therapy, only analytic psychologists, like Freud, believed in any sort of “talking cure.” At worst, ordinary physicians would treat Woolf’s poet as a malingerer, coward or, if feeling generous, affix the label “shell-shocked” to him when invariably they would find no physiological cause for the his bizarre behavior and emotional distress.
At best, he would be offered the benefits of the prevailing psychiatric theory that individuals suffering from such symptoms should be treated with the rest cure: total isolation from all extraneous stimuli, such as family and friends, at a facility in the country staffed by strangers who would provide meals and housekeeping services, but nothing more. He might be allowed mild physical exercise, such as walks through the woods or fields that surrounded these houses of healing, but nothing more. No companionship would be provided and intimate compassionate friendship would be denied. He would not even be permitted a book to read to pass the time. He would receive only disinterested oversight by staff for the sole purpose of preventing him from harming himself or others. The institution would not employ caregivers, only jailers designed to impose on their patients a universe of less: less empathy, less human contact, less of everything but mist especially less love.
To be treated in this fashion was In effect, a type of solitary confinement, which we now consider torture. Under solitary confinement, human beings, social creatures that they are, lose the vital sense of community we all require, and thus a large part of their identity. Oh, the rest cure worked in a fashion for a few people. It might have blunted the sharp edges of certain individuals with anxiety disorders, but at the expense of imposing a terrible melancholy. If fortunate, those who survived the pain it demanded of them would be allowed to return to their mundane lives; but it could not stave off a return of their worst symptoms and behaviors that brought them to the attention of those who advocated for a rest cure in the first place. Regrettably, this cure did nothing to help those who were treated resist the terrors of their paranoia or hallucinations, and gave them nothing to ward off the degradation of the self that serious mental illness imposes.
The rest cure was at best a stopgap measure, like slapping a Band-Aid over a wound that requires surgery. Its claimed successes more often than not were exaggerated, at best. Inevitably those with disturbed minds would relapse and require another stay at one of these places, another rest cure that isolated them from family and friends, with each new cycle of hysteria or neurasthenia requiring a longer period of recovery, until the day when the patients became permanent fixtures living out their lives in these institutions designed more to warehouse them than cure them, unless they chose the only alternative treatment available to all: taking their own lives.
That Woolf chose to kill off Septimus Warren Smith, her war poet, and the only other character Woolf reveals as much about as Clarissa Dalloway, was not surprising; for Septimus, gender notwithstanding, was the character with whom she most identified. The poet’s death in Mrs. Dalloway prefigured Woolf’s own suicide a little less than two decades later when she placed heavy stones into her coat pockets and walked into a river where she drowned. For Woolf had received the benefit of the rest cure herself, and despised it. She never thought it was a legitimate medical treatment, recognizing it as torture long before the medical community finally did. Her description in Mrs. Dalloway of the renowned physician and psychiatrist who conceived of this ”revolutionary treatment,” a man who also directly benefited financially from placing the mentally ill in his facilities where it was employed, is a no less than a thinly veiled jeremiad against the ignorance and self-importance of the medical practitioners of her day, who in their arrogance believed they had discovered the only way to cure patients suffering from hysteria, melancholia and all the other terms they invented to disparage those suffering from mental and psychological disorders.
Woolf likely suffered from a bipolar disorder for most of her life, exacerbated or created by childhood trauma. The early death of her mother was one trauma she endured, but not the only one. She was sexual molested on countless occasions by her older half brothers. When her father died nine years after her mother’s death, she was institutionalized for the first time for what is usually described by her biographers as a “nervous breakdown,” an amorphous term that hides more than it reveals about the stress and anxiety that led her family to take such a drastic measure. Indeed, at least one of her biographers, Peter Dally, who wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf (St Martin’s Press, NY, 1999), believed that she sought to understand and control the chaos of her madness through her writing, which “… provided the ‘strongest pleasure’ she knew.”
She could discern the parameters of her mental condition far better than most medical professionals of her time. Woolf , as she grew older, knew that her symptoms were worsening over time, and she did not wish to end her days confined in a psychiatric institution, unable to write, unable to read, lost in the maelstrom of her own emotions. In truth, her suicide can be considered a rational response to a problem that had no solution. In retrospect, her life long fight to write and publish her work, and the brilliance of her writing, with its celebration of life as it is and not as we would wish it to be, are all the more poignant.
* * *
So, which is worse: the death in Mrs. Dalloway of Septimus Warren Sutton, her guilt-ridden war survivor poet, or the death of that tiny black insect I suffocated between your fingers?
You may think the answer is easy. The insect was alive before I killed it. It was real. Septimus, a fictional character, though based on actual veterans who survived the horrors of the First World War and struggled for the rest of their lives because of those grim and terrifying experiences, was not. He was an imaginary being brought to life only when we read Mrs. Dalloway. But perhaps, for some of you, doubt may begin to find a pathway into your consciousness, casting its grey shadow and obscuring the clarity of your thoughts.
For wasn’t Septimus Warren Smith real to you while you read the book? Was he not, in fact, more real in your mind than the people in Haiti who died from a catastrophe that dwarfs the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the one that brought forth Voltaire’s scorn on the idea of a just God, the argument made by Leibnitz that we live in the best of all possible worlds? Didn’t you fee a spark of empathy for Semptimus’ anguish, his despair at the unraveling of his mind, more than whatever you feel for the suffering those bombed by America’s armed forces in faraway places where no one we know resides? Don’t lie. You know it to be true.
Such is the way an artist works her will on the world. For what matters are your perceptions of reality, and what you do not perceive directly is less real to you. We see fleeting pixels on the screens of our devices of the dead around the world, and for many, our reaction is muted. For inundated with thousands of images of death and destruction every day, many of us have become numb. All those images of violence or starvation or poverty or tragedy broadcast from every corner of the world into our homes by satellites have desensitized us. Where once the staged portraits of the Civil War dead taken by Matthew Brady’s company of roving photographers stirred emotions so intense that their photographs were deemed too realistic and inflammatory, now we observe brutality in living color every day if we so choose. It’s not a surprise so many choose to turn away from what is real, preferring fictional violence and tragedy in the books we read, the movies we watch and the video games we play, instead.
The trick the novelist uses in crafting a great work of art is to make you perceive the emotions of her characters, people who live in only as words on a page, in a world she conjures for you and into which you can escape any time you desire. And, as Woolf did in Mrs. Dalloway, an author does that by placing you inside her character’s minds, giving you unprecedented access to their fictional lives. We bear witness to their dreams, desires, thoughts and actions, their moments of joy and of sorrow, and every other emotion in between. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf seduces you; and if you permit that seduction to take root, you identify with her characters, engage with them, and care deeply about what happens to them. In them, you may see a part of yourself. They become real to you because she crafted them with such artistry that you forget they are nothing but constructs fashioned with the tools all writers use – words and words alone.
The great movie directors do the same with clever editing of the images they capture on film, the dialogue spoken by actors from the screenplay, ambient sound and a musical score added to make you to feel sympathy for the protagonists, whether they are good or evil. Who has not secretly rooted for Ray Milland to escape justice in Dial M for Murder despite the cold beauty of Grace Kelly, who plays his wife and intended victim? Is that wrong? Of course it is wrong; but you feel his desperation as the Police Inspector closes in on him, and you pity him despite everything he’s done to bring about the murder of his wife, don’t you?
Looking back, many of you may find it is easy to view me as a villain for killing that poor black bug that was no threat to me. But if that thoughtless act were portrayed in the right way, you might forgive me, provided I framed my action within a different context, say one of abject terror caused by an irrational fear of insects. For what is a bug but a mindless automaton, a mere semblance of life without consciousness as we know it? And are we not also a part of nature, where death is meted out on a daily basis? All life is fated to die, you, me and the bug as well. The best any creature can manage is to pass on a partial and inadequate copy of itself in the DNA of its progeny. The replication of your voice or the line of your jaw in a son or daughter is but a ghostly reminder of what you will become when death claims you, just as you are an apparition formed from a multitude of ancestors, your life just the continuation of dreams that existed before you were born and that will continue after you die. It was the bug’s time to pass over from life into death. I was just the instrument of its transition from one state to the other.
You see the logic of this argument; yet still I suspect many of you may never forgive me for this small act of violence. Yet how many of us forgive those who have spent years killing countless human beings, many of them innocent bystanders, because as soldiers we accept that their murderous acts are justified in order to protect us? I know of people who cry tears over abused animals they watch on television, while applauding drone strikes by our military against people in Muslim countries, because they believe with all their heart that, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the dead, they must be terrorists who threaten our way of life, if not now then in the future, and so killing them was an act of national self-defense.
Furthermore, what about political leaders who make decisions that harm millions every day, taking away needed services from vulnerable populations because a budget must be balanced or a tax cut implemented? Or those in government agencies who brutalize people because they are illegal immigrants that have no right to be in our country and so deserve whatever abusive treatment our government doles out? Or all the black men and women, poor or not, who are killed or wrongfully terrorized by police forces across the country, because they are presumed by so many to be a threat to more civilized people “like us?”
“But,” you might say to me, “It’s impossible not to do harm in this world! “ That may be true. But who ever said that the truth would let you off the hook? No wonder we seek solace and/or catharsis in fiction, caring more for the deaths of people who live only in our imaginations than for those who suffer and die in the world outside the confines of a book we’re reading or a film we’re watching. No wonder I return again and again the Mrs. Dalloway, for in the world Virginia Woolf crafted, I can escape the harsh reality of the immoral acts that are perpetrated against my fellow humans every day, reserving my tears for the tragic death of a man who never took a breath, because he was never real to begin with.
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