To the lighthouse – Virginia Woolf


It has been a long time since my last reading of Woolf. In the past, I have liked her writing, but never felt a connection to it. I first read ‘To the lighthouse’ more than ten years ago, at a time when I was experimenting with a lot of reading, devouring many words, without always understanding the subtext.

Reading it now, was like reading a different book altogether. I don’t know if the story has changed over time, or  if it was some background of modern philosophy, or Michael Roth’s lectures in Coursera, which made me see things differently. But I can not remember reading any of this story now in front of me. I remembered Mrs Ramsay, yes, as a benevolent mother figure, slightly overbearing and meddling. I remembered Mr Ramsay – a foul-tempered patriarch. I perhaps remembered the whimpering child who so wanted to go to the lighthouse, but was denied this pleasure for many years.

I had completely erased out Lily Briscoe, or Mr. Bankes, or Mr. Carmichael or Tansley. I had even forgotten another central character – the war, which seems to lie in those fleeting and sketchy years of chapter two. What did I read when I missed so much?

Deprecation of my younger self aside, I felt an instant connection to the text this time. I saw each character as an island, trying to make connection with another, but unable to reach there. It was like the ineffability of my own thoughts had suddenly found expression in someone else’s words. I have sometimes felt a deep sense of isolation. In all relationships and friendships which form so much of our lives, there is still a jarring gap which we can never bridge – the gap of being another – understanding what is the real them. We interpret others through our own filters, and those filters blind us to many things. Sometimes we are inconsiderate, sometimes we overcompensate, and largely we miss. It is a miracle that we continue to try. It is also a miracle that we are able to take so much for granted. In Lily, the more introspective character, who is perhaps the stand-in for Woolf herself, we sense this frustration

she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public

There are philosophical themes in this story, which I could appreciate since I am reading this as part of a course on modern and postmodern philosophy. There is Freud for instance, standing tall in the very first paragraph over James. In Tansley there is an Enlightenment figure of Kant’s thought – the person who embodies the thoughts of French revolution. There is the epistemological truth seeker in Mr. Ramsay. And then there is Woolf – almost a romantic figure herself, in her beautiful sentences and her love for nature, her solitude symbolised by a distant lighthouse. There is so much packed in this little volume that it is astonishing.

The second chapter – Time passes, is my favourite. It is short and ruthless. Events move, and the life of Ramsey family lies only in parenthesis.

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

The family which was so important, has become just a side note in the face of time, and destruction wreaked by war and neglect takes the centre stage. It is a very powerful way to move a story, and lay bare the existential vulnerability of individuals. Terrence Mallick used a similar approach in Tree of life, where human life was pitched against something much larger and more powerful – I loved it there and I loved it now.

It is the passing of time also which takes away the miracle of things.

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now —

James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the bay. In the evening one looked up and saw the eye opening and shutting and the light seemed to reach them in that airy sunny garden where they sat.

Things are different at different times – we see them differently in various perspectives. It is rarely possible to know what is real, but it is possible to appreciate the multiplicity of things, and people – that is the great message of this wonderful book.

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