Writing towards her light

Virginia Woolf tight crop

 

When I entered the world of writing, if I entered that world at all, I wanted it to be the world of Virginia Woolf, the artist whose way of being in writing was so delicately lit that I knew it would allow me to find my way – alone – to where I was going. In her memoir, ‘Sketch of the Past’, Woolf wrote: “If I were a painter I should paint these first impressions…I should make a picture of curved petals; of shells; of things that were semi-transparent…showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline.”(Moments of Being, 2002)

As a new writer I’ve needed a private conversation with such a writer; a place where I could practise, and begin to make my practice. I wasn’t consciously aware of Woolf as I wrote my first shy short story. But I was lucky to encounter To the Lighthouse (1927) in my first year of a BA English Honours. I didn’t even know then that I was becoming a writer. It was just a matter of me, an undergraduate student and that novel, with an essay to write. I still think the best way to learn about writing is by reading writing. Susan Sontag says in Writing As Reading, “to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading”(Where the Stress Falls, 2001). This is why universities must fund and refund the Humanities discipline of English.

It’s a radically personal thing, finding your path to practicing as a writer. It’s noticeable that people, institutions, superegos in both these forms, will try to organize you into shutting that pathway down. There’s a fear of such play that goes on outside of time structures. People fear your need to be alone, the ordinary days spent wandering outside on the lawn of the summer-house, and that look you get of doing nothing, as Clive James puts it so well. I remember a bloke bailing me up on the forest path once. He wasn’t interested in my research, only in verballing me over the amount of the time it had taken me to write my thesis, once he’d extracted that private information. I advise every becoming writer to take out shares in a knitting mill, because you’re going to need a lot of thick socks for those big clock mouths.

Finishing something is just one thing, an End. The process of making up the writing: that’s about being in a state of achievement.

In To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf writes of artists-as-children in various states of making up stuff, under the present or non-present gaze of Mrs Ramsay, the mother: “…Mr Carmichael, who was basking with his yellow cat’s eyes ajar, so that like a cat’s they seemed to reflect the branches moving or the clouds passing”; “…Lily Briscoe went on putting away her brushes, looking up, looking down. Looking up”. Woolf’s interest in such ordinary play is about writing “moments of being”(2002). As a writer/publisher with a unique connection to Freud [Freud escaped to London from Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938; the Woolf’s Hogarth Press in Tavistock Square went on to purchase and publish Freud’s works] Virginia Woolf’s visionary reach is far ahead of her own time in terms of the history of psychoanalysis. By this I mean the shift from Freud’s focus on the phallus in human sexuality, to the importance of the infant and mother pre-Oedipal relationship. Woolf’s novel articulates the imaginary life of Mrs Ramsay and all her subsequent ‘children’ playing on the lawn, fiction straight after Melanie Klein’s Object Relations. Beyond Klein, you could say that D.W. Winnicott’s theory of Playing and Creativity and its relation to re-making the first object, the mother (The Mrs Ramsay) in her wake, is also of particular interest concerning To the Lighthouse. Woolf lost her mother when she was 13.

Milan Kundera says that we’re always forgetting stuff and therefore “Beauty in art: the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said” of the “novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish us” (The Art of the Novel, 1986).

To write something beautiful, light-tender, I think one needs a paradox: space alone, and another writer, even if she’s a completely unconscious presence. The presence of a non-present mentor, if that makes sense, offering you her hand as light.

 

 

                                                                

What if Macbeth had read his Marx?

With the Manifesto Marx “…delineated the endlessly inchoate, incessantly restless and unfinished character of modern capitalism as a phenomenon. He emphasized its inherent tendency to invent new needs and the means to satisfy them, its subversion of all inherited cultural practices and beliefs, its disregard of all boundaries, whether sacred or secular, its destabilization of every hallowed hierarchy, whether of ruler and ruled, man and woman or parent and child, its turning of everything into an object for sale.”

Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘Introduction’, The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, London: Penguin Classics, 2oo2.

 

…Macbeth, or machine?!

 Marx

Macbeth and the difference between Paris and Rome

The blood thing.

Macbeth’s language is the difference between Paris and Rome. Paris is elegant, it accommodates good taste. I can speak the language. Whereas my knowledge of Italian comes from the 2 great canons of opera and pizza. Music and appetite. Desire.

Paris suits me but Rome I want to go back to.

I hate it when I’m there: it’s bruta. It’s about hard bodies pushing up against me in steaming buses. Dripping lacerated Christs. A nun who makes hourly the story of Peter’s upside-down crucifixion. Body. Visceral. Headspin.

But it’s the city I remember.

Macbeth is my Rome. It’s the body play; the eating, sexing, the bloody, desiring, the operatic playscript.

Callas Macbeth3

A legend on the art of writing dialogue

“Predictability is the death of suspense and therefore drama. Good dialogue is unpredictable. Lines that elicit only predictable answers, gestures that duplicate what has already been conveyed by other means, are dead and should be eliminated. The brilliance of the dialogue of the great comedy writers like Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde lies in its paradox and surprise; the greatness of giants among playwrights like Shakespeare lies in the originality of their language and images (which is another way of saying their unexpectedness and surprise).”

Martin EsslinAn Anatomy of Drama, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux1977, p47.

Esslin’s commentary taken from his chapter, ‘The structure of drama’, begins with Beckett, of course, and the incomparable lesson in making suspense – even with nothing – that is Waiting for Godot. 

Esslin makes me think of another of my other favourite dialogue exchanges from the theatre. It’s from the opening scene of The Seagull, which Chekhov subtitled ‘A Comedy in Four Acts’:

ACT ONE

MEDVIEDENKO.     Why do you always wear black?

MASHA.     I’m in mourning for my life.

 

…unpredictable and completely hilarious.

 

The self is a Literary me: why we need Beauty.

Maxim Gorky was his pen-name. Alexei Maximovich Peshkov was Russian. The son of peasants, he became a novelist and playwright, a revolutionary and a member of the Marxist Internationalist Group. My Childhood (1913), the first installment in his autobiographical trilogy, reads like the most horrific family violence statement one could imagine. An unbelievably savage beating at the hands of his murderous grandfather puts the 5 year old protagonist, Alexei, into a near-death fever. For pages he lies unconscious, secretly nursed back to life by his grandmother. It would appear that she saved his life, by telling him stories.

This is what Gorky – a literary self, a child of story – had to say about the big three of the Self, Literature and Beauty:

“The purpose of literature is to help people to understand themselves, to inspire them with a yearning for truth, and to give them greater confidence in themselves; the purpose of literature is to combat human baseness, to reach the good in people and to waken in their souls anger and courage so that they may become noble and strong and be fired with the scared principle of beauty.”

Gorky cropped