I’m rereading Mrs. Dalloway and find myself stopping every paragraph or two, almost perching, trying to tease out the structure and the elegance, the light touches of tone that seem laden with Woolf without feeling like very much anything at all. As I’m doing so I’m caught up with the analog of Clarissa’s character. Not another character proper, but Woolf’s vision of the author as a hostess (which Clarissa remembers crying about being called in her youth). And I think of this vision, or have thought, that this vision is strict metaphor. Like a hostess. But as I’m reading this:
Not that she thought herself clever, ot much out of the ordinary. How she had got through life on the few twigs of knowledge Fraulein Daniels gave them she could not think. She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing; and she would not say of Peter, she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.
As I read this (even as I write it) it makes me wonder whether the hostess was a figment at all, but rather one of those spectral images that refuses to be shaken from the eye. This brings to mind two key facets of Modernism that seem to have been lost and also to have slowly returned:
People, as people, are artists by being in the world. Books and their like are attempted externalizations of an ever-occurring process in the body. Much how red blood cells form in the bones and are pumped through the body by the heart, this being in the world that is the font of art is created by and moved by the self. As such, Modernism seems to me to be truly democratic in principle. It aims not just at conveying floor-level lives, but literalizes the metaphorical such that it haunts us. Woolf’s hostess is not mere metaphor.
Externalization fails. What naturally leaves the body is waste, nutrition-extracted, substance dismantled. That waste of being in the world, art, is no different. In extreme conditions animals can eat their own (or other animals) waste in order to survive long enough to find proper nutrition. Human beings, unable to access their own being in the world as it ever-dwindles, hunt for the most nutritious waste to keep it flowing. It runs out – sometimes it can run out with the body itself.
I’m reminded of Enrique Vila-Matas’ interview in Tinhouse where he mentions how he “suspects there are more writers who don’t write” than prolific or renouncing writers. This seems like the briefest credo of Modernism possible. Modernism is about what is absent, but which is also present in its absence. A metaphorical figure that is not purely figurative just as one, on encountering a ghost, can stick their hand through them. Not mere like. It’s in this longing for present absences that people are being in the world –a lifelong state of presque vu where the word is known but the way to it is not. Modernist art is that art which reveals, not the word longed for, but the presque vu. It brings us back to ourselves just as the hostess, not saying I am this, I am that, glides over to us with her light chatter, and guides us to a chair whose nameplate is not our own.