Heart of Glass

Someone asked why it is so difficult for the characters in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse to say they loved one another.


In Hegel, we see that the fundamental human need is not for food, clothing and shelter, but rather for recognition. This basic desire to be acknowledged by the other is what leads to the dialectical struggle between Master and Slave, as well as the combat between nations in Clausewitz. In Marx, it appears as the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. In Woolf’s novel, we see this same sort of total struggle for prestige. However, rather than taking place either in terms of personal or group combat, or of control of the means of production; we see this struggle purified, sublimated (to use Freud’s term) into the form of abstract intellectual struggles and nuanced amorous relations. This is why language and images associated with Medieval Romance and Chivalry appear again and again in Woolf’s novel. Courtship, the very stuff of romance, is always linked to struggle: between knights for possession of a lady, between ladies for possession of a knight, and between a knight and his lady for the dominant position within the relationship. That is why Courtly Love is at its most essential and powerful when it fails to be consummated, when there is always a prior labor to be performed, an obstacle standing between the lover and the beloved. It is precisely becomes our erotic desires cannot be fulfilled that we find it necessary to express them in other, less overtly physical forms. This intrinsic failure at the heart of the erotic is the very thing which allows for the transformation of Desire into Poetry.


One cannot openly avow one’s love for another person in To The Lighthouse precisely because to do so would be to give in to that other’s demand, to surrender one’s own will. And to surrender one’s will, as we see in Clausewitz, in to suffer a greater defeat than to die at the hand of one’s rival. Recall how often James, at the end of the novel, repeats to himself his pledge to resist tyranny to the end. James certainly does not love his father entirely, but then he certainly doesn’t hate him entirely either. Love, to feel it and to express it, is never a simple act. Love is always tied up with rivalry of one sort or another, even between husbands and wives. And the success of the Ramsay’s marriage emerges not despite the aggression and competition which is an inextricable part of their relationship, but as a matter of fact precisely because of it. Woolf’s novel seems, like Spinoza’s Ethics, to argue that even what appear to be the most basic human emotions are in fact always incredibly vexed – the word covers over the thing-in-itself, which is alway less of a thing than a contradiction. Love and Hate (just like Truth, Beauty and Justice) are only words we use to mask over the actual complexity and specificity of all our relations.

I will briefly set down the causes, whence are derived those terms styled transcendental, such as Being, Thing, Something. These terms arose from the fact, that the human body, being limited, is only capable of distinctly forming a certain number of images within itself at the same time; if this number be exceeded, the images will begin to be confused; if this number of images, which the body is capable of forming distinctly within itself, be largely exceeded, all will become entirely confused one with another. When the images become quite confused in the body, the mind also imagines all bodies confusedly without any distinction, and will comprehend them, as it were, under one attribute, namely the t of Being, Thing, etc. . . . All may be reduced to this, that these terms [along with other absolutes such as Love, Hate, Justice and Beauty] represent ideas in the highest degree confused. They arise, to wit, from the fact that so many images, for instance, of men, are formed simultaneously in the human mind, that the powers of imagination break down, not indeed utterly, but to the extent that the mind loses track of minutiae.” – Benedict de Spinoza

Of course Spinoza would have us believe all loves – the pure intellectual love of God being the sole exception – are forms of madness. But isn’t that one of Woolf’s central projects in To The Lighthouse, to convince us that madness of this sort, not in any crude state but certainly in its most exquisitely refined forms (Mrs. Ramsey’s or St. Teresa’s), is a highly desirable condition? Madness in real life is unmediated pain. But madness abstracted from life and formally mediated is art.


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