Soliloquy

Like some of you, I got caught in a thunderstorm after last Friday's class. My copy of The Waves, which was swam inside my purse, took quite a beating; the book dried into a wave shape with corners watercolored with the periwinkle from the cover. I admit that I rather like it when design of an object reflects its function or content but the rain distorted some of my markings present inside. The rain especially targeted the last page of Bernard's soliloquy since the traces of words written in my light blue V5 pilot dispersed into blossoming water marks. I can't decipher what I originally wrote, which is rather appropriate since I find the the concluding section an especially perplexing component of The Waves.

I could argue that Bernard's soliloquy is Woolf's version of bildungsroman for the lost male who finally achieves his destined role as a patriarch. After all, Bernard takes over as the sole voice of the concluding section. While the other voices distinguish themselves against others, Bernard is most capable of self-reflection and defining himself without necessarily comparing himself to the others.

Yet, I referenced to the "self" three times within the last sentence and it is precisely this issue of "the self", self-identity and being that is such a struggle for Bernard: "Let me cast and throw away this veil of being." (p. 218) For a character who has just taken over as the dominant being in the concluding section of work, Bernard seems more concerned with abandoning his self-identity rather than relishing in his maturation into a complete individual. Though he is appointed as the one to reflect upon the others and to stand as an individual at the moment that the sun sets over the waves, Bernard's reflection is a cumulation of experiences bound into the story of one life. Then the waves break on the shore and Bernard's being disappears.

The last line of The Waves could indicate death. It could also indicate a complete transcendence into a realm outside of the confines of semantics and linguistic structures. Woolf is a keen observer of relationships amongst people or, rather, the lack of boundaries between beings. Like the thread that extends between the characters of Mrs. Dalloway, the waves rock the beings within The Waves and unite them. However, Woolf achieves such fluidity in her prose that the beings lose their distinctive shapes until they are entirely freed from the confines of "identity" and "the self."

Just like the waves that dispersed Bernard's identity at the conclusion of Woolf's novel, the rain unbound my presence from the fibers of the book's pages.

"There Was A Guy..."

I was having beers with a few of my buddies at a table in the corner of a towny bar last July, as we commiserated about how our jobs prevented us from doing that sort of thing more often, when I first heard a strangely compelling alternative rock song come soaring out of the jukebox: "This monkey's gone to heaven, this monkey's gone to heaven..." I turned to my friend Mike, who had put the song on, and asked who the band was.  "It's the Pixies, man," he said.  A few days later, I went out and bought the album Doolittle, and it remained in heavy rotation in my car for the rest of the summer.  

I mention this because I have a similar feeling about that song as I do about The Waves.  The lyrics of "Monkey Gone to Heaven" appear enigmatic at first, just a series of images: "There was a guy/An underwater guy who controlled the sea/Got killed by ten millions pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey."  Now, it may seem obvious that Frank Black is writing about the environment here, yet it is the way he put it ("an underwater guy...got killed by...sludge") that caused the meaning to elude me for a long time; it was the simplicity of it that stifled my analysis.  It's the same way that The Waves continues to cause problems for me in my reading.  Here's Rhoda's take on the dinner party in Percival's honor:

Strangers keep on coming, people we shall never see again, people who brush us disagreeably with their familiarity, their indifference, and the sense of a world continuing without us.  We cannot sink down, we cannot forget our faces.  Even I who have no face, who make no difference when I come in (Susan and Jinny change bodies and faces), flutter unattached, without anchorage anywhere, unconsolidated, incapable of composing any blankness or continuity or wall against which these bodies move.  It is because of Neville and his misery.  The sharp breath of his misery scatters my being.  Nothing can settle; nothing can subside.  (88)

I think that there are several ways to approach this passage.  We have no need to go to the dictionary for any of the words, and the sentences, though lengthy, are constructed plainly.  We can look at the broad scope: Woolf is trying to convey the awkward discomfort or even melancholy that first arises in a mixed social setting, being forced to put on a congenial face and interact with people amiably, even though all parties know that they are merely exchanging formalities.  It isn't hard to pick up on this aspect of the reading.  Yet, when we examine each of the clauses on their own, Rhoda's emotion becomes abstract and indefinable: "Even I who have no face, who make no difference when I come in (Susan and Jinny change bodies and faces), flutter unattached, without anchorage anywhere..."  Here, there are only glimpses of finite, understandable language; we know that Rhoda feels removed from Susan and Jinny, both of whom she perceives to be well adjusted: they "change" their appearances at the party to fit the setting.  But the first clause, "Even I who have no face" can, to me, go one of two ways.  Either Rhoda feels that she does not have the "face" suitable for a party, meaning she cannot feign enthusiasm among acquaintances, or she may mean that she feels diminished, faceless in the sense that she is overlooked, unrecognized.  "Nothing can settle; nothing can subside," seems (and I believe that I can only say "seems") to reflect her restlessness, her discomfort in this environment.

It is not in spite of these complexities, but because of these complexities, that this passage (and indeed, much of the book) is bizarrely tangible.  Woolf isn't writing literal events, she is contemplating emotions (the same way, I think, James Ramsay had the urge to stab his father, but didn't).  I think back to that night at the bar now that I consider where Rhoda is coming from.  There were certainly moments when shooting the bull about our jobs, or the summer Olympics, or about the Mets' bullpen, or retelling stories from our past would dry up.  And, though friends, we'd each sip our beers or adjust our caps or chuckle uncomfortably.  Although Rhoda's speech is ambiguous and complex, it is perhaps one of the best attempts in prose that I have read which seeks to defamiliarize something as common as a social setting, and truly flesh out the initial feeling of discomfort that many of us understand but have never tried to define in such precise terms.

It seems that I find strange parallels in my life sometimes.  Last semester, my roommate, an avid hip-hop fan, said, "Dude, I have no clue what this song is about, but it sounds sweet."  On Saturday, he came into my room and said, "Dude, you're still reading that?"  Thus, I relate the Pixies' song to Woolf's book because both are stupefyingly simple, yet rich and puzzling; every time I listen to that song, or read the same passage of The Waves over again, I notice something I hadn't the time before.  The same way that the riff of "Monkey Gone to Heaven" is a straightforward E-Fsharp-A-D, Woolf's diction is direct and elementary.  Yet, the simplicity of each impeded my understanding of them.  It's been a painstaking trudge through The Waves for me, but not because I can't read it.  Beneath the simplicity of the language, it takes care on the reader's part to decipher the intricate emotions that Woolf is handling.