Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, and Time.

‘Time is a relative and subjective concept in these texts.' (Between the Acts and Burnt Norton.)

We might usefully take a quotation from Burnt Norton as leitmotif for Between the Acts: “What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present” (Eliot, 1983, p. 189). Woolf's multifarious uses of the imagery, imaginings or realities of time are seeded everywhere throughout her text, almost to the point of madness, embedded and propagated, all seemingly bent to one end – the great, overarching, elusive fact of present time, the numinous place where she experiences her epiphanous  “moments of being” (Woolf, in Asbee, 2017, p. 196). And this centrality of present time, as perhaps one of the primary purposes of her text sees the co-option of all other forms of time, including factual history and the abstracted time she appears to claim that we generally inhabit, gathered into her subjective scheme, relativised against the quickened time to which she directs us, which we were perhaps about to witness for ourselves when “the curtain rose [and] They spoke” (Woolf, 2008, p. 198). Both Eliot and Woolf deploy objective, recorded history, including personal anecdotes (a visit to the derelict gardens of Burnt Norton, for instance), but both assemble all these facts into their philosophic schemes, which have – superficially, at least – something in common. Both are concerned with the quasi-mystical pre-eminence and immanence of Present Time, which, to Eliot's syncretistic religious thinking (“there is only the dance” (Eliot, 1983, p. 191) conflates Christ with Shiva, whose mythic dance engenders the cycles of life, regeneration, and dissolution – time, in fact), potentially includes all of time. And to advance their arguments both use actual historical time (even prehistorical time: “a riot of rhododendrons and humming birds” (Woolf, 2008, p. 98)), relative to fictional time, narrative time, mythic time, and present time. Our answer to the (possibly tautological) proposition that “time is a relative and subjective concept”, then, must be that yes, time is variously subjective and relative – while also objective and non-relative – in these two texts, as it is in our own lives. And both writers are concerned to show us the great connectivity of relative time as they perceive it, in their own highly subjective – though attemptedly objectified – visions, of time's passing, of transition, and of the ineffable and mystic present at “the still point of the turning world” (Eliot, 1983, p. 191).

We might note, in passing, that the titles of both texts (the overall title of Four Quartets rather than just Burnt Norton) relate to forms of dramatic or musical art-forms, in which – while subjective time may be integral to their devising and composition – time becomes objective through performance. The constructions themselves might be regarded as entirely human and subjective, but, once played or spoken, the time elapsed and what occurred in that time becomes fixed and historical (especially if recorded). Between the Acts has an unusual level of theatricality for a novel, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering Woolf's stated intentions concerning her vision for prose fiction: “It will have something of the exaltation of poetry, but much of the ordinariness of prose. It will be dramatic, and yet not a play” (Woolf, in Asbee, 2015, p. 193); and Four Quartets, with it's musically-reminiscent title, might almost operate successfully as a play for voices – so both have an association with art-forms in which time, both objective and subjective, is more integral and vital than usual in either novels or poetry. As Eliot claims, “Words move, music moves / Only in time” (1983, p. 194), perhaps invoking the connection himself.

The first names we encounter in Between the Acts are pastoral, classical and/or religious in origin, establishing an immediate field of locality, of continuity, and of deep time underlying the text. They seem pertinent to Woolf's imperatives and to her presentation of time, and it seems unlikely that they are merely serendipitous: Haines derives from Old German hagano, meaning 'hawthorn'; Oliver is, of course, of olive trees; and Giles derives from the Greek aigidion: a young goat. And superpositioning these almost druidic, agrarian images is Isa – which, alongside being “a shortened version of Isabella” (Asbee, 2017, p. 203), is a variant translation of Jesus, representative of the traditional, quasi-Arthurian, spiritual compact between these English humans and their land. And, as though foregrounding the pagan antecedents of this ancient relationship, Isa is also a diminutive form of Isis-Fortuna, the mother/fertility goddess imported into England two thousand years earlier along Roman roads such as that adjacent to 'Pointz Hall' in Woolf’s text. Adding further metaphoric layers to this existential matrix of time and nature, Mrs Haines is “goosefaced” (Woolf, 2008, p. 3) and looking for things to gobble, while Isa arrives “like a swan” (p. 3) adorned with pigtails and peacocks. (Time's passage operates even here at this almost Joycean level of near-invisibility, through scatters of allusion.)

And of course their conversation is of cows and horses; nightingales and laughing daylight birds; worms, snails, Romans, Britons, children and graves; and Isa's thoughts are illicit fantasies of herself and Mr Haines amorously transmogrified into actual waterfowl. Most importantly, perhaps somewhat comedically – lest we fail to grasp Woolf's multiple, metamorphic imagery of the land and the people, of the rooting and propagating, of human and animal husbandry through time – their central topic is the optimum siting of their collective excrement, perhaps the most quintessential motif of the quotidian and the cyclic, the most base and essential; the seasonal and the regenerative and the mortal (almost itself a stark image of the 'dance of Shiva') – itself a ticking clock measuring animal and human lives. “What a thing to talk about on a night like this!” (Woolf, 2008, p. 3) exclaims Mrs Haines, but what sort of night does she think it is? And is she protesting or applauding? Perhaps both, in keeping with the numerous binaries and indeterminacies, and the “random and tentative” (Woolf, 2008, p. xiii) nature of the novel; no doubt this is deliberately vague, as are both the tacit characterisation of time, and the hinted dual role of ordure as both filth and nutrient. In all of these ways, from the outset, we are located and immersed in a layered nexus of human frames of time and place, of belonging and interconnectedness; of an inescapable corporeal, spiritual, and temporal alliance with the living, entangled, root-and-bone charnel house of the natural world, expressed through Woolf's (and our) dreamlike, historical, and ongoing constructions within and around it.

Notwithstanding his rather unconvincing (one almost suspects grudging) qualifications of “perhaps ... [and] ... If” (Eliot, 1983, p. 189) at the opening of Burnt Norton, Eliot seems to make overt and strident declarations of what time is, and how it works (rather exceeding the discoveries of physicists in the process) and it is difficult to see how such confident declarations by fiat amount to much more than personal beliefs. Ultimately it may be possible to find Eliot guilty here of that most tempting of poetical transgressions: telling rather than showing. In reality, his attempts at showing – he shows us age, dereliction, children, foliage; life, death and decay – do not truly connect to his assertions about time; they may be appealing, may even be correct, but the showing does not logically represent them and render them shown, and despite these attempts, Eliot's time remains deeply subjective. Woolf – avoiding grandiose attempts at objectivity – conjures in her readers an experience of her diverse discourses of time through her distorting and conflictual use of the structures of language, and by a near-bombardment with imagery and allusion, by which she gradually envelops us in a densely layered accretion of images of both temporal connectivity and relativism (“Tick, tick, tick went the machine” (Woolf, 2008, p. 159), with her own actual death perhaps operating as the de facto final act of Miss La Trobe's pageant. Woolf evokes time through what seems a reasonable imitation of human consciousness, flitting around, intermittently, capriciously – even chaotically – concentrating, remembering, musing, calculating, posturing, repeating, wishing, lamenting ... Eliot evokes his own subjective vision of time in his slow-paced, expansive rhythms (especially so in his own mellifluous and persuasive recorded reading); he initially appears more comforting, more enticing in his reassuring, paternalistic imagery of time, speaking almost as though endowed with some divine licence, but one suspects it is Woolf who – though with equal artifice – expresses greater honesty, and a vision of time more familiar to humans in its broken mosaic than is Eliot's prophetic sonority.

Eliot also makes claims on the land and on heritage, perhaps feeling for his own roots and his sense of English continuity at a time of slowly advancing national crisis and personal transition. But alongside being captivated by the poetical mastery and musicality of Burnt Norton, we should perhaps remember that Eliot's wider subjectivity around time and continuity and belonging includes disturbing and prescriptive messages such as the following, from two years earlier in 1933: “The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable” (Eliot, in Philips, 2011) – which could almost be from the pages of Mein Kampf. And we should consider Eliot's suggestions of his own missionary role – “the whole of modern literature is corrupted by what I call Secularism” (Eliot, in Davies and Fraser, 2017, p. 155). Perhaps then we might perceive a subtext to his ruminations upon time. For Eliot, time is an exactingly focused figure of rhetoric and a rather cynical cohortative to the reader; for Woolf, time is running out; it is real, urgent, and honest. Woolf sets Between the Acts just prior to the beginning of WW2, having already decided that she was unlikely to survive another year, expecting that she and her Jewish husband would be killed by the Nazis, whose invasion barges were already massing across the English Channel. One detects a great appeal to time, an invocation of the vast river of English history, animated by this fear and fatalism, animated also by Woolf's antipathy to war, to Fascism, to anti-Semitism. Woolf's time is a wishful and gentle time of remembrance (ushering us towards the wakefulness of present time), not a declamatory or pompous time. Time is indeed bent subjectively to her service, to that of her vision of England, its people, and its literature, and it is – one suspects – a time system engendered by her own feelings of time ending, of imminent invasion, or of death from a random bomb, or perhaps of an intended suicide.

Poets, like anyone else, are of course permitted to cogitate upon time and the universe, but unless they have special knowledge beyond that held by science or the rest of Humanity, there is no reason why we should grant their conclusions special credence. Eliot's formula is to intersperse his grandiloquent propositions with more Modernistic and personal or allusive detail, as if in support of his points, but the reality may be that the more poetic and tangential asides, such as “Go, said the bird, for the leaves are full of children” (Eliot, 1983, p. 190), only reinforce the subjectivity of the whole, and one might prefer to read them – they are wonderfully poetic, of course – without the sermonizing. And the rhetorical devices, the use of chiasmus (rhetorical reversal), anaphora – the extended parallelism of the word “time” repeated eleven times – are always redolent of preaching, and are familiar fare both in sermons and in ostentatious political speeches. Eliot's marginally qualified considerations concerning time, for instance, such as “all time is eternally present” (Eliot, 1983, p. 190) sound impressive, and his authoritative tone and magisterial register may make it easy to miss his crucial “if”, but he might, with as much justification and authority, have considered that “all time is not eternally present.” His meditations seem disingenuous and groundless, if rather messianic, and the tone suggests not revelation or conclusion, but that he is in fact presenting a favoured and highly subjective vision of time, one presumably congruent with some syncretism of his studies of Buddhism/Hinduism, Catholic theology, and his actual high Anglican faith. So we may be entitled to conclude that these are not objective passages gleaned from some great personal breakthrough into new knowledge, but are simply propaganda reflecting his personal reading of religious dogma.

Much of Eliot's life, of course, might also be said to be between the acts, as he repeatedly transitioned to new states of style and belief, including those of his personal life as well as his literary work. This compartmentalisation of time perhaps gives it added resonance as he gazes out and ponders its significance, and the ever-presence of time and potential time experienced as both history and non-history, of constructed other-memory. So Eliot – as with the characters in Woolf's novel – is playing his own localised historical pageant, and also establishing a sort of eternity, also enacting his own life against the larger pageant of time itself, envisaged as some grand cosmic cycling imperceptible to humans confined always in an apparent present moment, their perceptions limited to personal saccades.

One wonders if Woolf's claim that the meaning of Eliot's poetry eluded her – “I am held off from understanding by magic” (Woolf in Asbee, 2017, p. 185) – was in fact a way of mollifying Eliot without having to engage uncomfortably with his religious/political beliefs, being both married to a Jew, and a committed and certain atheist herself, which itself requires a wholly different conception of time than that required by religion and expressed by Eliot. And following this relativism between the two writers and their time systems, signifiers of time – its passage, its seeming cessation, and its various past periods or moments – occur everywhere in Between the Acts, as do relativisms between present time (even present time as the future: “And after that, what? […] Present time. Ourselves” Woolf, 2008, p. 158)), past time, and the future. This is simultaneously relative and subjective and objective, and this ticking clock into the past and the future runs throughout Between the Acts until it seems inescapable that Woolf – with her concept of “moments of being” (Woolf, in Asbee, 2017, p. 196) – is suggesting that we are abstract most of the time, that we do not generally inhabit the “moment of being” which is present time. Perhaps this is too mystical, but present time is where humans do their being, and clearly she refers to its happening only for moments, between which, presumably, there is a stasis, a non-place of abstraction, while we await the next act in present time.

Ambivalence is a state often associated with Modernist writers such as Eliot and Woolf, and in one sense ambivalence is another subjective and relativistic way of looking at time. If we think of Eliot's line, “Footfalls echo in the memory / Down the passage which we did not take / Towards the door we never opened” (Eliot, 1983, p. 189), then we are already involved in past ambivalence setting up alternative timelines. If life is a series of choices bifurcating our path, then each choice requires the rejection of one or more other choices, with the effect of at least a temporal ambivalence but more likely a multivalence, in which the unselected alternatives run alongside us in the imagination, as though in some facsimile of Eliot's notion all time is indeed subjectively “eternally present” (Eliot, 1983, p. 189). One is tempted to invoke Hugh Everett's 1957 'many-worlds theory' here, and imagine those other timelines actualised as other worlds, and Eliot's “footfalls” echoing not merely in the memory but in the actuality of an alternative, multiversal reality. Modernism (we can at least conveniently hypothesise Burnt Norton as late Modernism) often sets up such dramatic fields of binary oppositions, and attempts to locate the reader in the liminal space between two (or more) poles. Far from merely being between the acts in Woolf's novel, we appear to be between almost everything and everything else: the language uses archaic inversions, idiosyncratic punctuations, oppositions, contradictions, contrasts, antitheses, advances and retreats – subverting itself at every turn, creating, evoking, refuting, suggesting this liminality whereby a thing has only just been established when it is instantly thwarted (or balanced) by the presence of some counter-proposition thrust forward to neutralise it. Where are we in all of this? Clearly we are inside Woolf's head, immersed in the “exact shapes” of her interior, which she statedly wishes to convey. Not much happens in terms of story or plot on the surface of this novel, but its very tissue and fabric are alive with creativity and creation, which gives us another clue to time, which slows to a muddy rural crawl above, while its inner mechanism spins almost – though never quite – out of control.

Woolf has already constructed not only her own complex literary time, but perhaps more crucially her own endtime. And as though the entire text is an unfinished prophecy choked in the mouth of a dying sybil, she will effectively die in its pages, unable to go on to an ending of which she cannot conceive, weighed down with fear for the future, fear of the dreadful unknown, and the rising recurrence of her own madness, shortly to conspire in this great weighting down by filling her pockets with stones and wading out to die, writing – and thereby controlling – the narrative of her own death rather than waiting for it. Miss La Trobe's pageant unfolds English literary time, which perhaps Woolf felt was reaching its own endtime, and perhaps she was consciously or unconsciously planning her own suicide as the logical – even necessary – denouement of the respective pageants of England, of war, and of herself, her own literary terminus perhaps mirroring or symbolising the ending of English literature which she may have envisaged as the inevitable outcome of a successful Nazi invasion. If so, then her ideas of subjective time may have now seemed as finite and limited as Miss La Trobe's sequential imaging of Englishness exemplified by literary pageantry.

The traditional outdoor nature of the pageant effectively co-opts bystanders and audience into an inclusive presentation of the dreams and identity of England, as though Woolf is saying that this last great fatalistic and terminal act to come will involve all of us, before processing to her own final outdoor performance (her suicide in the River Ouse), which involves her in in a meta-sense in her text, symbolises the end of England that she foresees, and is performed with deliberation, theatricality and courage. Between the Acts feels like a wholesale marshalling of the historical and cultural forces of a nation about to perform its next great but potentially foredoomed act; it feels optimistic about history alone, despite its wistful evocations of a present time just out of reach. And, with this in mind, an unfinished novel suggests another kind of subjective and liminal time between acts, a time which was either wrong or insufficient for the finishing of the work, and a next act never to arrive – all her future moments of non-being only. And perhaps the reality is that Woolf, with her litany of subjective time and recalled time has in fact evoked a sort of experience in the reader of the most objective time of all, the present, while Eliot, for all his attempted authority and objectivity, has made his own statements of time seem both more subjective and far less stable.

Reference List:

Ackroyd, P. (1984) T. S. Eliot, London, Abacus.

Asbee, S. (2017) 'Woolf's Between the Acts: representing lives in fiction', Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Davies, J. Fraser, R. (2017) 'Interpreting T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets', Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Eliot, T. S. (1970) Four Quartets, London, Faber & Faber Limited.

Eliot, T. S. (1983) Collected Poems 1909 – 1962, London, Faber & Faber Limited.

Gay, P. (2009) Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, London, Vintage.

Kenner, H. (1985) The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot, London, Methuen & Co University Paperbacks.

Phillips, F. (2011) The poet who confronted TS Eliot over his anti-Semitism [Online]. Available at http://catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2011/10/03/the-poet-who-confronted-t-s-eliot-over-his-anti-semitism/ (Accessed 09 May 2018).

Preston, R. (1948) The Four Quartets Rehearsed, London, Sheed & Ward Ltd.

Rosenthal, M. (1979) Virginia Woolf, New York, Columbia University Press.

Smidt, C. (1967) Poetry and Belief in the Work of T. S. Eliot, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited.

Wikipedia. (2018) Tandava [Online]. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tandava (Accessed 21 May 2018).

Woolf, V.A. (2008) Between the Acts, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press.

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