The first book of 2017 that has shared its reality with mine, indeed made its reality a quarter of mine, is a book that is about a mooted family holiday to a lighthouse on the shores of England. I hadn’t read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf since I was a sixteen-year-old enthralled by the verbal athleticism of the likes of Arthur Rimbaud and Patti Smith.
The book left a good impression in the alleyways of my mind; the same way bullfighting did when I first witnessed the gory spectacle. But now, upon re-reading it, I find myself disappointed like someone who has met their first love and found they have become charmless, lazy and rotund. Virginia Woolf doesn’t do it for me anymore.
Of course I still admire the way she uses words like waves, coming and going, as still and wild as any word, any phrase can be. “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.” You can just feel the flow of the wind, and the sea and the sky in this sentence, so free-flowing, so true to nature, as alive as any painting or film – no one can say this isn’t beautiful!
And I won’t. And I’m not. Virginia Woolf is that kind of artist that makes me proud to belong to the same craft – only, I just don’t want to approach my art the way she does. In variety lies the greatest beauty, after all.
To The Lighthouse is a novel of insides, of privacy made public by the writer’s pen, of introversion, psychology and all its sublunary offshoots. And in truth, I found it hard to read. This goes to show me, in a way only literature can, how I have changed from that rebellious sixteen-year-old who cared little for plots and technique and adulated the divine orgy of poetry!
But these days I find myself looking out at the world presented by Virginia Woolf, along with the world I see on television and social media; I see a world succumbing to over-poignancy. A world far too deeply fascinated by the profundity of man, of the heroic suffering, the internalised demons, and the grandiose ways, we are told, the failures of this life have succeeded so triumphantly!
Now, I find myself somewhat bored. Somewhat de-sensitised. Psychology and heroism need to be at the root of civilization, not at its highest peak! And I am pleased to find still alive in myself the taut spark of rebellion – or, perhaps, that rarer, more acidic breed of rebellion, being a contrarian.
Both in my literary pursuits and in my pursuit of happiness, I am turning away, perhaps at my peril, but so be it, from the glorification of man, and turning instead to what, in our era, we must term ‘superficialities.’ I want to give superficiality back its depth.
What do I mean by superficialities? I don’t mean what most people might mean, things which are shallow, like make-up or favourite football teams or the like. Except – in a way I do mean that! By superficialities I am not referring to what the Oxford dictionary terms: ‘lacking depth of character or understanding’ – I mean rather those things which are not deemed important in the life of man and civilization, but in truth, they matter far more than the un-elected profundities.
What is more important in the life of an individual – the love of a favourite book or his career? The answer might seem obvious, but is it really?
I think the most charming aspect of humanity is its lust for childhood. Mankind is an ape that refuses to grow up. It carries on into adulthood the need to play, learn, experiment, have fun, be happy. And modern civilization has made this not merely possible but all the more enticing. And if you were to ask a child what’s more important to it, their favourite toy or their future, very few would answer in favour of the latter! And this is worth admiring and celebrating!
We are designed to seek out happiness. Because of this, we end up finding it in the wrong places. We should remember how to be a child again – to make mountains out of molehills, to awe and wonder at the simplest pleasures. Be they toys in the case of children, or simply our favourite dish as adults. There is something irresistibly Epicurean about our innate childishness.
All art, all music and science; they are all an offshoot of childish obsessions and the need to experiment, perfect – and play. Art has no value in life. It doesn’t help us survive in any way. Neither does music. Neither does most science (how is your life effected knowing how many species of beetles roam the earth?).
And yet we are hopelessly addicted to art, music, science, sport and all the other superficialities – yes, superficialities! We are addicted to them because they give our child-like minds pleasure. Happiness. Awe. They may not have any survival value – but who cares! We’re not animals any more, we’re children!
I have come to admire most the kind of people – and writers – who dedicate their lives to superficialities. To painting, to poetry, to food, drink, travel, football, chess, singing, fishing, gymnastics, piano, stamp-collecting, book-collecting, autograph-collecting… everything and anything under the sun! For, take these passions away from us, and all the heroism and all the truancies of our minds… they mean nothing. We will sulk and scowl like a child deprived.
I would much rather read, then, a novel like The Picture Of Dorian Gray, about art and a man’s obsession for youth, or Islands In The Stream, of Hemingway, which deals with fishing – and is really only about fishing – or The Luzhin Defense of Nabokov about the art of chess. They might all be superficial novels at first glance, but they are profound because of that!
They acknowledge the fact that life is void, purposeless, and temporary. And thus they acknowledge also that life is full of purpose, meaning and driven by the lust for immortality. There is no set pattern for life. There is no god, no creator, no karma, no nirvana. We, as individuals, are all of that. We must be our own god, creators, karma and nirvana! We must write our own purpose, write our own destinies.
And whilst it is admirable that there are those who devote their lives to psychology, politics, business, academics – things that bring wealth and progress – I admire and envy more those who live their lives in the pursuit of beauty. Beauty which is finite, but made eternal by the burning desire of a singular heart!
For me, To The Lighthouse misses out on all of that. Though I will cherish it, no longer intimidated by it, purely because it is an undoubted piece of art. Just – I admit with a heavy sigh – no longer my type of art.
Ah for the cruel passing of the years!