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April 20, 2006

To the Lighthouse

If the question is what, post religion, might satisfy the human need for meaning without itself becoming a form of religion -- and that may very well be the question -- then Woolf.jpgwe have yet another reason for reading Virginia Woolf's resplendent To the Lighthouse. Woolf, as has been noted here, was the daughter of Leslie Stephen, an early and important agnostic, and the model, we assume, for Mr. Ramsey in this novel.

To the Lighthouse seems a post-God novel. Mrs. Ramsey, perhaps its most compelling character, finds herself thinking, at one point, "We are in the hands of the Lord. But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that.... She had been trapped into saying something she did not mean." And Mrs. Ramsey sets about "purifying out of existence that lie."

Woolf certainly doesn't downplay the tug of religion:

It was impossible to resist the strange intimation which every gull, flower, tree, man and woman, and the white earth itself seemed to declare (but if questioned at once to withdraw) that good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules; or to resist the extraordinary stimulus to range hither and thither in search of some absolute good, some crystal of intensity, remote from the known pleasures and familiar virtues, something alien to the processes of domestic life, single, hard, bright, like a diamond in the sand, which would render the possessor secure.

The parenthesis in the above quote is, perhaps, key. Does Woolf discover any such diamond in the sands?

What is the meaning of life? That was all -- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with the years. The great revelation had never come. the great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark... In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here....

Are these pint-sized revelations little diamonds, little pieces of the absolute? Is this "stability" a religion-like attempt to find a place to stand, a solid foundation for constructing meaning? Is this "shape" amongst "chaos" a metaphysics? Or are we safely in a scientific, naturalistic universe of ebb and flow? Is Woolf just, as one of her characters acknowledges:

Telling herself a story but knowing at the same time what was the truth.

Might the "lighthouse" represent meaning? Or rationalism? Being in a novel, not in one of the essays her father wrote, we don't get clear answers; the matters aren't reduced to clear answers. In any case, the emphasis here is on the dream of the "lighthouse," the story of it. Does that enable Woolf to escape the fall back into religion?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at April 20, 2006 11:13 PM


I think that everyone was born with each of own fate.we can't change our fate,but we can try to best to make our fate better.we can't depend on gods.

Posted by: thuy at October 2, 2006 10:16 PM

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