… or the tiger and the willow
Let us plunge straight in with Rhoda on page 91:
“One moment does not lead to another. The door opens and the tiger leaps.”
“I am afraid of the shock of sensation that leaps upon me, because I cannot deal with it as you do – I cannot make one moment merge into the next. To me they are all violent and separate; and if I fall under the shock of the leap of the moment you will be on me; tearing me to pieces. I have no end in view. I do not know how to run minute to minute and hour to hour, solving them by some natural force until they make the whole and indivisible mass that you call life.”
She is thinking here about narrative, the way a story will tend to flow towards coherence until it arrives at a denouement or an ending, perhaps even at a meaning. Her life cannot be like a story because one thing does not lead to another. Every moment brings something that could not have been predicted from what has gone before. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
To be thus buffeted by experience and sensation is how I imagine it was for Woolf herself –both in her writing and in her life. Rhoda cannot imagine the restful ease of being unperturbed by life’s succession of shocks and jolts. She cannot shake off one moment to make way for the next. This is nothing as abstract as fear of the unknown or of the future – it’s a horror of life’s inexorable nowness (aka Hamlet’s petty pace).
There’s something savage in Rhoda’s exposure – the tiger, of course. But all the vocabulary is of jolts and starts, onsets and ambushes. What she fears is being torn to pieces. It’s not the mild discomfort of feeling depleted by the company of other people, but a matter of life and death. Rhoda believes that she might die of the present tense.
And then there’s the verb ‘solve’ as if Rhoda suspects there’s a knack or a trick that she is missing. She sees life as a puzzle with an answer that her friends possess. To have an ‘overview’ (a word I’m sure Virginia would hate) – to see one’s life as a single mass – requires a sleight of mind. Rhoda knows that without it life cannot easily be borne.
(Denise Riley’s memoir of grief after the death of her son is called Time Lived Without Its Flow. What makes life endurable is that it moves. Grief brings it grinding to a halt and reinvents it as a cavalcade of unbearable nows.)
Let us plunge in again, this time with Neville on page 57:
“In a world which contains the present moment… why discriminate? Nothing should be named lest by so doing we change it. Let it exist this bank, this beauty, and I, for one instant, steeped in pleasure.”
“Oh, I am in love with life! Look how the willow shoots its fine sprays into the air! Look how through them a boat passes, filled with indolent, with unconscious, with powerful young men.”
He is idling by the river, watching punts go by and looking at the yellow willows. It’s all very delicious and aesthetic, almost ecstatic, and there’s a childlike voraciousness in his look at this, look at that…
Later on the same page he tries to make poetic phrases out of what he sees (“falling fountains of the pendant trees” etc.) but finds that he is only degrading the moment:
“It becomes artificial, insincere.”
Words get in the way. Perhaps they are too laden with hindsight. Or perhaps they tend to prettify. What Neville is realising is that it’s no good trying to put words to something afterwards. If you’re not in the now you’re a historian and a historian must discriminate (ie select). Words written down later commemorate but they are not alive.
Of course, this is where Modernism comes in, with its elaborate and obsessive concern with the moment and the momentary, the mind thinking, the body and its sensations etc. Virginia Woolf is not writing a novel which sifts and categorises and makes sense of things. If any sense emerges from The Waves it is entirely fortuitous – in spite rather than because of the words on the page.
In his rather dandyish scene, Neville stands a million miles away from Rhoda. He hands himself over to nowness. He luxuriates in everything that floods in, rejoicing in the fact that all is equally enticing. Willow trees are the same as powerful young men. His mind is a shore and the waves wash in one after another, each bringing fresh delight.
And so to the end when Bernard ‘sums up’. On page 185 he decides that life is tolerable:
“Tuesday follows Monday; then comes Wednesday… How fast the stream flows from January to December! We are swept on by the torrent of things grown so familiar that they cast no shadow.”
Tolerableness is what happens when life ceases to be made of moments. The sleight of mind that Rhoda sensed is encapsulated in Bernard’s choice of verb to describe how to live successfully:
“We float, we float…”
Finding life bearable is something to do with learning to manage in water – to be moved easily across a surface without fear of engulfment. All appears to be beautifully resolved, but of course this could not happen in The Waves.
In the very next paragraph Bernard unstitches any sense of ease:
“However, since one must leap (to tell you this story), I leap, here, at this point, and alight now upon some perfectly commonplace object – say the poker and tongs…”
The stuttering punctuation says it all. We are back where Rhoda began – in the leaping tigerish moment which again and again trips us up, pulling us back into the interminable now.