“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Art as Altruism: Lily Briscoe and the Ghost of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse Part 1 of 2

Virginia Woolf underwent a transformation in the process of writing To the Lighthouse the nature of which has been the subject of much scholarly inquiry. At the center of the novel is the relationship between the beautiful, self-sacrificing, and yet officious Mrs. Ramsay, and the retiring, introverted artist Lily Briscoe. “I wrote the book very quickly,” Woolf recalls in “Sketch of the Past,” “and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.” Quoting these lines, biographer Hermione Lee suggests the novel is all about Woolf’s parents, “a way of pacifying their ghosts” (476). But how exactly did writing the novel function to end Woolf’s obsession with her mother? And, for that matter, why would she, at forty-four, still be obsessed with a woman who had died when she was only thirteen? Evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering suggests that while humans are uniquely capable of imagining the inner workings of each other’s minds, the cognitive mechanisms underlying this capacity, which psychologists call “theory of mind,” simply fail to comprehend the utter extinction of those other minds. However, the lingering presence of the dead is not merely a byproduct of humans’ need to understand and communicate with other living humans. Bering argues that the watchful gaze of disembodied minds—real or imagined—serves a type of police function, ensuring that otherwise selfish and sneaky individuals cooperate and play by the rules of society. From this perspective, Woolf’s struggle with her mother, and its manifestation as Lily’s struggle with Mrs. Ramsay, represents a sort of trial in which the younger living woman defends herself against a charge of selfishness leveled by her deceased elder. And since Woolf’s obsession with her mother ceased upon completion of the novel, she must have been satisfied that she had successfully exonerated herself.

Woolf made no secret of the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay were fictionalized versions of her own parents, and most critics see Lily as a stand-in for the author—even though she is merely a friend of the Ramsay family. These complex relationships between author and character, and between daughter and parents, lie at the heart of a dynamic which readily lends itself to psychoanalytic explorations. Jane Lilienfeld, for instance, suggests Woolf created Lily as a proxy to help her accept her parents, both long dead by the time she began writing, “as monumental but flawed human beings,” whom she both adored and detested. Having reduced the grand, archetypal Mrs. Ramsay to her proper human dimensions, Lily is free to acknowledge her own “validity as a single woman, as an artist whose power comes not from manipulating others’ lives in order to fulfill herself, but one whose mature vision encapsulates and transcends reality” (372). But for all the elaborate dealings with mythical and mysterious psychic forces, the theories of Freud and Jung explain very little about why writers write and why readers read. And they explain very little about how people relate to the dead, or about what role the dead play in narrative. Freud may have been right about humans’ intense ambivalence toward their parents, but why should this tension persist long after those parents have ceased to exist? And Jung may have been correct in his detection of mythic resonances in his patients’ dreams, but what accounts for such universal narrative patterns? What do they explain?

Looking at narrative from the perspective of modern evolutionary biology offers several important insights into why people devote so much time and energy to, and get so much gratification from immersing themselves in the plights and dealings of fictional characters. Anthropologists believe the primary concern for our species at the time of its origin was the threat of rival tribes vying for control of limited resources. The legacy of this threat is the persistent proclivity for tribal—us versus them—thinking among modern humans. But alongside our penchant for dehumanizing members of out-groups arose a set of mechanisms designed to encourage—and when necessary to enforce—in-group cooperation for the sake of out-competing less cohesive tribes. Evolutionary literary theorist William Flesch sees in narrative a play of these cooperation-enhancing mechanisms. He writes, “our capacity for narrative developed as a way for us to keep track of cooperators” (67), and he goes on to suggest we tend to align ourselves with those we perceive as especially cooperative or altruistic while feeling an intense desire to see those who demonstrate selfishness get their comeuppance. This is because “altruism could not sustain an evolutionarily stable system without the contribution of altruistic punishers to punish the free-riders who would flourish in a population of purely benevolent altruists” (66). Flesch cites the findings of numerous experiments which demonstrate people’s willingness to punish those they see as exploiting unspoken social compacts and implicit rules of fair dealing, even when meting out that punishment involves costs or risks to the punisher (31-34). Child psychologist Karen Wynn has found that even infants too young to speak prefer to play with puppets or blocks with crude plastic eyes that have in some way demonstrated their altruism over the ones they have seen behaving selfishly or aggressively (557-560). Such experiments lead Flesch to posit a social monitoring and volunteered affect theory of narrative interest, whereby humans track the behavior of others, even fictional others, in order to assess their propensity for altruism or selfishness and are anxious to see that the altruistic are vindicated while the selfish are punished. In responding thus to other people’s behavior, whether they are fictional or real, the individual signals his or her own propensity for second- or third-order altruism.

The plot of To the Lighthouse is unlike anything else in literature, and yet a great deal of information is provided regarding the relative cooperativeness of each of the characters. Foremost among them in her compassion for others is Mrs. Ramsay. While it is true from the perspective of her own genetic interests that her heroic devotion to her husband and their eight children can be considered selfish, she nonetheless extends her care beyond the sphere of her family. She even concerns herself with the tribulations of complete strangers, something readers discover early in the novel, as

"she ruminated the other problem, of rich and poor, and the things she saw with her own eyes… when she visited this widow, or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a note- book and pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment, in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem." (9)

No sooner does she finish reflecting on this social problem than she catches sight of her husband’s friend Charles Tansley, who is feeling bored and “out of things,” because no one staying at the Ramsays’ summer house likes him. Regardless of the topic Tansley discusses with them, “until he had turned the whole thing around and made it somehow reflect himself and disparage them—he was not satisfied” (8). And yet Mrs. Ramsay feels compelled to invite him along on an errand so that he does not have to be alone. Before leaving the premises, though, she has to ask yet another houseguest, Augustus Carmichael, “if he wanted anything” (10). She shows this type of exquisite sensitivity to others’ feelings and states of mind throughout the first section of the novel.

Mrs. Ramsay’s feelings about Lily, another houseguest, are at once dismissive and solicitous. Readers are introduced to Lily only through Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden realization, after prolonged absentmindedness, that she is supposed to be holding still so Lily can paint her. Mrs. Ramsay’s son James, who is sitting with her as he cuts pictures out of a catalogue, makes a strange noise she worries might embarrass him. She turns to see if anyone has heard: “Only Lily Briscoe, she was glad to find; and that did not matter.” Mrs. Ramsay is doing Lily the favor of posing, but the gesture goes no further than mere politeness. Still, there is a quality the younger woman possesses that she admires. “With her little Chinese eyes,” Mrs. Ramsay thinks, “and her puckered-up face, she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; she was an independent little creature, and Mrs. Ramsay liked her for it” (17). Lily’s feelings toward her hostess, on the other hand, though based on a similar recognition that the other enjoys aspects of life utterly foreign to her, are much more intense. At one point early in the novel, Lily wonders, “what could one say to her?” The answer she hazards is “I’m in love with you?” But she decides that is not true and settles on, “‘I’m in love with this all,’ waving her hand at the hedge, at the house, at the children” (19). What Lily loves, and what she tries to capture in her painting, is the essence of the family life Mrs. Ramsay represents, the life Lily herself has rejected in pursuit of her art. It must be noted too that, though Mrs. Ramsay is not related to Lily, Lily has only an elderly father, and so some of the appeal of the large, intact Ramsay family to Lily is the fact that she has been sometime without a mother.

Apart from admiring in the other what each lacks herself, the two women share little in common. The tension between them derives from Lily’s having resigned herself to life without a husband, life in the service of her art and caring for her father, while Mrs. Ramsay simply cannot imagine how any woman could be content without a family. Underlying this conviction is Mrs. Ramsay’s unique view of men and her relationship to them:

"Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl—pray Heaven it was none of her daughters!—who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones!" (6)

In other words, woe betide Lily Briscoe. Anthropologists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, whose work on the evolution of cooperation in humans provides the foundation for Flesch’s theory of narrative, put forth the idea that culture functions to simultaneously maintain group cohesion and to help the group adapt to whatever environment it inhabits. “Human cultures,” they point out, “can change even more quickly than the most rapid examples of genetic evolution by natural selection” (43). What underlies the divergence of views about women’s roles between the two women in Woolf’s novel is that their culture is undergoing major transformations owing to political and economic upheaval in the lead-up to The First World War.

Lily has no long-established tradition of women artists in which to find solace and guidance; rather, the most salient model of womanhood is the family-minded, self-sacrificing Mrs. Ramsay. It is therefore to Mrs. Ramsay that Lily must justify her attempt at establishing a new tradition. She reads the older woman as making the implicit claim that “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” In response, Lily imagines how

"gathering a desperate courage she would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that; and so have to meet a serious stare from eyes of unparalleled depth, and confront Mrs. Ramsay’s simple certainty… that her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool." (50)

Living alone, being herself, and refusing to give up her time or her being to any husband or children strikes even Lily herself as both selfish and illegitimate, lacking cultural sanction and therefore doubly selfish. Trying to figure out the basis of her attraction to Mrs. Ramsay, beyond her obvious beauty, Lily asks herself, “did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all? Every one could not be as helter skelter, hand to mouth as she was” (50). Lily’s dilemma is that she can either be herself, or she can be a member of a family, because being a member of a family means she cannot be wholly herself; like Mrs. Ramsay, she would have to make compromises, and her art would cease to have any more significance than the older woman’s note-book with all its writing devoted to social problems. But she must justify devoting her life only to herself. Meanwhile, she’s desperate for some form of human connection beyond the casual greetings and formal exchanges that take place under the Ramsays’ roof.

Lily expresses a desire not just for knowledge from Mrs. Ramsay but for actual unity with her because what she needs is “nothing that could be written in any language known to men.” She wants to be intimate with the “knowledge and wisdom… stored up in Mrs. Ramsay’s heart,” not any factual information that could be channeled through print. The metaphor Lily uses for her struggle is particularly striking for anyone who studies human evolution.

"How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people." (51)

According to evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, bees are one of only about fifteen species of social insect that have crossed the “Cooperation Divide,” beyond which natural selection at the level of the group supercedes selection at the level of the individual. “Social insect colonies qualify as organisms,” Wilson writes, “not because they are physically bounded but because their members coordinate their activities in organ-like fashion to perpetuate the whole” (144). The main element that separates humans from their ancestors and other primates, he argues, “is that we are evolution’s newest transition from groups of organisms to groups as organisms. Our social groups are the primate equivalent of bodies and beehives” (154). The secret locked away from Lily in Mrs. Ramsay’s heart, the essence of the Ramsay family that she loves so intensely and feels compelled to capture in her painting, is that human individuals are adapted to life in groups of other humans who together represent a type of unitary body. In trying to live by herself and for herself, Lily is going not only against the cultural traditions of the previous generation but even against her own nature.
Part 2.

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