“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 2 of 2

The question remains, though, of why Virginia Woolf felt it necessary to recall scenes from her childhood in order to lay to rest her inner conflict over her chosen way of life—if that is indeed what To the Lighthouse did for her. She did not, in fact, spend her entire life single but married her husband Leonard in 1912 at the age of thirty and stayed with him until her death in 1941. The Woolfs had been married fifteen years by the time Lighthouse was published (Lee 314). But Virginia’s marriage was quite different from her mother Julia’s. For one, as is made abundantly clear in her diaries, Leonard Woolf was much more supportive and much less demanding than her father Leslie Stephens. More important, though, Julia had seven children of her own and cared for one of Leslie’s from a previous marriage (Lee xx), whereas Virginia remained childless all her life. But, even if she felt her lifestyle represented such a cataclysmic break from her mother’s cultural tradition, it is remarkable that the pain of this partition persisted from the time of Julia’s death when Virginia was thirteen, until the writing of Lighthouse when she was forty-four—the same age as Lily in the last section of the novel. Lily returns to the Ramsays’ summer house ten years after the visit described in the first section, Mrs. Ramsay having died rather mysteriously in the interim, and sets to painting the same image she struggled to capture before. “She had never finished that picture. She would paint that picture now. It had been knocking about in her mind all these years” (147). But why should Lily experience such difficulty handling a conflict of views with a woman who has been dead for years?

Wilson sees the universal propensity among humans to carry on relationships with supernatural beings—like the minds and personalities of the dead, but also including disembodied characters like deities—as one of a host of mechanisms, partly cultural, partly biological, devoted to ensuring group cohesion. In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, in which he attempts to explain religion in terms of his group selection theory, he writes

"A group of people who abandon self-will and work tirelessly for a greater good will fare very well as a group, much better than if they all pursue their private utilities, as long as the greater good corresponds to the welfare of the group. And religions almost invariably do link the greater good to the welfare of the community of believers, whether an organized modern church or an ethnic group for whom religion is thoroughly intermixed with the rest of their culture. Since religion is such an ancient feature of our species, I have no problem whatsoever imagining the capacity for selflessness and longing to be part of something larger than ourselves as part of our genetic and cultural heritage." (175)

One of the main tasks religious beliefs must handle is the same “free-rider problem” William Flesch discovers at the heart of narrative. What religion offers beyond the social monitoring of group members is the presence of invisible beings whose concerns are tied in to the collective concerns of the group. Jesse Bering contributes to this perspective by positing a specific cognitive mechanism which paved the way for the evolution of beliefs about invisible agents, and his theory provides a crucial backdrop for any discussion of the role the dead play for the living, in life or in literature. Of course, Mrs. Ramsay is not a deity, and though Lily feels as she paints “a sense of some one there, of Mrs. Ramsay, relieved for a moment of the weight that the world had put on her” (181), which she earlier describes as, “Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus” (179), she does not believe Mrs. Ramsay is still around in any literal sense. Bering suggests this “nothingness” with the power to wring the heart derives from the same capacity humans depend on to know, roughly, what other humans are thinking. Though there is much disagreement about whether apes understand differences in each other’s knowledge and intentions, it is undeniably the case that humans far outshine any other creature in their capacity to reason about the inner, invisible workings of the minds of their conspecifics. We are so predisposed to this type of reasoning that, according to Bering, we apply it to natural phenomena in which no minds are involved. He writes,

"just like other people’s surface behaviors, natural events can be perceived by us human beings as being about something other than their surface characteristics only because our brains are equipped with the specialized cognitive software, theory of mind, that enables us to think about underlying psychological causes." (79)

As Lily reflects, “this making up scenes about them, is what we call ‘knowing’ people” (173). And we must make up these scenes because, like the bees hovering about the hive she compares herself to in the first section, we have no direct access to the minds of others. Yet if we are to coordinate our actions adaptively—even competitively when other groups are involved—we have no choice but to rely on working assumptions, our theories of others’ knowledge and intentions, updating them when necessary.

The reading of natural evens as signs of some mysterious mind, as well as the continued importance of minds no longer attached to bodies capable of emitting signs, might have arisen as a mere byproduct of humans’ need to understand one another, but at some point in the course our evolution our theories of disembodied minds was co-opted in the service of helping to solve the free-rider problem. In his book The God Instinct, Bering describes a series of experiments known as “The Princess Alice studies,” which have young children perform various tasks after being primed to believe an invisible agent (named Alice in honor of Bering’s mother) is in the room with them. What he and his colleagues found was that Princess Alice’s influence only emerged as the children’s theory of mind developed, suggesting “the ability to be superstitious actually demands some mental sophistication” (96). But once a theory of mind is operating the suggestion of an invisible presence has a curious effect. First in a study of college students casually told about the ghost of a graduate student before taking a math test, and then in a study of children told Princess Alice was watching them as they performed a difficult task involving Velcro darts, participants primed to consider the mind of a supernatural agent were much less likely to take opportunities to cheat which were built into the experimental designs (193-4).

Because evolution took advantage of our concern for our reputations and our ability to reason about the thoughts and feelings of others to ensure cooperation, Lily’s predicament, her argument with the ghost of Mrs. Ramsay over the proper way for a woman to live, could only be resolved through proof that she was not really free-riding or cheating, but was in fact altruistic in her own way. Considering the fate of a couple Mrs. Ramsay had encouraged to marry, Lily imagines, “She would feel a little triumphant, telling Mrs. Ramsay that the marriage had not been a success.” But, she would go on, “They’re happy like that; I’m happy like this. Life has changed completely.” Thus Lily manages to “over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas” (174-5). Lily’s ultimate redemption, though, can only come through acknowledgement that the life she has chosen is not actually selfish. The difficulty in this task stems from the fact that “one could not imagine Mrs. Ramsay standing painting, lying reading, a whole morning on the lawn” (196). Mrs. Ramsay has no appreciation for art or literature, but for Lily it is art—and for Woolf it is literature—that is both the product of all that time alone and her contribution to society as a whole. Lily is redeemed when she finishes her painting, and that is where the novel ends. At the same time, Virginia Woolf, having completed this great work of literature, bequeathed it to society, to us, and in so doing proved her own altruism, thus laying to rest the ghost of Julia Stephens.

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