To Willing Conflators Of Virginia Woolf, Lily Briscoe And Jeremy Todd (third letter)

Dear You,

 

What does it mean then, what can it all mean? I did ask myself this, wondering whether, since I’d been left alone, it behoved me to go to the kitchen to fetch another cup of coffee or wait here. What does it mean? — a catchword that was, caught up from some book, fitting my thought loosely, for I could not, this first morning with others, contract my feelings, could only make a phrase resound to cover the blankness of my mind until these vapours had shrunk. For really, what did I feel, come back after all these years, with some others now dead? Nothing, nothing — nothing that I could express at all.

I’d come late last night when it was all mysterious, dark. Now I was awake, at my old place at the breakfast table, but alone. It was very early too, not yet eight. There was this expedition — they were going to the Lighthouse. They should have gone already — they had to catch the tide or something:  “What’s the use of going now?”
Here I was, at forty-two, wasting my time, unable to do a thing, standing there, playing at painting, playing at the one thing one did not play at, and it was all the fault of the dead. The step where they’d sat was empty. They were dead.
But why repeat this over and over again? Why be always trying to bring up some feeling I didn’t have? There was a kind of blasphemy in it. It was all dry: all withered: all spent. They ought not to have asked me; I ought not to have come. One can’t waste one’s time at forty-two, I thought. I hated playing at painting. A brush, the one dependable thing in a world of strife, ruin, chaos — that one should not play with, knowingly even: I detested it. But others made me. You shan’t touch your canvas, they seemed to say, bearing down on me, till you’ve given us what we want of you. Here they were, close upon me again, greedy, distraught. Well, I thought in despair, letting my right hand fall at my side, it would be simpler then to have it over.
I’d taken the wrong brush in my agitation, and my easel, rammed into the earth so nervously, was at the wrong angle. And now that I’d put that right, and in so doing had subdued the impertinences and irrelevances that plucked my attention and made me remember how I was such and such a person, had such and such relations to people, I took my hand and raised her brush. For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air. Where to begin? — that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed me to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still the risk must be run; the mark made.
Can’t paint, can’t write, I murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what my plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before me; it protruded; I felt it pressing on my eyeballs. Then, as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of my faculties were spontaneously squirted, I began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, moving my brush hither and thither, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to me (I kept looking at the hedge, at the canvas) by what I saw, so that while my hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear me along with it on its current. Certainly I was losing consciousness of outer things. And as I lost consciousness of outer things, and my name and my personality and my appearance, and whether others were there or not, my mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while I modelled it with greens and blues.
I gazed back over the sea, at the island. But the leaf was losing its sharpness. It was very small; it was very distant. The sea was more important now than the shore. Waves were all round them, tossing and sinking, with a log wallowing down one wave; a gull riding on another. About here, I thought, dabbling my fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and I murmured, dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.  So much depends then, I thought, looking at the sea which had scarcely a stain on it, which was so soft that the sails and the clouds seemed set in its blue, so much depends, I thought, upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us…
It was some such feeling of completeness perhaps which, ten years ago, standing almost where I stood now, made me say that I must be in love with the place. Love had a thousand shapes. There might be lovers whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers, and love plays.
One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, I reflected. Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with, I thought. Among them, must be one that was stone blind to her beauty. One wanted most some secret sense, fine as air, with which to steal through keyholes and surround her where she sat knitting, talking, sitting silent in the window alone; which took to itself and treasured up like the air which held the smoke of the steamer, her thoughts, her imaginations, her desires. What did the hedge mean to her, what did the garden mean to her, what did it mean to her when a wave broke?
Quickly, as if I were recalled by something over there, I turned to my canvas. There it was—my picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, I thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? I asked myself, taking up my brush again. I looked at the steps; they were empty; I looked at my canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if I saw it clear for a second, I drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, I thought, laying down my brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
jeremy