Painting and Freezing in To the Lighthouse

August 27, 2019 by Essay Writer

Virginia Woolf’s claim that plot is banished in modern fiction is a misleading tenet of Modernism. The plot is not eliminated so much as mapped out onto a more local level, most obviously with the epic structural comparison in Ulysses. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s strategy of indirect discourse borrows much from Impressionism in its exploration of the ways painting can freeze a moment and make it timeless. In Kawabata’s Snow Country, the story of Yoko and her family and its relationship to the rest of the novel corresponds with an even more modern medium, film, and its superimposition of contradictory image.Lily Briscoe’s metaphor stabilize the chaotic reality around her, order them into a visible representation, and make them timeless. She shares these goals with the Impressionists, for whom moments of being (as Woolf calls them elsewhere) are also “illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (161). The instantaneity of this image, and its reliance on light, is crucial for To the Lighthouse; through the single match Lily, and Woolf, light forest fires. Other parts of the narrative clarify and become resonant through specific moments of consciousness; one character’s thoughts feed into another’s, the narrative voice filters through everyone else’s, and the reader sees, as Lily does, the “X-ray photograph” (91) of everyone’s desires and fears. The plot is compromised in these scenes, or in the throwaway line in “Time Passes” that parenthetically tells us that Mrs. Ramsay died last night. But just as this remark is framed by brackets, so does each moment of being frame something else, a larger context the singular moments reflects and refracts. Woolf’s work with voice is her legacy, but it is the voice that is shown to be temporary (as with Mrs. Ramsay) and the image, fashioned by Lily, that lasts.In Snow Country, cinema is the subtextual art form of choice for Kawabata. When Shimamura looks up at the domed sky, Kawabata uses filmic imagery to describe his visual journey: “Shimamura fancied that his own small shadow was being cast up against it from the earth. Each individual star stood apart from the rest, and even the particles of silver dust in the luminous clouds could be picked out, so clear was the night” (165). Shimamura literally projects himself into the void, through the “particles of silver dust” that resemble the dust a projector illuminates. The characters in Snow Country are trapped in themselves, with a reduced ability to articulate their desires, but they expand through cinematic images into the infinite landscape of nature and the Milky Way, just as the traditional plot, though displaced, is illuminated by the moments of consciousness throughout the novel.The novel opens with Shimamura gazing at Yoko in the reflection of his train window. Early filmmakers took advantage of trains to showcase their medium, as the rapidly shifting landscape, and multitude of framing windows, was already an instance of “moving pictures.” We are made aware in Snow Country, as in To the Lighthouse, that windows serve three purposes, just as the ocean is utilized in three visual ways in Moby Dick; we can look at them, through them, or at their reflections. This last one is used most frequently in Kawabata’s work, especially in this first scene, and it underscores one of the visual tricks of mirrors, in that the reflected image is twice the distance the object is from the source of reflection. This contributes to the effect of emotional distance, as Shimamura’s watchful eye is twice as far from its object as he thinks. But the window, as opposed to the mirror, has no tain that controls its reflection. Shimamura uses the window in all three ways, seeing not only Yoko’s face but the passing landscape (all the while remaining aware that it is, indeed, a window): “Shimamura had the illusion that the evening landscape was actually passing over the face” (10).It is this superimposition of images Kawabata stresses, as Woolf combines voices, to lead us elsewhere. He is especially fond of contradictory images in metaphors or similes, as when he describes lips “like a beautiful little circle of leeches” (32), or when he writes that the snow “seemed to be burning icily” (48). The contradictions yield a positive gain, however, as with the grass-linen: “The ancients used to add that the way this product of the cold has of feeling cool to the skin in the hottest weather is a play of the principles of light and darkness” (154). This contradictory superimposition helps free the characters from their imprisonment in the self, a cage represented by human structures: “Wondering what might be on the other side of the wall, Shimamura had the uneasy feeling that he was suspended in a void” (54). Kawabata links this man-made confinement and curiosity about the other side of the wall to the universal curiosity about, well, the universe itself and its own infinite reaches. Language itself is not enough to free them‹Komako can only say “‘The Milky Way. Beautiful, isn’t it” (164, 167) twice to describe it, but Kawabata’s only language appropriates cinematic imagery to render its hugeness: “The Milky Way came down just over there, to wrap the night earth in its naked embrace” (165). The delayed alliteration itself wraps the sounds around each other, showing that language, even at its most freeing, is still confining. But the image is enough, and through this the Milky Way creates an anti-gravity field that lifts the characters out of their bodies: “The limitless depth of the Milky Way pulled his gaze up into it” (165). It is in this non-Newtonian manner that Kawabata directs our attention to the plot outline of his novel. We may focus on one moment, but it is infinitely refracted throughout the text, and at each moment we linger on the image, the reflected image, or the idea of the image; the plot is always there, but not always the primary image.

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