Michael Cunningham s The Hours and Postmodern Artistic Re

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Much has been written about giving voice to the silences within the tradition. about opening it up to alternative perspectives and certainly this is one of the. effects of several of the postmodern works cited above and of many more. besides The attempt to highlight the perspective of the other underscores the. postmodern preoccupation with difference But these gestures toward pluralism. however desirable and effective reduce the postmodern aesthetic to a largely. political or ethical purpose It is worth considering what else is going on besides. this opening to new voices For example what can we discover about the post. modern idea of art in works that echo and transform their predecessors Cun. ningham s novel is a rich source for investigating this question because of its. explicit focus on the role of literature and by extension the role of art or creativ. ity more generally, I am not concerned here with the many ways in which The Hours both echoes. and extends the narrative of Woolf s Mrs Dalloway Let it suffice that the char. acters of the later novel recall those of the former A woman named Clarissa. plunges into the city to buy flowers for her party a crazed poet who plunges to. his death disturbs her party Figures from the characters pasts resurface in rec. ollection and again in person on the day of the party thereby breaking open the. novel s temporal structure of a single day with myriad journeys into the past In. both works there is a luncheon party to which Clarissa is not invited and in both. works Clarissa worries about the questionable influence of a strident ideologue. over her daughter Although The Hours contains a similar cast of characters to. those of Mrs Dalloway and repeats the themes of love and death and time. Michael Cunningham does not simply ape the structure of Mrs Dalloway and. transpose it to New York in the late twentieth century He takes an important but. nonetheless minor theme in Mrs Dalloway Clarissa s intense youthful passion. for Sally Seton and considerably expands it in the later novel Clarissa and Sally. are lovers and many of the main characters are gay Here we find the recycled. fragments of the postmodern novel and the opening to new voices. Those two elements are not my focus Instead I am limiting our subject to the. central image of the plunge in Mrs Dalloway that is echoed in the later novel n. Woolf s novel this image paradoxically identifies Clarissa s plunge into life in. preparation for her party 3 with the plunge of Septimus the mad poet toward. death 184 The Hours repeats the same identification of the plunge into life 9. and the plunge toward death 199 203 continuing the watery imagery of the. earlier novel with its ripples widening in circles These elements allow Cun. ningham to expand on the permeable boundaries between life and death that. Woolf explores and on the widening circles that connect one person or event to. another moving toward the uncharted horizon The plunge and its associated. meanings are ultimately linked to the role of literature especially in The Hours. and more generally in both novels to the act of creation. The Hours repeats from Mrs Dalloway a second image that is related to the idea. of the plunge the concept of moments when time bursts open as if defying the. 350 CRITIQUE, relentless procession of hour after hour by which chronological time unfolds In. Mrs Dalloway one such moment experienced by Septimus is explicitly related. to both poetic inspiration and death, The word time split its husk poured its riches over him and from his. lips fell like shells like shavings from a plane without his making ihem. hard white imperishable words and flew lo attach themselves to their. places in an ode lo Time an immortal ode to Time He sang Evans. answered from behind the tree The dead were in Thessaly Evans sang. among the orchids There they waited till the War was over and now the. dead now Evans himself 69 70, In The Hours such moments are also associated with literary inspiration 210 11. death 225 26 and a kiss 210 Both of these images the plunge and the burst. bonds of time suggest a mysterious passage across what are ordinarily taken to be. insuperable barriers like the march of the hours or the division between one iso. lated consciousness and another Both of these images are related to Woolf s. famous assertion that llife is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged. life is a luminous halo a semi transparent envelope that surrounds us from the. beginning of consciousness to the end Common Reader 212. As Hcrmione Lee has written Woolf carried on a revealing correspondence. with the painter Jacques Raverat toward the end of her writing of Mrs Dalloway. Raverat had complained of the essentially linear nature of writing It is almost. impossible he argued to express the way a mind responds where splashes in. the outer air arc accompanied under the surface by waves that follow one. another into dark and forgotten comers The novelist responded that the writer. must go beyond the formal railway line of sentence and show how people feel. or think or dream all over the place Lee 16, In this correspondence we have an implicit connection between Woolf s.
Life is not a series of gig lamps and the imagery of waves water floating. boats and the plunge into life and death that is one of the controlling. metaphors of Mrs Dalloway Because The Hours echoes and extends that. imagery we need first to explore its source in Woolf s novel She clearly. intends the imagery of waves and water to suggest the vast concentric circles. of interconnection that unite the disparate characters of the novel as well as the. unfathomable depths beneath the surface of their thoughts and actions These. connections arc made quite explicit in the lines early in Mrs Dalloway. expressing Clarissa s thoughts of death in the midst of her delighted plunge. into the streets of London, Or did ii not become consoling to believe ihat dealh ended absolutely but. that somehow in the streets of London on the ehb and flow of things here. there she survived Peter survived lived in each other she being part she. was positive of the trees at home 1 part of people she had never met. being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best 1 but it spread. ever so far her life herself 9,SUMMER 2 X 4 VOL 45 NO 4 351. This watery imagery implies an animating principle that supplies the intercon. nection between people and between people and the natural world a fabric that. as Clarissa felt defies death Or rather death may represent an entire release into. unity with the world That these thoughts occur to Clarissa as she plunges into. the divine vitality of the life of the city the divine vitality that she loved seems. to imply a key connection between this vitality and death. The same connection is strengthened by the clear identification of Clarissa and. Septimus the society woman who plunges into life and the tormented poet who. plunges to his death They are united not only by the plunge but also by their. recollections of Shakespeare especially the lines from Cymheline. Fear no more the heat o the sun, Nor the furious winter s rages cited in Woolf Mrs Dcillowaw 30 39 139. The ambiguity of these lines is telling They suggest the consolations of death. but alternatively the possibility of endurance or maturity that distances one from. the heat o the sun Here we have the parallel conditions of Septimus and. Clarissa Both of them experience the extreme danger and precariousness of life. 8 and both experience the possibility of fire or conflagration 5 140 168. Yet Clarissa chooses endurance and Septimus self destruction We might con. sider these to be opposite responses and in many ways they are but when. Clarissa ponders Septimus s death by suicide she feels somehow very like. She considers his choice of death with penetrating sympathy A thing there was. that mattered she thinks This he had preserved Death was defiance Death. was an attempt to communicate people feeling the impossibility of reaching the. centre which mystically evaded them 184 It is as if Clarissa sees death as. an attempt to protect what matters in life a tribute a lunge toward the central mys. tery and a gesture to others She feels this deeply as she does her indebtedness to. Septimus Had he plunged she wonders holding his treasure 184 He. made her feel the beauty made her feel the fun 186. Septimus s effect on Clarissa is profound His taking of his own life confirms. her in her own endurance Yet she also recognizes in him a kinship as if both. understand what must be preserved at all costs against all the forces that can cre. ate a kind of death in life and force the soul Both recognize that what matters. are those moments when the march of time its presence repeatedly marked in. Mrs DalUmay by the ringing of Big Ben bursts open its relentless motion halt. ed momentarily by some priceless illumination that rends the daily fabric. The plunge in Mr s Dalloway then represents a form of apprehension and. mysterious transmission of what is most precious in life At the same instant that. Clarissa plunges into London to buy the flowers she recalls her plunge into the. open air at Bourton at the age of 18 the time when she had loved Sally and. Richard Dalloway and Peter Walsh had courted her Later Peter recalls Clarissa s. conviction imparted to him at Bourton that we live on in others. 352 CRITIQUE, since our apparitions ihc part of us which appears are so inoinenlary com. pared with the other ihe unseen part of us which spreads wide the unseen. mighl survive be recovered somehow allached to this person or that or even. haunting places after death 153, In the next paragraph after we encounter this belief of Clarissa s in the thoughts.
of Peter Walsh like a circle of water within a circle we are privy to Peter s recog. nition that the effect of his encounters with Clarissa over thirty years was. immeasurable There was a mystery about it She had intluenced him more. than any person he had ever known 153 In this set of passages Clarissa s. thoughts become part of Peter s as her whole being had become part of his In. life then as in death the unseen parts of ourselves spread wide and live in oth. ers Perhaps this is why parties for Clarissa are an offering to combine to cre. ate but to whom 122 Perhaps this is why she felt called upon. when some effort some call on her lo be her self drew the parts together. she alone knew how different how incompatihte and composed so for the. world only into one centre one diamond one woman who sat in her draw. ing room and made a tiieeting point a radiancy no doubt in some dull lives. a refuge for the lonely to come to perhaps I 37, What is being suggested here is the way that one individual s being ripples out. into others drawing them from their isolation into something more general In. this vision individual consciousness is only a portal an avenue into something. limitless and interwoven Clarissa s offering is to help further this radiancy. through her parties, When Michael Cunningham takes up these same themes in Tlw Hours. including the oceanic interconnectedness between people the life of one. human spirit animating that of another the permeable boundaries between life. and death and the burst bounds of time he allows them to ripple out in wider. and wider circles This echoing and widening pattern also takes up a relatively. minor theme in Mrs Dal I oway the sustaining role of literature represented by. the repeated dirge from Cymheline and expands it Michael Cunningham. explicitly situates the role of literature in these moments where death time. and human isolation are temporarily overcome but are always a necessary. looming shadow, He knows what readers of Shakespeare know about tbe repeated lines from. Cymheline Fear no more the heat o the sun Nor the furious winter s rages. that echo in the thoughts of Septimus and Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway that. Imogen over whom they are sung is only apparently dead At the end of the. play the audience witnesses her seemingly miraculous return Similarly The. Hours begins with the death of Virginia Woolf yet it derives its life from the. novel that Woolf wrote More specifically it derives its life from the soul of. Virginia Woolf whose own act of writing is represented as a descent into her. second self,SUMMER 2 X 4 VOL 45 NO 4 353, If she were religious she would call it the soul It is more than the sum of. her intellect and her emotions more than the sum of her experiences though. it runs like veins of brilliant metal through all three It is an inner faculty that. recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the. same substance and when she is very fortunate she is able to write directly. through that faculty Cunningham 34 35, This faculty the soul of Virginia Woolf made of the same substance as the ani.
mating mysteries of the world sustains Laura Brown however precariously in. one of the darkest periods of her life Laura is a character in The Hours who has no. exact counterpiirt in Mrs Dalloway except in so far as she is a reader of literature. like Septimus and Clarissa Dalloway and she is married to a soldier like Rezia. But Laura does not read Shakespeare she reads Mrs DalUmuy and as she reads. preferring the book to the life she is leading she marvels at Woolf s ability to cre. ate such beauty despite the author s own demons 41 Laura lingers over the lush. Figures from the characters pasts resurface in rec ollection and again in person on the day of the party thereby breaking open the novel s temporal structure of a single day with myriad journeys into the past In both works there is a luncheon party to which Clarissa is not invited and in both works Clarissa worries about the questionable influence of a strident ideologue over her daughter

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