Friday, April 29, 2011

The length of an hour. Or, hope, and finding it even when it feels far away..

(A note:  Reading The Hours after Mrs. Dalloway was incredible.  The research and allusion that went into Cunningham's book is tremendous, though it is incredibly thought provoking on its own as well.)

The Hours haunted me for days after reading it--mainly two of the ideas that Cunningham explores.  First, each choice a person makes leaves a trail of missed opportunities behind him or her--lives that weren't lived.   Almost all of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway consider the decisions they made--and what Cunningham does in his book is give those alternate stories life.  It is through the alternate stories that the reader must face some inevitable truths.

For instance, in Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa, feeling dissatisfied, daydreams about what life might have looked like if she had been able to choose her best friend Sally as a life partner instead of her husband Richard.  In The Hours, we see that desire played out as the character of Clarissa is a modern woman in her fifties in New York City living with her partner of 18 years, Sally. Cunningham creates other nuances that continue the conversation Woolf started 77 years before--but there is meaning behind this even to people who haven't read either book: even when the characters are given the cultural freedom to pursue what they want, no one feels completely satisfied.  In both novels, the characters tell themselves stories and imagine different lives for themselves to cope with the reality they are actually faced with.

It is easy to look back on missed opportunities poetically, imagining the happiness that might have been. But such is the illusion of fantasy: we are stuck in the real world with flawed people and to not address this is to not be honest with oneself. Such truth is burdensome to the reader throughout the entire book, whether it be in small, internal conflicts of the characters or tragic ends.

What seems to bridge that concept to any kind of hope at all, is Cunningham's address of hours themselves--not all hours carry the weight or are even the same symbolical length.

Richard, who is dying of AIDS, says: "But there are still the hours, aren't there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there's another. I'm so sick."  As Clarissa is processing Richard's illness, remembering their summer-long relationship, perfect in each of their memories, as well as her current anxiety, she finds:  "There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult.  Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more."

It is the small moments we wish we could have frozen in time that keep us moving forward--and become long as they are played over and over again in our minds, and the long monotonous hours that make us human...and I think, I think remind us that we are not made for a world with such brokenness because even if we make all the right choices, the longing remains.  And that is when we, when I, must run for my life to hear a pedal steel and a banjo, or chase an urban sunset for good measure and a good reminding that there is abundant life to be had.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Loneliness brings the best out of a reader."

I heard this wisdom today from a student.  You can read more from Audrey Bachman HERE.  You won't regret it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

... from The Hours by Michael Cunningham and suited for conversation, I think. I need to store them somewhere, though. and write about them someday, after I've talked to you. or, more reasons why story matters, because how else do you say it?

Clarissa wants, suddenly, to show her whole life to Louis. She wants to tumble it out onto the floor at Louis' feet, all the vivid, pointless moments that can't be told as stories. She wants to sit with Louis and sift through it. (page 132)

There is still that singular perfection, and it's perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other. (page 98)

Still, there is this sense of missed opportunity. Maybe there is nothing, ever, that can equal the recollection of having been young together.  Maybe it's as simple as that. (page 97)

She has not spoken on his behalf but on Leonard's, in much the way her own mother might have made light of a servant's blunder during dinner, declaring for the sake of her husband and all others present that the shattered tureen portended nothing; that the circle of love and forbearance could not be broken; that all were safe. (page 74)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"There is a gulf between people that one must respect."

My book club recently read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, published in 1925 paired with The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which is based on both Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Both of these were rereads for me--I read Mrs. Dalloway for a British Literature class and later took a class on Virginia Woolf in college where we read 8 of her books in 8 weeks.  That being said, sometimes reading old notes in the margins can be painful.  My naive,  21 year old English-major self seems amateurish.  Rereading Mrs. Dalloway was a lesson in how reading experiences change with life experience--and how amazing rereading can be.

This time around, what stood out to me the most was the idea that misunderstanding often comes from drawing conclusions about someone without knowing their true inner life. The reader finds that each of the characters is unsatisfied with life and filled with a sense of both guilt for feeling that way and longing to create a different kind of life.

I read this book as a story of what we see in others and what they see in us--and the fact that most of the time--when we are living in our own heads and not honestly communicating, we get it all wrong.  Whether people become ideas as we either project onto them what we want to see or we fall into the danger of considering what other people want to see in us, thus presenting a false self to the world.  Obviously, relational chaos ensues.

For example, Peter, who depite all efforts, is still in love with Clarissa thinks: "And, after all, she had married Dalloway, and lived with him in perfect happiness all these years" (155) and yet she is haunted for much of the book that she made the wrong choice in marrying her husband.  Her presentation of self is confusing because she flirts with Peter because she doesn't know how not to, but spends her time remembering her mostly chaste relationship with her friend Sally and finds herself imagining what her life might have been if she chose differently.

Peter thinks he has it for a moment when of Clarissa he says: "So transparent in some ways, so inscrutable in others..." (77).  His idea is correct, but he completely misinterprets what he sees as transparent. Clarissa says of Peter: "He made her see herself; exaggerate. It was idiotic," (168).  Clarissa is aware of this dance of self presentation and yet cannot step away.  She says--and I think understands--that "there is a gulf between people that one must respect," (120)--that one can never truly understand another.   Peter understands it, too: "It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels...but he could not bring himself to say he loved her, not in so many words," (116, 118).

The bottom line is that this book made me think so much about relationships and honesty--no one in this story really knew what the other was actually thinking--and no one wanted to tell anyone what they were truly thinking about, which creates an atmosphere of superficial conversation and relationships.  Perhaps there is a certain safety in keeping such thoughts to oneself? I think the regret that the characters show reveal to the reader that it is better to live honestly in the present with themselves and others, but with exposure comes vulnerability. This is a trade off the characters weren't willing to accept.  It was more comfortable to live with the gulf than attempt to close it.  I'm left thinking about the kinds of gulfs that exist, what causes them and which ones are worth crossing.

My ideas don't fit into a single blog post.

All of this can lead to an existential downward spiral to a life in the what-might-have-been and filled with permanent discontent.  Each of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway told themselves stories to cope with the lives they chose not to live--which is interestingly exactly what Cunningham picked up on and addressed in The Hours, thoughts forthcoming.