It is a new image for me, the idea of art as a battle. Writing is not that for me. It is hard, to be sure. Some of my most difficult moments are in the sculpting of images into words. But for me, writing is not a battle. Beginning can be a battle, or ending perhaps. But war, battle is not my main image.
For me, writing is more like discovery. I look, I watch, and I write. Sometimes my fingers are hammering away at this keyboard as my eyes are squeezed tightly shut, head tilted downward and to the left. My writing is surprising to me.
Still, I am struck by the idea of art as a battle, the brush as an instrument to conquer the muse rather than woo it or worship it. The idea comes to me in Virginia Woolf’s strange novel, To the Lighthouse (1927). For those who have not read it, I am afraid I cannot attempt a description. It is an impossibly fluid exploration of the world seen from within the perspective of the nominal, mundane thoughts of a number of people in the 1910s. Perspective shifts constantly, and sometimes it is unclear to the reader who is speaking–who is thinking, really. Even the passage I have selected bleeds at the edges.
Still, I am struck by Lily Briscoe. We see her first painting a picture of the matriarch Mrs. Ramsey, the organizing principle of the novel, whose startling beauty even at 50 draws all eyes to centre. A young, single woman, Lily would prefer to see the landscape outside the window rather than the man sitting in front of it.
Lily is initially tentative in her art. There is a gap between what she can see in her head and what she can put to canvas. The devil at her shoulder, a philosopher named Charles Tansley, would stand behind her as she painted, whispering in her ear, “Women can’t paint, women can’t write …”
A decade older, just after WWI, Lily is with the characters again, and it is time to paint. We pick up Lily’s perspective in part 3, as she reacts to an awkward encounter with the patriarch, Mr. Ramsay, who expected something classically feminine of Lily that she could not or would not give.
She had taken the wrong brush in her agitation at Mr Ramsay’s presence, and her easel, rammed into the earth so nervously, was at the wrong angle. And now that she had put that right, and in so doing had subdued the impertinences and irrelevances that plucked her attention and made her remember how she was such and such a person, had such and such relations to people, she took her 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 her 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.
With a curious physical sensation, as if she were urged forward and at the same time must hold herself back, she made her first quick decisive stroke. The brush descended. It flickered brown over the white canvas; it left a running mark. A second time she did it — a third time. And so pausing and so flickering, she attained a dancing rhythmical movement, as if the pauses were one part of the rhythm and the strokes another, and all were related; and so, lightly and swiftly pausing, striking, she scored her canvas with brown running nervous lines which had no sooner settled there than they enclosed (she felt it looming out at her) a space. Down in the hollow of one wave she saw the next wave towering higher and higher above her. For what could be more formidable than that space?
Here she was again, she thought, stepping back to look at it, drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers — this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded reluctant. Why always be drawn out and haled away? Why not left in peace, to talk to Mr Carmichael on the lawn? It was an exacting form of intercourse anyhow. Other worshipful objects were content with worship; men, women, God, all let one kneel prostrate; but this form, were it only the shape of a white lamp-shade looming on a wicker table, roused one to perpetual combat, challenged one to a fight in which one was bound to be worsted. Always (it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt.
Why then did she do it? She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants’ bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn’t paint, saying she couldn’t create, as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them.
Can’t paint, can’t write, she murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs.
Then, as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, moving her 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 her (she kept looking at the hedge, at the canvas) by what rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current. Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr Carmichael was there or not, her 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 she modelled it with greens and blues.
There are other images of art here: the existential crisis, the emptying of self, the focusing of the lens, spiritual possession, a single light on a dark stage, birth, baptism, a voyage inside the eye, the matriculation of the senses in the body, the rhythm of blood pumping or waves crashing, art as a dance, art as worship, art as truth, art as imitation, art as paradise lost. Art is sex, here, but the lovers are out of sync at first. It may become the satisfaction of both partners, but first is the premature ejaculation, awkward and doubtful. Then, precariously, they begin, the lovers fall into rhythm, and they finally lose themselves in each other.
Perhaps art is all these things–and not just for her, the boxed-in sex that she is. I’m not sure what the climactic moment in art would be, if we focus on that image. But it is also a battle, a relentless foe who pursues the artist. I’m not sure if it is true of me or not. Perhaps I am still too eager for the fight.