Human Affection and Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’

Those of us who are confused or plain scared of human affection will have been greatly cheered this week by the news that a number of academics have systematically purged love, a particularly knotty human emotion, of its spontaneity and capacity for failure, hurt feelings, etc. Love has been efficiently re-packaged within a sequence of thirty-six easily digestible chunks or questions. The paper itself is available here http://psp.sagepub.com/content/23/4/363.abstract and the list of questions can be found here.  http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/14/love-is-getting-answers-right-to-36-questions .

The questionnaire begins with conventional first-date conversational ball-rollers. They seem enough like small talk to prevent alienating someone, but contain a marginally deeper component to hopefully segue into something more interesting or authentic, such as “1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” They get progressively more intimate, touching upon things that I have never discussed with anyone (and don’t particularly want to), such as “6. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?”

Bim Aduwunmi and Archie Bland tried the questionnaire on each other (here http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/14/very-scientific-romance-36-questions-make-you-fall-in-love). Bland unsurprisingly comes to the realisation that Bim is really, really interesting and rightly identifies that the point of the exercise is that “anyone is, really, once you get past your superficial differences.” (Enjoying the fact that a man with the second name ‘Bland’ is pointing out the inherent interestingness of every human.)

Of course, this is a study written to accelerate the formation of intimacy between two people. This is the point at which I would argue how irreducible love really is and that any paper could not hope to simulate it in a lab environment. I could prove this with reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘To The Lighthouse,’ in which the focus is on the Ramsay family and a number of visitors that have accompanied them to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. What makes the novel pertinent to this paper is how at good it is when representing the interior world of its main characters, Mrs and Mr Ramsay, Lily Briscoe and Charles Tansley.

Mrs Ramsay is quite neurotic, and spends much of the text fretting over her children’s futures, the behaviour of her husband and the general success of the holiday. However, we are not restricted to seeing Mrs Ramsay thinking about Mr Ramsay, we also see Mr Ramsay thinking about his wife.

As they have been married for a number of years, their intimacy is well-established and therefore makes a neat comparison with the developing relationship of the younger Lily and Charles. In the first part of the novel, they appear to be courting one another, and Mrs Ramsay is convinced that they will be married. In the second part of the novel, set in the same place ten years later, it is revealed that Charles married someone else, that their courtship ultimately went nowhere. Lily does not reflect on this with any kind of melancholy or mournful loss of a life that she could have had with Charles but reflects that she is probably happier for not having married.

What is interesting about the infinite complexity of every character is how often Woolf allows them to surmise correctly what the other is thinking or experience a kind of mutual appreciation for those feelings. Between them, I would guess that the four main characters are correct or co-operate in their sentiments about the other as frequently as not. Taking the best guess is often sufficient, Tansley realises that in Lily’s company he “felt certain, understood.” Mrs and Mr Ramsay both experience an overwhelming sense of the affection of each other at one point: “Directly one looked up and saw them, what she called ‘being in love’ flooded them. They became part of that unreal but penetrating and exciting universe which is the world seen through the eyes of love.” These feelings are, of course, never verbally expressed; they are reserved instead for their interior states and remain all the more poignant for it.

Despite each characters’ ability to feel shades of contradictory things at the same time towards the same person, the same being true for everyone else, they remain content with taking their best guess at someone. It’s a good strategy; it’s certainly the case that they have no other option.

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