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Jean Wyatt THE CELEBRATION OF EROS: GREEK CONCEPTS OF LOVE AND BEAUTY IN TO THE LIGHTHOUSE A voracious reader all her life, Virginia Woolf stored up patterns and images which she naturally wove into the fabric of her novels.1 Integrating literature of the past into her own works was also an affirmation of her belief that "everything comes over again a little differently," as Eleanor says in The Years. Acutely aware of the prevailing fluidity of human life, Virginia Woolf sought a counterbalance in the principle of eternal recurrence. The whole chain of human history forms a "gigantic pattern, momentarily perceptible." It becomes perceptible when elemental forces in human life coincide with the forms of individuals, "making them symbolical, making them representative."3 In Mrs. Ramsay, Virginia Woolf combines a personal portrait of her mother with an evocation of eternal life forces in the "symbolical outline" (p. Ill) of Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty and marriage, that Mrs. Ramsay irradiates. Events, too, can be "symbolical, and therefore perhaps permanent," in the words of Bernard in The Waves, when they reflect the continuity of human experience. The dinner party in To the Lighthouse contains ritual elements, reminders that it is one in a series of communal feasts. The search for truth in the midst of human pleasures, by means of human love, recalls one such banquet in particular, the Symposium.'' The central concerns of the Symposium are those of To the Lighthouse: striving for knowledge through love; the desire to create that beauty arouses; the paradox of the eternal in the midst of the transitory. The figures and patterns of Greek literature were part of Virginia Woolf's mental formation. She began learning Greek at King's College in 1897, at the age of fifteen.6 For the next few years, Greek was her chief refuge from a stifling Victorian society. From 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. every day she read Greek: Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, all of Sophocles, Plato. Twice a week she met for Greek lessons, first 160 Jean WyATT161 with Clara Pater, then with Janet Case. Her letters speak of Greek as "the greatest of comforts to me" (April, 1900), "my daily bread, and a keen delight to me" (June, 1900); it "has so much attraction for me . . . that I don't want to do anything else" (February, 1905).8 A diary entry from 1924 shows how Greek "worked its way" into her life. Upon meeting a herd of cattle, "I waved my stick and stood at bay; and thought of Homer. . . . some mimic battle. Grizzle grew more and more insolent and excited and skirmished about yapping. Ajax? That Greek, for all my ignorance, has worked its way into me." Seeing Grizzle as Ajax is not different in kind from transforming Mrs. Ramsay into Aphrodite, Mr. Carmichael into Poseidon. Greek was in the forefront of Virginia Woolf's mind in 1924 because she had been reading Greek steadily since 1922 in preparation for the article "On Not Knowing Greek." "The amount of reading . . . that went into the production of that essay . . . was remarkable," comments Quentin Bell. She published the essay in 1925, the year she began To the Lighthouse. "On Not Knowing Greek" shows that Virginia Woolf knew the Symposium well: she discusses it for four pages, not with the analytical lens of a literary critic, but with loving familiarity. She first read the Symposium when she was about sixteen, but her intimacy with it suggests that she must have read it more than once. At the center of the Symposium is Diotima's doctrine: man has to work through a series of human loves to arrive at the eternal. Lily pursues a similar quest for knowledge through love. She loves Mrs. Ramsay, but, unable to satisfy her love on a personal level, casts about for a way of reaching "the spirit in her, the essential thing" (p. 76). She finally finds a way of loving that takes her to the essence of things when, ten years after Mrs. Ramsay's death, she sees and loves a Mrs. Ramsay who transcends the individual to become the form of love and beauty. To understand the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 160-175
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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