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Bernard Harrison IMAGINED WORLDS AND THE REAL ONE: PLATO, WITTGENSTEIN, AND MIMESIS In the closing lines of To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe makes the final mark on the canvas she has been painting. AU she does is to draw a line. Yet it is clearly something which costs her a good deal of effort, and which in her view makes the difference between artistic failure and artistic success. Quickly, as ifshe were recalled by something, she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the center. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.1 The troubling question, now, or at least a question which troubles us a great deal at the moment, is, What is this "vision" supposed to be a vision of? Or, to put it another way, what is supposed to constrain the placing of that final stroke? If the vision is a vision of Reality, we want to say, then the placing of the stroke ought to be constrained by the Real: by the garden, say, of which the painting is supposed to be a painting. But Lily is not looking at the garden; she is looking, and with an "intensity" sufficient to exclude all else, at the painting. So, one is inclined to say, whatever constrains her in placing the stroke must be internal to the painting. Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 26-46 Bernard Harrison27 So saying we open our minds to a doctrine central to all that is most radical and "anti-humanist" in present-day critical theory: the doctrine that works of art are not "referential." Lily Briscoe's painting is clearly meant as an analogue of the very novel we are reading: Lily's pains and struggles are, at least in their formal character, indistinguishable from Virginia Woolf's. The problem of knowing where on the canvas to draw, or not to draw, a line is the same problem as the problem of knowing where to insert, or not to insert, a word in the vast tissue of words which is the novel. And there is as much and as littìe help to be got in either case, in taking these decisions, from "the Real World." F. R. Leavis thought that in To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf had at last managed to write a decent, if not a great, book because in doing so she had followed the welltrodden paths of the autobiographical novel. This makes To the Lighthouse to some extent a roman à clef. Mr. Ramsey "is" Mrs. Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, and so on and so forth.2 This will not do. The novel is not a memoir. Memories of her father will no more tell Virginia Woolf where to place one word in To the Lighthouse than looking at the garden will tell Lily Briscoe where to place the final stroke in her painting. Neither novel nor painting is, in that sense, at least, a transcription of Reality. But surely, then, if neither is in that sense a transcription of Reality, neither is "referential." However much painting and novel may mimic to the reader a garden or a Georgian upper-middle-class family, however much representations of characteristic features of each of those things may contribute to the fabric of novel or painting (to say, as Barthes says of the barometer, "Je suis le vrai"), the considerations which ultimately determine the placing of a word in the novel must be as internal to the novel as the considerations which ultimately determine the placing of Lily Briscoe's final stroke are internal to the painting. Arguments of this type have led a large number of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 26-46
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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