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  • Woolf and Schopenhauer:Artistic Theory and Practice

Virginia Woolf mentions the philosopher Schopenhauer only once in her writings, in a 1917 book review. She ridicules the book's author for his interest in Schopenhauer, and says that he has put her off ever reading any of the German philosopher's work. Nevertheless, repeated echoes of Schopenhauer appear both in her essays and in To the Lighthouse (1927), the novel in which her interest in his views is most apparent. A careful study of these echoes reveals a definite link between Schopenhauer's metaphysical theory and Woolf's artistic theory and practice.

Virginia Woolf mentions the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer by name only once in her writings, in a book review published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1917.1 Viscount Harberton, author of the book she is reviewing, argues initially that knowledge gained from books is inferior to that derived from practical experience, but later makes a special case for two writers—Schopenhauer and Herbert Spencer. "No praise is too high for them," comments Woolf sarcastically. In "their books, we are told, we shall find the secret of the universe. After all, then, Lord Harberton is merely one of those cultivated people who play the innocent for a holiday. Still, one reader will give him the benefit of the doubt and take his advice to the extent of refraining for ever from the pages of Schopenhauer."2 To take this statement seriously would be to disregard the facetious tone of the review and dismiss as pointless any further investigation of Woolf's interest in Schopenhauer. It would also be to ignore Woolf's repeated echoes of Schopenhauer both in her [End Page 38] essays and in To the Lighthouse (1927), the novel in which her interest in the German philosopher is most readily apparent. A careful study of these echoes reveals a definite link between Schopenhauer's metaphysical theory and Woolf's artistic theory and practice.3

In one of her best-known essays, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," Woolf comments that "Sterne and Jane Austen were interested in things in themselves; in character in itself. … But the Edwardians were never interested in character in itself. … They were interested in something outside."4 Woolf's use of the term "things in themselves" and her insistence on the importance of the individual's inner life recall Schopenhauer's repeated use of the phrase "the thing-in-itself" in his writings, as well as his belief that introspection reveals higher truths than perception. By "the thing-in-itself" he means a blind, striving force found everywhere in nature, a force he refers to as "will."

The whole phenomenal world, says Schopenhauer, "is the objectivity of the one indivisible will"5: will permeates all animate and inanimate objects and is responsible for their phenomenal characteristics. It exists in man as the will to live—the will to survive, propagate, seek pleasure, and avoid pain—and objectifies itself in our bodies. "Teeth, throat, and bowels," says Schopenhauer, "are objectified hunger; the organs of generation are objectified sexual desire; the grasping hand, the hurrying feet, correspond to the more indirect desires of the will which they express" (WWI 1:141). Perception reveals only will's indirect objectification, "idea" (2:400), a simplified version of will's phenomenal manifestation. Will itself is imperceptible.

For Schopenhauer, our everyday image of the world as "idea" is of less interest than our experience of the thing-in-itself, which we can gain from introspection. Whereas perception simplifies our experience of sense data, introspection presents us with direct awareness of the will in action. "The knowledge of the will in self-consciousness," says Schopenhauer, "is … not a perception of it, but a perfectly direct becoming aware of its successive impulses" (WWI 2:471). With this in mind, he argues that the inner world should be the primary source of fiction, because introspection provides the novelist with insights of greater significance than those revealed by perception. In one of his essays he comments that a novel

will be of a high and noble order, the more it represents of inner, and the less it represents of outer, life; and the ratio between the two will supply a means of judging any novel, of whatever kind, from Tristram Shandy [End Page 39] down to the crudest and most sensational tale. … Skill consists in setting the inner life in motion with the smallest possible array of circumstance; for it is this inner life that really excites our interest. The business of the novelist is not to relate great events, but to make small ones interesting.6

This passage is consistent both with Woolf's theory of fiction, as expressed in her essays, and with her practice in To the Lighthouse, where she chooses, as Schopenhauer says above, "not to relate great events, but to make small ones interesting."

In "Modern Fiction" she argues that three Edwardian novelists—Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy—are "materialists" whose consuming preoccupation with the outer world is hopelessly misguided. These novelists write conventionally about outer experience: "they write of unimportant things," Woolf emphasizes; "they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring."7 James Joyce, by contrast, "is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards … any of [the] signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see" ("MF," p. 161). The true and enduring are to be found in the inner world, as revealed by introspection, and the best novelists "convey this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit … with as little mixture of the alien and exterior as possible" (pp. 160–61). Such novelists provide us with insight into "the dark places of psychology" (p. 162), into "life or spirit, truth or reality" (p. 160), and ultimately into the essence of "human nature" ("MBB," p. 103) itself.

According to Schopenhauer, higher truths than those revealed by perception are attainable not only through introspection but also through aesthetic contemplation. What distinguishes aesthetic contemplation from ordinary perception is that the former is independent of will-motivated considerations. Perceiving an object in nature is a matter of noting various spatiotemporal relationships, ultimately in the interests of the will to live—the will to satisfy appetites, seek pleasure and avoid sources of pain. But if circumstances are such that an individual can lose himself in the disinterested contemplation of an object of beauty, forgetful of considerations of will, he or she will cease to be a will-motivated subject and become, mystically, a "pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge" (WWI 1:231) at one with the object of [End Page 40] contemplation. Correspondingly, the object will cease for the viewer to be mere "idea" and become a more direct objectification of will: "Idea." Instead of being "an opinion based on sensation" (1:222), the contemplated object is now a step closer to being will itself, for it has become an atemporal object of "true knowledge" (1:221). If the object is a human being, the will-less subject will discern the "special Idea" (1:207) within the individual concerned—that is, the Idea expressive of his innermost character.

The artist has a particular talent for discerning the atemporal world that lies behind ordinary perceptual appearances. He "lets us see the world [as Idea] through his eyes," says Schopenhauer. "That he has these eyes, that he knows the inner nature of things apart from all their relations, is the gift of genius, is inborn" (WWI 1:252). When he [sic] reveals his experience of the world as Idea in his art, the artist also reveals something of himself, for in the act of contemplation, he is at one with the object (as we have seen) as a "pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge."

Woolf echoes Schopenhauer in her essay on Oliver Goldsmith, where she describes Goldsmith as having "the born writer's gift of being in touch with the thing itself and not with the outer husks of words."8 What she means is that Goldsmith was able to see beyond the world as idea (as described by "the outer husks of words") to "the inner nature of things"—to the world as Idea. She echoes the above passage from Schopenhauer again in her essay on George Moore: "it is only as [the writer] sees people," she says there, "that we can see them; his fortunes color and his oddities shape his vision until what we see is not the thing itself, but the thing seen and the seer inextricably mixed."9 Similarly, in "On Not Knowing Greek," she notes that, "By the bold and running use of metaphor [Aeschylus] will amplify and give us, not the thing itself, but the reverberation and reflection, which, taken into his mind, the thing has made; close enough to the original to illustrate it, remote enough to heighten, enlarge, and make splendid."10 The best writers, in brief, have access to the world as Idea either through introspection or aesthetic contemplation. The latter is the experience of being at one with the object of contemplation, and it follows from this that writers reveal something of themselves in describing what they have learned about world as Idea.

Woolf uses the phrase "the thing itself" in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," "Modern Fiction," and her other essays and reviews where (depending on the context) Schopenhauer might have preferred "the [End Page 41] thing-in-itself," "will," or "Idea." It seems unlikely that in doing so Woolf was seeking to disguise the fact that she had sworn in her review of Viscount Harberton's book never to read Schopenhauer. "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" was published seven years after the review, and "Modern Fiction" eight years after it; few readers will have remembered her earlier, facetious comment. A more important reason for using the phrase "the thing itself" was to avoid being attacked for having misunderstood Schopenhauer. Woolf would have been self-conscious about her lack of formal training in philosophy, and would also have wanted to maintain her status as an independent thinker. This last consideration becomes more obvious in the light of her attitude to Freud.

In a recent essay Maud Ellmann has shown that although Woolf claimed not to have read Freud until 1939, this "avoidance must have cost her some effort, given that her husband Leonard Woolf was an early champion of Freud, her brother Adrian Stephen and his wife Karin were practising psychoanalysts, and James Strachey, brother of her close friend Lytton, had [not only] travelled to Vienna with his wife Alix to be analysed by Freud, [but had] returned as Freud's official English translators."11 In To the Lighthouse, which contains a plethora of phallic symbols, Woolf "seems," says Ellmann, "to be poking fun at mind-doctors,"12 because she wants to suggest that she has her own, independent views about human behavior.

By contrast, Woolf never ridicules Schopenhauer, even though she sometimes finds grounds to depart from his theories. She disagrees with him, for example, when it comes to the question of how much we can learn about our minds. When engaged in introspection, Schopenhauer says, the will "falls asunder into subject and object. For even in selfconsciousness the I is not absolutely simple, but consists of a knower, the intellect, and a known, the will. The former is not known, and the latter does not know, though both unite in the consciousness of an I. But just on this account that I is not thoroughly intimate with itself, as it were transparent, but is opaque and therefore remains a riddle to itself" (WWI 2:406–7). This problem—in brief, that the investigating "I" investigates all except itself, so cannot know itself in its entirety—is compounded by the fact that the "I" only becomes aware of the successive impulses of the will, and never of the will as a whole. As we have seen, Woolf believes that the best writers of fiction have the ability to provide us with insight into "the dark places of psychology" ("MF," p. 162), into "life or spirit, truth or reality" (p. 160), and ultimately into the essence of "human nature" ("MBB," p. 103) itself. In contrast to [End Page 42] Schopenhauer, she believes that there is no limit to what we can learn about the mind.

Another variation on Schopenhauer appears in "A Sketch of the Past," where Woolf describes

the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.13

Here Woolf refers to the "cotton wool" of daily existence—the fact that ordinary perception obscures the world as Idea from us—without overt reference to Schopenhauer; yet she clearly has in mind his view that a metaphorical "veil" (WWI 1:308) conceals the world as Idea from us. For Woolf, it is necessary for the writer to see beyond the world of appearances to the world as Idea, and to communicate his experience of the latter to the reader. The works of Shakespeare and Beethoven embody the timeless truths of the world as Idea, but "there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven," for both are dead, and so too, says Woolf, recalling Nietzsche, is God. The thing itself is to be found partly in living human beings and partly in extant works of art and music, which together form a gigantic global pattern. Schopenhauer similarly pictures the world as Idea as existing in both animate and inanimate nature, but he makes no mention of the hidden pattern that Woolf describes. Though hinting at her interest in Schopenhauer in the above, Woolf is at the same time maintaining her status as an independent thinker.

Given Woolf's disapproval of the materialistic novelists who "write about trivial and transitory things" ("MF," p. 159), and "[give] us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there" ("MBB," p. 106), we might expect to find in To the Lighthouse a minimum of references to the ordinary day-to-day world as idea. The novel's central section, "Time Passes," is concerned in detail, however, with the deterioration of the Ramsays' summerhouse in the absence of its occupants. Interestingly, it dwells on the materialistic, but does not demand that the reader deduce from the house the human beings who live in it, for we have already met them in the first section, "The [End Page 43] Window." Although the phrase "the thing itself" occurs repeatedly in Woolf's essays and reviews, it appears only twice in To the Lighthouse—in "The Window," and again in the third part, "The Lighthouse."14 "Time Passes" serves as a "corridor" between the novel's two other parts,15 a corridor in which Woolf confronts us with two implicit questions: "What is the meaning of life?" and "How can life continue to be meaningful if God does not exist?" Being aware of these questions is essential if we are to understand the role played by "the thing itself" in the novel as a whole.

In "Time Passes" Woolf draws partly on Schopenhauer and partly on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes to make the point that in the context of eternity, the individual human life is lamentably brief and insignificant. In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher insists that "all is vanity," that in the context of natural process—of the coming and going of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, and the endless flow of rivers to the sea—the individual human life is vain, trivial, and meaningless. "What profit," asks the Preacher, "hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever" (Eccles.1:2–3).16 How is it possible to find meaning and purpose in life, given that this is the case? Initially the Preacher has no answer for us, but midway through Ecclesiastes, he says, "Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion" (Eccles. 5:18). Our pleasures in life, in other words, are God-given, and the existence of God is a guarantee not only that life is meaningful but that everyone will have a portion, or share, of happiness. In his essay "On the Vanity of Existence" Schopenhauer echoes Ecclesiastes in observing that a man "lives for a little while; and then … comes [a] long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true."17

In "Time Passes," Woolf focuses, as both Schopenhauer and the Preacher do, on the brevity of life in relation to eternity, but she differs from the Preacher in suggesting that comfort is not necessarily to be found in belief in God. In the midst of a description of the passing of ten years, she comments parenthetically that three characters from the first section of the novel have died before their time: Mrs. Ramsay in her fifties, her daughter Prue in childbirth, and her son Andrew as a young soldier in World War I. Why has a benevolent God denied longevity of life to a devoted mother, a mother-to-be, and a son with great promise [End Page 44] as a mathematician? It is "as if," comments Woolf, "touched by human penitence and all its toil, divine goodness [has] parted the curtain and displayed behind it, single, distinct, the hare erect; the wave falling; the boat rocking, which did we deserve them, should be ours always. But alas, divine goodness, twitching the cord, draws the curtain; … For our penitence deserves a glimpse only; our toil respite only" (TL, p. 105).

The God that Woolf envisions here is one who is not endlessly well disposed to us: He takes intermittent pleasure in human activity, and is willing to provide us with occasional glimpses of the beauties of His creation, but no more, for His bounty is tempered by disapproval of our sinfulness and our overall lack of penitence. We may be attracted to belief in God by "the usual tokens of divine bounty, the sunset on the sea, the pallor of dawn, the moon rising, [and] fishing-boats against the moon" (TL, p. 109), for example, but the beauties of nature are insufficient to explain the premature deaths of His creatures. Though the deaths might be explicable if we could be certain of God's existence and were aware of His overall plan, Woolf implies that, more probably, God does not exist.

In "Time Passes" she focuses not just on God and human life but more specifically on whether God has a role in preserving what humanity has labored to construct. She describes how the Ramsays' holiday home deteriorates over a period of ten years—how the plaster falls down from the ceiling in the hall; how the rain pipe blocks over the study window and lets water in; how swallows nest in the drawing room and rats gnaw holes in the wainscoting. "What power," she asks, "could … prevent the fertility, the insensibility of nature?" (TL, p. 113). Could it be the power of God? In fact, Woolf maintains, it is the power of man, and she illustrates this with reference to the Ramsays' deteriorating summer home, where ongoing natural process is opposed by various tradesmen and two elderly cleaners, Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast.

Significantly, the cleaners are presented to us through the use of a metaphor that appears not in Ecclesiastes but in Schopenhauer's essay "On the Vanity of Existence." Here he describes life as a voyage, and says that when an individual approaches death, "he is mostly shipwrecked, … and comes into harbor with masts and rigging gone."18 Schopenhauer develops this metaphor more fully in The World as Will and Idea, where he says that life is "a sea, full of rocks and whirlpools, which man avoids with the greatest care and solicitude, although he knows that even if he succeeds in getting through with all his efforts and skill, he yet by doing so comes nearer at every step to the greatest, the total, inevitable, [End Page 45] and irremediable shipwreck, death" (WWI 1:403). In "Time Passes," Mrs. McNab lurches and rolls "like a ship at sea" (TL, p. 107) as she prepares the Ramsays' summer cottage for the family's next visit. Similarly, Mrs. Bast heaves and creaks (p. 114), and both women are threatened by "the silent apparition of an ashen-colored ship" (p. 109), Death.19 As they near the end of their lives, their "frail barks" (a phrase taken from The World as Will and Idea) "founder in darkness" (p. 8).20 The power that "prevent[s] the fertility [and] insensibility of nature" (p. 113) from destroying the Ramsays' summerhouse—and by extension, the fruits of the labor of men and women more generally—is, Woolf emphasizes, human and limited, rather than divine and omnipotent.

If, as Woolf suggests, God was only ever a construction of mind devised to confer meaning and purpose on life, how can we cope with the fact that the individual human life is of no consequence in the context of eternity? Each of the novel's four main characters—Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Charles Tansley, and Lily Briscoe—solves this problem by finding an alternative to God to place at the center of his or her life. Tansley and Mr. Ramsay speculate on the status of material objects in the world at large: they discuss, for example, the metaphysical properties of a table, and it is an "austere … bare, hard" table (TL, p. 129) that engages their attention. Both center their lives not on God but on the tangible material world and the ability of their rational minds to understand it clearly. It is as though they subscribe to Schopenhauer's view that "wealth of intellect is what makes a man happy—intellect, such as, when stamped on its productions, will receive the admiration of centuries to come,—thoughts which make him happy at the time, and will in turn be a source of study and delight to the noblest minds of the most remote posterity."21

Tansley is untroubled by the thought that his work will eventually be forgotten, because he is thoroughly absorbed in the here and now. Mr. Ramsay, on the other hand, finds it hard to accept that his achievements may fade into obscurity, and this prompts him to turn to his wife for sympathy and support. Significantly, what Mrs. Ramsay offers him is God-like comfort and protection. "If he put implicit faith in her [she assures him], nothing should hurt him; however deep he buried himself or climbed high, not for a second should he find himself without her" (TL, p. 34). Here we are put in mind of the twenty-third Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" (Psalms 23:4). The faith Mrs. Ramsay invites her husband to place in [End Page 46] her is, however, unsubstantiated, for no human being can be an endless source of bounty. Although she promises her husband that he will never be without her, in fact she dies in her fifties, leaving him without the comfort he so desperately needs. No human being can have the power of God, and this is emphasized in Mrs. Ramsay's choice of the story that she reads to James, in which a fisherman's wife finds that a magic fish will grant her anything she wishes, short of becoming God Himself.22

When Prue reflects in "The Window" that her mother is "the thing itself" (TL, p. 94), what this means, in Schopenhauerian terms, is that she has detected in her mother qualities of mind superior to those of other people. Lily Briscoe, too, discerns the "spirit" within Mrs. Ramsay, the "essential thing" (p. 42) that sets her apart from others. She believes that treasures of "knowledge and wisdom" are contained within the older woman's mind and heart, but finds them frustratingly inaccessible, because people are "sealed" (p. 44) from one another. Mrs. Ramsay is not, however, sealed from the reader, and in chapter 11 of "The Window," when she sits, at the end of a busy day, with the beam of the lighthouse playing on her, we see her at her most obviously Schopenhauerian:

Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always … this peace, this rest, this eternity; and pausing there she looked out to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, … and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke.

… Often she found herself sitting and looking … until she became the thing she looked at—that light for example. … It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to things, inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself.

(TL, pp. 53–54)

The above echoes a passage in The World as Will and Idea, the last part of which was quoted earlier:

If, raised by the power of the mind a man … lets his whole consciousness be filled with the quiet contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether a landscape, a tree, a mountain, a building, or whatever it may be; inasmuch as he loses himself in this object, … i.e., forgets even his individuality, his will, and only continues to exist as the pure subject, … [End Page 47] and … can no longer separate the perceiver from the perception, … then that which is so known is no longer the particular thing as such: but it is the Idea, the eternal form, … and, therefore, he who is sunk in this perception is no longer individual, for in such perception the individual has lost himself; but he is the pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge.

(WWI 1:231)

Where Schopenhauer says that the individual who wants to experience the world as Idea begins by contemplating a landscape, mountain, or building, Mrs. Ramsay begins by becoming immersed in a scene in nature that includes a single edifice, the Lighthouse. As she withdraws from the events of the day, and begins losing the world-as-idea personality she has employed in her dealings with people, she increasingly feels at one with the scene she is contemplating, and especially with the Lighthouse itself. In Schopenhauerian terms, she becomes a "pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge," at one with the world as Idea.

As she returns from this state to the more mundane world as idea, she thinks, "We are in the hands of the Lord" (TL, p. 53), and immediately feels irritated with herself. "How could any Lord have made this world? she asked. With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that" (p. 54). Schopenhauer similarly observes in The World as Will and Idea that "if we were to conduct the confirmed optimist through the … prisons, torture-chambers, and slave kennels, over battle-fields and places of execution; if we were to open to him all the dark abodes of misery, where it hides itself from the glance of cold curiosity … he, too, would understand at last the nature of this 'best of all possible worlds.' For whence did Dante take the materials for his hell but from this our actual world?" (WWI 1:419).

In having Mrs. Ramsay identify with the third stroke of the Lighthouse, Woolf is hinting that her character is a secular counterpart to the third person of the Holy Trinity—the Holy Spirit. She does this to emphasize that Mrs. Ramsay is an exceptional character whose spirit pervades the entire novel, even after she has died. Unlike Mr. Ramsay and Tansley, Mrs. Ramsay centers her life not on her intellect and personal success in a career but rather on her husband and family. Her "profound reverence" (TL, p. 38) for her husband and love of her children take the place of God when it comes to giving her life meaning and purpose. Like Schopenhauer and the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, she is aware that [End Page 48] her life is only "a little strip of time" (p. 50) in the context of eternity, and she has chosen to devote it to the service of others.

Sometimes she has misgivings: she regrets, for example, that her children must grow up in a world full of suffering, and will have to experience "being wretched alone in dreary places" (TL, p. 51); but she is driven by the conviction that people who marry and have children experience far greater happiness in life than those who do not. Significantly, Woolf presents Mrs. Ramsay not only as an individual mother in the Schopenhauerian world as idea, but also as an archetypal figure in the world as Idea, one who stands for all the mothers who have dedicated themselves to their families over the centuries. Paralleling her presentation of Mrs. Ramsay in the novel is a passage in The World as Will and Idea in which Schopenhauer comments that "the lions which are born and die are like the drops of the waterfall; but the leonitas, the Idea or form of a lion, is like the unshaken rainbow upon it" (WWI 3:275). As an individual mother, Mrs. Ramsay corresponds to any one of the lions; yet she is also a human counterpart, more generally, to the leonitas, the timeless Idea of lions.

It may be tempting to think that if Mrs. Ramsay is an archetypal mother, Lily Briscoe should be taken at her own assessment, as a stereotypical "old maid" (TL, p. 125). However, we must bear in mind that Woolf links the phrase "the thing itself" not with Lily but instead with the painting she completes in the final section of the novel. What Lily wants to capture on canvas, Woolf tells us, is "that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything" (p. 158). From past experience, Lily is all too aware of the frequency with which she glimpses certain aspects of the world as Idea, only to have these glimpses lapse back to perception of the time-bound world as idea.

If she were a Schopenhauerian artistic genius, she would have no trouble discerning the Idea in both animate and inanimate nature, then retaining "the presence of mind which is necessary to enable [her] to repeat in a voluntary and intentional work what [she] has learned in this manner" (WWI 1:252). In fact, though, Lily is an amateur painter who struggles in "The Window" to come "once more under the power of that vision which she had seen clearly once and must now grope for among hedges and houses and mothers and children—her picture" (TL, p. 46). Significantly, she detects the "special Idea" (WWI 1:207) within Mrs. Ramsay, whose heart and mind seem to her to contain metaphorical "tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out would teach one everything." Yet it is not the inscriptions alone [End Page 49] that Lily wants, "but intimacy itself, which is knowledge" (TL, p. 44). She yearns for a spiritual union with Mrs. Ramsay, in which she would become (though she does not use Schopenhauerian terminology), a "pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge" at one with the older woman's spirit.

Lily's high regard for Mrs. Ramsay is evident from her first painting, in which she represents Mrs. Ramsay and her son James as a purple triangle. Mother and son are, as William Bankes observes, "objects of universal veneration" (TL, p. 45), and just as the third stroke of the Lighthouse puts us in mind of the Holy Trinity, so too does the triangle. Yet at the beginning of the third section of the novel, "The Lighthouse," Lily is angry that Mrs. Ramsay has made her feel that painting is less important than getting married and having a family. Earlier Lily had laughed at Mrs. Ramsay "presiding with immutable calm over destinies which she completely failed to understand" (p. 43), but now, in "The Lighthouse," she is resentful that the older woman had sapped her self-confidence and made her feel that she was just "playing at painting, playing at the one thing one did not play at." Painting—not God—is the "one dependable thing in a world of strife, ruin, chaos" (p. 124) in Lily's life: she takes it seriously because it gives her life meaning and purpose.

In "The Lighthouse" she moves beyond resenting Mrs. Ramsay as part of the intrusive world as idea to a point where she begins losing "consciousness of outer things" (TL, p. 132) and correspondingly getting glimpses of the world as Idea. Lily has had such glimpses in the past, "little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark" (p. 133), but now, as she becomes more and more aware of the timeless, her memory of Mrs. Ramsay guides her toward a major revelation. "In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eventual passing and flowing … was stuck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said. 'Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!' she repeated. She owed this revelation to her" (p. 133).

Of course the task remains of committing the revelation to canvas, and Lily is initially troubled that she might not be able to do so satisfactorily. "One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy" (TL, p. 164). If the problem remains unsolved—if the painting fails to communicate Lily's experience of the world as Idea—it may end up being hung in an attic or rolled up and shoved under a sofa. Nevertheless, Lily is willing to take that risk, because she has made painting, not God, the center of her life. [End Page 50]

She may not be a great painter—meaning, in Schopenhauerian terms, an artistic genius who readily discerns the world as Idea in nature and has no difficulty committing her vision of it onto canvas. Yet in the closing lines of the novel, Lily has clearly achieved something remarkable: "It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision" (TL, p. 170). Once completed, Lily's painting is expressive of her experience of the world as Idea, and is an example of her personal, Schopenhauerian religion of art. In spite of her echo of Christ's last words on the cross, however, this private religion is not be confused with conventional Christianity. As Lily finishes the painting, "old Mr. Carmichael stood beside her, looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair and the trident (it was only a French novel) in his hand" (p. 169). If we are alive to the fact that Lily and Mrs. Ramsay are the two characters in the novel who are aligned with the life of the spirit, and Mr. Ramsay and Tansley with speculation about the material world, this brief, slightly comic reference to a mythical sea god will put us in mind of Wordsworth's "The World Is Too Much with Us," in which the poet begins by inveighing against the materialism of his day and in the closing lines exclaims:

        Great God! I'd rather beA Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.23

For Woolf, the "creed outworn" is Christianity, or more exactly, the Judeo-Christian belief that God exists and through His bounty confers meaning and purpose on human endeavor. Repeatedly skeptical about the existence and benevolence of God in "Time Passes," Woolf ultimately suggests that for her, as for Lily, the timeless Idea is what must feature in twentieth-century art. Where fiction is concerned, she dismisses the materialists Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy, for "they write of unimportant things, they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring" ("MF," p. 159). The proper subject of the modern novelist, Woolf believes, is the timeless and spiritual: we see this clearly in her Schopenhauerian theory of art, as developed in her essays, and in her practice as a writer of fiction in To the Lighthouse, the most Schopenhauerian of her novels. [End Page 51]

James Acheson
Christchurch, New Zealand


1. Penelope Lefew-Blake draws attention to this review in Schopenhauer, Women's Literature, and the Legacy of Pessimism in the Novels of George Eliot, Olive Schreiner, Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 2001), p. 69. The review is of Viscount Harberton's How to Lengthen Our Ears: An Enquiry Whether Learning from Books Does Not Lengthen the Ears Rather Than the Understanding (London: C. W. Daniel, 1917). It first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Sept. 6, 1917, and is reprinted in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, 6 vols., ed. Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth Press, 1986–2011), vol. 2, pp. 155–57.

2. The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 2, p. 157.

3. In this essay I have reworded and expanded some brief remarks made about Woolf and Schopenhauer in my introduction to Virginia Woolf, New Casebooks Series, ed. James Acheson (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2017), pp. 4–6, 10.

4. Virginia Woolf, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," in The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays, ed. Leonard Woolf (1924; repr. London: Hogarth Press, 1950), pp. 99–100; hereafter abbreviated "MBB."

5. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, vol. 1, trans. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp (1883; repr., London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., 1909), p. 206; hereafter abbreviated WWI and cited by volume and page number.

6. Arthur Schopenhauer, "On Some Forms of Literature," The Art of Literature, in Complete Essays of Schopenhauer, trans. T. Bailey Saunders (1891; repr., New York: Willey Book Company, 1942), book 4, pp. 57–58.

7. Virginia Woolf, "Modern Fiction," in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ed. Andrew McNeillie (1925; repr., London: Hogarth Press, 1986–2011), vol. 4, p. 159; hereafter abbreviated "MF."

8. Virginia Woolf, "Oliver Goldsmith," The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays, p. 11. An editorial note, p. 9, reveals that this essay was written in February 1934.

9. Virginia Woolf, "George Moore" (1925), in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4, p. 261.

10. Virginia Woolf, "On Not Knowing Greek" (1925), in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4, p. 45.

11. Maud Ellmann, "On Not Being Able to Paint: To the Lighthouse via Psychoanalysis," in Acheson, Virginia Woolf, p. 106.

12. Ellmann, "On Not Being Able to Paint," p. 121.

13. Virginia Woolf, "A Sketch of the Past," in Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (San Diego: Harcourt, 1985), p. 72. An editorial note, p. 61, reveals that this essay was written in 1939–40.

14. For the two occurrences of the phrase "the thing itself," see Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, ed. David Bradshaw (1927; repr., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 94 and 158; hereafter abbreviated TL.

15. Woolf's description of "Time Passes" as a "corridor" between the two other parts of the novel is noted by Bradshaw in his introduction to To the Lighthouse (TL, p. xlii).

16. I am quoting from the King James Version of the Bible, the version Woolf would have been familiar with since childhood.

17. Arthur Schopenhauer, "On the Vanity of Existence," Studies in Pessimism, in Complete Essays of Schopenhauer (New York: Willey Book Company, 1942), book 5, p. 19. The title of this essay echoes Ecclesiastes 1:2.

18. Schopenhauer, "On the Vanity of Existence," p. 21.

19. In an endnote to To the Lighthouse (TL, p. 192), David Bradshaw draws attention to the fact that in the original holograph of the novel, Woolf describes the ship as "a murderous looking ship."

20. See WWI I:455, where Schopenhauer employs the metaphor of a sailor "trusting to his frail barque in a stormy sea." The fact that Woolf uses this quaint phrase, "frail barque," from the Haldane and Kemp translation of The World as Will and Idea suggests that she did not read Schopenhauer in the original German.

21. Arthur Schopenhauer, "Position, or a Man's Place in the Estimation of Others," The Wisdom of Life, in Complete Essays of Schopenhauer, book 1, p. 119.

22. Virginia Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, refers to this fairy tale in his essay, "What Is Materialism?" in An Agnostic's Apology (London: Watts and Co., 1904), p. 64n1.

23. William Wordsworth, "The World Is Too Much with Us," in English Romantic Poetry and Prose, ed. Russell Noyes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 317.

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