Back to Skull

A Writer and Soon-to-Be-Teacher Rereads To the Lighthouse and Rekindles his Old Romance, Only this Time Wiser, More Experienced, and More Sincere

I. Journey to Skull Island

The first time I tried to read To the Lighthouse I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley (go Bears). It was assigned in my first upper-division English class, which was menacingly titled “The Novel,” and it was one of the last books we read, on a syllabus that included Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, The Trial, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. All very good books, judging by their first halves.

I’ve never been a fast reader, and I was able to get away with skimming much of the book, doing a close reading on a brief passage for my term paper. Lighthouse was too hard, too streamy-of-conscious to finish.

I did manage to write the term paper, on a passage from the middle section of Lighthouse. This part was short, and was subdivided into quick little chapters. Instead of drifting in and out of the minds of the Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe and William Bankes and the rest, there was only one consciousness in this section, that of the narrator, and it was directed at a house, which was a lot easier for me to get my own still-soft and forming undergraduate brain around. I remember being blown away by the way Woolf depicted the very thing I’d expected from a section called “Time Passes”: the passage of time. In my term paper I had tracked the presence of the boar’s skull and the green shawl that Mrs. Ramsay had wrapped around it and which comes loose in “Time Passes” to symbolize passing time, and the looming and inevitable presence of—get this—death. Like, whoa.

I was truly and verily astounded by my findings, and by the sneakiness with which Woolf introduces the shawl early on, and the boar’s skull separately, and how she then in a moment of literary magic combines them to create—voila!—meaning, which is what the whole book is about. I remember pouring my heart and mushy brain out into that paper. I even remember the title I gave it: “Loosened the Shawl,” after the passage (on p. 133 in my dog-eared and be-tabbed 1981 Harcourt Brace edition, the one with the crappy cover art) where “ominous sounds like the measured blows of hammers dulled on felt, with their repeated shocks still further loosened the shawl.” I remember getting very excited about this, and somehow managing to hold forth for ten whole pages—my longest paper ever at that point—on this idea of time passing without minds there to perceive it.

I remember getting my paper back later, marked up in red pen (this was in the medieval days, bay in the mid- to late-nineties, when disaffected graduate student instructors still bore the angst of the grunge years with severe prejudice), with a big fat C next to my title, so that it looked like a correction: “Loosened the ShawlC.” Thumbing through all ten pages, stunned by my first C on my first ten-page paper in my first upper-division class, I found a red line incised fluidly down the length of two-thirds of an entire page, and next to it in the margin a single word, “NO.” The critique on the back fared no better: I don’t remember the gist of it, but I do remember my TA’s lead-off, “Zak, your tone smacks of insincerity…”

Like a shell-shocked soldier I stumbled out of that lecture hall, cursing my TA and his wire-framed glasses and neatly parted hair and sweater vests, and cursing Virginia Woolf and her at once inscrutable and banal novel, cursing the state of novels in general, and wishing they would all just go away. It was my red badge of courage. The softness of my lower division optimism dashed against the rocks somewhere cold, phlegmy and forsaken. I was a true English major now. No longer would I write of amazing things or of thoughts I had; instead I would write properly, of dialogic recursion in Huckleberry Finn, or numerical frameworks in One Hundred Years of Solitude. I learned to be cynical and aloof. I was a serial killer, learning the tools of my trade.

II. Time Passes

I’ve told that anecdote about the red pen and the “NO” on many occasions. To me, it came to represent a number of what in the marketing biz we’d call “memes.” The graduate student with the wire-frame glasses, for example: I’m not making this up, and it fits this idea of stodgy, surly graduate students who are overworked, underpaid, and pursuing abstract (perhaps foolhardy) intellectual and artistic goals.

For me, that incident came to represent everything that was bullshit about academia. It took me another dozen years or so out in the world to realize that bullshit is pervasive and impossible to get out, not just in the university, but everywhere. Baristas deal with it when customers demand a grande skinny vanilla soy latte no whip and you tell them that they are in a small café owned by a Greek guy, and that you don’t know what any of that means, but you you still have to make it for her anyway. Line cooks deal with bullshit when the chef says to clean the shrimp and you clean the shrimp but it’s a lot of shrimp and you only have half an hour, so there you are covered head to toe in legs and shells and sticky dark veins of shrimpshit, and the chef comes back in ten minutes and tells you he needs it yesterday. Bullshit abounds in book publishing, where English majors pretend that they were business majors. It is the bread and butter of marketing and advertising. That’s the big league. You have to be an elite bullshitter to work in advertising. It takes a tremendous reservoir of Himalayan calm to listen to a boss who is ten years your junior tell you, the lowly copywriter, to create a report for the client explaining your firm’s user-experience-based process of web design, knowing that (a) neither of you know what that means, (b) neither of you knows how, and (c) your firm doesn’t have a process of web design, let alone a user-experience-based one, that your firm has never even designed a website before, and that being told “I trust you” by said boss is tantamount to a shrugging admission of the bullshitty foundation on which the entire enterprise is built. It’s enough to send someone screaming back to the ivory tower looking for meaning and substance.

III. Back to Skull

Which brings me back to Ms. Woolf and her so-called novel. Here I am, back in school, writing and casting about for meaning, beauty, and substance. And fourteen years after I first read it, along comes To the Lighthouse, a serendipity of time and place, like when I reach back to feel around for my glasses and they happen to be sitting in the first place my hand goes.

Though my brain is now annealed, I eagerly thumbed ahead to the middle section before finishing “The Window,” and read my “loosened the shawl” passage. It’s right where I left it. And while it’s still a beautiful passage, it didn’t strike me as profoundly as others I read this time around. My eye has changed. I see the whole thing much better now: there’s a real purpose and a method to the novel that I hadn’t seen when I was twenty. Woolf offers up a fully realized ontological exploration that blows creaky old Hume (played by Mr. Ramsay) and Berkeley (perhaps that’s Tansley) out of the water by incorporating in her argument human feelings and relationships in medias res, the mechanics of which she renders precisely, gorgeously, and without the straitjacket of neat explanations or mathematical proofs.

For Woolf there is time and there is light, and minds that exist to behold them. Time she investigates in miniature, in the first section, as the narrative über-consciousness lifts and alights on different minds, sometimes mid paragraph or even mid-sentence, following each character’s thoughts as they engage with (or withdraw from) the world. Each mind casts its attentions directionally, illuminating some object for a moment before sweeping onward. If you read carefully, there’s a lot of rising and falling verbs in here: thoughts rise and descend, crash and scatter like waves. Time slows in the medium of thought, such that a mother reading a fairy tale to her son can take nearly a hundred pages. Objects take on meaning and color only when the light of human attention passes over them. It’s almost an anti-solipsism. But without the label or tidy definition.

It’s brilliant, and Woolf’s prose is breathtaking. Sure it’s a slog to get through, with its page-long paragraphs and protracted sections of gossipy stream-of-consciousness. In truth, I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up on my own. Maybe that has more to do with my previous experience with Woolf. Here I’ll whip out my Foucault, and suggest that the author-function of “Woolf” puts her in the category these days of medicinal writers to be studied and not necessarily enjoyed.

What is it about Lighthouse that causes it to thrive in academe? Am I doomed to inflict upon my future students what was inflicted on me? I’ll grant that there are solitary readers out there who pick it up, and are either rewarded for their adventursome spirit or else dashed unprepared against the rocks. Yet to me there’s something lichenous about the relationship between Lighthouse and the university that lets them feed off each other in a positive way. Maybe it’s the window Lighthouse provides to the real world, from the raw thought of Mr. Ramsay and his “table” onto the complex discrepancies of color and shading of Lily’s easel outside, and the real world hurt feelings of six-year-old James. Lighthouse as window from ivory tower (ahem) to real world is a compelling metaphor, but the window doesn’t work unless one is prepared to look through it.

I don’t remember a damn thing from the rest of that class on the novel that I took as an undergrad. I don’t remember most of my classes. But I do remember that boar’s skull, and the green shawl slipping away from it, and the feeling of amazement when I read that and thought, hey, I saw what you did just there. So even if I go on to assign To the Lighthouse to future generations, and hundreds of soft and squishy minds go on to forget about it, maybe there’ll be one among them who latches on to a word or phrase or image, and doesn’t let go. Erm, yeah, that’s my vision.