To the Lighthouse

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf explores darkness, an elusive and mysterious component of every living human being. Oftentimes, the greatest joy and revelations come from what is challenging to access. By attempting to illuminate and ascribe meaning to darkness, Woolf brings us along for the journey of exploring what the meaning of life is and how to make the most out of the individual moments that bring us joy.

In Chapter XI of The Window, Mrs. Ramsay thinks about the disappointment James will never forget due to not going to the Lighthouse.

"Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangers of adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. And to everybody there was always this sense of unlimited resources, she supposed; one after another, she, Lily, Augustus Carmichael, must feel, our apparitions, the things you know us by, are simply childish. Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by. Her horizon seemed to her limitless. There were all the places she had not seen; the Indian plains; she felt herself pushing aside the thick leather curtain of a church in Rome. This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it. They could not stop it, she thought, exulting. There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability. Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience (she accomplished here something dexterous with her needles) but as a wedge of darkness" (62-63).

The passage evokes a sense of intellectual and emotional clarity. Mrs. Ramsay finds peace in not being herself, in seeping away from reality into the “wedge-shaped core of darkness” that contains a “platform of stability.” It seems that darkness is a desirable place where limits cease to exist, and one finds their full potential. The only possible way to be sincere, be who someone really is, is to go to the wedge of darkness. It is the place where one feels like oneself.

At first, it sounds contradictory that darkness is a place with limitless possibilities since one cannot see all of those possibilities in the dark. However, the darkness within the passage evokes a thought that light unveils all possibilities available to us within our real world. The world seems vulnerably naked and without obvious secrets; on the other hand, darkness veils what one could see without a source of light in that darkness. When something is concealed, the possibilities of what that something is are limitless because the limited silhouette is nonexistent. The use of the verb “could” in the sentence “this core of darkness could go anywhere” emphasizes that Mrs. Ramsay has not fully explored her darkness.

To explore one’s darkness, one needs to go on an individual exploratory journey with an open-minded perspective. One needs to access darkness by going in the inward direction, by going into a self’s subconsciousness when one feels “life [sinking] down for a moment.”

It is then obvious why everyone might want to access that darkness. It is a place of “freedom,” of “peace;” it is a “platform of stability,” a description eerily similar to how I imagine a Lighthouse in the real world. A Lighthouse represents the place of stability that succeeds a long journey on the water; it is a light-producing structure that gives clarity and protects sailors from running aground while they are disoriented in darkness. Given that the novel is named To the Lighthouse, the above passage clarifies that darkness will play an essential role in getting to that desirable place, the Lighthouse. The meaning of life is to go on that journey.

Humans have a natural longing to understand the purpose of life and what fulfilling life entails. When a concept as mysterious as a “wedge of darkness” is introduced, it offers a plausible source of explanation that one longs to explore. In Chapter III of The Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe provides her answer to that all-encompassing question:

"What is the meaning of life? That was all--a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark" (161).

Lily believes that the meaning of life does not reveal itself through a great revelation that suddenly comes. Instead, the meaning of life is the collection of miracles that accumulate over one’s lifetime; the miracles we experience are illuminations of our darkness. Miracles are something we see for a moment in time, and then they disappear back into the darkness, but they still live on in our memory. Hence, darkness encompasses and possibly reveals the meaning of life.

Woolf expresses the minutiae of human life, those daily miracles. When one thinks of striking matches, it is usually the case that not every attempt will lead to a successful fire. Nevertheless, one still tries to strike the match until it lights on fire. Throughout the novel, Woolf is constantly trying to strike those matches, to illuminate our darkness. However, every strike is still merely an attempt at striking a match whose success cannot be predicted using scientific tools. One needs to keep trying until a successful match strikes, however long-desired and unexpected that strike can be.

Woolf realizes that those moments of darkness one remembers for a long time do not just come deliberately. Instead, those moments occur throughout our lives, and each one of us experiences them. There are moments when we feel that life sinks down for a moment. The reality is that those moments do not occur at a predictable time nor with predictable certainty. One should appreciate when such moments come.

In Chapter XI of The Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe ruminates:

"It was a way things had sometimes, she thought, lingering for a moment and looking at the long glittering windows and the plume of blue smoke: they became unreal. So coming back from a journey, or after an illness, before habits had spun themselves across the surface, one felt that same unreality, which was so startling; felt something emerge. Life was most vivid then" (192).

The unreality discussed in this passage is the feeling one feels in darkness. Those moments of unreality are precisely when those matches successfully struck and upset the stillness of darkness. Darkness arises from reality but feels unreal. Darkness is unreal, unfathomable. Ironically, life is most vivid when it feels unreal, even though life is often the most real it gets in these moments. It is a great paradox of reality. Reality that we constantly experience imposes constraints upon our lives. Unreality that we rarely experience is when life gets most vivid. In a sense, Woolf gives voice to the silent space that separates people and shows that this space is where life has the most meaning. It is a place where time slows down, and we truly live in a moment.

A painting is a way to capture the moment when the match struck. It is a way to eternalize that moment in the same way that books eternalize words. A painting allows one to reaccess the image concealed by darkness that was revealed for a moment and then went dark again. Throughout the book, Lily is working on a painting that she does not finish until the end of the novel. The painting is a way for Lily to visualize her imagination. Lily has a good understanding of how different elements of the painting should interact with each other. The following conversation between William Bankes and Lily shows that understanding:

"But William, she remembered, had listened to her with his wise child's eyes when she explained how it was not irreverence: how a light there needed a shadow there and so on" (176).

The passage highlights how light interacts with objects. As the light on the painting passes objects, it needs a corresponding shadow. A shadow and the slight darkness caused by the shadow endow an object with a sense of reality in human eyes. If there is a shadow, then an object must exist. Every element of the painting exists in relation to all other elements on the painting.

At the end of the novel, Lily completed her painting:

"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" (209).

The above passage represents the novel’s ending, so it seems significant that Lily’s vision is realized by finally finishing her painting with a single line in the center. The vision allows Lily to understand her darkness better, to capture that miracle that the dark encompasses. It seems that this line highlights the ultimate goal of capturing a miracle and saving it in the real world. However, based on Lily’s words that “a light there needed a shadow there,” even the final line on the painting exists in relation to all other elements on the painting. As the line symbolizes how Lily captures a part of her darkness, it seems that darkness cannot exist without being in relation to other things. Darkness does not exist in a vacuum; those miracles contained in the darkness require a degree of otherness to be meaningful. Darkness on its own is meaningless; it is the synergy of light and darkness that ascribes meaning and value to life.

The synergy of light and darkness fosters the ability to experience joy in life. Their co-existence creates frictions that open up a path to joy. When light penetrates darkness, the imagery is similar to how two continental plates collide and one sinks beneath the other. The plates do not move continuously; pressure builds up for years and decades. Then, that pressure gets released and causes an earthquake. In the release, the movement of two plates relative to each other creates an opening in the moment of movement.

Similarly, light does not continuously penetrate darkness; there is a build-up that precedes the event. When light enters darkness, an opening is created, and the potentials of that opening are limitless. The opening creates a space for something memorable, which stays even after the interaction between light and darkness concludes. However, to create that memory and ascribe meaning to it, an interaction between light and darkness needs to occur. Darkness exists within all of us, so it is necessary to have a source of light in one’s life to reveal that darkness. The Lighthouse represents one such source of light.

Cam Ramsay, a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, came with her father and James for the journey to the Lighthouse. While on the boat, Cam experienced “a sense of adventure and escape that she wanted, for she was thinking, as the boat sailed on, how her father’s anger about the points of the compass, James’s obstinacy about the compact, and her anguish, all had slipped, all had passed, all had steamed away (188-189).” In essence, Cam feels a sense of freedom both in and from the real world. The scene continues:

"From her hand, ice cold, held deep in the sea, there spurted up a fountain of joy at the change, at the escape, at the adventure (that she should be alive, that she should be there). And the drops falling from this sudden and unthinkable fountain of joy fell here and there on the dark, the slumbrous shapes in her mind; shapes of a world not realised but turning in their darkness, catching here and there, a spark of light; Greece, Rome, Constantinople" (189).

The passage makes the connection between joy and darkness. Cam is experiencing intense joy, and that joy comes from darkness. Joy makes us intelligent. As sparks of joy rain into the dark parts of the mind, certain things begin to come to mind that did not before. Joy and darkness depend on each other to exist and enhance each other in a positive feedback loop. As those shapes catch here and there a spark of light, only some of those shapes get illuminated at a certain time. The slumbrous shapes responsively shine and then go dark again. The use of “Greece, Rome, Constantinople” as examples expands the reader’s perspective on the possibilities those slumbrous shapes uncover. The passage is one of the moments when the match struck successfully, and, in turn, the event expands our perspective and brings us joy.

The moment of joy and expanded perspective is an inherently individual phenomenon. One person’s experience cannot be identically experienced by another person since all of us are individuals who have unique perspectives on the world on which we base our understanding of what we see. Hence, when two people see the same event, the understanding and memories of that event of the first person differ from the understanding and memories of another person.

Our observations of the world do not represent universal truth as there is no single universal truth. Truth comes from an assemblage of many perspectives that can change over time. This point is emphasized throughout the dinner scene in Chapter XVII of The Window, and especially in its culmination:

"It could not last, she knew, but at the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and their feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trorut are all lit up hanging, trembling. So she saw them; she heard them; but whatever they said had also this quality, as if what they said was like the movement of a trout when, at the same time, one can see the ripple and the gravel, something to the right, something to the left; and the whole is held together" (106-107).

The world is depicted as a collection of many “truths” that seem like truths only in the eyes of the beholder. Overall, there is a suspension of truth. What one person sees is not the objective reality of what is truly happening. Truth is a fluid concept that changes over time. As humans, it is so easy to find truth in places where we want to find the truth. Confirmation bias, the tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs, is a subconscious feature of most individuals. It is easier to cling to what one already knows than to challenge those beliefs, especially when one builds their identity on those beliefs. The way one sees the world in a moment is a function of one’s preconceived beliefs at that point in time. The definition of truth changes with each passing moment. Hence, a single perspective does not provide an objective truth of a given situation as that perspective suffers from a lack of objectivity.

The experience of the dinner scene begs the question: when light illuminates darkness, what does it reveal? What one sees in darkness is still a function of one’s beliefs about the world. Darkness is perceived by a single individual, and Woolf concedes that a single perspective fails to achieve objectivity in a world where individual biases influence the perception of one’s surroundings. But if one lacks objectivity to process regular day-to-day moments, how could one objectively process what one finds in their darkness?

Perhaps, darkness cannot accommodate more than one perspective. The memories one is left with after experiencing an illumination of darkness are deeply personal and reflect one’s beliefs about the world. It seems that the revelation revealed by the strike of matches that is so desirable suffers from a lack of objectivity.

In the end, one is left with the question: when matches strike unexpectedly in the dark, is what is revealed by illuminating darkness the best approximation of truth one can get?

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