Gender Complications in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”

Those of you who are not predisposed to read gender according to the preconceived ideas you learned in college might note that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are each a mixed bag from page one. The whole book is framed by their opening answers to little James’s request to go to the lighthouse tomorrow. Mrs. Ramsay’s “Yes” is supportive and kind, but factually false. Mr. Ramsay’s “No” (the weather won’t be fine) is factually correct but emotionally hollow. To his credit, his expressed intention is to teach the kids the value of “truth” and the “courage” to face “uncompromising facts.” But little James, not yet initiated into the world of cold, hard facts, only recognizes the generosity of “yes” and the tyranny of “no.”

So Mr. Ramsay is never quite likable, but he is drawn by Woolf with remarkable sensitivity and compassion. He rightly surmises that he would have written better philosophy books had he not married. And yet he loves his family and thinks he is a brute to even have that thought (69). His life, like all lives in Woolf, is a jumble of successes, sacrifices, and irretrievable losses. He thinks that Mrs. Ramsay, even at age 50, is the most beautiful woman in the world (123), and yet his excessive neediness prevents us from quite liking him for the sentiment. On one level Mrs. Ramsay finds comfort in his “truthfulness,” in “the admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence, which ran up and down, crossed this way and that, like iron girders spanning the swaying fabric, upholding the world, so that she could trust herself to it utterly” (106). And although his initial “no” showed no malice but a cold adherence to fact, it is poignant that years later when he finally takes James to the lighthouse, fulfilling the promise of Mrs. Ramsay and perhaps trying to atone for his own earlier failure, James responds with almost pure hatred of the old man.

Mrs. Ramsay is the archetypal mother, the Magna Mater, presiding over the domestic rituals that bind abstract individuals into community. Where Mr. Ramsay clings (perhaps desperately) to philosophy and Truth as an anchor of meaning (his lighthouse), Mrs. Ramsay clings (perhaps less desperately because less aware of the limitations of her world view) to domesticity and family feeling. She plays the role of Magna Mater magnificently, presiding over her intersubjective world with precision, as beautifully expressed in the scene with her family and dinner guests:

“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 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 trout are all lit up, hanging, trembling” (87).

Her role as Magna Mater, though, has problematic implications for her both as a person and as a social force. As a person, she has had to sacrifice her individuality. Between all her serving and doing, there are flickering moments where she asks, “What have I done with my life?” (82), or allows herself to linger on the thought for a full few seconds, as when she senses “something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband, a sort of transaction … in which she was on one side, and life was on the other, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her” (59).

Furthermore, Lily, a shrewd observer and perhaps the closest character to Woolf’s point of view, sees the dynamic of Mr. Ramsay’s neediness and Mrs. Ramsay’s giving him pity differently than Mrs. Ramsay sees it. To Mrs. Ramsay, he is needy and she doesn’t mind giving him pity because he is more important than her and it’s a generous thing for her to do even if she finds it draining at times. But Lily suspects “that all this desire of hers to give, to help, was vanity. For her own self-satisfaction … that people might … need her and send for her and admire her” (41). There is a little bit of Ayn Rand’s Ellsworth Toohey in Mrs. Ramsay. She exposes this in the first few pages in her vision of life at the lighthouse, as she fantasizes misery in order to pity it (5). Or a few pages later, why does she suddenly say of the sullen Tansley, “She liked him warmly, at the moment” (11)? It seems inexplicable but go back a few lines and you’ll see that he exposed himself as in need of pity. This is what made her suddenly warm up to him. And her need to pity men in general approaches delusions of grandeur: “She had the whole of the other sex under her protection” (6). This is certainly not the whole Mrs. Ramsay, but it is one onion skin in the fabric of her identity.

As a social force, Mrs. Ramsay is actively complicit in the traditional gender scheme. She pities men for their inability to “feel” things right but she admires and is grateful for their competence in public affairs. But everyone’s first duty is to get married and have a family. Paul and Minta must get married (they do and it turns to disaster). Lily and Mr. Bankes must get married (luckily they never do). But in Mrs. Ramsay’s vision, there is no other option: “People must marry; people must have children” (60). It is deliciously ironic that perhaps the most powerful and attractive character in all of Woolf’s corpus, the darling of so many feminists, is also a tremendous gravitational force pulling people back into traditional gender norms. This is expressed most succinctly in a scene at the dinner where Lily toys with the idea of violating the gender code but one knowing glance from Mrs. Ramsay and Lily “had to renounce the experiment” (92).

Lily, by contrast, plays a more “feminist” role. She is the artist who chooses not to marry. But her consciousness too is conflicted and multi-layered. She feels the full weight of what Mrs. Ramsay represents, the Great Mother towering over the ages, very powerful, very beautiful, very instrumental in human community. And she feels very insignificant by comparison. And yet she sees that marriage would be a trap for her and chooses artistic creation over procreation, almost as an absurd hero chooses moral action, knowing in advance the futility of doing so. In a nutshell, Mrs. Ramsay in the window is the very picture of the Beautiful Woman, the Great Mother, the cosmic procreative power, but she is also the picture of a woman trapped in, framed by, and complicit in the deadening Victorian gender norms of a dying age. This is why the first of the three books is called “The Window,” and this is why it takes Lily so long to get her painting of Mrs. Ramsay, and all that Mrs. Ramsay represents, just right.

Overall, one might see Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay both tangled up in the double-binds of Victorian gender norms. Mrs. Ramsay must be the great Magna Mater but must also be self-sacrificing, self-negating, insignificant relative to the Husband. To succeed at one task is to fail at the other. Mr. Ramsay has one foot in philosophy and one in family, unable to complete himself in either. The Victorian code enjoins the stoical, factual male of the public sphere but also glorifies the Family. Men and women are both trapped in these codes. I’d say that Mr. Ramsay is more aware of the trap than Mrs. Ramsay, but this frees Mrs. Ramsay to show that the age that is passing away is more than just a trap – it is also something archetypal, eternally beautiful, something with a transcendental as well as a material frame of reference. It is up to Lily’s painting (of Mrs. Ramsay in the window) to capture the full beauty, the shimmering transcendental glow of that age, so that we can let it go and move on.

* * *

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Goodbye, Maggie

Unrelated to the previous post, here’s a draft opening for a different novella-in-progress (Goodbye, Maggie). If you prefer one to the other (or have other thoughts), let me know.

* * *

D E S I R E
says the neon above the Royal Sonesta door on Bourbon

H U G E  A S S  B E E R S
screams the street vendor’s sign

H O M O  S E X  I S  S I N
exclaims a navy-blue banner sailing through the crowd with bold white print

To their credit, the men with the banner, who alternately huddle around it like a lodestone and spread through the crowd like feelers, are not reducibly homophobes. Draped from their shoulders, in the spirit of Corinthians 6, are full-length body posters decrying fornicators, liars, blasphemers, adulterers, thieves, hypocrites, drunkards, abortionists, witches, atheists, and money lovers. They are in the right place on this Mardi Gras day in New Orleans.

One could enjoy this scene from any of the wrought-iron balconies overlooking Bourbon St. On one such balcony, a petite woman with woven dark hair and stunning violet eyes (no one could forget the eyes), costumed as a fairy queen, surveys the festive crowd below. The unholy throng carouses the street in waves. The fairy queen disappears from the balcony. The crowd revels to a crescendo and subsides.

The fairy queen returns to balcony but with her back to us, a red chrysanthemum in one hand. After a moment, she falls, face up, arms spread like an angel in flight as her body nears the street.

* * *

A rickety old paneled Datsun mini-wagon clunks into a supermarket parking lot. Phil, nerdy, early thirties, image of mediocrity, gets out. He tries a couple of times to shut the door but the latch works poorly. He finally kicks it shut and heads toward the store.

“Piece of shit,” our hero mutters.

Phil browses the cake counter for a second. A hefty, middle-aged woman stands behind the counter.

“I’ll take that pink and yellow one. And could you put ‘Happy Birthday Mary Elizabeth’ on it?”

“Too long,” says the countress, heavy, languid, but with a spirit like a coiled spring. Phil wonders. Her hostility. Is it racial animus? Does the black woman behind the counter resent his whiteness? Is she simply beaten down by the drudgery of her job?

Phil wipes his glasses. “What do you mean, too long?”

“It’s too long, baby. All them letters on that lil’ cake. How about just ‘Happy Birthday’?”

No, she is not hostile. Phil remembers what Hermia said. He needs to allow for different personalities. But now he is aggravated.

“I can’t take a cake with just ‘Happy Birthday’! It won’t look … it won’t be special.”

“How about a bigger cake?”

Yes, she is hostile.

Phil browses impatiently.

“OK, give me that one.”

“Which one, baby?”

No, she is not hostile. But Phil cannot tone it down all the way.

“That one there. The one the size of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch.’”

The server pulls the cake from the display case. She is mumbling, shaking her head. “Heard a no cake look like a watch.”

Phil fidgets as the server decorates the cake. She brings it over. It says, “Happy Birthday Mary Elizabeth,” and has a watch at the center. He looks at it, cocks his head.

“What’s that?”

“You said you wanted a watch.”

“I didn’t say I wanted a watch.”

The server sighs, moves her chin slightly, and shouts toward a woman by the oven.

“Hey, Bertha, you heard that man say he wanted a watch?”

“Yeah, sugar. He said a watch.”

The server looks back at Phil.

“Bertha heard you say a watch.”

Yes, she is hostile. Phil does not need this.

“OK, OK, look, can you just turn it into the star of Bethlehem or a gift from the wise men.”

“I thought you said it was a birthday cake.”

“Yeah, well, it’s Twelfth Night, too.”

“Twelfth Night? What the hell is that?”

“Feast of the Epiphany.”

She looks at him puzzled, as if awaiting an explanation. There is empathy, connection in her puzzlement.

“Epiphany,” Phil repeats. “Today’s the feast of the Epiphany.”

* * *

An art show is being held in a large, old, city home. People, some in costumes, are viewing paintings and art objects. A black cat masker observes a dark, richly colored landscape. She hears a voice.

“Too dark.”

She turns, startled by a close-up red and black Satan mask.

“Darkness,” says the Satan masker, “always comes with a tinge of light, doesn’t it?”

She moves on, uncomfortable.

* * *

Phil is in the parking lot with a couple of bags and the cake. He tries clumsily to put the cake on the roof of car, but it slowly slides off and crashes face-down in the parking lot. We in the audience well up with tears.

* * *

A burst of laughter at the art show. The Satan masker is away, observing another landscape including an apparent pagan ritual. He hears a voice.

x x x

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Love’s Ragged Claws

Below is a draft opening for my novella, “Love’s Ragged Claws.” Feedback welcome.

x x x

It was dark in the small chamber behind the purple curtain. So dark Gabriel could barely see. So small he could barely kneel. The sound of wood sliding. A small sliding door. A tap of finality as the sliding door hit its mark. A dim light came through cross-shaped holes in the wooden panel, face-level, that remained before him.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Gabriel said.

“God forgives all who repent sincerely. When was your last confession?”

A pause.

“Fifty years ago.”

A muffled aspiration could be heard from Father Angelo’s side of the screen – a sigh both of compassion for one so long lost and of relief for the prodigal returned. As Father Angelo felt this pleasant mixture of wholesome feelings in his heart and head, his stomach growled. How many times had he tried to put all worldly thoughts behind him to focus on the Lord’s work? And yet he was late for his lunch, and a little part of him, a sinful part, was demoralized at the thought of the day’s final confession dragging on.

“That’s a long absence from grace, my son. But your reconciliation is near. The Lord cares not how many the sins but only how true the penance. Fifty years of sins can be washed away in a day. Now recount your sins, my son, no matter how many. Begin at the beginning, and do not rush through, but reflect as you go.”

“But, Father,” said Gabriel. “I only have three sins.”

* * *

Eva gazed out from her cabin window in Colorado. She could see a few rooftops of the town, and in the distance, the forest, thick with blue spruce and bristlecone pines, rising vertically up to the snow-capped peaks.

Rat-a-tap-tap-tap.

Funny how she knew Gabriel’s knock, how deeply embedded it was in the rings of her memory. She opened the door, and there he was, smiling, a little older than the last time she had seen him, but still willowy tall with arms thrown about, a patch of thick white hair on his head. Still smiling the same smile.

“Hallo, love,” he said, tossing off his knit hat. Still a spring in his step, she thought.

“How are you feeling, Eva?”

“Good,” she said, and she let him hug her.

“More or less,” she added.

That’s my old Eva, Gabriel thought. In that one phrase, he recognized layers of her psyche at work. She had been a dental lab technician, crafting the tiniest contours of the human tooth, each one unique, in simulacrum. Good at it, too, but crippled by perfectionism. She could never finish anything for fear it would not be good enough. Never be too hopeful. To be hopeful is to be crushed when perfection is missed. She felt good in his presence; he knew that. And through the lens of that goodness he could see all the folds her beauty. Her features themselves, well, all her life she had been known for plainness of features. And look at her now. Still the round boyish face, the pixie haircut, but with more gray. Yet she knew how deeply Gabriel saw in her plainness a pristine beauty. And she loved it. But no, it raised expectations to an insufferable level. She must moderate expectations to avoid the crushing moment of their falling short.

“More or less,” she repeated, and they held each other’s gaze for one second more, a second in which each recognized the other’s penetration, saw their hidden graces and flaws exposed, the little psychological mechanisms that they could not control and that seemed so serious at other times, reduced to mere curiosities when unmasked by trusted eyes.

“Should we go into Boulder?” asked Gabriel.

“Yes, let’s,” said Eva, and down they went through the winding canyons.

x x x

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Freud’s Wolf Man and Joyce’s Dubliners

It’s hard to read Freud’s case histories of the Rat Man (1909) and the Wolf Man (1918) and not be fascinated. Most intriguing of all is how Freud slowly pieces together the patient’s unconscious backstory using what little the patient gives him, small memories that have stuck with the patient for some reason: he was holding his mother’s hand as a toddler, and she was lamenting her illness to a doctor she was seeing off at the train station, and her words made a deep impression; he was standing with his governess in front of the house watching a carriage drive off with his father, mother, and sister, and then walked peacefully back into the house with his governess; there was a picture book with a wolf standing upright that his sister had used to frighten him. Each snapshot seems insignificant but left its mark, and indeed these “insignificant” moments become defining moments, albeit unconsciously, that shape all the subsequent life of the patient’s psyche.

Notice the similarity to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Joyce spearheaded a turn in the history of the novel away from the perfectly crafted plotlines of Dickens toward something more subjective. What happens when you can no longer rely on plot milestones and neat closures to frame the flow of meaning? What happens – at least if you are in the early 20th century – is you stumble into a Freudian frame of meaning. In Dubliners, each story captures a moment with no big drama but with an impression left on the protagonist’s mind – the character’s disappointment in “Araby” when he arrives too late at a fair and is unable to get a gift for the girl he secretly loved, the child’s sense of the corpse’s presence at an in-home wake (“The Sisters”), the sense of something peculiar and transgressive in the old man’s approach in “An Encounter.” These moments have the same kind of vitality as the memory-scenes in Freud’s case histories. No bells and whistles, but they capture an impression that leaves a deep mark on the psyche.

I don’t know how deliberate Joyce’s Freudian ground of meaning was, but history makes some cross-pollination inevitable. Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was offered (but declined) Joyce’s Ulysses for publication around the same time that they were publishing English translations of Freud’s on-going works (and poems by the likes of T. S. Eliot). Certainly all these towering early modernists – Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound, D. H. Lawrence – were moving in the same circles, with Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group as one of the nuclei. But however tenuous the cross-connects, there is no doubt that Joyce’s Dubliners participates in reshaping the form of fiction away from the organizing principles of plot and climax. (Woolf’s To the Lighthouse [1927], to me, would be the greatest example of the modernist novel built around subjective points of reference, but Dubliners is closer to the kick-start.) Joyce thus helps to reshape modern identity – first by changing the form in which we see these human stories transacted, and secondly by changing the role of the reader. The reader must orient differently to Dubliners than he had to Dickens. No more of the objective markers that make Dickensian characters so memorable (one thinks, e.g., of Gradgrind, “whose head was all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie”), or of the dramatic climax that brings all the plot threads together. In the trajectory of fiction from Dubliners to Woolf, the reader herself is cast into the role of psychoanalyst, peering into the minds of minor characters, looking for how lasting impressions are made of seemingly trivial events. It’s not about what the characters are doing so much as it is about the dynamics of being.

So was Joyce deliberately deploying Freud? Was Freud perhaps influenced by modernist writers and artists of the day? I’ll let others measure out the exact influences, but I’d recommend this experiment for my own readers: Pick up a copy of Freud’s Three Case Histories, which includes the Wolf Man, notice how reading it places you into the role of psychoanalyst, and ask yourself if the reader is not cast into the same role when he or she reads Dubliners or To the Lighthouse. And ask yourself if that shift in orientation about how we read does not partly reflect and partly implement a shift of human identity into its modern form.

Related: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon/Sula; Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses

Why April is the cruelest month

For T. S. Eliot, it’s simple. Because April means rebirth.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

In these opening lines of “The Waste Land,” the “dull roots” and “dried tubers” feel the full weight of pain at being called back to life from their comfortably deadened existence under ground. It is an interesting concept – to start your death and rebirth poem with the cruel anguish of rebirth, the agonized stirring of memory and desire pulling those presumed dead roots upward through the soil toward the surface and rebirth – or perhaps with memory pulling downward into the lost unconscious depths of the soil and desire pulling upward toward rebirth. It doesn’t help that the surface we’re being born into is a barren waste land. Indeed rebirth here pretty much means being re-initiated into another form of death, rising from the subsoil to a surface where “the sun beats” mercilessly on “dry stone” and “the dead tree gives no shelter.” So April’s rebirth is cruel both for what it pulls us from (our comfortable deadness under the “forgetful snow”) and for what it pulls us to – the waste land of life on the surface.

It’s a little bit like the tulips in Sylvia Plath’s poem of that title.  The painfully red tulips in her hospital room recall her to life, remind her of her commitments, of the emotional “baggage” of “husband and child,” whose “smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks,” drag her back from drowning in the white sea of obliviousness, and for that she resents them as much as Eliot does April.

It is probably no coincidence that both Eliot and Plath, standard-bearers of modernist poetry, suffered emotional breakdowns around the times they were writing these poems. Indeed, one could say that the psyche peering into the abyss of emotional breakdown, paralyzed and overwhelmed by the equal and opposite forces of desire for and fear of human contact, became to a large extent the default for the human condition under modernism. Is such a default determined by conditions of modernity or by the simple fact that anti-depressants were unavailable to most 20th-century poets? Or is the development and ubiquitous use of anti-depressants a self-fulfilled prophecy, the final concrete expression of emotional numbness as the norm for the modern condition? I have no idea. Decide for yourselves. I was only trying to say why April is the cruelest month.

When Sirens Call

Review of Paul David Adkin’s When Sirens Call. Melbourne, Australia: Threekookaburras, 2014.

When Sirens Call finds its center of gravity in the romantically charged meeting between Belinda Babchek and Robert Aimard on a Greek island, but this is not your dime store romance novel. Paul Adkin tackles something much more ambitious, something that picks up on the modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, using the framework of odyssey and romance to explore the nuances of intersubjective separation and contact.

True to the expectation created by the setting, Adkin’s descriptions are finely crafted, from the Greek island scenery to the stream-of-consciousness flow of associations within the young Aussie traveler and photographic artist, Belinda, and the English ex-pat writer and island hotelier, Robert. Indeed, the travelogesque descriptions often clothe the philosophical points of the novel. Belinda notices early on, for example, before leaving Madrid, that “the megalopolis … seen from without, seems nobler,” while seen from within it is “chaos … vulgar, bitter, sharp, filthy” (37). This, in a way, encapsulates the novel’s whole point about human identity and the world we live in. The island scenery, the “tiny fishing trawler … the setting sun … gleaming yachts” (130) that form the outer shell of our protagonists’ experience, are beautiful and real, but equally real are the messy subjective interiors struggling anxiously, hopelessly, “absurdly” as both our protagonists like to say, to define a self and a place in the world. The same doubleness reads as a critique of the “romance” genre into which the novel might faux fit, a genre that typically achieves an outer shell of dreamy idealism, even in tragedy, but does so only by obfuscating the messy interior of bodily functions and psychological disturbances. Adkin doesn’t spare us the messy interior, but rather lifts the veil on the genre itself. The romantic island “paradise,” as Aimard suggests, is a poor cover for a “wasteland” within (186).

The two principal characters do not meet until the second half of the novel, and this may make for a slow start for some readers. The first half, with little or no plot, develops subjective and intersubjective spaces, building up a sense of human identity and a modernist force field of themes – alienation, dislocation, loss of meaning, the individual adrift. Separately, we bob along the interior currents of Robert and Belinda, following their inner lives as they daily reconstruct an identity built upon fears, hopes, lost loves and missed connections, percepts in the immediate environment, nuggets of philosophy and social criticism, literary and archetypal allusions that float in and out of their minds. Each character marks out an identity by a mental repetition of fence posts – cultural, historical, personal, and archetypal reference points that stabilize the frame. But the real pressure points are the points of intersubjective contact – the string of ghosts, shadows, substitute antecedents for the missing him or her, the compulsive desire for, and destabilizing fear of, human contact. The “traps” and “tricks” of Belinda’s photography, of Robert’s novels, might be seen in this light as the traps and tricks we register in all our past relationships and with which we inexorably color our future relationships in advance.

Despite differences in age and background, Robert and Belinda share much when it comes to the struggles of identity construction and sense of loss and emptiness in their lives. Indeed, as we oscillate between their streams of consciousness before the meeting, one wishes that Adkin had done more to differentiate the two, had given a more unique prosody and rhythm to each of these interior monologues, had more sharply distinguished the laws of physics governing these respective psyches. But these are the flaws of highly ambitious writing, and it is difficult not to appreciate what Adkin has accomplished as we stumble into and explore the interior landscapes he has given us.

Once the two meet, this modernist base, this malaise of intersubjectivity, is coupled to a plot with an arc, a tension, a sense of anticipation that pulls the reader into the story by the buttonhole. The plot does not have the intricacy and complexity of a classic Dickens plot, but comes rather in the mold of a D. H. Lawrence plot, where the objective sequence is simple but the subjective dynamics foster ample suspense and expectancy to drive the reader forward.

We do get our plot resolution in the end, and I for one like the novel best when the plot becomes superimposed upon the subjective arena at its base, but this is finally not a novel about plot. It is a novel about subjective spaces, lonely spaces, and moments of separation and contact. Like Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, it is a novel not exhausted by the plot, but rather a novel one can return to over and over, expecting with each reading the discovery of new layers of flora and fauna in those fluid spaces between the archetypal and the everyday, where “fishermen’s beards become philosophers’ beards” (21), where all lines converge toward Greece, the cradle of our collective unconscious.

The Red Wheelbarrow and Jung’s Synchronicity (plus Keats)

so much depends                                                                                                                     upon

a red wheel                                                                                                                       barrow

glazed with rain                                                                                                                 water

beside the white                                                                                                                 chickens

(William Carlos Williams, 1923)

The first thing readers often notice about Williams’s poem is that it seems so arbitrary – just an arbitrary set of domestic images, with no philosophical propositions, no apparent symbolic referents, no historical context. Just the “thing in itself,” as Williams liked to say. In some other context, a red wheelbarrow may have a practical function, but here the images are stripped of practical value. This is exactly what liberates us to see them through the lens of pure aesthetic wonder. At least that’s the imagist idea.

Formal construction of the poem supports this imagist project. The line structure breaks each substantive unit (wheel / barrow, rain / water, white / chickens) as if to retrain the eye, bringing you through a double-take back to the thing in itself. The one verbal unit – “glazed” – puts it all under a glass coat for aesthetic gaze.

So if that’s the agenda, the question remains, why these images? Why not “the pile of dog / shit / by the black / shovel”?  For the imagist, it’s a trick question. The arbitrariness is itself the key. Of all colors, red on white! The arbitrariness gives a fragile sensory beauty that cannot be achieved in more cerebral poetry.

When the poem rips its subject from practical and historical standards of value, you might say it rips away the causal nexus that brought the objects into this configuration. This is where the imagist poem intersects with Jung’s idea of synchronicity. For Jung, there are two modes of assigning value: via causality or via synchronicity. You can explain things by looking at the external string of causes that brought them here, or you can strip away the causal nexus and look at the things in themselves in their unique and arbitrary aspect. The imagist poem focuses through the lens not of causality but of synchronicity.

While I can appreciate the imagist project, I still like to think that I can appreciate the poem on both levels (despite the poet’s intention, as it were). I can place the imagist poem into historical perspective as a countercultural thread within modernism. Key features of modernism – fragmentation, the loss of depth and of transcendental meaning – which may cause paralysis and despair in the poetry of T. S. Eliot or the prose of William Faulkner – are turned by the imagist into a celebration of the arbitrary fragment, of the colliding surfaces themselves. One might in this respect align the fragmented, colliding surfaces of Picasso with the imagist poets, as a counterweight within the angst-ridden modernist movement.

But when the historical placement is done, it’s still nice to go back and bask in the immediacy of the imagist poem. It is, after all, the flash of synchronicity which re-opens a vista for modern Westerners who have in many cases lost the register for that kind of raw, meaningless beauty.

Compare, finally, to the closing lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819):

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Noteworthy is that Keats attributes these lines to the urn itself and not the speaker of the poem. Indeed, the lesson we might apply from the imagist poem is that truth is NOT beauty. “Truth” is the cornerstone of causal thinking. We compare a proposition to the world it references and determine its truth-value. “Beauty,” on the other hand, is the cornerstone of synchronicity. Its value lies in its immediacy. The urn in those final lines tries to marry the two together, but the real poignancy in the Keats ode lies in the fact that that marriage is tenuous. Keats may have already sensed at the writing of the poem the tuberculosis that would soon kill him. Certainly, in any event, the tension between the mortality of the poet and the immortality of the figures on the urn is an operative force in the poem. The young lovers depicted on the urn will remain “forever young,” and therein lies their beauty. But the truth is that they will never feel the warmth of the kiss, their lips forever an inch apart.

The poet has an advantage over the marble figures in that he will feel the human warmth of the kiss, but the cost of this warmth is that he and his beloved will soon wither. The urn’s beauty lasts forever, but the truth the poet must face is death – and very soon, in Keats’s case.

The image set in “The Red Wheelbarrow” is like the set of figures on the urn. Its beauty will last, as the poem has lasted for generations, its synchronic value unadulterated by time. But the imagist poem evades the truth of mortality. Or almost evades it. Williams’s first stanza (“So much depends / upon”) suggests a tiny hole in the imagist fabric, an element of urgency, an inkling of time and mortality, a slightest hint of the inexorable truth of causal reality breaking against the edges of its crisp and beautiful synchronicity.