(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)
Love with a Fruit-Dish
Liliane Louvel (Université de Poitiers)
"L'esprit sort par les yeux pour aller se promener dans les choses."
(M. Merleau-Ponty 28)
Nature morte avec l'Amour en plâtre, Still Life with a Plaster Statue of Love is an oil painting by Cézanne. It is a complex painting in which objects are represented as if seen from above. Looming over a plate of fruit stands an enigmatic statue of an armless Cupid. Apart from apples and onions, one can see, in the background, the lower part of Anatomy, a painting attributed to Michelangelo, and a second canvas obliquely situated in relation to the Cupid stands to the left of the painting. A third painting representing a still life with apples on a blue napkin can be seen behind the Cupid. It has been identified as a painting of the same period now in the National Gallery in Washington. According to Lawrence Gowing, this is a complex subject as the painting includes a cast and its representation, "real" apples and painted apples, a napkin and a painted napkin. A perfect harmony reigns between the baroque sculpture, the things belonging to domestic life and the paintings. According to L. Gowing the theme in reality is that of association and fusion on which Cézanne's mature style is based.
I propose to reread an emblematic passage of To the Lighthouse according to the criteria of what I call a "pictorial description" and an "aesthetic arrangement" as I have tried to define them elsewhere (Louvel 474-490) and to see to what extent it is emblematic of the whole section as it contains and reveals some hidden meaning which in fact comes to the fore thanks to a pictorial description in which "things" and objects play a fundamental role.
Critics tend to illustrate or link word and image, painting and writing, and a quick reading of the passage could easily pass off as some kind of pictorial equivalent of Cézanne's Love with a Fruit-dish as those two elements figure overtly or covertly in this description. But it would be too quickly established a link and this is also one of the main targets of this
paper: to dispel inconsiderate and hasty parallels between painting and poetry, going a bit too far in the interart analogy, the age-old ut pictura poesis. Yet the repressed will tend to return.
From fear of things to the comfort of objects, from doubts to triumph, the sections devoted to Mrs Ramsay's dinner (sections 17,18,19) in the first part of To the Lighthouse evolve according to a pattern of constant shifts in focalization until a temporary union is achieved which is emblematized in the short passage I intend to scrutinize.
One must distinguish between things and objects. Things designate what is indeterminate and inanimate. They can be abstract or concrete, and the term is reserved to what is unnamed, vague, hazy. Objects are what is visible, what can be named, what is concrete although of course one can speak of the object of a study. Through the metamorphosis of Mrs Ramsay's gaze objects will tend to become things and things will tend to acquire mysterious positive or negative qualities as euphoria and dysphoria alternate within her own mind.
From an Aesthetic Arrangement to a Pictorial Description
Fearing that her children will burst out laughing at their father's irate looks (he is annoyed with Augustus Carmichael for having asked for more soup and thus making "everything dragging on for hours like this"), Mrs Ramsay suddenly asks them to "[l]ight the candles." Still gazing at Mr Carmichael busy drinking his soup, she reflects on "how devoted he was to Andrew, and would call him into his room, and, Andrew said, 'show him things.'" The choice of the indeterminate "things" instead of "objects" opens up the imaginary and hazy zone, that of poetry, of what remains unnamed, unlabelled. The signifier "things" will close the extract in a significant way too as we will see: "a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily." Let it be noted that Augustus Carmichael represents the figure of the poet as acknowledged by Mr Ramsay in a paradoxical way: "'Poor old Augustus—he's a true poet,' which was high praise for her husband"(111). Then the candles dramatically bring into view "a purple and yellow dish of fruit."
Gradually, the description of a banal fruit-dish, resting in the middle of a long table, will evolve from "aesthetic arrangement" to "pictorial description" according to the markers I have tried to define. A strong sudden lighting brings into view the "thing" which is going to be "shown" as an echo of Andrew's words ("show him things"), and will enable Mrs Ramsay to embark on a curious and unexpected journey:
A focalizer, Mrs Ramsay, examines the thing brought into the field of "visibility." What is given to sight is a well-known kind of painting, a still life, much depicted in Dutch but also in XVIIIth century painting and reinvented by cubist art. The still life is detailed and recomposed by Mrs Ramsay's eye: "a yellow and purple dish of fruit" is first presented as reigning upon the middle of the table, thus insisting on its centrality; then the lexis of painting under the guise of colours, "yellow and purple," precedes the container itself preceding the fruit. Mrs Ramsay comments on what she calls "Rose's arrangement," which turns out to be very "aesthetic" indeed, and she wonders over and scrutinizes the fruit offered to sight: grapes and pears and bananas. But if grapes and pears indeed are classical features of still lifes the banana is rarer for obvious historical reasons. Another classical feature of this still life, particularly so in Dutch painting, is "the horny pink-lined shell," often represented as one kind of mother-of-pearl shell or another, richly mounted as a cup adorned with gold and precious stones. The string of commas punctuates Mrs Ramsay's daydreaming as she associates Rose's arrangement with: "a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea, of Neptune's banquet, of the bunch that hangs with vine leaves over the shoulder of Bacchus (in some picture), among the leopard skins and the torches lolloping red and gold. . ." (112). The shell has been turned into another thing, a trophy associated with the sea, the god of the sea. The banquet, and the grapes, are part of a description which turns out to be a short ekphrasis as indicated by the parenthesis "(in some picture)." Thus the link between Mrs Ramsay's vision and painting is at last acknowledged: it is reinforced by more classical details bringing in a representation of Bacchus.
Then the text takes another turn as indicated by the dots. Mrs Ramsay's own vision, embarks her on a strange journey. The lighting effect hollows out the vision and imparts the "arrangement" with what might appear as a fantastic quality as: "Thus brought up suddenly into light it seemed possessed of great size and depth, was like a world in which one could take one's staff and climb up hills, she thought, and go down into valleys" (112). Literally, there is an effect of inversion as a microcosm becomes a macrocosm, whereas Mrs Ramsay's eyes are penetrating things, enabling her to lose herself in the details of the fruit-dish turned mountainous landscape in which she evolves helped by her staff. Thanks to free
. The polysemic 'staff' metaphorically represents her 'party,' i.e. her children and her guests, as we shall see.
association the still life has become a landscape painting, and the reader is guided along the trajectory followed by Mrs Ramsay's eyes. Although engrossed in her contemplation, she notices someone else is sharing her enjoyment:
The figure of the poet much resented before this extract, here, shares Mrs Ramsay's vision thus reinforcing the analogy between painting and poetry. Augustus is presented as a kind of bumble bee honey-gathering here and there and returning to this "hive." We know how important the dome and the hive are in To the Lighthouse. Their thoughts seem to be following the same track and of course the recurrent lexical field of pleasure and enjoyment, "feasting and feasted," leads us to re-examine the description and see it in terms of an aesthetic and erotic fusion.
Love with a Fruit Dish as an Aesthetic and Erotic Fusion
If Cézanne's two signifiers, love and the fruit-dish, indeed are present in the extract, seeing the passage as a literary equivalent of his painting would be erroneous, as the analysis of the kind of painting it is will show. If this description can be truly qualified as a "pictorial description," the fusion which constitutes one of its undercurrents, blends several types of painting: still-life, allegorical painting, chiaroscuro, and caravagesque painting (also called "luminism"). For the reader cannot but be struck by the strong pictorial evocative quality of the passage. Furthermore, the fusion between different types of painting is redoubled by the fusion between several recognizable paintings, which appear as in reminiscence, due to the work of involuntary memory.
The text refers to a twofold allegorical kind of painting as the first part of the reverie constructs a story about a trophy "fetched from the bottom of the sea" and "Neptune's banquet," (another rewriting of Mrs Ramsay's forever delayed trip to the lighthouse and her own dinner), blending in with the second part in which a reference to Bacchus figures in the evocation of a caravagesque painting.
Indeed, several memories of different paintings of Bacchus are fused together: Caravaggio's manner may be hinted at in "the torches lolloping red and yellow," but in his painting of Bacchus (a self-portrait visible at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which Woolf visited) if there are vine leaves and grapes
they do not fall over Bacchus's shoulder as in Mrs Ramsay's memory, and there are no leopard skins or torches. "Torches lollopping red and gold" figure in some of Georges De la Tour's paintings such as Saint Sébastien for instance, but not in Caravaggio's although his favourite lighting effect is very close to that cast by torches, a visible result of an invisible cause. Velasquez's evocation of Bacchus could also be quoted as well as several others, representing some bacchanalia or The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne by the Caracci brothers or by Titian (and there are leopards in both). But let's stop here this little game of trying to spot what painting Mrs Ramsay may have had in mind as this is typically irrelevant and irreconcilable with what fiction is. What is important is that a fusion of several paintings is effected and that the text offers itself as a reverie, a condensation, as in the work of dreams. And Mrs Ramsay's dinner is depicted as a chiaroscuro, in the manner of Caravaggio, in which the forces of light and darkness violently fight one another.
The aesthetic fusion is reinforced by an erotic one. The text is imbued with a strong erotic undertone, as if providing some kind of answer to the anguished beginning of the section when Mrs Ramsay was seen raising fundamental questions such as "But what have I done with my life?" (95) together with her doubts concerning her relationship with her husband:
In the "pictorial description" unfolding according to her gaze, the dish constitutes a kind of cornucopia out of which the phallic-shaped fruit (bananas) and the feminine one (the pears) are fused in the androgynous shape of the "horny pink-lined shell" combining male and female attributes, hinting at fecundity. In the same way, Augustus is imagined "breaking off a
. Although in another painting by Caravaggio, Young Sick Bacchus, leaves (vine leaves or ivy) fall upon Bacchus' back and shoulders.
. The delightful fruit basket figuring in the forefront of Bacchus is also reproduced with modulations in a 1595 still life, which is visible at the pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milano, and it is also similar to that figuring in one of his other paintings The Pilgrim at Emmaüs.
bloom there, a tassel here." The eroticism associated with Bacchus's shoulder caressed by vine leaves, and the primitive violence of the leopard skins and the chiaroscuro of the torches, is followed by a crescendo and decrescendo-like movement of the eye. Mrs Ramsay's gaze follows the same paths and valleys as "Augustus," "the true poet," and the lexical field of pleasure confirmed by the parenthesis "(for it brought them into sympathy momentarily)," culminates in the climax brought about by the anadiplosis: "That was his way of looking, different from hers. But looking together united them." Their sexual difference is asserted, at the same time as their temporary union in an erotic fusion is realized in the deeply satisfying contemplation of things.
After Mrs Ramsay's encounter with Augustus Carmichael, the lighting effect is repeated: "now all the candles were lit," and at last, the separate members of the party become one. But before they can realize it consciously, they are "arranged" in their turn and "composed. . . into a party" as in a painting: "Now all the candles were lit, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candle light, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table" (112). The power of light is once more asserted, recalling Poussin's letter to M. de Chambray as without light there is no vision—"il ne se donne point de visible sans lumière"—and Malevitch's reflection:
So thanks to light and visibility, union is achieved, and threatening "things" can stay outside:
The little party is stranded as if on an island or in the middle of the threatening masses of the liquid night. For one evening, at least, they are free from the menace of dissolution. The series of antitheses inside/outside, dryness/fluidity, order/disorder, hints at the elaboration of a cosmos fighting off chaos. Thus the reference to "things," those shared between Andrew and
. Quotations from Nicolas Poussin to M. de Chambray, Rome, 1er mars 1665, et K.S. Malévitch, La Lumière et la couleur, 1918-1926. Trans. J.C. Marcadé et S. Siger. Lausanne: l'Age d'homme, 1981, 63-64; both quoted by Louis Marin (197).
Augustus, foreboding those shared by Mrs Ramsey and Augustus, and the threatening "things" wavering and vanishing in the reflection outside, frames the passage, confirming its pictorial dimension. Then the spell is broken as "Some change at once went through them all, as if this had really happened, and they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against that fluidity out there" (112). So that love can be truly embodied and make its entrance.
An Emblematic Passage
For just following the realization by the guests of the sense of belonging together and sharing, as if upon Mrs Ramsay's own conjuring act, the two young people who have just become engaged, make a dramatic entrance together with the bœuf en daube, the masterpiece: "they must come now, Mrs Ramsay thought looking at the door, and at that instant, Minta Doyle, Paul Rayley, and a maid carrying a great dish in her hands came in together" (113).
The previous reference to Bacchus, whose Greek name was Dionysos, imparts the text with a Dionysiac quality as opposed to an apollonian one, particularly so in this scene. The emblematic pictorial passage can be read as a pendant of the famous and bourgeois bœuf en daube rejoicing, the feast of the eyes and the fusion between the two protagonists foreshadowing the feast of the palate and the tribal fusion between all the guests through the partaking of food. Furthermore, it will find another counterpart in the third artistic pleasure of the section: the reciting of the poem. Love, the rejoicing and pleasure of the senses, are the necessary ingredients of an orgiastic celebration. Thus the queen of the hive's temporary union with Augustus finds its realization in the union of Minta and Paul, while she keeps scheming to arrange another match doomed to failure, that of Lily Briscoe and Charles Tansley. The party is ready for the sacrifice of the ritualistic bœuf en daube, shared in a tribal meal, as another sacrifice is hinted at for one can read Minta's loss of her brooch, as another kind of loss, that of her virginity, of her identity as an individual as she will
. Let it be recalled that an emblem (Emblema) was composed of a title (inscriptio), a picture, a description (subscriptio). See Lazlo (31-36). Emblema was an insertion, a heterogeneous body included within another textual body, which is the case of the pictorial description under scrutiny.
. who is seen returning to his hive, and whose name is associated with Roman emperors, thus connoting nobility and linking him with the mythological gods quoted in the description under their Latin names: Neptune and Bacchus.
become a wife and a mother, and will have to sacrifice herself to the rest of her family as Mrs Ramsay did.
The famous passage of the bœuf en daube, representing one of Mrs Ramsay's moments of triumph, an echo of Neptune's banquet and of the trophy "fetched from the bottom of the sea," shows her dealing out food like a nourishing goddess helping them with "tender" morsels she "fishes out" of the dish
The repetition of "thing" in the above passage, under its many guises and polyptota, "nothing," "something," shows Mrs Ramsay's attempt at finding a stability to resist the flux of time and hold on to what can be grasped, a perfect moment producing a lasting thing as a shield against the relentless march of time. The strength and truth of existence establishes a kind of permanence. The passage of course echoes the first one in many ways, particularly so concerning the reflection in the windows, the threat of "the flowing," "the fleeting," which give the lie to Mrs Ramsay's illusion of permanence as the evasive nature of the signifier proves it, for what she is trying to grasp and hold on to can only be caught as "a thing."
Thus evolving from things to objects Mrs Ramsay ultimately reaches her complete triumph. The doubts about her life and her love for her husband she felt at the beginning of the section, when she displayed so little taste for playing the hostess once more, seem to be dispelled as she ends up enjoying the meal, fusing with the guests one after the other (Charles's ill
humour and then "she liked Charles Tansey, she thought, suddenly," 126), fusing with Augustus and triumphing with the Bœuf en daube, celebrating the union of the two young people. The sharing of visual then gustative pleasure finds its third counterpart in aural satisfaction as after once again having looked at the window "in which the candle flames burnt brighter now that the panes were black" another way of hinting at the inexorable passage of time, she suddenly hears her husband reciting poetry: the famous Luriana Lurilee poem which has been identified as a poem by Charles Isaac Elton:
What is remarkable of course and confirms the union between Mrs Ramsay and Augustus is that just after her husband has uttered "I wonder if it seems to you Luriana Lurilee," "the voice stopped. . . . She made herself get up. Augustus Carmichael had risen and holding his table napkin so that it looked like a long white robe he stood chanting":
Which he is doing actually and Mrs Ramsay, feeling liked, can literally "carry everything a step further" achieving a very dramatic exit framed for an instant in the door arm in arm with Minta, the loved one, passing away and vanishing out of the moment:
. According to Ruth Z. Temple: "The identity of this poem, which has baffled investigators, has now been established by Elizabeth Boyd, who had the excellent idea of asking Leonard Woolf. An anachronism in the novel, it remained unpublished until collected in V. Sackville West's and Harold Nicolson's compilation, Another World than this (London: Michael Josephson, 1945). Leonard Woolf who had had a copy in ms from Lytton Strachey at Cambridge had memorized it and his memory was Virginia's source. The author of "Luriana Lurilee" is Charles Isaac Elton, Q.C. See Notes and Queries (October 1963) 380-81, quoted in "Never say 'I': To the Lighthouse as Vision and Confession", Virginia Woolf. Ed. Claire Sprague. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971, note 18, p.95.
Her last triumph, the very last words of the first part of To the Lighthouse, "For she had triumphed again" (142), will be achieved over her husband thus closing the antithesis opened at the beginning of section 17: "But what have I done with my life?," wondering how she could have "ever felt any emotion or any affection for [Mr Ramsay]" and having a sense of "being past everything, through everything, out of everything" (96).
The True Artist
The pictorial imparts the section with its particular rhythm. It counter-balances and counterpoints the trivial aspect of the bœuf en daube, promoted to the rank of one of the fine arts, and balances the poetic experience at the end, thus constituting the first panel of the triptych. Opening up onto the exploration of things, it introduces an aesthetic delight attained in a wordless erotic fusion in which the glances join in the haptic caress and the scopic pulsion. This is due to the scission of the self lost in the aesthetic contemplation when it is split up between itself and its double. A thing represented by the work itself as Guy Rosolato advocates:
We can argue that two artists contribute to the rhythmic harmony of section seventeen. Of course, Lily Briscoe's thought imparts this section with its particular rhythm as she keeps thinking about completing her own painting, adding a line here, modifying an element there, hence imbuing it with a pictorial throb:
Four times (99,107,109,118) she is presented thinking about her painting, as a means to survive and avoid emotional turmoil as, for instance, when marriage comes up to her mind: "she need not marry, thank Heaven:
she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle" (118). But the fruit dish reappears once again, as if to give Mrs Ramsay the lie when she thinks she has found some permanence in the heart of things. Then it threatens her triumph for it is bound to be destroyed, spoiled, ruined. Paul, Minta's future husband symbolically offers her a pear:
The fruit dish will remain as a vestige, an image, in spite of Mrs Ramsay's attempt at preserving it in its integrity after having stroked it with her eyes. For it is not a painting (which could last longer than its represented subject) but a set of things of which nothing will subsist as they are by nature perishable. But in this extract Mrs Ramsay's eye still wanders among the fruit and organizes her vision as an aesthetic one: she thinks in terms of shapes ("curves," "a curved shape," "a round shape"), of "shadows" and colours: "the rich purples," and she literally reorganizes the fruit on an abstract level reminiscent of Lily Briscoe's own fancies: "putting a yellow against a purple, a curved shape against a round shape," actually composing a picture out of the fruit dish, echoing the artist's preoccupations as the colour purple is a recurrent one in both instances. About the first painting which she was never to complete, Lily Briscoe answered Charles Tansley's question thus:
Thus the experience of the sensible as aisthesis, tells about the emergence of things and stands as the production of a work of art. Mrs Ramsay turns out to be the other painter of the text, the other artist, the one whose constant quest for permanence and interrogation about what lies at
the heart of things, leads her to investigate and penetrate things, turning them into works of art. This is confirmed by her wondering about her own true creation, her daughter Rose: "She looked at Rose sitting between Jasper and Prue. How odd that one's child should do that!"
In the erotic fusion achieved conjointly with the aesthetic one, the same level of investment takes place thematically and textually. The same degree of fusion and emulsion between the two semiotic systems, blends in the two sister arts, as the fusion between Mrs Ramsay (painting) and Augustus (poetry). Ut pictura poesis, "Like painting, poetry," the parallel between "the sister arts" as expressed by Horace, insists on the effect of proximity or distance, on lighting or darkness, necessary to appreciate a work of art. This is also what the text develops following Mrs Ramsay's penetration of things under the sudden flash of light.
The metamorphosis of the thing according to whether it is seen at a distance or at close quarters and its philosophical implications had also been noted by Pascal in the following famous passage often quoted by Louis Marin:
Vision is relative and things are detailed—altering the relationship of the subject to the whole and the part, destabilizing vision and producing a virtual superimposition of perceptions leading the schizoid subject to a bi-focal vision and the realization of the two infinites, hence producing a metaphysical vertigo.
The text offers an interplay between virtual and actual artists as the virtual artist, Mrs Ramsay, is temporarily matched with Augustus (the "real poet") constituting a virtual couple, whereas Paul and Minta represent a "real" couple. As for Lily Briscoe, the true artist, she, like Mr Carmichael, will remain single, but will conceive and produce a work of art.
When Mrs Ramsay, the virtual artist, composes and recomposes shapes and colours, penetrating into the heart of things and wandering in the fruit-dish turned landscape, she also becomes the figure of the reader of the painting, and its critic. All this is reminiscent of another French critic who
used the same method to convey the ekphrasis he had to write to describe the paintings he had seen at the Salons. This led him to a mixed mode of presentation, that of the narrativised description. I am alluding to Diderot, of course, who explored all the modes of verbal communication to make up for the difficulty of translating painting into discourse. Thus for instance, he engaged his readers to penetrate inside the painting:
The erotic fusion linked to the aesthetic pleasure Mrs Ramsay and Augustus Carmichael share, points to the role of desire and to the relationship of the work of art to presence and absence. It represents the slow expectation of a real transaction, an exchange, which is something trade used to have in common with artistic and sexual parlance, as we evoke sexual exchange or intercourse, le "commerce" in seventeenth century French. Thus the link between the erotic and the aesthetic in the text emphasizes one of the crucial experiences of the sensible. Sensibility has more to do with absence than with presence. As Renaud Barbaras reminds us à propos Valéry
The pictorial description thus illustrates the process of sublimation as one metonymically shifting desire from one object onto another. This is where we come back to Cézanne as he also used this metaphoro-metonymic shift, as Michel Thévoz, following Meyer Schapiro, shows. Cézanne used apples as a substitute for feminine models who kept frightening him. Thus, the still life is seen by Thévoz as "un recours contre le pathos," "a help against pathos," and he remarks "la nature morte porte bien son nom en français, de neutraliser le désir et de lui substituer des objets
inertes." The same goes with the polysemic English term allying both the absence of sound and of motion (see Thévoz 81-82). All of this enables us to reconsider our first discarding of Cézanne's painting as a possible analogon of this passage. For if the type of painting alluded to is totally antinomic with Cézanne's and if the parallel was too artificial formally speaking, yet both the text and the painting tackle the issues of fusion and association, each in its own way, thus exemplifying the wide range of solutions found to the same problem thanks to two different semiotic systems. So, the two works of art can be viewed by the reader as engaged in some kind of dialogue to resolve the same complex notion, that of domesticity and aestheticism, fusing and associating works of art and mundane things. Woolf's choice of suffusing her text with some glissando kind of pictorial undertone, exemplifies enargeia, the power of images in the orator's discourse susceptible to put the listener right in the heart of things. The idea becomes a thing and a tactile one in the work of art. Then the reader is able to produce a text, to engineer details, to imagine incidents, hence to dream about the text as Mrs Ramsay does in front of her fruit-dish turned story, producing the third book as advocated by Jacques Derrida and Edmond Jabés (434-436), a supplement to the book we have in hand: in both meanings of the term, as replacing and adding.
The text then stages the intertwining of the visible and the readable, the golden braid of the "flesh of the world" which permits erotically-charged glances to get intertwined in front of everybody, in spite of everyone, for a brief shared instant of ineffable pleasure taken in the high enjoyment of things pictorial.
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. The still life well deserves its name in French, as it neutralises desire substituting lifeless objects to it.
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(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)