So much depends, in the William Carlos Williams poem, on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water. Lily Briscoe, in To The Lighthouse, thinks “so much depends… upon distance.” The echoes here are arbitrary – and yet not entirely so. These are both modernist promts, both programmatic and surprisingly inside the programmatic space, in the art, which is no longer, if it ever was, innocent of the frame that it knows it will eventually bear. The innocence of the past is, of course, a construct of nostalgia, but it is, as well, a necessary fiction for getting us started, for the project of being contemporary. At some point in that project, retrospectively, we know we will have to dismantle that innocence, expose its never-was. But so much depends upon timing, here.
I’ve been working on my novel this month, trying to finish it up at least to the point of sending it out with a few chapters uninhabited, but planned – and I’ve been immersed in Woolf, from the diaries and letters to the novels and the esssays. My materials in my novel are Williams, that corruption in the American grain, but certain formal ideas keep going back to Woolf. For Williams, the poem was a machine made of words. I think Woolf would reject that description, finding it too obscuring, too foreshortened, too denotative. At the same time, she would have appreciated, or at least placed, the gesture, the intended shock. She, too, was out to shock the genteel tradition. Woolf’s sense of the distances that so much depends upon is, I think, to use the vocabulary of the time, more organic than mechanical. This is the scent Wyndham Lewis, that piggish misogynist, picked up.
This isn’t to say that Briscoe’s aesthetic is Woolf’s m.o. So much depends upon what the novel is supposed to do. Woolf is a novelist of networks rather than monuments – of dispersed inspirations, with their elliptical, filamental connections, rather than of focused worldviews, with their concentrated centers, their Blooms always departing and always coming home. For her, I suppose you could say, as much depends on the rain coming down to glaze the red wheelbarrow as on the wagon itself. Distance is a matter of a shift of attention that is both part of the scene and fashions it – it is part of the way, in the current of revelations in which things light up or darken, we capture the state of attention and its exterior referent without ultimately privileging one or the other. She has, accordingly, less time for the crowd – for the voice of the people which flows through Williams – given the fact that the multiple voices can only be handled through an intolerable simplification of their grains and aspects. Complexity, in Wolf’s terms, requires a more simple grouping in order for art not to muddy its insights entirely. Proximity is achieved, but at the price of completeness.
And yet .. there is the marvelous city scene in Jacob’s Room, which certainly attempts and succeeds in the same way that Joyce’s Wandering Rocks succeeds – in the city as a sort of multi-tasked, alive scene.
That is something, a means, that I want to steal for myself.