This is the second time I read To the Lighthouse, and this time I am noticing the humor more. Woolf does an excellent job of subtly making fun of her characters’ pretensions while still writing a moving and dramatic novel.

I, personally, especially like the way she pokes fun of psychoanalysis, but I believe that this would be a fruitful way to read the novel. There is plenty of sea imagery in the novel for there to be a Jungian reading of the unconscious, and Freud is sprinkled throughout the text, but I would like to look at how Woolf (symbolically) castrates, in a Lacanian sense, all the males in the novel, especially Mr. Ramsay:

Standing between her knees, very stiff, James felt all her strength flaring up to be drunk and quenched by the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of the male, which smote mercilessly, again and again, demanding sympathy.
He was a failure (38)

This is juxtaposed with the Fisherman’s Wife story, which is another man who has been symbolically castrated. The phallic object is in this case symbolically signifying power. Joel Doer says two important thing about the phallic object that apply here:

“The subject never stops trying to justify his possession of the [phallic object]; at the same time, he assiduously claims he does not have it– when, in the end, no one has it”
Doer goes on to explain why ‘no one has it’
“The phallic object is above all an object whose nature it is to be a signifying element” (Doer 85-87).

Mr. Ramsay, in his insecurity, is left castrated, and he worries out loud to his wife that he has lost his phallus, “He was a failure, he said” (Woolf 37). If the phallus is a symbol of power, then it is seen here how Mr. Ramsay, the arid scimitar, looses that power in his insecurity, but then Mrs. Ramsay takes over the phallus and wields it more effectively, putting order to her world, “And then she said to herself, brandishing her sword at life, Nonsense. They will be perfectly happy” (Woolf 60).

Zizek explains symbolic castration by saying, “This gap between my direct psychological identity and my symbolic identity (the symbolic mask or title I wear, defining what I am for and in the Big Other) is what Lacan […] calls ‘symbolic castration’, with the phallus as its signifier” (34).

This is precisely what occurs over and over again. Mr. Ramsay, who wears the mask of the great intellect, master philosopher, is caught in the gap between this image of himself and his almost crippling insecurity and vanity. Tansley has only his dissertation, and when he can no longer speak about it (as is seen when he goes into town with Mrs. Ramsay), he become “impotent” in a sense. This is why the children and Lily see him as rude.

At the dinner party, Mrs. Ramsay, as the symbolic holder of the phallus, gets to impose order (and in a sense meaning) on the party. After a rough start, after the men have been castrated (Tansely is forced to, finally, not talk about his dissertation; Mr. Ramsay, once again, fails to exert his power, and doesn’t speak up when the other men are talking about politics), there is a subtle sense of hope in the passage.

This is followed by the scene in which Mr. Ramsay wants Mrs Ramsay to tell him that she loves him, which shows Lacan’s idea of the subject as always lacking. As one who contemplates the metaphysics of subject-object, Mr. Ramsay seems to need the objects outside of himself in order to create his own sense of self, which is always lacking and always never sure of that sense of self. For Mr. Ramsay, the table in the room when no one is there to see it is still there if the subject is thinking of it, I would guess.

If I had more time to think and words to write here I am sure that the Lighthouse can fit easily into this symbolic order.

I want to explore the connection between Joseph Campbell and Jacques Lacan. They both explore a symbolic (a necessarily symbolic) order that civilized society follows. I haven’t been able to formulate my thoughts yet, but I see this intermixing, and I think Campbell and Lacan can be put together with one informing the other. Campbell deals with myths, and Lacan deals with the story we tell ourselves, that are ultimately myths, too.

This is not the edition I am reading but couldn't find a picture otherwise

Campbell states that myths serve four basic functions:

1) Mystical: myths open up a mystical dimension; that is to say, behind the surface world, there is a mystical source for that world. I see this as, we see the sun rise and fall, so we come up with a mystical explanation, such as, some god is riding a chariot across the sky.

2) Cosmological: is our image of the world—how we perceive the world—which changes with from time to time (mostly because of science). The best example of this is the Copernicain revolution; we had thought the cosmos was ordered with the earth in the middle, and later we learned that it was the sun in the middle of our universe, and then later we learned that our universe isn’t even the center of the universe, etc…

3) Sociological: Myths are used to validate and maintain social order. This is seen in the mystical stories we tell ourselves, I believe. For instance, we have the story of Adam and Eve to not only describe how human beings ended up on earth, it is also a tale that tells us that we should obey a supreme being and not fall into vanity; therefore, the creation story serves the mystical purpose of explaining what is behind the surface, it also maintains order by telling us to obey the Big Other watching us.

4) Pedagogical: Myths are used for instruction, to teach society and guide individuals through life.

Myths then give society order, and, Campbell claims, that when myths break down, morals break down. Science has proven that the world is more than 6,000 years old, besides whatever Arkansas wants to say, so the power of the creation story and its functions breakdown, meaning that society breaks down, in Campbell’s words:

“With the loss of them [symbols/myths] there follows uncertainty, and with uncertainty, disequilibrium, since life, as both Nietzsche and Ibsen knew, requires life-supporting illusions; and where these have been dispelled, there is nothing secure to hold on to, no moral law, nothing firm” (Campbell 10).

But of course we need these lies (symbols—and I would argue that they are not lies in a traditional since, but rather, an opiate to help calm society. If a mad man sees an elephant in the room, that is a very real elephant to him, so could it really be termed a “lie”? I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school, and there was never a tension (not overtly) between learning about Adam and Eve and learning science proper. To say that myths (stories) are a lie, is to say that they serve no function besides merely pulling the wool over our eyes. And that might be the case for some; that is why Socrates says that, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”)

Campbell goes on to explain this how we need these lies saying:

“…lies are what the world lives on, and those who can face the challenges of a truth and build their lives to accord are finally not many, but the very few” (11).

Now Campbell goes on to say how psychology and the scientific study of where myths come from are what must be pursued, but I think Lacan is the way to go.

The functions of myth sound much like the Lacianian triad: Symbolic—imaginary—Real:

First, there is the Mystical aspect of myths, which corresponds to the Imaginary order, which is our image of the world. An example of this order is given by Zizek when he relates the triad to a game of chess: “Imaginary…namely the way in which different pieces are shaped and characterized by their names (king, queen, knight), and it is easy to envision a game in with the same rules, but with a different imaginary, in which the figures would be called ‘messenger’ or ‘runner’ or whatever (Zizek 8).

Secondly, the way we maintain social order (the Sociological) corresponds to Lacan’s Symbolic order. The Symbolic order is the rules we follow in order to play the game. The Big Other operates on this level and always watches us so that we follow the rules; just as the sociological function of myths gives us rules that we must follow.

Thirdly, Lacan’s Real corresponds to the Cosmological (the world we see that changes over time). The Real is, within this triad, everything else, such as a player’s intelligence, and forces we might have trouble foreseeing. The intrusion of reality into the triad, and one can see how we have set up a cosmological real (reality before Copernicus that saw the world as the center of the universe), but then has that “Real” change when science (the Real again intrudes), and shows us a new reality.

The Pedagogical aspect of Campbell, I believe, is the interaction (an interaction that takes place within Lacan) of the triad and the way each Lacanian aspect plays off each other.

There is something here between the breakdown of myths and the way society follows the Big Other (and I understand I am making a bit of a jump here witout explaining, but since so few people follow this and read it at all, I just need to write this all down before I forget). Myths only hold power, give society its moral grounding, in so far was society believes myths and allows myths to do so, just like the power of the Big Other:

“In spite of all its grounding power, the big Other is fragile, insubstantial, properly virtual, in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presuppostion. It exist only in so far as subjects act as if it exists.”

And later:

“…so this [big Other, and I would argue myths and symbols] substance is actual only in so far as individuals believe in it and act accordingly’ (Zizek emphasis in original 10).

I believe there is an interaction within these two thoughts that can inform each other, and I will be exploring these thoughts in my readings. I want to end this now because I just got Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, and I am excited to read it. Lacan says that the mad man, the psychopath is the one who does not follow the rules imposed by this Symbolic power of the Big Other, and Campbell says that there are mental illnesses from a loss of myths, so I want to see how this history of madness can further inform these readings of Campbell and Lacan.

Til my next fragmented thoughts come to light and intrude my thoughts like an invasion of the Real…

Post to come: on different types of melancholy, on the relation between death and heart break and how they relate to waiting and Heidegger’s present-at-hand…

I am continued to be confused, baffled, and even entertained by Antunes. The breakdown in chronological time is fascinating and reminiscent of Faulkner, and I even read a review of ‘What Can I Do’ that points out Faulkner’s obvious influence on Antunes here:

Indeed, Faulkner presides over “What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?” as a tutelary spirit. Here, for instance, is a legendary sentence, spoken by a death- befuddled child, from “As I Lay Dying,” published in 1930: “My mother is a fish.”And here, uttered by a baffled son, is a sentence from “What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?”: “You’ve turned into a fish, father.” Like Faulkner in his great novels of the ’30s, Antunes deploys idiot monologues, garrulous, colloquial voices, superheated atmospherics and dismembered narratives that exalt not-knowing as a prime literary excitement.

Chapter two continues in the same manner as chapter one. The reader is given a little more background, and it becomes very clear that Paulo is on heroine and, maybe, other drugs.

There is a great image of Paulo going to sit on the beach so that the ocean waves and wild horses can drown out the noise of his parents fighting, but the arguments get so loud and intense that the image of relaxing, rolling waves becomes violent: “… I was the one hurt out there by the horses and the sea” (21).

The overwhelming motif (more so than in any Joyce novel) is the inter-mixing of all the images and symbols. Memory becomes a dream becomes reality becomes madness, and one symbol goes from being one of peace to one of horror from one page to the next.

This chapter elucidates some of the narrator’s problems: he steals for drug money; he feels guilt but uses drugs to forget; he feels guilt for taking advantage of his guardians, but then dismisses his feelings because they are not his parents and then feels guilty for taking advantage of them again.

There are wonderfully lyrical passages of using drugs and its withdrawal:

heat at first, followed by cold, followed by an urge to crush myself, I don’t know what dying is like but they’re disentangling me from my body, conversations that get away from me, scarecrows in smok holding a basin up against my chest
— Vomit” (29).

Here the story of the Neighbor Dona Aurorinha is told. She had a lover she would write to, but the lover died of some desease.

There is an interesting contrast between when Paulo says that he knows how to tell time and how his narrative doesn’t follow any chronological time. It goes back to the philosophy of waiting it seems. For Paulo, time is broken, but not in the sense that he has to wait—that waiting time in which one endures and “feels” time’s slow passage. Paulo’s time is, rather, broken in that its linear-ality has been destroyed. He has no way of telling past, present, or future, and this reflects his phenomenological experience of lived time. Just as he can’t tell time (or, maybe, more accurately put, BECAUSE, he can’t “tell time” as he claims), he can’t tell experiences apart from one another, whether real, imagined, resulting from madness/sickness, or dream.

Yet, at the same time, his “time” (his experience within time) becomes an object of analysis. Something he takes apart and tries to analyze. The story, what one is reading, his depiction of events, is his attempt to analyze his situation, but he is having trouble doing so because he is so lost in “time”.

What Can I Do When Everything is on Fire? (A Novel) by: Antonio Lobo Antunes

I am getting around to reading one of the books that I received for my birthday. The title of this one was enough to make it my next choice of books to read. I want to look at this book chapter by chapter because it is, as the book jacket suggest, “…a poetic masterwork that recalls Joyce’s Bloomsday with its dizzying farrago of urban images that few readers will forget.”

The basic plot, from what I understand from reading the jacket (and the first chapter), is the story of Paulo trying to piece together the bits of his existence, but that existence is one of madness, fragile memory, and a reality that includes the most successful, flamboyant drag queen of Lisbon, Carlos/Soraia and his wife, Judite and his lover, Rui. It seems that Paulo has a breakdown and is sent off to a hospital, and somewhere along the way his parents give him up to some guardians. It seems that we are getting these fragments of his story from a mental ward.

The book opens up to the main character, Paulo, mixing a dream, an analysis of the dream, memory, and reality together in a poetic, stream-of-consciousness narrative that reveals very slowly the plot of novel. Paulo, at times, has a hard time separating what his dream was and what his memory was; he also has trouble remembering what reality is, as is seen when he mixes his parents with his guardians and his reality with his dreams and has obvious trouble with memory:

“my mother judite, my father carlos, the doctor, not this one, a fatter one,
I remember the doctor’s red necktie when they brought me in, a Gypsy woman who was hollering
or was I the one hollering?
the doctor
–What’s your mother’s name?
along with that I remembered the attendants, who were holding me by the wrists, from the ambulance Dona Helena had called
–Take it easy fellow
[…]
maybe it was the attendants who had helped me instead of the fat doctor with the red tie, not in this office bu in a room with no windows or a closet where the gypsy woman or I was hollering or maybe neither one of us, the noise of the dishes
–What’s your mother’s name?” (Antunes 2-3).

There is an interesting play of memory and dream and reality here, which raises interesting questions of what “reality” is? After all, aren’t our dreams part of our reality? And how much is a fragmented, unreliable memory reality?

We get that Paulo’s parents are dead (as well as Rui), that Paulo had a breakdown in which he broke lots of plates. These images are mixed superbly in a language that becomes easier to follow, but a language that is meant to be opaque. It becomes hard to decipher how much of the story is a memory and how much is madness.

There are images of fights between Paulo’s parents in which Judite is asking her husband about the bra she found, “Do you wear this, Carlos?” (17); along with images of Paulo’s drag queen father being described as a clown, and later, Paulo’s denial of his parent’s when he calls his guardians, the Couceiro’s, his real parents.

This narrative is quite a force that does more than merely convey a Joycean stream-of-consciousness. The reader is left wondering what can be trusted as the chapter ends:

“–I’m asleep
and since I’m asleep I don’t worry, everything is a lie, aware of the pillow sliding between the mattress and the trunk they were slamming me against” (19).

I look forward to see where all this is going. It is thus far an exploration of a person’s history of slipping into madness and blurring reality with dream and memory. It seems that Paulo trying to put this story into words is his way of trying to remember who he is. We are, after all, just what we were and what our future possibilities are. So what happens when we do not have a clear memory, or a broken memory, of the past?