By: Nika Knight
My back against the cupboards under the sink, my feet pushing against the giving metal of our old oven door, I read aloud:
Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.
It was fringed with joy! Oh, Virginia.
I was seventeen years old, in my senior year of high school, and reading To the Lighthouse for English class. I found Woolf’s delicate, seemingly endless sentences challenging but magnetic, and the book punctured my awareness in a way that previous books hadn’t.
In To the Lighthouse almost nothing actually happens – the action is almost entirely internal. In high school, I remember feeling hopelessly behind when it came to growing up (it didn’t help that my parents limited our television intake to a half an hour a day, which my three younger siblings and I all had to agree on, so my pop culture referants were limited to Full House and Boy Meets World). Keeping up in conversations with anyone who I thought was cooler than I was (everyone was cooler than I was) felt much like the landmine that discourse at the dinner table is for the characters in To the Lighthouse.
In particular, I remember loving the character of Lily Briscoe, a young woman who paints and doesn’t care to get married – an oddity, and an outlier, in the novel and for her time. Lily’s clumsy navigation of her ill-defined social role felt familiar. In the last section of the book, Woolf describes an encounter between Lily and Mr. Ramsay, the head of the household where Lily is staying:
Look at him, he seemed to be saying, look at me; and indeed, all the time he was feeling, Think of me, think of me. Ah, could that bulk only wafted alongside of them, Lily wished; had she only pitched her easel a yard or two closer to him; a man, any man, would staunch this effusion, would stop these lamentations. A woman, she had provoked this horror; a woman, she should have known how to deal with it. It was immensely to her discredit, sexually, to stand there dumb. One said – what did one say? – Oh, Mr Ramsay! Dear Mr. Ramsay! That was what that kind old lady who sketched, Mrs. Beckwith, would have said instantly, and rightly. But, no. They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet.
Reading this passage now, I see a commentary on the gender relations of the time – it’s hard to see anything else, really. But at seventeen I just heard Virginia Woolf articulating to me the sensations of shyness, the particular torture of feeling the demand of social interaction and feeling utterly incapable of complying; the sense of betrayal and self-loathing that inevitably pursues the moment.
I remember telling a friend, “all these things that you think only you feel – that’s what the whole book is.” Woolf’s writing reflected the intensity with which I felt my own failures, and particularly (what felt like) my hopeless inability to interact with my peers, excepting my closest friends. Reading To the Lighthouse felt like a glimpse at atonement; as I found my own shortcomings in Woolf’s descriptions of her own characters’ – and most especially in those of Lily’s — I felt I could perhaps begin to consider forgiving myself for being the way I was. I carried that book with me to college in Ohio, to study abroad in Berlin, back to Ohio, back to Berlin, and finally to New York.
And there are two more books that accompany To the Lighthouse, as I move from apartment to apartment, exchanging one Ikea bookshelf for another; two more women authors who have shaped the way I think: Doris Lessing and Else Lasker-Schüler; The Golden Notebook and In Theben geboren.
The S-Bahn travels in a ring around Berlin, a line that is aptly named the Ringbahn. I was told that traveling the approximately 23 miles around the ring takes exactly one hour. One Saturday afternoon, I traveled the Ringbahn solely for the sake of finding out of this was true (oh, the glories of study abroad). I brought The Golden Notebook with me.
Traveling the Ringbahn, the setting sun shining in my eyes, I read this passage for the first time:
‘Why do you write things in different kinds of handwriting? And you bracket bits off? You give importance to one kind of feeling and not to others? How do you decide what’s important and what isn’t?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘That isn’t good enough. You know it isn’t. Here you’ve got an entry, it was when you were still living in our house. “I stood looking down out of the window. The street seemed miles down. Suddenly I felt as if I’d flung myself out of the window. I could see myself lying on the pavement, Then I seemed to be standing by the body on the pavement. I was two people. Blood and brains were scattered everywhere. I knelt down and began licking up the blood and the brains.”’
The Golden Notebook is an immense, intricate book. The book alternates between four separate sections. First, there is “Free Women,” which Lessing claims she wrote separately before writing the rest of the novel, a (relatively) straightforward narrative describing Anna, a young woman and successful novelist living in London in the 1960s, and her slow descent toward a massive nervous breakdown. The rest of the narrative takes place in Anna’s three journals, in which she compartmentalizes that life: in the yellow notebook she jots down notes for the novel she is trying to write; in the red she writes down her memories of her communist days in colonized Zimbabwe; and finally, in the blue book she keeps a personal diary.
Further down the “blood and the brains” page, Anna tries to defend why she’s bracketed off her fleeting fantasy of suicide, of splitting herself – and why the sentences that follow (in which she buys groceries and picks her daughter up from school) are more important than her moment of insanity. When asked, “‘Why the four notebooks? What would happen if you had one big book without all those divisions and brackets and special writing?’” Anna answers, “‘I’ve told you, chaos.’”
And why this passage and this book drew me to it is more complex than my attraction to To the Lighthouse as a teenager: in it, I saw a woman who observed herself as she went completely crazy, and the strangely powerful agency observing herself seemed to give her. What Anna strives for, above anything, is self-awareness – she’s not necessarily successful, but she tries.
Skimming The Golden Notebook now, I’m amazed I missed all the gender politics and Lessing’s interminable defense of Marxism. (Although I do remember finding those communist chapters to be pretty dull.) The summer of 2006 and the subsequent year of college had easily been the worst times of my life, a year through which I felt like I was sleepwalking on a bed of hot coals. It was only in Berlin – after a lot of time and appointments with a counselor back home – that I started to wake back up. I felt like I was remembering how to be a person, as I navigated German with my gregarious younger host-sister and woke up to candy on my breakfast plate, left by my strange host mother. I had resolved to use this time for myself, to focus on recovering – and to that end I was constantly on the lookout for maps, maps back to that place where I was less unhappy. The Golden Notebook’s portrayal of a woman observing herself as she devolves into madness was, in an odd way, one of those guides that helped me undergo the reverse process: to track a course back to myself.
None of my friends back at school in Ohio spoke German, but still I stood in the kitchen of my college apartment, forcing my roommate to listen to me read Else Lasker-Schüler’s poems out loud while she cooked dinner. And I tried to translate her poems on the fly – something that, most especially with Lasker-Schüler and her ardent love of neologisms, was next to impossible. And despite how I always ended up rambling about plural forms of nouns and what different parts of the word meant, or what I thought they meant, or (always, ultimately) why it was better in German — I still persisted in trying to share her poetry.
Here is the poem that became my favorite:
Es kommt der Abend
Es kommt der Abend und ich tauche in die Sterne,
Daß ich den Weg zur Heimat im Gemüte nicht verlerne
Umflorte sich auch längst mein armes Land.
Es ruhen unsere Herzen liebverwandt,
Gepaart in einer Schale:
Weiße Mandelkerne —
. . . . . Ich weiß, du hältst wie früher meine Hand
Verwunschen in der Ewigkeit der Ferne . . . . .
Ach meine Seele rauschte, als dein Mund es mir gestand.
The evening comes
The evening comes and I dive into the stars,
so that I don’t forget my way home
my poor country buried itself long ago, too.
Our hearts, love-kin, stir
mated in a shell:
. . . . I know you hold my hand like before
imprecated by the eternity of the far-away . . . .
Oh, my soul rushed, as your mouth confessed to mine.*
There’s a glorious sense of revelation in the unabashed sweetness of so much of her work — I think it can mostly be captured in that last line, which I love: “Oh, my soul rushed, as your mouth confessed to mine.”
Rather than a narrative of neuroses – that which I glommed onto in Woolf’s and Lessing’s work – I gravitate toward Lasker-Schüler’s poetry because it spills over with her own delight in writing, in her love for playing with words and narratives and her own life story. Lasker-Schüler doesn’t even seem to have noticed what society might have expected of her, as a women or an author, as she throws out adoring, occasionally wickedly playful lines about writing, art, love, her contemporaries in German Expressionism and her deeply held Jewish faith. In my last semester of college — despite terrifying, looming thesis deadlines — I was, in many ways, wholly content. And Else Lasker-Schüler’s poetry was, for the first time in a long time, something I needed — and wanted — to take in.
I found these books and these authors because I needed their voices, although I don’t know that I’ve ever articulated that to myself before. I needed to see women writing other women, women on the page who were strong, thoughtful, harrowingly flawed and courageous in facing and exploring their own selves – if a little batty. But I’ve always thought these authors’ craziness also what made them important in the private narrative of my own life: Virginia and Doris and Else all show a fearless attempt to reckon with themselves. They split themselves open and shine a light inside, giving up the most brutal and joyful experiences for the world to see. They find art in insanity, and insanity in art. It’s a task that is perhaps one of the hardest for me; to take a step back and consider myself, acknowledge my faults from an attempt at a distance – and shine a light through those fissures in personal history, for everyone to see. But Doris and Virginia and Else at least encourage me to make the attempt, and for that I’m thankful.
In these very last days of International Women’s Month, I hope you think of the other women, the hundreds and thousands and millions of women, who have given you a similar gift. I’d like to raise a glass and toast to all of them – Else, Doris, Virginia, and all of you.
*All translations, and mistakes, are my own.