Books lead to other books. Read one and you’re reminded of another. New publications refer to past ones, famous and obscure. Genres cross over, involving similar concepts, tropes, devices. Writers lift, pay tribute, re-imagine, claim as their own and take it a step further in their effort to tell gripping, original stories. Pick up the trail and we end up making extraordinary connections.
Welcome to Connection Degree Three …
Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Christopher Marlowe. Three icons of English literature who pondered on the spectral nature of life, its phantasmagorical ebbs and flows, its wholly phantasmic fluctuations, the bright suns that illuminated it, the dark shadows that traced it out.
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, one of the characters, the tragic Rezia, walks down Regent’s Park alongside her increasingly unhinged husband, Septimus Warren Smith, wondering how England appears in the dark of night, how it resembles the land which the Ancient Romans saw almost two millennia ago. Not much has changed, if anything. The land is still shrouded in primal darkness at night, across which the British rivers meander goodness knows where, an insight ever so evocative of
Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, a notorious tale on the nature of humankind and the mesmerizing depravities to which a person succumbs when left to his devices in the wilderness. In Heart Of Darkness, the narrator, a sailor by the name of Marlow, shares a haunting story with his shipmates on a vessel anchored on the Thames at dusk. Marlow, a young veteran who has traveled to the darkest recesses of Africa in search of the Colonel – who is represented as a ‘voice’ in the shadow of the wilderness – begins the tale by extolling the darkness of Britain, setting the scene for the savage terrain he is about to describe.
Britain, explains Marlow, was just as wild and cruel and savage in the times of the Ancient Romans as Africa is now to the British and European explorers of the 19th century. Its vegetation haunting and impenetrable, ripe with lingering threat, distinct death, its rivers leading to untrammeled outreaches, alcoves of nature where a beguiling form of madness resided, and may still reside – such postulates Marlow in so many words, presenting Africa through his carefully crafted frame of ancient Britain (or vice versa).
Conrad seems to have done his homework. Marlow, it turns out, is as good a name as any for an unreliable narrator of such unnerving quality. The name is evocative of the fictional Marlow in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – a connection explored in a previous Connection Degree Three piece – as well as an altogether different fellow, a certain
Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan playwright, who is said to have influenced and collaborated with William Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe, an astounding author in and of himself, is known for authoring a classic version of the nefarious Doctor Faustus, among other notable plays, but he may also have coauthored three of Shakespeare’s plays – Henry VI: Parts I, II, and III. And it’s through Shakespeare himself, Marlowe’s famous counterpoint (we’re cheating, but such a wonderful subterfuge it is) that we come full circle, back to
Mrs. Dalloway, whose titular character, Clarissa Dalloway, ponders on life and death and all the trials that accompany cognition – the traps and tricks and hidden gems of social interaction – stricken by the force with which they impress themselves upon the world … echoing the words of William Shakespeare.
From the bard’s play Cymbeline, Clarissa Dalloway quotes:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages
The first three words play a key role in Mrs. Dalloway, repeated over and over again as Clarissa examines the complexities of life, Nature, civilization (at large), and England (in particular). The subtle brutalities at the center of Britain’s civil post-War Empire, a construct designed to assault whatever calls it into question, are picked apart and scrutinized.
Virginia Woolf takes on the subject with bravado. ‘Fear no more!’ Her characters tramp through the treacherous fields of humanity, wondering what compels people to act in the ways they do. Septimus Warren Smith, veteran of war, contemplates suicide, all the while casting aspersions on civilization, pointing out how far humanity has strayed. Clarissa Dalloway – composed, volcanic Clarissa – is a surgeon of all things human, dissecting life’s most impenetrable routines. Resolute and jumpy at the same time, she goes about her day with determination, one moment unflinching, undeterred, then trembling like a reed in the river, shaken by the passing riverboats and their sweeping oars, so to speak, before settling down again.
Watching life flow around her, Clarissa Dalloway makes sense of the world’s nonsense, reminiscing and analyzing everything she sees, everyone she meets, tearing them apart before putting them back together with her darty, sharp perspective. Her unwavering passage through the urban wilderness is a cry of mad sanity that would go unnoticed, were it not for Virginia Woolf, whose stream-of-consciousness style of writing gives us access to what goes on under the surface of people like us.
And here we are: Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Elizabethan Marlowe/Shakespeare; three(plus) extraordinary points of reference in English literature spinning a fine thread between the England of new and old, then and now, connecting the branches of yesterday and today like a river flowing through the centuries; like a raindrop that flows from overstory to shoot, and from there to the root, our reality and memory interwoven, inside which the observing mind resides. The heat of the sun, the furious winter’s rages. The realm of the ideal versus the sovereignty of the Realm; the reaching power of the Sovereign; the sweeping power of the mundane and the visions that shape it; the heart that beats in the bowels of savage and impenetrable landscapes – fear no more! – struggling to survive.
We all are.