David Baird

                                                Modern Art’s Instrumentality


The aspect of modernism, of modern art, that I want to focus on is that it is instrumental—it is useful. I’ll use the modern novel Mrs. Dalloway to illustrate this claim. The images in this book, and the way they’re presented, enable us to begin extensive discussions, enable us to begin to use what we learn from the text to learn about the world.

The writers’ job is integration. Synthesis. Perceiving all of life, and choosing what to focus on and why and how. If writing is done honestly, it can be difficult. It takes a supreme act of consciousness to say things to others that one might not have even said to oneself.

The modern physicist Richard Feynman once said that “If you think you understand quantum theory, you probably don’t.” And indeed, this realm of science may be esoteric enough that we may not even need to attempt an understanding. Quantum theory is scientific. But Feynman’s words might apply to a theory of humanism, as well. Indeed, a theory dealing with humans, the most complex known things, might even be more difficult to comprehend than quantum theory, which deals with the simplest known items.

For all of our complexity, though, we exhibit patterns of inner and outer reality that are somewhat rationally knowable. The content of our minds may consist of the most complex speculations possible, which may not even be communicable. But we can guess why we engage in these speculative artistic or scientific activities.

My theory of modernism understands humans as having our most important qualities in common. As opposed to viewing humans as radically different, depending on culture or childhood or genes. For me, at least, coming to this realization has been a long and uneasy process. People all look so different, all do such different things, that its easy to think that one is different from all others. But if we study the universe, we begin to awaken to the stuff of consciousness, the environment we all share.  We look at art, and it touches us, and it is so real and close to our own dreams and fears that we must conclude that the art’s creator, and the art’s other observers, are radically similar to us.

Modern art is seriously urgent. It has to be intense enough to justify taking up some of the little precious time the artist and audience has to live. This is why it has to be instrumental—so it can be valuable not only for what it is, but what we can do with it as well.

One useful aspect of Mrs. Dalloway is its contradictions. Contradictions are useful because they make us question the very nature of art and reality. The following contradiction is like someone pinching us and us realizing that this is not a dream. Peter has just returned from a long absence, and visits Clarissa, and in the course of events (p40) Peter takes Clarissa’s hands and kisses them. However, later in the book, Peter is remembering the scene, and literally says that she was the one who kissed his hands.(p155)

            How to explain this? In a dream-logic way a modern book can present two alternate realities. Many readers might not even notice. As in a dream, blatant contradictions can be accepted by the reader. The book does not lose its value because of contradiction. Is Peter’s memory faulty? Is Virginia Woolf messing with us? Did a mischievous individual at the publishing company alter this part for fun?

            It reminds us that, in dreams, radical meaning-changes can occur, and we accept them—keep on dreaming. People can be certain people, and we look away, and when we look back they’re entirely different people. And so is Mrs. Dalloway—the scene is thus, and we move on, and when we look again, it is not so.

Later, Clarissa is contemplating her self. “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together. For that she could dimly perceive.” (p31)

            What does she lack? I think its what we all lack, to some degree. It’s the ability to be critical thinkers. To intelligently contemplate our options and do what’s best. I guess that some people have extremely good vision, and can see down the roads to the endpoints of choice. But I don’t think Clarissa is one of them. Even though judging people is never easy, I think we will see in the next scene that Clarissa is right to guess that she lacks something—some basic, basic thing that would let her make her desires realities.

            In the following scene, Clarissa seems to awaken to a new world of pleasure, the love, not just platonic, with Sally. But she is so warped by guilt that this bliss can be only momentary—Clarissa lets men not only interrupt a discovery of sexual fulfillment, but actually kill it forever. She can’t see the picture, the bigger picture, which is that when one finds bliss, one doesn’t give it up because of the fear of embarrassment. One holds on to any bliss one can find in this short life.

“She [Clarissa] and Sally fell a little behind. Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it—a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!—when old Joseph and Peter faced them:

            “Star-gazing?” said Peter.

            It was like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness! It was shocking; it was horrible!

            Not for herself. She felt only how Sally was being mauled already, maltreated; she felt his hostility; his jealousy; his determination to break into their companionship. All this she saw as one sees a landscape in a flash of lightning—and Sally (never had she admired her so much!) gallantly taking her way unvanquished. She laughed. She made old Joseph tell her the names of the stars, which he liked doing very seriously. She stood there: she listened. She heard the names of the stars.

            “Oh this horror!” she said to herself, as if she had known all along that something would interrupt, would embitter her moment of happiness.” (p35-36)

            Maybe she also knew all along that, if she were to find true love, she wouldn’t know what to do with it. Sally is super-alive. She is daring. She is playful. So maybe I’m wrong to assume that she is offering love to Clarissa. Maybe she is merely being a good friend, and Clarissa and I are reading into this scene all sorts of wishful thinking about Sally’s intentions.

In other ways, Clarissa is not painted as the most intelligent gal. A group of them is talking, and Sally boldly says that before they’d married, a couple had had a baby, and when she hears this, Clarissa says she’ll never be able to talk to the woman again.

            “He [Peter] hadn’t blamed her for minding the fact, since in those days a girl brought up as she was, knew nothing, but it was her manner that annoyed him; timid; hard; something arrogant; unimaginative; prudish. “The death of the soul.” He had said that instinctively, ticketing the moment as he used to do—the death of her soul.” (p59)

            Peter guesses that Clarissa “knew nothing,” but I think she does know things—she is just specialized in her awareness, and is susceptible to looking at things the way she thinks others want her to look at them. Every time she exhibits this weakness, Peter thinks its another point in the death of her soul. And in a way, this behavior is dead, in that it is not alive, or at least alive in the sense of being compassionate or understanding.

            But it is not entirely Clarissa’s fault if she doesn’t achieve the ultimate life. She is kind of like an insect trapped in a spider’s web, where the spider is god and the web is Clarissa’s little social/emotional world—Sally “implored him [Peter], half laughing of course, to carry off Clarissa, to save her from the Hughs and the Dalloways and all the other “perfect gentlemen” who would “stifle her soul” (she wrote reams of poetry in those days), make a mere hostess of her, encourage her wordliness.”(p75) This is an intriguing passage. Why would Clarissa’s soul be stifled by a perfect gentleman? Maybe the honorific ‘perfect’ is being used in a pejorative sense here. Maybe the ‘perfect gentlemen’ are perfect in the sense that they perfectly conform, they perfectly perform the roles expected of them by their class. I think if they were truly perfect, they would not become what was expected of them—they could become anything they cared to, they could choose from an almost infinite amount of available modes of existence.

            Again we notice Sally’s selflessness—if she can’t have Clarissa, she wants Peter to have her, for she sees Peter as somebody different—he’s not merely a product of the system—he makes some conscious, honest choices about his life and his self.

Clarissa apparently makes quite an impression, at least on Peter. She’s an almost magical creature. Not because of her instrumentality—what she is useful for—but for her being—who she is, what her inner world looks like, what happens to you when you’ve spent time with her.

“She had a perfectly clear notion of what she wanted. Her emotions were all on the surface. Beneath, she was very shrewd—a far better judge of character than Sally, for instance, and with it all, purely feminine; with that extraordinary gift, that woman’s gift, of making a world of her own wherever she happened to be. She came into a room; she stood, as he had often seen her, in a doorway with lots of people around her. But it was Clarissa one remembered. Not that she was striking; not beautiful at all; there was nothing picturesque about her; she never said anything especially clever; there she was, however; there she was.” (p75-76)

            Peter is very analytical in his musings about Clarissa. I think this is a valuable thing in relationships. The more we rationally discover about someone, the deeper our relationship will get. Someone told Feynman that scientists must not be very moved when they see flowers, since scientists are so abstract. Feynman replied that scientists, knowing the biology, chemistry, physics, history of flowers would not only be able to feel more deeply about a flower than a normal person would, but scientists would have an enhanced, intensified appreciation of the flower.

            It is incredible, but the brain never stops developing, if properly stimulated. We were always told that once our heads had grown to their full size, the brain cells we then had would be the only ones we’d have for the rest of our lives. In the following passage, Peter explores some of the benefits of this developmental learning process. They are subtle changes—he speaks of the intensity of life never flagging, and the addition of another dimension to consciousness, a certain perspective which enables him to control his behavior consciously, and not be in the out-of-control dreamlike trance that so many of us seem to begin life in.

                        “The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained—at last!—the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence,--the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

                        A terrible confession it was (he put his hat on again), but now, at the age of fifty-three one scarcely needed people any more. Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough. Too much indeed. A whole lifetime was too short to bring out, now that one had acquired the power, the full flavour; to extract every ounce of pleasure, every shade of meaning; which both were so much more solid than they used to be, so much less personal. It was impossible that he should ever suffer again as Clarissa had made him suffer.” (p79)

            Peter also maintains that his new self is less dependant on his environment—he isn’t always hungering for social diversion. And he’s less addictive—his obsessional loving might now have changed into a more mature, independent variety of love.

Consciousness is curious. Extremely disparate ideas can flow together naturally. Nothing is too tangential to come to awareness, however momentary. For instance, Richard is planning a triumphant personal moment, even while contemplating the war, the most public of miseries. “To say straight out in so many words (whatever she might think of him), holding out his flowers, “I love you.” Why not? Really it was a miracle thinking of the War, and thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shovelled together, already half forgotten; it was a miracle. Here he was walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her. Which one never does say, he thought. Partly one’s lazy; partly one’s shy.”(p115)

People all tell themselves stories to validate their experience, to rationalize their decisions. Richard’s story is somewhat realistic. But he is still not able to do simple things that he dreams of, like expressing his love—“he liked continuity; and the sense of handing on the traditions of the past. It was a great age in which to have lived. Indeed, his own life was a miracle; let him make no mistake about it; here he was, in the prime of his life, walking to his house in Westminster to tell Clarissa that he loved her. Happiness is this, he thought.”(p117) But does it really matter that he can’t actually say “I love you”? Mabye his actions reveal his love to Clarissa, and she doesn’t need to explicitly hear those magical words.

Poetry really is philosophical. And poetry is a tool that intelligence seems to gravitate towards when it is most inspired. (Whether the ‘poetry’ of music or the ‘poetry’ of sexual admiration.)—“People were beginning to compare her [Elizabeth] to poplar trees, early dawn, hyacinths, fawns, running water, and garden lilies, and it made her life a burden to her, for she so much preferred being left alone to do what she liked in the country…”(p134)

            Either she had a charmed childhood, in which she was loved so much that she is now a contented creature who isn’t desperate but is patient and willing to wait for the best mate, or she wasn’t loved, and now she is so twisted that even real mean who really care about her have no effect on her but to bore her—“What could she be thinking? Every man fell in love with her, and she was really awfully bored.”(p135)

The elite’s relation to society is a complicated one. Elizabeth “liked the feeling of people working.”(p136) This makes sense, because the work people do can create an amazing world. “The feet of those people busy about their activities, hands putting stone to stone, minds eternally occupied not with trivial chatterings (comparing women to poplars—which was rather exciting, of course, but very silly), but with thoughts of ships, of business, of law, of administration,…made her quite determined, whatever her mother might say, to become either a farmer or a doctor. But she was, of course, rather lazy.

            And it was much better to say nothing about it. it seemed so silly…”(p137)

            She is tempted to join the masses in their exertions. But she probably won’t. Because people usually do what they need to, people usually take it easy, when possible. Who can blame her for wanting to participate? But she could be wrong about the “trivial” concerns of her set. I don’t think chat is trivial. It is undertaken with extreme care by some people. It is a luxury. Why deny the upper class their luxury? Shouldn’t some people be able to find out what riches are like, what there is to do when one can do anything one wants?

The question of the origins of human evil has been pondered by philosophers and students of society for a long time. Septimus is appropriately concerned—but his relevant ideas are unfortunately present in irrelevant contexts—“and once they found the girl who did the room reading one of these papers in fits of laughter. It was a dreadful pity. For that made Septimus cry out about human cruelty—how they tear each other to pieces. The fallen, he said, they tear to pieces…”(p140)

Anything can trigger the psychotic. He is totally undefended—his consciousness is wide open to the immediacy of all things. Feelings and pain which are normally suppressed are in the psychotic made available to awareness. But awareness can only handle so much stimulation. With too much, it is not capable of rational reaction to reality. Thus Septimus is afraid of his environment—“he began, very cautiously, to open his eyes, to see whether a gramophone was really there. But real things—real things were too exciting. He must be cautious. He would not go mad.”(p141) But in a strange way, this intense fear of images may actually be a more appropriate response to the potential hell on earth than the response of the neurotic, which is generally neutral. The psychotic exists in a perfectly legitimate reality. It just isn’t in synch. It’s the right fear at the wrong time.

Just as a sick society divides its members into classes, compartmentalizes them, the sick person compartmentalizes her experience, dividing herself into different personalities, who judge different behaviors to be acceptable at different times.

Clarissa wonders “what business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party? A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party—the Bradshaws, talked of death.” (p184) Clarissa would like her world to be controllable. But this is a foolish dream. In an ironic way, Clarissa’s own sickness, her social oversensitivity, judges the Bradshaws’ intelligence to be sick. Even though what they discuss is perhaps a very important topic, especially for a party in which such a diverse and powerful group is collected.

Writers are obsessive creatures. As they should be. They’re determined to get into things with what little time they have in this world. What’s more, they’re determined to help us get into things. Their texts provide triggers, images which cause a chain of reactions to happen in our minds. By studying these triggers, we can experiment with our minds, find out what reality really is, and who we not only are but who we can be.

The amazing thing about instrumentality is that instruments never sound the same when different players are playing them. I have tried to use the instrumentality of Mrs. Dalloway to begin some what I see as important discussions about the nature of modernity.