This essay reads To the Lighthouse through the lens of Giorgio Agamben's Pauline conception of messianic time and suggests that we reconsider the genre of modernist novels in light of such a “messianic aesthetic.” Insofar as To the Lighthouse presents chronological time impregnated by apocalyptic time, it reveals a coinciding of chronos and the eschaton to produce “the time of the now.” Rather than compensate for loss (the dominant reading), Virginia Woolf's novel reflects Agamben's conception of time by situating salvation in the place of deterioration or the unsavable, celebrating caducity. Woolf presents a contraction of time, through the pulsating rays of the Lighthouse, that carries time to fulfillment and then falls back into potentiality/impotentiality. Lily's eventual embrace of her painting's inevitable destruction underscores the notion that creation and decreation are salvifically coextensive. On the political level, Lily's artistic vision neutralizes Mr. Ramsay's sovereignty by putting his linear journey to a new, playful use—a pure means without end. Given that Agamben laments the scission in the Western cultural tradition between philosophy and poetry, it seems germane that his theory be fleshed out through poetic art. Agamben reveals messianic temporality and its political effects in Woolf, just as Woolf's poetic prose gives to Agamben's ideas a representational bloom. By offering To the Lighthouse as a paradigm, this essay illustrates how Agamben's work may be used for literary interpretation—a brand-new and exciting area, as his writings have not yet been invoked to interpret literary texts.
Frances L. Restuccia; A Messianic Aesthetic: Lily Briscoe's Vision. Genre 1 April 2016; 49 (1): 1–25. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-3429213
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