This essay argues against the prevalent view of the aesthetics implicit in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. It is an aesthetics of closure, an attempt to make “of the moment something permanent” (Woolf 2000a : 176), which is usually associated (as are Woolf's own theoretical statements) with the novel. This “formalism,” no doubt related to Roger Fry's art criticism, takes fictional shape in the character of Mrs. Ramsay. In fact, it is by bringing life to a standstill, enclosing it in crystalline “moments of being” (Woolf 1976), that Mrs. Ramsay struggles against the grasp of time. However, this aesthetics is shown to be illusory and self-deceptive: the very opposition between humanity and nature stems from the human desire to comprehend and thus reduce to reason (and language) what the text constructs as irreducible. Mrs. Ramsay's aesthetics gives way to the aesthetics of virtuality enacted by Lily Briscoe's painting. Only by reformulating the problem of time in spatial terms can Lily overthrow the limitations of the formalist framework: her art—a hybrid image/text—hinges on the blanks of aesthetic communication (which I define by reference to the work of Wolfgang Iser and Louis Marin). Lily's painting qualifies as the only viable alternative to Mrs. Ramsay's self-contained crystals of shape. Finally, I show how Woolf herself tried to (p)reenact Lily's painting in the central section of the novel, “Time Passes.” Apparently built on the humanity/nature opposition, this baffling segment revolves in fact around a blank (the absence of any perceiving consciousness internal to the fictional world) and encourages the reader to fill it in by imaginatively moving into the fictional world with a virtual body (as defined by Maurice Merleau-Ponty).
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Marco Caracciolo; Leaping into Space: The Two Aesthetics of To the Lighthouse. Poetics Today 1 June 2010; 31 (2): 251–284. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-2009-020
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