Moments of Being: the Importance of Time and Memory in the Writings of Virginia Woolf

Moments of BeingAccording to Joseph Frank, ‘(t)ime is no longer felt as an objective, causal progression with clearly marked out differences between periods: now it has become a continuum in which distinctions between past and present are wiped out.’ Most certainly that is more often than not the case in the writings of Virginia Woolf where I suggest that the more prosaic concepts of time and memory so lamented by Mr Frank have been manipulated in order to reflect Woolf’s own experience.

For Woolf, time was not always experienced as objective (in the OED (A 3 b) sense of ‘distinct from the subject or ‘independent of the mind’); she noted in her memoirs that it is only when one is thinking of the past, ‘seeing through the surface to the depths’, that one is ‘living most fully in the present’. For her this is because the ‘present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper’(Moments, 108).

In one sense, by this Woolf seems to suggest that time functions only as the result of memory. In Orlando, it is only through memory (running ‘her needle in an out, up and down, hither and thither’, Orlando, 48) that the jumble of (1) years (the life of its hero/heroine spans multiple centuries) and (2) seasons (‘at one moment’ it is ‘a summer’s day’ and the next, ‘all was winter and blackness again’, Orlando, 35), are bound together. Likewise for Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway, the narrative’s jumble of events, people, and places are bound with the present through memories spanning more than thirty years. For Septimus however, memory is so strong as to blot out the present to such an extent that suicide becomes his only option (Dalloway, 127).

In another sense, Woolf seems to suggest that memory can be manipulated in order to alter one’s experience of time. For her, memory is a continuum into which she can ‘dip’ at will (Memories,99). In To the Lighthouse (133), Lily Briscoe ‘dipped’ into her memories to ‘re-fashion’ the image of her former acquaintance, Charles Tansley. She was so successful in her task that it ‘stayed in the mind almost like a work of art’. This dipping into memory also proves useful for purging bits of the past that impinge, unpleasantly, on the present; in her memoirs, Woolf comments that she wrote To the Lighthouse very quickly and ‘when it was written’, she ‘ceased to be obsessed by my mother’, no longer ‘hear(ing) her voice ‘or ‘see (ing) her’ (Memories, 93). In To the Lighthouse (72), gliding ‘like a ghost’ Mrs Ramsey likewise revisits her experience of a house in which she had ‘been so very, very cold twenty years ago’. As the result not only does that ‘particular day’ become ‘very still and beautiful’, but she also manages to disconnect from Carrie, the house’s owner (‘she did not know this Carrie’) who is currently building a new billiard room (much to Mrs Ramsey’s apparent dislike). Sometimes however ‘memory’ and ‘reality’ are not so easily severed as when Orlando, watching the samphire gatherers ‘hanging half-way down the cliff’, realises that ‘like some derisive ghost’ scampering within her, ‘Shasha the lost, Sasha the memory’ has shown herself to remain ‘surprisingly’ real (Orlando, 97).

For Woolf, time was not always experienced as a continuum (with distinctions between past and present wiped out). Indeed for her some remembered moments (‘in the nursery, the road to the beach’) could be ‘more real than the present’ (Moments, 80). As the narrator in Orlando (59) points out, although it is ‘Time’ that makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality’, time has ‘no such simple effect upon the mind of man’.

Woolf suggests that as the result of this inconsistency, some moments of time will be remembered whilst others are forgotten. She gives an example; although she remembers yesterday’s walk through countryside with startling detail (‘the willows’ were ‘all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue’), she has ‘already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch, and at tea’ (Memories, 83).

She concludes that this is because of a distinction between that which she calls (1) ‘non-being’(moments during which we fail to live consciously) and (2)‘being’ (moments which make a ‘dint’ because of some powerful emotion attached to them, Memories, 83-84). Again from her own experience she provides an example: she was fighting with her brother, Thoby, on the lawn outside their summer home at St Ives when just as she raised her fist to hit him she felt ‘why hurt another person?’ This immediately gave her such a ‘feeling of hopeless sadness’ and ‘powerlessness’ that she ‘slunk off alone’, feeling ‘horribly depressed’.

While most of the examples of moments of ‘being’ from Woolf’s own experience are the result of negative emotions, this need not always be the case. Most certainly it was not for Clarissa in Mrs Dalloway (29-31. It is through the ‘echo of her old emotion’, that the moment of being kissed by Sally Seton(‘the most exquisite moment of her whole life’)will last a lifetime.

Woolf suggests that the difference between experiencing a moment of ‘being’ as either negative or positive is down to the one’s ability to find ‘reason’ in the experience (Memories, 85). She gives the example of looking at a flower bed and suddenly thinking that this ‘is the whole’ and that this would ‘likely be very useful to me later’. Such realisations support a theory of ‘self’, the making of personal identity, put forth by the philosopher David Hume (thoughts of whom of whom as ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, Mr Ramsey conjured up to entertain himself, Lighthouse, 54).

According to Hume, the only thing of which we can ever be certain is that we perceive an unbroken stream of subjective images and ideas and hence our notion of ‘self’ can be nothing more than a fiction; the mind’s way to join disparate events together as a continuum. As the result, the ‘self’ is always subject to change. In her memoirs, Woolf seems to suggest that she subscribes to Hume’s view noting that ‘it would be interesting’ to compare and contrast ‘the two people’ (‘I now’ and ‘I then’) in order to understand how much the past is ‘affected by the present moment’ (Memories, 87). As she grows older she finds she has ‘greater power through reason to provide an explanation’ for her moments of being, hence it is now a ‘great delight to put the severed parts together’ (Memories, 85). Most certainly Clarissa Dalloway accomplishes some ‘self-making’ in this way. As she sits at her dressing-table pursing her lips, she finds ‘her self’ when with ‘some effort, some call on her to be her self’, she ‘drew the parts together, the ‘different’, ‘incompatible’ parts – all the ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, suspicions (like Lady Bruton failing to ask her to lunch that day)into the ‘one woman’, that ‘meeting point’, which she knows herself to be (Dalloway, 31-32). Likewise we are told that although ‘he’ has become a ‘she’, Orlando has maintained her/his ‘identity’ not only because his/her face remained ‘practically the same’ but also, and perhaps more importantly, because her/his ‘memory’ – ‘all the events of her past life’ – remains the same. (Orlando, 83).

It would seem that it is not just one’s own experiences that create ‘self’ but also the impressions (real or imagined) of others. This is most certainly the case with Clarissa Dalloway who is prone to also define herself by what others think of her; ‘her servants like her’ and she ‘helped young people, who were grateful to her’ – but ‘what would he (her old lover, Peter Walsh) think’? (Dalloway, 31-32). It is also the case with Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse who, after collecting ‘her impressions of the Rayles’, concludes that instead of really ‘knowing’ them, she has only ‘made up’ a ‘series of scenes’ about them and worse, that ‘not a word of it was true’ (Lighthouse, 142).

Indeed, under Hume’s ‘radical scepticism’, we can not be certain there exists the thing which we call the mind (much less time) because these perceptions have no size or figure and hence cannot be located in space (McIntyre, 182-185). This certainly seems to be the case with Mrs Ramsey in To the Lighthouse for if she is not conscious of something, then it simply does not exist – it seems ‘extraordinary’ to think that someone had ‘been capable of going on living all these years’ when she ‘had not thought of them more than once all that time’,(Lighthouse, (72).

For Woolf, time may or may not always have been experienced as a causal progression (with clearly marked out differences between periods), but it was always thus portrayed in her writings in keeping with contemporary narrative theory. I suggest that in his sweeping statement, Mr Frank misses the important distinction between (1) ‘narrative’, or the representation of events, (2) ‘story’, which is an event or sequence of events, (i.e. the action), and (3) ‘narrative discourse’, the events as actually represented. Whilst ‘narrative discourse’ is free to go in any temporal direction, ‘narrative’ by definition ‘entails movement through time’ both externally (words on the page) or internally (duration of an event), in the sense of beginning, middle, and end. It is only (3) story (like action) that can progress(causally) forward in time (Abbott, 16-19).

Woolf clearly demonstrates her understanding of narrative theory when, for example, in the segment of To the Lighthouse entitled Time Passes, time tells its own story; except for that beam from the Lighthouse entering the rooms ‘for a moment’ (Lighthouse, 113), everything changes in causal, temporal sequence: not only does the house literally fall apart (‘swallows nested in the drawing-room’ and ‘the plaster fell in shovelfuls’) but Prue Ramsey marries and dies whilst Andrew Ramsey is killed in the war that begins and ends with this segment. In another example, Mrs Ramsey predicted at the beginning of To the Lighthouse that her son James would remember that day of thwarted, teased promises of a trip to the lighthouse. Eleven years later, when at the end of the novel the trip to the lighthouse with is finally made, not only has James’ memory caused him to not want to go but also to hate his father for forcing him (Lighthouse, 138).

In conclusion, although Joseph Frank mourns that time is no longer felt an objective, causal progression but instead as a continuum without distinction between past and present, I would suggest that at least regarding the writings of Virginia Woolf this is because Mr Frank’s concept of time is not in keeping with how it is actually experienced. As the narrator in Orlando points out, although nature proceeds with prosaic punctuality, the effect of time on our minds does not. Woolf suggests that this incongruity results in some moments being infused with emotional reponse and hence not only carefully scrutinized but also long-remembered whilst other moments are quickly disgarded and forgotten.

This certainly sums up my own personal experience of time and memory and as we can deduce from her memoirs, it would seem to sum up those of Virginia Woolf as well. Further, it is our careful scrutinization of these moments of ‘being’ that, at least according to philosopher David Hume, contributes to the formation of our all important sense of ‘self’.

That Woolf, an innovator desirous of ‘pinning down the fleeting and evanescent’ (Spalding, 7), would write in the same way as as she experiences the world, makes perfect sense. In regards to Mr Frank’s lamentations that time is no longer felt as a causal progression with clearly marked out differences between periods, I would direct him to a closer reading of contemporary narrative theory.

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Bibliography

Woolf, Virgina. Mrs Dalloway. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2009.

Woolf, Virgina. Orlando.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Abbot, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

McIntyre, Jane L. ‘Hume and the Problem of Personal Identity, (177-208). The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. Dave Fate Norton and Jacqueline Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 (online).

Spalding, Frances (ed.). Virginia Woolf, Paper Darts. London: Collins & Brown, 1991.

Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being, Autobiographical Writings. ed. Jeanne Schulkind, London: Pimlico, 2002.

Only Connect: The tension of passion and prose in the writing of EM Forster

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According to Colmer (92), the phrase ‘only connect’, the epigraph to Howards End, immediately establishes the master theme as one of achieving harmony. Indeed the importance of bridging tensions across racial, class, and geopolitical barriers is a recurring theme in Forster’s work.

However I suggest that Forster does not always succeed (or perhaps did not wish to succeed) in bridging these tensions. This essay investigates how and why this might be the case in regards to resolving the tension between ‘prose’ and ‘passion’ in five major characters from Howards End and A Room with A View (both novels themselves connected by reference to the English art critic and author, John Ruskin).

Our first encounter with ‘prose’ and ‘passion’ comes shortly after Margaret Schlegel, a liberal intellectual, receives her first kiss from her chalk and cheese fiancé, Henry Wilcox, a conservative businessman. When Margaret finds that ‘the incident displeased her’ because ‘no tenderness had ensued’, she resolves to help Henry bridge the desired gap (HE, 169).

Although the word ‘passion’ is used twenty-three times in Howards End, it is not defined. However given the lack of physical passion in Margaret’s relationship as well as her musings about ‘half-monks’ and ‘half-beasts’ (HE 169), Henry’s ‘soul’ and the ‘whole of her sermon’ (HE 170), I suggest that the passion in question is more spiritual than physical. Although the word ‘passion’ occurs sixteen times in A Room with A View, it is likewise not defined. But given that yet again, there is little physical passion displayed in Lucy’s relationships (her first kiss – RV, 101 – apparently being as much a failure as Margaret’s), I am presuming that for sake of comparison that the passion in A Room with A View is likewise more spiritual than physical although perhaps not quite in the same way or to the same degree as in Howards End. For purposes of this essay, spirituality is presumed to be un-associated with traditional religions, for as Colmer (91) explains, Forster celebrated in all his novels a ‘spiritual aristocracy’ of the ‘sensitive, the considerate and the plucky’, the members of which ‘are to be found in all nations and classes’ and who have a ‘secret understanding between them when they meet.’Unknown

Colmer (90) also notes that the first Mrs Henry Wilcox definitely qualifies as a member of this spiritual aristocracy. I suggest that Margaret might then also qualify given that she was the first Mrs Wilcox’s ‘spiritual heir’ (HE, 90) but that for Mr Henry Wilcox, the businessman who was not ‘spiritually’ as ‘honest’ as Margaret, there would seem little hope, at least not on his own.

I also suggest that although Leonard Bast in Howards End was ‘a born adventurer’(HE, 108) and hence plucky, there was likewise little hope for him because he was ‘poor’ (HE 41). Stone (36), makes clear that Forster was convinced that only the well-off can attend to spiritual concerns. Indeed the narrator of Howards End reiterates this: ‘this story’ deals only with ‘gentlefolk’ (or those obliged to pretend they are gentlefolk) because ‘the very poor’ are ‘unthinkable’ and can ‘only be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ (HE 41).

Although Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with View might initially have been ‘in a state of spiritual starvation’ (RV,5) the narrator assures us that because of her music the ‘passion was there’, even though it ‘could not be easily labelled’ (RV, 28). Lucy continues to struggle with articulating her passion until Mr Emerson, George’s father, reveals that ‘passion does not blind’ (RV 183). With this she finally gets in touch with her passion and by the end of the novel when she and her new husband, George, commence their life together, the narrator assures us that ‘passion’ was ‘requited’ and ‘love attained.’

This brings us to the second half of the ‘prose’ / ‘passion’ equation.

Although in Howards End the word ‘prose’ is used eight times, it is not defined. However given Margaret’s obvious interest in literature perhaps we may justifiably take ‘prose’ to mean at least in part, ‘a composition or passage in prose’ as opposed to poetry (OED A 2 b). In A Room with a View, the word ‘prose’ is used only once and that is in regards to Ruskin who is a common factor for both novels being invoked seven times in Howards End and four times in A Room with a View. Hence I suggest it is not unreasonable to associate ‘prose’ with that of Ruskin. According to Hoy (221), in both these novels Forster tried to do for modern England what Ruskin had tried to do for Victorian England – to redeem her from the repressive forces that threatened to destroy her spirituality through retreat into an idealised view of the classical world, which valued not only high art but also a quality of mind characterized by disinterested contemplation. In other words, truth rises above the rumble and grumble of the everyday material world and hence only detached intellectuals are able to find it.

Most certainly Leonard Bast believed this to be the case; he felt that ‘if he kept on with Ruskin’ not only was he ‘being done good to’, but that he ‘would one day push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe’ (HE, 45). But Bast fails in his quest, killed by a ‘shower’ of the very books he believed would redeem him (HE, 295). Perhaps this was because as Colmer (102) points out, Ruskin not only promoted intellectually fuelled classicism but also ‘preached the gospel of work to invest the new forces of industrialism with value’. Interestingly this would seem compatible with yet another definition of ‘prose’ – that which is ‘plain, simple, or matter-of-fact’ (OED A 1 b) for as I understand it, with Ruskin came serious questions whether definitions of ‘culture’ could include the plain, simple, matter-of-fact rumble and grumble of everyday life or whether it could now only exist above and beyond. Hence for purposes of this essay, I posit that the message of Ruskin’s prose in both Howards End and A Room with a View is that to be valuable, intellectualism must be put to good use through the gospel of work (the word ‘work’ being used an amazing eighty-five times in the former and one hundred eighteen times in the later).

Although it was ‘work (that) Bast wants’ (HE, 206), I suggest it might not have been the type of work that Ruskin had in mind. Colmer (102) suggests that unlike Ruskin who believed that work must not be reduced to mechanics but instead be intrinsically linked with the enjoyment of that which it produced, Forster could see ‘work’ only in terms of counting houses and because Bast was a clerk, as he himself acknowledged, ‘there’s nothing’ he is ‘good enough to do’ (HE, 206).

Although Henry Wilcox may not have strove to be an intellectual as did Bast, he virtually embodies the gospel of work – he and those like him are ‘(s)ane, sound Englishmen! Building up empires’ (HE, 215). As readers we are reminded no fewer than five times that Henry Wilcox is a man of business and by definition this means he is engaged in ‘serious employment’ (OED II 9 a). However if Ruskin requires the marriage of intellectualism and valuable work, this would seem not enough for Henry for he had neither ‘fine feelings’ or ‘deep insight’ (HE, 187); he was a very ‘practical fellow’ indeed and hence ‘more tolerant’ than ‘intellectuals’ (HE, 133).

Likewise it is not enough for Margaret. However much she may talk about work (for example lecturing her brother, Tibby, regarding work as the cure for his empty life (HE, 100)), Margaret remains a secure member of the leisured middle class. According to Colmer (102) this is one explanation why Margaret was attracted to Henry Wilcox; he ‘embodies the importance of work’ which Margaret appreciated but, despite her extension of the gospel of work to women (HE, 100), she failed to take it up personally.

Even if Margaret was not able to ‘connect’ on her own (i.e. by failing to take up ‘serious employment’ she had not personally embraced the entirety of Ruskin’s prose), I suggest that she ‘connected’ through marriage. I suggest that similarly it was through her marriage to Henry that the first Mrs Wilcox connected her ‘passion’ with the ‘prose’ for however spiritual she might have been, she possessed no prose of her own – she was neither an intellectual nor engaged in ‘serious employment’, her ‘idea of business’ being ‘why do people who have enough money try to get more money?” (HE, 82).

In regards to Henry, although Margaret concludes that ‘he had refused to connect’ (HE, 301), I would aruge that he has done. Although he had once refused to give Howards End (arguably itself symbolic of ‘passion’ with its mysterious ‘pigs’ teeth stuck in the trunk’ of the ‘finest wych-elm in Hertfordshire’ (HE, 65)) to Margaret as requested by the first Mrs Wilcox on her death bed, in the final paragraphs of the novel he gives Howards End to his new wife ‘absolutely’ (HE 310). Although he might not have accomplished the ‘connection’ on his own, he was able to do so through marriage.

Like Leonard Bast, Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View is addicted to her Ruskin. When she first arrives in Florence, she is reluctant to consider what might be beautiful without guidance from him (RV, 19). But as she got into her own stride at Santé Croce, she dropped her pretence to intellectualism and was soon advising Mr Emerson that his son, George, ‘wanted employment’ to get over what would appear to be his existential angst (RV, 26). Whether her rhetoric regarding employment matters, I remain uncertain for unlike in Howards End, the thrust of Lucy’s ‘prose’ was neither the (1) intellectualism inspired by Ruskin (although she did experience her inciting events in Italy) nor (2) the gospel of work. I suggest that Lucy was faced with the other definition of ‘prose’ – that which is ‘plain, simple, or matter-of-fact’ (OED A 1 b). Indeed Colmer (44) suggests that the conflict confronting Lucy was that between naturalness and conventionality and I suggest that in breaking off her engagement to Cecil Vyse and eloping with George, the man she loved, she bridged the tension between her ‘passion’ and ‘prose’, albiet perhaps a different ‘prose’ than that bridged by the characters of Howards End.

In summary, Forster does not always succeed (or perhaps did not wish to succeed) in bridging the tension between the (1) ‘passion’ or the spiritual side of man with the (2) ‘prose’ or more rational, material side. With Leonard Bast, I suggest that he not only failed but that he wished to fail in order to emphasize that blind intellectuallism will never win the day and besides, Bast was never to be admitted to the ranks of the spiritual aristocracy because he was poor. With both Margaret and Henry, the connection is made but not on an individual basis for each lacked an essential ingredient in the the ‘prose’ / ‘passion’ equation. Likewise although the first Mrs Wilcox possessed ‘passion’ (in the sense of belonging to the spiritual aristocracy), without her husband she failed to possess ‘prose’ and the connection could only again be made as the result of marriage. Similarly Lucy Honeychurch was neither an intellectual nor an adherent to the gospel of work however her remit was somewhat different; the prose she was meant to achieve was to put aside the pretence of convention in favour of a ‘plain, simple, and matter-of-fact’ approach to life that allowed her to follow the dictates of her own heart. Lucy demonstrated her success in bridging the ‘prose’ and the ‘passion’ when she refused to marry the man society had chosen for her in favour of the choice of her own.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Forster, EM. Howards End. New York: The Modern Library (1999): (HE).

Forster, EM. A Room with a View. New York: Penguin Books (2000): (RV).

Colmer, John. E.M. Forster, the personal voice. London: Routedge & Kegan Paul. (1975).

Eagles, Stuart. After Ruskin: The Social and Political Legacies of a Victorian Prophet, 1870-1920. Oxford Scholarship Online (2011).

Hoy, Pat. C. ‘The Narrow, Rich Staircase in Forster’s Howards End’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 32, no. 2/3 Summer-Autumn, (1985) pp. 221-235.

Stone, Wilfred. The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E.M. Forster. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1966).

If a rose is a rose then why isn’t an Author an author?

imagesRose is a rose is a rose is a rose’.

This sentence was written by Gertrude Stein as part of her 1913 poem, Sacred Emily and, when queried as to what it meant, Stein replied that although once a poet could use the name of a thing and the thing really was there, now poets call on these same words only to find they are nothing but worn-out literary phrases. Stein was keen to point out that although she was quite aware that in daily life no one goes about saying ‘…is a…is a….is a’, nonetheless it was her opinion that with this sentence, the rose was red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.

What is an author?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary an author is both (1) a ‘writer of a book or other work’ (OED I 1 a) and (2) a ‘creator’ in the sense of giving rise to something (OED II 4 d). Neither definition suggests that an ‘author’ is one who gives meaning however much some might cherish that thought. Stein appears to be suggesting that the meaning of her most famous sentence speaks for itself – not because of anything that she as its author has done – but rather because at the end of the day, a rose really is a rose. As Jennifer Ashton (582) notes, for Stein poetry is ‘a vocabulary entirely based on the noun’; because it is the job of a noun to name something, it should not be a leap of faith to presume that when a noun is invoked it is intended to mean that for which it is its job to name.

Naturally it is not that simple and Stein went on to question the relationship between author, text, and meaning. At least two other thinkers, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, have also weighed in on the subject. Whilst many commentators focus on Barthes and Foucault, I suggest that it is Stein who offers the more comprehensive and enduring elucidation with her ideas concerning the operation of Zeitgeist (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). Not only that but, according to Curnett (4), the poetry and fiction written by Stein is perfect for examining issues of authorial intent because her work is so complex that it defies decoding in ordinary ways. By relinquishing any attempt to exercise ‘authority’ over her words, Stein did what no other author has had the courage to do (Curnutt, 5-6).

After TS Eliot dismissed ‘the importance of authorial intent’ in the 1950’s, the question of ‘what is an author’ has come under increasing scrutiny in the sense of ‘authorial intent’ as an interpretive heuristic (Curnett, 5). The question heats up when, with his 1967 essay, Death of the Author, Roland Barthes eliminates not only (1) ‘authorial intent’ but also (2) the ‘Author’.[1]

Barthes argued that inherent within any text is a multitude of ‘indiscernible’ voices and that the ‘Author’ is nothing more than a shaman or bard who, as in days of old, channels these voices whilst taking no authority or ownership over them. Hence Barthes suggested that rather than allowing authority and ownership to reside with the Author, we instead must transfer them to the reader. The apparent reason that someone must be assigned authority and ownership over words and their meaning is that in the capitalistic ideology underlying much of Western society, ownership equals power (Butler, 25-26).

This idea of words as power is taken up by Michel Foucault when he suggests that knowledge and power are joined by discourse – a set of interlocking and mutually supporting statements, ideas, and concepts (Butler, 45). According to Foucault, we are created through discourse, or the sum of the knowledge we accumulate. Worse, discourse is used to exclude and control – to obtain and retain power (Butler, 45). Society’s power holders – scientists, politicians, the media, and even our parents – decide what we’re told and thus ‘communicate’ us into being. Is it thus any wonder that in his 1969 essay, What is an Author?, Foucault’s opening parry is ‘what difference does it make who is speaking’? Likewise, is it any wonder that Foucault suggests that authors have no God-given message for which readers should be waiting and that it is imperative to realise that an ‘author’ is simply a function (albeit with a culturally accepted pedigree) by which someone – or something – wields enormous (and dangerous) political power?

According to Bennett & Royle (23), these essays by Barthes and Foucault must be considered in their cultural and historical context – as ‘providing a simplified but forceful articulation of a variety of intellectual positions that merged in the 1960’s, in France and elsewhere’. Is it any wonder that these two essays are held to have spelt the ‘death’ of the ‘author’ (with or without the corresponding ‘birth’ of the ‘reader’) given that the most pressing postmodern ethical argument concerns the relationship between discourse and power (Butler, 44)? If knowledge and power are, indeed, joined by discourse then in the spirit of the postmodern is it not better to locate that knowledge and power where it is most effectively controlled – i.e. in readers? Is it not better to take back our Cartesian ‘selves’ as the giver of ‘meaning’ – the pride of the Enlightenment – rather than allowing our ‘selves’ to be controlled by ‘meaning’ (Butler, 50)?

For Barthes and Foucault, texts constructed by a reader have the political advantage of doing away with a dangerous author viewed as, he or she necessarily must be, the bourgeois, capitalist, owner and marketer of his or her ‘meaning’ (Butler, 23). Indeed some have suggested that in keeping with the postmodern thought emerging at this time, the pursuit of textual uncertainties (including the work of Barthes and Foucault) was reactionary against a ‘manufactured consensus of the established political order’ (Butler, 24).

Whilst I am not suggesting that the work of Barthes and Foucault has not been valuable in expanding our understanding of the relationship between author, text, and meaning, I am suggesting that their work was at least as much politically motivated as it was academically motivated and should be viewed as such. Bennet and Royle (23) have suggested that Barthes’ essay was not as ‘systematic’ and ‘rigorous’ as it might have been and despite having admitted it would be unrealistic to assume that ‘the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state’, Foucault was unwilling to entertain parameters by which it might operate other than in regards to power relations (Walker, 552). I believe it telling that however much Barthes and Foucault railed about the connection between ownership and the ‘meaning’ of a given text, they were both unwilling to abandon the notion that – somehow – somewhere – meaning and ownership exists.

Like Foucault and Barthes, in her 1929 essay, Composition as Explanation, Gertrude Stein suggests it is wrong to focus on a finished work and extrapolate about its author (or vice versa). But unlike Foucault and Barthes, Stein does not feel the need to do away with the author (or convert him or her into a theoretical function). Instead she simply states that which I suggest is not only logical but fairly obvious – an author is not the same thing that he or she has ‘made’ (24). Stein goes further by positing that (1) nothing is ever really ‘made’ but instead only ‘seen and that (2) this ‘seeing’ (i.e. the making of meaning) is never accomplished by individuals but by successive generations based on ‘how everybody is doing everything’.

Bassoff (77) links Stein’s argument to the findings of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in that there does appear to exist a formal relationship between societal structures and their art and that such relationship lies at the base of their ‘social reality’. As Stein (24) notes in her essay, every period differs from any other period ‘not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted’ (emphasis added). Bassoff (77) suggests that by this, Stein means that each society will see various things (including texts) as a ‘rework’ of their own conditions. Bassoff (78) likens Stein’s argument to that made by Jacques Derrida suggesting that the meaning of a text is constantly being produced or developed in the sense that there is always ‘something to be added afterwards.”

Whether this ‘reworking’ constitutes ‘Zeitgeist’ – the ‘spirit or genius that marks the thought or feeling of a period or age’ (OED, n), I am in no position to suggest. What I will suggest, however, is in her essay, Stein posits that it is neither the ‘author’, in the OED sense as writer or creator, nor the reader (or any group of readers) that gives meaning to text. Instead, meaning is and will continue to be given by whatever it is that lies at the base of that generational ‘reworking’. I further suggest that this view is more (1) comprehensive (in the – OED adj, 1a – sense of larger in scope) and (2) enduring (in the OED adj – sense of lasting) than that of either Foucault or Barthes.

As Bennet and Royle (23) point out, rather than solving the problem of interpretative authority, Barthes has simply transferred it to the reader whilst for all intents and purposes, Foucault has transferred it to a theoretically constructed function (Walker, 551). Stein has done neither. Her argument allows for ‘real life’ readers and authors to continue as they always have been presumed to been operating in regards to text and meaning whilst also acknowledging that (1) such meaning is made and (2) will change over time. As Bennet and Royle (23) point out, the essays of Barthes and Foucault must be ‘seen’ in ‘cultural context’. By contrast, Stein’s essay ‘is’ cultural context. As Stein (27) herself writes, ‘As I have said in the beginning, there is the long history of how everyone ever acted or has felt and that nothing inside in them in them in all of them makes it connectedly different. By this I mean all this.’

‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’.

In replying to the query of what this sentence meant, Stein referred to ‘all those songs that sopranos sing as encores’ about ‘I have a garden! Oh, what a garden!’ Although she did not put too much emphasis on that line, she did point out that ‘you all know it; you make fun of it, but you know it.’ Equally although successive generations of readers have been familiar with both Stein and her work, it is precisely because they have failed to understand it and thus laughed at it (and her), that she has been made famous (Curnutt, 4).

What is an author?

images-1In summary, although the ideas of Barthes and Foucault are useful in understanding the relationship between author, text, and meaning, Stein’s ideas about Zeitgeist as ultimate determinant of meaning are more (1) comprehensive in the sense that she was not compelled to spell the ‘death’ and/or ‘birth’ of anything or anybody but instead has looked beyond such theoretical particularities to realistic generalities and (2) enduring because unlike the work of Barthes and Foucault, Stein’s ideas are not wedded to the political ideology of any particular period but are consistent with the fundamental anthropological understanding about human society, amen. Finally, let us not also not forget that whilst Barthes and Foucault were both unwilling to abandon the notion that – somehow – somewhere – meaning and ownership exists, Stein practiced what she preached by relinquishing any attempt to exercise ‘authority’ over her words.

[1] Barthes’ use of a capital ‘A’ is often taken to mean that with his death sentence he was referring not to an individual author but to the concept of author and the functions associated with authorship.

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Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author (pp. 142-148). Image-Music-Text. ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. What is an Author? (pp. 205-222). Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. ed. by James D Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley and Others. New York: The New Press, 1998.

Stein, Gertrude. Composition As Explanation (pp. 21-30). Gertrude Stein: Look at Me Now and Here I Am – Writings and Lectures 1909-45. ed. by Patricia Meyerowitz. Hammonsworth: Penquin Books, 1967.

Ashton, Jennifer. ‘Rose is a Rose’: Gertrude Stein and the Critique of Indeterminacy. Modernism/Modernity, Vol 9, No. 4, pp. 581-604.

Bassoff, Bruce. Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation”. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 1978, pp. 76-80.

Bennet, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. The Author (pp. 19-34). Literature. Criticism and Theory. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 4th Edition (2009).

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism – A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Curnutt, Kirk. Parody and Pedagogy: Teaching Style, Voice, and Authorial Intent in the Works of Gertrude Stein. College Literature, Vol 23, No. 2, June 1996, pp. 1-24.

Walker, Cheryl. Feminist Literary Criticism and the Author. Critical Inquiry, Vol 16, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp. 551-571.

Clemenceau & His ‘Carthaginian Peace’

image005Three weeks before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, John Maynard Keynes resigned as the British Treasury delegate to the Paris Peace Conference. He then retired to Cambridge and wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

His treatise proceeded along two lines; (1) the ‘Carthaginian Peace’ (i.e. brutal crushing of the enemy as the only way to advance peace) with Germany could only further destabilize the world economy and hasten another war and (2) that old-school, emotionally-fuelled, European nationalism was to blame.

It is little wonder that Keynes focussed on the French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau to demonstrate his point. It was easy to characterize him as ‘(1) old-school’ – not only was Clemenceau the eldest member of the Council of Four but he was French gentry, (2) emotional –Clemenceau wore his great passion for France on his sleeve and (3) misanthropic – not only did Clemenceau keep to himself but he was also openly disdainful of his colleagues, especially Poincaré.John Maynard Keynes

It was equally easy to characterize him as unsympathetic; Clemenceau had a reputation for being ruthless – ‘he came from a family of wolves’ said a man who knew him well (Macmillan, 38). Likewise, it was easy to categorize Clemenceau as scornful of German mentality; as the result of the Franco-Prussian War, he had watched Paris starve, the French government capitulate, and the new German empire proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (Macmillan, 35). Besides, Clemenceau was a politician and harsh reparations was what the French public said they wanted; France had lost a higher proportion of its population than any of the other belligerents and six thousand square miles of France, which ‘before the war had produced 20% of its crops, 90% of its iron ore and 65% of its steel were utterly ruined’ (MacMillan, 36).

If Clemenceau viewed Europe’s future solely as a continuation of the ‘perpetual prize-fight’ of nations furthered at their neighbours’ expense, he was not the only one. For example, the Belgians also sought territorial gains (Sharp, 25) as did the Italians (Sharp, 26) and Greeks (Sharp, 28). On behalf of the British Empire, General Smuts, the South African prime minister, cleverly managed to gain long-sought access for British traders and investors to French and Portuguese colonies in Africa (MacMillan, 108).

If Clemenceau ‘made no pretence’ of being bound by US president Wilson’s ‘idealism’, he was not the only one. Whilst ostensibly Britain’s Lloyd George went along with Wilson’s centrepiece of Fourteen Points, creation of a League of Nations, he did little to further it (MacMillan, 95). As for ‘national self-determination’, even Wilson had to admit he might (inadvertently) have promised more than could be delivered (Sharp, 100).

According to MacMillan (46), John Maynard Keynes did much to create ‘myths’ about the Peace Conference and I suggest the one he wove about Clemenceau contributed heavily to the notion that everything that later went wrong was as the result. As MacMillan (500) points out, the Council of Four and their delegates did make mistakes and perhaps the Carthaginian Peace’ was one. But realistically it would always be up to those who came afterwards to make good or bad of them.

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Bibliography

MacMillan, Margaret. Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World. London: John Murray (Publishers), 2002.

Sharp, Alan. Consequences of Peace – The Versailles Settlement; Aftermath and Legacy 1919-2010. London: Haus Publishing Ltd., 2010.

The Fatness of Falstaff & the politics of redemption

Word on the street is that Wonga, the controversial Internet payday lender, is preparing for an IPO (Initial Public Offering). This anticipated share flotation could yield its owners in excess of £100 million.

But first, after having been publically disgraced for charging interest rates in excess of 5,000% (APR) and using fake law firms to harass its hapless borrowers, Woimagesnga must redeem its ‘bad-boy’ public image.

In October 2013 Wonga reported £1.2 billion in lending (an increase of 68%) and pre-tax profits of £34.5 million (an increase of 35% on the previous year). In October 2014, following government intervention, Wonga is writing off £220 million in customer receivables and revising its lending practices. Some market-savvy commentators suggest such redemption is strategic for that anticipated IPO. I can only imagine how right they are in that.

In his first soliloquy of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV (1.2. 185-204), Hal (the future Henry V) plots his own ‘redemption’. Like Wonga, he will shed his ‘bad-boy’ image being ‘like a bright metal on a sullen ground’ – a light that will ‘attract more eyes’ than if it had ‘no foil to set it off’. By referencing the ‘base contagious clouds’ and ‘foul and ugly mists’ the ‘vapours’ of which ‘did seem to strangle him’, Hal announces his foil to be none other than ‘fat-guts’ (2.2.29) Falstaff – and friends – that charismatic, largeUnknownr-than-life, ‘oily rascal’ –(2.4.507-508) with whom he has chosen to spend so much time.

There have been as many theories about why Falstaff is fat as there are those who have pondered the question; a parody of puritan ethics (Bulman, 160), signature of the opacity of character (Bulman 161), symbol of Vice as in Morality plays (Bulman, 162).

At first I had concluded that the question of Falstaff’s fatness need not be more complicated than as a proper foil for Hal – ‘a starveling,’ an ‘eel-skin’ a ‘bull’s pizzle’ and a ‘stockfish’ (2.4.237-238) – Falstaff had to be fat – really fat – larger than life, fat. Indeed he must be fat as life itself – ‘banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’ (2.4.461-462). The more obvious is the difference between Hal and Falstaff, the better. Contrast of colour or quality to set something off to advantage is what being a ‘foil’ is all about (OED n 6).

This is the easy option. This is the most obvious, most moral answer. This the solution to which, at least modern audiences, are most attuned. I mean with the words ‘I banish thee’ as ‘I have done the rest of my misleaders’ (2 Henry IV 5.5.62-64) who wouldn’t want to believe that Hal was nothing more than an ordinary adolescent under pressure to put his youthful rebellion and associated friends behind him?

Yet the more I considered the question, the more I became convinced there was more to it than that. After all if according to Desmond Barrit (143), who played the role of Falstaff in an RSC production, Falstaff was the most complex part he has ever played then as Falstaff’s counterpart, Hal must be equally as complex.

According to Adrian Lester (148) who played the role of Hal in an RSC production of Henry V, in that first soliloquy (1 Henry IV.1.2. 185-204) with its image of the clouds hiding the sun, Hal reveals the kind of ego necessary to fill the role of king to which he was born. Not only that, but Lester suggests that by introducing the notion that he should be ‘wondered at’ (1.2.199), Hal is signalling that we should never be too certain that we know or understand him.

So why had Hal ordered Peto to search Falstaff’s pockets while he was asleep (1 Henry IV .2.4. 510-530)? Why had Hal allowed Falstaff to falsely claim he had killed Percy – especially after having told his father that he would ‘redeem himself’ on Percy’s head’ (3.2.132)? If Hal is so quick to comply with Falstaff’s deception – ‘(I)f a lie may do thee grace/I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have’ (5.5.152-153), then what other deceptions might he be willing to perpetrate?

In that first soliloquy, Hal reveals all – by paying ‘the debt I never promised’, he plans not only to ‘redeem time’ (redemption implies the ‘discharge or paying off a debt or obligation’, (OED, n 6b) but also to ‘falsify men’s hopes’.

It is possible that debt to which he is referring is the repayment of the money Falstaff plans to steal from the pilgrims at Gad’s Hill. Yet it is difficult to imagine that if, as he said himself – he was neither a thief (1.2.130) nor did he intend to involved in this caper (except to the degree he agreed with Poins to return the money to its rightful owners – 1.2.136) why Hal would believe this to be his debt to repay. It is even harder to imagine that by returning something to its rightful owners Hal would ‘falsify’ the ‘hopes’ of anyone.

Whose hopes, then, does Hal intend to ‘falsify’? The obvious answer is Falstaff’s. That those hopes might have been unrealistic from the start does not alter the fact that Hal has constantly sent Falstaff mixed messages in regards to how far he might push their relationship – one moment Hal playfully suggests he will renounce Falstaff (2.4.463) and the next he allows Falstaff the glory of having been responsible for Percy’s death (5.5.152-153).

To whose ‘debt’, then, is Hal referring? This answer is not so obvious although I suggest that it was that of his father, incurred in usurping the throne of Richard II. There is little doubt that some believed that Henry IV had incurred such an obligation – Hotspur says as much (1.3.185) when he urges his kinsmen to obtain ‘revenge’ from this ‘proud king’ to ‘answer all the debt he owes.”

Likewise there is little doubt that said debt weighed heavily on Hals’ father’s mind. Indeed Shakespeare chose to commence the play with Henry IV’s ruminations on the ‘bitterness’ of the ‘civil butchery’ that ensued from his actions (1.1.13). Bulman (158) suggests this was why Hal chose to idle away his time in a tavern rather than at his father’s court.

Let’s face it – Wonga is not writing off £220 million in customer receivables to be nice guys. By repaying a ‘debt’ that ‘he never promised’ to pay, Hal is not being a nice guy either. Bulman (158) reminds us that Elizabethan audiences were aware of the importance of public self-fashioning. Being publically seen to redeem oneself could not have been any less politically astute in Elizabethan times than it is today and if we know anything about Hal, it is that he is politically astute.

I suggest that if we believe that it was only with Percy’s head that Hal planned to redeem himself, we would be wrong. Elsewise he could never have so easily have given that distinction to Falstaff. In truth, Hal needs something much more than Percy’s head to ensure the success of his own IPO (Initial Public Offering) and that something is to secure a legitimate alternative to divine right to the throne via redemption of his father’s debt.

Bottom line then is that however much Hal might have genuinely cared for Falstaff, he had planned from the start to use him up like a Kleenex – because in order to complete his redemption, the prodigal son must consume the ‘fatted calf’.

By comparing himself to the well-appreciated sun coming out after being obscured by those ‘base contagious clouds’ (1.2.180-190), Hal clarifies his understanding that those who redeem themselves are more revered than those who remain steadfast. He also clarifies that he intends to use this to his advantage – ‘I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,’ (1.2.204). Finally (1.2.183) he clarifies that it was for such purposes that he never intended to remain long with Falstaff and friends – ‘I know you all, and will awhile uphold (emphasis added). He even hints that Falstaff will become the sacrificial ‘fatted calf’ – while play-acting with Falstaff, Hal refers to him as a ‘roast manningree ox with pudding in his belly’ (2.4.336) who ‘run and roared as ever I heard bull-calf’ (2.4.252).

That Falstaff is sacrificed every bit as is the ‘fatted calf’ is undeniable. In the final scene of 2 Henry IV (5.5.46-47) Hal tells Falstaff ‘I know thee not, old man’ and then leaves the Lord Chief Justice leave to toss Falstaff and friends in jail (5.5.88-89).

Bulman (173) suggests that if Falstaff had not been so presumptuous as to publically claim Hal as his own ‘sweet boy’ (5.5.39) in the midst of his coronation, Hal would not have so callously denounced Falstaff. That might or might not be true. But I suggest that if Hal knows anything about Falstaff, he knows that that Falstaff loves him like a father and that such treatment will be the death of his fat friend.

bad boysAt the end of the day it is not Wonga’s owners (nor their equity investors) who will pay for its redemption but those two million customers who have already paid interest rates in excess of 5,000% (APR). Likewise, at the end of the day it is not Hal (nor his family) who will pay for his redemption but Falstaff. Such is the politics of redemption – success requires sacrifice and this is best accomplished through the sacrifice of someone else.

In summary, (1) both Hal and Wonga need to redeem their ‘bad boy’ imagesimages-2 and t (2) such redemptions are best funded at the expense of someone else. It remains to be seen whether Wonga’s redemption pays off for its founders but we already know that Hal’s most certainly did. As the Bishop of Ely replies in in answer to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s marvelling over Hal’s ‘reformation’, ‘we are blessed in the change’ (Henry V. 1.1.76).

 

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Bibliography

Bevington, David, ed. Henry IV Part One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Taylor, Gary, ed. Henry V. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1982.

Weis, Rene, ed. Henry IV Part Two. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Barrit, Desmond. ‘Falstaff in Parts I and 2 of Henry IV’ (128-144). Players of Shakespeare 6. ed. Smallwood, Robert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Bulman, James. C. ‘Henry IV, Parts I and 2’ (158- 176). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s History Plays. ed. Michael Hattaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Dollimore, J. and Sinfield, A. eds. Political Shakespeare. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Greenblatt, Stephen. ‘Invisible bullets: Renaissance authority and its subversion, Henry IV and Henry V’, (pp. 18-47), ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Political Shakespeare: Essays in cultural materialism, (Ithaca), Cornell University Press, 1994.

Harriss, GL ed., Henry V: The Practice of Kingship. Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1993.

Lester, Adrian. “King Henry V” (145-162). Players of Shakespeare 6. ed. Smallwood, Robert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

 

 

 

New Moon in Virgo – party’s over – time to clean up the mess

The HermitAfter the many ego excesses of Leo, it’s time to drop back and regroup and what better energy with which to do this, than with pure Virgo.

In the tarot, Virgo corresponds with the 9th card of the Major Arcana, The Hermit.

The Hermit is a venerable and mysterious figures of solitary intention. Leaning on his staff, he pauses to hold up his lamp (of intellect) and drive away the darkness (of ignorance).

Contrary to popular belief, the Hermit is not a lonely, sorry individual bereft of family and friends. Quite the opposite. He is the kind old wise man whom others eagerly seek out.

But in many respects he does stand alone in that he separates himself from the crowd so that he’s no longer controlled by their moods and desires.

To be like The Hermit does not mean you must renounce society.

But what it does mean is that you must stand aside from it long enough to turn on your own lamp ti discover who and what you really are.

What would you do, be, wear, or think if no one else were watching?

What would you spend all your time doing – not for money to be gained from it – but for the pure joy of doing it?

What would it feel like to forget all your troubles?

This is not to suggest your troubles have gone away – but only that if you can use the energy of the new moon in Virgo wisely, you and your troubles will no longer one and the same.

Today is a ‘Tower of Destruction’ Day

The TowerWith the Sun in Virgo (perfection) and the Moon in Leo (aspiration), today is a ‘Tower of Destruction” day.

Throughout history, there have been plenty of examples where hubris (i.e. excessive self-confidence, OED, n) has been the cause of a disastrous fall. Check out The Icarus Syndrome by Peter Beinart for insight.

Yet if in today’s world we’re pushed to ‘be all that we can be’ (and more) then where ought we draw the line between well-deserved success and hubris?

Meditations on the Tarot (A Journey into Christian Hermeticisim) provides a thoughtful answer:

Every Christian has been taught that man was ejected from the Garden of Eden for desiring more ‘knowledge’ than God wished to reveal.

Yet why was it so important to have such knowledge?Meditations on the Tarot

Origen (circa AD 185) suggests this is hard-wired in our souls – i.e. we are built to push the boundaries of nature with the purpose of breaching them – i.e. for example through scientific research.

According to the Hermetic tradition, this is dangerous for if God wished us to have such knowledge, He would have revealed it.

Does it mean that we should never strive for more than we’ve been given?

Of course not. The StarAccording to Hermetic wisdom, it is absolutely necessary for us to work and grow – to think and await the ripening of our thoughts – to cultivate and maintain ourselves as we would care for our garden – wherein we realise all will grow and be harvested in its own time.

So why do we push ourselves more than we push our gardens?

Hermetic wisdom suggests that (through ignorance), we identify ‘self’ with ‘ego’ – ‘I’ must have this or that because ‘I” want it (not because I need it or because it is good for me but because I WANT) – and such behaviour is further fueled by advertisements suggesting you should want whatever is for sale for no other reason than because ‘You’re worth it’.

Danger – danger – danger !!!!

What will you be ‘worth’ after your personal fall?

If on a ‘Tower of Destruction’ day, you’re tempted to push beyond your boundaries- beyond the bounds of your own nature  – and like Icarus, fly too close to the sun, resist and be heartened.

In the tarot, the card following ‘The Tower of Destruction’ is that of The Star’ – a kneeling woman with two urns being poured in equal measure so as to achieve balance and equilibrium.

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