Thinking Through Our Mothers
Exploring the Phantom of Art that Virginia Woolf Readily Declared as Both her Tormentor and Guide
Science says that at 20 weeks, a female fetus has a fully developed reproductive system, with six to seven million eggs, which means I have lived within my grandmother's body. It also means that my grandmother has a direct role in my creation.
Welcome to Rumination Station of Berkana! I am skipping the part where I start by acknowledging our first step into another year of experiencing the complex world around us through our subjective lenses and jumping straight to the point. The holidays were spent wisely, working and evolving some mental frameworks in guise of busy days. The one I wanted to explore is the one that has manifested through my subconscious many times here at Berkana as literary work - interwoven strings of karma with the mother archetype.
I am amused by the pattern in which consciousness flows, from memories onto inspiration onto manifestations into a body of work, like a cascading waterfall. A couple of days ago I heard a piano piece called ‘No.2 Remembering Her’ by an artist called Esther Abrami for the first time. The elusive nature of memory is such that I was immediately reminded of a digital art piece I came across a couple of years ago. I was deeply moved by the artist when I first discovered it, but it seemed to have faded in some unpopular alley of my experiences, perhaps because the relevance was yet to appear. The artwork had no direct correlation with the song, but it evoked a feeling I associated with its theme. I googled to search for the artwork since I forgot its name. I wanted to meditate on it since it stuck as a metaphor in the stream of my consciousness. I eventually found it, and the name read ‘The Daughter of the Daughter of My Daughter’. It immediately made me think of an excerpt from ‘A room of one's own’. Woolf famously wrote, “For we think back through our mother if we are women”. I said to the art piece in slow murmurs, ‘I remember you, I know you.’ I knew then that this synchronous unlocking of multiple memory via different art forms is the language of the muse. These symbols were hieroglyphs of those lost recollections that emerge through the edifice of my consciousness frequently, but I refrain from paying too much attention to avoid emotional response to a practical problem. However, emotion is what the memory demanded since it was a beckon for a journey deep within the foundation of the mother archetype as a muse for the female creator.
Our human brains can identify patterns and create symmetrical structures from the randomness of information we receive. Most of the information is stored in our subconscious mind, which remains a repository of most of our dream memories, genetic memories, or certain repressed childhood memories. Our memories are access keys to the unfolding of a world awaiting for us beyond the veil of our subconscious. With our first recall, the curtain is drawn from the structural coherence that a particular experience has formed in our minds. We look into it, we analyze it, and we understand it better with the passage of time than we understood it when we experienced it for the first time. It holds true for me in the case of this painting. I saw it many years ago, and it did move me, but I did not know why. It is only now that I understand what part of me was affected. It is only through our cumulative experiences over a significant period of time that certain art reappears to shine a light on our present challenges.
Hypothesis on a Woman Artist’s Center of Creativity
Ever since I admitted to myself my ability to be a writer, I felt a phantom weight on my metaphorical pen, exerted by influences of my past and most of which have been the influence of women. Foremothers have lurked in the vicinity of shadows where I did not agree to look. I rebelled against their ideals of submission and reinforced my rebellion with subversive actions. I tattooed my neck and wore fluorescent lipstick through my 20s to look anything but alike to the generations of women who preceded my riled-up existence. It is only now after many years, that I have picked up the art of writing seriously, I encountered the muse instead of the rouge angel who tormented my shadows. She came out of the darkness, winged and haloed, criticizing the complex relationship I was weaving with myself. It enabled me to retire from the cyclic periods of self-destruction and pity in the presence of the ghost of my foremothers. Every time I leaned in to inspect consciousness through my unique set of experiences, my mother and grandmothers arrived unannounced leaning on behind me, whispering their vehement ideas of womanhood. I couldn’t, even if I tried, have failed to impress the silhouette of my grandmothers looming in the shadows of my consciousness.
Woolf talks of something similar when she measures her work in the detail of the decades she has passed being guided and coaxed by the phantom of her mother Julia Stephen, whose ginormous idealism both restrained and inspired Virginia to scale her literary ability. In "Professions for Women," Woolf approaches the muse with both caution and exhaustion she felt being raised by a mother with staunch Victorian values. She phrases her mother as the “Angel in the house”, directly taken from Coventry Patmore's poem of the same name, which came to be known as the most symbolic representation of the Victorian woman. Woolf writes about the metaphorical angel as a defender of men’s ego as she claims in A Room of One’s Own,
"Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size"
She declares the suffocation and frustration it caused to her intellectual freedom as her mother reappeared time and again to curb her intellectual freedom
“Directly .. .I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, and she slipped behind me and whispered: "My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own .... " And she made as if to guide my pen.”
Julia’s tender and sympathetic reaction to keep intact and validate the male ego at the expense of her self-expression deeply impacted Woolf’s early years of formulating her literary aspirations. Her diagnosis that an artist and a mother cannot exist in harmony percolated her essays, stories, and lecture in full conjunction with her celebrated feminist philosophies which she later produced through her work. In “To the Lighthouse” Woolf exhumes her mother through rather vivid characteristics that she projected onto the character of Mrs. Ramsay loosely based on her mother. Woolf describes Mrs. Ramsay as a slave and savior of the peripheral relationships of her life. Mrs. Ramsay was a direct reflection of Julia Stephen - obedient, subservient, dutiful, self-sacrificial, and modest, all redeemable qualities of a proper Victorian woman.
“She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it - in short, she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.”
In “A Room of One’s Own” when Woolf declared "we think back through our mothers if we are women," she meant it with a critique of the role our foremothers play in both initiating and inhibiting our aspirations as women artists. The ‘Angel in the house’ was in such perplexing opposition to the modern feminist philosophies that Woolf has come to represent that one might wonder if Julia Stephen was at all a positive influence in Virginia’s life and work. However, Woolf also recognizes that had she not lost her mother at a young age, her identity as a writer would have been left deeply buried in her subconscious without any proper medium of expression. Virginia had suffered deeply from mental health issues later in life, had she not exorcised her mother’s haunting memories through her work in “To the Lighthouse”, she would have never been able to shape her career trajectory. In "A Sketch of the Past" she recalls,
“Until I was in the forties - I could settle the date by seeing when I wrote To the Lighthouse, but am too casual here to bother to do it - the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, and imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day's doings .... when To the Lighthouse was written, I ceased to be obsessed with my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her”
In her two most famous works To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf juggled the polar opposition of the mother archetype and the female artist - sometimes at war and sometime in reconciliation with each other. Even if her art arises from the lingering presence of her mother, Woolf also recognizes that “killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer”.
It is also important to note that the significance of her mother as a guiding spirit was inevitable in shaping Woolf’s psyche. Virginia’s mental health was severely hampered by the sudden loss of her mother, during which she had her first episode of mental breakdown. Her effort to reconcile with her mother’s influence was essential to both her literary and spiritual realizations. Until Woolf wrote To The Lighthouse her mother’s specter haunted her in both visions and dreams. The only way she devised to listen to and silence the muse, was to write about her. She efficiently eliminates her mother's phantom by finishing her work which served as a closure for Julia’s death. "I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her," Woolf wrote in her later essays indicating that the only opposition she ever faced in her literary pursuits was from the ghost of her late mother who haunted her from the age of 13 until she was in her 40s.
The Mother and the Anti-mother (Artist)
In To The Lighthouse, Woolf’s characters Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe were built with the same dynamics that Virginia’s matured self and the version of her mother she remembered. Lily like Virginia was liberal, free-thinker, intellectual, and artistically inclined - a fierce opposition to the Victorian ideals Mrs. Ramsay embodies. Lily as an artist was a threat to the victorian household modeled around the self-sacrifice of the lady of the house. The woman artist in that sense is juxtaposed and unfit to revel in the realm of domestic peace, and little was she trusted to be happy or fulfilled. Out of her spinsterhood, the artist was expected to be remorseless and bitter, depicted by her critical views on the work of her male counterparts. Her lack of sympathy was assumed to be an undesirable trait for marriage. Lily was the antithesis of Mrs. Ramsay because she lacked the nurturing maternal instincts that came very naturally to Mrs. Ramsay. Lily began as a struggling artist who truly believed in her art and eventually completed her art only after the demise of Mrs. Ramsay. Here, Mrs. Ramsay's sudden death symbolizes the death of victorian values and the intellectual liberation of post-Victorian women. In Woof’s work, it was evident that the mother and the anti-mother, cannot exist without influencing each other, and hence one has to be eliminated for the toxic dynamic to break.
Lily was constantly haunted by Mrs. Ramsay like Woolf was by her mother.
“Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! she called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again. It had seemed so safe, thinking of her. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus.
In her character portrayal Virginia Woolf made Lily’s feeling about Mrs. Ramsay ambivalent throughout the story. At times Lily seems to overcome the impact of Mrs. Ramsay’s power on her,
“Mrs. Ramsay has faded and gone, Lily thought. We can override her wishes, and improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas. She recedes further and further from us. Mockingly she seemed to see her there at the end of the corridor of years saying, of all incongruous things, "Marry, marry!" .... And one would have to say to her, It has all gone against your wishes. They're happy like that; I'm happy like this.”
But at other times she remained chained to her phantom, essentially in an essence of surrender, “the astonishing power Mrs. Ramsay had over one” Lily recalls through her inner monologues. “She owed it all to her” the narrator intervenes. Like Julia Spehen’s role in the making of Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Ramsay was both an obstacle and inspiration to Lily's art in a nuanced manner, “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark”
Wearing Her Skin on Mine
Studying Woolf’s work produced out of her observations and memories of her mother has brought me some clarity on my frameworks of the mother archetype. I too, have my grandmother’s specter pounce at me from the corners of certain memory lanes. And then there is always the presence and voice of my mother behind every calculated decision, sometimes I listen to her advice, and at other times when I go spontaneously callous about my life, I ignore her. All the years that have floated between our generations, hold a key to the secret of our unique way of life. Art is how we perceive the world around us, and then choose to identify ourselves within it. I now understand that creation is not a solitary act. It is a cumulation of generational knowledge that we carry in our genes and marrow. Our memory becomes an archive of several chapbooks of epiphanies and contradictions. Our announcement of disapproval with the world, and our deeply rooted empathy - all rooted in us from our ancestors. They are present in our choices, world views, traditions, and even in our intellectual indulgences. In that sense, my creation is not mine alone. When I write, they write through me. As evident in my case, my preoccupations have always been intervened by the specters of mothers I have known and some that I don’t. I agree with Woolf that we think back through our mothers, but I want to add that we not only think through them but also inhabit them within us. We borrow their skin, sink into it, and sometimes even make a home within it. And at other times, we offer them our skins and minds and invoke them to tell their stories through us. We let them live within us as we have once lived within them.
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