Stay, You Are Fair

“Stay, you are so fair.” That is the sentence that Mephistopheles tempts Faust to utter in Goethe’s poem. To wish to remain in one moment is to abandon the restlessness of human experience.

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse takes the opposing tack: “Making of the moment something permanent” is the central human longing.

Woolf depicts two “methods” of achieving this permanent. Mrs. Ramsay finds harmony in life itself. In a 1928 review (reprinted in Virginia Woolf: The Critical Heritage), Jean-Jacques Mayoux calls attention to a dinner party at the Ramsay summer home:

“The dinner at last becomes all rhythmic movement and collective emotion. And when William Bankes and Carmichael and Ramsay and even Tansley, released from their individuality, from their peculiarities, make a kind of unity together, it is then that they truly defend against the worst danger, an ever-menacing decomposition, that which is most precious, their common humanity. This is the profound meaning of Mrs Ramsay’s effort, it is in this way that this supremely harmonious moment is not only beauty, but also wisdom. They will pass, but the order, the harmony which exists between them at this moment, is permanent, eternal, placed outside of time and change, like all perfect communion, all order, all harmony” (217).

The painter Lily Briscoe strives to achieve a moment of permanent through art: “‘Like a work of art’ thinks Lily, and here is formulated the assimilation prefigured and prepared for throughout that meditation by the constant symbolic interlacing of memory and the effort of plastic creation.”

The approaches of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily are “different, even antagonistic, the concrete and direct emotive unity, which Mrs Ramsay creates in living, and the plastic and architectural unity, abstract and austere, towards which Lily strives. This involves the complete transformation, the pitiless sacrifice of even the dearest emotional values: she cannot, as she had already explained to William Bankes, make of Mrs Ramsay anything but a violet shadow” (219).

Does art, with its necessary abstractions, leave us with only geometric outlines, surfaces of character rather than character?

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