Michael Lackey

Woolf’s reference to “a joke with nothingness” in the corrected proofs (196) reflects a major concern of the modernists. Given the retreating “Sea of Faith” and the “death of God,” there was a tendency among modernists to suggest that all existence is Nothing. To the Lighthouse certainly addresses the issue of God’s death and absence, as evidenced by Mrs Ramsay’s rejection of the idea that “We are in the hands of the Lord” (63) as well as Mr Ramsay’s triumphant leap of non-faith: “He [Mr Ramsay] rose and stood in the bow of the boat, very straight and tall, for all the world, James thought, as if he were saying, ‘There is no God,’ and Cam thought, as if he were leaping into space” (207). But what were the logical consequences of God’s death on the modernist understanding of the world? In 1921, Wallace Stevens suggests in his poem, “The Snow Man” (first published in the journal Poetry, and then re-published in the collection, Harmonium, in 1923), that there are two separate ways of understanding modernist nothingness: “For the listener, who listens in the snow,/ And, nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” In the corrected proofs, Woolf concludes one paragraph with the reference to “a joke with nothingness,” and she begins the following paragraph with an ambiguous reference to nothingness: “Nothing stirred in the drawing-room or in the dining-room or on the staircase.” Using Stevens’s approach, there are two contradictory ways of interpreting the word nothing in the To the Lighthouse passage. On the one hand, there is no thing, not a person, not even a mouse, stirring in the drawing-room. This is the “Nothing that is not there.” But on the other hand, nothing is the essence of being now that God is dead. So the “Nothing [that] stirred in the drawing-room” is an emphatic something, specifically the ever present reality of which we and the world are composed. This is the ominous “nothing that is.” In 1922, T.S. Eliot emphasizes this ambiguous approach to nothingness in “A Game of Chess” section from The Waste Land.

“What is that noise?”
The wind under the door.
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
Nothing again nothing.
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember

That Woolf was working within this tradition that sought to underscore the ambiguous nature of nothingness is clear from the earlier typescript version of this section. Before shifting to the “Nothing stirred” passage in the final manuscript, Woolf’s narrator says: “Why wrap us about in the sea’s beauty, why console us with the lamentation of the breaking waves, if in truth we only spin this clothing from terror, weave this garment for nothingness?” (2-3) Here the “nothingness” is clearly referring to nothingness as an ontological reality rather than an absence of being. But in the final manuscript version, Woolf deleted this sentence, which makes the “Nothing stirred” passage more ambiguous. It could easily refer to the “Nothing that is not there” as well as “the nothing that is.” In a famous lecture entitled, “What is Metaphysics?” which was delivered in 1929, Martin Heidegger does an extensive analysis of the “nothing [that] is the complete negation of the totality of beings” (100), an idea that would eventually have a decisive impact on Jean-Paul Sartre, who published Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology in 1943. Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” also addresses the ambiguous concept of nothingness, and this story was published in the 1933 collection Winner take Nothing.

On page 199 of the corrected proofs, Woolf’s narrator claims that “no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul.” This passage brilliantly articulates one of the central dilemmas facing modernists who were working through the logical consequences of adopting an atheistic theory of knowledge. In Where Nature Ends: Literary Responses to the Designification of the Landscape, Susan E. Lorsch examines the effect atheism had on literary representations of nature. The traditional liber mundi view, which holds that the world is like a book that humans can read, was based on the notion that God authored the universe. The atheistic turn in modernism, therefore, had a decisive impact on our ability to understand and represent the natural world: “Losing its faith in God,” Lorsch argues, “humanity no longer sees the material universe as the readable book of nature. With God’s withdrawal from the world, the possibilities for reading meaning in nature diminish rapidly” (16). What were the consequences of atheism on the writer’s ability to represent the natural world? Many Modernists unambiguously rejected the following model as expressed in Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man:

All Nature is but art, unknown to thee 
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; 
All discord, harmony not understood; 
All partial evil, universal good.

In rejecting the idea of a divine harmony behind the seeming discord of the world, many modernists held that the world was essentially disharmonious (The world is “A heap of broken images,” as T.S. Eliot suggests in The Waste Land) or essentially Nothing (“The essence of the originally nihilating nothing lies in this, that it brings Da-sein for the first time before beings as such,” as Martin Heidegger argues in “What is Metaphysics?”). The other argument, however, was that atheism rendered all essentialisms (the world is essentially Chaos, Nothing, Harmony, etc.) incoherent. Friedrich Nietzsche articulates this view most clearly in The Gay Science:

We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live—by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody now could endure life. But that does not prove them. Life is no argument. 
(section 121)

There is no argument about the world (the world has neither an essence nor a nature), because there is no God to conceive it. Descriptions of the world, therefore, are nothing more than limited human constructions. In “Time Passes,” Woolf works through a variety of atheistic systems. When the narrator claims that no image comes readily to hand to bring order to the night, this does not necessarily imply that the night is essentially disorder or essentially nothing. Rather, the narrator is struggling to make sense of the night given that the natural world is no longer a readable book yielding its content to capable readers.

On page 203 of the corrected proofs, in section V of “Time Passes,” Woolf’s narrator refers to the visionary and the mystic. Woolf appears to be working in a Nietzschean tradition at this point. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche claims: “Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial” (section 126). During a walk on the beach, it appears that the visionary and the mystic are given some sort of answer to ontological questions, but Woolf’s narrator, to be expected, undermines this epistemological claim by interjecting a parenthetical comment: “(they could not say what it was).” In the corrected proofs, on page 204, Woolf crosses out the claim that “We are in the hands of the Lord,” a claim that Mrs Ramsay made earlier in the novel. Just as Mrs Ramsay is duped for a moment into thinking that we are in the hands of the Lord, so the mystic and the visionary are duped into believing that they have been given “an answer” about the self (“‘What am I?’”) or the world (“‘What is this?’”). This underscores Woolf’s ironic approach to mysticism, which Val Gough intelligently examines in her essay, ‘”That Razor Edge of Balance”: Virginia Woolf and Mysticism” (Woolf Studies Annual 5 [1999]: 57-78).

On page 205 of the corrected proofs, in section VI of “Time Passes,” Woolf’s narrator introduces the atheistic designification thesis when she mentions that “the white earth itself seemed to declare (but if questioned at once to withdraw) that good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules.” Moments of beauty lead a person to believe that there is ultimately and essentially a harmony in the world, an order that rules the universe. But the parenthetical interjection undermines this optimistic view. What is ultimately behind the narrator’s resistance to taking a stance regarding the nature of the world is Woolf’s rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. One of the guiding metaphors of section VI is the mirror, which signifies the human mind (“In those mirrors, the minds of men, …”). There is an uncanny resemblance between the ideas developed in this section and Richard Rorty’s book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Rorty argues that the mirror of the mind has been the dominant epistemological metaphor in the West. According to this model, if we polish the mirror of the mind, we would be able to get more exact and accurate representations of the real world. But “[w]ithout the notion of the mind as mirror, the notion of knowledge as accuracy of representation would not have suggested itself. Without this latter notion, the strategy common to Descartes and Kant—getting more accurate representations by inspecting, repairing, and polishing the mirror, so to speak—would not have made sense” (12). Both Woolf and Rorty have adopted the Nietzschean view that life and the world are not composed of pre-given (God-authored) arguments waiting to be discovered and decoded. Knowledge is nothing more than a human constructed system, so it does not make sense to demand that the natural world disclose its essence or nature to us: “That dream, of sharing, completing, of finding in solitude on the beach an answer, was then but a reflection in a mirror, and the mirror itself was but the surface glassiness which forms in quiescence when the nobler powers sleep beneath?” The natural world is not a sacred hieroglyph waiting to be correctly read, so it makes no sense to demand an “answer” from the world. Given that the traditional model of knowledge, which is based on the mirror of the mind, is no longer tenable, Woolf’s narrator concludes: “the mirror was broken.” In other words, the atheistic designification of the natural world has irredeemably compromised the West’s mirror-of-the-mind epistemology. That Woolf would have drawn a similar conclusion to Rorty about the limitations of philosophy’s dominant theory of knowledge indicates that she had an impressive grasp of Western philosophy. For studies that examine Woolf’s complex engagement with philosophy, see 

 - Lucio Ruotolo’s Six Existential Heroes: The Politics of Faith
 - S.P. Rosenbaum’s Victorian Bloomsbury: The Early Literary History of the Bloomsbury Group
 - Mark Hussey’s The Singing of the Real World: The Philosophy of Virginia Woolf’s Fiction
 - Pamela L. Caughie’s Virginia Woolf & Postmodernism: Literature in Quest & Question of Itself
 - Tom Regan’s Bloomsbury’s Prophet: G.E. Moore and the Development of His Moral Philosophy
 - Penelope Ingram’s “‘One Drifts Apart’: To The Lighthouse as Art of Response,” Philosophy and Literature 23.1(1999): 78-95
 - Ann Banfield’s The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell and the Epistemology of Modernism
 - Michael Lackey’s “Modernist Anti-Philosophicalism and Virginia Woolf’s Critique of Philosophy,” Journal of Modern Literature 29.4 (2006): 76-98
 - Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land, in T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958. pp. 37-55