Illuminations from the Lighthouse:
                            Woolf and Camus - Hope and Absurdity


                        Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the
brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and the
tumult of night, with trees standing there, and the flowers
standing there, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless,
and so terrible.


                       - Virginia Woolf, 1927
                             To the Lighthouse
                       


      Modernism is a machine gun*. It ripped away the weary European psyche and left it full of holes -- contemplating the empty corpse, acknowledging the absurdity of existence. World War One horrified and devastated the Continent. The promise of invention had lead to widespread destruction. With the exception of Spain, Norway, Sweden, and, of course, Switzerland, the entirety of Europe had become an experimental battleground of modern weaponry. Poison gas, hand grenades, tanks and airplanes rendered the human powerless. The futility of war and of life became the overwhelming subjects for writers who witnessed the atrocities of “The Great War”. Christian convictions already shaken by scientific theory collapsed within European minds unable to comprehend a benevolent God condoning such widespread horror. Abandon by God and betrayed by Science, the Modern mind was born longing for meaning. The quest for coherence in an increasingly senseless world became the Modern subject. The Hope that keeps this ultimately senseless quest alive is the focus of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse and Albert Camus' essay The Myth of Sisyphus.

In Woolf’s novel Mrs. Ramsay, like the Lighthouse itself, is the locust of hope in a time of dissolving certainties. The wife of a renown philosopher who studies “subject and object and the nature of reality” (Woolf 23), Mrs. Ramsay is acutely aware of the “destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea” (16). Constant as the waves that break upon the shore, the impending ocean of absurdity penetrates Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts. The ocean steadily reminds Mrs. Ramsay that human life destine to be overwhelmed by nature.

Mrs. Ramsay addresses the senselessness of life and magically renders it hopeful. From the very first conversation of the novel, Mrs. Ramsay’s exhibits a hopeful distrust of science and human understanding. According to Mr. Ramsay the voyage to the lighthouse will be impossible due to the appearance of bad weather. The hypnosis is confirmed by the cynic Mr. Tansley “holding his bony fingers spread so that the wind blew through them” (5). Unlike her husband and the atheist Tansley, Mrs. Ramsay does not have “man’s strength and sanity, his feeling for straightforward simple things” (120). She will not accept science or human observation as being infallible. Instead she finds the overwhelming uncertainty of life pregnant with overwhelming possibility. She responds to the men’s pessimism with hope, “it might be fine. I expect it will be fine” (4). Mrs. Ramsay beautifully recognizes the absurd and turns senselessness towards the victory of hope.

Mrs. Ramsay’s modern hopefulness allows her to “transfix” any given moment with a feeling of “heavenly bliss” (3). Her character bestows the novel with beauty and love. Mrs. Ramsay’s character allows Woolf to comfort the modern spirit plagued by alienation, uncertainty, disillusionment, and futility. To the Lighthouse consoles the Modern encounter with the absurd. “The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come” Woolf says, “Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (161). Without clinging to religion, science, or social protocol, Mrs. Ramsay humbly discovers meaning in the precious moments of life. “Oh how beautiful,” she exclaims to the dumfounded atheist Tansley upon viewing the ever-so familiar bay (12). In life “with stars in her eyes and veils in her hair” (14) Mrs. Ramsay magically imparts an aware hopefulness upon those around her.

Beneath the shadow of her death, Mrs. Ramsay returns to her family with a message of peace. In life as in death, Mrs. Ramsay transforms the mundane into the miraculous with hopefulness extends beyond the grave. Years after Mrs. Ramsay’s death, Lilly and the others experience Mrs. Ramsay saying, “Life stand still here”;Mrs. Ramsay’s immoral gift is her ability to render each moment magical despite the impending forces of natural destruction. Mrs. Ramsay is constantly acknowledging absurding whildst making of the moment "something permanent” (161). 

Mrs. Ramsay is the representation of the mind “steeped” in what Camus would later call the “vast hope” of the “existential thought” (Camus 135). In his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus Camus discusses the human longing for meaning, happiness, and coherence. Sisyphus who struggles daily to push his boulder to the crest only to awake the next morning and begin again, is Camus symbol for modern man. Like Sisyphus, Camus' absurd hero acknowledges a constant senselessness yet day after day resumes the activities that he knows ultimately come to naught. It is the hopefulness in the face of ultimate impossibility that intersects Camus.

Camus did not believe that hope and despair were at odds. Instead he posited the their coexistence was the crux of existence. In the failure of all other knowledge and understanding, Camus believes it is the “cradle of illusions” that “gives shape to hope” and “gives a meaning to the author’s life” (134). These meaningful illusions, he is careful to mention, are not those born of ignorant bliss, but are born of a lucid and powerful hope that endures even the most silent moments of despair. “Within the limits of the human condition” he asks “what greater hope than the hope that allows an escape from that condition” (135). Camus admits that confronting the absurd, acknowledging one’s self as a slave to death with no prospect of revolt, will lead to tragedy. The bravery of this task, however, will be rewarded by “true hope” and a proximity to the “divinity devoid of surface” (135).

If as Camus claims, the philosophy of the Absurd is a “tremendous cry of hope,” then Virginia Woolf’s character Mrs. Ramsay is a beautiful example. She personifies the mind that discovers hope in confrontation with the senselessness of life. Her character agrees with Camus’ ultimate idea “the point is to live” (Camus 65). Despite the horror of the modern world, despite the disappearance of god, despite our enslavement to impending death, there is beauty. Hope appears out of hopelessness as if somehow divine. Despite the eternal vacancy of meaning, Camus explains and Woolf personifies, hope persisits and casts its constant light across the darkeness of human existance.  In To the Lighthouse and The Myth of Sisyphus it is irrelevant that life lacks a meaning because in Hope it has a miracle.

                 
     

1. The machine gun is responsible for 80% of WWI casualties. (Fiero 50)

2. Camus quotes Kierkegaard, “Earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope” (134).








Bibliography

Essay by Sharon Scott