Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Love as Destruction in Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse.' (Virginia Woolf)

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Love as Destruction in Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse.' (Virginia Woolf)

Article excerpt

Recent revisioning of the self in relation to otherness has led to a skeptical rediscovery of love as a topic for scholarly inquiry. A major spokesman here ha been Jacques Lacan, who theorizes the relationships between love, sex and desire. According to Lacan, in the sexual relation each partner must stand as the cause of desire for the other (Feminine Sexuality 81). No one, however, can serve this purpose, and the impossibility of what is required by sex is compounded by love, which is distinguished from desire in that "its aim is not satisfaction, but being" (Seminar 276). Through love the subject claims "being" by reflecting itself in the object. To Lacan, "being" is what is constituted when the contingent falls away (232); thus it involves a sense of independence, yet depends continuously on the other. The need to feel autonomous through another binds the lover to a dilemma: the aim of love is so inherently contradictory that merely to give someone love is to do that person serious har by putting the loved one in an untenable position. The more one is loved, the more one is damaged by attachment to an impossibility, and the contrast between the ideal that one claims and the actuality in which one is caught makes falsehood inevitable.

Moreover, love is conditioned by the traditional organization of the family, which divides its members hierarchically into active and passive roles: male is constructed on one level and female on the other, parent on one level and child on the other. Actually, every individual combines active and passive tendencies but family circuits are designed to flow in the same directions. Positions on these circuits provide the illusions of stable family roles, emphasizing being over becoming. Yet each person needs to become, to change roles, to alternate give and take; consequently the ideal of transmitting love in one direction is delusion that is destructive. Family channels aggravate love's harmful effects, but these effects are bound to exist no matter how love is organized.

By reason of the interpsychic phenomenology of giving, it is precisely because love gives life that it has to destroy. In his discussion of the mirror stage Lacan holds that the subject derives identity from being reflected by others. Because identity is a "succession of phantasies" (Ecrits 4), it requires constant reinforcement from its sources, so that every asset of identity adds t one's need for support, every gift causing a liability. Just as love is a gift that causes a lack, so gender, like family roles, is an assumption of identity that brings dependence. That is, masculine and feminine depend on their opposites for definition, as do parents and children, yet the values of these roles rest on feelings of autonomy.

The harmful effect of love that hinges on the interdependence of self and other is a central focus in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, as suggested by a key phrase on which Lily Briscoe meditates and which defines the main concern of Mr Ramsay's work: "Subject and object and the nature of reality" (23). Woolf's novel shares with Lacan a recognition of the remorseless enormity of love's claims, and their inherent pathology. Her characters are disturbed by realizations that no form of love is exempt from destructiveness. As Mrs. Ramsa broods on the dishonesty of her marriage, she is "reminded of the inadequacy of human relations, that the most perfect was flawed"; and a little later she thinks "of human relations, how flawed they are, how despicable, how self seeking at their best" (40, 42). Although Mrs. Ramsay defensively overestimates her marriage, Woolf means it to be an exceptionally good bond in order to delineate the problems inherent in love no matter how "perfect" it is. By exploring the injury done by even the "best" love, Woolf provides a dimension usually ignored by those who criticize the structures of gender and family for the ways they limit and channel relationships. Woolf emphasizes the need to readjust such structures radically, but she does not hope to abolish them totally, for she realizes that love cannot exist without difference and otherness. …

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