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Essay - Time Passes by Michael Lackey

Time Passes
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
“Nothing?” (117-123)
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.