A Window onto Life’s Stage

A Window onto Life’s Stage


The cliché axiom that actions speak louder than words is a common core belief that has been ingrained into the direction notes on how to perform in this life. We have generally accepted the concept that our true thoughts, feelings, and ideas lie in what we do versus what we say. While this arguably holds true in a myriad of cases, can we really make a blanket-statement out of this theory? Silence and action are ripe with hidden truths, but isn’t there something to be said about the things we choose to say? In his selection of writings titled “On Truth and Untruth” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche challenges the verity of words with his theory that words are essentially meaningless. He concludes that “we possess only metaphors of the things, which in no way correspond to the original essences” and further that “every word becomes a concept, not just when it is meant to serve as a kind of reminder of the single, absolutely individualized original experience to which it owes its emergence, but when it has to fit countless more or less similar . . . cases.1

Essentially, words are flimsy physical manifestations of thought, and when we begin to stretch a word to encompass the identity of more than just one thing, its legitimacy, value, and essence increasingly lessens.

Language is our only expression of truth, yet still poor because it can never fully arrive at it. In fact, before we as speakers even utter words—written or verbally—with the intention to communicate an original internal feeling or thought, we already strip the original meaning or emotion of its integrity by viewing words as suitable vessels for its outward expression in the first place. Communication through language is an inescapable performance, Nietzsche tells us, and we’re all actors in it. This precarious question of truth and how it gets performed is loudly answered by the central characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse. The Ramsays are a relatively average couple well into their marriage: They politely engage each other in day-to-day life, get into tiffs here and there (mostly concerning their eight children), and consider taking their children for a day trip to the lighthouse on a weekend afternoon. Interlaced into their dynamic, however, is an element of tension that expresses itself in the form of occasional heated outbursts, heavy pauses, or outright silences in a refusal to engage with the other. It is these forms of  nonverbal communication that gives the reader a wider window into the complex dimensions of The Ramsays’ relationship as well as into the unspoken but prevalent (and arguably archaic) conventional dynamics between men and women. It’s a dynamic that suggests an inherent exchange of sympathy and power at play.

A moment in To the Lighthouse that illustrates this power-sympathy exchange is the poignant evening scene of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay together after having hosted a successful dinner party in their home, at the end of part 1. She knits, he reads, and Mrs. Ramsay, though a bit annoyed at her husband’s focus on reading, picks up a book to read, too. But then they look at each other—and something off-script happens. They begin to speak. He smiles at her as she reads, thinking to himself how “astonishingly beautiful” she is.2 She looks up from her book, returns his smile, and fishes her mind for something to say. She winds up making small talk about Paul and Minta, about the stocking she’s been knitting, but all the while, Woolf exposes that Mrs. Ramsay knew something else: “He wanted something—wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him.”3 The want can’t be that simple, however, otherwise I’m sure Mrs. Ramsay would’ve long abided it. If Mrs. Ramsay can go out of her way to do things for Mr. Ramsey, surely she can just say three short words to him. Or rather, there is something particular in saying “I love you” that Mrs. Ramsay finds disagreeable to her being, her essence.

Recalling Nietzsche’s theory of words-turned-concepts, we may begin to see something heartbreakingly beautiful about Mrs. Ramsay’s inability to express her love in speech. Woolf continues:

And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could say things—she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him.4

Mr. Ramsay “found talking so much easier than she did.” Mr. Ramsay could “say things,” unlike Mrs. Ramsay. So, in other words, Mr. Ramsay has an easy time with concepts. Mrs. Ramsay, not so much. She, on the other hand, struggles to verbally express her affection for her husband. Thus, she struggles to conceptualize with conceptualizing her love into abstract words which would only offer a dim glimmer of her actual feelings towards him. Woolf goes on, “But it was not so—it was not so. It was only that she never could say what she felt. Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him?”5  Here, we quite plainly see Mrs. Ramsay conceiving of her love for her husband by what she can do for him, the ways in which she can sympathize him.

With nothing for Mrs. Ramsay to do, nothing left that she is capable of giving Mr. Ramsay, she gets up.

She stood at the window with the reddish-brown stocking in her hands, partly to turn away from him, partly because she remembered how beautiful it often is—the sea at night. But she knew that he had turned his head as she turned; he was watching her. She knew that he was thinking, You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt herself very beautiful. Will you not tell me just for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what with Minta and his book, and its being the end of the day and their having quarrelled about going to the Lighthouse. But she could not do it; she could not say it.6

Mr. Ramsay is so obstinate in his need to receive these words from his wife that we may begin to ask: What’s in it for Mr. Ramsay? What’s at stake? Woolf uses Mr. Ramsay’s character to narrow in on a fragile aspect of the human design which renders in detail  how we readily and habitually function off of language. We need words, metaphors, concepts to fuel us in the performance that is our external lives. We need them to convince us that it is a performance worth playing. And Mr. Ramsay grows frustrated because out of all the ways that Mrs. Ramsay does play her part of being a dutiful mother and a dutiful wife, this delicate, all-important part in the script just so happens to be the part where she always seems to forget her lines.

In this particular moment, when Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are alone with each other, there is no audience, so Mr. Ramsay’s frustration over what his wife fails to say emphasizes that this part of the performance is solely for him. This illustrates that while they do speak to each other, they also communicate most profoundly in the things they do not say. Mr. Ramsay says “I love you” while Mrs. Ramsay does not, which kindles the question: What does Mr. Ramsay’s acquiescence to concepts say about his love for his wife?  And given Mrs. Ramsey’s rejection to concepts, can it be argued that Mrs. Ramsay, despite never saying it, may actually love Mr. Ramsay more? Understanding the Nietzschean philosophy that words copy essential truth, weaker in intensity and value, the argument could be made that not only does Mrs. Ramsay love her husband, but she does so in a way that surpasses his love for her and is too essential to be lessened by words, concepts. Even though Mr. Ramsay experiences feelings of resentment for his wife’s inability to verbally express this love, he, just as well as she, silently understands how much his wife truly loves him. Woolf bolsters this position with the close of part I which additionally serves as the final few moments the reader experiences with Mrs. Ramsay before her untimely death.

Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course, he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it.7

In her final performance, Mrs. Ramsay goes off script. To both of their exterior selves, nothing is happening and Mrs. Ramsey still isn’t submitting to her husband’s expressed want, but to their essence, they are in full and complete alignment and understanding. Mrs. Ramsay thinks, “Nothing on earth can equal this happiness,” and it should be noted that, in the text, “N0thing” is capitalized.8 Mrs. Ramsey isn’t saying that nothing in concept or theory can equal this happiness but rather that Nothing itself is the only thing that can equal this happiness, a poignant distinction that further emphasizes the power and ultimate truth to be found in the absence of words. All she says to her husband is “Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tomorrow. You won’t be able to go.”9 And Woolf closes the scene with Mrs. Ramsay looking at her husband, smiling. “For she had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he knew.”10 This “triumph” Mrs. Ramsay experiences recalls the transactional exchange at play in their dynamic. Mr. Ramsay feeds off of language that tells him he is right, that sympathizes with him, and Mrs. Ramsay gives him this in exchange for the superior knowledge that he knows that she knows that he needs this and that nothing he can say can cover this truth up. So she smiles, and her sympathy for him is an act that only deepens the unspeakable truth of her love for him. Saying “Yes, you were right” is a repackaged way of saying “I love you”, a fact that is not lost upon Mr. Ramsay. In his position of neediness, and ultimate inferiority, Mr. Ramsay succumbs to concepts knowing that he can never quite reciprocate the love that Mrs. Ramsay has for him, as it is a love that requires a near-sacrificial imbalance of give over take. Although Mrs. Ramsay disproportionately gives to her husband, her surpassing victory is found both in her empowering refusal and in the love she possesses that is so deeply felt that she refuses to reduce it to words, even for her husband’s gratification.

 If silence, as in Mrs. Ramsay’s case, protects a deeper truth than can be expressed in words, it becomes necessary to ask, Why even speak at all, then? If, according to Nietzsche, our human utterances are inherently conceptual and thus born with an inescapable degree of separation from the original truth of what we actually think, feel, or know, why ought we bother with language? Should we not just engage with one another through a series of telepathic exchanges, expecting the recipient to understand what we’re trying to say? This failure to provide a justification for our persisent usage of words is a major pitfall in Nietzsche’s philosophy, but it’s one that gives rise to a new thought: Perhaps there is a genuine truth to the words we say by virtue of them being the words we choose to say, given that the desire to speak arises from our essence. We don’t just say things just to arbitrarily say them, so there must be some sense of capital-T Truth embedded in and actively alive in, for instance, Mr. Ramsay saying to Mrs. Ramsay “You won’t finish that stocking tonight,” despite these spoken words being concepts—and mundane ones at that (Woolf 123). Because these words are our choices; they are the words we check and choose to send out.  A line like “You won’t finish that stocking tonight” can be more than their literal meaning, and even more than a metaphor for what he feels inside; they are a subliminal yet still blatant verbal communication of the essence of his feeling. Because if the concern for Nietzsche is that words lack the essence, it becomes quite contradictory for him to characterize words as being merely metaphors, for essence is precisely what metaphors function to capture—otherwise, they wouldn’t be metaphors, which are phrases to give palpable expression to something otherwise abstract. We measure the effectiveness of said metaphors not based on reason—there is no pragmatic list or equation that gives our speech the green light to be spoken—but based on intuition. We feel that the metaphor we’re producing captures an essence of the total Truth. Nietzsche writes that “[man] forgets that the original metaphors of intuition were metaphors and takes them as the things themselves.”11 And to Nietzsche’s credit, man can exhibit a tendency to misconstrue his metaphors for metaphors born out of pure intuition, such cases being when we adhere too strongly to beliefs to the point that they become dogma or latch on too tightly to the words we say when later circumstances may prove those words to not have actually been true or, in more unfortunate circumstances, lie, and believe in this lie so much and for so long that we mistake it for the truth. But To the Lighthouse exposes that man often does not overestimate the accuracy of language, and that even when he does, he is very much so aware of language’s insufficient nature. This line of thought thus opens up the window through which we can begin to see the immensity of conceptual language that suggest there is something purely true about our speech.

But despite any speech’s sincerity, it is still composed of words. So how, if possible, does it become truth? Nietzsche posits that truths are manmade: “a sum of human relations that have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, translated, and embellished, and that after long use strike a people as fixed, canonical, and binding: truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors that have become worn-out and deprived of their sensuous force.” 12

So in order to conceive of truth, one must also partake in a forgetting. A conscious forgetting that what one speaks and may ever speak is but an illusion. Mr. Ramsay challenges Nietzsche’s belief that man just naively accepts his metaphors removed from intuition as truth, for he is a perfect embodiment of this disillusionment brought upon by forgetting. He is a character that rests so much weight in words before he remembers again, in silence, that his words can never be the unfettered truth he wants them to be, that is, until the forgetting occurs again and the performance resumes. Peace is restored; “the marriage will turn out all right.”13 This is the cycle of unconsciousness and consciousness.

However, human awareness of the questionable veritability of expression should not be undermined. Nietzsche takes a rather condescending approach whenever he writes about mankind’s faculty in this complex relationship with truth, writing, “Man himself, however, has an invincible tendency to let himself be deceived and is enchanted with happiness when the rhapsode tells him epic tales as if they were true, or when the actor in a play plays the king even more regally than he is in reality.”14 And disdainfully, he points out that intellect has no use beyond human life: “it is merely human, and only its owner and producer regards it so pathetically as to suppose that it contains in itself the hinge on which the world turns.”15 But Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are both aware that they are actors; they see the value that does exist in performance, as it sustains the conventions of their relationship as husband and wife. And further to their credit, even though there is a script being performed, there is no prior rehearsal, just a prior understanding that the words that are about to be spoken aren’t and won’t ever be reflective of the original essence that gave rise to the script. In this way there is something original about their performance in addition to their ability to meet and understand the original essence of the words in the silences that come after them.

Actions speak loud but so do our words, and so, too, our consciousness of the performance we’re engaging in with words. In part 2 of To the Lighthouse, Woolf announces Mrs. Ramsay’s death with one quiet yet piercing sentence: “Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.”16 The prevailing theme of absence and of this absence being where original truth and essence resides takes on a stirring new form with the absence of presence, shown here with Mrs. Ramsay’s death. A quiet settles over the house, and for a while, there is nothing for anyone to say. There is an undeniable truth spoken in the emptiness that Mr. Ramsay clutches at, that truth being the significant power of Mrs. Ramsay’s role as the matriarch of the family, the power of her performance as a wife to him, and the love he has for his wife that, now with her having exited the stage and him no longer being able to conceptualize her, can finally match that which she had for him in all its inexplicable bareness.

 From Act II of William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It come the famous lines:

All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances
and one man in his time plays many parts
his act being seven ages.17

To the Lighthouse shows us two central players who enter and exit, who play their individual parts, yet throughout their performance, are never ignorant to essence of their love that not even the most skilled actors can perform. They are aware of their external conceptions of the other just as they are of their inner harmony which, against the restrictions and odds of metaphor, still gets expressed in part through word formations that attempt—and they are aware of this attempt—to get it right. In these words there is a true glimmer of the essence, and in their reception, there is a silence that follows, an understanding of this essence in all its unspeakable totality.

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” translated by Taylor Carmen, in On Truth and Untruth (New York: HarperCollins, 2010),  27.
  2. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt, 1927), 123.
  3. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 123.
  4. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 123.
  5. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 123.
  6. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 123.
  7. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 124.
  8. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 124.
  9. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 124.
  10. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 124.
  11. Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” 35.
  12. Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” 30.
  13. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 123.
  14. Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” 44.
  15. Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” 18.
  16. 15. Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 128.
  17. William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2.7.146-150.
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