more on mist

I have been reading Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse and yesterday evening I came across this passage:

It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. There rose, and she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one’s being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover.

Naturally I wondered if this was the same mist Kafka writes about not being able to expel from his head. He says that no one will want to lie there with him in those clouds of mist. Woolf’s speaker, Mrs. Ramsay, is troubled by this mist, by her inner life. She is at odds with it, and feels uncomfortable when her husband witnesses her in the throes of it:

Had she known that he was looking at her, she thought, she would not have let herself sit there, thinking. She disliked anything that reminded her that she had been seen sitting thinking.

And yet Mrs. Ramsay’s inner life seems extremely rich and rewarding. She maintains a special relationship with the third stroke of the Lighthouse beacon (the long steady light she refers to in the first quoted passage above):

Watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!

Her husband sees a beauty emanating from her while she is in this ecstatic state and feels he cannot approach or interrupt her, and yet his interpretation of her state is flawed:

She was aloof from him now in her beauty, in her sadness. He would let her be, and he passed her without a word, though it hurt him that she should look so distant, and he could not reach her, he could do nothing to help her.

The novel clearly portrays Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay as being at odds with both themselves and each other. She snatches moments to wade into the mist of her mind and yet feels guilty about her indulgence, not wanting her husband to see her in such a state. Mr. Ramsay, on the other hand, mistakenly interprets this state as distress or sadness. Perhaps he cannot conceive of his wife wanting time to think to herself? Either this underlines a fundamental misunderstanding between the two, bitterly lampooning a superficiality characteristic of many societal interactions (even among spouses), or it lays bare what Kafka concluded, that the mist itself prevents the necessary connection from being made between two people. This connection being one that would allow sharing of one’s most private inner ecstasies with another.

One theory I’ve considered is that the mist may not be translatable into language. Perhaps that is the problem. And yet, the mist may also be related to Jung’s collective unconscious; it may be the shared ecstasy we all feel from time to time, something primal that humans have always known but are unable to adequately express to each other. If that is the case, we may indeed share that connection, but only by sensing it in each other, not by communicating it with words.

Leave a comment


  1. inalonelyplace

     /  December 18, 2012

    I love this novel – and I love this post. I first read it well over ten years ago and think it’s time to return to it. I find that first passage extremely evocative; I can relate to the feeling Mrs Ramsay is expressing. I feel like I am in the mist myself right now. Keep writing. Beautiful stuff.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. It’s always a pleasure to hear from someone who understands and thinks about such things. I’ve become enamored of Ms. Woolf lately—her prose is quite mist-inducing.

  2. This reminds me of On Being Ill. There Virginia Woolf writes about taking in language through the senses when ill; and how, when we later read whatever it was, but in health, it’ll be all the richer for first having been perceived through the senses. That mist. Someone else I read recently, probably Vicente Huidobro, wrote something related: that we should write in a language that is not one’s native tongue. Mistiness. I also thought of Jamaica Kincaid and Marguerite Duras, both of whom write ever so much more sparsely/seemingly directly than Virginia Woolf, but in their styles I perceive that same inability to express in a known language. They must all create something new in order to be understood and even then it is futile only that’s not true because of how we’ll reach out through the mist and it’ll be stronger than words. I don’t have any words but these are the words that I have.

    • I like the image of reaching out through the mist and it being stronger than words. In a way it does feel much stronger. I’m also reminded of mythology and archetypal figures, and yet in thinking of the instruments of language as their own archetypes of a sort, I see these authors as exploding those archetypes and refashioning them so that, as you say, they can try to create a new language that allows them to express themselves in a satisfactory way. An extreme example of this I read recently was Anna Kavan’s Sleep Has His House. I’m sure that everything in that book had meaning to Kavan, and yet I found so much of it indecipherable using my own decoding tools. However, I wanted to keep reading because it was like I felt what she was saying, in the mist, rather than seeing the words on the page and understanding that way. It was a unique reading experience, because in the past I have sometimes had trouble with writers whose use of language seems to intentionally obscure what they are trying to say. In Kavan’s case, though, it didn’t feel like she was being coy or anything like that. It felt very genuine.

    • That idea you mentioned from Huidobro just reminded me of something I read that Beckett had said. Someone asked him why he started writing in French and he said writing in English was somehow too easy, that French gave him more clarity and in French he was able to ‘think more fundamentally, to write with greater economy.’ Perhaps he was trying to blaze a language trail through the mist? But he also said that he went by instinct on whether or not to first write a play in English or French. I know he did a lot of his own translations from French back into English. I wonder how much different this made the English versions than if he had originally written them in English. I can see what he means by how writing in English was too easy– I think this ties into what Woolf was saying in that audio recording about how hard it is to say something new in English (or presumably whatever your native language is). There are all these existing associations and it is so simple to fall back on those while writing, to accept the meanings that have already been assigned to them.

  1. molloy’s mist « lost gander
  2. piskarev’s mist « lost gander


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