It is telling that Lily’s painting is her interpretation of Mrs Ramsay reading young James a fairy story, framed by a window; here painting, standing in for cinema, acts as a re-negotiation of traditional narrative; not of the fairy story, but the telling of a fairy story, abstracted into a “triangular purple shape” via the “objects of universal veneration,” a mother and child. Here, “something vital” has emerged from “the mists of irrelevant emotions.” Perhaps it should not surprise us, when Mrs Ramsay has her “admirable idea” that “William and Lily should marry,” while knitting a sock for the sickly lighthouse-keeper’s boy; in the act of creating, of assisting a cure, Mrs Ramsay envisages two competing visual elements uniting to mutual benefit. For if novels can support mimesis and symbolism's duality, Virginia Woolf argues, then so can film, instead of merely offering us “Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht” (Woolf, ‘The Cinema’) to look upon.
Woolf’s essay is not only advice to film-makers, but also a warning to the audience. If it remains the case that all cinema can offer us are “toys and sweetmeats,” to keep the brain “agreeably titillated,” the consequences are more serious than we imagine – indeed, the problem lies in what we are no longer able to imagine for ourselves. As Michael Wood says: “...commercial films have overwhelmingly attempted to deny that shadows are shadows, to replace the expressive possibilities with...an all-consuming illusion of life...a system that has come to seem like second nature to us.”
In short, our need for, or rather dependency on, narrative may result in us seeing life as somehow less real than cinema, or failing to live up to the illusions of the silver screen; in addition, our thought processes may become in themselves cinematic, instead of, as Woolf suggested, cinema triggering sensations within our own consciousness. Wood continues: “...Woolf manages to evoke an abstract, non-mimetic expressive possibility that the film industry, both before and after 1926, has devoted considerable amounts of time and money to refusing.” As far back as 1936, Walter Benjamin realised the effect this refusal might cause: “Within major historical periods, along with changes in the overall mode of being of the human collective, there are also changes in the manner of its sense perception.”
The advent of the cinema, along with other forms of visual technology, had the potential to alter our perception of reality, our construction of memory, how we saw ourselves and how we told our own story to others – and ourselves. Perhaps this is what Woolf implied in her famous comment of human nature changing in or around December 1910; with the first section of To the Lighthouse set around 1910, James Ramsay will become one of the last of “that great clan” whose perception remains unfiltered by cinema. There appears a critical consensus on this issue in discussions of both Woolf, and Modernism in general. For example, Bradshaw and Dettmar state: “New technologies such as photography and film changed our perceptual apparatus in the same way that Freudian theory did.” “Such technology,” they add, “presents in its very form the changed structure of experience that characterises modernity, not just a new attitude toward reality.”
The transitional sequence, ‘Time Passes,’ in To the Lighthouse, has elicited most comment on
Images flicker upon the consciousness of Peter Walsh as he sleeps, the traveler who watches the ‘playback’ of what his subconscious mind has absorbed from the immediate environment (again, the relationship with the space a person occupies is important). In ‘Time Passes’ however, audience and actors are removed; the cameras glide silently from one room to the next; projections of the absent play on screens for nobody but ourselves. Julia Briggs talks of “the almost cinematic actions,” such as “long shots, montages and dissolves,” rendering the reader voyeur and participant.
David Trotter, discussing Laura Marcus’s notion of memory as cinematic projection, points out there is at least one person before the “picture palace screen,” the caretaker, Mrs McNab – although perhaps ‘intercepting’ is a better word, as “Mrs McNab takes nothing in.” For in a novel about the presence within absence, where we are not concerned with “and there she was” so much as ‘and there she wasn’t,’ looking without knowing is another form of death.