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"The Hours" by Michael Cunningham
• Mace first woman Citadel grad
• Maurice Ashley world's first Black chess grandmaster
• Unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities ruled discrimination by Supremes
Michael Cunningham lives Clarissa’s NYC neighborhood with his long-term partner. Says he, like his hero Woolf, lacks confidence. Laura inspired by Cunningham’s perfectionist trapped homemaker mom.
Eileen McGovern, Ph.D.
West Chester, PA
Rather than contrasting the here and now to the then of 1999 when Michael Cunningham won the Pulitzer, I am framing my recollections on reading Mrs. Dalloway in the 1970’s when I was 30 and my current impressions of The Hours read and reread at age 76. It seems a family trait to be somewhat contrary.
I have neither the literary skill nor the life experience to attempt to imitate Woolf’s or Cunningham’s fiction, but as a retired English teacher, I wish to celebrate their art and the craft of novel writing. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce both deal in “epiphanies,” those moments when life suddenly opens to new meaning, glimpsed fleetingly but profoundly. Cunningham has chosen to follow in their footsteps, and he does so masterfully. In each novel, the need to anchor the abstract, stream-of-consciousness sections with vividly concrete descriptions is a given. Of course, Joyce casts the longest literary shadow.
“It seems to me what is more difficult is to create what Keats called ‘negative capability,’ somewhat akin to T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative” so that the reader is so deeply drawn into the narrative that it resonates with the reader’s own experiences and speaks the authenticity, the truth of the reader’s life as much as the author’s. William Faulkner in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech speaks of how great literature grieves on “universal bones.” I believe that each of these writers fulfill Faulkner’s definition of a writer. (If you wish to look up these literary references then my nefarious purpose as an unrepentant English teacher has been successful.)
“Cunningham skillfully weaves his three narrative threads by linking characters, themes, and symbols from London in 1923 to Los Angeles in 1949 to New York at the end of the twentieth century. I mention just a few examples. Any number of student study guides and scholarly articles will provide more in-depth analyses than provided here.
“I was struck by the common tendency of these characters to be editing their lives even while living them, at times being ‘nothing but a floating intelligence.’ Concrete experience intrudes, but yet they fear looking in the mirror because of feeling that they are ‘less than.’
“The themes of the relativity of time experienced as moments and hours and that of the inevitability of death permeate the three narratives. T. S. Eliot comes to mind: ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.’ Themes of cultural confinement and feminist rebellion also dominate much of the narrative.
“The symbolism of the mirror I judged to be foundational. Cunningham’s description of the circular mirror high in one corner of the elevator in Richard’s NY apartment building is an apt symbol of Clarissa’s feeling that she might be “trapped in the stale-smelling emptiness, either looking or not looking at her distorted image.’
“Now to the topic of changing cultural contexts. The parallels between the early days of the AIDS pandemic and that of the current course of Covid-19 are starkly similar and starkly contrasting. Both viruses, initially and subsequently, have challenged scientific researchers. Each pandemic evolved into a world-wide struggle, the invisible invaders of viral disease versus the armies of scientists, doctors, nurses, EMT’s and those who support their work. Like many bystanders I thought in stereotypes as I watched on the sidelines in the earliest days of the AIDS pandemic. However, while a graduate student at Temple University in the 1980’s, I watched AIDS take its toll. AIDS, no longer nameless and faceless, became immediate and personal. Having volunteered for the last 2 ½ years at an AIDS treatment center in North Philadelphia, I again encountered the faces of AIDS. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I now write grants from the safety of my apartment, not for nameless individuals but for friends. I believe that great fiction can make friends of us all.
“In contrast the Covid-19 pandemic lacks the stigma still clinging to an AIDS diagnosis. Even today some donors prefer not to have their names associated with AIDS charities. Never having been identified with gay populations, Covid-19 carries no stigma other than the fear of contagion. Cultural mores and attitudes toward gay and lesbian love have evolved dramatically from the era of Woolf’s Bloomsburg days to the 1990’s and even more so to our contemporary culture where popular music, film and fiction have ‘mainstreamed’ wide-ranging sexual identities and choices. Bigotry still rears its ugly head. Although bigotry has a number of definitions that can be debated, hatred’s face is easily recognized. The politicization of the Covid-19 epidemic in the United States is another contrast. Currently the cultural warring stances are taken on political rather than moral grounds. But, I am hopeful that our common humanity will provide the common ground for compassion.”
Siloam Wellness is a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization with the mission of enriching the well-being of people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS by providing a broad range of integrative mind/body/spirit services that empower them to develop skills and personal strengths leading to more meaningful lives. All are welcome regardless of ability to pay.
Eileen’s Inclusive Cause: Siloam HIV and Aids Wellness Center https://www.siloamwellness.org
Connected days-in-life: Virginia Woolf, NYC editor; LA mom
Clarissa Vaughan’s friend Richard, a gay poet dying of AIDs, and the window.
Triple layer, Woolf-inspired stream of consciousness confection with three tiers of complementary day-in-the-life stories that explain three women’s lives and their parallel existential crises.
Short at 240 pages or 6+ hours and, no coincidence, about the same length as Mrs Dalloway.
24 hours can seem unendurable. Make time for someone in need.
Lens is focused on privileged White women. Key characters include a lesbian and a gay man with AIDS.
While this is a snobby catered event, DIY your guest of honor’s favorite dish to show you actually do care. Go overboard with flowers.
“These days, Clarissa believes, you measure people first by their kindness and their capacity for devotion. You get tired, sometimes, of wit and intellect; everybody's little display of genius.”
Swank high-rise condo.
What were the major crossroads in your life? Who would you have become given a different choice?
How can you support a person with mental illness?
Why does the suburban-married-with-children dream stereotype linger?
Start in an LA suburb that makes you feel depressed. Next stop NYC where you buy flowers and an excessively expensive shirt for your favorite man and do HIV-related service. Visit 34 Paradise Road in Richmond, England where Virginia and Leonard lived and started their publishing company.
2002 The Hours (film)
“Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf