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Thesis 12.16.05

Thesis 12.16.05

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Published by Shane Helmer
It is a testament to the power of memory that a single moment in time can remain with us throughout our lives. The passing hours, days and years whittle away much of the chaff, yet what remains are occurrences, seemingly ordinary to those that pass in and out of our lives, but for better or worse make us who we are. It is less a cliché than a human truth that some moments freeze us in time, have the power to change us or to haunt us with threats of what might have been. More accurately, for many the “present
. . . is a perpetual repetition of the past” (Miller 59). “In another sense,” J. Hillis Miller explains, “the weight of all the past moments presses just beneath the surface of the present, ready in an instant to flow into consciousness, overwhelming it with the immediate presence of the past” (Miller 59). It is this weight, the considerable hold of the past in the form of nostalgia that directs many of the personal choices we are inclined to make presently.
Nostalgia has been recognized throughout all cultures since at least 1688 when the term was coined by a Swiss medical student pressed to diagnose severe homesickness in those who had been away from home for long periods of time. But nostalgia is much more complex than homesickness. Svetlana Boym writes:
At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time-the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. (Boym XV)
Time is thought to be reversed through repetition of the past, and that which seemed irrecoverable becomes a shadow. For the fast paced postmodern culture, it is a “longing for continuity in a fragmented world. Nostalgia inevitably appears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals”
(Boym XIV). The evolution of the conception of time is important to note, as well. Linda Hutcheon writes of this evolution as “a shift in site from the spatial to the temporal. Nostalgia was no longer simply a yearning to return home . . . people who did return home were usually disappointed because, in fact, they did not want to return to a place, but to a time of youth. Time, unlike space, cannot be returned to-ever; time is irreversible. And nostalgia becomes the reaction to that sad fact” (Hutcheon).
As is often the case with a culture’s obsession, these concerns are reflected in art. Painting, architecture, music and electronic media have all honored the past, sometimes as obvious homage, and at other times as completely new forms and movements. Although the written word has evolved in much the same way, it enjoys a more unique relationship with its admirer, the reader. For modernist writer Virginia Woolf, the novel was the truest representation of life and all its complexities. “Writing,” observes J. Hillis Miller, “is the only action which exists simultaneously on both sides of the mirror, within death and within life at once” (Miller 72). No one saw this more clearly than Woolf. At a time when writers were expected to write about more serious subjects, such as social issues or World War I, these subjects are only experiences which happen to inhabit the same place and time as those ordinary moments which are Woolf’s real concern. As Michael Cunningham notes, “Woolf was then and remains today unparalleled in her ability to convey the sensations and complexities of the experience known as being alive. Any number of writers manage the big moments beautifully; few do as much with what it feels like to live through an ordinary hour on a usual day” (Cunningham, Salon.com). Cunningham describes Woolf’s fervent conviction tha
It is a testament to the power of memory that a single moment in time can remain with us throughout our lives. The passing hours, days and years whittle away much of the chaff, yet what remains are occurrences, seemingly ordinary to those that pass in and out of our lives, but for better or worse make us who we are. It is less a cliché than a human truth that some moments freeze us in time, have the power to change us or to haunt us with threats of what might have been. More accurately, for many the “present
. . . is a perpetual repetition of the past” (Miller 59). “In another sense,” J. Hillis Miller explains, “the weight of all the past moments presses just beneath the surface of the present, ready in an instant to flow into consciousness, overwhelming it with the immediate presence of the past” (Miller 59). It is this weight, the considerable hold of the past in the form of nostalgia that directs many of the personal choices we are inclined to make presently.
Nostalgia has been recognized throughout all cultures since at least 1688 when the term was coined by a Swiss medical student pressed to diagnose severe homesickness in those who had been away from home for long periods of time. But nostalgia is much more complex than homesickness. Svetlana Boym writes:
At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time-the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. (Boym XV)
Time is thought to be reversed through repetition of the past, and that which seemed irrecoverable becomes a shadow. For the fast paced postmodern culture, it is a “longing for continuity in a fragmented world. Nostalgia inevitably appears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals”
(Boym XIV). The evolution of the conception of time is important to note, as well. Linda Hutcheon writes of this evolution as “a shift in site from the spatial to the temporal. Nostalgia was no longer simply a yearning to return home . . . people who did return home were usually disappointed because, in fact, they did not want to return to a place, but to a time of youth. Time, unlike space, cannot be returned to-ever; time is irreversible. And nostalgia becomes the reaction to that sad fact” (Hutcheon).
As is often the case with a culture’s obsession, these concerns are reflected in art. Painting, architecture, music and electronic media have all honored the past, sometimes as obvious homage, and at other times as completely new forms and movements. Although the written word has evolved in much the same way, it enjoys a more unique relationship with its admirer, the reader. For modernist writer Virginia Woolf, the novel was the truest representation of life and all its complexities. “Writing,” observes J. Hillis Miller, “is the only action which exists simultaneously on both sides of the mirror, within death and within life at once” (Miller 72). No one saw this more clearly than Woolf. At a time when writers were expected to write about more serious subjects, such as social issues or World War I, these subjects are only experiences which happen to inhabit the same place and time as those ordinary moments which are Woolf’s real concern. As Michael Cunningham notes, “Woolf was then and remains today unparalleled in her ability to convey the sensations and complexities of the experience known as being alive. Any number of writers manage the big moments beautifully; few do as much with what it feels like to live through an ordinary hour on a usual day” (Cunningham, Salon.com). Cunningham describes Woolf’s fervent conviction tha

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Published by: Shane Helmer on May 19, 2009
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Cultivating Moments in Post-modernity: Michael Cunningham’s
The Hours
It is a testament to the power of memory that a single moment in time can remainwith us throughout our lives. The passing hours, days and years whittle away much of the chaff, yet what remains are occurrences, seemingly ordinary to those that pass in andout of our lives, but for better or worse make us who we are. It is less a cliché than ahuman truth that some moments freeze us in time, have the power to change us or tohaunt us with threats of what might have been. More accurately, for many the “present. . . is a perpetual repetition of the past” (Miller 59). “In another sense,” J. Hillis Miller explains, “the weight of all the past moments presses just beneath the surface of the present, ready in an instant to flow into consciousness, overwhelming it with theimmediate presence of the past” (Miller 59). It is this weight, the considerable hold of the past in the form of nostalgia that directs many of the personal choices we are inclinedto make presently. Nostalgia has been recognized throughout all cultures since at least 1688 when theterm was coined by a Swiss medical student pressed to diagnose severe homesickness inthose who had been away from home for long periods of time. But nostalgia is muchmore complex than homesickness. Svetlana Boym writes:At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is ayearning for a different time-the time of our childhood, the slower rhythmsof our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against themodern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgicdesires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective1
 
mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to theirreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. (Boym XV)Time is thought to be reversed through repetition of the past, and that which seemedirrecoverable becomes a shadow. For the fast paced postmodern culture, it is a “longingfor continuity in a fragmented world. Nostalgia inevitably appears as a defensemechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals”(Boym XIV). The evolution of the conception of time is important to note, as well.Linda Hutcheon writes of this evolution as “a shift in site from the spatial to the temporal. Nostalgia was no longer simply a yearning to return home . . . people who did returnhome were usually disappointed because, in fact, they did not want to return to a place, but to a time of youth. Time, unlike space, cannot be returned to-ever; time isirreversible. And nostalgia becomes the reaction to that sad fact” (Hutcheon).As is often the case with a culture’s obsession, these concerns are reflected in art.Painting, architecture, music and electronic media have all honored the past, sometimesas obvious homage, and at other times as completely new forms and movements.Although the written word has evolved in much the same way, it enjoys a more uniquerelationship with its admirer, the reader. For modernist writer Virginia Woolf, the novelwas the truest representation of life and all its complexities. “Writing,” observes J. HillisMiller, “is the only action which exists simultaneously on both sides of the mirror, withindeath and within life at once” (Miller 72). No one saw this more clearly than Woolf. At atime when writers were expected to write about more serious subjects, such as socialissues or World War I, these subjects are only experiences which happen to inhabit thesame place and time as those ordinary moments which are Woolf’s real concern. As2
 
Michael Cunningham notes, “Woolf was then and remains today unparalleled in her ability to convey the sensations and complexities of the experience known as being alive.Any number of writers manage the big moments beautifully; few do as much with what itfeels like to live through an ordinary hour on a usual day” (Cunningham, Salon.com).Cunningham describes Woolf’s fervent conviction that what is most remembered in life“is less likely to be its supposed climaxes than its unexpected moments of awareness,often arising out of unremarkable experience, so deeply personal they can rarely beexplained” (Cunningham, Salon.com). No wonder Cunningham chooses to honor Woolf with his own version of her novel
Mrs. Dalloway
, which follows a single day in the lifeof a woman in 1920’s London.
The Hours
, Cunningham’s postmodern homage toWoolf’s novel, follows a single day in the life three women in three separate time periods.Both novels revolve around the lasting memory of a most ordinary, but deeply affectingmoment-a kiss. In
Mrs. Dalloway
, Clarissa describes the kiss as “the most exquisitemoment of her whole life . . . The whole world might have turned upside down! Theothers disappeared; there she was
alone
with Sally”(Woolf 35). Cunningham’s ClarissaVaughan has a similar experience: “What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more thanthree decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond asmosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more” (Cunningham98). The pasts of a host of human characters pervades both novels. “Caves” Woolf calledthem. “The idea,” she believed, “is that the caves shall connect, and each comes todaylight at the present moment” (Lee 43). What, then, to do with the present moment?3

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