Beneath the ordered cerebration of waking hour, beyond the sober images reeling before us, lurks a chimera of hypnagogic mirages and mauve phantoms. It is the shadowland where illicit lovers, infertile mothers, and poets embrace their ghosts and mourn their unborn. Women find themselves thrown into this dim realm of flickering forms at that late hour when the departure of their men abandons them to anxious conjectures of a life that could even now turn in their womb and mould into flesh with the ripening of time.
Names, faces, gestures soar above them and each flutter briefly on the bedroom wall. It would be the offspring of late February, a child of faltering sun and icy roads or would it be born in April, the season of starling murmurations and daffodils? In this state of tenuous half-realizations, a thousand men and women are born and die. These half-mothers name and rename, weave and unweave the little apparitions like their needlework and discard them entirely with the first sharp pang of the lucidity of an empty womb.
But when from time to time a ghost is made flesh it still lives in that shadowy world. His life is never simply his own; he is ‘thrown into the middle of things’, in medias res, and will die in mediis rebus—a brief anecdote, an aside, or a distilled essence of a moment in the lives of others.
Is it a wonder then, that a mother’s instinct is forever tinged with a slight pernicious lust for preserving her child, like a lepidopterist pinning a precious specimen inside a frame, in that most ‘pure’ form of the earliest decades of his life, unspoiled by influence of persons other than herself?
He runs in parallel streams of time—clayed differently in each, even as he breathes and grows in this world where linearity and continuity are the soul. His future, his progeny, the ghosts of his unlived lives are forever tied and minced through his mother’s vision. The invisible chains that bind them never entirely break with the distance that separates them as the child grows into a man. An eidolon of his mother’s dreams blossoms within him. The path he treads is haunted by her instinct to ensnare and capture a moment of her life; to cement her to her beloved, mend her defects, birth herself anew or an image of her beloved reflected in a fresh face. His soul carries the remnants of her buried desires and mimics them by pouring them into another legion of ghosts, ready to rise and repeat.
In a letter from Cassis, Vanessa Bell teasingly writes of this very same maternal instinct to her sister:
I sit with moths flying madly in circles around me & the lamp. You cannot imagine what it’s like. One night some creature tapped so loudly on the pane that Duncan said ‘Who is that?’ ‘Only a bat’ said Roger ‘or a bird’, but it wasn’t man or bird, but a huge moth—half a foot, literally, across. We had a terrible time with it. My maternal instinct which you deplore so much, wouldn’t let me leave it.
They both knew the instinct was not to save the creature but to repeat the butterfly hunting habits of the Stephen parents. When Virginia became preoccupied with her future novel (The Waves), ‘The Moths’ was the first title she thought of choosing. Although the episode from Vanessa’s letter never found its way in the book, the echo of beating wings and blind desire reverberates through the children’s speeches.
A looming sense of the end, of definite inevitable blows booming in the distance, is the dark force behind the impulse. The end is not only a figure for our own death but the cessation of an affair, an era, a ‘generation’. Children are their fathers’ second chance in life, as if the parents can start again through their child’s cycle; they are the tired mnemonic phantoms of their parents’ intimacy, relics of an epoch.
Like a clock that is wound up anew to repeat the same tune, a generation begets another in the hope of repenting its sins and prolonging its memory. The anguish of sunken millennia, writes Peter Zapffe in his essay “The Last Messiah”, beat against the new generation. The suffering of his father passes into him through the gate of his empathy; every event sneer at his demand for justice, the principle he holds most dear. So, these trailing clouds of glory, the heavenly bodies stretched from that realm of shadows to the pulsating mass of limbs that ensnare them, grow into another millennia, step into another mirror, and emerge into the same dream.