"The very jar on the nerves": reading Lily Briscoe's painting with phenomenology

Naomi Toth


In To the Lighthouse, the epistemological questions that the philosopher Mr Ramsay ponders seem incomprehensible to Lily Briscoe, the artist. And yet, her painting process clearly explores these same questions by other means. This invites a reading of Lily’s aesthetic project with philosophy, and more specifically, this paper argues, with phenomenology. Points of convergence and divergence between Virginia Woolf’s description of artistic creation in this novel and the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty are therefore examined, in particular, the relationships between perception and knowledge, subject and object, visible and invisible, and presence and absence. While phenomenology sheds light on certain aspects of Lily’s painting process, the representation of this process also interrogates certain phenomenological principles, notably by staging the paradoxical capacity of an irremediably absent past to shape and structure present perception in a painting that is also an elegy.


Woolf, Virginia; To the Lighthouse; Aesthetics; Perception; Visible; Invisible; Flesh; Reflexivity; Reversibility; Elegy

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