love is a debris field

[CN: Suicide mention]

Virginia Woolf

Wordsworth Classics, 2003

Stream of consciousness: definitely another one of those concepts diluted of all productive meaning. Lots of prose bits are called stream of consciousness that are merely absurdist or digressive. A work needs to be a little more in your face about its subjectivity before I call it stream of consciousness. Its grammar and syntax will be unusual, or “bad.”

If Joyce mechanically reproduces all sorts of dictions and forms in a big discursive soup, Woolf is doing the same sort of work here as in her essay “Street Haunting,” a narrating persona, a shade, floats around and inhabits all sorts of minds wandering the streets of London.

As far as syntax goes, there’s no fragmentation or run-ons, but a sort of compulsive repetition of words and attributions.

(Still the last tremors of the great booming voice shook the air round him, the half-hour; still early; only half-past eleven still.) (36)

The three “stills” are artfully placed, but other tics like repeated “she said” twice in one line would be considered egregious in any workshop. But this would be ignoring what seems like Woolf’s highest priority here, being rhythmic integrity.

Peter Walsh, after crying in front of Clarissa Dalloway in her house, heads to Regents Park, thinking about masculine achievement, is immediately distracted:

But she’s extraordinarily attractive, he thought, as, walking across Trafalgar Square in the direction of the Haymarket, came a young woman who, as she passed Gordon’s statue, seemed, Peter Walsh, thought (susceptible as he was), to shed veil after veil, until she became the very woman he had always had in mind; young, but stately; merry, but discreet; black, but enchanting. (39)

The balance of syllables in that laundry list of ideal qualities for a woman — lovely, isn’t it.

Cla-ris-sa Dal-low-ay

Septi-mus Smith

Her name is symmetrical; his unbalanced.

There’s too much to unpack about Smith, who I really enjoy as a character. He has committed a crime and is “condemned to death by human nature.” An odd yet elegant way to think about being suicidal.

For some reason, I was struck by this paragraph in which Smith meets his wife in Milan. His shell-shock is already appearing (and there could be link between the prose style and the compulsive repetitions of both trauma and the modernist treatment of myth).

For now that it was all over, truce signed, and the dead buried, he had, especially in the evening, these sudden thunder-claps of fear. He could not feel. As he opened the door of the room where the Italian girls sat making hats, he could see them; could hear them; they were rubbing wires among coloured beads in saucers; they were turning buckram shapes in this way and that; the table was all strewn with feathers, spangles, silks, ribbons; scissors were rapping on the table; but something failed him; he could not feel. Still, scissors rapping, girls laughing, hats being made protected him; he was assured of safety; he had a refuge. But he could not sit there all night. There were moments of waking in the early morning. The bed was falling; he was falling. Oh for the scissors and the lamplight and buckram shapes! He asked Lucrezia to marry him, the younger of the two, the gay, the frivolous, whose little artist’s fingers that she would hold up and say, ‘it is all in them’. Silk, feathers, what not were alive to them. (64-65)

I read all the detritus of hat-making material as a kind of women’s world’s parallel to the debris of warfare. Rebecca Solnit in THE FARAWAY NEARBY discusses piles of debris in fairy tales, which kids are forced by witches to sort out. Smith “cannot feel,” is estranged from this mess of particulars, but in Regents Park he suffers from Referential Mania — everything in the natural world is a communication for him.

To say nothing of Woolf’s fascinating take on Clarissa’s same gender attractions, and her funny ribbing of mental health care with Dr Holmes.


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