Category: Woolf, Virginia

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.

V. Woolf cracks a dick joke


Coleridge certainly did not mean, when he said that a great mind is androgynous, that it is a mind that has any special sympathy with women; a mind that takes up their cause or devotes itself to their interpretation. Perhaps the androgynous mind is less apt to make these distinctions than the single-sexed mind. He meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. In fact one goes back to Shakespeare’s mind as the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind, though it would be impossible to say what Shakespeare thought of women. And if it be true that it is one of the tokens of the fully developed mind that it does not think specially or separately of sex, how much harder it is to attain that condition now than ever before. Here I came to the books by living writers, and there paused and wondered if this fact were not at the root of something that had long puzzled me. No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own; those innumerable books by men about women in the British Museum are a proof of it. The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame. It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion; it must have made them lay an emphasis upon their own sex and its characteristics which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged. And when one is challenged, even by a few women in black bonnets, one retaliates, if one has never been challenged before, rather excessively. That perhaps accounts for some of the characteristics that I remember to have found here, I thought, taking down a new novel by Mr A, who is in the prime of life and very well thought of, apparently, by the reviewers. I opened it. Indeed, it was delightful to read a man’s writing again. It was so direct, so straightforward after the writing of women. It indicated such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself. One had a sense of physical well-being in the presence of this well-nourished, well-educated, free mind, which had never been thwarted or opposed, but had had full liberty from birth to stretch itself in whatever way it liked. All this was admirable. But after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’. One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it. Whether that was indeed a tree or a woman walking I was not quite sure. Back one was always hailed to the letter ‘I’. One began to be tired of ‘I’. Not but what this ‘I’ was a most respectable ‘I’; honest and logical; as hard as a nut, and polished for centuries by good teaching and good feeding. I respect and admire that ‘I’ from the bottom of my heart. But—here I turned a page or two, looking for something or other the worst of it is that in the shadow of the letter ‘I’ all is shapeless as mist. Is that a tree? No, it is a woman. But . . . she has not a bone in her body, I thought, watching Phoebe, for that was her name, coming across the beach. Then Alan got up and the shadow of Alan at once obliterated Phoebe. For Alan had views and Phoebe was quenched in the flood of his views. And then Alan, I thought, has passions; and here I turned page after page very fast, feeling that the crisis was approaching, and so it was. It took place on the beach under the sun. It was done very openly. It was done very vigorously. Nothing could have been more indecent. But . . . I had said ‘but’ too often. One cannot go on saying ‘but’. One must finish the sentence somehow, I rebuked myself. Shall I finish it, ‘But—I am bored!’ But why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter ‘I’ and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there. And partly for some more obscure reason. There seemed to be some obstacle, some impediment in Mr A’s mind which blocked the fountain of creative energy and shored it within narrow limits. And remembering the lunch party at Oxbridge, and the cigarette ash and the Manx cat and Tennyson and Christina Rossetti all in a bunch, it seemed possible that the impediment lay there. As he no longer hums under his breath, ‘There has fallen a splendid tear from the passion-flower at the gate’, when Phoebe crosses the beach, and she no longer replies, ‘My heart is like a singing bird whose nest is in a water’d shoot’, when Alan approaches what can he do? Being honest as the day and logical as the sun, there is only one thing he can do. And that he does, to do him justice, over and over (I said turning the pages) and over again. And that, I added, aware of the awful nature of the confession, seems somehow dull. Shakespeare’s indecency uproots a thousand other things in one’s mind, and is far from being dull. But Shakespeare does it for pleasure; Mr A, as the nurses say, does it on purpose. He does it in protest. He is protesting against the equality of the other sex by asserting his own superiority. He is therefore impeded and inhibited and self-conscious as Shakespeare might have been if he too had known Miss Clough and Miss Davies. Doubtless Elizabethan literature would have been very different from what it is if the women’s movement had begun in the sixteenth century and not in the nineteenth.

modernist road movie — “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” by Virginia Woolf

image found here
image found here

As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter — rambling the streets of London.

And with this Woolf launches out this wonderful essay, a string of images, both observed and fantasized, strung together only by the space of a walking route and her stream of consciousness narration. The people of the London streets make a vast and un-integrated mixture in the narration. In this little adventure is a challenge against the stability of the self and the visual wider world. And it’s an aesthetic experience that nonfiction is especially suited for, ironically making the genre more free than conventional realist fiction in which (as Woolf observed elsewhere) anything can happen, but not really.