(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)
"Capricious friendships with the
unknown and the vanished"
Catherine Bernard (University of Paris VII)
Virginia Woolf's short essays are difficult to approach. They evade all conventional categorizing, all monological interpretation and impose instead a mode of flexible reading susceptible to the minute hesitations of the text between fiction and documentary writing and susceptible of being as capacious, as undefined, de-defined or chaotic as the text itself. Not all of her essays defy interpretation as radically as this of course. One should try to establish a tentative scale of unreadability on which her monographical pieces of literary criticism (essays like "Robinson Crusoe," "The Novels of George Meredith". . .), or even her better known aesthetic manifestos ("Modern Fiction," "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown," "On Not Knowing Greek". . .) seem to fit more or less neatly within fairly familiar generic structures, although these less destabilizing pieces also participate in Woolf's unhinging of established literary structures. The opposite end of the scale would feature texts poised even more disturbingly on the verge of fiction and which are closely akin to her short-stories. Pieces such as "The Sun and the Fish," "Street-Haunting," "The Cosmos," "The Moment: Summer's Night" can be defined only negatively as liminal pieces in which Woolf explores ill-defined, intermediary literary territories, in which she roams the textual hinter-land between the personal essay—inspired by Montaigne—, the aesthetic manifesto, the short fictional sketch and the documentary piece or "choses vues."
Such exploratory mood contributes to cast the writer as wanderer programmatically bound to err that is, as Maurice Blanchot also intuited, to be a nomad doomed to mis-read and mis-write the world and concurrently to re-write and re-invent it. The more personal and less orthodox of Woolf's
. In his essay "L'œuvre et la parole errante," Maurice Blanchot insists on the impersonal quality of the literary word and suggests that writing is bound to wander: "Quand la neutralité parle, seul celui qui lui impose silence prépare les conditions de l'entente, et cependant ce qu'il y a à entendre, c'est cette parole neutre, ce qui a toujours été déjà dit, ne peut cesser de se dire et ne peut être entendu. Cette parole est essentiellement errante, étant toujours hors d'elle-même. . ." (Blanchot 52).
essays are in that respect excellent cases in point to assess how she redefines the logic of mimetic writing, the modes of representation of experience and the links—to paraphrase the title of one of her essays—between life and the novelist. Free to experiment even more freely than in her fiction, free to build in hesitation and uncertainty as two of the arch constituents of writing, she writes in the same manner as her persona roams the streets of London in "Street-Haunting," without definite end, allowing her text and her mood to wander uninhibited by the structural imperatives of narration and diegesis. And it should not come as any surprise that such a form of urban nomadism should feature large in these personal sketches, more particularly in "Street-Haunting" on which this analysis will principally concentrate.
The overall focus of representation is consequently altered as a different alchemy between the self and the world, between the eye and things, the world of solid objects and of experience as it processes them, is of necessity established. Once more Woolf attempts to redefine the logic of writerly representation and these essays do not so much depart from the overall project of Woolf's vision as compel us to shift once again our focus or even to alter our perspective radically. If, as we will see, these sketches are more often than not tempted to encode experience along the lines elsewhere imposed by fiction, they in fact invert the symbolical process at work in the canonical novels. Metonymy seems here to resist the symbolical pressure of metaphor refined and perfected in The Waves. The modernist exaltation of the poetic function of writing comes up against the obtuse and mysterious presence of the world of things which at times seems to resist any process of encoding, to defy legibility.
The greater immediacy of these sketches, the more direct confrontation with the reality of experience imposed by their condensed form probably accounts for the different emphasis placed on things and their impact on consciousness. A twofold process of defamiliarisation and reappropriation of the world of things is subsequently and sometimes concurrently developed in which the dialectics between vision and design found in her fiction gives way
. I am resorting to the notion introduced by Roland Barthes in S/Z when he opposes readerly and writerly texts in undeniably modernist fashion: "Le texte scriptible est un présent perpétuel, sur lequel ne peut se poser aucune parole conséquente (qui le transformerait, fatalement, en passé) ; le texte scriptible c'est nous en train d'écrire, avant que le jeu infini du monde (le monde comme jeu) ne soit traversé, coupé, arrêté, plastifié par quelque système singulier (Idéologie, Genre, Critique) qui en rabatte sur la pluralité des entrées, l'ouverture des réseaux, l'infini des langages" (11).
under the centrifugal pressure of fragmentation and chaos. These essays produce what could be defined as a restive or rebellious kind of experiential realism which addresses the question of interpretation, of the encoding of reality more urgently and more disconcertingly than the rest of her work. Here Woolf's undoing of representation toys with a form of indirect and opaque allegoresis in which things irresistibly gesture towards a transcendent meaning while resisting the stabilization of signification.
Confronted with the irremediably strange world of things, at pains to make sense of a world ever more discontinuous and fragmented, deprived of the modes of symbolical encoding afforded by fiction, representation is compelled to evolve a negative dialectics between writing and the world of things, a dialectics which must build on its own powerlessness and accept to be dislocated even as it postulates a ghostly sense of order and completion.
The Self as "flâneur"
Such undoing of vision and of the symbolical logic necessarily jeopardizes the very integrity of the self as it is submitted to the same process of hollowing out as the hermeneutic process which inscribes it in reality. Woolf's musing and wandering around London in "Street-Haunting" as she pretends to be looking for a stationer in order to buy a pencil is no pilgrimage at the end of which the self would be hoisted to a higher level of consciousness and be given a greater sense of completion. The self that is brought to life, delivered by the "flânerie" described in "Street-Haunting," is not the monad self postulated by modernity. It no longer attempts to subjugate experience and the world of things to its centripetal will. On the contrary, the "variegated" self that is borne on the tide of sensation and emotion is partly fashioned by the external world and submitted to contradictory and multifarious influences.
Phenomenology and impersonality work in this instance towards the undoing of the stable, monological self. The unlocking of the visionary and imaginary faculties of the self is indistinguishable from another emancipation from the constricting personality of the social self. As Woolf's persona wanders along the streets of London it empathizes with a series of misfits, of outcasts (a dwarf in a shoe-shop, an old tramp on the step of a public building. . .), goes on some imaginary spending spree to redecorate an imaginary house, is transported to the heart of a fashionable party. These motifs or imaginary flights of imagination are familiar enough to Woolf's
. This tension is characteristic of allegory as defined after Paul de Man by Craig Owens (see "The Allegorical Impulse") or by Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism.
readers. One can easily conjecture how half a dozen years before this material was processed into Clarissa Dalloway's interior monologue.
The emphasis however falls differently. The mood is more obviously meditative and interrogative. Greater stress is placed on the inconsistency and the incongruities of consciousness, on the dismantling and fragility of the self whose inherent receptiveness and heterogeneous nature are not redeemed by an aesthetic sense of purpose. "Street-Haunting" addresses the question of the nature of the self and of its interaction with the world of concrete things and sensations in a straightforward manner, indexing its mutations to the impact left by the objects encountered on the way. One's gaze alighting on a row of pearls in a jeweller's shop-window is enough for instance to inspire a short drama, to conjure up the vision of a party:
As prodigal as the reality exhibited in the shop-windows of the Strand, the eye / I is "sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances." It is ubiquitous and "all of a mixture," oscillating between the topical experience of the present and a filigree life which, as we know, may be in fact closer to the bone of reality than the surface, pretence life of the social self. However, the disturbing confrontation with the world of things does not lead to the same phenomenological fusion one finds in the interludes of The Waves when the eye comes to be absorbed by the reality surrounding it (The Waves 74). In "Street-Haunting" impersonality is all the more explicitly thematized as it is kept at bay by the meditative and reflexive mood of the text:
Objects are relevant to this meditation in so far as they initiate then fuel the contemplative and introspective mood. In that sense Virginia Woolf writes as a "flâneuse" rather than as a "badaud" if one is to go by the distinction Walter Benjamin establishes in Le Livre des passages (447) by quoting from Victor Fournel's Ce qu'on voit dans les rues de Paris. If "le badaud" is entirely engrossed in the contemplation of the outside world which inebriates him to the point of ecstasy, "le flâneur" on the contrary still retains his control over his individual self or more specifically preempts its dissolution thanks to its reflexiveness and the way it instrumentalizes objects and the impressions
they make in order to address once again, yet from a distance, the question of identity and of representation.
Relentlessly, whether it be in "Life and the Novelist" or in "The Cosmos," in "On being ill" or in "Thunder at Wembley," Woolf avails herself of the flexibility of the genre of the sketch in order to examine the process by which the self is de-defined in order to be raised thanks to sensation to a higher level of consciousness. In these personal sketches, the self oscillates between passivity and amused alertness. The voluptuous and intensely metaphorical sensitivity of "The Moment: Summer's Night" contrasts with the amused distance found in "Thunder at Wembley." In that respect greater passivity, greater susceptibility to the sensory impact of things seem to make for greater fictionality. "The Moment" is as close as can be to the short-story form, some passages hardly remaining this side of fiction:
Impersonality seems here to prevail. The voice never coalesces, is never identified as that of a persona, all the better to merge with the sensation, to trace the effect produced by the contact of things whether they be concrete (the feel of hard roads under the feet) or the things of the mind (see the feel of the "damp sponge" putting out the colour "in one's own eyes"). Nevertheless I would like to suggest that as close to a fictional synthesis as this piece may seem, as impersonal as it may ambition to be, it seems to rein in the fictional impulse and to opt almost programmatically for incompletion, leaving the process of emancipation and of phenomenological fusion with the world of things incomplete. The hybrid quality of these pieces, the way they gesture towards impersonality without acquiescing in the fictional transmutation it implies, necessarily results in a different relation between consciousness and the world of objects.
The Undoing of Experience and Reality
An inchoate form of phenomenology seems to prevail in many of these sketches. Paradoxically the capaciousness and flexibility of these pieces make for a more acute feeling of immediacy; yet the thingness of things so
omnipresent in Woolf remains often opaque and obdurate, impervious to any kind of literary alchemy. The raw nature of life as it is encapsulated in the moth seen desperately fighting for its life in "The Death of the Moth" strikes the author as strange, almost oxymoronic, both intimately close and infinitely remote:
The sense of "wonder" (361) cannot alleviate the feeling of alienation. The opening paragraph of "Life and the Novelist" insists explicitly enough that the very stuff of fiction is the odd mixture of sensations and actions whose adequate representation would redeem the dissociation of sensibility also bemoaned by Eliot:
Yet the lasting feeling produced by these sketches is not one of reconciliation with the stuff of sensation but one of strangeness (Essays 1: 360-361). In these pre-textual pieces which often meditate on the process of transformation at work in writing (see "Life and the Novelist," "The Narrow Bridge of Art," "The Anatomy of Fiction"), objects strike the author with a form of obtuse opacity, a form of stubborn oddity which can only be matched by the equally strange mutation performed solitarily by the author: "For in that solitary room, whose door the critics are for ever trying to unlock, processes of the strangest kind are gone through" (Essays 2: 131).
However these pieces do not process or transmute the raw material of experience. On the contrary they often leave the strangeness of things intact. Vision does not supersede the feeling of Unheimlichkeit. On the contrary it reinforces it. The almost expressionist pageant of misfits described in "Street-Haunting" conjures up a "maimed company" lodging
. On the thingness of things see Liliane Louvel's contribution in this present collection. The phenomenological and pictorial transfiguration she analyses is characteristic of the aesthetic redemption which does not seem to be any longer possible in the essays under scrutiny.
. For a definition of things as being oxymoric see also Catherine Lanone's article in this collection.
The empathy underlying vision and representation reveals only a strange assortment of incongruous objects which unhinges our sense of mimetic coherence. Reality does not coalesce. It remains unfamiliar and as a consequence—in due modernist fashion—defamiliarizes our perception. Writing is thus forced into these "capricious friendships with the unknown" at the very heart of the all too neatly chartered territories of our familiar reality. Before it can be transcended by vision, experience introduces us to the Unheimliche, to the literally capricious nature of things if one remembers that the term originally designated what strikes one with horror, before it came to be applied to what is freakish and whimsical.
The fusion with the world of concrete affect afforded by fiction ensures that the sense of fragmentation and alienation be redeemed and transcended by a rejuvenating dissolution and the intuition of a completeness best metaphorized by images of circularity. In these open and sketchy pieces, the impression is not so much one of fluidity thanks to the integration of piecemeal material into a coherent whole as that of an ill-fitting mosaic of sensations and imaginary scenes. In "Street-Haunting" the self is buffeted by images and sensations but the scenes remain transient fragments of incoherent dramas: an imaginary party, the fantasy life of a bookseller's wife, an imaginary short quarrel between the old stationer and his wife. The dislocation of perception is carried even further in "Flying over London" which provides no coherent vision of the earth but a marquetry of juxtaposed elements.
For all their beauty, the things gathered along the way in "Street-Haunting" remain alien, the odd fruit of coincidence and chance encounters, brittle and "uncomposed" (Essays 4: 157). Similarly, the sensuous beauty of "The Moment" is shattered by the interpolated scene describing the everyday violence reigning in a poor household. Things, fleeting scenes do not work as details of a wider coherent truth but as fragments of an elusive or even of a non-existent whole. The modernist dismantling of the episteme in "Street-Haunting" or in "The Moment" is not counterbalanced by the conjuring if only as fantasmatic trace of an aesthetic redemption. The raw material of writing seems to condemn vision to the dissociation of sensibility which, though abhorred, seems intractable. Critics have already argued that Woolf's treatment of the world of things did not always postulate the soothing restoration of order through visionary and artistic fashioning:
The paradigm shift entailed by modernism seems thus even more radical than is often argued since a darker melancholy lurks behind that found at the end of The Waves, when Bernard mourns the loss of the simple innocent language of infancy or of love. The words of one syllable anguishly yearned for by Bernard feature as traces of a long-departed unity, the same unity Woolf also fantasizes in "On Not Knowing Greek." If in The Waves or in the essay last mentioned, she writes in a melancholy mood, the melancholy is even darker in pieces which do not postulate an ideal if fantasmatic concord between poetic vision and the world of things. Both "The Moment" and "Street-Haunting" point to the discord of the representational instrumentation. Reality has become irremediably segmented and either to be awaiting narrative order or to invalidate it. As Rachel Bowlby suggests in relation to the miscellaneous "inventory" of Lady Fry's familiar objects at the beginning of Woolf's biography of Fry, narrative has reached a form of "degree zero" (Bowlby, Virginia Woolf 123).
The by now canonical analysis of the modernist paradigm shift thanks to which, according to David Lodge (Lodge 73-124), the poetic function and the logic of paradigm superseded the referential function dominated by metonymy is seemingly invalidated. A form of dislocated yet insistent synecdochic econymy prevails and provides a sort of "ur-story" (Bowlby, Virginia Woolf 123) without falling into narrative place. Although, for instance, "The Moment" intends to account for the strange alchemy of empathy which allows us to imagine two entirely contradictory realms of experience within the same moment, the sense of duration and of the flexibility of experience that evades narrative is only matched by the obdurate resilience of the world of objects which resists all patterning:
The author's "flânerie" or urban nomadism thus deterritorializes writing as much as it does the self, literally dislocates it as if there were no location left from which to envision and to write reality. As Woolf acknowledges in "Street-Haunting," the harvest of the eye does not cohere into an aesthetic vision. Things remain heterogeneous for all their incongruous beauty:
The parenthesis is explicit enough: Woolf the novelist regrets that writing cannot achieve the sort of synthesis she praised Fry or the painters of her circles for. The reality of things seems at times to resist the paterean ascesis that has been traced behind her novelistic imagination (Meisel 56, 73). The selection and renunciation she argues for in "The Narrow Bridge of Art" or in "Life and the Novelist," the process of refining and fashioning that is inherent for her to the task of the novelist cannot be achieved. The "permanence" to be attained by this painful processing (Essays 2: 136) is replaced by transience and impermanence. The aesthetic dialectics central to To the Lighthouse and pursued by Bernard in The Waves which would allow a fusion of materialism and aestheticism (Allbright 153) does not obtain. The "Berkelean fluidity of object and event" (Allbright 117) is disrupted just as the Wordsworthian silting and distilling of emotion described in "Life and the Novelist" (Essays 2: 131) is beyond the reach of a language alienated from its visionary and metamorphic faculties.
The same dispersal diagnosed by Daniel Allbright (126) in Woolf's fiction after The Waves is already present in "Street-Haunting" dated 1930, as if these sketches afforded the experimental scope to take the dismantling of representation a step further, beyond any possibility of an aesthetic fusion, beyond nostalgia itself. "Street-Haunting" or "the Moment"—to quote only the two sketches central to my analysis—are not moments of being but lost moments, tattered pieces of tentative writing in which Woolf accepts to acknowledge that the permanence and transcendent sense of patterning is but a placating illusion, in which the interstitial existence of the "flâneur" on the roam reveals yet another and more fateful sort of gap existing between language and things, between private experience and unity. In "The
. See the essay on Fry she was asked to give for the opening of a retrospective exhibition of Fry's little known work as a painter. Fry is for her an arch-example of the harmonious synthesis between reason and sensibility (Essays 4: 89-90) to be opposed to the dissociation of sensibility.
. One could argue that this dispersal is already incipient in Woolf's use of similes in a story like "The Lady in the Looking-Glass." This story focuses on the difficult transmutation that obtains when writing succeeds in overcoming the fracture existing at the heart of a comparison in order to merge its two terms within a single poetic whole. The Waves similarly meditates on the poetic process of integration of the symbolical material into one consistent and sustained whole. The unrelenting use of comparisons in "The Lady in the Looking-Glass" just as unrelentingly reenacts the division between language, experiential material and diegesis. The elements refuse to coalesce.
Cosmos" she turns the same aspiration to permanence and completion to ridicule by picturing a mad visionary who feels in tune with the cosmic harmony and succeeds in reconciling the trivial and the metaphysical, microcosm and macrocosm:
The epiphanic and centripetal metamorphosis of the multiple into the one is here derided as a mere chimera. To these views of the mind - the expression should be taken literally—"The Moment" and "Street-Haunting" oppose a speculative inventory of emotions and blunt facts which writing cannot elaborate into a narrative whole. The miscellaneous fragments salvaged from the author's hunt can only be appropriated to initiate an indirect symbolism or what Pater acknowledged as "alien associations" (qutd. in Meisel 163), in which the incongruity of the association duplicates the incongruity of reality in an oblique fashion. The fusion remains problematical and tentative. When comparing the multifarious quality of experience in "The Moment," Woolf cannot help aspiring to the same sort of symbolical bird's eye view, the same encompassing vision as that of an owl flying on high over the scene in which the author's persona feels entrapped:
Eventually the gap remains open, the self cannot soar towards a higher level of consciousness, the moments and writing remain disparate. Although one cannot deny that the loose fragments of reality produce an intensification of expression and of experience, they yield but a sub-hermeneutical truth, refuse to produce meaning, remain half-articulate.
Unless writing shifts its gear and reinserts them into another kind of continuum of a more contextual and historical nature as is the case in "Memories of a Working Women's Guild." "Street-Haunting" ratifies both the
failure of the metaphorical process and the dispersal of the metonymical material. In "Memories of a Working Women's Guild," written in 1930 (the same year as "Street-Haunting"), the author speaking in her own name indirectly acknowledges the historical predetermination of facts. The Berkelean subjectivism is supplanted by a socio-historical encoding of facts which concurrently inscribes them in a minimal narrative whose mode of processing is on the contrary bracketed in a sketch like "Street-Haunting." The demands of the delegates of the Working Women's Guild heard in Manchester (the initial version locates the conference in Newcastle) are so obviously overburdened by their sociological and political signification that their subjective potential is curbed and restrained. In itself this subordination of private consciousness to a collective existence is emblematic enough of the different perspective from which Woolf feels forced to envisage reality when relaying the testimonies of these women. As Woolf is eager to recognize at length throughout this essay, different social and historical statuses make for different modes of encoding facts. The body is explicit enough. Two entirely opposed experiential and historical registers are here opposed:
Two modalities of the link between the private and the collective self are here confronted. Atemporal aesthetic contemplation reconciling private duration with a universal and metaphysical essence is opposed to the painful and alienating confrontation with the here and now of historical determinations. The symbolical indirection of private associations comes up against the harsh synecdochic logic of a life fettered by all too concrete facts. Symbolical illegibility is replaced by the transparency of metonymy, or to resort to Barthes's binary opposition "signifiance" by signification. This simplification does not necessarily imply any form of impoverishment but rather, once again, a shifting of the semiotic and of the hermeneutic perspective.
. In her notes to this essay, Rachel Bowlby suggests that this shift in space could be read as a fictional marker (A Woman's Essays 1999). For the precise context of this conference see Woolf's letter to Violet Dickinson sent from Sussex before going up to the conference: "We're down here, but come up [to London] for a few days, and then retire to Newcastle on Tyne to join the Cooperative Women" (Letters II: late May 1913, 28).
In "Memories of a Working Women's Guild" semiotic nostalgia comes home to roost in a paradoxical manner. The metonymical mode retains the associative potential also found in the symbolical mode of "The Moment." The same condensation and crystallisation underlies the mention of "weekly bills," "paper-bags and hot babies." It does not however result in a greater aestheticizing of representation but in its rehistoricizing. A form of historical repressed seems here to be heard, whether in the snap-shot descriptions of the painful life of these working women and even more so in the letters written by some members of the guild and handed down to Woolf by one of the founding members of the organization. "Memories of a Working Women's Guild" is the story of the return of this historical repressed. The very structure of the text, keeping the content of the letters at bay, almost to the very end of the essay is proof enough that Woolf finds it difficult to make room for the historical referent in her struggle for greater aesthetic freedom and greater emotional accuracy in writing. One could argue that The Years would, some six years later, tell the story of a very similar struggle.
Works cited :
Allbright, Daniel. Personality and Impersonality. Lawrence, Woolf and Mann. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1978.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z. 1970. Paris: Le Seuil, 1976.
Benjamin, Walter. Paris capitale du XIXe siècle. Le livre des passages. Trans. Jean Lacoste. Paris: Les éditions du Cerf, 1997.
Blanchot, Maurice. L'espace littéraire. 1955. Paris: Gallimard, 1978.
Bowlby, Rachel. "Walking, Women and Writing: Virginia Woolf as Flâneuse." New Feminist Discourses. Ed. Isobel Armstrong. London: Routledge, 1991.
———. Virginia Woolf. Feminist Destinations. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991.
Lodge, David. The Modes of Modern Writing. London: Edward Arnold, 1977.
Meisel, Perry. The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater. New Haven and London: Yale U P, 1980.
Owens, Craig. "The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism." October 12, 13 (1980).
Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays. Ed. Leonard Woolf. 4 vols. London: The Hogarth Press, 1967.
———. The Waves. 1931. London: Granada, 1977.
(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)