(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)




From “the real thing” to “character”:
Virginia Woolf’s Poetics of “life”


 Claire Joubert (University of Paris 8)


 From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!


The issue of “things” in the works of Virginia Woolf must be acknowledged and welcomed for what it is: an excellent critical point. For it possesses remarkable revelatory powers as a touchstone for the major issues in literary theory that are at stake in the Woolfian critical heritage. As such, it can therefore also be put to use as an index to analyze the critical discourses that have composed themselves into a Woolfian canon. It enables us to unearth and re-examine some of their unvoiced assumptions, and therefore, ultimately, to free ourselves from a canonical view of the Woolf corpus in order to recover the peculiar mobility of its signifiance. This is what I would like to initiate here, by presenting some thoughts about “things” not so much as a motif in the novelistic practice of Virginia Woolf, but rather as a critical concept, that is, a proper issue in poetics.

It seems to me that interrogating the status of things in the works of V. Woolf indeed summons up the whole theoretical culture of Platonic metaphysics, and its entrenched binarism, which plants the thing at an unbridgeable conceptual distance from the sign. And when this issue of problematic referentiality is exposed in this way, it becomes possible to suspect just how much Woolf has been used as an archetype for the dichotomous aesthetics common to modernism, structuralism, and post-modernism: that which has led us to the idea of the “loss of the real” (Baudrillard) on the one hand, and the “prison-house of language” (Jameson) on the other. There is no time here to undertake a proper genealogy of the Woolfian theoretical canon, but my desire is at least to try to resist the pull of this powerful current in the critical heritage. For though it





has lost none of its critical edge, it still seems to have locked itself into a bit of an orthodoxy, and leads me to suspect that there might be other “Woolves” that it blinds us to. This will of course have another advantage: it might provide us with a fresh view of Woolf from which we could derive insights for a literary theory freed from the dualistic paradigm of the sign.

This I shall try to approach by a slight displacement of our agreed subject, which I hope to show is not illicit: I want to replace the term “things” by that of “character,” as Woolf herself does, and invites us to do, both in her practice as a novelist and her theory as a critic. I want to examine this typically mercurial concept in order to measure just how much it enables us to step outside of the fossilised dichotomy between things and words; how it is representative of Woolf’s constant work towards the fluidification of the frontiers between what she calls “fiction” and “life.”

A recent, Lacan inspired, publication by Gérard Wajeman sums up fairly neatly what appears as the still current dogma of modernity: the idea that the transitivity between subject and the objective world has been lost, and that art is the place where we can experience, or mournfully celebrate this loss, and the tragic autonomization of both. His “main idea” is “that this century [where objects have triumphed] will have been the century of absence,” and his “central suspicion,” “that art shows us this” (14). The (post-)modernist consensus rests on the shared belief in such a “dissociation of sensibility,”[1] and on a theory of language as autonomous and self-referential, where the mimetic model of reference, which guaranteed the link opening the speaker onto the world, has been shown up as an illusion and replaced by the internal laws of semiotic difference: where all possibilities of representation have been exposed as outdated fallacies and superseded by the closed systems of signification. There are two things I would like to note at this stage about this well-known theoretical discourse: its consequent reification of language, which goes hand in hand with the choice of a formalist aesthetics that views literature as a catalogue of disembodied “devices,” and its reliance on the paradigm of absence, as the tragic condition of the speaking subject. It has walled itself up in the double trap of the materialist aesthetics of the art object, and the dark lyricism of negative metaphysics.

Thus disposed, it could only welcome Virginia Woolf, along with such other “eminent modernists” as Joyce or Eliot, as a totemic figure (although at the condition of a rather selective celebration of her work). What is interesting is to see how this critical culture has read her: to recognize the textualist slant of this reading, and to identify which strands it has selected


[1]. T.S. Eliot’s well-known formula, presented in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921).





out of her multifarious production. It seems clear that it has played on the ingredients of her modernist poetics in order to place her within the scope of its own formalist and depersonalized view of the verbal icon, which celebrates the modernist strategies of impersonality, of imagistic or aestheticist objectivity, and of the avant-garde disconnection from the common reader. Of course there is a formalist Woolf, who indeed campaigned to give the novel the status of “a work of art,”[1] who worked at the alchemical transmutation of language into the “saturated, unchopped completeness” (A Writer’s Diary 205) of such aesthetic objects as The Waves, who produced anti-realist, self-engrossed, self-reflexive texts, and whose guiding concern was for “shape.” The novelistic production of the years between 1922 and 1931 are a testimony of this, from Jacob’s Room to The Waves. This is the Virginia Woolf who would declare: “I daresay it’s true, however, that I haven’t the ‘reality’ gift. I insubstantize, wilfully to some extent, distrusting reality—its cheapness” (63), and who would plan “abstract”[2] fiction in which the narrative, mimetic trope of character disappeared into “this impersonal thing” which is the “unity of [her] design” —these are the terms with which she envisages her writing of the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.[3] The two seem to go together again: the artistic labouring towards shapely aesthetic heterocosms, and the derealizing tropes that insistently present a fractured world of “hard separate facts” (A Haunted House 42), ruled by a law of general disconnectedness (54); a world of vanities with pressed flowers,[4] falling petals,[5] and other melancholy “solid objects” (80), where the shimmering,


[1]. “The novel, in short, might become a work of art,” (“The Art of fiction” 93).

[2]. In A Writer’s Diary, about the writing of the second section of To the Lighthouse: “I cannot make it out—here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing—I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to” (92). “My theory being that the actual event practically does not exist—not time either” (105).

[3]. Woolf’s diary testifies to this “boiling down” of character (84): “Characters are to be merely views: personality must be avoided at all costs. I’m sure my Conrad adventure has taught me this. Directly you specify hair, age, etc. something frivolous, or irrelevant gets into the book” (66). It is worth noting also that Woolf was perturbed by some of her readers’ reactions to her techniques of characterization, the TLS reviewer’s opinion “that one can’t make characters in this way” (59-60) for instance, or E.M. Forster’s likening of her characters to ghosts lacking lovability (29).

[4]. “The Captain’s Death Bed” closes on this sentence: “Indeed, after his death a bunch of pinks and roses was ‘found pressed between his body and the mattress’” (The Captain’s Death Bed 48).

[5]. “Moments of Being: Slater’s Pins Have No points” is written around the event of “the fall of a flower” (A Writer’s Diary 105), while the essay entitled “Reading” closes on: “Some offering we must make; some act we must dedicate, if only to move across the room and turn the rose in the jar, which, by the way, has dropped its petals” (The Captain’s Death Bed 165).





almost hallucinatory presence of things is mentioned with such palpitating emotion as to suggest their status as Keatsian “cloudy trophies” (Keats 538), “thing[s] wherein we feel there is some hidden want” (Shelley 624). Yet we need to take Woolf away from the seduction of this critical Lethe which associates formalism and a poetics of melancholy: a vision of language as the locus of absence and literature as the mourning process of Freudian denegation. In particular we need to wrench her away from the mythical aura of the suicide which she is associated with—which relies on what one might call a biographical fallacy. For she herself “at any rate refuse[s] to be Necrophilus” (Death of the Moth 143). In order to do that, we might insist on her own repeated disavowal of the modernist aesthetics of disjunction: she is the one to expose the limitations of Mary Carmichael’s famous breaking of the sentence, breaking of the sequence, and of her “pickaxe”[1] approach to language. She is the one to take her distance from the “failures and fragments” of contemporary innovators, from “the smashing and the crashing” manner of Eliot, Joyce and Strachey, (The Captain's death Bed 110 and 107) which aggravates the rift between thing and sign, and sends language free-playing “precariously” in “dizzy and dangerous leaps,” “spinning madly through mid-air" (The Captain's death Bed 109). What I would like to construct is a view of Virginia Woolf’s work that would be released from the interlocking paradigms of disjunction and nostalgia, which compose the modern culture of the sign. In fact, I would like to show that Woolf herself provides us with a model for rethinking language and representation along other lines, where the dualistic economy of the sign is overrun by strategies of semiotic slippage between reference and difference, and opens textuality onto a poetics of, the very practice of, “life’s adventure” (A Room of One’s Own 77).

In an insightful article on “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”—which is an amended version of an essay originally entitled “Character in fiction”—Frédéric Regard[2] has started to articulate the multiple anamorphic values


[1]. “I settled down with a notebook and a pencil to make what I could of Mary Carmichael’s first novel, Life’s Adventure. To begin with, I ran my eye up and down the page. I am going to get the hang of her sentences first, I said, before I load my memory with blue eyes and brown and the relationship that there may be between Chloe and Roger. There will be time for that when I have decided whether she has a pen in her hand or a pickaxe. So I tried a sentence or two on my tongue. Soon it was obvious that something was not quite in order. The smooth gliding of sentence after sentence was interrupted. Something tore, something scratched” (A Room of One’s Own 77).

[2]. An article to which I am greatly indebted, published in Etudes britanniques contemporaines, numéro hors série (October 1997).





of the concept of “character” which is at the heart of Woolf’s own literary theorizing.[1] Woolf posits “character” as both the novelistic trope and the critical concept which will enable her to achieve her concurrent goals: writing “life itself”[2] in the novel, and devising a poetics of “fiction.”[3] In “Modern Fiction” (1919), she takes a first decisive step away from the poetics of mimesis, not only, as is well-known, by attacking the so-called realism of the Edwardian novelists, but also by relinquishing the critical category of “reality” to bring in her own, typically ambiguous term: “life.” “Life escapes” from Mr Bennett’s novels, she writes, despite his “magnificent apparatus for catching” it; “and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while.” “It is a confession of vagueness to have to make use of such a figure as this,” she realizes, “but we scarcely better the matter by speaking, as critics are prone to do, of reality” (88). In the same process as she seems to distance herself from the questionable “referential” claims of this aesthetics, she rejects its consequent narrative theory, which she exposes as being based on the values of purely internal differentiality: it is the very excellence of Wells and Bennett’s craftsmanship that she wants to free herself from, and the materialism which she reproaches them with is not so much the common political ideal of “house property” which their fiction relies on,[4] as materialism “in the sense that [they] take too much delight in the solidity of [their text’s] fabric” (87); at the expense of “life.” This criticism of the “shipshape,” of the brick and mortar reification of narrative considered as craft,[5] is also a rejection of the tools of narratology. This may sound strange to those familiar with the amount of energy Woolf put into the reading and reviewing of the contemporary developments of narrative studies, and her very engagé involvement in the promotion of a poetics for the novel.[6] But her dismissal of a narrative


[1]. In “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” she presents her programme in poetics: “I want to make out what we mean when we talk about ‘character’ in fiction” (91).

[2]. Title of an essay published in The Captain’s Death Bed (24-30).

[3]. See for instance “The Art of Fiction.”

[4]. While defining novelistic convention as a “common ground” on which “the writer [might] get in touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognizes. . . and makes him willing to co-operate in the. . . difficult business of intimacy,” Woolf identifies “House property [as] the common ground from which the Edwardians found it easy to proceed to intimacy” (104).

[5]. In “Craftsmanship,” Woolf rejects another traditional critical metaphor: words are impossible objects for craft, for they are far too shifting, they “shuffle and change” (127). A craft “mak[es] useful objects out of solid matter,” pot, chair, or table, while “crafty” implies “cajolery, cunning and deceit." Words, on the contrary, “never make anything useful,” and “are the only things that tell the truth and nothing but the truth."

[6]. Reviewing the works of E.M. Forster, Percy Lubbock, Howells, Raleigh, etc.





model for such a poetics is akin to Bakhtin’s criticism of the Russian formalists’s concentration on reifed figures and “devices,” which limits poetics to the methodological horizon of rhetorics,[1] or of linguistics —such as the Jakobsonian idea that “the poetic function, by promoting the palpability of signs, deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects” (Jakobson 356). Woolf, who declares point-blank that she is “as usual. . . bored by narrative,”[2] is interested in something else, which she calls “the laws of fiction [and] its relation. . . to life” (“The Art of Fiction” 92). This is where the notion of “character” comes in, as a properly critical issue, in the sense that it is what decides between two systems of signification and representation that Woolf analyses: disjunctive “reality,” or “fact”[3] on the one hand, and the fluid solutions of “fiction” and “life” on the other.

When she makes her inaugural gesture of distinguishing between the “two camps” (The Captain's death Bed 91), the Edwardian craftsmen on the one hand and the Georgian adventurers of “life” on the other, Woolf identifies two models of the novel, which are both centered on character, but which envisage it very differently. To Arnold Bennett, character is both a trope of mimesis, and a cornerstone in narrative construction: “The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else. . . . Style counts; plot counts; originality of outlook counts. But none of these counts anything like so much as the convincingness of the characters. If the characters are real the novel will have a chance” (90). Woolf dismisses “his Joans and his Peters” (“Modern Fiction” 87) as belonging to “reality,” by which she means “false, unreal, merely conventional” (A Writer’s Diary 138), mere conventions of narrative verisimilitude, therefore as textual objects that are totally “without reference to this particular life” (MacNeice 33). “What is reality? And who are the judges of reality?” (The Captain's death Bed 97), she asks. The “real thing” is in fact only “the standard thing”: the Victorian semiotic system that she criticizes in “The Mark on the Wall” has replaced the “real” with the “rule” of consensus, “which one could not depart from save at the risk of nameless damnation”


[1]. See Antoine Compagnon’s presentation of this debate in Le Démon de la théorie (85‑86).

[2]. A Writer’s Diary (140). This echoes her well-known attack on the tyranny of narrative conventions: plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest (“Modern Fiction” 102). The diary goes on to comment on the “hopelessly undramatic” nature of her own fiction, and the impatience with the “appalling business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional” (138).

[3]. “facts are a very inferior form of fiction. Thus the desire grows upon us to. . . enjoy the. . . purer truth of fiction” (The Common Reader: Second Series 264).





(A Haunted House 45). “Conventions,” “generalizations” (along with the “military sound of the word”), are the social consensus which can so easily ossify into ideology; where meaning is deadened and intitutionalized into naming. The judges of reality are easy to identify then: they are listed in the rule book of Whitaker’s Table of Precedency. Woolf’s own alternative model of “character” therefore reveals itself to be a radical critique of the poetics of “reality,” which it exposes as a materialist semiosis mascarading as mimesis, and “a very inferior form of fiction.” It stresses not only the “artistic wrong headedness” (“The New Biography" 475) of such a theory of language, but also its danger to “life”: “for us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death” (“Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” 104), she writes. The binarist, differential, narratological theory of language does kill the thing into a verbal mausoleum, and does turn textuality into Literature, “relat[ing] each book to eternal standards of literary excellence” (The Captain’s Death Bed 123). For this conventionalist view of literature is based on a linguistics of the “Stamp” (124), a code where the sign is a ready-made template, and where the art of portrait-making has hardened into a vocabulary of “marked faces” and “caricatures” (44), where biography “embalms” the living person and turns it into “wax figures,” where language has “stiffened into attitudes and hardened into wrinkles” (115), transformed into “memorial tablets” (Essays 4 : 474), “graven with eternal truth” (The Haunted House 45), petrified into a “fortress of civilization” (The Captain's death Bed 144). Here character has “attitudinized” (“Montaigne” Essays 4 : 75) into the poses of “humbug and pretence” (The Moment  87). And literature has become a closed system of recognizable figures which Professors can “anatomize” in “dissertations” and classify into the “tidy museum” of “classes and typologies” (Essays : 3 : 13-17), like the retired colonels classifying their fossils in “The Mark on the Wall” (46). Reading can then become a process of “tak[ing] the text to pieces,” and “point[ing] with a stick” to individual words “lifted out on the point of a pen and examined separately” (The Death of the Moth 128).

“Character,” on the other hand, is not a sign, not a graven inscription, or a stamp, a seal of social consensus; it is not a naming, an encoding. It is the main instrument in Woolf’s elaboration of an “irreverent” theory of language, “intolerant of humbug in all its forms. . . fitted to deal pretence its death and falsity its finish" (The Captain’s Death Bed 115), and eager for a “sense of truth” that is “alive and on tiptoe” (“The Art of Biography” 124). And if the novel is the place where such new semiotics can be invented and practiced, it is specifically “not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form [of ‘the novel, so





clumsy, verbose, an undramatic, so rich, elastic and alive’], has been evolved” (The Captain's death Bed 97). “Expressing character” is what makes the novel able to present something of the flashing elusiveness of modern “life.” It is what works against naming, against public meaning, against the deadening discontinuity of conventionalism, and towards the “purer truth of fiction.” Much of Woolf’s shorter fiction, including what she had planned as her “book of characters” (A Writer’s Diary 102), can be read as the laboratory for such work; parodies of the semiotic system of “fact,” that stage the failure of conventional mimesis as it tries to “catch” Minnie Marsh in “An Unwritten Novel” or Isabella Tyson in “The Lady in the Looking-Glass,” to read “The Mark on the Wall” or “The Symbol,” and the reiterated, bewildered and thrilling “shock” of finding that life escapes such representations, and reestablishes the “mystery” of its ever elusive motility. “Character” is a living sign, “fresh and piable” (The Captain’s Death Bed 115), able to carry the “haphazard harum scarum” (137) kinetics of signifiance, and which remains open onto the world of things because it fosters the continuity between life and art—while historians or pamphleteers produce only the material signs which so easily fossilize into ideology, and while even poetry remains unable to give words and things a chance to meet, keeping “reality on one hand” and “beat on the other.”[1] Fiction, where words “must be read up to through the emotions of the characters” (The Captain’s Death Bed 43), is where Woolf establishes the fluid meeting place of life with an enigmatic form of sign, which is neither a narrative trope, nor a “standard thing, [a] real thing” (A Haunted House 45), a consensus where the referential freight of the sign has eroded itself to pure conventionalism; but a possible answer to Woolf’s observation that “there is no language for that frail burden” of life: “something doubtful as a phantom, and more of a symbol than a fact” (The Captain’s Death Bed 144, 150).

It is an anamorphic phenomenon, which belongs to the referential world, “life,” and is synonymous with “people”[2]—“character” is a real old lady encountered in a railway carriage, who “imposes” herself upon the novelist and would not let her rest until she had made her up first into the “true story” she reports in the essay, and then into the fiction of “An Unwritten Novel." The Woolfian idea of character also calls up the ethical sense of the word, as it comes to describe the new “human relations” (92) that came into being “around December 1910” (91), and even pushes this


[1]. In “A Letter to a Young Poet” (143), where Woolf advises the young poet to escape the sterility of pure language and open onto the world of the present, by writing about people, through the dramatic technique of character.

[2]. As is made particularly clear in “Letter to a Young Poet.”





sense to its moralistic edge when talking about “the character of one’s cook” (92), with its attendant connotation of good repute and servant’s reference. But it also belongs to the textual world of fiction, it is “Mrs Brown,” and “Minnie Marsh,” because as it imposes itself, it is also concurrently “created” by the novelist (90). “Character” is a notion that keeps confusing fiction and the extra-linguistic world, mixing characters and persons: “Here is a character imposing itself upon another person. Here is Mrs Brown making someone begin automatically to write a novel about her” (96). Mrs Brown indeed is not only travelling “from Richmond to Waterloo” but also “from one age of English literature to the next.” “Character” indeed is both something that one “makes out,” as in the art of “character-reading” (92), or while musing about “our friends’ characters,” and something one “makes up” (The Captain’s Death Bed 25). “Character,” in the guise of Mrs Brown, also comes to stand for what of life “escapes” the grasp of representation (“Modern Fiction” 88), its very “will-o’-the-wisp” nature, the essential elusiveness, namelessness of the living thing: the “characteristic” (Essays 4 : 477) becomes the precise opposite of the “real”; the very movement of signifiance, as opposed to the consensus of eternal “generalizations”: the speed, the flash of the present, the “velocity and abundance of life” (The Death of the Moth 27), rushing by like an express train, where one is as “blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour – landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair!” (The Haunted House 42). “Character” now becomes synonymous with the “unrecorded” (A Room of One’s Own 81), the little things that escape biography, that representation keeps missing; the left-over, “the obscure” (Essays 4), the remainder, and all that is, like Mrs Brown herself “very small, rather queer” (95). It is what marks the odds and ends, the “paraphernalia of modern life” (The Death of the Moth 21) rather than the paraph of naming. It is the very possibility of signifying “life,” which is what eludes the predetermined, institutionalized meanings that rule as “reality.” It is the thrill, the “amazement” of live meaning: “How shocking, and yet how wonderful it was to discover that these real things, Sunday luncheons, Sunday walks, country houses, and tablecloths were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms, and the damnation which visited the disbeliever in them was only a sense of illegitimate freedom” (A Haunted House 45). It is the escape from Platonic, “granite” fixities, from the Whitaker rhetorics of fossil signification; and the reiterated affirmation of “infinite possibilities” (“Modern Fiction” 91), the “rainbow” continuity of an alternative semiotic system, where meaning can be “discovery, not tautology” (Meschonnic, Pour la poétique I 144): a matter of inventing new, “characteristic”






representations of an ever-renewing “life.” Writing “life” can thus bring representation to the very lip of the present moment, of the unrecorded, the new, the modern, what has not yet been caught by naming. Inventing new unprecedented significations, “trembling on the verge” (The Captain's death Bed 111) of dawning meanings. Through its reliance on the shifting medium of words, the carefully cultivated “shuffle and change” of “vagabond” language, it is able to follow the rushing by of, “the fluidity of life” (The Death of the Moth 128), and to trace the pattern of impressions in their myriad, of atoms as they fall. Make language flow instead of disjoin; imagine continuities, explore North West Passages (The Captain’s Death Bed 146), inventing all the elasticities, all the “particular confusion”[1] that the novel is capable of: the seepage between life and fiction, between reference and sign, the “common ground,” shared duties, and indeed “intimacy” of author and reader, the transpersonal, communal identity of the “we” which replaces the modernist solipsistic “I” in Between the Acts.

Another characteristic fluidity is that established between subject and object, speaker and “thing.” Woolf’s analysis of Thomas Browne, in “Reading” (in The Captain’s Death Bed), demonstrates how writing about “the mystery, the miracle of things” (160), trying to capture all that is unpremeditated, odd, and unrecognized in “life,” putting the transitivity of language to work on the unsignified, opens up to the possibility of writing the self, of inventing a writing subject, so that writing becomes not only bio-graphy,[2] but more specifically auto-biography: “In short Sir Thomas Browne brings in the whole question, which is afterwards to become of such importance, of knowing one’s author” (161); he is “one of the first of our writers to be definitely himself” (159), “one of the explorers; the first to talk of himself” (159). Writing “the flowing and the unpossessed” becomes the place for the invention, the individuation of the speaking subject; inventing his own singularity, creating his own characteristic alterity. This is why such “character sketches” as are produced in the “New Biography,” or in “Modern Letters,” or in the “Modern Essay,” as they are also in “little stories” and, generically, in the novel, may “read so queerly; because [they] bring to us a real human being” (Essays 3 : 241) instead of repeating the language of society—they bring the almost indecent, unpublishable


[1]. “The poet gives us his essence, but prose takes the mould of the body and mind entire” (The Captain's death Bed 161).

[2]. If this expression can describe the writing of life as opposed to the mausoleum-like narratives that enshrine the heroic lives into statuesque poses and effigies. This is the central theme of both “The New Biography" and “The Art of Biography” (in The Death of the Moth), for instance.





intimacy between friends[1] rather than the social self, unlike the “stunted” characters, lacking in love and passion, described in “The Captain’s Death Bed,” and unlike the young authors reviewed in “All About Books,” with their public practice of literature, which stifles the “voice speaking from the heart”[2]—what Henri Meschonnic calls “le mouvement de la parole dans l’écriture” (Pour la poétique 66). Writing the characteristics of life is therefore at the same time inventing the individuated subject and creating the “common ground” for a new social convention; a re-imagined, vivified “poetics of society” (Diacritics 98).

“Character” is a disturbing concept, because it is such a crossroads of categories that we are used to taking great care to set apart: it is a sign and a referent, a signifying act, a narrative figure and a critical concept, linked both with presence and absence. As such, it works as a truly critical point, which sends us back to reconsider certain of our theoretical reflexes, and demands a reading of Woolf that will not fit the post-modernist melancholy topoï. It laughs at our inherited conventionalist and discontinuous view of language which it exposes as a form of “mécanique plaquée sur du vivant” (Bergson 29) Its “trenchant, witty”[3] capacity for exposing humbug is also a way of presenting the “creative character” of a poetics which is able to “loosen the fabric” (The Captain’s Death Bed 156) of language and to float out of the dualistic trap of the sign. It offers one way of envisaging the possibility that literature might precisely be the place where the speaking subject can “compose something new” (A Writer’s Diary 221), and actually “contrive ways of being free to set down what [he] chooses” (“Modern Fiction” 88) outside the prison-house of linguistic determinism and its attendant thematics of “collapse and disintegration.” It is a theory of language where one might “adventure and discover and allow


[1]. This is the subject of the central development in “Modern Letters” (in The Captain’s Death Bed).

[2]. “All their marriages—and what are the five years between twenty and twenty five in the life of a writer but years of courtship and wedding, of falling in love with words and learning their nature, how to mate them by one’s own decree in sentences of one’s own framing?—all their marriages were arranged in public; tutors introduced the couples; lecturer supervised the amours; and examiners finally pronounced whether the fruit of the union was blessed or the reverse. Such methods, of course, produce an erudite and eugenic offspring. But, one asks, turning over the honest, the admirable, the entirely sensible and unsentimental pages, where is love? Meaning by that, where is the sound of the sea and the red of the rose; where is the music, imagery, and a voice speaking from the heart?” (The Captain’s Death Bed 117).

[3]. These are the adjectives with which Woolf describes Roger Fry’s constant work against “humbug” (The Moment 87).





no rigid poses: [to] be supple and naked to the truth” (A Writer’s Diary 221); a poetics of “life,” where literature can, in Woolf’s own terms, “find a new relation with the world,” not cutting itself off from reference, absenting language from the world, but recovering the “homogeneity of speaking and living” (Pour la poétique 144) by constantly working at signifying anew, at the “continuous movement of signifiance," “the continuous listening to the unknown” (Diacritics 110). The “characteristic” is what Meschonnic describes as “l’irréductible résidu poème qui résiste à la sécurisation taxinomique et rhétorique” (Etats de la poétique 96): the reason why it problematizes with such critical sharpness the issues that are at stake in the opposition of the “real thing” and “fiction” is that it works at the very spot where signification is transformed into signifiance, and therefore puts into relief the difference between poetics and what might only remain a form of semiotics, or of rhetoric. What I retain from this is the opportunity it gives us to dig ourselves out of the “binary, terrorist, manichean violence so dear to literary specialists—form or content, description or narration, representation or signification. . . whereas literature is the very locus of the in-between, of seepage.”[1] What it provides, eventually, seems to me to be something like a critique of the semiotic, (post-)structuralist critique of mimesis, and the possibility of envisaging literature as the adventure of life in language.


Works cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

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[1]. “cette violence binaire, terroriste, manichéenne, si chère aux littéraires—fond ou forme, description ou narration, représentation ou signification. . . . Alors que la littérature est le lieu même de l’entre-deux, du passe-muraille” (Compagnon 145); “la violence binaire, violente, tragique, disjonctive, où s’enferment les littéraires—ou bien la littérature parle du monde, ou bien la littérature parle de la littérature” (Compagnon 133).





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(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)