The lovely Claire reminds us today to check back in on discussion of The Waves for posts recently added to the list—I went back through last night and some great stuff has been written (you know, other than my post).
So if all this talk of Woolf makes you want to read this lovely novel, perhaps you would like to benefit from the most truly bizarre UPS snafu I’ve ever heard of (whose details unfortunately cannot be revealed, to protect the privacy of a third party). I ended up with two copies of my edition (Claire, and others, take note: it is the Harcourt Harvest Book edition), and one could be yours! (Here’s the real question: do any of my readers not already have it, by now especially?)
If you are interested, please leave a comment to let me know. Worldwide is cool. I’ll take entries until 11pm CST on Friday, March 5, and, of course, choose a winner at random.
“Now let us issue from the darkness of solitude,” said Louis.
“Now let us say, brutally and directly, what is in our minds,” said Neville. “Our isolation, our preparation, is over. The furtive days of secrecy and hiding, the revelations on staircases, moments of terror and ecstasy.”
As a story of friendship, especially between among a group, The Waves is unparalleled in my experience. This almost serves to make it alienating: this group of six people is knit impossibly together; are my relationships really this intense? Are they woven so tightly that one day, like Bernard, I will ask how we are even separated, when there is no obstacle between us?
But it’s this intense relationship that gives rise to the form of The Waves, which interests me more: the alternating soliloquies of six characters, along with a (superficially) unrelated third-person narrative. The novel is a kind of literary cubism whose effect is described at one point by Bernard:
We have come together (from the North, from the South, from Susan’s farm, from Louis’s house of business) to make one thing, not enduring—for what endures?—but seen by many eyes simultaneously. There is a red carnation in that vase. A single flower as we sat here waiting, but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves—a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution.
This is really experimental; it’s just “said Bernard,” “said Susan,” “said Rhoda,” “said Neville,” “said Jinny,” “said Louis,” “said Bernard,” jarring and disorienting the reader, making him work. Who are these voices speaking to, if they are speaking at all? To the narrator? Who is the audience? But one thing is clear: even if there is no listener, even if the characters are silent, they are speaking, at least in their own heads. These are not the thoughts laid bare of Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. The statements in The Waves are performative, confessional, self-aware. And we find out from quotes like that above that at least some of the time, the friends are talking, and some of the time they are talking to each other.
This speaking brutally, directly, freely does not happen only among friends. In fact, despite Neville’s command, Bernard hints at the beginning of his climactic 60-page monologue that it happens best between strangers: “Since we do not know each other (though I met you once I think on board a ship going to Africa) we can talk freely.” He proceeds to do so, at length, stretching the form of the novel back to something much less avant-garde* but at the same time deepening the emotional and psychological content to a breaking point. When Bernard is given more than a few paragraphs at a time to examine and confess himself, he digs through layers I cannot penetrate. Woolf’s poetic emotional imagery, so effective earlier in the novel with six voices buffeting the reader, fails for me here, and for a moment I almost feel she has been self-indulgent. I read Bernard’s confession of the joys and horrors of human existence and think, yes, but wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.** Of course, that’s exactly what Woolf is trying to fight against with this seven-sided red carnation of a novel. It was a lifelong and a noble battle.
Although I think this reaches too far, or at least to a place I can’t follow, Woolf’s genius is clearly still at work. She meticulously plants dozens of motifs that will work through the threads of all the characters lives. Idle predictions come true, childhood memories resurface, moments in time and thought are distilled into magical phrases. There are great crests and troughs of joy and pain, each character telling of it in his own personal wave imagery. Right now I take as especially wonderful Louis and Rhoda, who “trust only in solitude and the violence of death,” and while much of Bernard eludes me, not all: “No fin breaks the waste of this immeasurable sea.”
marks the last of Woolf in Winter. Visit Claire at Kiss a Cloud
, who is hosting this week’s installment, for more on The Waves
. Thanks, Claire!
*This soliloquy, along with the intercalary chapters of more traditional narration, make the whole form a bit more traditional. There is no plot, there is no story, but there is; Bernard desperately wants to tell a story and he gets a lot of space to try. Even though Woolf may be at the height of her innovation here, Bernard does note:
After all, one cannot find fault with the biographic style if one begins letters ‘Dear Sir,’ ends them ‘yours faithfully'; one cannot despise these phrases laid like Roman roads across the tumult of our lives, since they compel us to walk in step like civilised people with the slow and measured tread of policemen though one may be humming any nonsense under one’s breath at the same time…
**”What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
Reading Orlando after On Being Ill as I did, it was illness that I noticed—in a novel where I didn’t much expect it, in fact. After all, when this is the biography of a character who lives for three centuries, one doesn’t expect him to spend much time ill—and what time is there for that, when he must also sleep with Elizabeth I, romance a mysterious Russian princess, become a patron of the arts, ambassador to Turkey… But after Orlando’s first disappointment in love, in his affair with the Muscovite Sasha, he returns to his lands and falls into a trance or coma for a week.
Here, Virginia Woolf seems to have the same attitude toward illness as in her essay: that it is an integral part of life. The “daily drama of life” is “death in small doses daily.” Here, in a novel much lighter than, say, Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, she throws a little joke in at the end of her musings:
Has the finger of death to be laid on the tumult of life from time to time lest it rend us asunder? Are we so made that we have to take death in small doses daily or we could not go on with the business of living? And then what strange powers are these that penetrate our most secret ways and change our most treasured possessions without our willing it? Had Orlando, worn out by the extremity of his suffering, died for a week, and then come to life again? And if so, of what nature is death and of what nature life? Having waited well over half an hour for an answer to these questions, and none coming, let us get on with the story.
That intrusive narrator will appear throughout. You see, Orlando is a biography, and among other things Woolf is exploring notions of biography and history. She’s also exploring, as she did from a different angle in To the Lighthouse, creation—this time rather than using a proxy, she is writing about writing. Writing, and reading, can also make you ill, and in Orlando’s case it can make you ill for centuries.
The disease gained rapidly upon him now in his solitude. He would read often six hours into the night; and when they came to him for orders about the slaughtering of cattle or the harvesting of wheat, he would push away his folio and look as if he did not understand what was said to him. …But worse was to come. For once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing. …The flavour of it all goes out of him; he is riddled by hot irons; gnawed by vermin. He would give every penny he has (such is the malignity of the germ) to write one little book and become famous; yet all the gold in Peru will not buy him the treasure of a well-turned line. So he falls into consumption and sickness, blows his brains out, turns his face to the wall. It matters not in what attitude they find him. He has passed through the gates of Death and known the flames of Hell.
Orlando writes, and burns his writing, and spends centuries—literally—revising a single poem. Crossing out s’s. Eliminating the dread “ing” of the present participle. No wonder writing is a disease, when it’s carried out like this in pursuit of perfection.
Other poets are diseased as well, with “the palsy, the gout, the ague, the dropsy…an enlarged heart, a great spleen, and a diseased liver.” And even when Orlando can escape the disease of writing for a while, there are other ones to watch out for: “The English disease, a love of Nature,” and also the damp. Here Woolf calls to mind Mrs. Ramsey, with her worry about opening windows and closing doors, keeping the damp out of her cottage on the Isle of Skye. “[D]amp, which is the most insidious of all enemies, for while the sun can be shut out by blinds, and the frost roasted by a hot fire, damp steals in while we sleep; damp is silent, imperceptible, ubiquitous”—and turns the world into stifling, disorienting Victorian England, the first place Orlando doesn’t feel at home. Orlando was once transformed by a sort of illness—a recurrence of his mysterious coma—and now all of England is transformed by the disease of damp into a place that’s broken with the past in a way the eighteenth century didn’t break with the seventeenth. And that leads to more illness in the now-female Orlando, who is nauseated at the idea of not having a husband.
The focus on the writing illness gives tantalizing insights that we feel must be Woolf’s on the nature of her work, though they come through the intermediary of Orlando. And what else can this be than illness, with its “no devotion…too great” and its neverending reach for something “less distorting”—which Woolf thinks is a quality of illness as well:
…[P]oetry can adulterate and destroy more surely than lust or gunpowder. The poet’s then in the highest office of all, she continued. His words reach where others fall short. A silly song of Shakespeare’s has done more for the poor and the wicked than all the preachers and philanthropists in the world. No time, no devotion, can be too great, therefore, which makes the vehicle of our message less distorting. We must shape our words till they are the thinnest integument for our thoughts. Thoughts are divine. Thus it is obvious that she was back in the confines of her own religion which time had only strengthened in her absence, and was rapidly acquiring the intolerance of belief.
Who’s to know what Woolf’s thoughts are, then, with that harsh evaluation of closed thinking? Sometimes she, or Orlando, seems a bit more bitter:
Life, it has been agreed by everyone whose opinion is worth consulting, is the only fit subject for novelist or biographer; life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking. Thought and life are as the poles asunder.
Woolf has proved this dramatically wrong in every work of hers I’ve read, and Orlando does so a bit differently than the previous two novels in Woolf in Winter, I believe. The lightness and comedy here, the fact that Orlando is in some ways a genre novel—historical fiction or magical realism, take your pick—and even the focus on gender-bending, which is serious but treated naturally rather than cerebrally—all this makes Orlando a much more accessible work still based entirely in Woolf’s vision and aesthetic. It left me impressed in a whole new way. Woolf can be herself without having to always be heavy; she can be more inclusive and outwardly joyful and show that her project works here as well.
This week, Frances at Nonsuch Book is hosting Woolf in Winter. Check out her wonderful post on Orlando as well as other participants’.
I so rarely read essays, but a good essay is a wonderful thing and Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill makes me want to change my ways. The essay is all her, structurally, which is to say it appears to flow like a stream but is always under her complete control. She begins by asking why illness hasn’t been a more important subject for literature, on the level of “love and battle and jealousy,” as certainly it takes up such an important place in life.
But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record. People write always of the doings of the mind; the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how the mind has civilised the universe. They show it ignoring the body in the philospher’s turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery. Those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it, in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, are neglected. Nor is the reason far to seek. To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust phliosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth. Short of these, this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain, will soon make us taper into mysticism, or rise, with rapid beats of the wings, into the raptures of transcendentalism.
Hermione Lee notes in her introduction to the Paris Press edition that Woolf suffered not only psychological illness in her lifetime, but also physical illness, and that the two were often fundamentally connected for her. So throughout the essay, there is a close relationship between physical symptoms and melancholy—and why not? Woolf is right that even “a little rise of temperature reveals” a darker side of the mind. She does a good job of staring things squarely in the face in this essay, as well as her other work, and I do think illness has its place in literature—though perhaps not as prominent as love or war. I quite like reading about it myself, but often it can be the opposite of what she’s looking for: stories of the still-strong mind frustrated with the weakened body, when for her the mental is pulled under along with the physical.
She goes on to discuss the impossibility of sympathy. Anyone waiting on an ill person simply speaks of his own past illnesses, and can’t connect with the current suffering of the invalid. Facing this reality can bring some dark thoughts of its own.
That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you—is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way.
In health, however, we put up a pretense of sympathy. In illness we can shed it, and be freer in our solitude, happier alienated from each other than feigning understanding when healthy. It’s especially interesting to read of Woolf’s view of sympathy after being so taken with issues of sympathy in To the Lighthouse.
Thus illness frees us of some of the rules of civilization. We don’t have to be quite as friendly to each other when we’re ill, and we can blurt out the truth about things we might otherwise conceal. Invalids—and, for a time, people who are simply sick—have dropped out of the normal run of society and its duties. They’re also freer with respect to literature, and “words seem to possess a mystic quality” when ill.
In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty…the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at least we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.
Here, as in the first passage above, is at least a hint of Romanticism. Intelligence versus the senses; the mind civilizing the universe. In some ways at least, the lack of a healthy body, and therefore a healthy mind, is a positive experience. The alienation is authentic, where civilization is artificial. The sensuous pleasure of sound is the real heart of words, where their meaning is just a veil. And illness is the reality of flawed mortal life—being ill, on some level, is the “daily drama of the body.” At the same time, those pulled into chronic illness, chronic melancholy, can end up quite far out to sea.
Oh, and that bit about getting the scent of things from words, rather than through domineering reason and meaning? Woolf is all about that, of course, and with this essay as with her fiction it feels good to just let things wash over you and end up all the richer for it. So now I’m looking forward not only to the rest of Woolf in Winter, but also to more of Woolf’s essays—especially on literature.
Two weeks ago, Mrs. Dalloway was a bit of a revelation for me, and To the Lighthouse has deepened my almost-love of Virginia Woolf. There are a million things going on here that I could write about, and I’ll be thinking about them as I continue with Woolf in Winter because they are definitely a part of Woolf’s “project”—especially her concern with creative types creating things. But I’d like to focus on one scene from the novel, which does bring in a number of its issues: the scene between Lily Briscoe and Mr. Ramsay after the family’s postwar return to the island house.
Mr. Ramsay is waiting for his children to ready themselves for their trip to the lighthouse, and Lily is trying to ignore him and pretend to work on a painting to avoid speaking to him. Mr. Ramsay is emotionally needy, always demanding to be praised, spoiled by his wife and other women who are charmed by him, constantly in search of female sympathy. And Lily Briscoe, a spinster in her forties now, doesn’t like to give in to the baseless demands on her sympathy made by men she doesn’t really care for. Just as she experiments with being less than caring toward Charles Tansley at the dinner party earlier in the novel, she wants to avoid giving Mr. Ramsay her sympathy. But she decides it will be easier if she tries to “give him what she could.”
But he’s so demanding, and she so cold, that she simply cannot do it. She feels “stuck,” “nauseated,” like “the whole horizon [is] swept bare of objects to talk about.”
They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pool at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet.
Lily’s behavior toward Mr. Ramsay is almost unbearably cruel. He is all but crying out for help and she is denying him. But she should deny him! After all, what Mr. Ramsay does is “to approach any woman, to force them, he did not care how, his need was so great, to give him what he wanted: sympathy.” He’s done it to Mrs. Ramsay; he’s tortured his children with it. And he does not have this kind of emotional claim on Lily Briscoe. Rather than being “immensely to her discredit, sexually,” her behavior is utterly right—and yet how hard it is to watch, and how hard it would be to carry out.
Even Lily cannot hold, though, and as soon as she can find a way to reach out to Mr. Ramsay she does. It’s just as hard later for his children, Cam and James, to “fight tyranny to the death” as they’d pledged to. And it really is tyranny, this emotional manipulation. Mr. Ramsay is very good at it, and he shouldn’t be rewarded. But when we’re all so small and alone in the world, all wanting praise and sympathy just as he does, it’s incredibly hard to deny it when it’s demanded, even so illegitimately.
What is Woolf saying about men and women here, and families, and friends? A lot, I’m afraid. One of my favorite things about To the Lighthouse is the way it deals with the bundled nature of personalities. What does it mean to like or dislike someone, when they have so many different qualities that you may variously like and dislike? Who does have a claim on our sympathy? Is it right for women to provide sympathy to all and sundry, to hold things together? Mrs. Ramsay seems almost subsumed in that function at times, and she seems to believe it the great purpose of femininity. Lily Briscoe thinks she has escaped it, but she cannot shed it entirely. And what of the tyrant? After all, he is suffering. But that’s simply not Lily’s responsibility!
More questions than answers here, but I’m always very interested in this leaping of the impassable gulf between individuals—or failing to—and Woolf’s depiction of the issue may now be one of my favorites.
Visit Emily at Evening All Afternoon
for her post and links to others participating in Woolf in Winter.
Before I read Virginia Woolf, I knew a fair bit about her and her work, but her chief characteristic in my mind was the “stream-of-consciousness” I’d read about, and she felt very wrapped up in the idea of the internal life.
It turns out that was a pretty good idea, but not in the way I expected. Where I thought Woolf’s narration would focus on the interior, instead her characters’ thoughts are all externalized. Clarissa Dalloway does not go around London thinking and feeling, but noticing the outside world, remarking on it, appreciating it, being taken back by it to another time—in which memories she’ll also notice things, remark on things. The narrative is almost materialistic in this way, because of its sensuality—the characters are reacting to sights, sounds, smells, with which they’re surrounded in an incredibly lush and vivid London.
It all makes for an incredibly absorbing text—especially on re-read. After living through that whole June day with Mrs. Dalloway & Co., now that we know her quite well, the opening scene of her in Bond Street is almost jarring in how crisply her character comes through in every paragraph. There is Peter Walsh’s pocket knife on the very first page, and the first mention of “the perfect hostess” on the fifth—Woolf wastes no time in introducing the motifs that will recur like haunting memories. “[S]he had cried over it in her bedroom,” and she still can’t get that nagging reproach out of her mind.
Mrs. Dalloway’s thoughts of death start up right away as well, and death too is wrapped up in materialism. Not to say that Mrs. Dalloway is upset about her earthly body; on the contrary. An atheist, she is confident that she will live on, metaphorically—in the very same material things she notices and remarks on every day:
Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.
Some of the most beautiful passages are about death, passing on. An unidentified figure of greatness passes in a motor car,
an enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth. The face in the motor car will then be known.
A very different, but just as vivid, vision of London. There is a great sense of joy at life, regardless of the fact that it will one day cease, and there is joy in even the wedding rings and gold fillings when they are buried under a grass-grown path. Mrs. Dalloway’s joy intrudes on her thoughts: “All the same, that one day should follow another…that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park…it was enough.” And death is only “unbelievable” because it means “no one…would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant…”! For all the heavy emotion that is indeed here, there is also an irrepressible excitement about this whole sensory world that Mrs. Dalloway just can’t stop thinking about.
Update: Check out more Woolf in Winter posts on Mrs. Dalloway here.