Sunday, August 29, 2010

Woolf and the Rhizome

Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall” marks a (non) fictional account of the way in which the human mind works, and that is that her short story denotes the multitude of layers existing in human consciousness, particularly when one is ruminating on a specific subject (for the narrator in Woolf’s story, it is the mark on the wall), and how such a rumination can lead to a series of strokes of thought, henceforth in this blog termed “rhizomatic."  [Woolf's writing style reminded me of Deleuzian rhizmatics, which you can read more about here:]

Now rhizomatic comes from the idea of the rhizome, and is most often associated with the way in which the Web operates, more specifically, the way in which hypertext operates. 

(Figure 1.  Rhizome: Notice the networking occurring on the left portion of the image.) 

Hypertext allows the Web user to click on a highlighted term/image/etc. on a website, and by clicking, the user is transported to another site.  This is a continual process on the Web, and it is easy to get lost among the numerous links we encounter, depending on the way we are interacting with the Web at any given moment.  For example, if you are conducting a specific search, it is unlikely you will misplace your starting point.  However, if you are simply browsing Web content, you may, in fact, get lost in the super map of hyperlinks.  This idea (though not, of course, for Woolf, about the Web) is one that is demonstrated in Woolf’s story, “The Mark on the Wall” and in her story, “Kew Gardens.”

In “Kew Gardens,” waves of thought is expressed in the very beginning.  As Simon and Eleanor walk through Kew Gardens, Simon ruminates upon his past, thinking of Lily, the woman who turned down his proposal.  In thinking of this, Simon is reminded of the dragonfly which encircled the two of them, and compares himself and his feelings for Lily at the time to the movement of the dragonfly (VWR, Woolf 162).  Simon’s thoughts provoke him to speak to Eleanor, asking her if she ever thinks upon her past, to which she responds that the environment of the gardens provides the perfect catalyst for doing so, and together, briefly, the two of them share hallmarks for moments—for Simon, a shoe’s buckle, for Eleanor, a kiss (VWR, Woolf 162).  These hallmarks signify the human need to associate a memory with an object. 

The narrator of Woolf’s story, “The Mark on the Wall,” demonstrates our need to grasp at some solid thought:  “To steady myself, let me catch hold of the first idea that passes…Shakespeare…Well, he will do as well as another” (Woolf 154).  In this, Woolf showcases that when one is thinking, one does have the capability of erasing the slate, so to speak, and starting with a thought (here, Shakespeare), one can quickly move into the realm of the rhizome, in which one thought leads to another, which leads to another, and so forth, creating a network of ideas that ultimately can (or simply will not if one does not recall what began the process, as is seen near the end of Woolf’s story) lead one back to the original thought.  In this example, we see the narrator searching (mentally) under a specific searchable term plucked from the ether of the narrator’s thoughts.  The thought of Shakespeare, for the narrator, leads to thoughts of fire, furniture, etc.  

This same type of pattern occurs with “dust:”  “And yet that mark on the wall is not a hole at all.  It may even be caused by some round black substance, such as a small rose leaf…and I, not being a very vigilant housekeeper—look at the dust on the mantelpiece…the dust which , so they say, buried Troy three times over” (VWR,Woolf 153-154).  Now, dust arises again in Woolf’s “Modern Fiction,” as does the image of war (Troy):  “On the flat, in the crowd, half blind with dust, we look back with envy to those happier warriors, whose battle is won and whose achievements wear so serene an air of accomplishment that we can scarcely refrain from whispering that the fight was not so fierce for them as it was for us” (VWR,Woolf 284).  From this connection, we can gather (assume) that Woolf, in writing “The Mark on the Wall,” practices what she theorizes in “Modern Fiction,” which is the removal of the external and the insertion of the internal. 

Woolf denotes in “Modern Fiction,” using three writers (Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy) as examples, that her predecessors were what she calls “materialists,” noting that these writers “are concerned not with the spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us, and left us with the feeling that the sooner English fiction turns its back upon them, as politely as may be, and marches, if only into the desert, the better for its soul” (VWR, Woolf 285).  Here again, in this statement, we see the workings of the rhizome at play, for earlier in her essay Woolf writes, “We only know that certain gratitudes and hostilities inspire us; that certain paths seem to lead to fertile land, others to dust and the desert” (VWR, Woolf 284).  Woolf labels the desert as an unfertile place—seeming to say to us then, even if (new) modern fiction is no more the better than the classics, to move away from the previous (even if to unfertile soil) is better than remaining.

And what is it, then, that validates Woolf’s explorations and arguments for the internal (thought, rhizome)?  Perhaps it is our own ability to (re)recognize our starting points.  Or perhaps, as highlighted at the end of “The Mark on the Wall,” it is the external which interrupts the internal:  “Where was I? What has it all been about?...I cant remember a thing…Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing…There is a vast upheaval of matter.  Someone is standing over me and saying…’I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall’…Ah, the mark on the wall!” (VWR, Woolf 159). 

For “The Mark on the Wall,” it is as Mitchell Leaska states in his brief introduction to Woolf’s story:  “The narrator of the piece sees a spot on the wall and begins to guess at what it might be.  Each guess triggers off what appears to be a random (but in actuality is a highly controlled) series of mental associations” (VWR, Leaska 151). 

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