Sunday, October 24, 2010

"That is only the murmur of the waves in the air."

The Waves--Virginia Woolf

This is the first time this semester that I feel as if whatever I were to say/write about Woolf’s work would be limiting the work itself.  I pause before the screen, imagining as I type, Woolf writing out The Waves, and to me, the weight of the pen feels laborious, heavy, feels like if I were writing, the pen would be like carrying a great bundle up many flights of stairs.  Writing before the screen seems much more light, unburdened—typically—but to write about The Waves seems to me like writing with a pen filled with water, so that each time I scratch down a thought, not only is that though illegible, but soon it dries, leaving no trace that it ever existed.

When I first began The Waves, I felt each “[someone] said” was as cumbersome as said pen.  I thought I could not bear to read two hundred plus pages of “[someone] said.”  Yet as I persevered, I became enamored with the soliloquies, finding that I did not feel lost (though Molly Hite references how Leonard told Virginia that the first part of the novel was difficult), but became lost in this universe created by Woolf’s pen.  I found myself lying in the grass with Bernard, listening to his stories, making my way, too, into Elvedon.  I knotted my handkerchief along with Susan, hid myself among the leaves with Louis.  I, too, scoffed at the headmaster with Neville.  I danced before the looking-glass with Jinny.  These soliloquies keep time with the patterns of the waves, falling then drawing back.  Each individual soliloquy does the same, so that when one speaks, we feel the push and tug of the language printed before us.  We hear a great emotion, then feel the pull back to memory.  And this pattern of movement happens so subtly, that I become entranced by it, enchanted to the point of believing this is the most beautiful novel I have ever read.

I am supposed to be following Susan while I read, yet I find each character alluring.  Each character drops crumbs for us to follow, morsels that lead us to places in their lives really only meant for them.  [Secret places.  Elvedon.]  With Susan, I find that she is not as I expected.  Based on the characters’ descriptions on the chart, and with her being described as an earth mother, I imagined her to be like a woman in a Faulkner novel—wild and strange in moments, yet bound to dirt and warm life, rural yet wondrous (thinking of Dewey Dell—a mother figure in the death of her own mother, the field, the cow).  Susan is connected with nature, but falls into a much more strict routine of life than I initially thought.  Her refrain of “I love, I hate” seems more in tune with the latter part of the repeated assigned feelings toward various things/people/moments.  Though Susan is to represent a motherly figure, thus far it appears as though she has difficulty separating the world from her own feelings towards all it contains.  I cannot yet tell or conclude whether or not I can truly identify with her.  Thus far, I feel more in tune with Bernard—always jotting down the phrases he is trying to catch, examining language, telling stories.  In fact, I think his practice of keeping track of ideas and phrases in an alphabetical notebook is ingenious.  When thinking about The Waves, under “W” I might write, “Wonderfully strange, these liquid musings of six friends,” or under “N” I might note, “Never do I want to leave the rhythm of The Waves.  Never do I want to cease listening to those astonishing people as they talk to me.” 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Angel in the Water

A Room of One’s Own—Virginia Woolf

Susan Gubar, in her introduction to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, states, “The treatise’s stark central claim [is] that every woman needs a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year” (Gubar xxxv).  Indeed, Woolf near the beginning of A Room provides us with her thesis:  “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf Room 4).  And while both of these women present similarly simple statements, the impetus behind them is quite complex, for Woolf’s thesis may cause us to summon an important allusion from among the many, that being an allusion to her essay/lecture, “Professions for Women,” which we read last week. 

In “Professions for Women,” Woolf talks about how she, in order to become a writer, had to kill the Angel in the House, that old poetic Victorian creation of the woman as the spine of the home, the sacrificial saint of the hearth, which completes the myth that women have no desires beyond serving the opposite sex, sympathizing with his every need (Woolf “Professions”).  Essentially, she could not share a room with this supposed angel; she needed a room of her own. 

While the connections between the two works can be made with ease, what initially struck me while reading A Room of One’s Own, was not how these two pieces are tied together; instead, what primarily triggered a reaction from me as the reader involved in the conversation of Woolf’s work was a particular passage:

“On the further bank the willows wept in perpetual lamentation, their hair about their shoulders.  The river reflected whatever it chose of sky and bridge and burning tree, and when the undergraduate had oared his boat through the reflections they closed again, completely, as if he had never been” (Woolf Room 5). 

Here, in this passage, the willows embodied femininity—the weeping, the long hair.  [Mary Magdalene washed Jesus’s feet with her hair; she also wept at His tomb.]  There is something quietly feminine in this, something pure, something very Angel in the House.  The water acts as a mirror reflecting these traditional elements of femininity (and reflections have the possibility to be infinite, so that it appears that traditional notions of women may never cease).  The water reflecting the natural world is undisturbed—all viewed through a woman’s eyes—that is, until the echoes are run through by the young male student.  The significance of the male student here does not seem light or arbitrary, for what is destroyed is the picture of femininity.  Nothing, not even replications of femininity, can remain unbroken.  The male student (and we can see all the beadles in him) plows through the placidity of what he possibly intuits is the lesser/inferior sex.  But most importantly, after his wake settles, the reflections once again emerge:  in due time, even the best of attempts cannot eradicate the woman from the world. 

Gubar, Susan.  Introduction.  A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.  Orlando, FL:  Harcourt, Inc. 2005. Print. 

Woolf, Virginia.  “Professions for Women.”

--.  A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.  Orlando, FL:  Harcourt, Inc. 2005. Print.  

Critical Reading Response #3

“Sapphistry:  Narration as Lesbian Seduction in A Room of One’s Own
Crtical Article by Jane Marcus

Jane Marcus’s article, “Sapphistry:  Narration as Lesbian Seduction in A Room of One’s Own,” does not limit itself to simply explicating the idea of seduction (specifically woman-to-woman) in Virginia Woolf’s feminist text; rather, Marcus dredges up crucial evidence that marshals her primary argument:  how narration as lesbian seduction works to subvert the patriarchal system so prevalent during that time.  Marcus begins “Sapphistry” by citing echoes she feels are important to understanding the connections between Woolf’s exposition (A Room) and  historical figures (Oscar Browning, known for what she calls “academic homosexual misogyny”) and other literary works (such as Radclyffe Hall’s novel of lesbianism, The Well of Loneliness, as well as the obscenity trial surrounding the novel) (Marcus 163-164).  Marcus then moves into a discussion of Woolf’s audience, setting up the idea of conspiracy among women “in league together against authority,” and stating that by giving a “talk to girls” is very much connected to the “desire to seduce” (Marcus 166-167).  The ideas of conspiracy and narration directed at women are key concepts for Marcus, who also discusses punctuation as being a part of these central and driving ideas.  

Marcus views Woolf’s uses of punctuation (specifically her utilizing periods of ellipses) as a lecture in and of itself directed at Radclyffe Hall.  As Hall’s novel was on trial for obscenity, Marcus argues that Woolf’s ellipses demonstrate an undercover way to reveal lesbianism so as not to alert the censors (Marcus 169-170).  As Marcus denotes, “Dot dot dot is female code for lesbian love” (Marcus 169).  Thus, the ellipsis or lacuna highlights what cannot be explicitly (but is considered explicit) expressed textually.  

To further her argument that Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own destabilizes the patriarchy, Marcus powerfully charges that even the homosexual males in Woolf’s circle of friends did not align themselves with feminists causes; instead, these men viewed society and all its components through a strictly patriarchal lens, so that they “practiced their homosexuality while supporting a conservative family structure” (Marcus 177-178).  Marcus goes on to say that “the patriarchy tolerated elite homosexuals because they did not threaten the family” (Marcus 178).  She later cites references to Woolf’s biological family members as being members of this elite group, and Woolf’s convicting them not of homosexuality, but of misogyny (Marcus 183-186).  

From these aforementioned ideas, Marcus draws forth Woolf’s rhetorical strategies which “construct an erotic relationship between the woman writer, her audience present in the text, and the woman reader.  Seduction serves the political purpose of uniting women across class…[calling for] a feminist solidarity in the demand for space [room]” (Marcus 186).  Not only does Woolf demand a space be given to women, she also solicits the “feminist political strategy” of interruption “which truly voiced women’s rebellion at enforced silence into a literary trope” (Marcus 187).  Hence, lesbian seduction in A Room of One’s Own disavows the patriarchal tradition of silencing women, keeping women within the space of the home, and forcing women to remain in traditional roles, and the act of women loving women presents desire, and with desire comes elements of power. 

Marcus, Jane.  "Sapphistry: Narration as Lesbian Seduction in A Room of One’s OwnVirginia Woolf and the Language of Patriarchy.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.  163-87.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Articles about Radclyffe Hall's Obsenity Trial

1.  "Obsenity, Modernity, Idenity: Legalizing The Well of Loneliness and Nightwood" by Leigh Glimore

2.  Taylor, Leslie A. "I Made Up My Mind to Get It": The American Trial of The Well of Loneliness, New York City, 1928-29 Journal of the History of Sexuality - Volume 10, Number 2, April 2001, pp. 250-286 

(These links will take you to JSTOR and  Project MUSE, respectively.  You'll need to access the databases via your institution (Clemson University) or your local public library.)

Reading Rocks On

Patti Smith reads Virginia Woolf:  Here.

Orlando Trailer

Really cool trailer for Sally Potter's film version of Orlando.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Interestingly beautiful site to explore...

after reading Orlando.  The site is called Genderfork, and it's a digital hot-spot for those whose identity lies beyond the heteronormative.  Genderfork markets itself with two slogans:  "beauty in ambiguity" and "There is no need for us to explain ourselves."  While you might find some familiar faces on this site, you're more likely to read profiles of those sans celebrity status, complete with a photo or two.  There are also links to articles (e.g. one link sends you over to The New York Times) as well as androgynous/gender-bending art/photography.  

Sunday, October 10, 2010

We are Orlando

Orlando has been my favorite book by Virginia Woolf so far.  It is filled with insights that make me reconsider how I view, not only historical moments, but also our society as it is today.  Orlando’s various ruminations throughout the centuries forces me to realize that I do not, perhaps, spend enough time just simply thinking about the way things were, are, and the possibilities of what can be in my own lifetime. 

That being said, while reading the novel, I found myself drawing more and more attracted to Orlando’s musings; however, there were moments in which I felt either troubled by them or frustrated with them, meaning that I wanted for Orlando to pursue a thought until its end, rather than fixate in a circular motion (as seen in one particularly memorable scene in which Orlando stumbles through Love, Ambition, Friendship, etc.) (Woolf 73-74).  My frustration (and curiosity) was also piqued by Orlando’s seemingly lack of questioning how he/then she came to live for so very long, and even how he became a she. 

These questions of longevity and gender morphing plagued me throughout my reading of Orlando.  As we discussed in class, the novel is filled to the brim with hyperbole—and yet, how can we reason with Orlando’s sex change when no scalpel/hormone therapy was involved?  Indeed, Orlando slips off into one of his trances, and when the trumpet heralds “Truth!” he awakens into a new life—he has transformed into a woman—and she does not even seem to really note the metamorphosis until she begins to think deeply once more (Woolf 102-103).  Even still, she does not ask, “How/Why did this happen?”  Rather, she muses upon the nature of her new sex primarily in terms of society (Woolf 113-121). 

This summoning of society reigns throughout the novel, and I begin to wonder if this was Woolf’s way of taking a stab at social norms and constraints, for surely, any other person than Orlando would have posed different questions.  Is it because Orlando defies time and gender that she is not prone to such commonplace musings?  This I doubt in a way, mainly due to the number of times she does have thoughts that can be attributed to one who lives by one gender in one lifetime.  Although she exceeds any normal human standard, her fears, worries, and even ecstasies can be matched with our own.  In short, although there were moments which were troubling for me as the reader, I have grown immensely attached to Orlando, and can no longer view either him or her as anything but indelibly human. 

I suppose it is this humanity that gives me the ability to forgive Orlando when she grows lonely near the end of the novel, especially when she thinks, “‘Everyone is mated except myself’” (Woolf 180).  As her ring finger trembles of its own accord, and she begins to wish for someone to share her life with, I grew increasingly angry with her; however, reflecting upon her long life, I also grew to sympathize with her.  For, after Orlando becomes a woman, I feel that the novel takes a sad turn.  Even Orlando’s heartbreak over the Russian Princess does not compare with her later musings and memories over all those she has known who are now long dead.  A passage that occurs near when Orlando begins to recognize her loneliness makes it easier for me to understand her need for a mate:

Such is the indomitable nature of the spirit of the age however, that it batters down anyone who tries to make stand against it far more effectually than those who bend its own way.  Orlando had inclined herself to the Elizabethan spirit, to the Restoration spirit, to the spirit of the eighteenth century, and had in consequence scarcely been aware of the change from one age to the other.  But the spirit of the nineteenth century was antipathetic to her in the extreme, and thus it took her and broke her, and she was aware of her defeat at its hands as she had never been before…The human spirit has its place in time assigned to it.  (Woolf 178).*

It is this passage that abets my attempt to understand Orlando’s succumbing to the Victorian era, especially with her marriage.  Yet I cannot deny that she and Shel make a wonderful pair.  Nor would I wish loneliness on her, nor the absence of love.  She has searched for many things for many, many years, and that, ultimately, is really what makes her human.  For me, not only does Orlando exhibit “the spirit of the age,” but she also embodies the human spirit. 

Woolf, Virginia.  Orlando.  Ed. Maria DiBattista.  Orlando, FL:  Harcourt, Inc., 2006.  Print.

*Block quoting does not work in this particular template.  Here, the quote, rather than being indented, has double the spacing between the paragraphs above and below it.  

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Critical Reading Response #2

“Was It a Vision?  Structuring Emptiness in To the Lighthouse” by Sally Minogue

Sally Minogue’s “Was It a Vision?  Structuring Emptiness in To the Lighthouse” does a fine job of connecting Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical writings (letters, diary entries, manuscript notes, etc.) to the narrative structures found in her fiction, such as Mrs. Dalloway, Jacob’s Room, and most importantly, To the Lighthouse.  From the very beginning of her article, Minogue notes that Woolf’s diary contains a passage (written before “Time Passes”) that calls upon impersonality and the “‘great sense of the brutality  and wildness of the world’” (Minogue 281).  While Minogue threads these two effervescent concepts through Mrs. Dalloway and Jacob’s Room (in terms of bathos, which “depends on a sense that some objects and events have greater significance than others” (Minogue 283)), she encapsulates the “emptiness” Woolf writes about in her journal within the context of To the Lighthouse, more specifically within the second section, “Time Passes” (Minogue 281-294). 

As Minogue notes, Woolf wrote in her diary, “‘There is vacancy & silence somewhere in the machine…If I could catch the feeling, I would:  the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness & silence from the habitable world…But I have not really laid hands on the emptiness after all’” (Minogue 283-284).  Minogue goes on to say that the way Woolf structures her narrative in To the Lighthouse highlights such autobiographical passages as the one noted above (Minogue 284).  She also discusses how Woolf’s diary entries display an impersonality which “blur[s] her response to the deaths of others and some notion of her own death” (a bit like Mrs. Dalloway), a blurring that is fully mature in To the Lighthouse (Minogue 284-286).

Similarly, Minogue points out that “Woolf’s inclination to answer death’s indifference with her own it, of course, at the same time a recognition of its power:  human response can make no difference to it” (Minogue 285).  This notion seems especially important when considering “Time Passes.”  Calling upon Woolf’s own description of the second section, Minogue reinforces the idea that “Time Passes” is “a narrow ‘corridor’ joining ‘two blocks,’” the corridor being “Time Passes,” and the two blocks being “The Window” and “The Lighthouse” on either side (Minogue 286).  Ultimately, what Minogue initially envisions as emptiness, moves toward vacancy—perhaps the same sense of vacancy that Woolf discusses in the diary entry quoted above. 

This emptiness or vacancy has to do with impersonality; indeed, Minogue speaks of “Time Passes” as having “impersonality [that] strengthen[s] its grip as the section progresses, to the point that it is difficult to remember that there is a living author behind it” (Minogue 287).  And yet, we cannot deny the author, especially given the attention to syntax and grammar that is of great significance in “Time Passes” (Minogue 288-293).

For Minogue, “Time Passes” serves to represent experience, much like “The Window” does; however, in both sections, representation is exacted using different techniques (Minogue 289).  In “Time Passes,” Woolf “seeks to convey the suddenness, the unpredictability, the resultant savagery of death, but perhaps most of all its devastating effect on our sense of the life that has gone on before” (Minogue 289).  In this, Minogue discusses Woolf’s use of brackets to relay the deaths of her characters, and how these brackets and the grammatical structures of what they contain shows that the bracketed information is less significant than the surrounding text (Minogue 290).  Here, we have the return of bathos in terms of significance.  Due to the brackets and the syntax of the bracketed text, we, as readers, experience death through Mr. Ramsay’s empty arms—through the vacancy of knowing the particular circumstances surrounding the death of the character we have grown accustomed to in “The Window” (Minogue 291). 

Interestingly, Minogue, while honoring the elements of prose at work in “Time Passes,” agrees with Woolf in that the section should be critiqued using the rules more bound to poetry.  Due to the above mentioned syntactical tools and the bathos at work in this section, Minogue classifies “Time Passes” as using “a grammatical device much more commonly used in poetry…zeugma,” which is “mock heroic…from the yoking of the great and the trivial together as objects of the one verb.  Thus, great is reduced grammatically to the level of the trivial, and its emptiness exposed through the very structure of the sentence it occupies” (Minogue 292).  Consequently, we see that what is given great importance in “Time Passes” is nature itself—from insects to planets—and what is trivial is the actions of humans reduced to occupy the space between brackets. 

Sally Minogue’s article can be dense at moments; however, her work enables us to re-vision “Time Passes” in such a way that, perhaps, we, too, can recognize our own indifference and impersonality.  For it does not seem, according to what Minogue deciphers for us, that indifference and impersonality is something that only Woolf wrote about in her diaries and expressed through her (semi)fictional characters; rather, these are the “impersonal things” which reside in us all. 

"Time Passes:" Remains

What we get in “Time Passes,” the second section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, is, simply put, just what the section’s title suggests:  the passing of time.  What hails this section as remarkable is that it impresses upon us not only the passing of time, but also the effects that time wields upon what we create.  “Time Passes” causes us to be conscious of both.
The section opens with the family and friends still alive, still intact, for at the beginning of “Time Passes,” we see that hardly any time has passed at all between the end of “The Window” and the beginning of this section.  However, this insignificant change in time itself forces us to recall (and reimagine) the sentiment Mrs. Ramsay clutches as she leaves the dining area (and the life of the dinner/conversation) near the end of “The Window:”  “With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past” (Woolf TTL 113-114).  Indeed, one feels even in the first chapter of “Time Passes” that as the young people return from walking on the beach at night, everything that has happened before this moment is the past.  We are suddenly very conscious of this past, especially when Prue says, “‘One can hardly tell which is the sea and which is the land,’” for this line of thought prefigures (both literally and metaphorically) the empty house once so full of life that will begin to be overtaken by nature as “Time Passes” progresses (Woolf TTL 130). 

As each chapter shifts and changes in this section, so does the landscape featured in the novel, both in terms of humanity and nature.  The darkness begins to become very nearly absolute, and what we’re left with as readers is a sense that time is the darkness itself, swallowing the fragments that are left behind.  We begin to read time as passing, yes, but also keeping time with the sweeping of the lighthouse’s light across the land, methodical, entering the house as it always has; however, it does not disturb any habitants because the house has been deserted. 

We learn of Mrs. Ramsay’s death, and we learn of Andrew’s death (Woolf TTL 132, 137).  While Mrs. Ramsay’s death may leave us feeling desolate (as we have shared so many thoughts and feelings with her—there is a sense of intimacy we’ve developed), although her death is described as sudden (and, indeed, it is a shock), it appears to be natural, even expected considering no one lives forever.  However, it is Andrew’s death that fully encapsulates the changes time throws down, for now we see that the world is literally at war—though later, we’re given, “It seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself” (Woolf TTL 138).  This juxtaposition eerily nudges us to become aware of the house filled with remnants of humanity being disturbed by the natural world.  It is the war of the universe which causes the teacups to crack and the floorboard to come loose, so that very like the house itself, Mrs. Ramsay’s death can be seen as a casualty of nature, and in juxtaposition, Andrew’s death is due to humanity battling itself.
Indeed, the house is empty, save for the material reminders of human existence in that space.  Around the pig’s skull, Mrs. Ramsay’s shawl flutters, given to move in various ways in accordance with the natural world that causes these shifts.  Mrs. Ramsay once hid (covered up) death in her children’s nursery; now that she herself is dead, nature is disrobing the bone head—the remnants of something that was once alive (Woolf TTL 136-137).

The house is still filled with the family’s belongings—boots, books, plates, all the accoutrement of living.  Though Mrs. McNabb comes to dust the deserted house, she, too, seems but a thing of the house—to recall what Prue once thought upon seeing her mother—“That is the thing itself” (Woolf TTL 118).  And to equate Mrs. McNabb to simply a thing of the house seems crude; however, she is much like the house itself, deteriorating as time passes, and though she tries to keep the house is some semblance of order, her mantra, if you will, highlights the truth:  “It was too much for one woman, too much, too much” (Woolf TTL 141).  This seems to echo Mrs. Ramsay’s life and death, especially since after her death, things seemingly fall apart.  

After Mrs. McNabb shuts and locks the house, nature begins to invade.  In this, we see the ghosts of Mrs. Ramsay as well as Andrew, I believe.  Mrs. Ramsay was given to looking out of the window, out into nature, so it seems fitting that bits of  nature (flowers/plants in particular) find their way into her home.  And with Andrew, too, we can see his little collections and examinations of the natural world embodied in the swallows and butterflies creating life among the ruins (Woolf TTL 141).  In these moments, it feels as if Lily Briscoe is rising up from the past, is coming through the awful darkness of time, telling us, "One must remember the quivering thing, the living thing...and work it into the picture" (Woolf TTL 33).  

Woolf, Virginia.  To the Lighthouse.  Ed. Mark Hussey.  Orlando, FL:  Harcourt, Inc., 2005.  Print.