Sunday, December 5, 2010

Critical Reading Response #7

Avrom Fleishman’s article, “‘To Return to St. Ives:’ Woolf’s Autobiographical Writings,” offers a bit of a weak interpretation for connecting Woolf’s diary entries, letters, and autobiographical sketches (such as “A Sketch of the Past”) to her fictional works (such as To the Lighthouse and The Waves) for anyone who has spent time engrossed in Woolf’s works.  It would seem to me that most of the information provided by Fleishman is a reiteration of connection any Woolf scholar could make among the wide variety of Woolf’s writings.  Perhaps I feel this way due to the fact that this article was first published in 1981, a year before I was born.  (And I’d like to also note here that since I was born in 1982, I was born exactly 100 years after Woolf.  This kind of gives me chills!) 

However, for those who haven’t spent time hanging out with Woolf, Fleishman’s article is a good starting point in that he does provide his reader with interesting autobiographical connections.  For instance, Fleishman draws upon Woolf’s letters and diary entries when detailing connections that exist between her actual life and the fictional world she creates in To the Lighthouse.  As Fleishman notes, “Woolf drew much of the detail for [To the Lighthouse] from her childhood vacations in Cornwall;” however, Fleishman also goes on to say that given Woolf’s strong connections to Cornwall, perhaps we would expect more connections than are readily given in her letters and diary entries (606).  Rather, it would seem that Woolf leaves it up to her readers to delve out these connections rather than offering them outright. 

Beguilingly, Fleishman theorizes about the reasons behind Woolf’s autobiographical connections.  With To the Lighthouse, Fleishman proposes, “[Woolf] has anesthetized her response to the place of her most powerful childhood memories; she had transformed the lasting wound of her life into art” (607).  In this way, Fleishman connects Woolf to Lily Briscoe, who, through her art (painting), is able to lay Mrs. Ramsay’s ghost to rest. 

With The Waves, one of Woolf’s later novels, Fleishman declares that it is “less an autobiographical novel than a mythic drama of the stages of human existence” (611-612).  Even still, The Waves also contains references to people in Woolf’s life.  Fleishman goes on to relate how Woolf deals with her brother’s (Thoby) death in this novel.  The way Fleishman sets To the Lighthouse and The Waves up feels like he is suggesting Woolf wrote in order to create a personalized and internal therapy in order to deal with familial trauma. 

In dealing with Woolf’s imagery, Fleishman connects water with Woolf’s ideas about consciousness, a topic that was almost always in the foreground of her writings.  This, veritably, seems to be one of the most crucial connections Fleishman offers to us in his work.

And yet, perhaps what is most moving and memorable about Fleishman’s article occurs at its end:  “[With] her memoir unfinished, Woolf walked into the river Ouse [to end her life]…Whether she found there the images she sought, whether the waters carried her round to the coast of her childhood, whether the current was that of heightened consciousness or merged consciousness, we cannot say…[W]riting this most beautiful of autobiographies was a dangerous act, a triumph in raising her ghosts to walk again, and thus an invitation to join them in their mode of being” (617).

Fleishman, Avrom.  “‘To Return to St. Ives:’ Woolf’s Autobiographical Writings.”  ELH Vol. 48, No. 3 (Autumn 1981).  The Johns Hopkins University Press.  JSTOR.  Web. 606-618.  29 Sept. 2010.  

Critical Reading Response #6

Chris Coffman’s “Woolf’s Orlando and the Resonances of Trans Studies” is a dense examination of feminist, queer, and gender studies that engages Woolf’s novel.  Coffman offers a concise history of gender studies (and this is a broad term here) that makes this article a bit difficult to get through if you do not have a strong theoretical background.  However, the points that Coffman gives about Orlando are exciting and have a strong relevance considering my research project for this semester.

The first four paragraphs of Coffman’s article rely heavily on the history of feminist studies and queer theory, and by doing so, Coffman sets the reader up with a bit of background before introducing Woolf’s novel to her article.  Coffman’s primary argument is that Orlando, despite earlier, previous notions of the novel within the fields of feminist and queer theories, can be valuable for transgender studies. 

Coffman also discusses Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and inversion theory, though she differentiates between Hall’s novel and inversion and Woolf’s novel and transgender studies.  In this, Coffman demonstrates how Hall employed realism, and therefore, is a viable literary work when examining gender identity, and goes on to say that Woolf’s use of the fantastic (rather than realism) does not detract from Orlando’s importance in gender studies, though the novel has previously been posited as not being viable due to the fantastic qualities it possesses.

Whereas there have been other literary texts which subordinate either male or female, Coffman reveals that Orlando shows an “interlocking” of gender studies and gender politics.  This is a crucial point when considering Orlando’s importance in transgender studies.  As Coffman points out, Orlando “exceed[s] identity categories and [sustains] multiple interpretations,” and by doing so, interacts and participates in numerous conversations and debates about (trans) gender studies, engaging a variety of critical approaches and critics (par. 27). 

In the various ways Orlando’s genders are represented and dealt with in Woolf’s novel, Coffman advances the idea that Woolf is speaking back to the structure of a patriarchal society.  This kind of interaction with patriarchy harkens back to other critical articles, such as those written by Jane Marcus and Annette Oxindine (responses to these articles are in previous blog posts).  As Coffman effectively notes, “Orlando explores the effects that sexist cultural norms have on its protagonist’s gender and desire as s/he lives in both male and female bodies and in several periods of English history” (par. 28).  Woolf’s use of the fantastic (in terms of gender transformation without sex reassignment surgery and the fact that Orlando lives for approximately three hundred years), thus, supports an extremely diverse and, perhaps, unusual approach to gender/sexuality issues.  In this, Woolf is able to expound upon the institutions of a patriarchal society over periods of history through the biographical account of Orlando, who lives both as a man and as a woman.  The narrator of the novel makes use of what Judith Butler has termed gender performance through the exclamations of gender being represented by costume.  What, then, occurs within the Woolf’s text is the sharp embodiment of an examination of gender and sexuality under the thumb of patriarchy:  as Coffman notes, Orlando’s sexual activities as a male differ in some regards from his/her sexual activities as a woman, though as a woman, Orlando dresses in men’s clothing in order to pursue sexual liaisons with other women. 

Coffman also brings English law into play in her article by discussing the drastic difference between Orlando’s legal status as a man and after he transforms into a woman.  Though time has passed, it is not enough time (especially since during Woolf’s own time, women’s rights were still restricted and quite limited), and Orlando must contend with the legal issues of not holding property in her name.  Here, Coffman raises the issues of feminist politics and closely knots them with gender studies, re-offering/repositioning the idea of interlocking disciplines.  Perhaps the most telling statement in Coffman’s article is when she writes, “Woolf’s feminist critique of sexism informs the novel’s treatment both of the restrictions that Orlando experiences upon transformation into a woman and of the homophobia that leaves h/er queer desires latent while a man [i.e. when Orlando first spies Sasha skating on the frozen River Thames]…[W]e might instead read Orlando’s interrogation of desire, gender, and embodiment as productively aligned with contemporary feminist and transgender politics” (par. 35).

Coffman, Chris.  “Woolf’s Orlando and the Resonances of Trans Studies.”  Genders 51 (2010).  Academic OneFile.  Web.  6 Oct. 2010.  

Critical Reading Response #5

In her article, “Rhoda Submerged:  Lesbian Suicide in The Waves,” Annette Oxindine examines Virginia Woolf’s female character Rhoda in terms of silences, invisibility, patriarchy, and lesbianism, and also connects Rhoda back to Judith Shakespeare, who figures in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf’s primary feminist manifesto, and who also commits suicide. 

Oxindine begins by explaining that her ideas are drawn from an intense study of The Waves’s various forms:  holograph drafts and the published version.  In this, Oxindine notes that there are far more allusions (both overt and not) to lesbianism in the holograph drafts than in the published novel.  Interestingly, Oxindine recalls Radclyffe Hall’s obscenity trial as well as her own experiences with her friends in the Bloomsbury group that may have caused Woolf to blot out the majority of lesbian inclusions in The Waves.  This information is tied closely to Jane Marcus’s “Sapphistry:  Narration as Lesbian Seduction in A Room of One’s Own.”  As with Marcus’s work, Oxindine discusses the far-reaching effects of patriarchy.  Both Marcus and Oxindine find that male homosexuality has been tolerated more so than lesbianism since male homosexuality, in Oxindine’s words, “cemented rather than weakened patriarchy” (218).  (This idea is very similar to the argument put forth by Marcus in her article.)  Thus, Neville’s homosexual tendencies are much more overt than Rhoda’s in the final, published version of The Waves

Oxindine examines Rhoda’s textual presence as well as her absence (“white spaces”) in the holographs and the published version of the novel.  In this way, Oxindine offers a fairly solid and in-depth look into the strange character of Rhoda.  Rhoda’s invisibility, Oxindine argues at one point, can be seen as Rhoda understanding that due to her same-sex desires, she lies outside the periphery of the heterosexual normative, and therefore, outside the “real world,” which is majorly characterized by the homogeneity of heterosexual relationships and desires.  This is interesting because the way Oxindine presents this makes it seem as if Rhoda writes herself out of Woolf’s text.  This gives Rhoda a power that far exceeds the power of her suicide and the other characters who conform to patriarchal regulations and traditions.  This is also intriguing because of the sexual revolutions posited by the Bloomsbury group, which seem to want to explode the heternormative, but in fact, still very much adhere to patriarchal conventions.

Rhoda’s “wild” nature, according to Oxindine, repositions her as a witch, “women, who like Rhoda, do not contribute to, and thereby threaten, the patriarchal economies of production and desire” (219).  This, too, is associated with Judith Shakespeare as she is presented in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.  Woolf, through Judith Shakespeare, shows that sixteenth century women possessing artistic talent suffered from the same issues as twentieth century women, as seen in Rhoda:  patriarchy overpowered any woman whose desires lay outside of its parameters and whose artistry was equal or greater than its corruptive burdens. 

Oxindine, Annett.  “Rhoda Submerged:  Lesbian Suicide in The Waves.”  Virginia Woolf:  Lesbian Readings.  Ed. Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer.  NYUP, 1997.  203-221.  Print.  

My Virginia Woolf Research Project--Video Abstract

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Critical Reading Response #4

Alexandra Neel’s “The Photography of Antarctica:  Virginia Woolf’s Letters of Discovery” offers up specific scenes from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in order to capture how these scenes speak in the language of photography, and in doing so, connect back to Woolf’s letters (diary entries, autobiographical writings, etc.), as well as their associations to historical moments of (attempted and/or successful) conquests and global exploration.  What emerges from Neel’s research is new, interconnected way of thinking about Woolf’s imagery and textual decisions in terms of craft:  Woolf’s use of photographic language in To the Lighthouse has the power to recall specific events in human history that lay outside of the narrative, fictional world Woolf has created.

For Neel, Mr. Ramsay’s musings in “The Window,” herald the polar expeditions of Scott and Shackleton.   When Mr. Ramsay mentally explores the workings of his mind, Woolf employs the language of photography, and in some passages, the photographic language is quite explicit, as if Woolf is prodding the reader to read her text as a series of still images that capture life.  Neel also connects Mr. Ramsay’s though processes to a particular genre/style of photography:  positivist photography, which is often paired with travel.  In addition, and perhaps most compelling for reading Mr. Ramsay’s character, is Neel’s connection between failed Antarctic expeditions (Ramsay sees himself as Scott) and Mr. Ramsay’s inability to think outside of a linear pattern.  In this, Neel refers to Mr. Ramsay’s thinking about thinking in terms of a piano’s keyboard and the alphabet.  While both are constructed of tinier units (notes, letters) which create the whole, most people use these components in concert to either play a song or write/speak/read.  Mr. Ramsay, as Neel notes, simply recites the alphabet in order (and in doing so, still cannot reach “R”) or plays the notes of a scale (instead of striking harmonious chords).  In this way, we see Mr. Ramsay’s limitations and his inability to function outside what is linear. 

For Mrs. Ramsay, in contrast to Mr. Ramsay, Neel notes that Mrs. Ramsay’s writing references experimental photography.  In doing so, Mrs. Ramsay is posited as being a definite contrast to Mr. Ramsay:  Mrs. Ramsay can move beyond the linear.  Mrs. Ramsay can play a song, whereas Mr. Ramsay can only regurgitate scales.  And, as Lily Briscoe reveals, it is Mrs. Ramsay who makes life stand still, much like photographers do.  (Is there another connection to exploration, one that isn’t mentioned in Neel’s article?  As Dr. Sparks has pointed out, Lily Bristow and Leslie Stephen were both mountaineers during the 19th century.  There are numerous photographs of these Victorian mountain climbers.)

In “Time Passes,” Neel explores how the near absence of humans shows the pictures of the world after an empire is over.  In this section, Woolf and Neel both return to the ideas of exploration and conquest.  Here, Neel connects “Time Passes” (and Woolf’s diary entry in which she describes this passage as “eyeless”) to photograms (“cameraless photographs”) which are developed using light-and-photo-sensitive paper and, most often, sunlight or darkroom techniques.  As Neel divulges, humans are very nearly absent from “Time Passes” in such a way that reflects photograms.  Additionally, the need for light in order for photograms to develop is represented in “Time Passes;” light itself becomes a central figure in this section.  This section also redirects the reader’s attention to history through its use of icons of imperialism. 

Alexandra Neel’s article is fascinating and raises multiple questions of intrigue.  I personally wish I had read this article earlier in the semester.  I feel it could have potentially redirected my own research project.  


Work Cited:

Neel, Alexandra.  "The Photography of Antarctica:  Virginia Woolf's Letters of Discovery."  Woolf and the Art of Exploration:  Selected Papers from the 15th International Conference on Virginia Woolf.  Ed. Helen Southworth and Elisa Kay Sparks.  Clemson University Digital Press, 2006.  203-211.  Print.