Sunday, December 5, 2010

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.  

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