Posts Tagged ‘free indirect speech’

. . . art is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man’s soul, while much of the proficiency and technical expertise associated with art reminds me of what would be called self righteousness in religion.

The Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – to Anthon van Rappard March 1884 – page 272

The next two posts are going to be more challenging to write than the previous ones. The issues are a bit of a stretch. Firstly, it’s going to be quite difficult to convey what Woolf manages to achieve, and secondly it’s going to be almost equally tricky to tease out all the variables that can impact on any objective assessment of the quality of her achievement.

For example, my subjective response is so strong it clouds other issues to some extent, such as the need to examine the probable nature of consciousness from more than just this somewhat poetic perspective. Even if I do that, we come to possibly important distinctions between normal consciousness, in the sense of consciousness as most of us experience it, and other kinds of consciousness, some of which have been labeled ‘abnormal’ in a critical sense, and others which are seen as enhanced, as a result, for instance, of prolonged meditation under expert instruction.

Should an artist’s achievement be judged only in terms of how well she captures normal consciousness? In which case what is normal? Or should we be setting our sights somewhat higher and expecting an artist to tackle other states of consciousness in any work attempting, as the novel does, to represent a reality beyond the average scope? Perhaps we can fairly expect ‘madness’ to be delineated in places, and mystical states.

This is not even beginning to tackle aspects such as literary skill and the zeitgeist, or pervading collective cultural consciousness of the period.

You can see my problem.

I’m going to blast on anyway! Please stick with me if you still wish to do so.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention?

A fair question to ask at this point is whether she intended consciously to replicate consciousness in the novels under consideration here, ie To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

As is becoming my habit here, I’m going to start with the picture Julia Briggs paints. She feels that (page 77): ‘Woolf was set on capturing in words “the complex and evasive nature of reality.” She feels that (page 93): ‘Woolf had put behind her the forms of nineteenth century realist fiction which falsified, she thought, by assuming the novelist’s omniscience. Instead, her novel admits to uncertainties at every turn. She set out to write a novel about not knowing…’

To be fair to earlier novelists I feel obliged to subject you all to another detour.

The Cultural Context

Before attempting to convey the impact upon me of Woolf’s mapping of consciousness, it’s perhaps worth saying a few words about the literary context out of which her work sprang.

Thought she mentioned him only rarely in her work, journals and letters, Briggs was in no doubt that Shakespeare was a key influence upon her. Amongst other things he was the master of the soliloquy. This is not the same exactly as Woolf was attempting, but it may have been the soil in which her plan had its roots.

The main difference is that Shakespeare’s words were to be performed on stage and, while soliloquies were designed to give the audience an insight into a character’s mind that could not otherwise be conveyed, they were not attempting to reproduce exactly the contents of the character’s consciousness – not even in Hamlet, where the protagonist is famous for his introspection. Most of his soliloquies serve to open for the audience an illuminating window on his vacillation and his feelings about that. We see the tugging to and fro within his mind. It’s definitely a step towards Woolf’s destination and would almost certainly have influenced her, whether consciously or not. But she planned to divorce her maps of introspection from the switchbacks of a plot.

To leap forward to the 19th Century, and before we consider Jane Austen’s innovation – free indirect speech – we can give a passing glance to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues and his complex masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, written after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Again, even though he is hoping to convey, in the latter work, the differing perspectives of the various characters on the key events of the plot, they are all addressing an audience of some kind as they speak. They are in persona, rather than introspecting alone.

What Jane Austen, followed by, amongst others Ford Madox Ford, attempted to do was to narrate her novel always through the eyes of one of her characters, rather than in her own voice.

A short quote from Austen’s Emma will illustrate her skill and give an example of her typical tone. Emma’s disastrous plan to link the low-born Harriet to the aspiring clergyman on the rise is being incubated precipitously and with no sense of its limitations in Emma’s mind:

Mr. Elton was the very person fixed on by Emma for driving the young farmer out of Harriet’s head. She thought it would be an excellent match; and only too palpably desirable, natural, and probable, for her to have much merit in planning it. She feared it was what every body else must think of and predict. It was not likely, however, that any body should have equalled her in the date of the plan, as it had entered her brain during the very first evening of Harriet’s coming to Hartfield. The longer she considered it, the greater was her sense of its expediency. Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property; and she thought very highly of him as a good-humoured, well-meaning, respectable young man, without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world.

We are not in Emma’s mind in the same way Woolf will enter the minds of her characters, but Austen is definitely not being the omniscient narrator, and we are experiencing Emma’s thought processes with all their limitations. She handles the clash of perspectives between characters mostly through skillful dialogue.

Ford Madox Ford followed faithfully in Austen’s footsteps. One example from the opening of Chapter III of Some Do Not (1924) will illustrate this clearly:

At the slight creaking made by Macmaster in pushing open his door, Tietjens started violently. He was sitting in a smoking-jacket, playing patience engrossedly in a sort of garret room. It had a sloping roof outlined by black beams, which cut into squares the cream-coloured patent distemper of the walls. . . . .Tietjens, who hated these disinterred and waxed relics of the past, sat in the centre of the room at a flimsy card-table beneath a white-shaded electric light of a brilliance that, in the surroundings, appeared unreasonable. . . . To it Macmaster, who was in search of the inspiration of the past, had preferred to come. Tietjens, not desiring to interfere with his friend’s culture, had accepted the quarters, though he would have preferred to go to a comfortable modern hotel as being less affected and cheaper.

He then skillfully develops their contrasting perspectives without dialogue, which brings him even closer to the experiments Woolf then attempted.

By the time Woolf was writing her pioneering pieces another innovator writing in English had also appeared on the scene with his masterpiece (Ulysses in 1922), an author about whom she was somewhat ambivalent: James Joyce. She found him ‘sordid’ but ‘brilliant’ (Briggs – page 133). She felt he got ‘thinking into literature’ but recoiled from what she experienced as his ‘egotism’ and ‘desire to shock’ (Lee – page 403). I’m ignoring Proust, whom she acknowledges in an article of 1926, and had been reading since 1922. His use of memory though is often echoed in her work.

Was replicating consciousness her conscious intention continued?

Back to Briggs again.

In Mrs Dalloway (page 132) Woolf uses the technique of interior monologue. We see inside the minds of her two main characters. A previous work Jacob’s Room (page 133) ‘had alerted her to a problem created by interior monologue – that it risked producing a series of self-absorbed, non-interactive characters.’ Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, (ibid.) ‘is centrally concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group.’ As she moved forward in To the Lighthouse (page 164) ‘she wanted to re-create the constant changes of feeling that pass through human beings as rapidly as clouds or notes of music, changes ironed out in most conventional fiction.’

Woolf was all too aware of how words can fail to catch the mind’s pearls (page 238): in a letter to Ethel Smyth, she wrote: ‘one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it won’t be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea.’

It is at this same point in her text that Briggs possibly overextends her argument in a way that I want to accept but don’t think I can. She writes, ‘despite an energetic and enjoyable social round, she always felt that the life of the mind was the only “real life”…’

In my copy of her widowed husband’s extracts from Woolf’s diaries I have the exact entry Briggs refers to here (Diaries – page 144).

The problem for me is that Woolf doesn’t use the word ‘mind’: she describes her work on the novel that became The Waves. The other diary entry Briggs refers to in her notes implicates a more appropriate word: Woolf writes (Diaries – page 126), ‘the only exciting life is the imaginary one.’ Imagination seems to be what Woolf is extolling. This distinction matters to me. Imagination is a power of the mind, but mind is not reducible to imagination, and therefore the life of the mind is beyond imagination alone. I may come back to that in more detail in a later post.

Do we have any other leads in her diary entries – the ones available to me at least?

A key quote for me comes on page 85:

I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life; … I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; and that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.

At the end of this sequence I may try to tackle more deeply the possible implication in this context of such words as mind, imagination, soul etc. For now all I will say is that the word soul could be taken to be subsuming into one concept thought, feeling, reason, imagination, mind etc. She is not engaged in refined philosophical discriminations here: she is using words that she knows are mere approximations to what she is trying to say. In which case is I’d better stop my nit-picking for now.

She does describe her experience of the mind as (page 123) ‘the most capricious of insects, fluttering.’ She is well aware it is elusive (page 131): ‘But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes.’ At times she feels she is getting the hang of it (page 81): ‘My summer’s wanderings with the pen have I think shown me one or two new dodges for catching my flies.’ But even such slight confidence clearly comes and goes. We have already heard her say (page 212), ‘I had so much of the most profound interest to write here – a dialogue of the soul with the soul – and I have let it all slip. . .’

Once she begins to really connect it gets easier but she has to proceed with due caution (Pages 218-20:

I make this note by way of warning. What is important now is to go very slowly; to stop in the middle of the flood; never to press on; to lie back and let the soft subconscious world become populous; not to be urging foam from my lips. There’s no hurry.

… the well is full, ideas are rising and if I can keep at it widely, freely, powerfully, I shall have two months of complete immersion. Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order. I can see the day whole, proportioned – even after a long flutter of the brain such as I’ve had this morning it must be a physical, moral, mental necessity, like setting the engine off.

She is also very conscious of the many different levels of experience that she needs to attend to. She describes them jokingly at one point (page 75):

But my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.

On a more serious note, but well after To the Lighthouse and The Waves were written, she hesitantly acknowledges (page 259:

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

I will close with what I find to be a very revealing thought (page 97):

Have no screens, the screens are made out of our own integument; and get at the thing itself, which has nothing whatsoever in common with the screen. The screen-making habit, though, is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might probably dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible. But the screens are in the excess; not the sympathy.

It is this permeability which so strongly characterises her writing. Here she speaks of a permeability to others, but she also displays the same porous quality to her own unconscious. What she then experiences is hard to capture. Perhaps this is why she is drawn to poetry so much (page 326), ‘is the best poetry that which is most suggestive – is it made of the fusion of many different ideas, so that it says more than is explicable?’

I think I may be ready now to tackle the texts themselves.


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Van Gogh decided to concentrate on portraits . . . . In this field, he resolved to surpass photography, which, he felt, remained lifeless at all times, while ‘painted portraits have a life of their own, which springs straight from the painter’s soul and which no machine can approach.’

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh pages 311-12)

At the end of the previous post, I flagged up Julia Brigg’s book on Virginia Woolf, a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within it there are a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

I indicated that before plunging deep into Woolf’s approach to consciousness I was going to take a look at some paintings. They’re easier to use as an initial illustration of what I will be exploring.

Capturing Consciousness in Paint

I’ve blogged already about how the portraits painted by Alice Neel captivated me some time back, and how at roughly the same time I was reacquainting myself with David Jones, the poet, and discovering that he was also a painter.

Between them they illustrate clearly what I want to explore in more detail in a moment, mainly in terms of Virginia Woolf as novelist.

When we look at one of Alice Neel’s collection of souls (she termed herself a ‘collector of souls’) what am I seeing? Does she paint the appearance of the person or is she trying to capture her awareness, her impression of the person? There is a difference. I am aware that no painting could exclude some degree of subjectivity. What I am trying to tease out is whether some artists are more concerned to convey the contents of their consciousness, rather than to simply capture a faithful and exact likeness of the subject, and that this tendency can vary along a spectrum.

Rhoda Myers 1930 by Alice Neel (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

Rhoda Myers 1929 (scanned from Belcher and Belcher)

Rhoda Myers

If we look at a portrait she painted of a close friend at the time, alongside a photograph taken of the same friend within twelve months, it might give us some clues. I have cropped the portrait at just below shoulder level, as the almost skeletal body of the figure would load the dice too far when we come to compare a cosy coat in the photograph with the exposed nude in the painting.

Even so the painting is darker. To be honest, if I didn’t know, I wouldn’t realise they are pictures of the same person.The accompanying text in the book of paintings suggests that Rhoda Myers is somehow resisting the painter and this is what is being picked up (Lewison: page 76). My sense is that, because Neel knew that Myers was drifting inexorably towards marriage and hated the idea of someone choosing domesticity over art as well as leaving her coterie in the process, this is what we see projected into the image as well. The question that the Belchers raise in their biographies of Rhoda and Alice seems more to the point (page 128): ‘Did her own turbulent emotions distort Rhoda’s face?’ If so, do we feel that this was to a significant extent, so that what we are doing when we look at the picture is entering Neel’s mind rather than the objective world. I suspect the painting has crossed this line.

I’m not discussing here whether what Neel conveys of her inscape adds to the value of the portrait: I’m simply saying that some mapping of her mind is taking place. The question of quality will come up later.

Lady Prudence Pelham 1930 by David Jones (scanned from The Art of David Jones: vision and memory by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills)

Prudence Pelham 1935 (scanned from David Jones: engraver, soldier, painter, poet by Thomas Dilworth)

Prudence Pelham

Similarly is David Jones not trying to paint reality but to paint his consciousness of reality which includes pulling items into his picture from his activated associative map?

When, early in his career, his portraits are relatively close in appearance to the subject, this may not be a major issue as we see when we compare his painting of Lady Prudence Pelham above with a reasonably contemporary photograph. Even so, the person in the photo lacks the aura the painting lends her, and not because she’s five years older: the aura is a projection of what is in Jones’ mind. As Bankes and Hills explain (page 86-88), ‘He fell in love with her spirit, wit and originality. . . He was . . . in awe of her courage, for she suffered from incurable and encroaching sclerosis, which gave her constant pain and prevented her sculpting; . . . [her] portrait . . . conveys fragility and radiance in equal measure. . . We are in no doubt about the strength of spirit that underlies Prudence’s frail physical beauty, and which touched Jones so profoundly.’ They point out she dominates her surroundings ‘that are rendered with a sketchiness that make all subservient to her.’

I have to add one more comment of my own into the mix. I do not know if Jones had read Yeats’ A Prayer for my Daughter. I suspect not. Even though Yeats met him on one occasion, Jones did not seem well-disposed to his work. Even so, the presence of a bellows in the bottom right hand corner of the picture rang bells for me.

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

I am assuming that, if he had read the poem, Prudence would be on display as an example of the exact opposite of the type Yeats disdainfully describes in the poem. Either way, my picking up on what might have been an incidental detail and using it to read Jones’ mind is an approach his later pictures require if they are to be properly understood, in my view.

Female Warden during the Blitz (scanned from Bankes and Hills again)

Female Warden during the Blitz

To illustrate this possibility I have chosen a fairly straightforward picture of the Female Warden during the Blitz (Bankes and Hills – page 130), straightforward in the sense that it is very obvious where the Warden is standing and that she is in uniform, but there are all sorts of anomalies as well that bring other associations with them. Bankes and Hills link it thematically to a picture too complex to bring in here, Aphrodite in Aulis. They comment (page 130):

Whereas Aphrodite relates Greek myth to the present, the small drawing Female Warden during the Blitz . . . is a more private fantasy triggered by London in wartime. . . . The carpentering of the image is strong: ‘W’ stands out in bold on her helmet; three chevrons on her sleeve and an arrow on the wall behind point downwards to the low doorway to her right. Cigarette and torch in hand, like a sexy usherette she wards the entry both to pleasure and to the underworld.

They equate the cat to the soldiers near to the chained Aphrodite in his other picture.

For me they leave too many important question unanswered.

Why is she falling asleep? Is this simply an accurate depiction of a sleep-deprived warden he saw on the street, or does it have some other connotation meaningful to him, to do perhaps with our sleep-walking into war at the expense of women?

Why is the uniformed leg so grossly enlarged? Does it evoke a sense of male soldiers in uniform with all that this implies about war as being prosecuted mainly by the men it also kills? He was traumatised by his experiences of the First World War and I feel such thoughts could not have been too far from his mind.

Does it go further than that? The ‘W’ could simply stand for ‘Warden,’ but might it not also signify ‘Woman’? The significance of the cat notwithstanding, Bankes and Hills seem to ignore the obvious point that the female air-raid warden embodies both soldier in combat and captured Aphrodite. She therefore, for me, embodies the all-too-frequent grotesque and unequal conflict between feminine sexuality and male aggression, female nurturing and male destruction.

And we are invited to speculate more than they do, I feel, about where the door leads. The underworld, yes. Maybe even hell, in more Christian terms that would make sense to the Catholic in Jones. May be even simply being underground, in the sense of dead and buried, something many must have been uncomfortably aware of as they fled the bombs down tube station steps? Certainly not just some nightclub, as we all seem to agree.

And if Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty and procreation, not just of pleasure, are not all these positives scarred and disfigured if not destroyed by war, and might this be in part what the image is representing in terms of what is in Jones’ mind?

It may be worth explicitly acknowledging at this point that, while Jones’ conscious intention may have been the driving force behind the allusive nature of his painting, even he would have agreed that he may have ended up communicating more than he consciously intended. From experience I have learned that my poems are often saying more than I realise at the moment of composition. Unconscious responses leak whatever our avowed intentions. That doesn’t, though, in my view, detract from the main thrust of my argument here: it simply extends it.

Where next?

I needn’t labour it any more, I think. This is a picture of his mind, not of the world outside, and it is impossible to take it as a literal representation of the world out there. His many other more complex paintings for me testify to how his experience as a cartographer in the First World War equipped him in a way to paint maps of his mind, and the associative networks within it, as it reacted to experience, myth and art.

So, are Neel and Jones therefore closer than they seem even though we appear to see a person first and foremost in her paintings and in his we see something more like a map? They may be both trying to do the same thing in different ways, to capture consciousness at the moment it is triggered by the world. They may only be differing in the lengths to which they are prepared to go in pursuit of the elusive goal of rendering consciousness visible in line and colour. Neel was notoriously hostile to abstraction in art: Jones’ position was more nuanced.

Mapping consciousness to this degree is perhaps a logical extension of an aspect of Impressionism in art and free indirect speech in the novel, so therefore not entirely unique to the Twentieth Century, though its manifestations were more extreme in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m not contending that this is the sole criterion for judging a work of art but it is a key one for my purposes as a student of consciousness.

Which brings us to Woolf’s amazing ability to make consciousness accessible in words on a page. More, much more of that next time including some key quotes from her diaries.

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