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. . . 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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Rita and Hubert 1954 by Alice Neel (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly – . . . . I see something . . . . quite different from the masterly reproduction of the materials, something quite different from light and brown, something quite different from the colour – yet that something quite different is achieved by the precise rendering of the light effect, the material, the colour.

(Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 272)

Just to set the record straight, in the last post I may have left readers with the impression that Neel just dealt in sour portraits of people she was miffed with. That is very far from the truth. I thought I’d include here one of her portraits of the disadvantaged people who do not normally find likenesses of their face hanging in galleries or selling for huge sums. Her dedication to portraying the oppressed delayed her due recognition till very late in life. Her motive was not gain but compassion. The portraits are still in part maps of her awareness of and responses to the subject as a person, a fellow human being, not just plain reproductions of their outer appearance. The courageous portrait above, at a time when the current of racism ran stronger than now in American society, testifies to that, I think.

Virginia Woolf at last!

Virginia Woolf takes her art as an exploration of her mind to another level.

When I read of how much ground she covered while at the same time reflecting really deeply on so much of her experience, I am lost in admiration, I’m green with envy.

I struggle to resolve the conflict between roaming widely and digging deeply. All too often I get the balance wrong. When I roam I become shallow, and am all too often haunted by FOMO (the fear of missing out, for the uninitiated). When I dig deep it feels too narrow. Somehow Woolf seems to have a breadth of understanding not compromised by shallowness. Few people manage to go deeper or wider at the same time.

However, I need to remind myself that this is not going to be my main focus right now before I get completely derailed again. I want to look at her ability to capture consciousness in words.

Before we look in detail at the core issue I need to deal briefly with the problem of Woolf’s mental state and the impact of that on her creativity, both detrimental in terms of undermining her capacity to write, or even to continue living normally, at times of acute distress, and potentially positive in terms of her openness to inner experience because of a more permeable filter between her conscious and her unconscious mental process.

Woolf’s mental state – psychosis, transliminality or mysticism?

My first port of call in seeking to understand Woolf’s state of mind is Julia Briggs. She flags up what typically happened when a novel was finished (page 41):

Virginia frequently experienced depression and sometimes despair on completing a major novel, whether because she feared hostile criticism, or because she couldn’t bear to let it go, or because the sheer effort of finishing it to her satisfaction had exhausted her – or perhaps a combination of all three.

To my relief, Briggs does not descend into simplistic diagnostics, but looks at Woolf as a person first and foremost. She comments that a diagnosis like that of neurasthenia (page 46):

implies an innate disorder, rather than explaining her attacks in terms of the shocks she had undergone, although the series of sudden deaths in her family, sexual abuse and, later, her difficulties within their marriage and the seven-year task of completing The Voyage Out might be considered sufficiently traumatic in themselves to account for her suicide attempt and the long collapse that followed.

It was a major and serious breakdown in March 1915.

Later in her book Briggs explains an aspect of the sexual abuse she refers to. The person involved was her half-brother (page 352):

A darker aspect of sexuality threatened when Gerald Duckworth lifted the small Virginia onto a marble slab in the hall and ‘began to explore my body. I can remember the feeling of his hand going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower… His hands explored my private parts.’

Hermione Lee devotes a whole chapter of her biography to ‘Abuses.’ Partly these related to Virginia’s father’s domineering and attention-seeking patterns after the death of his wife, but even more importantly to the sexually abusive and bullying behavior of Duckworth. Her conclusion was (pages 158-59):

Virginia Woolf thought that what had been done to her was very damaging. . . . She used George as an explanation for her terrifyingly volatile and vulnerable mental state, for her inability to feel properly, for her sexual inhibition. And yet she also violently resisted simplistic Freudian explanations of a life through childhood traumas, and would have been horrified by interpretations of her work which reduced it to a coded expression of neurotic symptoms.

Briggs is certainly not tempted to explain her work in terms of the trauma she experienced (page 47):

. . . in exploring “all the horrors of the dark cupboard of illness”, in dismantling the tidy filing cabinets of the comfortable and familiar to confront chaos, Woolf suffered from madness, as conventionally defined, yet there was also something of poetic frenzy in it, and her art drew on what she found there.

Her episodes of physical illness also had a positive side (page 220): ‘illness, she recognised, could function as a form of “lying in”, a process that brought the work to birth…’

What else can we glean of Woolf’s own angle on this from her diaries?

Her never having had children seems in the end to be at least as much a product of her own desires as it is a result of her husband Leonard’s possibly protective preferences (page 119):

… oddly enough I scarcely want children of my own now. This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness and feverishness of life, make me cling, like a man in a rock, to my one anchor. I don’t like the physicalness of having children of one’s own.

All of which makes her metaphor of ‘lying in’ during illness doubly intriguing.

She clearly explains To the Lighthouse as at least in part a way of exorcising the ghosts of her parents (page 138):

I used to think of him and mother daily; writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, but differently. (I believe this to be true – but I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.)

She also acknowledges the slump into depression when a piece of work is finished (page 144):

Directly I stopped working I feel that I am sinking down, down. And as usual I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth.

Its consequences could have been potentially serious (page 229):

That’s the end of the book. I looked up past diaries – a reason for keeping them, and found the same misery after Waves – after Lighthouse I was, I remember, nearer suicide, seriously, than since 1913.

If ending a piece of work plunged her into the depths, working on one could lift her (page 143):

I pitched into my great lake of melancholy. Lord how deep it is! What a born melancholic I am! The only way I keep afloat is by working.

She even makes links between the creative act and her experiences of ‘madness’ such as after the completion of The Waves (page 169):

I wrote the words O death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad) I was almost afraid, remembering the voices that used to fly ahead.

And the creative experience was not without its tensions (page 209): ‘I think the effort to live in two spheres: the novel; and life; is a strain.’

There is the irritating tendency for the distraction of company to cause her to let slip valuable insights and inspirations (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 – why? Because of feeding the goldfish, of looking at the new pond, of playing bowls. Nothing remains now. I forget what it was about.

Or to simply gobble up time and energy she could have used for writing (page 258):

I am again held up in the years by my accursed love of talk. That is to say, if I talk to Rose Macaulay from 4–6.30: to Elizabeth Bowen from 8–12 I have a dull heavy hot mop inside my brain next day and an prey to every flea, ant, gnat. So I have shut the book…

She was neither a recluse nor a socialite but found the balance between them hard to strike while being fully aware of the evils at either extreme (page 342): ‘Incessant company is as bad as solitary confinement.’

Her diaries confirm what at least two of her novels suggest: that there was a degree of transliminality about her consciousness. Things kept bubbling up from below its threshold. These could occur at any time (page 67):

But how entirely I live in my imagination; how completely depend upon spurts of thought, coming as I walk, as I sit; things shining up in my mind and so making a perpetual pageant, which is to be my happiness.

The work itself drew her ever deeper. Concerning the writing of Mrs Dalloway she wrote (page 69-74):

. . . it seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world. . . .

One thing, in considering my state of mind now, seems to be beyond dispute; that I have, at last, bored down into my oil well, and can’t scribble fast enough to bring it all to the surface.

Fishing is the metaphor she settled on at one point to describe it (page 271):

She talked about the creative process, describing it as one of apparent inertia, of “mooning”, in which the artist as fisherwoman lets herself “down into the depths of her consciousness”, surrendering herself to “the mysterious nosing about, feelings around, darts and dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and elusive fish the imagination.’

The Waves raises another possibility (page 247):

The originating experience had been one of ‘the mystical side of this solitude.’ Writing it out required her to ‘come to terms with mystical feelings’, to acknowledge, if not a universal consciousness, then at least a wider design and meaning to which art aspired. Though Woolf shared her father’s impatience with conventional religion, her novel (The Waves) took up the challenge thrown down in the concluding sentences of Fry’s Vision and Design, where the attempt to explain aesthetic emotion threatened to land its author ‘in the depths of mysticism.’

When I came to look closely at The Waves the issue of interconnectedness kept rearing its head. More of that later, I hope.

Her take on religion is intriguing, and maps onto that of other writers such as Yeats (page 398):

Though Woolf did not believe in a personal God, “A Sketch of the Past” shows that she did believe in some kind of “world soul” embodied in beauty, form and meaning, and transmitted by great artists: ‘all human beings – are connected with this;… the whole world is a work of art;… we are parts of the work of art…

All in all it would be unwise to explain her creativity simply in terms of her vulnerable state of mind and her traumatic early experiences. However, it is possible that her intensity, her access to aspects of consciousness that elude most of us, and her moments of almost mystical experience helped shape the unprecedented focus of some of her later work, work that has drawn me in because of its almost unique ability to convey the experience of consciousness in words.

With luck, I should begin to address that more directly next time!

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