Friday, April 10, 2009

Woolf and the Body

I have been thinking lately about Woolf and the body. Woolf is always thought of as being incredibly cerebral—which, no doubt, she was—but always to the point that I think there must be a popular misconception that she somehow rejects the body, does not think it important or take it seriously, just as there is the popular conception that she is somehow of a parcel with figures like T. S. Eliot, or how she must always and only be egotistical, when, really, she has one of the most sympathetic eyes ever.

Thinking about this I am of course reminded of a frequently cited passage in On Being Ill, on the body as a pane of glass:

[L]iterature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes.

It just occurred to me as I lay in bed this morning, procrastinating on my papers (actually, not wanting to face the world), that Woolf’s frequent use of metaphors of glass is connected to this. Why is it sometimes that these very obvious things take so long to process or register? I remember thinking when I first began reading Woolf how much she talked about glass; this thought was confirmed by Hermione Lee saying in her biography of Woolf that Woolf sustained a fascination for glass her whole life.

Here are some examples of glass in Woolf’s work that I think accord with the above passage:

· Near the opening of Orlando, when we are getting our semi-satirical introductory portrait of him (how straight or rather how complex do we read Woolf when she says that O’s face “was lit solely by the sun itself”?):

Hi His fathers had been noble since they had been at all. They came out of the northern mists wearing coronets on their heads. Were not the bars of darkness in the room, and the yellow pools which chequered the floor, made by the sun falling through the stained glass of a vast coat of arms in the window? Orlando stood now in the midst of the yellow body of an heraldic leopard. When he put his hand on the windowsill to push the window open, it was instantly coloured red, blue, and yellow like a butterfly’s wing. Thus, those who like symbols, and have a turn for the deciphering of them, might observe that though the shapely legs, the handsome body, and the well-set shoulders were all of them decorated with various tints of heraldic light, Orlando’s face, as he threw the window open, was lit solely by the sun itself.

· From The Waves (alright, there are way way way too many references to glass here to record—which makes sense since this novel is all-out preoccupied with the self—so here’s a random sample):

The pigeon rose. I jumped up and ran after the words that trailed like the dangling string from an air ball, up and up, from branch to branch escaping. Then like a cracked bowl the fixity of my morning broke, and putting down the bag of flour I thought, Life stands round me like a glass round the imprisoned reed.

(I think one of the possible referents for the reed here may be Syrinx, the nymph Pan pursues, because the speaker is Bernard, the artist/writer figure. The story goes: Syrinx turns into a reed, and Pan, not knowing which reed she is, chops off a few them and makes his reed pipe which he then plays. Syrinx becomes an instrument (the implications of which we recently explored in my Brownings class, on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Musical Instrument”). This reed analogy makes Woolf’s metaphor all the more complex—a reed trapped inside a glass? Vessel inside vessel?)

· The famous dinner-cum-work-of-art in To the Lighthouse (and this interacts interestingly with the quotation of Orlando—the relation of light and glass becomes an interesting question that probably also has to do with the relation of the self to artistic inspiration and works):

Now all the candles were lit, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candle light, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily.

One should remember, too, how Woolf might connect glass with mirrors or the looking-glass; mirrors also appear everywhere in her work, though mostly as they do in other authors’ works, as vehicles for musing on self-construction.

Another thing that struck me as I lay in bed was that Robert Frost uses glass in “After Apple-Picking” as Woolf does in On Being Ill. Not that this is such a great coincidence or that Woolf is the only author who’s ever thought up the metaphor.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight

I got from looking through a pane of glass

I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough

And held against the world of hoary grass.

It melted, and I let it fall and break.

Next time: Scenes from Hell in Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book.