Sunday, June 28, 2009

Woolf Rant on Woolf and the Past

Right now I’m reading a book of literary criticism I mentioned awhile ago, Virginia Woolf and the Victorians by Steve Ellis (Cambridge UP, 2009), alongside a very recent publication of memoirs, letters, obituaries, etc. written by Woolf on various people she knew, including herself. The latter is called The Platform of Time: Memoirs of Family and Friends (the university library has an autographed copy—not VW’s autograph, of course! No, ‘just’ the editor, S. P. Rosenbaum), published in 2007. It includes some things that have never been published before. Of these unpublished tidbits so far I’ve only read the uncensored “Memoir of Julian Bell,” written upon the untimely death of VW’s nephew, Julian Bell; “JB,” a really lovely—almost sweet—satire on Julian’s views on and writing of poetry (family satires were a thing with the Stephens/Woolfs (‘Woolves’ as they sometimes appear in family letters)/Bell boys—a strange family thing); and some “Memoir Notes” JB’s mother, Vanessa, wrote upon his death, scrawled as she lay in bed. As more unpublished bits come I’ll update here.

The satire “JB” I found especially striking: it’s full of very interesting nonsense. It reminds me of how I tried to write at one point because I couldn’t find a sentence or a sense-making group of words that expressed what I thought, only I was writing that way sincerely whereas VW parodies the practice as confusion and excess. The character VW tells the character JB to find a single “image” to express what he means instead of clumping together various descriptors, and then JB tries to figure out what an “image” (simile, metaphor) means! (What is its use; where he can find an example of one; how it’s no good because it’s not GE Moore-ish enough (“how can a thing be like anything else except the thing it is?”).) This in contrast to JB looking at a “male siskin under a microscope” in an effort to compose a poem “in the manner of Gerard Hopkins” (“The siskin’s been dead a week”):

Seepy, creaking, sweeping, with a creaking kind of beating of the penultimate dorsal jutting out femoral crepitational tail. The siskin whisking round the peeled off mouldy bottle green pear tree rivers. Well, I flatter myself that’s a pretty good poem—all true to an inch.

Then there’s a big fuss about finding an image for the siskin, which in the end is arrived at by what JB has for lunch: “The siskin lies like—like cold salt roast beef the siskin lies. My word—that does it.” It’s moments like this I feel like saying “Oh Virginia Woolf, you’re the best!” I think the interesting thing about that line “like cold salt roast beef the siskin lies” is that it sounds beautiful but is being a framed in a way that makes it silly, reaching, and untrue. This is always the interesting thing about Woolf’s satirical moments, I think, and why I would say “Oh VW you’re the best”—many of them are a mixture of a form of sympathy and ridicule. Like Samuel Johnson’s satire manqué. (One of the most embarrassing things I ever passed into a prof was a response on how I sympathised with a character called “Dick Minim” in Johnson’s nos. 60 and 61 of The Idler, and those weren’t satire manqué–so some of this sympathising could just be feeble-mindedness—could be what makes me appreciate the poem in my last post in a sincere way. I think the professor thought I was a bit of a fool, which I suppose I would have to be to attribute poetic impulses to Dick Minim!)

As I was saying earlier, I’ve also been reading Virginia Woolf and the Victorians. The effect of reading The Platform of Time and VWV together is that more than ever I’m aware of the role of heredity in Woolf’s thinking. I know I’ve thought about it before: looking inside my copy of Between the Acts where I see I was desperately at 5 a.m. or so starting to simply write words I thought were important—words I had thought of or that were in the book—and circling them, I find the word “indigenous” (Woolf). Of course, BA is quite clearly about heredity (among other things), so it’s not fair to say ‘Well I’ve thought of this before—it struck me when I was reading BA!’ In any case, heredity is pretty hard to escape with Woolf. She always talks about things in terms of ‘Stephens’ and ‘Bells’--she’s always tracing things back to Clive Bell, her sister’s husband and father of two of three of Vanessa’s children—Clive is always hunting, partying, being “caustic,” refreshingly jolly, a bit of an aristocrat. Stephens are always cerebral, graceful, serious. Then, of course, VW’s literary inheritance is inescapable: her step-aunt Anne Thackeray Ritchie (?) (sister to her father’s first wife) daughter to and memorialiser of William Thackeray; the Camerons on her mother’s side and Little Holland house, where they held parties with the Pre-Raphaelites, Tennyson or whoever was who’s who; strolling with Henry James when she was a kid; father reading Walter Scott to them every night of their childhood; and so on. Working from the regard and interest Woolf shows in her predecessors—familial and literary—Ellis looks at how VW compared the Victorians and the modernists; the nostalgia and admiration she had for her father’s age; and the centrality of continuity and the interaction of past and present as values in her work.

There are a couple of interesting coinages Ellis has arrived at so far: “the value of obscurity” and “the pathology of the new.” The first term is situated in VW’s description of lighting and darkness in her novels; modern writing likes to expose everything in a glaring, too-present and almost hard reality, whereas shadows in the writing of the past and in writing that is conscious of the past create interesting nuances and depth. I’ve just finished reading Ellis linking this to VW’s famous essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” in which I recall (and which Ellis cites) Woolf lamenting (almost complaining, but not quite) that “the old decorums” between writer and reader have been cast aside by her generation of writers. Her generation are so eager to break things, expose them to a hard glare (ahem obscenity in Joyce’s Ulysses VW says), they don’t value what I think Woolf seems to be getting at as an idea of pleasure in the reading experience: she misses days of reading a book “in the shade” (another passage Ellis is eager and right to cite). The second term, “the pathology of the new,” is really a converse articulation of the above: something to attribute to a writer who is blind to “the value of obscurity.” That’s not what we would say in my class on earlier 20th c poetry! --Well, that’s not quite true. A lot of the class was about confronting—as opposed to dismissing—the problems of literary value and difficulty that arose in modernist poetry, problems that can be traced back to the disregard of what VW calls writerly “decorums.”

Getting back to heredity. All I really meant to post today was this: There’s a lovely (what VW would call, did call) ‘scene’ in VW’s memoir of Julian Bell that made me return to Between the Acts. It’s just after VW has angered JB by sending away his Chinese girlfriend (at the request of his mother, unbeknownst to him)—“Damned Cambridge insolence” VW calls it. JB stops being huffy and starts to look at “his map of the Channel” with VW and Vanessa (“Nessa”):

Let me see, I [VW] said. And then he was interested, & showed me the currents, & I saw the wrecks of ships; & he told me that the very deep channel in the middle was the bed of an old river which had divided the land when England & France were joined. Then we smoothed our grievance.

Compare this to a passage from Between the Acts, a novel set just before WWII breaks out (England-France-Germany). Here, a small girl (who keeps forgetting her lines) kicks off the village pageant and its panorama of British history:

So it was the play then. Or was it the prologue?

Come hither for our festival (she continued)
This is a pageant, all may see
Drawn from our island history.
England am I . . .

[series of funny, slightly poignant audience interruptions and repetitions; girl needs prompting]
‘A child new born,’ Phyllis Jones continued,
Sprung from the sea
Whose billows blown by mighty storm
Cut off from France and Germany
This Isle.
. . .
Now weak and small
A child, as all may see.

VW writes the JB memoir in 1937 and conceives of the basis of BA in 1938. I think the relation between the two has something to do with VW’s implicit connection between looking at the map, the point of division between England and the Continent, and her assertion that she and JB “smoothed [their] grievance.” Not 100% sure yet what this means for BA aside from something general having to do with a very personal regard for history, the historical (geographical split and what follows, what the split engenders) as an allegory for the personal, or, in the case of the pageant, history and ontogenesis as parallel in some way—the small, weak child, orphaned of her parents, France and Germany?

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