Friday, April 19, 2013

A 1931 Review of The Waves

I was excited to read a review of The Waves from when it was first published, to get a taste of the responses Woolf herself might have read from contemporaries. While I found this review by Louis Kronenberger to be in many ways insightful and congruent with my own opinions, I also disagreed with his ultimate conclusion. Kronenberger praises Woolf’s imagist poetry, even titling the article “Poetic Brilliance in the New Novel by Mrs. Woolf,” but ends with the claim that the novel is “a very far cry…from greatness.” Despite its unique form, he argues that the novel’s themes are conventional and that “it is simply a marvelous description, it is not quite vision.”

This critique functions on a distinction between form and content, with content being of primary value. However, I do not believe the two are quite as distinct as Kronenberger makes them out to be. Her form is part of the content, communicating an essence, a mood, an emotion, a state of being. Take for instance her description of Rhoda’s terror in the first section of the novel:

“The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures. The others are handing in their answers, one by one. Now it is my turn. But I have no answer. The others are allowed to go. They slam the door.”

The simplicity, the step by step description of this passage, brilliantly captures the slow, steady weight of being trapped in fear, confusion and humiliation in a classroom. It immediately brought me back to my days in kindergarten, left struggling over math problems when the rest of the class had finished and gone to recess. The ability to perfectly capture such an experience, seemingly mundane though it may be, is to me a feat of greatness.

Kronenberger claims that Woolf “is not really concerned in The Waves with people, she is hardly concerned in the prosaic sense with humanity: she is only concerned with the symbols, the poetic symbols, of life--the changing seasons, day and night, bread and wine, fire and cold, time and space, birth and death and change.”  When I first read this comment, I felt it to be entirely accurate, but upon further reflection I feel that while The Waves is indeed concerned with “the poetic symbols of life,” it is through these symbols that she does capture humanity. He complains that “it is always sensibility [Woolf] has, never passion; we never get, in a mystical flash, the universe.” But of course, in a novel titled The Waves, there is no flash; for Woolf, life is not a flash. We do, however, get a deeply moving and carefully paced portrait of the tides of life, a macro image of the passage of time.

Virginia Wolf: A Children's Story

I never would have expected the life of lofty, intellectual, suicidal Virginia Woolf to make a good children’s story, but Kyo Maclear’s Virginia Wolf appears to be very sweet indeed. Inspired by Woolf’s relationship with her sister, describes the children’s story as follows:

“Vanessa’s sister, Virginia, is in a ‘wolfish’ mood – growling, howling and acting very strange. It’s a funk so fierce, the whole household feels topsy-turvy. Vanessa tries everything she can think of to cheer her up, but nothing seems to work. Then Virginia tells Vanessa about an imaginary, perfect place called Bloomsberry. Armed with an idea, Vanessa begins to paint Bloomsberry on the bedroom walls, transforming them into a beautiful garden complete with a ladder and swing ‘so that what was down could climb up.’ Before long, Virginia, too, has picked up a brush and undergoes a surprising transformation of her own.”

On Keeping a Diary

In reading an article on Woolf’s thoughts about keeping a diary, I found a few key observations that strongly resonated with my own experience. I have been keeping a daily diary and a dream journal since I was fourteen. I remember early on asking myself the same question as Woolf: “What sort of diary should I like mine to be?”

On the one hand, I was concerned with how my writing would sound to relatives who might read it in the future. This is not quite so egotistical as it might sound, considering that I was inspired to start writing by the volumes of diaries and memoirs that my grandfather left behind. Having lost him to cancer when I was only three, I loved pouring over his writings as a way to get to know him, and found his adventures and ponderings highly entertaining. I was very aware of the contrast between his eloquent, organized prose and neat handwriting versus my lazy scribbles and jumbled ramblings. For a while I tried to be funny, interesting and clear, pretending that I was writing to my future grandchildren. But after less than a year of this, I went back to my earlier entries and reached the same conclusion as Woolf:

“The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.”

I decided I would like it to be “something loose knit… so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind…some deep old desk…in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.” While Woolf claims that this goal must still be balanced with a “fear of becoming slack and untidy,” I no longer bothered worrying myself over sloppiness at all. To this day I enjoy looking at scribbles, added  notes and drawings in the margins of entries from years ago, retracing the ways in which my mind would wander and leap as I wrote stream of consciousness.

As someone whose self-critiques always slowed down the writing process, I also found this approach served me, like Woolf, as practice for other writing endeavors. I could write essays faster by getting them out on the page before going back to edit and organize, instead of agonizing over every sentence as I wrote. My enjoyment of my past entries also gave me confidence in creative writing, and inspired me to take classes in creative non-fiction, which I greatly enjoyed. While my style and purpose are naturally in many ways unlike the literally legend, it was somehow inspiring to find these similarities in something as intimate as a diary.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

On the morbid and mistaken

Sadistik--"Virginia Woolf"

A rap piece written about Virginia—or rather, loosely inspired by her death. The artist explains on his website: “For those of you who aren’t familiar, Virginia Woolf was a very famous writer from the early 1900s who ended up committing suicide by putting rocks in her dress and walking into the ocean. I always thought this was morbidly poetic and I even found myself really inspired after reading the letter she left behind for her husband, so I decided to write a song about it.” Initially I was taken aback by his error and by the lack of thorough research (his decision to read her suicide note seems oddly flippant?), but it did prove thought-provoking for me. He does a lot of guesswork and includes imagery predicated on her walking into the ocean instead of the river: seashells, messages in bottles, even going so far as to establish the disappearing coast as the last thing she saw. I’m not especially interested in bashing him for his mistake; what does interest me is the instinct to write about a tragic event that one doesn’t really understand, or the death of a person whose full history one doesn’t know, and the afterlives of famous figures in a shared public consciousness. I think there’s a kind of cultish fascination with the suicides of artists—Sylvia Plath is, I think, another example of an artist whose fame in certain demographics is largely due to shock factor and the draw of the macabre. Their deaths precede their lives and their works, to some degree. This not a unique or surprising phenomenon by any means, but I am uncomfortable with the appropriation of someone’s moment of deepest pain as a sort of creative prompt or a curiosity for grisly enjoyment, and especially as a shorthand to evoke emotions from an audience. Normally I’m deeply interested in creative ‘recycling’ and the conversations or lineages that emerge in intertexts, but when one of the ‘texts’ is someone’s life (or death? Can someone’s death be a text distinct from their life?)—and inaccurately rendered at that—I find that to be more than a little unsettling. Are we entitled or allowed to try to creatively enter someone else’s headspace when they have occupied such a visible position in the cultural consciousness? Is there an ethics to inspiration?

Thoughts on writing and private/public creation

This article offers some selections from Woolf’s diaries and commentary on the mental state and creative process. A quote I liked: “Melancholy diminishes as I write. Why then don’t I write it down oftener? Well, one’s vanity forbids. I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it.” Although I have always loved writing and loved even more the idea of being a disciplined diarist with journals filled with my very own words and my life neatly organized, I have had little success in fulfilling that fantasy. I own dozens of beautiful journals given to me by well-meaning friends and family who know my interests and want to encourage me to create, but most of them are empty, or else have a few pages written in (usually torn out within a few days). I love journals and the idea of using them, but they scare me with the promise of what I could create with them. I find it infinitely easier to write my thoughts down in private blogs or other online spaces, or notebooks that are cheap and ugly and unlikely to last—the temporary reduces the threat of embarrassment. I can’t bring myself to ‘ruin’ a well-crafted notebook, even if it was created specifically to hold my mistakes. They make me feel as though my private thoughts must be polished and coherent and fully-formed from the start. And my writing is irregular, precisely because of the problem that Woolf nods to above. It is all too easy to become fixated on having a literary diary which recounts stories of your interesting and sophisticated life rather than the ordinary, mundane topics of most diaries. At that point it is no longer a diary but an exhibit, something artificial, something on display. In order for me to be able to write, certain conditions must be in place to remove that obligation to exhibition. I think all of us feel that paradox she underscores of the need to overcome emotional hurdles and stressors in order to be able to write, which is only fully possible through practice and constantly writing, constantly creating.

Flowers in the river

Of all the musical intertexts we’ve encountered this semester, I believe Patrick Wolf’s “To The Lighthouse” is my favorite. I think it handles the topic of Woolf’s death with subtlety, emotional nuance, and productive energy, and it contains some interesting references as well. It’s not a mourning song, though it very easily could have been, but rather an exhortation to live and endure in a way that I feel is respectful of her experience, and even affectionate toward her. The most moving line in the song is actually a quote, the first part of a line from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas:  “Great minds against themselves conspire/And shun the cure they most desire”, which the chorus sings as Aeneas leaves Dido to her death.  Wolf deals a lot with this idea of the burdened, melancholic creative, and when I saw his name on the syllabus, I immediately assumed that we would be listening to a song from later in his career, “The Sun Is Often Out”, which a friend once showed me (with a preface of “this is the saddest dang song in the world”, and I have to say, he wasn’t exaggerating). 

This piece is one that Wolf wrote in memory of a poet friend who took his own life, and though I don’t actually own or regularly listen to any of Wolf’s music, the lyrics are so powerful that they have stayed with me for years. It seems a bit simplistic to draw on the contextual placement in London and lines like “They’re throwing flowers in the river/where your body cold was found” as signs of Woolf’s presence, however quiet, but the repeated last lines are what I associate most with her and with the frequent but inexplicable concurrence of creative brilliance and incredible emotional suffering:
“Was your work of art so heavy
That it would not let you live?”


       I had no idea that Woolf ever wrote a play—why didn’t she write more? I feel as though they would be pretty excellent, although apparently this one is far from it. Freshwater is a 1935 play she wrote to be produced in her sister’s studio, a satire of her great-aunt’s circle and the social milieu in which she operated. The Bloomsbury group would often put on little skits and parodies at parties at 46 Gordon Square, which now houses a school of arts with Birkbeck, University of London. The English department faculty there held a reading of Freshwater last year, and you can find the recording on their website here.