Sunday, December 5, 2010


I also read an article by Lorraine Sim, “Virginia Woolf Tracing Patterns through Plato’s Forms”. This article explores the connections between Plato and Woolf and their views on reality and something beyond reality. Sim begins by talking about Woolf’s concepts of common experience and being, of the ordinary and extraordinary nature of life. To her, reality consists of the empirical reality and a metaphysical world that is behind all everyday appearances. Woolf sees a pattern behind the “cotton wool of daily life”, a pattern that gives life order and meaning and does not devalue the ordinary.

Sim discusses the various ways pattern and the metaphysical world is thought of in Woolf’s works. The Voyage Out, Night and Day and The Years, for instance, both contain some philosophies on this subject. In the first one, there is a notion that there is a pattern to life, an order that provides understanding for things happening as they do and makes life reasonable and interesting. According to Sim, this resembles the classical notion of logos, the rational principle that shows the right relation of the universal to the particular). In the next novel, Woolf suggests that there is a scheme of life and the individual has a certain role in this scheme. In the last novel, Woolf uses music as a form that that expresses a concept of an underlying pattern or structure. This marks a certain shift from a rational order to an aesthetic one, a shift in the conception of logos, from classical to romantic.

According to Sim, Woolf constantly writes of the relation between empirical reality and the metaphysical world that emanates through reality, a secular “divine” emanating through reality. To Woolf, reality can be both visible and invisible (the empirical and metaphysical), audible and silent, but is single in nature, one complex, abstract pattern behind appearances. Reality also makes things fixed and permanent to Woolf, but not dependable, because she experiences it only periodically and through various empirical means. This awareness of reality is what Woolf talks about in her notion of states of being and non-being. Moments of being result in a heightened awareness of and pleasure in ordinary things. In turn, this increased awareness of things in the empirical world gives some idea of the pattern behind the moments of non-being, the cotton-wool of daily life that one goes through inattentively.

Sim also points out Woolf’s history of reading Walter Pater and his interpretations of Plato’s philosophy, as well as her reading of the Greeks herself. There were Pater’s works in Leslie Stephen’s library and Woolf studied with Pater’s sister as well. According to Sim, Plato influenced Woolf’s notion of the relation between intellectual insight and physical vision and gave her representations of the visible world that she could not have found in the realist fiction of the time. This was probably also influenced by Pater’s reading of Plato as a philosopher engaged with the sensible world (as opposed to one that distrusted the illusions of the senses) and understood the relation between the two types of insights – intellectual and physical. Lastly, Sim emphasizes that both Woolf and Plato refer to two different modes of being – Woolf believes in a objective non-material principle that gives order and meaning (the pattern behind the cotton-wool) and this pattern reveals the nature of ordinary things. This is similar to Plato’s Forms and the ordinary objects of reality.

Sim, Lorraine. “Virginia Woolf Tracing Patterns though Plato’s Forms.” Journal of Modern Literature 28.2 (2005): 38 – 48. JSTOR. Web.


I finally read one article of the frequently-mentioned Thomas Caramagno. The article was “Manic-Depressive Psychosis and Critical Approaches to Virginia Woolf's Life and Work”. It was a very interesting read in that it actually traces out Woolf’s mental illness and talks about it in context of the time during which she lived.

Caramagno begins by discussing critics that have been very quick to define Woolf by her illness. He discusses the paradigm of the artist-neurotic, as in, an artist because neurotic, which according to him is false, albeit very popular among critics. Through this paradigm it is easy to see Woolf’s suicide as an artistic act and her novels as suicide notes. It also reduces the artist to the status of a sick child and elevates the critic to the role of an adult. This is because of a view of art inherited from Freud – art is reduced to infantile fears. Also, Freud believed neurosis to be a regressive illness. Woolf was misdiagnosed as a neurotic by her doctor and both he and Freud instilled the notion of her own inadequacy, her own defects into Woolf. Dr. Savage believed mental illness in general to be a “defect in the moral character” of a person.

However, Caramagno continues to say that manic-depressive disorder is not considered a part of neurosis any more. Thus, Woolf was not neurotic, but simply manic-depressive, a disorder that ran through her family from her father’s side. Caramagno stipulates that Laura, the invalid sister from A Sketch of the Past was a case of childhood schizophrenia and mentions that Vanessa was the only healthy child of Leslie Stephen and that madness had run in his family for generations – Caramagno brings up various examples of people in the Stephen family that fell into and often died because of their illness.

In the end, Caramagno discusses how the illness affected Woolf and her writing. He does not view her like the critics he talks about in the beginning of his article. To him, Woolf merged, needed to relate, the two states of her being – the sane and the insane Virginia. She incorporated this into her writing by placing the disorder into it through moods of perception and a comprehensive structure of self, sane and insane together (Mrs. Dalloway Clarissa and Septimus; The Waves multiple selves). She realized that the self is not given, but constructed through wondering about the reality of any feeling. She gave voice to her madness, to her illness and thus, authorized the self and at the same time, did not reduce complexity to simplicity by eliminating the meaning of complexity. She did this through drawing the reader’s attention to the act and need of clarifying and systematizing complex texts, which she does not do herself, she merely suggests, leaving the interpretation to the reader.

Caramagno, Thomas. “Manic-Depressive Psychosis and Critical Approaches to Virginia Woolf's Life and Work.” PMLA 103.1 (1988): 10 – 23. JSTOR. Web.


I read a very interesting article by Frances Restuccia about androgyny in A Room of One’s Own – “Untying the Mother Tongue: Female Difference in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own”. What I thought was interesting about it was Restuccia’s approach to the notion of feminine difference and androgyny in this particular work of Woolf’s.

She begins by discussing how critics have equated Woolf’s words in this essay with her call for androgyny. Restuccia finds this is not the case, however. She notes that neo-feminist movements have taken interest in the notion of “female difference” – the experience of all that is feminine instead of gender-blindness. The thinkers of this particular movement she calls the “gynocritics” that explore the difference of the writing of women.

However, she notes that in Woolf’s “androgynous heaven” differences between the sexes are not dissolved, they do not disappear, but instead Woolf emphasizes these differences, as opposed to calling for an androgynous mergence. This female difference is primarily apparent thorough what Restuccia perceives as Woolf establishing a female tradition, a culmination of “thinking through her mothers”. The “androgyny” might be collaboration between man and woman, with their differences still intact. This is because Restuccia perceives Woolf’s androgyny as part of her artistic vision, not a vision of nature or naturalness. Since, according to the author, Woolf could escape her impending madness only through the order or art, she provides a non-sequitur in suggesting androgyny – the preceding chapters work out differences in the sexes, but Woolf needs to find mental solace in the artistic vision of androgyny.

Restuccia also makes another point about this notion of androgyny. In this work, Woolf traces out a genealogy of women writers primarily and laments the state of writing of men. Thus, androgyny in writing would mean primarily that men have a lot to learn from women, while women themselves should explore their own writing and not become androgynous. Here Restuccia mentions Woolf’s love for Austen and the Bront√ęs, both of whom wrote as women (the only problem here is that Woolf also mentions Shakespeare and Austen in conjunction, calling them both great, androgynous minds). But according to Restuccia, Woolf lauds women writers as the ones with the ability to renew creative powers and fertilize old ideas of “illustrious men”. Restuccia also points out Woolf’s “I like women” part of this particular essay, which again points out Woolf’s love for women and their difference, which is not androgynous.

Thus, Restuccia makes an argument that the notion of androgyny is a veil spun over the notion of female difference, as a compromise to reach humanity in general, men and women. And androgyny in this particular essay, according to Restuccia, is truly just the suggestion that men should be and write more like women and this does not subvert her love of the female difference and women who stir her imagination.

Restuccia, Frances. “Untying the Mother Tongue: Female Difference in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 4.2 (1985): 253 -264. JSTOR. Web.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


This time, I read an article by Barbara Andrew, “Psychology of Tyranny: Wollstonecraft and Woolf on the Gendered Dimension of War”. It’s an interesting article comparing and contrasting Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft and their thoughts on war and gender. Since both women were figures in the feminist movement, it is clear they have similar ideas on this particular issue. However, Andrew points out that their theories do differ in some aspects and that Woolf takes Wollstonecraft’s thinking, builds and expands upon it and sometimes arrives at a different conclusion. For evidence that Woolf was very well familiar with Wollstonecraft’s work, Andrew points out a line in Three Guineas, where Woolf quotes Wollstonecraft, but does not cite her; the quote is about there being no marriage in heaven.

Both women clearly abhorred war and both of them agree that the private tyrannies of a patriarchal society cause the public tyrannies that can lead to war and violence. The cultural valuation of heroic virtues and the culture of war also plays into this. This valuation is socially constructed, however, much like the gender roles of both males and females. Thus, both women insist on finding new ways to act out our genders. While Woolf calls for men to be man-womanly and women to be woman-manly, Wollstonecraft compares the positive manly virtues to the feminine virtues that are considered sins; she mocks the soldier by stating he acts womanly in his obeying orders (just as a woman learns to please), his cunning in war (just as cunning in seduction), lack of education (and thus, independent thought), and concern with medals (just as a woman is concerned with fashion and looks). Woolf focuses on the soldier’s internal motivation as well – the old thought of masculinity as aggressive, possessive and combative. Both women agree that soldiers and women are co-conspirators in their own enslavement in that they are both too concerned with being seen as virtuous rather than with truth and freedom. Both also make the distinction that women perhaps have different duties, but not different virtues. Here, Woolf is interested in the role of the professions and how they perpetuate war in that they provide exhibition for men’s possessiveness, selfishness and pride.

The notion of duties and virtues brings up Wollstonecraft’s notion of unnatural distinctions as opposed to natural distinctions. Unnatural distinctions in the family, the relations between men and women, where men are tyrants and women are slaves shape children and degrade both men and women and preclude the possibility of a free society. Wollstonecraft also believed that social hierarchies were connected to the system of oppression. Woolf, on the other hand, believed that sexism was the root of all oppression – in war, men “protected” women and country (alienating women into the bounty, the Other). Woolf rejected this as false.

Andrew also talks about Freudian concepts of the infantile fixation and Oedipus complex, as well as the Creon complex. Infantile fixation leads men to controlling/dominating women, while the Creon complex is the desire to dominate. Much like Creon from Antigone, Hitler and Mussolini desire to remain unchallenged in their authority, but this desire to dominate is present within all of man, according to Woolf (which I am not sure whether she means man as in male, or all people, regardless of gender?). The dictator is the patriarchal paradigm for the man, while the slave is the patriarchal paradigm for the woman. Thus, Andrew describes Ismene as the silenced, patriarchal paradigm of a woman, while Antigone is the non-patriarchal female, because she rebels. What comes of this is the cycle of the psychology of tyranny; women must participate in it by dominating men (illegitimate power through seduction) or by being silenced or killed (by rebelling).

Both women also call for the abandonment of possessive mothering. In their opinion, this leads men to dominate women (need for mother’s love, but hatred because of the power she wields). Men become tyrants out of fear of losing access to women and women that do not rebel become slaves trying to enslave. If the society can free itself from this and the desires for possession and domination, peace will be possible.

Andrew, Barbara. "Psychology of Tyranny: Wollstonecraft and Woolf on the Gendered Dimension of War." Hypatia 9.2 (1994): 85 - 101. JSTOR. Web.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


I read yet another article about Between the Acts and the notion of politics in Woolf’s work and life!

Michelle Pridmore-Brown begins her article by saying that in Woolf’s time a lot of people accused her and the Bloomsbury group of political quietism and that even now, critics have pointed out the lack of technology and its importance in the Bloomsbury canon. However, Pridmore-Brown claims that this is not true and that Woolf used technology, particularly in this last novel, and with its help commented upon the rise of fascism.
She claims that Woolf’s use of the gramophone in Between the Acts describes the notion of people being turned into a herd by technological means – people listening to one leader, one disembodied voice that distracts them from the real issues and reality and reduces them to the state of animals; the individual is liquidated, when this type of the act of listening is employed. This does, in fact, sound very much like the fascism in Germany, where Hitler is described as using all types of technological means to control the people, which is why he was such a “successful” dictator. However, Pridmore-Brown points out that Woolf is very interested in the act of listening, which short-circuits the herd impulse due to the individual act of interpretation. This is how, according to the article’s author, Woolf’s novel fights fascism; Pridmore-Brown quotes Woolf’s words, “thinking is my fighting”.

She goes on to talk about the novel being set in about the same time during which Woolf wrote it, that is, right before the outbreak of World War II and thus, the novel is permeated by the same kind of immediate doom, impending war that hung over Britain itself. The war is omnipresent. When La Trobe turns the mirrors onto the audience, Pridmore-Brown claims that the audience becomes politically implicated in what they have been observing, they become implicated in the rise of fascism and the imminent outbreak of war. But what they have been observing up to this point is very important as well. Pridmore-Brown claims that the objects La Trobe uses on stage look very beautiful from afar only, but she means to have them scrutinized, which emphasizes Woolf’s thinking about her own country, about the Hitler in England. She refuses to perpetuate the great myth of Britannia (which is also made clear through the reference to an actual rape of a British girl by British soldiers). Thus, both La Trobe and Woolf herself (despite the problematic relationship between the notions of an author and a dictator) become the antitheses to the fuhrer figure. In addition, La Trobe is uncharismatic and an outsider that destabilizes the standard dichotomies of gender and politics (she does not allow fixed emotions or identities, as Pridmore-Brown says) that can lead to war and systematized oppression such as fascism or patriarchy.

Pridmore-Brown also explores Woolf’s interest in the emerging sciences of radio waves and other particles that influence life (wires and waves), but are not clearly seen with the naked eye. Here she cites Woolf’s interest in Einstein’s theories as well as the scientist James Jeans, both of whom gave her the notion of an “insubstantial reality”, an unseen world, that one cannot actually perceive with the eye, but that exists around us and in which she was very interested (especially its relationship with the mind). Thus, Pridmore-Brown also explores the use of sound and noise in Woolf’s work, as previously described. The unity attained, or enforced, by the gramophone is not sustained in Woolf’s work, as the gramophone draws attention to itself, even if it is hidden. The imperfections in the sound, the static noise draw attention to the machine. The silences between the acts also become important.

Pridmore-Brown, Michelle. “1939 – 1940: Of Virginia Woolf, Gramophones, and Fascism.” PMLA 113.3 (1998): 408 – 421. JSTOR. Web.

Friday, November 19, 2010


This was my first time reading A Room of One’s Own in its entirety – we read Shakespeare’s Sister in Literary Criticism last semester and I remember how amazed I was at what I was reading for some reason. At that time, the only work of Woolf’s I had read was Mrs. Dalloway and I think I found I liked her essay more than the novel, which I still think is the case now. What I found particularly interesting upon reading the whole of this speech/essay are the last parts in which Woolf looks out the window and begins to wonder about the unity, the harmony of the male and the female – the notion of the androgynous mind (as she quotes from Coleridge), examples of which she finds in Jane Austen and Shakespeare. As I read this, I began to wonder whether this notion of the androgynous mind, the perfect, impersonal mind of the ideal writer, was a notion relative to the time during which Woolf lived. Did she dream of this notion as ideal, because of the circumstances women suffered at this particular time, namely, the worry of patriarchy about the increasing demands of women and about the violence of the English feminists? Is it possible that now, in the 21st century, this mind should be sexless altogether, as opposed to the combination of male and female? Which again poses the question of whether the ideal writer is a product of his/her times and circumstances – a relative term? Would Woolf think this same way had she been living in today’s society?

That aside, I started to wonder whether this union of male and female, the androgynous mind, could somehow be exemplified in The Waves? Woolf herself said that she did not write any characters in this novel. We did talk about the possibility of this particular novel being about the many sides of one’s personality. After one class we also talked about the impossibility to pin one person down with just one character of this particular novel – I, for one, probably have some parts of all three: Jinny, Susan and Rhoda. The fact that all three are so specifically distinct, almost too distinct, could also point to this. What I found particularly interesting was that all three men share the drive to write in some way – does that mean that writing is primarily a male activity? The women in the novel, aside from perhaps Rhoda, who has no face, which almost negates her own body, somehow relate to their sexuality, their gender, their bodies, in one way or another – Susan through her traditional, natural tendencies and Jinny with her sensual, flirtatious self. Could the combination of all six consciousnesses from the novel create the one, androgynous mind Woolf muses on in A Room of One’s Own? Does the fact that the unanimity, unity, harmony between these six characters is temporary and dissolves eventually, except in the face of death, does any of this has to anything to do with Woolf’s interest in the continuity of the self, the will of continuity, disrupted by the event of death? The symmetry of the characters – three female and three male could also point to this notion of three different parts of both the female and the male counterparts of the androgynous mind. The fact that Waves came after Room could also point to the fact that Woolf was thinking about this notion and decided to carry it out in the form of a novel.


Woolf's essay "The Cinema" is probably one of my favorite essays of hers that we have read this semester. I am currently taking a class on Philosophy of Film and I thought it was very interesting how Woolf, in 1926 and thus, years before the main realist critics, paved the way for them with her own musings upon the art of cinema. The fact that she considers it an art, but a completely new one, with its own, unique possibilities, is what was so interesting to me, because it is years later that Bazin and Kracauer seem to echo these sentiments against the current of the orthodox school, members of which wanted to elevate cinema to the heights of literature and thus, insisted it is similar to other types of classical art such as that or painting. What I also found interesting was Woolf’s connection with the Russian filmmakers (we all know she loved Russian writers and literature) – Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Both of them believed in the power of montage as the key ingredient of cinema, something that equated it with the literature for instance, in that through montage, the filmmaker is thought to actually create an art form from scratch – from separate shots. However, this ties in with Between the Acts quite interestingly; through montage, the filmmaker believes he can make associations for the viewer, create them as his own. This is not something Woolf particularly looked for in any kind of art, as she admired the possibility of “shared meaning” arising from the author and the audience as well as the players. So, inspired by this essay, I wrote my term paper for Philosophy of Film upon this subject – Woolf and Film as Film, Woolf and the realist school. I thought I’d share some of my reflections upon this subject through what I wrote in my paper.

What is very interesting about Woolf’s essay is that she, perhaps unknowingly, acknowledges different sides of the argument that surrounded the medium of film at its birth. In “The Cinema”, she addresses the view that films are not art and are often considered below such mediums as painting and that of her own, writing. In the beginning of her essay she writes, “Yet at first sight the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid” (1), but still refers to film as an art and even compares it to the art of music, the art of Mozart. To Woolf, film is to her contemporary, modern man the same as “two bars of iron” to “bright-eyed naked men who knocked them together and heard in that clangour a foretaste of the music of Mozart” (1). Thus, it is evident from the very beginning that Woolf sees film as a medium with great potential in the hands of modern men, however, she is convinced these modern men are not exactly sure of what to do with what they have been given. This is probably the core of the argument between the orthodox and realist schools; each group held its own kind of restrictive extreme, whether it be attempting to elevate films to the status of literature and painting or insisting that film creates a new understanding of reality, while heavily relying on it, to the point where, as Perkins writes, it was not due to these critics that film became more and more popular and loved, but rather because of talented filmmakers that took this new medium and ran with it (10). It seems that Woolf is very much right in this comparison; both schools created so much clamor with their bars of iron in their own defense of film, because nobody was entirely sure of what to do with this new medium and how to legitimize it in the eyes of the public. Woolf rightly describes the chaos that arose from the birth of film, “All is hubble-bubble, swarm and chaos. We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savours seem to simmer; now and again some vast form heaves itself up and seems about to haul itself out of chaos” (1). Here, Woolf seems to almost compare film with some sort of magic, still a bit obscured from view for the modern man, but struggling to free itself and reach its full potential.

Yet in her musings upon the art of cinema and her analysis of this medium, Woolf tends to lean towards the likes of Bazin and Kracauer. While she acknowledges that people may perceive film as a medium where “the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think” (1), she ends the same paragraph with the statement, “The eye says to the brain, ‘Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.’ Together they look at the king, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life” (1). Thus, here she begins to lay the groundwork for the realist school’s thought that film enriches reality, even though it mirrors it to a certain extent, because of its imitative nature. But Woolf, much like the realists after her, does not dismiss this certain degree of imitativeness, but rather embraces it and elevates it to a new height by saying that these objects depicted on the filmstock have become “more real, or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life. We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it” (2). This is very similar to what Perkins writes about Bazin and his idea that film eliminates, liberates art from the presence of man, which leads to a new kind of experience of reality, a more objective one, a new dimension, rid of habit and prejudice (29-31). Very similarly, Woolf goes on to say, “From this point of vantage, as we watch the antics of our kind, we have time to feel pity and amusement, to generalize, to endow one man with the attributes of the race…we have time to open our minds” (2).

Woolf also emphasizes her realist stance by directly challenging the orthodox school’s attempts to elevate film to the status of art. She begins another paragraph,

the picture-makers seem dissatisfied with such obvious sources of interest as the passage of time and the suggestiveness of reality. They despise the flight of the gulls, ships on the Thames, the Prince of Wales, the Mile End Road, Piccadilly Circus. They want to be improving, altering, making an art of their own. (2)

This reference to the flight of the gulls and ships on the river is, of course, a very realist one. To Woolf, this notion that life goes on despite the absence of an immediate spectator other than the lens, the passage of time, the accidental occurrences caught on film, the busy Piccadilly Circus in London, all of this is very much important to Woolf in regards to cinema and its capabilities. She is most interested in these notions she mentions earlier, notions of watching life and beauty as an observer, an uninvolved spectator, and delving deeper into newly unearthed dimensions of life, ones that one might miss while in the midst of action and life. She is not very interested in leveling film with literature or painting, because she seems to understand that cinema is capable of something different than these two already established and beloved mediums, and she clearly admires all three.

This direct challenge of the orthodox school, which included the likes of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, is perhaps her acquaintance with these Russian filmmakers. In his essay, “Virginia Woolf and Cinema”, David Trotter poses the hypothesis that Woolf, in fact, attended screenings at the British Film Society founded in 1925, where various films were shown, including German Expressionist and Soviet montage films, and various filmmakers came to speak, Eisenstein being one of them. This is perhaps where she borrows from her notion that film should portray “emotions mingling together and affecting each other…the most fantastic contrasts could be flashed before us with a speed which the writer can only toil after in vain” (5). This notion of contrast is strikingly similar to Eisenstein’s theory of montage, where juxtaposition and collision of images creates an explosion of meaning. However, similarly to Bazin and Kracauer, Woolf recognizes the dangers of montage. As Trotter writes, “What Woolf didn’t like about films of this kind was what she didn’t like about novels of a certain kind: their determinism, their reduction of suggestiveness to meaning” (18). This recalls Bazin’s belief, as quoted by Perkins, that montage is “essentially and by its very nature opposed to the expression of ambiguity” (33). For Woolf especially, this is a very dangerous thought. In her essay, “The Authority of Illusion: Feminism and Fascism in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts”, Patricia Klindienst Joplin explores the notion of authority and fascism and what it meant to Woolf as an artist. As a writer, Woolf understood very well the possibility of swaying the audience into her way of thinking, a very tempting possibility for a woman in a patriarchal society. However, as a writer preoccupied with the thought of subjectivity as well as peace and the prospect of World War II approaching Britain ever so fast, Woolf rejected this kind of meaning that Eisenstein sought to provide with his montage films. To her, the very underlying notion of authoritarianism was such abuse of language, in this case the language of film, abuse that abolished the freedom of ambiguity and of continuously created meaning outside of that of the author (90). In contrast, Eisenstein’s belief was that the collision of images created meaning for the spectator and thus, manifested the genius of the director, who arranged the images in a particular, meaningful way through the art of montage. In this way, the filmmaker was presented as creating a film in a fashion similar to the creation of literature by a writer; by placing images in certain spots and sequences, he was almost as if arranging words on a piece of paper, creating prose rather than reproducing already existing reality. Even though this representation of film and the filmmaker was a noble attempt to legitimize cinema as  an art flowing from the creative genius of a person rather than simply imitating reality outside of filmmaker’s control and creativity, this method still tended to hand meaning to the spectator on the proverbial silver platter. This was not something Woolf approved of and it was certainly not what she sought in the cinema.