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.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I think I’ve found the topic of Woolf and politics very interesting.

This article I read was by Patricia Klindienst Joplin and it is about fascism in Woolf’s Between the Acts. In it, Joplin discusses the Woolf’s musings on what it means to be an artist and how that relates to the rising of totalitarianism in Europe. According to Joplin, in this novel Woolf seizes the gap she has explored in previous novels, but now, instead of rejecting it as a disruption in the will of continuity, it is elevated to a positive, natural status – in the history of Europe, the gap between the British Isles and the Continent helped to prevent the spread of Hitler’s influence and aggression in Britain. Joplin says that in this novel, the gap is not an interruption or death, it is rather the white space on a piece of paper or canvas, waiting for creation.

Another point Joplin makes is about Woolf’s meditation upon the role of the artist. Woolf understood the artist to be responsible to keep peace and freedom alive, to unify differences. But in the character of the playwright in Between the Acts, she explores the proximity between artists and dictators and authoritarians, for whom there is no gap between sound and meaning, just like the artist who believes his art to be the whole meaning as he conceived it, his meaning. Also, Joplin makes the point that as a feminist, Woolf understood the temptation of an artist being turned into a dictator, because in writing, there exists the possibility of bending the audience to the writer’s will, as opposed to creating a shared meaning between the audience, players and the author.

Joplin also mentions Woolf’s destruction of a false sense of unity. During the War, the common enemy, the Germans, united the British under the patriarchy in this very false sense of unity. But as a woman, Woolf saw this a little differently – she creates an instance of rape of a British woman by British soldiers, which undermines this sense of unity and the common enemy is called into question and the suppressing of internal differences is revealed. Thus, according to Joplin, Woolf, unlike her husband Leonard, had no easy sense about England being superior in civility to the “barbaric” Germans. To her, fascism is not alien to any country and this is why she wants to attack the Hitler in England in her essay “Peace in an Air Raid”.

Joplin also states that Woolf calls art into question by mentioning how the Nazis effectively used and exploited art as propaganda to unify the country and suppress internal differences in order to manipulate people and impose authority of the leaders. This, according to Joplin, is similar to what happened in Britain as well – in the face of danger of an imminent attack by the German army, men in Britain desired to keep the gender status quo and stop women from attempting to gain equality (suppressing internal differences) and there were a lot of ways to unify people against the common enemy through the arts (theater, for example). Joplin says that this gender status quo was desired in Britain, but actually enacted in Germany through the Nazi ideology.

Joplin also makes a very interesting point about Woolf’s works in general. She hypothesizes that Woolf explores the question of whether identity is possible, as an individual and/or group, except at the expense of the “other” (the rival, the victim, etc.). She also talks about the creation of authority by various characters in Woolf’s works – this is the origin of totalitarianism in the individual. For instance, in The Waves the characters gather around the exaggerated character of Percival (the master, the authority). It is similar in Jacob’s Room and To the Lighthouse, where women compare Jacob to a perfect marble statue, which he is not, and Lily idolizes Mrs. Ramsay.

Klindienst Joplin, Patricia. “The Authority of Illusion: Feminism and Fascism in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts.” South Central Review 6.2 (1989): 88 – 104. JSTOR. Web.