Virginia Woolf and the Ethics of Intimacy
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Virginia Woolf and the Ethics of Intimacy

Elsa Högberg

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eBook - ePub

Virginia Woolf and the Ethics of Intimacy

Elsa Högberg

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Revisiting Virginia Woolf's most experimental novels, Elsa Högberg explores how Woolf's writing prompts us to re-examine the meaning of intimacy. In Högberg's readings of Jacob's Room, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves, intimacy is revealed to inhere not just in close relations with the ones we know and love, but primarily within those unsettling encounters which suspend our comfortable sense of ourselves as separate from others and the world around us. Virginia Woolf and the Ethics of Intimacy locates this radical notion of intimacy at the heart of Woolf's introspective, modernist poetics as well as her ethical and political resistance to violence, aggressive nationalism and fascism. Engaging contemporary theory – particularly the more recent works of Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva – it reads Woolf as a writer and ethical thinker whose vital contribution to the modernist scene of inter-war Britain is strikingly relevant to critical debates around intimacy, affect, violence and vulnerability in our own time.

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Jacob’s Room: Modernist Melancholia and the Eclipse of Primal Intimacy
In “Character in Fiction,” Woolf describes literary convention as a vehicle for interactive co-creation, “a common meeting-place,” “a means of communication between writer and reader” (E 3: 431, 434). Towards the end of the essay, she addresses a collective readership: “May I . . . remind you of the duties and responsibilities that are yours as partners in this business of writing books, as companions in the railway carriage, as fellow travellers with Mrs Brown?” (435–36). The writing process, when framed by conventions, is defined as an ethical contract of sorts, a horizontal, democratic site held together by “duties and responsibilities” shared reciprocally by the writer and more than one reader, as if the novelist’s text was a public space for communal storytelling. And this idea of a “common meeting-place” is what enables intimate relations even in the necessarily dyadic encounter between a novelist and a reader who will likely never meet:
Both in life and in literature it is necessary to have some means of bridging the gulf between the hostess and her unknown guest on the one hand, the writer and his unknown reader on the other. . . . The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognises, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to co-operate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. (431)
That is, a mutual recognition of fictional conventions is considered a precondition for socially binding relationships of which the defining characteristics are intimacy and responsibility.
Woolf’s linking of intimacy and storytelling conventions intersects with the key concerns of Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” (1936), an essay which looks back from a present located in the inter-war years to a past time in which storytelling remained an unbroken tradition. Benjamin’s storyteller is “a man who has counsel” for his audience, and the capacity to tell is founded on “the ability to exchange experiences” (364, 362). The essay underscores the reciprocal dimension of storytelling: the act of telling is “for others,” an exchange where social bonds are created and epistemological and moral certainties, shared by the storyteller, are received collectively. For Benjamin’s contemporaries, however, “the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others” (3). This decreasing communicability is described as a historical process coextensive with the rise of the modern novel, a process precipitated by the Great War, so that in the post-war years, the storyteller “has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant” (364, 362). For Benjamin, the decline of storytelling brought about by political and literary modernity caused a breakdown of an intimate, communal space. The crisis of communicability described in the essay is held to coincide with a loss of shared truths and values, a loss which entailed a pervasive sense of alienation and isolation. In Benjamin’s influential account, the modern novelist is a “solitary individual” who “has isolated himself” and, “himself uncounseled,” “cannot counsel others” (364).
The idea of storytelling as a lost art figures also in Woolf’s essays of the 1920s which set up a distinction between her post-war contemporaries and earlier generations of writers. In “How It Strikes a Contemporary” (1923), Woolf’s phrasing evokes Benjamin’s separation of the storyteller and the isolated, modern novelist. In contrast to “the power of [nineteenth-century writers’] belief – their conviction,” corroborated by “their judgement of conduct,” “our contemporaries afflict us because they have ceased to believe. The most sincere of them will only tell us what it is that happens to himself. . . . They cannot tell stories, because they do not believe that stories are true” (E 3: 358–59). And when she rejects Edwardian writing methods in “Character in Fiction,” it is because “convention ceases to be a means of communication . . . and becomes instead an obstacle and an impediment.” However, in the Georgian writer’s optimistic determination to destroy this obstacle to communication and thereby intimacy, there is an insistent sense of something lost: “the sound of breaking and falling, crashing and destruction. It is the prevailing sound of the Georgian age – rather a melancholy one” (434, emphasis added).
Insofar as the crisis of intimacy and fictional representation described in these essays is also a crisis of storytelling, Woolf’s formulations differ notably from Benjamin’s in their arguably melancholic rhetoric of break and rupture. Unlike her late, unfinished essay “Anon” (composed 1940–41), which closely echoes Benjamin’s idea of modernity as bringing about a historically gradual loss of pre-modern storytelling, the lost object imagined in her literary journalism of the 1920s is the entire tradition of literary modernity and those very conventions of modern literature through which, in Woolf’s account, the intimate, social and moral bonds forged by storytelling remained intact. Her reliance on metaphors of destruction and radical separation is indeed “rather . . . melancholy,” suggesting, as it does, a conception of the Georgian age as irrevocably distanced from not only Edwardian realist conventions – “For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death” (E 3: 430) – but, effectively, “the very foundations and rules of literary society” (434). “It is an age of fragments,” Woolf observes in 1923 about the writing of her contemporaries: “We are sharply cut off from our predecessors” (355, 357).1 A later essay, “The Leaning Tower” (1940), contrasts this slanting, precarious worldview with the straight, serene edifice structuring past writers’ literary conventions: “their model, their vision of human life was not disturbed or agitated or changed by war. Nor were they themselves. It is easy to see why that was so. Wars were then remote” (E 6: 261). The essay describes how this “immunity from war” created a line of aesthetic continuity which was broken in 1914, when “suddenly, like a chasm in a smooth road, the war came” (261, 264). Intensely conscious of “things changing, of things falling, of death perhaps about to come,” these essays all dramatise the idea of a gulf between the post-war literary climate and an inaccessible community of past writers held together by a spirit of “unabashed tranquillity” (E 6: 273; E 4: 239). Thus, if Woolf’s vibrant literary journalism is fraught with a melancholic insistence on severed bonds and lost intimacy, this rhetoric emerged from her keen sensitivity to the effects of modern warfare and total war on the post-war literary imaginary.
Woolf’s imagery of detachment, separation and loss – “of death perhaps about to come” – exemplifies what Robert B. Pippin has described as a specifically modernist “language of anxiety, unease, and mourning” (xii). In “Poetry, Fiction and the Future” (1927), she figures contemporary art as a “narrow bridge” detached from its foundations: “For it is an age clearly when we are not fast anchored where we are; . . . all bonds of union seem broken” (E 4: 438, 429). Her idea of a detached, free-floating artistic realm links the simultaneous loss and demolishment of literary “foundations and rules,” and of the shared values upholding them, to the Georgians’ fragmented aesthetic experiments, in which “Grammar is violated; syntax disintegrated” (E 3: 434). Woolf’s observations converge with a claim once frequently made about modernist writers, one that is worth revisiting: that their insistence on formal experimentation evinces “dissatisfactions with the affirmative, normative claims essential to European modernization” (Pippin xi), which nonetheless betray nostalgia for a time when literary conventions were firmly grounded in unquestioned religious, moral and epistemological certainties. As a consequence, it was said – not irrelevantly – modernist writing abounds with “images of death and loss and failure” (xii), and forges in this melancholic idiom “a link between the dawning sense of a failure in the social promise of modernisation . . . and the appeal of a radically autonomous, self-defining cult of art” (35).2
But what would it have meant for Woolf, in the wake of the Great War, to mourn the confident promises of modernity, with its faith in history as progressing towards universal peace and prosperity? If Pippin’s classic, aestheticist account of modernism converges with a no longer dominant critical image of Woolf and Bloomsbury, more recent scholarship has illuminated Woolf’s engagement in some of the most vibrant interactions between Bloomsbury’s political and aesthetic avant-gardes. Pippin’s “problem of historical discontinuity” (10) has engaged politically oriented accounts of the First World War as an event of decisive influence on Woolf’s aesthetic practice. Vincent Sherry, for one, reads Woolf’s writing of the 1920s as a political response to British war-time politics and, more specifically, the Liberal party’s use of public reason to justify Britain’s involvement in the war. Addressing Pippin’s notion of modernism as a “Culture of Rupture” (Pippin 29), Sherry adopts his view of the war as causing a radical break with Enlightenment values, manifest in the disruptive aesthetics of literary modernism. Sherry considers Woolf’s anti-nationalism as central to a group of London modernists’ “vanguard awareness” of the war as “a watershed between Enlightenment ideals . . . and their gruesome disillusionment,” an awareness that informed these writers’ understanding of the post-war period as “a specified Now . . . defined by a sense of itself as separate” (18–19, 17). Christine Froula, however, ascribes a different temporality to Woolf’s, and Bloomsbury’s, jointly political and aesthetic engagement with the destructive legacy of the war: in speaking of “the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde,” Froula highlights the centrality of Enlightenment ideals to Bloomsbury’s future-oriented efforts to rebuild European civilisation “on firmer ground and more lastingly,” even as the Great War, at the height of modernity, had “destroyed the illusion that Europe was ‘on the brink’ of an international, economically egalitarian civilization committed to human rights, political autonomy and world peace” (9, 1).
As these alternative accounts indicate, Woolf’s conflicted depictions of literary and political modernity cannot be straightforwardly described in terms of aestheticist nostalgia, nor in terms of the uncomplicated alignment of modernism and modernity suggested by the word “avant-garde,” with its connotations of futurity and political commitment. What intrigues me here is the undeniable melancholic, retrogressive dimensions of the modernist “now,” which, radically and temporally detached from modernity, must trouble political readings of Woolf’s modernism, just as the melancholic vocabulary of destruction and irreversible separation surfaces in her otherwise sanguine post-war journalism. As Heather Love puts it in her thought-provoking study of a “backward modernism” (7) which refuses, through negative and politically non-productive affects such as melancholia, to turn its back on the persistence in the present of past violence, “backwardness is a feature of even the most forward-looking modernist literature” (6).
The question of mourning needs attention if we are to make sense of Woolf’s ambivalent treatment of modernity as a historical trajectory entailing unprecedented violence, destruction and ruin, and yet, at the same time, enabling literary-political interventions against violence and war. While Woolf’s melancholic register cannot be easily translated into Pippin’s nostalgic aestheticism, it suggests that aspects of modernity have been lost and must be mourned by the modernist writer. But what exactly are these lost objects – certain epistemological and moral certainties, perhaps, or the possibility of their sharing? And what literary features attest to their mourning? We can only attempt to answer these questions, since we seem to be examining textual symptoms not of regular mourning, which is conscious and knowing, but of melancholia as defined in another post-war essay, Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917): “an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness,” in which “one [patient or analyst; here, writer or reader] cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost” (245). Can we speak, in a psychoanalytic register, of an affective ambivalence by which the simultaneously loved and hated lost object is introjected as it were, unconsciously made part of, yet in grating conflict with, the writer’s worldview and values, so that the reader’s role is not that of the analyst, but of the cultural decipherer seeking to trace an ethical struggle in those melancholic textual features which would seem to indicate moral nihilism and socio-political withdrawal? These questions take us back to the problematic of intimacy and storytelling with which we began, and back from politics to the realm of ethics, via Jacob’s Room (1922), Woolf’s first novel to enact a definitive, and arguably melancholic, break with “the very foundations and rules of literary society” (E 3: 434).
Jacob’s Room engages in complex ways with the impact of the Great War on the modernist literary imaginary. As numerous critics have observed, the novel’s thematic concern with alienation, mourning and loss is reflected in its disruptive, fragmentary form. The broken narrative continuity of Woolf’s first genuinely experimental novel, it has be en argued, attests to a reflected engagement with the post-war legacy of loss and mourning.3 That is to say, the break with representational conventions is in itself depicted as a loss: formal innovation is configured as inherently melancholic. In Jacob’s Room, expressions of mourning are simultaneously expressions of a pervasive crisis of storytelling. The elusive protagonist is lost and mourned from the novel’s first pages: “‘Ja–cob! Ja–cob!’ shouted Archer, lagging on after a second. The voice had an extraordinary sadness” (4). This cry, reverberating throughout the text in the voices of various characters, conveys the tone of “extraordinary sadness” colouring a narrative in which loss has at least two aspects: Jacob Flanders, the young protagonist eventually lost in the war,4 is also a story lost to Woolf’s narrator and readers. In constantly drawing attention to the narrator’s failed efforts to access and represent “Jacob’s room,” a phrase which evokes the protagonist’s interiority as well as his actual lodgings, the novel problematises the inefficacy of narrative description, omniscience and continuity in a post-war world.
My reading of Jacob’s Room will depart from an earlier, poststructuralist critical tradition, which tended to emphasise Woolf’s politically motivated rejection of realist novel conventions, and her exposure of their complicity with British militarism and patriotism. Thus, for William R. Handley, Woolf developed in Jacob’s Room a fragmented, anti-realist fictional mode aimed at dismantling the nationalistic and patriarchal cultural narratives which fuel militarisation and war: “Woolf’s subversion of narrative order” was “an act of aesthetic and political rebellion against hegemonic control as defined and practiced in both art and life” (113).5 In such accounts of Woolf’s subversion of realist methods as a sign of her political commitment, there is little consideration of her persistent notion of a loss of literary conventions after the war. They leave two questions in particular largely unaddressed: if the novel’s mournful expression implies a radical severing of bonds not only with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century realism, but with modernity’s entire literary legacy, can its formal, arguably melancholic, fragmentation be said to inspire ethically responsible writing when, as we have seen, Woolf’s contemporaneous essays describe a pervasive crisis in the capacity of post-war fiction to cultivate norms and values? And doesn’t the ambivalent introjection characteristic of melancholia suggest an ethical interrogation of the modern novel’s complicity with warmongering ideals (rather than a straightforward, political blaming of the realists)? I propose an affirmative answer to these questions, and an approach...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half-Title
  3. Dedication
  4. Title
  5. Contents
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Abbreviations
  8. Note on Sources
  9. Introduction: Towards an Ethics of Intimacy
  10. 1 Jacob’s Room: Modernist Melancholia and the Eclipse of Primal Intimacy
  11. 2 “An Inner Meaning Almost Expressed”: Introspection as Revolt in Mrs Dalloway
  12. 3 Post-Impressionist Intimacy and the Visual Ethics of To the Lighthouse
  13. 4 Chalk Marks: Violence and Vulnerability in The Waves
  14. Notes
  15. Bibliography
  16. Index
  17. Copyright