Monday, July 24, 2006

Great Books (VI): Woolf

The contrast with Austen could not be more severe: here is London, agitated, sonorous, euphoric, at the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway; here is Clarissa, with her "narrow, pea-stick figure; a ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird's"; "button-faced Miss Pym, who hands were always bright red, as if they had been stood in cold water with the flowers."

In "Modern Fiction", Woolf protests against the novels of Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Galsworthy:
If we tried to formulate our meaning in one word we should say that these three writers are materialists. It is because they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us, and left us with the feeling that the sooner English fiction turns its back upon them, as politely as may be, and marches, if only to the desert, the better for its soul.
If there is a paradox here – since Woolf, unlike Austen, is concerned with objects, with bodies, with the appearance of material things – it is resolved by her conception of experience, which echoes Moore's remark in "The Refutation of Idealism":
And, in general, that which makes the sensation of blue a mental fact seems to escape us: it seems, if I may use a metaphor, to be transparent – we look through it and see nothing but the blue.
For Woolf, the envelope of consciousness is "semi-transparent", "a luminous halo": to capture the contents of the mind is to capture its objects in the external world. (No wonder Denby is less excited by Woolf than by Austen: he is a moralist, not a metaphysician.)

The evidence for Moore's influence on Woolf is, as far I know, merely circumstantial: his work was an intellectual prop for her confederates in Bloomsbury. But it is tempting to speculate.

While everyone knows that Mr. Ramsay is a portrait of Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, he is not a historian of thought or a moral philosopher, as Stephen was.
When [Lily Briscoe] 'thought of his work' she always saw clearly before her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew's doing. She asked him what his father's books were about. 'Subject and object and the nature of reality', Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant, 'Think of a kitchen table then', he told her, 'when you're not there'.
The example of a table existing in space is used by Moore in the "Refutation"; and the implicit problem, about idealism and sense-data, was his. It is imagined, on a different scale, in the ecstatic language of time passing, as the Ramsays' house sits abandoned for a decade.
Not only was the furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say 'This is he' or 'This is she.'
In Mrs. Dalloway, the privacy of consciousness – a Moorean theme – appears in the windows and doors that open into separate rooms, and in the particulate selves that pass through one another like waves on the streets of London. Only Septimus makes a momentary breach:
[Lucrezia] held her hands to her head, waiting for him to say did he like the hat or not, and as she sat there, waiting, looking down, he could feel her mind, like a bird, falling from branch to branch, and always alighting, quite rightly; he could follow her mind, as she sat there in one of those loose lax poses that came to her naturally and, if he should say anything, at once she smiled, like a bird alighting with all its claws upon the bough.
But there is another force in these pages, in the web that connects the characters, and in Woolf's inscrutable pronouns: her monadology, the same world contained within each one.

The literal rooms of her most wonderful book resound with these notes of defiance, and with a picture of the soul like nothing to be found in Moore: a kind of historical materialism, of minds furnished with the property one's income can afford. The most mundane of material needs – a room of one's own, five hundred pounds a year – are priced in the currency of thought, and invested with reverence.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The objection against "materialism" is most forceful in the passage relating the abuse of Septimus by the distinguished psychologist, who sees all problems of living as essentially a need to maximise efficiency. In that area of the book Woolf is most sensitive and penetrating, though it creates an imbalance in the novel since none of the more central characters are anywhere as vivid as Septimus or Reza. I certainly can't remember them after the years since I read it. My overall view of Mrs Dalloway is it shows Woolf's abilities in studying the distress of Septimus' soul, but her inability to make a larger novel out of any theme latent in his tale. It's merely incongruous that the Dalloway's emptier lives should be going on so near in space to the Warren Smiths.

Woolf also displays a rather snobbish attitude to Wells in recounting Septimus' journey from the provinces.

Anyway, I am Jonathan Norton, I met you at Cambridge over 10 years ago.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...


Glad to renew your acquaintance! I think I agree with you about Mrs. Dalloway, a novel I admire much more for its prose than for anything else. I've never understood how to feel about Clarissa. The other novels are more convincing. But as I say in the post, for me nothing rivals A Room of One's Own.

7:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With regard to your "indifference to Jane Austen"...

The trouble I have with Emma is similar to that with Mrs Dalloway: the characters are treated unevenly, and there is a snobbish valuation tipping what should be a strictly ethical balance of their merits. Mr. Knightley is really an awful old prig, just as objectionable as Emma herself, and his own capitulation to love at the end shows an equal amount of self-delusion. But he isn't judged for it. The treatment of Harriet Smith as an extended joke, not much more than a comedy yokel, is distasteful as well.

Similar reasons have always annoyed me about Howards End, another great icon of Eng Lit.

Incidentally, according to Alasdair Macintyre VW read Principia Ethica at the rate of 1 page per day. I don't know if she admitted any direct influence on her attitudes.

7:21 AM  

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