Virginia Woolf – “Modern Fiction” (1919)

Woolf rejects the idea of scientific or industrial progress being applied to literary history. “We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving.” Nevertheless, she wants to mark out the difference between an older generation of writers (Bennett, Galsworthy, Wells) from the new (Hardy, Conrad, and most recently and importantly, James Joyce). The former are what she calls “materialists”: “they write of unimportant things…[spending] immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.” This is peculiarly close to Woolf’s own methods of composition–one immediately think of the many trivial objects in the Ramsay’s empty house which bear the imprint of human form, the history of life itself. Nevertheless, the problem with materialists is that “life escapes.” Woolf believes that this is because of an unfortunate dependence on convention (social and formal), which restricts the means by which “impressions” are converted into representational forms: of a writer were a free man and not a slave….there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest,” etc. A strange claim: where are these conventions located and who is imposing these forms of repression on the writer-slave? But Woolf insists that these conventional forms do an injustice to Life: “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Writers that are able to convey this halo are what Woolf calls “spiritual”

Paradoxically, the writer achieves this by way of the ordinary:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives myriad impression–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms. (106)

Modern fiction, especially the work of Joyce, is atomic-spiritual. There’s a problematic conflation of the material and the spiritual, but the idea is that by disregarding convention, writes are able to get “closer to life.” Can we think about his in terms of ontological proximity (Levinas) and, at the same time, the discourse of life that runs through Victorian literature (the Brownings, Eliot, Bram Stoker, etc.)?

She concludes with an underhanded jab at both formal and legel censorship, which has been latent throughout.

‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. (110)

 

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