Virginia Woolf – The Waves (1931)

Ongoing Post:

A curiously de-politicized Woolf, according to many. A novel that pushes the experiment of diffusive personality to such an extreme that “time and place” are obliterated almost completely. The title of the first draft was “The Life of Anybody,” pointing to the potentially formal qualities of art to wrench themselves from subjective content to the degree that any human can enter its structures. Yet the political reading has been offered by some: perhaps Woolf is toying with the idea of political collectivity, the potential for an individual to find meaning in larger wholes that are not immediately subsumed by identifiable institutions, or ossified into social groups with determinate programs. No matter how we read, it is clear that what binds the six characters together (it is a question whether this is critical or not) is their shared national, economic and racial coordinates. Perhaps Woolf is showing the sun set on the British Empire itself, as it self-destructs in and through its colonial enterprises. Rhoda does, after all, jump from the rock Gibraltar, the extreme edge of the british empire….

The opening lines disrupt traditional forms of representation: “The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it.” In the chorus-like interludes that punctuate the main narrative, these wrinkles, which grow into waves and  return to the vast ocean, take on a life that is meant to signify the “mirrors” tendency to move–i.e. the sea is not merely a reflection of the sky, but it has its own capacity to move: Despite the dispersal of identity, individual characters do take up different affective attitudes towards the interpenetration of subjectivity: Rhoda is inclined to resist any attempt to  shape her or overtake her…to her, the dinner party is a battle field of the social. She loves, envies, hates, etc. but she never “joins” her friends willingly. She “fears embraces.” Bernard, on the other hand, feels the violence of becoming separate, differentiated. He likes the formless.

The plurality of perspectives in The Waves gets subsumed under the single voice of Bernard in the final chapter. As the only straight British male in the group, he is the most conventional heir to literary authority. Further, he tells his story to an unnamed listener while on a boat to Africa, recalling the narrators of Conrad and Ford. This form of literary Imperialism counterpoints and imitates the political imperial project of Percival (who utters only the Everlasting “No” tied to destructive impulses, etc.). The argument could be made that the seemingly deracinated style of The Waves is only a stylistic effect of the suppression of plot and characters: the small-scale violence between consciousness, in language, etc. are connected to the political violence that make this sort of interpersonal dream possible at all. That is, we can read this text symptomatically because it seems to ask for it…. [Cf. Lacan, etc.]

That is to say, The Waves is not a poetic retreat, but something very much like Adorno’s Lyric, which in and through its attempt to express a utopian dream, dramatizes its impossibility.

TIME: Instead of the husk of time swallowing up Septimus, bernard experiences a “drop of time” on his head while shaving. Rather than shock precipitating time’s uninhibited victory, which obliterates psychological boundaries, the scene of Bernard’s shaving (shave, shave, shave) dramatizes habit’s uncanny ability to draw attention to those forms of time’s passing which escape habit’s ordering structures. “I have lost my youth,” he says to himself.

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