Friday, January 26, 2007
Virginia Woolf, in Winter
When a person is inside her room, surrounded by everyday objects, the sense of home anchors the self, and to some extent limits the free flow of imagination. But as one steps outside, in London, on a cold winter’s day, everything changes. Anything might make a good excuse; for Woolf, it’s a simple errand to go out and buy a pencil:
But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell–like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye. How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks. (Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting")
What follows is a good long wander, in which the very flaneur-ish superficiality of urban looking is celebrated. There are also some strange little bits, including a slightly unpleasant and offensive (but perhaps still insightful?) bit about a dwarf in a shoe store. Then follows a brief interlude in a used bookstore, and finally, the pencil is purchased in a little shop with bickering shopkeepers. Along the way, Woolf deconstructs the idea of the unified Self:
Yet it is nature’s folly, not ours. When she set about her chief masterpiece, the making of man, she should have thought of one thing only. Instead, turning her head, looking over her shoulder, into each one of us she let creep instincts and desires which are utterly at variance with his main being, so that we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience sake a man must be a whole. (Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting")
“For convenience sake a man must be a whole” is, of course, a way of saying there is no wholeness to speak of.
It really isn’t the same when you get into your car and turn on NPR. Revelations related to ontology and the pleasures of the dissolution of the self into urban anonymity tend not to occur with the same frequency. And cold days in January are, all too often, defined by the discourse of a number (i.e., 21 degrees) and the containing patter of the weather forecast; you have to jog yourself to try and remember to experience the thing itself, somehow.
Beautiful. Those passages put me in mind of a quote from Richard Powers’ recent novel, “The Echo Maker”: ‘A single, solid fiction always beat the truth of our scattering’.
There is a peculiar and intriguing way in which the modernist project in literature seems to allude to the discoveries made by modern neuroscience.
Jonah Lehrer of SEED is working on a book called “Proust Was A Neuroscientist” which will, I hope, illuminate light on this confluence. And of course there’s David Lodge’s “Consciousness and the Novel”, which considers Woolf and her contemporaries in some depth; but it did, to a certain extent, leave me wanting.
And hello, by the way; long-time reader now de-lurking.
Congrats on coming out, Justin.
This is lovely writing, Amardeep, I agree. But I wonder about some of it. Specifically I wonder how far we can trust Woolf’s statement of being de-shelled; or more specifically how much of Woolf’s observations are actually her projecting her own wintry psychopathology on the world around her; hence the emphasis on the bleak beauty but also the passivity, dislocation, stuntedness (dwarfishness) and so on. ‘Floating down stream’ is all very well and good until you decide to literalise it in the River Ouse at Rodmell.
What I’m saying, I think, is that aestheticising and externalising ‘depression’ like this—in effect fetishizing and sentimentalising it—is rather like an anorexic writing admiringly of the beauty of slimness.
Conversely I wonder whether stepping out of one’s house to get into a car, or knowing that the temperature is four below freezing, or whatever, necessarily precludes the aesthetic apprehension of winter’s beauty. I’d say not. Maybe that’s just me.
Justin, hello, and thanks for the tip on the Echo Maker.
Adam, I see what you mean, but I think she is making a general point about the “varied and wandering” nature of the self that would apply to people of different dispositions and/or psycho-pathological modes. The particular moods she experiences might be different from what a less depressive person might have, but the sense of the constantly shifting “inner” coloring of the world is one I think she would argue is accessible at least to everyone. And it may even be more than accessible—perhaps it’s actually universal(that seems to be the drift of her argument).
It might be that a moodier person sees it more clearly, because the shifts are more radical and more frequent. But that heightened awareness doesn’t necessarily mean the observation is false.
As for winter in the suburbs, you’re right; I was being a little self-indulgent there.