Friday, February 26, 2010

Woolf in Winter: The Waves

This is a repost of an essay I did on Virginia Woolf's The Waves in college. Yeah, it's a bit much - I really could've toned down the florid prose. But my professor was Joanna Scott and I think I was trying to impress her.

I kept thinking of T.S. Eliot as I read Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves. In the midst of the gaiety surrounding Percival’s imminent arrival, Louis can only think “Death and again death” as he imagines with Rhoda a bloody, bacchanalian dance round a pagan fire. The blend of the surreal and the mundane into a waking, blasted dreamscape; whispers of past grandeur adrift in the disillusion and decay of the present; the starkly beautiful imagery – “Nothing again nothing” is all one of Eliot’s narrators can come up with in response to a thoroughly Modernist backdrop. Woolf, of course, was an entirely different writer with a singularly illuminating stroke that could bring to full life the slightest daily motions. The Waves, first published in 1931, essentially gathers bits of nothing – the aggregate aspects of human life that always seem so trivial – and creates an interlocked something that continually morphs into six separate beings named Bernard, Rhoda, Louis, Jinny, Susan, and Neville.

It is not a conventional novel. The story is told through a series of inner monologues that frequently ascend to pure, abstract poetry. Indeed, the book is at times reminiscent of the atonality of a Stravinsky piece: seemingly meaningless, felt rather than intellectually identified. Or, as Neville bluntly puts it: “Much is sheer nonsense.” Yet Woolf simply wishes to give rise to a moment or an emotion in a manner that makes perfect sense without the candor of standard prose. She wants to go still deeper than the interior lives of her six characters to what lies beneath waking perception and its subliminal underpinnings; she wants to get at those underlying waves that unite myriad mortals in every motion of life. “‘Like’ and ‘like’ and ‘like’ – but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?” Rhoda wonders in the midst of a concert audience. “. . . The structure is now visible; what is inchoate is here stated; we are not so various or mean; we have made oblongs and stood them upon squares.” What Woolf means by this passage is left precisely unclear, and yet it is known that the death of Percival, the mutual friend of the group, has somehow enabled Rhoda to see beyond the mundane.

In other words, the ties between people, even those who are gone, seem to have an uplifting effect, as demonstrated by the very organization of The Waves. The monologues combine to create an entire novel as they build on, reinforce, or contradict one another. That is how the reader comes to know Percival: through the impressions he makes upon his friends and the interpretations they form and how these all interact. Other times, however, the speeches stand alone, especially those of Bernard, to offer insight into the rest. “Am I not, as I walk,” he speculates, “trembling with strange oscillations and vibrations of sympathy, which, unmoored as I am from a private being, bid me embrace these engrossed flocks; these errand-boys and furtive and fugitive girls who, . . . look in at shop-windows?” Their final expression is the waves. Periodically throughout the book, there is a cut to a beach somewhere outside the inner universe of six lifelong friends. As the day dawns and dies the light brightens and dims, the waves weave, crash, and drift in a natural elucidation of the ever-evolving bonds between humans in society. The novel covers decades, yet these interludes breeze through one solitary day. It is as though, in the eternal scheme of things, that is the length of a single lifetime. Percival dies, but his memory lives on in Bernard, Rhoda, Jinny, Neville, and Louis. The individual is departed, yet that intertwined web will always remain.

And it wasn’t just the echoes of Eliot. There was something very American about The Waves that seemed to hearken back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. One imagined an “Over-soul” from which each being was but a drop that had dripped away; the other sang of himself as embodying a vast and variegated multitude of individuals who yet coalesce into one nation. Woolf, of course, was writing one hundred years later, in England, in the wake of a world war and an economic depression. Whitman’s liberal exuberance is appropriately lacking: there is a stylized weariness and uncertainty clouding The Waves that persists to the very end, an aesthetic melancholy Woolf shared with her contemporary Eliot.

An aged Bernard leans on a fence overlooking rolling hills swathed in winter. “Life has destroyed me,” he reflects. “No echo comes when I speak, no varied words.” He becomes Emerson’s transparent eyeball. But he does not experience, as Emerson once did, the everlasting power “Universal Being” flowing through him. He is not a “part or particle of God,” a receptor of the transcendent Word. The landscape is gone, the woods a barren shadowland, and “I saw on a winding road in a dust dance the groups we had made, how they came together, how they ate together, how they met in this room or that.” Having spent his life in search of some overarching, ideal platonic truth, Bernard has come to it at last – it is this uncertainty. Yet is there certainty even in uncertainty? Does there yet still remain something out there among the grasping, coveting, laboring, losing, winning, breathing horde of humanity that is nevertheless forever intertwined within the branches of that deep-rooted Tree of Life? He swears to find it. “And in me too the wave rises,” Bernard concludes. “. . . I am aware once more of a new desire, something beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. . . Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!”

I can only leave you with more Eliot:
Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the bless├Ęd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
A big thank-you to Claire for hosting!

here for Mrs. Dalloway.


Richard said...

I have an essay on Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" that I've occasionally thought about posting as a change of pace to my usual blog fare, E.L. Fay, but unlike you I have been way too chicken to actually go through with it! I'm curious, having now read your college essay inspired by The Waves, how the present day you would have responded differently to the work from when you were back in class. Any ideas on that you could share? Thanks for posting!

claire said...

Yes, E.L., I'd love to hear your answer to Richard's question. I wonder if you feel the same way about it now?

I love the connections you made with the poets. I never looked at it this critically but these were insightful. I do very much see Whitman's "embodiment of a vast and variegated multitude of individuals who coalesce into one nation" vs Woolf's characters in this book. I will be rereading Whitman soon and will be thinking of you and The Waves when I do.

Emily said...

Oh man, if I were to put up my college papers on Woolf, we'd all be sitting in front of our computers through the middle of next week! ;-)

Your connection between Woolf and Whitman is one I would NEVER have thought of, but it's so intriguing. I can definitely see it - as you say, a melancholic, European version, but the similar chorus of voices and preoccupation with the collective rather than the individual. Good food for thought!

E. L. Fay said...

Richard and Claire: Honestly, I haven't read The Waves since that college course, which was about two or three years ago. Basically, this part of Woolf in Winter was a cheat for me - I already had something written! I didn't have to read! Reading other people's posts, however, I've noticed that some have discussed a sense of isolation between the characters, which I don't think I noticed. And I also wonder how it would compare to Mrs. Dalloway, which I did read for WiW.

But I will say that my written response would be a little less . . . melodramatic. *rereads essay and cringes*

Emily: I actually had to read Whitman for another class that semester, so the connection became pretty easily. But like you, I am very much an American individualist, although I do find this "collective consciousness" stuff intriguing.

Richard said...

E.L. Fay, "melodramatic"? Does that mean that Woolf brought out your inner Undset? Ha ha, so, so funny if only to myself!!! :D

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