Turning back among the many leaves which the past had folded in him, peering into the heart of that forest where light and shade so chequer each other that all shape is distorted, and one blunders, now with the sun in one’s eyes, now with a dark shadow, he sought an image to cool and detach and round off his feeling in a concrete shape.
The idea of the self as contingent and in constant flux coupled with the impossibility of defining it is one which is integral to Virginia Woolf’s thought and fiction. Throughout her work Woolf is very much concerned with the idea of representing an accurate account of the self; one that embodies both the internal and external yet at the same time, resistant to any constructed linearity and totality. In her fiction and essays, Woolf is constantly searching for an accurate rendering of life, a representation of a ‘shape’ or ‘moment’ that contains the “granite-like solidity and…rainbow-like intangibility.” Therefore, when it came to the writing of her autobiographical work ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Woolf subverts the traditional Victorian idea of autobiography and presents a portrait of a self created and constructed by the specificities of time, space, physical sensation and memory. When discussing the complications of the genre, Laura Marcus in her Auto/biographical Discourses suggests that autobiography is a major source of interest because of its instability in terms of postulated opposites between self and world, literature and history, fact and fiction, subject and object. She argues that:
In an intellectual context in which, as Raymond Williams has perceptibly argued, these are seen as irreconcilably distinct, autobiography will appear either as a dangerous double agent, moving between these oppositions, or as a magical instrument of reconciliation.
In her autobiographical sketch, Woolf challenges the idea of a unified ‘I’ by breaking down any notion of fixed binary oppositions; she moves between them, not to unify or make an absolute pattern but to present “a medium in flux.” In ‘A Sketch’, Woolf reconceptualises the idea of fixed truths and attempts to ‘write the moment’, not as a rigid point in time but as something constantly changing and open to interpretation. She writes: “I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place but cannot describe the stream”, this metaphor illustrates Woolf’s difficulty with autobiography, she cannot extract the moment from the stream; she cannot separate it from the ceaseless movement of life. ‘A Sketch of the Past’ oscillates between autobiography, memoir and diary, Woolf is aware that narrator and subject can never be united and refuses to present the self in a continuous narrative; avoiding falsely ‘unifying’ her experience. She abandons the Victorian factual mode of autobiographical writing and constructs a form and structure which embodies both the present and past because, as Woolf observes when discussing memoirs: “One of the reasons why…so many are failures” is that “they leave out the person to whom things happened.”
Some critics have misunderstood Woolf’s task as autobiographer and what she is trying to achieve. In ‘A Sketch’, the self is presented as a series of unconnected moments in time with no centre or continuous narrative; the critic Daniel Albright has written that Woolf excludes the author and presents the subject as a “watery medium.” He then goes on to discuss what he calls her “programme of self-suppression and impersonality” and attributes this to a “sort of feminine anonymity.” Albright views Woolf’s autobiographical sketch as repressed and deems her fearful to present a unified self. However, Woolf is aware that the author remains outside the world represented in the text and she addresses this idea of a constructed self in her writing, attacking authors’ claims to omniscience and authentic voice. ‘A Sketch’implicitly questions the function of autobiography, Woolf is aware that unreliability and the question of intention are already ingrained in the genre and she deliberately sets out to destabilise it. As Anna Snaith writes when discussing Woolf’s fiction : “Rather than imposing form or unity on this multiplicity, Woolf accepts plurality as such, and she seeks structures in her writing which will allow ambiguity.” This is true of ‘A Sketch’, Woolf recounts her memories, her “moments of being”, in “fits and starts”, using the present dates to structure her memoir, allowing her to include a picture of herself as she relives these moments in her writing; the “I now, I then, come out in contrast.”
Woolf is aware of the difficulties of life-writing and when she is attempting to describe her childhood she observes: “That is what is indescribable, that is what makes images all too static, for no sooner has one said this was so, than it was past and altered.” An attempt to present ones existence chronologically and unified would not be a true representation; author, narrator and subject can never be fully united and, therefore, she cannot present an accurate account. This idea is taken up in the novel Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo which is presented as a fictive autobiography. Zeno’s quest for self-awareness manifests itself in his desire for health; however this self-awareness is unobtainable for him and is illustrated when he thinks of the numerous muscles that make up his walk:
I reacted with a start, and my thoughts immediately rushed to my legs, to seek this monstrous machinery. I believe I found it. Naturally I didn’t identify the fifty-four moving parts, but rather an enormous complication went to pieces the moment I intruded my attention upon it.
When Zeno consciously thinks of his muscular functions they become ‘self-conscious’ and he cannot keep them functioning correctly, this is also true with respect to his quest for self-awareness: when his thoughts and actions become self-conscious to him they manifest themselves in bodily sickness. This metaphor illustrates the impossibility of authentically writing about the self. There is always a gap between the narrating voice and the subject; any attempt to unify the two and self-consciously analyse one’s experiences results in false justifications and constructions of the self. Therefore when Woolf describes her childhood through what she describes as a “rough visual description in terms of childhood” she is aware of the constraints of language and refuses any attempt to rigidly fix by the written word the “bright colours; many distinct sounds; some human beings, caricatures; comic; several violent moments of being, always including a circle of the scene which they cut out: and all surrounded by a vast space […].” To attempt any further description of the visual sensations of her childhood would essentialise the moment and make it static and like Zeno, they would become self-conscious. Instead Woolf turns to what she describes as ‘scene making’ as a “natural way of marking the past.” For her, these scenes are representative and enduring and she writes:
This confirms me in my instinctive notion: […] the sensation that we are sealed vessels afloat on what it is convenient to call reality; and at some moments, the sealing matter cracks; in floods reality; that is, these scenes – for why do they survive undamaged year after year unless they are made of something comparatively permanent?”
Woolf is able to capture and write these moments of reality in her fiction, she is able to present the internal and external in dialectical relation in her novels because it is fictionalised; the author is able to adopt different voices and undercut the idea of an omniscient narrator. However, when it comes to her autobiography writing these moments of reality presents a difficulty, traditionally the autoboigrapher is expected to adopt this omniscient stance but to do so would render these ‘moments’ as fixed and lifeless. In ‘A Sketch’, Woolf is explicitly admitted into the text and this operates as a principle of uncertainty; the author is identical with the subject and now has to construct a new way of presenting this reality. It is the form and structure of ‘A Sketch’ that allows Woolf to write these moments, she can capture a sense of life as constructed by the present and open to revisions; the very idea of this unfinished sketch challenges the idea of omniscient narration and places the reader within this presented reality.
The post-structuralist critic Roland Barthes, asserts the independence of the literary text from the author’s intention: “The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” Here, Barthes places the role of the ‘author’ on the reader, in that the reader must take the discontinuities and fragments and hold them together in a whole. Jacques Derrida also takes up this concept in his lecture ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’. Derrida poses a challenge to the idea that words have universal truths and that an inherent meaning is possible. For Derrida, the meanings within a literary work are never fixed and reliable but always shifting and ambiguous; it is a characteristic of language to operate in subtle and often contradictory way so that certainty is elusive. Indeed, the critic Julia Briggs when discussing Jacob’s Room writes that by opening her up her texts to these uncertainties and ambiguities, Woolf revised the role of the reader within it. Briggs asserts: “The common reader pursues signs and attempts to knit them into a larger fabric, a whole – to create from them a meaningful structure through an effort of the imagination.” This idea of ‘wholeness’ is a concept that Woolf constantly makes reference to in her fiction, memoirs and diary. In ‘A Sketch’, when discussing her feelings of shock in relation to certain moments, she writes:
I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole […]”
She also observes, in A Writer’s Diary: “Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.” It is this idea of a certain ‘wholeness’ underlying existence that Woolf is preoccupied with; it is this “pattern hidden behind cotton wool” that she tries to capture.
In To the Lighthouse there is this notion of an underlying pattern and the constant attempts to capture it through language and art is one of the predominant themes of the novel. Lily Briscoe’s attempts to fuse space and time and the past and present in her painting, direct the novel to this idea of a possible unification. It is this reoccurring idea of ‘a medium in flux’ that Woolf tries to communicate and capture but she is aware that she is limited by language and constrained by these words that “fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low”The critic Randi Coppen, when discussing To the Lighthouse and ‘A Sketch’ writes: “They are both concerned with the connections between bios and body, with life as experienced by a body, and with the search for shapes that square up to this experience in painting or writing.” He then observes that in both these works, it is painting, rather than language, that is perceived as closer to the contingencies and responses of the body. In both ‘A Sketch’ and To the Lighthouse, Woolf strives to capture and present the self in these ‘moments of being’ that contain a certain transcendent truth and reality. If she explains or writes them down they become fixed in time “die beneath the pen” and, whereas to convey them in movement she would have to adopt an artistic form, as she asserts when describing her mother: “ […]if one could give a sense of my mother’s personality one would have to be an artist.”
Woolf is aware that language cannot fully communicate this pattern behind the cotton wool of life but she does infer that it is possible for an individual to catch a glimpse of it. Carl Jung, in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, also suggests that there is some underlying inherent order that we do not have direct access to: “I exist on the foundation of something I do not know. In spite of uncertainties, I feel a solidity underlying all existence and a continuity in my mode of being.” Woolf cannot fully present this idea of an underlying foundation of the self because, for her, “we are the word; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” This Kantian idea of ‘the thing in itself’ cannot be communicated because it is identical with the voice attempting to articulate it; “To identify oneself absolutely with oneself, to identify one’s ‘I’ with the ‘I’ that I tell is as impossible to lift oneself up by one’s hair.” However, Woolf is searching for a form that can penetrate this barrier, this “semi-transparent envelope”; she is aware that to describe the inner ‘I’ would be to experience it as a moment stopped in space and time as opposed to one in ceaseless movement. In The Waves, Woolf uses a new poetic form of writing whereby both the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ is embodied in the voices of the characters who are speaking in the present tense; the voices are multiple and “made and remade continually.” Here Woolf permeates the boundaries between author, subject and reader in an attempt get close to the pattern behind the opaque surface of life and portray “the thing in itself”. However, Woolf is still aware of the difficulties of this task, the character Bernard is constantly trying to “fix the moment” in his story telling, he is the ‘scene-maker’ as described in ‘A Sketch’. Bernard’s stories never reach a unity; language and form limit him and, as he observes, “something remains floating, unattached.” Similarly, Rhoda frequently becomes engulfed in the intensity and intangibility of the certain moments; she cannot hold both the internal and external in unity. When she catches this glimpse of the moment, the underlying order, her body becomes permeable, a “semi-transparent envelope”: “things are losing their hardness; even my body now lets the light through.” Rhoda must make a connection with something external, something solid, in order to reconnect with her self:
Unless I can stretch and touch something hard, I shall be blown down the eternal corridors for ever. What, then , can I touch? What brick, what stone? and so draw across the enormous gulf into my body safely?
This example of Rhoda’s difficulties with the intangibility of the moment, coupled with Bernard’s attempts at fixing it, exemplify a central theme in much of Woolf’s fiction and is one which is explicitly addressed in her autobiographical sketch. At the beginning of ‘A Sketch’, Woolf describes one of her early memories of the waves breaking outside her nursery and states “I describe it sometimes to myself, of lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi-transparent yellow […]” She is concerned with autobiography as a mode of consciousness and presents these “colour and sound memories”through this semi-transparent membrane. Woolf turns to the senses in order to convey these memories that can never be fully externalised and, as the critic Shari Benstock notes: “What is directly gazed upon in the memory remains absent; what is revealed comes by side glances and hints, in the effects of sound, light, smell, touch.” Woolf writes these ‘moments of being’ where she experiences a sense of the unconscious but she knows it cannot be united with consciousness and writes:
I am hardly aware of myself, but only of sensation. I am the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture.[…[ Later we add to feelings much that makes them more complex; and therefore less strong; or if not less strong, less isolated, less complete.
Here, Woolf’s ideas about the present moment’s inability to accurately present that of the past are in contrast with Georges Gusdorf’s ideas about autobiography in his seminal essay Conditions et limites de l’autobiographie. Gusdorf was aware that one cannot exactly reproduce the self of the past but argued that one can discover a certain ‘truth’ of the self through autobiography. For him a second reading of experience provides a consciousness of it and, in a sense, the ability hold the disunity and multiplicity of memories and moments in a whole:
The passage from immediate experience to consciousness in memory, which effects a sort of repetition of that experience, also serves to modify its significance. A new mode of being appears if it is true, as Hegel claimed, that “consciousness of the self is the birthplace of truth.”
Woolf viewed this re-reading of the past as detrimental to the truth of the moment; this new mode of being that Gudsorf describes is “less isolated, less complete” than the pure moment as experienced. Gusdorf acknowledges, like Woolf, that there is a pattern behind the cotton wool of life; a “mysterious essence of my being” that one cannot reach a consciousness of. However Gusdorf adopts a type of existentialist outlook in that he believes it is man’s “intervention that structures the terrain where his life is lived and gives it its ultimate shape”; man creates his own situation and it is his own subjectivity that is transcendental. Woolf on the other hand, is searching for a form that does not add complexity and detract from the sensation of the moment. She is aware that to impose her own design on existence would be to falsify it because she is writing from a platform of the present and: “What I write today I should not write in a years time.” In ‘A Sketch’ Woolf is aware she cannot fully articulate the ‘moment’ in her writing; she cannot translate the body and its sensations, which are inextricably tied to experience, into the written word. In her autobiographical sketch, the subject is sanctioned by the very act of writing; “the thing in itself” is identical with the author and can therefore never form a whole. In her diary, Woolf poses the question: “Suppose one can keep the quality of a sketch in a finished and composed work? That is my endeavour.” Although ‘A Sketch’ was never completed, it was always Woolf’s intention to present her work in this ‘sketch’ form. By adopting this form in her autobiography, Woolf does not hold her experience in a constructed unity; she presents it as a ‘moment’ or ‘part’ of the ‘whole’ that is hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life.
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