Writing the Moment: Virginia Woolf as Autobiographer in ‘A Sketch of the Past’

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.[1]

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.”[2]  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.[3]

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.”[4]  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.”[5]

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.”[6] 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.”[7] 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.”[8] This is true of ‘A Sketch’, Woolf recounts her memories, her “moments of being”, in “fits and starts”[9], 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.”[10]


Woolf is aware of the difficulties of life-writing and when she is attempting to [11]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.”[12] 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.[13]

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”[14] 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 […].”[15]  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.”[16] 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?”[17] 

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.”[18] 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.”[19] 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 […]”[20]

She also observes, in A Writer’s Diary: “Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.”[21]  It is this idea of a certain ‘wholeness’ underlying existence that Woolf is preoccupied with; it is this “pattern hidden behind cotton wool”[22] 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”[23]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.”[24] 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”[25] 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.”[26]

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.”[27]  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.”[28]  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.”[29]  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.”[30]  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”[31].  However, Woolf is still aware of the difficulties of this task, the character Bernard is constantly trying to “fix the moment”[32] 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.”[33]  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.”[34]  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?[35]

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 […]”[36]  She is concerned with autobiography as a mode of consciousness and presents these “colour and sound memories”[37]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.”[38]  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.[39]

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.”[40]

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”[41] 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”[42] 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”[43]; 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.”[44] 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.







Woolf, Virginia,  A Writers Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf (London; Hogarth Press, 1954)

Woolf, Virginia, Virginia Woolf: Selected Essays (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2008)

Woolf, Virginia  Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings of Virginia Woolf ed. Jeanne Schulkind (Sussex University Press: London, 1976)

Woolf, Virginia  The Waves (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008)

Woolf, Virginia,  To the Lighthouse  (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006) 

Albright ,Daniel, ‘Virginia Woolf as Autobiographer’ in The Kenyon Review, New Series Vol.6, No. 4 (Autumn,1984) pp.1-17

Bakhtin, Mikhail, quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Principle, trans. Wlad  Godzich (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984)

Beer, Gillian, Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground.Essays by Gillian Beer (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1996)

Benstock, Shari The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings (University of North Carolina Press,1988.)

Barthes, Roland, The Death of the Author: Image-Music-Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London:  Fontana, 1977

Briggs, Julia  Reading Virginia Woolf (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006)

Georges Gusdorf, ‘Conditions and Limits of Autobiography’ in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical  ed. James Olney (Princeton University Press, 1980) pp.28-48

Jung , Carl G, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Random House, 1963)  p.358

Koppen, Randi, ‘Embodied Form: Art and Life in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthousein New Literary History – Volume 32, Number 2, Spring 2001, pp. 375-389

Marcus, Laura,  Auto/biographical Discourses: Criticism,Theory,Practice (Manchester University  Press, 1994)

McCord, Phyllis, ‘“Little Corks that Mark a Sunken Net”: Virginia Woolf’s Sketch of the Past” as a Fictional Memoir’ in Modern language Studies, Vol. 16, No.3 , pp.247-254 

Snaith , Anna, Virginia Woolf: Public and Private Negotiations (St. Martin’s Press INC : United States)


[1] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse  (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006)  p.151

[2] Virginia Woolf ‘The New Biography’ in

[3] Laura Marcus, Auto/biographical Discourses: Criticism, Theory, Practice (Manchester University
Press, 1994), p.7

[4] Phyllis McCord,  ‘“Little Corks that Mark a Sunken Net”: Virginia Woolf’s “Sketch of the Past” as a fictional Memoir’ in Modern language Studies, Vol. 16, No.3 , pp.247-254, p.250

[5] Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’ in Moments of Being p.65

[6] Daniel Albright, ‘Virginia Woolf as Autobiographer’ in The Kenyon Review, New Series Vol.6, No. 4
(Autumn,1984) pp.1-17, p. 2

[7] Albright, p.17

[8] Anna Snaith, Virginia Woolf: Public and Private Negotiations (St. Martin’s Press INC : United States,  200) p.85

[9] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’ p.78

[10] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p.75


[12] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p79

[13] Italo Svevo, Zeno’s Conscience (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), 105.


[14] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p. 79

[15] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p.70

[16] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p.122

[17] Woolf. ‘A Sketch’, p. 122

[18] Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author: Image-Music-Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London:
Fontana, 1977), 148.


[19] Julia Briggs, Reading Virginia Woolf  (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2006) p.71

[20] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p.72

[21] Woolf, A Writers Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf (London; Hogarth Press, 1954). P.132

[22] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p.73

[23] Woolf, To the Lighthouse  p.178

[24] Randi Koppen ‘Embodied Form: Art and Life in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse  in New
Literary History
– Volume 32, Number 2, Spring 2001, pp. 375-389, p.3

[25] Woolf, ‘Moments of Vision’

[26] Woolf. ‘A Sketch’, p.85

[27] Carl G Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Random House, 1963)  p.358

[28] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p72

[29] Mikhail Bakhtin, quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Principle, trans. Wlad
Godzich (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p.52.

[30] Virginia Woolf, The Waves, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008) p.109

[31] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p.72

[32] Woolf, The Waves,  p.181

[33] Woolf, The Waves, p.61

[34] Woolf, The Waves p.35

[35] Woolf, The Waves p. 130

[36] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p. 65

[37] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’ p. 66

[38] Shari Benstock, The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings
(University of North Carolina Press,1988.) p. 27

[39] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p.67

[40] Georges Gusdorf, ‘Conditions and Limits of autobiography’ in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical
and Critical
 ed. James Olney (Princeton University Press, 1980) pp.28-48 ( p.38)

[41] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p.66

[42] Gusdorf, p.38

[43] Gusdorf, p.37

[44] Woolf, ‘A Sketch’, p.75

Presenting the Unpresentable: The Dialectic between Sound and Silence in Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.

What a curiosity it was to hold a pen […].  A lock removed from the tongue.  Otherwise the tongue is chained to the teeth and the palate.  An immersion into the living language: all at once this cleanliness, this capacity, this power to make history, to tell, to explain. To retrieve, to reprieve!  

To Lie. [1]

There has been much critical debate surrounding the topic of ‘Holocaust Literature’ and the impossibility, even brutality, of attempting to represent the unimaginable.  Indeed, Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum that “After Auschwitz to write a poem is barbaric”[2] is often taken as a point of departure and relentlessly quoted by literary scholars when discussing this genre.  However, for all the analysis and literature on the subject, it seems the ‘Holocaust Writer’ is still trapped within the circularity of the debate between representation and silence.  This is a conflict that the contemporary Jewish-American author Cynthia Ozick addresses and opens up in her essays and fiction.  In the preface to her short story Bloodshed and Three Novellas, Ozick writes: “the story-making faculty itself can be a corridor to the corruptions and abominations of idol-worship”[3] but then goes onto say “Why do I, who dread the cannibal touch of story-making, lust after stories more and more and more?”[4]It is this dialectic between sound and silence that Ozick’s short stories in The Shawl[5] are concerned with.  Ozick is aware that to remove a “lock from the tongue” and allow the subject of the holocaust an “immersion into living language”[6], risks aestheticizing it and opens it up to ambiguities. Ozick appeals to Derrida’s concept of ‘deconstruction’, she is aware that it is characteristic of language to operate in subtle and often contradictory ways and that a single, unified and objective perspective is impossible; it has the “power to make history, to tell, to explain. To retrieve, to reprieve! To Lie.” [7]

The critic Efraim Sicher, when discussing the ‘Holocaust Novel’, writes that the genre:

[…] bursts the already fuzzy generic boundaries of autobiography and fiction, memoir and fantasy, historical document and realist novel. The incredible invites the surreal, and the absurdity of mass death defies narrative conventions of life stories, the Bildungsroman, or the epistolary form.[8]

Post-structuralist criticism of literature contributes to the idea that apparently unified concepts such as literary texts and the ‘self’ are in fact fragmented, self-divided and centreless; therefore the idea of stable ‘fixed truths’, in relation to these concepts, is deconstructed.  It follows that any attempts to address the already problematic subject of the Holocaust risks a false ordering of it; an imposition of narrative order which could trivialise the subject and become reductive.  Ozick is aware of this potential danger and in The Shawl, she refuses any ideological reading, snubbing grand historical narratives; instead focussing on the individual and the singular.  When discussing fiction in her ‘Commentary’, Ozick writes: “The poetry of fiction may take up ideas, may resemble ideas—but not ‘real’ ideas […] All writing is fabrication […]”[9]  Indeed, the Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel insists that one cannot tell the story of the Holocaust; all one can do is to tell fragments of memory and stories of particular personalities and events. In one of his articles entitled ‘Art and Culture after the Holocaust’ he famously wrote: “Let us tell tales. Let us tell tales – all the rest can wait, all the rest must wait. […] The difficulty lies in transmission. Not all the tales can be, should be, communicated in language.”[10] Ozick shares this recognition with Wiesel, they both appeal to the idea that whatever is expressed in art is also subject to the laws of composition and constrained by the limits of language.   Furthermore, Ozick refuses to make an ‘Idol’ out of literature, as this would be a violation of the Second Commandment and an implication in sin.  In her essay entitled ‘Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom’, Ozick discusses idolatry and writes: “It leads back only to itself.  It is indifferent to the world and to humanity. Like a toy or like a doll- which, in fact, is what an idol is-it lures human beings to copy it, to become like it. It dehumanises.”[11]  This ‘idol making’ and attempts at representation, presents what George Steiner describes as “an in-gathering of all existence into a ‘oneness’ of strictly inconceivable compaction, and a zero point.”[12]  This idea that representation in art unifies the multiple and creates false meaning in an image or ‘Idol’  appeals to Adorno’s provocative  call for ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’.  Adorno feared that any attempts to represent the unimaginable in an aesthetic image would construct a morality and political ideology; transforming “the physical pain of those who were beaten down with rifle butts”[13] into something concrete, creating meaning.  Whereas Adorno favoured works of art that existed as ends in themselves without preaching a moral lesson, Ozick differs in this respect in that she looks for works of art to reveal “a certain corona of moral purpose”[14] she believes that “a story must not merely be but mean.”[15] In numerous essays, she turns to the idea that in order to be redeemed and to turn towards God, art should not exist as an end in itself; it shouldn’t exist for its own creativity.  However, she later goes on to write that the artist is not a moral creature and it is the artist’s imaginative power that, despite making art possible, opens it up to corruption:

Imagination seeks out the unsayable and the undoable, and says and does them. And still more dangerous: the imagination always has the lust to tear down meaning, to smash interpretation…to spill out with so much quicksilver wonder idol after idol after idol.[16]

Ozick fears that the image can be mistaken for this ‘unsayable’ and ‘undoable’; the aesthetic ideologies of art can be wrongly equated with that which exists beyond it.

When attempts are made to represent the Holocaust in literature, instead of an objective and historical account, the reader is confronted with a representation of the reality and “the extremity that eludes the concept, what Kant called the “abyss of the imagination.”[17]  Michael Bernard-Donalis, in his essay ‘Sublimity, Redemtion, Witness’, discusses this idea of the limits of imagination and makes a comparison with Kant’s concept of the ‘sublime’. Kant, in his Critique of Judgement, wrote “what is sublime…cannot be contained in any sensible form…which, though [it] cannot be exhibited adequately, [is] aroused and called to mind by this very inadequacy.”[18]   In the context of this study, this concept is particularly interesting when applied to Ozick’s thoughts about fiction.  Ozick is aware of art’s inadequacies when attempting to represent the unrepresentable, however, it is this awareness that allows her to write.  During an interview in 1985, Ozick, when questioned about her fiction, explained: “I’m completely torn and in an unholy conflict between moral seriousness and its clash with aestheticism.”[19]  It is this conflict between ‘art as idol’ versus art incorporating ‘otherness’ that forms the nexus of Ozick’s short stories. It is her self imposed task to produce writing which registers the gap between imagination and understanding; writing which is aware of its own limits and constantly battling against the ‘fall’ of language into representation.  It is this “moral seriousness”[20] that Ozick strives for, she explores representation as an act of violence in order to, in Adorno’s words, “explode the art from the inside”[21].  Ozick infiltrates both worlds in order to expose the limits and illusions of idolatrous realism.  Perhaps Jean-Francois Lyotard’s characterisation of ‘the postmodern’ in his influential study A Postmodern Condition: A Report of Knowledge, is appropriate here.  Lyotard writes:

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself-, that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.[22]

It is this idea of the unpresentable, inherent in postmodern ethics, which Ozick is concerned with in her fiction.  Indeed, this particular paragraph of Lyotard’s seems to fit in rather neatly with Ozick’s stance on idolatry.  However, although critics have made much of Ozick’s ‘postmodernism’, it seems that, while she adheres to certain sensibilities, it does not fulfill her view that literature should reveal moral purpose.  For example, Victor Strandberg, in his study Greek Mind, Jewish Soul: the Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick, discusses the postmodern aspects of her work in some depth but also quotes Ozick renouncing the postmodern: “I am thinking about the old lost power of ‘having a subject’, …about the malaise of subjectlessness, which leads to parody or to nihilism: esthetic ‘distance’, distaste, the “absurd”, affliction, dead ends, death.”[23]  Whilst Ozick may employ certain postmodern techniques, she does so, not to renounce history or tradition, but to: “create a rupture in the surface of the postmodern present, a rupture which emphasizes the absence of the past as the critical problemwith the present.”[24] Ozick acknowledges this failure inherent in presentation; she bears witness to the ‘unpresentable’ and attempts to transcend the potential nihilism of the postmodern. Her stories become witness to the ineffability of the Holocaust whilst exploring the pretensions of idolatry; that which obscures and stands in for what cannot be presented.

In ‘The Shawl’, Ozick has the problematic undertaking of ‘writing history’, she is aware that unreliability and the question of intention are already ingrained in the task and she deliberately sets out to destabilise the notion of causality and linear time.  Instead of placing her story within a grand historical framework, Ozick concentrates on the individual, using the written word economically but poetically; alluding to the horror of the whole.  Lyotard, in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, writes: “Narrative organisation is constitutive of diachronic time, and the time that it constitutes has the effect of “neutralizing” an “initial” violence, or representing a presence without representation […]”[25]  This is what Ozick is trying to avoid, she does not want to falsely unify experience and instead replaces linear time with this eerie feeling of timelessness.  The story opens with the paradoxical line: “Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell”[26], here the linguistic sign is subverted and the reader enters the nightmare world where any notion of a ‘centre’ has been deconstructed.   Ozick appeals to the discontinuity and uniqueness of language to overturn any universalist interpretation and the reader is presented with minimum information about the characters and events. In ‘The Shawl’, she displaces narrative continuity and retains the feeling of the unpresentable in her language.  For example, Ozick writes:

Rosa did not feel hunger; she felt light, not like someone walking but like someone in a faint, in a trance, arrested in a fit, someone who is already a floating angel, alert and seeing everything, but in the air, not there, not touching the road.  As if teetering on the tips of her fingernails.[27]

Ozick explores the gap between reason and imagination and the impossibility of reconciling the two in language.  She seeks out this “unsayable” and “the undoable”[28] and at the same time highlights the difficulty of presentation through her continuous use of paradox and conflict: “Rosa was ravenous, but also not” and Magda’s belly is “fat with air, full and round.”[29]

For Ozick, language cannot hold these images in any sensible form and it functions as an obstruction rather than revealing. This is further explored in the tension between sound and silence that pervades the story; Ozick is faced with the paradox of trying to communicate silence in speech. Bernard-Donalis discusses this notion of the unpresentable, or the ‘sublime’, that is stirred when faced with an event that defies our capacity to present it to the faculties of the mind, he writes that it:

[…] forces a recognition of an entity — a nothing, a no-place —that exists, as a void or an abyss beyond that capacity; and the presentation through narrative, through the “aesthetic idea,” of that which suspends knowledge in favour of a vertiginous sense of what lies beyond it, are intimately connected.[30]

The Shoah forces the imagination to recognise its own limits of reason but, in ‘The Shawl’,  instead of leading back to itself and “spilling out […]wonder idol after idol after idol”[31], language points to ‘the other’; to complexities beyond the word.   It is silence that keeps Rosa alive: “Everyday Magda was silent, and so she did not die.”[32]  However, it is this silence that causes Rosa to believe that : “something had gone wrong with her vocal cords […] Magda was defective, without a voice; perhaps she was deaf; there might be something amiss with her intelligence; Magda was dumb”.[33]  Here, Ozick turns to this idea of the “unsayable” and “the undoable”[34], her attempts to represent the horror of the concentration camp, lead to this Kantian idea of a ‘void’ or ‘abyss’ in language and imagination.  Magda communicates sound through her silence: “even the laugh that came […] was only the air-blown showing of her teeth”[35], whereas Ozick inverts this concept to communicate silence through sound; through language.  When Magda breaks this silence, it leads to her horrific death, yet when Rosa is taunted to run to Magda by the guard’s “steel voices” and “growling” she takes Magda’a shawl and “filled her mouth with it […]until she was swallowing up the wolf’s screech”.[36]

Magda does not break her silence and survives.  On the one hand, this tension between sound and silence can be read as a parable for the difficulties inherent in ‘Holocaust Writing’; the impossibility to give a voice to that which is beyond language.  However, it also points to Bernard-Donalis’ earlier description of this notion of the ‘unpresentable’ and “a recognition of an entity — a nothing, a no-place —that exists, as a void or an abyss”.[37]  Ozick, with the image of the dead child, is confronted with this ‘abyss of imagination’ and, instead of giving Rosa a voice, she stifles it.  The very act of Rosa filling her mouth with the shawl does not imply an imprisonment in language; an inability to communicate, instead it points to and bears witness to the ‘unsayable’; the ‘otherness’ in language. This is an idea that Derrida turns to  in ‘Deconstruction and the Other’, he discusses the misconception that his work is a declaration that nothing exists beyond language and writes: “The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the ‘other’ and the ‘other of language.’”[38] In this context, Ozick recognises that she is constrained by language but, at the same she time, creates an opening to the ‘other’ in order to maintain the memory and call attention to that which is forgotten in the act of representation:

Sometimes the electricity inside the fence would seem to hum; even Stella said it was only an imagining, but Rosa heard real sounds in the wire: grainy sad voices. The farther she was from the fence, the more clearly the voices crowded at her…The lamenting voices strummed so convincingly, so passionately, it was impossible to suspect them of being phantoms.[39]

Here, Ozick alludes to this ‘other of language’, literally the fence represents the characters own entrapment and division from reality but it is also symbolic of Ozick’s difficulties with language.  The repetition of the word ‘voice’; the ‘grainy’ and ‘lamenting’ voices which Stella believes to be Rosa’s imagination, are representative of  the ‘other’ in language which is unobtainable and unrepresentable; sometimes perceived as a phantom.  Derrida, in the same essay, writes: “Deconstruction is not an enclosure in nothingness but an openness towards the other”[40] and, in keeping with this, ‘The Shawl’ is, in Lyotard’s words, testimony to the unpresentable in presentation itself.  Moreover, in pointing to the ‘other’; ‘the Shawl’ leads onto Ozick’s next short story, ‘Rosa’.

‘Rosa’ was originally published1980 and then published as the second story in The Shawl in 1989. Critics have discussed the relationship between the two short stories; Joseph Akedah writes:“the speech of ‘Rosa’ fills many textual gaps left by ‘The Shawl’”[41] and Elaine Kauver writes: “The silence that  pervades ‘The Shawl’ is broken in Rosa”[42].  Indeed, this second story takes a more conventional form; it moves from the fragmentation of ‘The Shawl’ to a recounting of Rosa’s history and an exploration of her imagination.  Daniel Schwarz, in his analysis of The Shawl, writes: “The relationship between the two stories shows how memory imbues the present with corrosive energy.”[43] This relationship between the two texts implicitly asks the question: can one exist without the other?  Both stories are connected by their thematic concerns and mutual metaphor, whereas ‘The Shawl’ exists as a story in itself, ‘Rosa’ constantly points back to the past and it’s living relationship with the present.  At the end of ‘The Shawl’ when Rosa fills her mouth with Magda’s shawl, she represses her voice, her “wolf’s screech” and “drank Magda’s shawl until it dried.”[44]  It is this repressed voice that surfaces in ‘Rosa’; Ozick breaks up the linearity of the narrative with letters to Magda and allusions to the past.

Rosa’s sense of self has no parameters to define itself apart from the past; she becomes trapped within her own language and imagination. As Rosa walks through the streets “she saw everything, but as if out of invention, out of imagination; she was unconnected with anything.” [45] Her imagination and memory construct her present, on the beach the sand is “littered with bodies” and she becomes “locked behind the barbed wire”[46], her present becomes a canvass for the past.  Her only escapes from this entrapment are  through her letters to Magda which are written in “the most excellent Literary Polish”[47] and through  Magda’s shawl which is a “pedestrian object transformed into a totem or fetish, a way of creating meaning in a time of terror.”[48] Indeed, Amy Gottfried writes: “The text’s only lyrical moments emerge through Magda, making, I believe, a significant equation linking memory and loss with the sublime, and the present with repugnance.”[49] It is Magda as “a butterfly touching a silver vine”[50] that escapes the present, she is immortalised in Rosa and, to re-quote Kant’s concept of the ‘sublime’,“cannot be contained in any sensible form…which, though [it] cannot be exhibited adequately, [is] aroused and called to mind by this very inadequacy.”[51]  Lyotard’s idea of putting forward the ‘unpresentable in presentation itself’ is embodied in the characters of Magda and Rosa.  Rosa cannot find any solace in the present as no-one can enter her history and language, she cannot reconcile her past with her present; Magda and Rosa cannot be united.  Any attempts to recapture this past and “not only tell our story, but other stories as well”[52] is like “talking to the deaf”[53]; unification between past and present is impossible.  It is this very impossibility that emphasizes the absence of the past and points to the ‘other’, or, in Derridean terms, the ‘other of language’.  However, in ‘The Shawl’ this idea of the ‘other’ or the unrepresentable is left open, whereas in ‘Rosa’ Ozick explores the risk of aesthetics and the imagination which “always has the lust to tear down meaning, to smash interpretation…to spill out with so much quicksilver wonder idol after idol after idol.”[54]

Rosa makes an ‘idol’ out of the past, Magda’s shawl becomes this ‘idol’; an invention which serves to separate Rosa from the present.  When Rosa makes a phone call to her niece Stella, she places the shawl over the receiver and it is described as “a little doll’s head”, then Rosa kisses it and “the whole room was full of Magda: she was like a butterfly”[55]. This description calls to mind Ozick’s earlier descriptions of idolatry in her essay ‘Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom’, Ozick compares the idol to a doll and writes: “it lures human beings to copy it, to become like it. It dehumanises.”[56]  In this scene with the telephone, the ‘idol’ (shawl) is given a voice and this very act smothers the voice of the ‘other’; that which is unpresentable, attempts to present itself.  Rosa exists in this image of Magda, she “drank the shawl”[57] and now “Magda is Rosa, and in loving Magda, Rosa loves an image of herself arrested from history.”[58]  However, at the end of the story Rosa notices that Magda is turning away, she is now only a “speck in Rosa’s eye”.[59]  Whereas before, Rosa’s memories imbued the present with  a “corrosive energy”[60] now she is propelled forward.  Like Walter Benjamins’s description of Paul Klee’s painting ‘Angelus Novus’, where he writes:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise […] This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.  The storm is what we call progress.[61]

Rosa is a prisoner in this eternal catastrophe which will continually repeat itself, however, she cannot “make whole what has been smashed.”[62]  Any attempts to make it whole, to make an ‘idol’ out of history, leaves out the voice of the ‘other’; it leads back only to itself.  Whereas before, Rosa believed that the ‘storm of progress’ would destroy her past, now she must allow her past a space in her present: “Butterfly, I am not ashamed of your presence: Only come to me, come to me again, if no longer now, then later, always come.”[63]

In The Shawl, Ozick explores representation as an act of violence in order to expose the limits and illusions of idolatry.  She communicates the ‘unpresentable in presentation itself’ which imparts this strong sense of the ‘other’, a rupture in the present which emphasis the absence of the past.  Ozick does not want to fix history in language as she is aware of its power to “make history, to tell, to explain. To retrieve, to reprieve! To Lie.” [64]  Instead, her stories are witness to the ineffability of the Holocaust and the impossibility of representation which forces recognition of the ‘other’; that which is not spoken.


Ozick, Cynthia, The Shawl (London: Phoenix, 2007)

Ozick, Cynthia, Bloodshed and Three Novellas (New York :Knopf,1976)

Ozick, Cynthia,  A Cynthia Ozick Reader, Ed. Elaine M. Kauvar (Bloomington &Indianapolis: Indiana Universiy Press, 1996)

Ozick, Cynthia, Portrait of the Artist as Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing (London:Pimlico, 1996)

Ozick, Cynthia,  Art and Ardor, Essays by Cynthia Ozick (New York, Knopf, 1983)

Alkana, Joseph, ‘”Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification?”: Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl ,  the Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aestetics’ in Modern Fiction Studies 43.4 (1997) pp.963- 990

Benjamin, Walter , Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1969)

Bernard-Donalis, Michael & Gleizer, Richard Between Witness and Testimony: The Holocaust and the Limits of  Representation (Suny, 2001)

Gottfried ,Amy, ‘Fragmented Art and the Liturgical Community of the Dead in Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl’ in Studies in American Jewish Literature, ser.2:13 (1994) p.39 51

Kauver, Elaine M.,Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention (Bloomington and Indianapolis:Indiana University Press,1993)

Kearney, Richard (ed.), Dialogues with contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage (Manchester University Press, 1984)

Kerry Powers, Peter,  ‘Disruptive Memories: Cynthia Ozick, Assimilation and the Invented Past’ in MELUS, vol.20, No,3, History and Memory (Autumn, 1995), pp.79-97

Leak, Andrew and George Paizis (ed.), The Holocaust and the Text (Great Britain: Macmillan Press Ltd.,2000)

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). Tr. Geoff Bennington and  Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986),

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge:  Polity Press, 1991)

Schwarz, Daniel, Imagining the Holocaust (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999)

Sicher, Efraim, The Holocaust Novel, (New York and London: Routledge, 2005)

Soussloff, Catherine M, Jewish Identity in Modern Art History (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1999)

Strandberg, Victor, Greek Mind, Jewish Soul: the Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozicki (United States: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994)

Wiesel, Elie, ‘Art and Culture after the Holocaust’, in Eva Flrischner (ed.), Austwitz: Beginning of a New Era?   Reflections on the Holocaust (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1974)

[1] Cynthia Ozick, ‘Rosa’, in The Shawl (London: Phoenix, 2007)p.44

[2] Theodor Adorno, ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’ in Catherine M Soussloff,  Jewish Identity in Modern Art  History (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1999)p.67

[3] Cynthia Ozick, “Preface” to Bloodshed and Three Novellas (New York:Knopf, 1976) p.11

[4] Ozick, “Preface” to Bloodshed and Three Novellas, p.12

[5] The Shawl will be used for the publication that includes both short stories ‘The Shawl’ and ‘Rosa’.

[6] Ozick, ‘Rosa’, p.44

[7] Cynthia Ozick, ‘Rosa’, p.44

[8] Efraim Sicher, The Holocaust Novel (New York and London: Routledge, 2005)   p. xii

[9] Ozick, ‘Commentary’ in Art and Ardor, Essays by Cynthia Ozick (New  York, Knopf, 1983).p.9

[10] Elie Wiesel, ‘Art and Culture after the Holocaust’, in Eva Flrischner (ed.), Austwitz: Beginning of a New Era?  Reflections on the Holocaust (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1974) p.403

[11] Ozick, ‘Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom’ in Portrait of the Artist as Bad Character as Bad Character and  Other Essays on Writing (London:Pimlico, 1996),p.148

[12] George Steiner, ‘The Great Tautology’, quoted in Michael Bernard-Donalis & Gleizer, Richard ‘Sublimity,  Redemption, Witness’ in Between Witness and  Testimony: The Holocaust and the Limits of  Representation  (Suny, 2001) p.2

[13] Adorno, ‘Commitment’ quoted in Between Witness and  Testimony, p.3

[14] Ozick ‘Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means’, in Art and Ardor, Essays by Cynthia Ozick (New  York, Knopf, 1983) p.245

[15] Cynthia Ozick, Bloodshed, p.4

[16] Ozick, ‘Literature’ in Art and Ardor, p.296

[17]  Michael Bernard-Donalis & Gleizer, Richard ‘Sublimity, Redemption, Witness’ in Between Witness and  Testimony: The Holocaust and the Limits of  Representation (Suny, 2001) p. 2

[18] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment p. 245  in Michael Bernard-Donalis ‘Sublimity, Redemption, Witness’  p.12

[19] Cynthia Ozick, Interview quoted in ‘Introduction’ in A Cynthia Ozick Reader, Ed. Elaine M. Kauvar (Indiana Universiy Press, Bloomington &Indianapolis, 1996) p.XX

[20] Ozick, Interview quoted in ‘Introduction’ in A Cynthia Ozick Reader p.XX

[21] Adorno, ‘Commitment’ p.88 in Michael Bernard-Donalis ‘Sublimity, Redemption, Witness’, p.4

[22] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). Tr. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), p.81

[23] Ozick, ‘Works in Progress’ in New York Times Book Review quoted in Victor Strandberg, Greek Mind, Jewish  Soul: the Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick (United States: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994) p.103

[24] Peter Kerry Powers, ‘Disruptive Memories: Cynthia Ozick, Assimilation and the Invented Past’ in MELUS,  vol.20, No,3, History and Memory (Autumn, 1995), pp.79-97 (p.88)

[25] Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991) p.16

[26] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’ p.1

[27] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’, p.2

[28] Ozick, ‘Literature’ in Art and Ardor, p.296

[29] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’, p.5

[30] Bernard-Donalis, p.15

[31] Ozick, ‘Literature’ in Art and Ardor, p.296

[32] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’ p.7

[33] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’ p.7

[34] Ozick, ‘Literature’ in Art and Ardor, p.296

[35] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’ p.7

[36] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’ p.7

[37] Bernard-Donalis, p.15

[38] Jacques Derrida, ‘Deconstruction and the Other’, in Richard Kearney (ed.), Dialogues with contemporary  Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage (Manchester University Press, 1984), p.123

[39] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’, p.9

[40] Derrida, ‘Deconstruction and the Other’, p.124

[41] Joseph Alkana, ‘”Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification?”: Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, the Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aestetics’ in Modern Fiction Studies 43.4 (1997) pp.963- 990 (p.969)

[42] Elaine M. Kauver, Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1993) p.197

[43], Daniel Schwarz,  Imagining the Holocaust (St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1999) p.304

[44] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’ p.10

[45] Ozick, ‘Rosa’, p.47

[46] Ozick, ‘Rosa’, p.49

[47] Ozick, ‘Rosa’  p.14

[48] Schwarz, p.307

[49] Amy Gottfried, ‘Fragmented Art and the Liturgical Community of the Dead in Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl’ in Studies in American Jewish Literature, ser.2:13 (1994) p.39-51 (p.43)

[50] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’, p.9

[51] Kant, , Critique of Judgment p. 245  in Michael Bernard-Donalis ‘Sublimity, Redemption, Witness’  p.12

[52] Ozick, ‘Rosa’, p.66

[53] Ozick, Rosa’, p.69

[54] Ozick, ‘Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom’ in Portrait of the Artist as Bad Character,p.148

[55] Ozick, ‘Rosa’, p.64

[56] Ozick, ‘Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom’ in Portrait of the Artist as Bad Character,p.148

[57] Ozick, ‘The Shawl’, p10

[58] Powers, p.92

[59] Ozick, ‘Rosa’, p.69

[60] Schwarz, p.304

[61] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1969), p.249

[62] Benjamin, Illuminations p.249

[63] Ozick, ‘Rosa’, p.69

[64] Ozick, ‘Rosa’, p.44

The City of Dreadful Night. James Thomson: Laureate of Pessimism or Early Modernist?

“It is a curious thing, do you know, Cranly said dispassionately, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.”[1]

Thomson has been referred to by many critics as a poet striving to find a voice in amongst the chaos, pessimism and mental confusion that marked the Victorian era and has variously been described as a social outsider, religious apostate and atheistic pessimist. Many critical studies of The City of Dreadful Night (1874) have described Thomson as a ‘laureate of pessimism’, stuck in his alienation to whom Faith, Love and Hope are dead.  It is evident that Thomson’s work, up until 1860, reveals an anxiety in completely denouncing religious orthodoxy but after 1861, when he became more associated with Higher Criticism of the Bible and Darwinism, Thomson’s poetry took a more atheistic turn, culminating in the complete repudiation of religion in The City.  Thomson explored his existential suffering in his poetry and essays and was undoubtedly responding to the pervasive nineteenth-century trend of feeling in the Victorian era of doubt which was largely brought about by the breakdown of orthodox religion, the dissolution of idealism and the destructive forces of growing industrialism.

However, to simply read Thomson in this context; refusing to abandon the all too apparent limitations this proposes, becomes reductive.  Too many tired critical tropes have boxed Thomson under the category ‘Victorian pessimist’, failing to see the “dialectic of light and darkness”[2] that permeates his poetry. I propose to argue that Thomson’s proclamation of atheism in The City helped to shape a modernist sensibility within his poetry, allowing him to present the themes of alienation and disillusionment in new and experimental ways.  As Thomson became increasingly aware and critical of the aporias of dogmatic religion, he proclaimed his repudiation of Christianity and looked for something else to replace it.  Thomson’s City is a canvass to explore the modern sensibility in which “Man is mired – take your choice – in the mass, in the machine, in the city, in a loss of faith, in the hopelessness of a life without anterior intention or terminal value.”[3]  In The City, his proclamation of atheism is manifested in the attack and inversion of religious themes in order to emphasise the meaningless of existence in a world with no God or hope for salvation. However, these religious principles are in fact made more conspicuous through their absence, the result being that their form lingers and residues of meaning, which are nevertheless detached from their Christian source, are revealed and it is the poet’s task to re-attach this meaning to a different symbolic system.

There has already been some critical discussion regarding Thomson’s capacity for anticipating modernist themes. Edward Morgan, in his Introduction to the 1993 publication of The City of Dreadful Night, discusses T.S. Eliot’s published tribute to Thomson and the Scottish poet, John Davidson. Morgan comments:

They had particular modernity, a sort of prophetic modern adumbration, deeply incorporating urban experience into poetry, which he did not find in their English contemporaries.[…]  Eliot swept his eye over them more widely and saw them as a figures symbolic of the exile and alienation of the early-modern artist.[4] 

Indeed, Eliot cited Thomson as having an important influence on his poetry and this is most evident in The Waste Land (1922), where Thomson’s ‘City’ is present in Eliot’s landscape, in the use of urban imagery and also the philosophical and religious ideas.[5]  In The City of Dreadful Night, Thomson presents a modern experience, incorporating growing industrialism, science, loss of faith and alienation into his poetry.  However, to describe Thomson within the terms of modernism can be problematic due to periodisation and his status as a Victorian poet. There has been much discussion and difficulty in assigning dates to Modernism; some studies date the beginning to the mid-nineteenth century to the thoughts of Karl Marx and Baudelaire whereas others quote Virginia Woolf’s famous statement in ‘Character in Fiction’ where she asserts: “on or about December, 1910, human character changed”[6]. There is also much deliberation between Modernism and its relationship to modernity and the difficulty of defining the ‘movement’.[7] However, for the purposes of this study it is not conducive to delve into the intricacies of periodisation and definition but to view Thomson’s ‘modernism’ in terms of his sensibility and style. Irving Howe, in his essay ‘The Idea of the Modern’, discusses the subjectivity of the modernist outlook and addresses the issue of essentialising it:.

[…] it is quite impossible to sum up the central assumptions of modernism […] Literary modernism is battle of internal conflicts more than a coherent set of theories or values. It provides a vocabulary through which the post powerful imaginations of the time can act out a drama of doubt.[8]

Howe also writes that a modernist culture sees the human lot as inescapably problematic and that “in a modernist culture the problematic as a style of inquiry becomes imperious: men learn to find comfort in their wounds.”[9]  Thomson engages with these modernist themes in The City, exposing his internal conflict in an attempt to make artistic sense of the alienated mind in his poetry. This idea of Art as a uniting device or sanctuary is one which is intrinsic to modernism and one to which Thomson turns: “To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth / Stripped naked of all vesture that beguiles”.[10]  Thomson attempts to reclaim this ‘truth’ and provide an alternative hope: solace and liberation through art.

In the Proem, the narrator addresses the reader and explains why and for whom he is writing. He asserts his alienation by emphasising the futility of existence in a meaningless world and attacks the “hopeful young” and “pious spirits”[11] who are content to live in a numb state of false happiness. Instead, the narrator states that he is writing for some “weary wonderer”[12] who inhabits a city where hope and faith are dead.  Here, Thomson identifies the City as a place of the mind; he breaks away from the idea of the Romantic heritage of unified and transcendental poetic consciousness and frames the poem within a modern consciousness. This is a site where there is no authoritative centre to look to for validation; the temporal boundaries are permeable.  The narrator’s journey through the city oscillates between the interior and exterior world which is both liberating and psychologically unsettling.  Thomson turns to this modern decentred mind in order to disrupt and question the concepts and margins which previously defined the ‘centre’ i.e. religious faith.  However, the narrator’s attack on religion and the proclamation of meaningless seems contradictory; if meaning is an illusion created by false hope this also implies that art (in this instance poetry) is meaningless, depicting a false reality and illusion of purpose. This begs the question why the poet should write at all and this noted contradiction in the Proem anticipates many contradictions and paradoxes throughout The City.  However, Thomson’s claim is that he is writing for a Fraternity of people living in the same alienation: “Because it gives some sense of power and passion/In helpless impotence to try and fashion/Our woe in living words howe’er uncouth.”[13]  This suggests that he does in fact attribute hope to art. By inverting the traditional idea of religion as a union between men and instead presenting it as a false construction of human aspirations, Thomson professes that it is Literature which can unite the “desolate, Fate-smitten”[14] people he addresses in the Proem, not the delusion of God.

In Section One and Two of The City, Thomson continues to attack and invert the idea of Christian truth. He renounces three perpetually recurring terms of life; the theological virtues of Faith, Love and Hope. The wanderer revels in his alienation and slowly traces out the death of each virtue in the urban squalid landscape; lamenting each one despairingly. Here, Thomson’s descriptions and portrayal of the landscape anticipates many techniques of modernism, the wanderer’s journey through the city foregrounds the imagery and intimacy of “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes”[15] in Eliot’s Prufrock and the ‘Unreal City’ of the Wasteland.  Thomson’s city induces a hypnotic stupor in its inhabitants:

The City is of Night, but not of Sleep;

There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain;

The pitiless hours like years and ages creep,

A night seems termless hell.  This dreadful strain

Of thought and consciousness which never ceases,

Or which some sane moments’ stupor but increases,

This, worse than woe, makes wretches there insane.[16]

This is not the avant-garde insomnia of Futurism[17] but a Kafkaesque surrealistic depiction of the despairing consciousness; the inhabitants of the city are trapped in a circular world devoid of meaning and faith.  Allusions to religion are stripped of their sacred significance: “some old God’s-acre now corruption’s sty”[18], “pilgrimage to ruined shrines”[19], satirising what the church as become and mocking those who belong to the Christian institution.  Thomson dislocates this ‘traditional’ Christian language and Romantic ideal and inverts it; reattaching it to his own modern message and creating a new poetic reality. He then goes on to emphasise that these ‘pious’ people are simply enduring life, like him and his fraternity; they mechanically exist, doomed to a life of endurance.  The entrapment and circularity of life is stressed by the image of the watch with no dial face, hands or purpose: “void of use, still go.”[20]   This also calls to mind Bergson’s idea of spatiliazed time in his Time and Free Will (1889) where he conceives of a subjective time in opposition to an objective time outside of the self.  Bergson developed his concept dureé (duration): “Duration properly so called has no moments which are identical or external to one another, being essentially heterogeneous, continuous, and with no analogy to number.”[21] Bergson makes a distinction between external and internal time and establishes the former as the most important.  The inhabitants of Thomson’s city are divided between the ‘pious’ people who live in an external time regulated  by external parameters (religion in this case) and  the ‘sad fraternity’ who are doomed to this condition of dureé with no objective meaning; both conditions are presented as equally destructive.  Thomson then defines this life with a mathematical formula: “Life divided by that persistent three=LXX/33=0.210”. “LXX(70)”[22] representing the average life span, which when divided by “333”, the trinity of Dead Faith, Dead Hope and Dead Love, amounts to the “21” sections of the poem (another persistent three).  This symbolic numerology is present throughout the poem and serves to express the meaninglessness and repetitive circularity of life. The religious connotations of the number three is inverted and presented in a thoroughly negative way; the most divine number becoming one associated with meaningless existence. Thomson severs himself from the traditional Romantic conventions and poetic form which for him, can no longer contain the realities of modern life.

In Section Four of The City, after declaring the death of the three virtues, Thomson presents an instance of Hope when the desert wanderer encounters the image of a woman carrying a red lamp:

A woman with a red lamp in her hand,

Bareheaded and barefooted on that strand;

O desolation moving with such grace!

O anguish with such beauty in thy face!

I fell as on my bier,

Hope travailed with such fear.[23]

Critics have suggested that Thomson is making a visual play on William Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the Wold’, in the sense that the woman here is a secularised version of the figure of Christ. Here, the woman has interrupted the wanderer’s monotonous, sterile existence and offered a chance for escape which in turn, provokes fear.  Whereas before, he was fearless because “No Hope could have no Fear”[24], now there is choice.  However, on realising that the woman’s lamp is in fact “her own burning heart, /Whose blood-drops tricked step by step apart”[25], this violent image of dead love renounces any chance for hope. The self divides; the one who dared to hope is borne away by the tide, leaving the other behind in his meaningless existence.  Here, Thomson’s vivid image of the burning heart recalls his similar description of the solar eclipse when the sun is described as: “A bleeding eyeless socket, red and dim.”[26]  This unexpected juxtaposition of images is recurrent throughout the The City and succeeds in penetrating the presentation of monotonous, enduring existence in the poem. Also, the fact that the desert wander’s self divides and that the death of his “corpse-like”[27] self is presented as a different existence to that of the “vile-me”[28] in the poem, suggests that the chance for hope is not completely renounced.  Therefore, this “Death-in-life”[29] that Thomson describes has the possibility for escape; there is still a ‘self’ that chooses to endure.

Sartre’s existentialist idea that humanity exists without any preconceived essence is applicable here. He writes that without God there can be no real meaning to life other than what we create for ourselves and this can be seen to echo what Thomson is contending to do with his writing.  Sartre, when discussing the artist Giacometti’s sculptures, writes:

With space Giacometti has to make a man; he has to write movement into the total immobility, unity into the infinite multiplicity, the absolute into the purely relative, the future into the eternally present, the chatter of signs into the obstinate silence of things.[30]

The artist carves and projects his own reality through his medium; the two become intertwined.  Thomson’s proclamation of atheism and endurance opens up a modern landscape of subjective meaning, uniting men with words of existential anguish.  Here, Bergson’s theory of internal time in relation to external time is most interesting; he contends that the external world is constructed by spatializing time. Mary Ann Gillies, in her study of Bergson in relation to Modernism, writes:

In Time and Free Will, Bergson participates in the post-Renaissance shift in perspective from an externally validated world – one which located meaning in institutions such as the church, the law, the Academy – to an internally validated one – most clearly defined by Descartes “I think therefore I am.”[31]

In keeping with this train of thought, it follows that Art, for Thomson, is an attempt to externalise the internal and create subjective meaning; it is the hope for the despairing intellectual; an outlet as well as a uniting device.  Throughout The City, Thomson frequently references and alludes to other works of literature, stressing the importance he attributes to this modernist idea of the redemptive power of art.  Indeed, even in his description in Section Four of the woman with the lamp, despair and torment is framed by Holman Hunts painting and portrayed as something beautiful: “O desolation moving with such grace! / O anguish with such beauty in thy face!”[32]

However, in The City, Thomson is continually contradicting this idea of creating subjective meaning from an internally validated world:

Speak not of comfort where no comfort is,

Speak not at all: can words make foul things fair?

Our life’s a cheat, our death a black abyss:

Hush and be mute envisaging despair.[33]

Is this meaning that Thomson attempts to establish through art illusionary; a Marxist opium of the intellectual in despair?  In other words, this created subjective meaning in The City is simply a consoling device remaining inferior to an objective meaning created out with the intellect.  In Section Fourteen of The City, objective faith is destroyed by a preacher who is presented as a literary conflation of Milton’s Satan, giving a shocking sermon of nihilism. The preacher takes the traditional Christian message and inverts it; he is bringing the “last authentic word”.[34]  However, this word is presented as something positive which will bring relief to the congregation: “Good tidings of great joy for you, for all: / There is no God.”[35] This anti gospel is reminiscent of Nietzsche, in his novel The Gay Science he renounces God but in a slightly different way: “I seek God, where is God? We have killed him! We are all murderers! God is dead.”[36] Nietzsche regarded Christianity as a grotesque distortion of Christ’s own vision.  With humanities modern predicament, religion no longer provided a viable authoritative grounding for ethical, social and aesthetic values.  In this context, the preacher in The City can be seen to advocate that the distorted traditional Christian message provides false hope; it can no longer provide objective meaning because there is no longer an objective God.  The preacher goes on to legitimise mans self destruction with the most anti-Christian suggestion: “But if you would not this poor life fulfil, / Lo, you are free to end it when you will.”[37] However, the reasons given for suicide are counteracted with this recurrent idea of duty and endurance.

In Section Eighteen, although objective meaning has been renounced, Thomson describes another wanderer: “something crawling in the lane below;/ it seemed a wounded creature”[38], yearning to “find the long-lost broken golden thread/ which unites my present with my past”.[39] This is an image of a man who is crushed under the weight of his search for objective meaning; “This is the last vestige of humanity – the last clung-to-hope that there is a way out of the predicament of the godless universe.”[40] This man is trying to connect with his past; yearning to return to a post-Darwinian world and a primal state where there was still possibility for objective truth.  Howe discusses this concept in his essay on modernism, he writes that the modern sensibility is imbued with this idea of a primitive state as a desired condition.  He writes: “One of the seemingly hopeful possibilities is a primitivism bringing a vision of health, blood consciousness, a relief from enervating rationality.”[41] However, this creature-like man is destroyed under the weight of his dependency on something external to himself; the innocence of Eden has been corrupted and he longs for some meaning that can transcend the self. Rudolf Otto, in his The Idea of the Holy, writes about this conception of a numinous ‘creature-consciousness’ which he describes as: “ […] the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.”[42] Although Thomson has declared the death of God, here we encounter a character who cannot be consoled with subjective meaning; it does not relieve him of his alienated state and free him from his sterile and unchanging present. This ‘creature consciousnesses’ will not be satisfied by reason and endurance, but desires to transcend subjective meaning conceived by the intellect.  However, the observer who has encountered this creature brushes the threads of gossamer from his face and continues his journey through the city. He rejects this search for a primitive state that will only serve to depict a false reality and illusion of purpose and turns again to the idea of endurance.

In Section Twenty, this idea of endurance versus objective truth is continued in the confrontation between the Sphinx and the Angel.  The delusions of religion are rendered powerless when the Angel falls to the ground and the Sphinx that remains standing is representative of a non-divine force winning the battle over religious faith; replacing it with impassive endurance.  “The Sphinx unchanged looked forthright, as aware / Of nothing in the vast abyss of air.”[43] and the Angel shatters as it falls to the ground in front of the Sphinx, representative of the modernist consciousness steeped in spiritual ruin.  Thomson is reversing the Romantic ideal and presenting his idea of the modern condition; man must exist in a world stripped of divinity.  This image of endurance is epitomised in Section Twenty One by an emblematic work of art, Melencolia, based on the engraving by Albrecht Durer.  Although objective religious meaning has been destroyed, she performs her duties and endures life without any divine meaning attached. Peter Noel-Bentley, in his study of Thomson’s Melencolia, writes:

The embodiment of Perfection in the demonic world of the City of Dreadful   Night is the mechanistic inevitability immanent in the universe, symbolized, as the Apocalyptic Perfection is symbolized by God, by Melencolia’s state of being.[44]

In this growing industrial society and modern world enslaved by materialism, Thomson suggests it is Melencolia’s moral strength and stoical endurance that men should follow:

Her subjects often gaze up to her there:

The strong to drink new strength of iron endurance,

The weak new terrors; all, renewed assurance

And confirmation of the old despair.[45]

Many critics have suggested that this final image of endurance and nihilism is symbolic of Thomson’s pessimism; man can only exist in this stoical detached way with no possibility of hope. However, if one chooses to read the figure of Melencolia as a work of art in which man’s existential anguish is contained, this image becomes one of comfort and perhaps hope. Like Giacometti’s sculptures that Sartre describes, the modern consciousness is carved into a medium and the two become intertwined; it is the poet’s task to take space and, as Sartre wrote“make a man.”[46]  Thomson engages with modernist themes in The City, exposing his internal conflict in an attempt to make artistic sense of the alienated mind in his poetry. Although Thomson claimed he was writing to tell the brutal truth and not to provide comfort, his proclamation of atheism calls for him to search for something to replace religion. The poem ends with the last stanza recalling the first, indicating the eternal journey and circularity of an existence doomed to endure; it does not allow man to escape from his existential predicament.  This idea of circularity and mechanisation is recurrent throughout the poem, in Section Eight Thomson writes: “The world rolls round for ever like a mill;/It grinds out death and life and good and ill;/It has no purpose, heart or mind or will.”[47] However, this dark existentialist concept of life is displaced by the very act of writing the poem.  Art, for Thomson, is a uniting device that can provide a power of vision and create a subjective meaning. In his later poem ‘I Had Love’, Thomson writes:

So potent is the Word, the Lord of Life,

And do tenacious art,

Whose instinct urges to perpetual strife

With death, Life’s counterpart;

The magic of their music, might and light

Can keep one living in his own despite.[48]

Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night is ‘a place of the mind’[49] which embodies both the creature-like man still searching for that objective meaning and the preacher who declares that it does not exist.  His modern sensibility in The City allows him to articulate various states of being; he is able to portray utter hopelessness alongside hope and embody the contradictions and paradoxes of modern life in an artistic form.


Thomson, James  The City of Dreadful Night  (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1993)

Byron, Kenneth Hugh  The Pessimism of James Thomson (B.V.) In Relation to his Times (Mouton & Co.:London, 1965)

Crawford, Robert ‘James Thomson and T.S. Eliot’ in Victorian Poetry, Vol.23, No.1 (Spring, West Virginia University Press, 1985), pp.23-41

Dobell, Bertram, The Laureate of Pessimism, a Sketch of the Life and Character of James Thomson (“B.V.”) (Kennikat Press: Port Washington, N.Y./London, 1970)

Eliot, T.S., The Waste Land and Other Poems (Faber and Faber: London, 1940) 

Fredrich Nietzsche  The Gay Science  with a prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs   ed. Bernard Arthur Owen Williams ( Cambridge University Press:Cambridge,2001) 

Gifford, Douglas Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: EdinburghUniversity Press, 2002)

Gillies, Mary Ann    Henri Bergson and British Modernism (McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal, 1996)

Gioia, Angeletti Eccentric Scotland, Three Victorian Poets (Bologna: CLUEB, 2004)

Howe, Irving ‘The Idea of the Modern’ in Selected Writings 1950-1990 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

James Joyce,  A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, (Penguin Classics: New York, 2003)

Jean-Paul Sartre ‘The Search for the Absolute’ in  Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings edited by Kristine Stiles, Peter Howard Selz (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1996) p.185 -189

Kolocotroni, Vassiliki, Glodman, Jane , Taxidou,Olga (ed.) Modernism: An Anthology   of Sources and Documents (Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2007)

Leonard, Tom   “Mater Tenebrarum, A Study of James Thomson (1834-82) ‘Bysshe Vanolis’” in Edinburgh Review 67/8 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984)

Leonard, Tom  Places of The Mind  (Cape: London, 1993)

Noel Bentley, Peter C  ‘“Fronting the Dreadful Mysteries of time”: ‘Durer’s “Melencolia” in Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night” in Victorian Poetry, Vol 1, No. 3 (Autumn, 1974) pp.193-203

Otto, Rudolph  The Idea of the Holy (US: Oxford University Press, 1958)

Thomson, James   Poem’s and Some Letters of James Thomson, ed. Anne Ridler  (Centaure Press: London, 1963)

Woolf, Virginia, Virginia Woolf: Selected Essays (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2008)

[1] James Joyce,  a Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, (Penguin Classics: New York, 2003) p. 261

[2] Angeletti Gioia, Eccentric Scotland, Three Victorian Poets (Bologna: CLUEB, 2004)  p. 42

[3] Irving Howe, ‘The Idea of the Modern’ in Selected Writings 1950-1990 (New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich) pp.141-166 ( p.142)

[4] Edwin Morgan, ‘Introduction’  to  The City of Dreadful Night (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1993) pp.8-9

[5] For further discussion of the relation between Thomson and Eliot see Robert Crawford, ‘James Thomson and T.S. Eliot’ in Victorian Poetry, Vol.23, No.1 (Spring, West Virginia University Press, 1985), pp.23-41

[6] Virginia Woolf, ‘Character in Fiction’ in Virginia Woolf: Selected Essays (Oxford University Press:
Oxford, 2008) pp. 37-54 (p.38)

[7] For an in depth theoretical account see Astradur Eysteinsson, The Concept of Modernism (Ithaca and
London, 1990)

[8] Irving Howe, ‘The Idea of the Modern’ in Selected Writings 1950-1990 (New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich)  pp. 141-166 (p.155)

[9] Howe, p.145

[10] James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night, (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1993) p.27 L.9-10

[11] Thomson,  p.27 L15-19

[12] Thomson, p.28 L.29

[13] Thomson, p.27 L.12-14

[14] Thomson, p27 L.27

[15] T.S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in The Waste Land and Other Poems (Faber and
Faber: London, 1940) pp. 9-14 (p.9)

[16] Thomson, p.31 L.71-77

[17] See Tommaso Marinetti’s ‘The Founding Manifesto of Futurism 1909’  in Modernism: An Anthology
of Sources and Documents
ed.Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Glodman, Jane (Edinburgh University Press,
Edinburgh, 2007) pp. 249-253

[18] Thomson, p.32 L10

[19] Thomson, p33 L.28

[20] Thomson, p.33 L36

[21] Henri Bergson quoted in Mary Ann Gillies, Henri Bergson and British Modernism (McGill-Queen’s
University Press: Montreal, 1996) p.11

[22] Thomson, p.33 L.48

[23] Thomson, p.37 L.61-69

[24] Thomson, p.35 L.24

[25] Thomson, p.38 L.84-85

[26] Thomson, p.37 L.56

[27] Thomson, p.38 L.100

[28] Thomson, p.38, L.101

[29] Thomson, p.39, L.10

[30]  Jean-Paul Sartre ‘The Search for the Absolute’ in  Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A
Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings
edited by Kristine Stiles, Peter Howard Selz (Berkeley : University
of California Press, 1996) p.185

[31] Mary Ann Gillies, Henri Bergson and British Modernism  ( McGill-Queen’s University Press:
Montreal, 1996) p.13

[32] Thomson, p.37 L.66-67

[33] Thomson, p.60, L. 39-42

[34] Thomson, p.56 L.37

[35] Thomson, p.56 L.40

[36] Fredrich Nietzsche  The Gay Science  with a prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs
ed. Bernard Arthur Owen Williams ( Cambridge University Press:Cambridge,2001) p.108

[37] Thomson, p.57 L82-83

[38] Thomson, p.62 14-15

[39] Thomson, p.63, L 50-51

[40] Douglas Gifford  Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002) p.398

[41] Howe, p.158

[42] Rudolph Otto  The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press US, 1958) p.10

[43] Thomson, p.68 L.29-30

[44]  Peter C. Noel Bentley, ‘”Fronting the Dreadful Mysteries of time”: ‘Durer’s “Melencolia” in
Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night” in Victorian Poetry, Vol 1, No. 3 (Autumn, 1974) pp.193-203,

[45] Thomson, p.71 L. 78-84

[46] Sartre, ‘The search for the Absolute’, p. 185

[47] Thomson, p.45, L 36-38

[48] James Thomson, ‘I Had Love’ in Poem’s and Some Letters of James Thomson, ed. Anne Ridler
(Centaure Press: London, 1963) p.205 L.43-54

[49] To borrow Tom Leonard’s phrase from the title of his book Places of the Mind :The Life and Works
of  James Thomson (B.V.).
(Cape: London,1993)