Baroque Gaze in Woolf’s Between the Acts

Theatre-MysteryIn 1940 Virginia Woolf finished Between the Acts, a novel close to The Waves and very clearly belonging to her last years in style and narration. Indeed, Woolf’s last novels are characterised by a strong presence of symbolical meaning and language, a very intuitive perception of the world, something which brings her narrative close to Ricoeur’s understanding of the text as a world to be deciphered by means of words and images. Very symbolical and metaphorical as well as very modernist, Between the Acts is a work within a work, more exactly, a play inside a novel.

The meaning of this novel is more apprehensive by intuition than by logical thought, and the interrelation between the play and the novel belongs, I dare to say, to a metaphysical realm. The whole book describes, or re-describes -using Ricoeur’s concept- the meaning of a single day where a play takes place. The play is a historical one, and it shows the  Elizabethan England, that is, the English Golden Age -calling to some world’s conception; and it is displayed between the wars, in 1939. What is put on stage is life in a fictional realm and in the real one, where the reader finds himself. While the novel’s characters are looking at the stage, the reader is looking at them and beholding the whole scene of looking as a theatre. The sense of scenario is strongly presented to the reader, and it implies a sense of volatility, illusion, in the very least, falsehood. Woolf killed herself a year after writing this novel, and it is very interesting to see how the sense of spectacle permeates the text. In A Sketch of the Past, an autobiographical text written by Woolf during the years 1939-40, she outlines the feeling of being in the world as a spectator, as an outsider. Between the Acts expresses this feeling metaphorically presenting life as a play and making of both, the characters and the reader, spectators; she is sharing her existential experience.

Fiction becomes here the only possible world to create a pre-experience of suicide, of despair. A whole day has become a pageant, and this day is linked to the world through the historical moment represented in the play. The idea of being on the stage so properly of the Baroque epoch comes into play in 1940, where death and futileness were present again in a sense of decadence. Shakespeare and Calderon de la Barca make this point central, life is a stage, however, the difference resides in the extension of the drama: in the Golden Age it was cosmological, in Modernism it is individual. It is Virginia Woolf who is properly experimenting her existential inconsistency, and her novel involves daily characters in a normal day. It is daily life what becomes nonsensical, the individual existence is affected by a non-real experience -maybe this same feeling led Walter Benjamin to write The Origin of German Tragic Drama in 1925. But baroque authors were concerned with a world vision theory, so to say, not with a personal experience of annihilation.

Baroque and Modernism: Two Styles, Two Souls

3965eadf8b2b9be1b353f0f6b2b1faa3_660The narrator of Death in Venice suggests a very interesting and challenging topic. Among all the worries about art, so typical in Mann’s novels, this one particularly presents a thoughtful question. Is the artistic style and form linked to morality? One could write pages and pages trying to reply and analyse such a dilemma, because it is a dilemma as far as such a reflection involves not just art but the whole of society.

Gustav Aschenbach, the main character of the story, is an artist and as such he is experimenting a change in his conception of beauty. Gustav’s art, since its beginning, has represented the European decadence, a feeling broadly felt in Europe since the turn of the century. But Gustav feels a rebirth in his appreciation of beauty, one which has to do with simplicity. At this point, the narrator shows a chain of reflections, of wonderings regarding such simplicity. If art is simple in its forms, will then moral suffer a simplification?

“does not this in its turn signify a simplification, a morally simplistic view of the world and of human psychology, and thus also a resurgence of energies that are evil, forbidden, morally impossible?”

He is completely joining the representation of art, that is, of aesthetics, to morality. Modernist works indeed are replete by discussions on ethics and aesthetics. To simplify the form of art could mean here for the narrator a primitiveness, a coming back to human simplicity on its moral statements, a less deep thought.

It is possible however to take a general look in the history of literature to affirm, until some extent, the possibility of this statement. If there is a moment in which the form, the style and the meaning of art is opposed to the simplicity looked for by some modernists artists, it is Baroque. The Spanish Golden Age is full of incomprehensible poets, it can be actually considered the most difficult literature in Spain. And, indeed, this literature coincides with the Imperial time, the discovery of America, and the Inquisiton. All that is marked by a strong institutional power, especially the reign, the state and the Church in their most hierarchical display. There is a lack of simplicity both in art and in the representatives of society. It is the opposite side of Mann’s dilemma; the moral code was highly established and controlled. Moreover, when Modernism arrived at Spain, it was condemned by the Church, especially because of its simplistic and free spirituality, which comes back to Mann’s idea.

Modernism is also known by its polemical topics which have to do with their aesthetic representations. Therefore, Mann is not far away of reality, and the adequacy of style and interiority seems to be a fascinating topic within the sociology of literature.

From German Modernism to Spanish Golden Age

Dickens_DavidCopperfieldI wish just to recall some influences on Kafka’s Amerika. This novel introduces the wanderings of a young boy, Karl who’s thrown out from home due to his “affair” with the maid. Karl arrives to America alone with a small suitcase and nothing else than his wit to survive. He lives one experience after another, each one more curious than the previous, and meets all kind of people who actually decide his new course. Kafka wrote on his diary on October 8, 1918:

“Dicken’s Copperfield. “The Stoker” a sheer imitation of Dickens, the projected novel even more so. The story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms everyone, the menial labour, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al., but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, but enhanced by the sharper lights I should have taken from the times and the duller ones I should have got from myself”.

In fact, the adventures of Karl remain the reader Dicken’s boys in the Victorian England. Karl solitude to face all his misfortunes are similar to those of English 19th C. novels. However, if Copperfield ascends in wealth and social position, Karl actually descends (as far as we know in the novel; it’s unfinished). The figure of the wandering boy is also linked to this of the Spanish “pícaro”. The latter could actually be seen as a predecessor of those of the realistic period. The poor origin and the longing for ascending are common in both groups, but I think the cunning of the “pícaro” is something missed both in Copperfield and Karl. However the three types find themselves submitted to different authorities until achieving autonomy or more freedom.

Karl is settled in New York, which I find quite properly for the beginning of the 20th C. New York is the new alienated place of modernity where both fortune and misfortune are possible and dependent to the subject’s sagacity. In short, I think Kafka has placed himself also in the Western tradition of the young wandering born in Spain.