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.

Still Something to do

Asian-Ballet-Watercolor-Painting-360x480thIn 1928 Virginia Woolf was concerned about women, money, and writing. Her essay A Room of One’s Own is an attempt to analyze the situation of female writers through the history of literature, and to figure out why they are far less in number than men. Even if for many the reasons concerning such situation could appear clear enough, there is one particular reflection in Woolf’s thoughts far from being solved, even thought of, eighty years later she put it into words.

Among the women writers Woolf cites Jane Austen is one of the most acclaimed by her. It is not because of being better than, for example, Charlotte Brönte, but because of the mode in which she wrote, that is, completely free from male conventions. In fact, Woolf is looking for something purely feminine, a mode of being in the world as a woman, not as a woman according to a patriarchal society, which is still where we still live. “The book has somehow to be adapted to the body”, that is an interesting statement, and it shows how Woolf was thinking about the essence of being woman or man and their corresponding artistic expressions. She was not so far from Barthes’ The Semiotic Challenge or The Pleasure of the Text considering the writing as adapted to the author’s mind or physical expression; at the very least, as a living entity. This self-expression is what Woolf found in Jane Austen and not in other female writers:

“They [Jane Austen and Emily Brontë] wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue -write this, think that. They alone were deaf to the persistent voice, now grumbling, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-conscientious governess, adjuring them”

It is exactly that which gives freedom to a woman to be a woman, instead of trying to put oneself within the male paradigms in order to be accepted or considered. The book should be adapted to the body, and it can be applied to other realms of the existence. That is what part of Feminism has lost: her own body. Instead of it, it has been the male body what has been defended every time some woman has tried to become a man. Part of the results from Feminism in the Twentieth Century have been to adapt the woman to a male society, instead of adapt society to the female body.

Memories of Mrs Dalloway

mrs-dallowayPeter Walsh comes back from India and decide to assist as well to Clarissa Dalloway’s party. After the popular ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’, the novel opens with a wandering for Westminster. Clarissa thinks and reminds different episodes of her life, especially those before marrying. When she comes back home at 11 o’clock she is surprised by the unexpected visit of her past lover, Peter Walsh. She knew of course he would go to her dinner party this very evening but she had not read his letter about his early visit. Of course Peter is introduced before his appearance through Clarissa’s thoughts; they were in fact in love with each other before Clarissa married Richard Dalloway, but they have not meet again since Peter leaving from England. After this short visit where Peter tells her to be in love with a very youth Indian, he starts his own wandering for London as Clarissa did before. Thirty years later he too reminds from his own perspective similar episodes of their youth and his feelings for Clarissa.

‘The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain strong as ever, but one has gained -at last!- the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence -the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light. A terrible confession it was, but now, at the age of fifty-three, one scarcely needed people any more, Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough. Too much, indeed. A whole lifetime was too short to bring out, now that one had acquired the power, the full flavour; to extract every ounce of pleasure, every shade of meaning; which both were so much more solid than they used to be, so much less personal. It was impossible that he should ever suffer again as Clarissa had made him suffer.’

The whole book takes place in a day; a day which is important for the memories and thoughts it brings back. Clarissa refused to marry Peter, she married a MP and since then they live in Westminster. Peter Walsh has a set of affairs to keep with him, none of them durable or fruitful. But there remains still a kind of Why; why did they do not marry? Peter thought ‘How they would change the world if she married him perhaps’. It is indeed this annoying ‘perhaps’ all the time around Peter’s head. But Clarissa is not a woman of Perhaps, she is a woman of Yes; she enjoys life terribly until the point of being vitalistic. Her answer to life and events is Yes. He could be happy with Peter as she is with Richard, but probably she could not stand a doubtful man as his life finally has shown so.

And there is the city, London, this wonderful city where Clarissa and Peter walk around. London has a meaning in this novel, a very subtle one, it is not a mere scenario. Clarissa is herself in part because of London, she loves it and her thoughts are born along her paths. London brings as well memories back and the act of reflection takes most of its part in the streets. London is meaningful, is the capital of the Empire, but it is also a capital of ideas, something of course very present in the Bloomsbury Group. And Peter lives in India but he comes back and finds Clarissa there, living in the core of the City and married to a MP, she belongs to the elite. It marks Peter as an outsider, he is an adventurer and it is important to note that he went to India after Clarissa refused him. There are political readings to their relationship as well.

Virginia Woolf is an excellent narrator; she achieves to present the characters’ heads and hearts with the same shadows as one himself does. A whole day introduces the  life of the main characters by showing just the necessary. There is nothing completely sure about themselves, about their longings or desires, just as they are not completely aware of them. But we know real people and we are able to engage with them in the most human sense. Woolf is a master of human heart and she shows and hides as the heart itself does in our lives.

‘Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life’. Mrs Dalloway

Europe in War

I wouldn’t recommend anyone to read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger who was not interested in a kind of “war report”. In fact, Jünger wrote his war diary during his four years in the World War I and he gave us a piece of faithful events without space for feelings or emotions. This lack of “humanity” has been the cause of several critics,which, like Walter Benjamin, accused Jünger of complicity with the idea of “cult of the war”. The mere fact of describing war events instead of showing a personal experience or an inner-reaction lead some part of the critics to see in Jünger’s narrative a pure “war for war’s sake”.

But before going on, let us see what’s written about war in female fictions. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway shows some male consequences after being in the World War I. Woolf, as in general all women writers of this period, focuses on the consequences of war on human relations. In fact, the general is unable to react to her wife’s demands with any kind of empathy, he’s completely out of question in his returning to London. The main problem is that he can’t express himself what is going in his inner-self. And that, I guess, is the point: the lack of expressivity of the emotions. Woolf’s general, like Jünger, don’t talk about anything which is not outside themselves. The general becomes mad, but his madness is a kind of frustration because of his past experience and it’s related to the breakdown between war what he feels and what he achieve to say. The reader of Woolf knows the female side of the war and feels the destruction of the relationships between women and men. The female suffering, in contrast with Jünger’s, is narrated by an over-expression.

Therefore, I’d say both narratives are coherent with each other even if being so different in style and form. They complement both views which I find a quite interesting topic to analyse.

Creative Femininity

Women and art create a new topic in Modernist Literature. Two good examples of it are Viriginia Woolf and Kate Chopin, both belonging to the first part of the 20th C. Together with the born of the New Woman appears the female artist as a key figure of the first feminism. Two works I’d like to turn to are To the Lighthouse (London, 1927) by Woolf and The Awakening (New Orleans, 1899) by Chopin. What these short novels share is the character of the female artist. In the first case, a not-married painter and, in the second case, a not-married musician and Edna, the main character who finds herself divided between marriage and painting. It’s interesting to see how there’s a dilemma between family duties and art which, actually, remains unresolved in both novels, especially in The Awakening where Edna incarnates the opposition. There’s no chance: either art or marriage. However, the interesting point is that of motherhood. It seems to be incarnated in both spheres; the creation of life could be substitute for that of art. In fact, these artists who in both novels remain single don’t live their condition as impoverish, while Edna experiments the two facts as contradictory. The problem of Edna, however, doesn’t consist just in the fact of being mother and artist, it’s also an expression of being trapped in a society of established roles. In such a case, we’re witnessing a difficult born: the woman of the 20th C. The tow facts aren’t in themselves contradictory but they were made so.