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.

Modernism? What is really all about?

tumblr_lhyqmwpHVj1qcg92oo1_400Roger Griffin, in his article “Modernity, modernism and fascism”, affirms Fascism to be a form of political modernism. To agree with this idea or not, it’s necessary, first of all, to clarify the difference between modernity and modernism. Modernity is a period of time mainly related to a highly industrialisation and use of technique; one of the most common examples of it is the First World War which became the maximum expression of a technological society through military tools and massive destruction never seen before. The highly dehumanisation of this war weapons marked, among other things, a change of mentality in the Western society. Modernism then is the reaction to modernity, to this new cultural phenomenon of highly mechanisation.

However, modernism is a quite contesting term as far as it is full of contradictions and ambiguity. Griffin explains how modernism looked for a regeneration of the Western culture in a period of important decadence especially outlined by Nietzsche. This view lead to a seeking for an elite to guide society into new values , a defence of eugenics or a protection of the pure race in different European countries. A very important example of that is the Bloomsbury Group. It should be noted how this aspect of modernism is usually kept apart. But modernism seems more a kind of cultural monstrosity, nor less interesting, where a writer such as Virginia Woolf could both defence eugenics and produce a work full of sensibility like To the Lighthouse. (It could not be forget that later on, nazis will be one of the most cultivated elite).

Griffin says fascism to be a political modernism, it means then, fascism is a reaction against modernity and its main treats such as mechanisation. But was not the whole Holocaust a very highly technical process of extermination? An extreme rational plan to renew the Western culture? Was not Nazism a new elite like the ideas of the Bloomsbury Group? But was not UK the great ideological enemy of German?  It seems we have here modernity and modernism (in its aims to “save” the European culture) at the same time.

All this casual politically incorrect connections seem to put in question the first part of the 20th century. I would suggest we need research and a lot of courage to look at things and understand them.

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.