A world of relative inaccessibility

I’m spending days in Spain doing a bit of reading on Woolf, but also gradually focusing on my own writing. And this time I mean fiction & poetry, not the kind of pre-given jobs & assignments I usually do.

For some time now I have been working on a hybrid-text, mixing scientific observations and natural phenomenon with human emotions. Place names play an important role in my writing, and are mainly used in a poetical way – symbolic & metaphorical (+ metonymy, simile, synecdoche…).

A central question is what form I am to give my writing. I am not yet ready to answer – but the concept of form is being scrutinized.

At the moment I’m calling my text a fugue. Mainly because I’m very interested in motion & rhythm. But I might end up needing a more strict structure, to compensate for free-flowing thoughts.

I love the way Inger Christensen built up her book of poems called Alphabet. The number of lines in each poem is based on Fibonacci numbers: poem ‘A’ has one line, while poem ‘N’ has 600.

Didn’t someone say that art is all about stealing from the best … ?

alphabet [excerpt]

by Inger Christensen
translated by Susanna Nied
3
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium 
citrus trees; cicadas exist; 
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cere-
bellum

4
doves exist, dreamers, and dolls; 
killers exist, and doves, and doves; 
haze, dioxin, and days; days 
exist, days and death; and poems 
exist; poems, days, death

I have not studied Dr Freud

Alessio had this comment to my post Woolf & the Ramsay’s:

Thank you for sharing this. It is what I believe to be ‘writing as therapy’ as I recently suggested in one of my posts. Virginia Woolf is no exception.

The comment, which I believe to be to the point, made me want to have a quick look on Woolf’s view on Freud. (I deliberately say quick look, because I know this theme could easily become a subject for a thesis of considerable length …)

But my quick look first led me to a text by Julia Briggs (2006)

In her text Briggs points to both similarities and differences between Freud & Woolf.

Alix Strachey, a practising psychoanalyst and an old friend of the Woolfs, discussing why Leonard had not persuaded Virginia to see a psychoanalyst about her mental breakdowns, concluded ‘Virginia’s imagination, apart from her artistic creativeness, was so interwoven with her fantasies – and indeed with her madness – that if you had stopped the madness you might have stopped the creativeness too…

It may be preferable to be mad and be creative than to be treated by analysis and become ordinary.’ So whether art is regarded as transcendental and impersonal or as autobiographical in its genesis, the artist’s integrity seemed threatened by psychoanalysis.

What Woolf did in her literature, say for example in To the Lighthouse,  is very similar to the things Freud did in therapy – but Woolf is on several occasions stressing that she has no knowledge of psychoanalysis.

A way to understand this then, is to see these two writers as developing similar comprehensions on personality and inner life – explored from different point of views.

Commenting on the composition of To the Lighthouse, Woolf observed that, before writing it, she had been obsessed with her mother. She had written the novel ‘very quickly; and when it was written:

I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. … I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.

According to her diary Woolf began reading Freud in 1939, after his death. But his thoughts had of course reached her long before, through Leonard & the Bloomsburys.

Between them, Freud and Woolf create an ongoing dialogue about the relations between thought, art, and life – a dialogue which can be read into all Woolf’s work …

Woolf & the Ramsay’s

I’m reading Alexandra Harris’s introduction to Virginia Woolf

She has some interesting thoughts on Woolf’s personal relationship to the characters in the story, here is what she writes:

At the age of 44 Woolf made a portrait of her parents as they were in middle age, looking at them face to face. When Vanessa read the book she immediately saw the significance of this encounter: ‘It was like meeting her (their mother) again with oneself grown up and on equal terms.’

I think Woolf’s ability to relocate herself, becoming equal to her parents, is the reason why she manage to give her characters such complex selves. She can observe them from several viewpoints, external & internal, historic & present – at the same time, and even make this multiplicity meaningful for the reader.

When Woolf looked at her parents she founds aspects of herself. She saw things she needed to rebel against and things which, for better or worse,  there were no getting away from. So when she laughs at the self-involved Mr Ramsay, who leaps around, arms waving, quoting poetry, seeking truth, she is getting an ironic distance on her father and also on herself. She was not going to write concise lives of national heroes in alphabetical order, nor conceive her intellectual life as a logical progression from A to Z (as he did). But Mr Ramsay’s obsessive dedication to his work is hers. So are his ambition, his eccentricity, his desire for protection, and the the tuning of his life to the quotations always running in his mind.

(Alexandra Harris, 93)

Julia Briggs – An Inner Life

Two days ago I got a question:

Have you read Julia Briggs’ biography on Woolf – An Inner Life?

- to which I had to reply: no. But now I have … well not the whole of it yet – but I definitively will! Briggs is a clear and talented narrator, and she offers clever insights into both Woolf and her work.

Godrevy lighthouse (Cornwall) is said to have inspired Virginia Woolf to write To the Lighthouse  - though in the book, she locates the lighthouse in the Hebrides. The lighthouse’s visitor book contains the signature of Virginia Stephen (Woolf). She first visited on 12 September 1892

If you follow my blog on a regular basis you might remember that I wrote a post under the heading “Theory of Mind”, where I tried to discuss the complexity of the characters inner-life in To the Lighthouse. Here is Briggs on Woolf’s way of creating the subjectivity of human beings:

In daily life she (Woolf) was as capable as the next person of ignoring the selfhood of others, but within her fiction, she encourages her readers to extend their sympathies through the use of the imagination, deliberately writing in the tradition of George Eliot, who believed that “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”. Both writers share a tradition of women’s writing in which moral awareness carries the reader across the boundaries of gender, class and race in the interest of wider sympathy and understanding.

Historic Print of Godrevy Island, position: 
50 14′.549 N 005 24′.015 W (not for navigation purposes)

Godrevy Island is situated 3½ miles across St.Ives Bay, where rugged cliffs rise from the sea. Gulls, oyster-catchers and pipits make their homes on the island, which is partly covered with grass, as it slopes down to the sea. In springtime, carpets of brightly coloured primroses, sea thrift and heather bring beauty to the scene, for although the island is close to the mainland, it is open to the full force of Atlantic gales. A dangerous reef extends outwards towards St.Ives, called the Stones and on this many vessels have come to grief.

After a black day

Allegro

After a black day, I play Haydn,

and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.

The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists

and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets

and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:

“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;

rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house

but every pane of glass is still whole.

Tomas Tranströmer (1931) Swedish poet.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2011 is awarded to Tomas Tranströmer “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality”

I’ve always found poetry to be rather difficult to read. But through reading Woolf it is as if my awareness of words as pictures and rhythm is growing, and with this awareness I find a totally new pleasure in reading poems. But poetry demand a knowledge of words which makes it more difficult to read in a foreign language, I read Tranströmer in Swedish, or Norwegian – my mother tongue.


Great Expectations

Just the other day Sophie, of Live, Love & Learn, had a nice post on Woolf. In her post Sophie mentioned Alexandra Harris’s biography Virginia Woolf, which I (no surprise…) got very curious about.

So I ordered it.

(If this Woolf obsession of mine will continue, I really have to try to cleared another meter or two in my already overloaded bookshelf …)

Yesterday Blogging Woolf had a note on the same book, with the link to a review.

My expectation of Harris’s book is growing steadily, day by day … Have you read it?

Bloomsbury Pictures

I am, as some of you know, teaching art history & theory, but I have never focused on British art, and never really considered Virginia Woolf’s relation to her contemporary visual artists. But now its time  -

Duncan Grant: Study for Composition (Self-Portrait in a Turban), 1910

I received two books in my mailbox today:

Bloomsbury Portraits By Richard Shone & The Art of Bloomsbury:
Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant By Richard Shone
With essays by James Beechey and Richard Morphet

Bloomsbury Portraits, originally published in 1976, was the first book to look at the contribution of the painters of the group, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and Duncan Grant (1885-1978), not only within the context of Bloomsbury but also from the wider perspective of modern British art.

The Art of Bloomsbury:
Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant is a catalogue, published to accompany a major international exhibition of the Bloomsbury painters originating at the Tate Gallery in London (1999).

Duncan Grant: Self-Portrait, 1910

I have just started flickering through the books, they are both filled with pictures. To give an idea of what I’m looking at I have posted two self-portraits by Duncan Grant. Look at the intensity in his eyes.

Oh, I already know I will spend hours with these books …

Theory of Mind

Midway (through) To the Lighthouse it suddenly struck me how extremely well Woolf present us for the complexity of peoples inner life. Of corse we all know her exceptional contribution to the stream of consciousness technique.

(Stream of consciousness is characterized by a flow of thoughts and images, which may not always appear to have a coherent structure or cohesion. Stream of consciousness depict the continuous flow of sense‐perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories in the human mind).

Woolf is an expert in stream of consciousness, but there is even more: She is not only displaying her characters inner life, she is also capturing how people understand one-another, and how this understanding is constantly shifting through tacit communication & explicit dialogues.

It suddenly struck me as a good idea to read her characters in the light of Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.

To the Lighthouse, chapter 17

But what have I done with my life? thought Mrs Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it. “William, sit by me,” she said. “Lily,” she said, wearily, “over there.” They had that — Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle — she, only this — an infinitely long table and plates and knives. At the far end was her husband, sitting down, all in a heap, frowning. What at? She did not know. She did not mind. She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him. She had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything, …

… They were talking about wages and unemployment. The young man was abusing the government. William Bankes, thinking what a relief it was to catch on to something of this sort when private life was disagreeable, heard him say something about “one of the most scandalous acts of the present government.” Lily was listening; Mrs Ramsay was listening; they were all listening. But already bored, Lily felt that something was lacking; Mr Bankes felt that something was lacking. Pulling her shawl round her Mrs Ramsay felt that something was lacking. All of them bending themselves to listen thought, “Pray heaven that the inside of my mind may not be exposed,” for each thought, “The others are feeling this. They are outraged and indignant with the government about the fishermen. Whereas, I feel nothing at all.” …

…and Mrs Ramsay, leaving the argument entirely in the hands of the two men (Charles Tansley & Mr Bankes) wondered why she was so bored by this talk, and wished, looking at her husband at the other end of the table, that he would say something. One word, she said to herself. For if he said a thing, it would make all the difference. He went to the heart of things. He cared about fishermen and their wages. He could not sleep for thinking of them. It was altogether different when he spoke; one did not feel then, pray heaven Then, realising that it was because she admired him so much that she was waiting for him to speak, she felt as if somebody had been praising her husband to her and their marriage, and she glowed all over without realising that it was she herself who had praised him. She looked at him thinking to find this in his face; he would be looking magnificent…

See how Woolf let Mrs Ramsay’s feelings toward her husband wander from complete indifference to intense affection. Her feelings are never still. And notice also how Woolf manage to give all of her main characters the same complexity.

Its just like life, isn’t it!?! I really have to spend some time trying to get a better hold of what she is doing – and how she is doing it.

Garden Path in Spring

Duncan Grant: Garden Path in Spring (1944)

Duncan Grant was a central figure in the circle of artist and writers known as The Bloomsbury Group, which included Grant’s cousin Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s sister the painter Vanessa Bell and Vanessa’s husband the critic Clive Bell.

Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were closely associated in their professional and personal lives for more than fifty years.

The garden depicted above was part of the estate at Charleston, a remote farmhouse at the foot of Firle Beacon in Sussex where Grant lived and worked with Vanessa Bell from 1916 until his death. Under previous owners the garden had been used for growing fruit and vegetables; under the direction of Grant and Bell, it was transformed into the very archetype of a delightfully disordered English cottage garden.

Jacky Klein writes:

Certainly the wider world is not alluded to in Garden Path in Spring, where the intimacy of the domestic garden setting is intensified by the crowded composition. Blocking out the views beyond and even the sky above, the voluminous trees and plants fill the entire canvas, while blossoming branches sweep inwards to form a protective shade. The extent to which Grant’s vision in the early 1940s was of an inward-looking, enclosed world is most apparent when the Charleston paintings are compared with his earlier, European, landscapes.

As a retreat from war the garden at Charleston was an anomaly. Under the government’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign between 1939 and 1945, six and a half million acres of countryside had been ploughed up and transformed into productive, utilitarian allotments. Haphazard and superfluous, Grant’s flower garden was a rare luxury, and in some senses a rejection of the nationalistic language of wartime self-sufficiency, in line with his earlier pacifist response to the First World War. The detached, carefree and luxurious world of Charleston, enjoyed by its inhabitants and visitors, was to appear increasingly out of tune with modern British life, and in the post-war era of austerity and rationing Grant suffered a decline in his reputation.

Duncan Grant’s bedroom at Charleston, with an east view over the pond.

The pleasures of rereading

My year with Virginia Woolf imply rereading. Quite a lot of it. It is such a pleasure! And there is so much new to focus on, even in the texts I thought I knew fairly well. There is no doubt that my own situation in life influence my way of reading & understanding.

Today I went back to The Lighthouse. This is how it opens:

The Window

“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, …

“But,” said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, “it won’t be fine.”

Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it.

I love how she introduces James: Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, … Isn’t this just a great psychological observation?! And isn’t it also very interesting to se how carefully and serious she presents the personality of a child.

But what actually surprised me the most today, was how easy it is, at 45, to identify with Mrs. Ramsay. I never did that before … last time I read this book (20 years ago or so) I saw Mrs. Ramsay as a mother-figure, also to me – the reader, today it felt almost like her thoughts were mine …

… rather shocking …