A Common Reader

I am taking Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader as a model for my new writing project. I am studying her way of writing, her method. You all know she is unattainable, belonging to a different sphere, so she will be more like my leading star. Nevertheless,  I will try very hard to make my texts readable for the general public – the common reader – people who read essays for personal enjoyment (if such an audience is still to be found).

To get in the right mood, here is Virginia Woolf in her own words:

How it Strikes a Contemporary (excerpt)

from The Common Reader, by Virginia Woolf

(…) To sum up, then — if indeed any conclusion is possible when everybody is talking at once and it is time to be going — it seems that it would be wise for the writers of the present to renounce the hope of creating masterpieces. Their poems, plays, biographies, novels are not books but notebooks, and Time, like a good schoolmaster, will take them in his hands, point to their blots and scrawls and erasions, and tear them across; but he will not throw them into the waste-paper basket. He will keep them because other students will find them very useful. It is from the notebooks of the present that the masterpieces of the future are made. Literature, as the critics were saying just now, has lasted long, has undergone many changes, and it is only a short sight and a parochial mind that will exaggerate the importance of these squalls, however they may agitate the little boats now tossing out at sea. The storm and the drenching are on the surface; continuity and calm are in the depths.

As for the critics whose task it is to pass judgment upon the books of the moment, whose work, let us admit, is difficult, dangerous, and often distasteful, let us ask them to be generous of encouragement, but sparing of those wreaths and coronets which are so apt to get awry, and fade, and make the wearers, in six months time, look a little ridiculous. Let them take a wider, a less personal view of modern literature, and look indeed upon the writers as if they were engaged upon some vast building, which being built by common effort, the separate workmen may well remain anonymous. Let them slam the door upon the cosy company where sugar is cheap and butter plentiful, give over, for a time at least, the discussion of that fascinating topic — whether Byron married his sister — and, withdrawing, perhaps, a handsbreadth from the table where we sit chattering, say something interesting about literature itself. Let us buttonhole them as they leave, and recall to their memory that gaunt aristocrat, Lady Hester Stanhope, who kept a milk-white horse in her stable in readiness for the Messiah and was for ever scanning the mountain tops, impatiently but with confidence, for signs of his approach, and ask them to follow her example; scan the horizon; see the past in relation to the future; and so prepare the way for masterpieces to come.

Roger Fry:  Portrait of Virginia Woolf


The Common Reader, collection of essays by Virginia Woolf, was published in two series, the first in 1925 and the second in 1932. Most of the essays appeared originally in such publications as the Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Athenæum, New Statesman, Life and Letters, Dial, Vogue, and The Yale Review. The title indicates Woolf’s intentions that her essays be read by the “common reader” who reads books for personal enjoyment. Virginia Woolf’s essays reveals a marked merging of the strong expression of personality with a dialogue with the reader, a technique that becomes more evident in these pieces than in her novels, her biographical or autobiographical writing.

playing with style

Genre is a slippery thing – is there a set borderline between fiction and nonfiction? While nonfiction is often defined by fidelity to fact and logical cohesion, the genre has a companion history of texts that use the fragmentary, suggestive, and inconclusive. There are essays that destabilize unwavering narration, logical progression, and rhetorical coherence. Creative nonfiction is an elastic genre.

Like in really good photography, you start to wonder: is it true or is it fiction – ?

Todd Hido: Untitled #2621, 2000


Todd Hido (born 1968, Kent, Ohio) is an American contemporary artist and photographer. Currently based in San Francisco. Deeply interested in the topic of housing in the United States, Todd Hido’s large, colored photographs of American suburbia emphasize feelings of isolation and anonymity. Hido’s images have a very narrative, almost cinematic quality to them

We have too much stuff already. It clutters our view, inward and outward.

I’m reading Lisa Carver’s Reaching Out with No Hands. Reconsidering Yoko Ono. It’s a very amusing and well written book. Carver has a strong personal tone – her text is filled with respect for Ono’s work. Here is why, according to Carver, Ono is such an important artist:

Yoko Ono is not pretty, she is not easy, her paintings aren’t recognizable, her voice is not melodious, her films are without plot, and her Happenings make no sense. One of her paintings you are told to sleep on. One of her paintings you are told to burn. One of her paintings isn’t a painting at all – it’s you climbing into an outdoor bathtub and looking at the sky. Most of her stuff is not even there. Thats why I love her. This is why we need her. We have too much stuff already. It clutters our view, inward and outward. We need more impossible in our culture.

Go out and and capture moonlight on water in a bucket, she commands. 


We have too much stuff already. It clutters our view, inward and outward. Isn’t this just a very good and precise observation?


Consecrating ones life to an imbecility

I suppose, as a poet, amongst my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility (to something intrinsically unnecessary and superfluous – and thereby unintentionally cruel).

In an intriguing essay called “On Fear”, Mary Ruefle touch upon a problem I have been struggling with lately (the so-called: why not do something important with your life?!!! question). But even more interesting; Ruefle presents a lot of thoughts I’ve never ever considered, like:

  • The industrial world destroys nature not because it doesn’t love it but because it is not afraid of it.
  • Fear is desire’s dark dress, its doppelgänger.
  • Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide (D.W.Winnicott).
  • Fear is to recognize ourselves. (Kierkegaard says: What is education? I should suppose that education was the curriculum one had to run through in order to catch up with oneself).
  • Poetry is no more than a broken whisper – to talk about anything, just to talk, becomes an operation in itself, a means of assuaging fear (Szymborska).

Ruefle’s essay (or lecture) is not only interesting for its content; Ruefle’s style is a show in itself. While writing she is constantly questioning her own statements and beliefs, contradict herself, challenging us – encouraging us to make our own digressions into sense and nonsense. In other words: This is truly inspirational reading!

(Even when fear is the topic) …

Tony Hoagland said: fear was the ghost of an experience: we fear the recurrence of a pain we once felt, and in this way fear is like a hangover. The memory of our pain is a pain unto itself, and thus feeds our fear like a foyer with mirrors on both sides. 

SAM_0232Kvassheim fyr, Jæren

Lovely Blueness

Just the other day Jim Elkins made me aware of a very fine text on blue written by Colm Tóibín.

 In 2004 Colm Tóibín curated an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin called ‘Blue’ which consisted of blue objects from the collection. The following passages are derived from In Lovely Blueness: Adventures in Troubled Light, Tóibín’s introductory essay to the exhibition:

[…] Blue comes to us through silence and mystery and much argument. The word we use to describe blueness was not in every language, or arrived later than words for white and black, red and yellow and green. In ancient Greek, as far as we can make out, the word for black may have been the same as the word for blue. In modern Catalan the word for blue (blau; blava in the feminine) is the same as the word for bruise, deriving from the Latin word for bruise, blavus. No one now believes that Roman and Greek eyes were too primitive to see the colour blue, but it was not an essential term in the lexicography of colour and, with the exception of work in mosaic and in some illustration, it was not used as one of the central colours in Greek or Roman art.

[…] Blue mostly came from far away. Woad was made in the brutish north and frightened Julius Caesar (‘Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horribiliores sunt in pugna aspectu’); indigo came from India; lapis lazuli from the east. Blue, for the most part, was distant and expensive and somehow, for the Greeks and the Romans, it was associated with barbarians, some of whom had blue eyes and others blue robes. The main colours in which the Greeks and Romans worked were black and white, red and yellow. In the late Middle Ages, red robes were the most expensive.

Tóibín continues showing us how names of colors have changed through history, and he points out how difficult it is to translate color names both over languages and time. e.g: ‘The emphasis on colour intensity,’ Michel Pastoureau writes in Blue, ‘led medieval people to perceive colour very differently than we do now: for the dyer or painter, and for their clients and publics, heavily saturated colour was often seen (or imagined) as closer to another bright colour than it was to a weaker, less concentrated tone of the same colour.’

[…] for both Western and Arabic writers, colour was subservient to light. Boethius said that colour was an accident. Scholars such as Averroes made light a far more important structural concept than colour, believing that the colours of art were finite while the colours of nature infinite. These theories of colour and light would lead to Goethe’s most beautiful phrase: ‘Colour is troubled light.’

[…] ‘With a new social order,’ Michel Pastoureau writes, ‘came a new order of colours.’ […]  Part of the reason for the growth in blue’s popularity was progress in France and England in the cultivation of woad and improvement in dyeing techniques. ‘In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries,’ Michel Pastoureau writes, ‘blue at long last became a first-rate beautiful colour – the colour of Mary and royalty, and thus the rival of red. During the following four or five hundred years, these two colours shared the preeminent position over all others and in many spheres formed a partnership of contrast: red versus blue meant the festive versus the moral, the material versus the spiritual, the near versus the far, the masculine versus the feminine.’ By the late fourteenth century the French poet Guillaume de Machaut could write: ‘He who would rightly judge colours and pronounce their true meaning, must place before all others beautiful blue.’

 A century later, map makers began to make water blue instead of green.

For an avid student of blue like me, Tóibín’s essay is a true treasure!


Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)
Oil on canvas, 46,5 x 40 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague

(Question to self: How come I think of Vermeer’s painting of the girl with a pearl earring as a blue painting?)


art on art

Maggie Nelson wrote Bluets under the influence of – amongst others – Joan Mitchell. Bluets is a good example on how art inspires more art, and on interconnectedness (which again verge at the literary term intertextuality) within a larger field of art, transgressing both genre and time.

The work below is an explicit re-staging of art:

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993), Jeff Wall © Jeff Wall

Travellers Caught in a Sudden breeze at Ejiri (c.1832), Hokusai (1760-1849)

A Sudden Gust of Wind recreates or transplants the scenery from Hokusai’s woodcut series The 36 Views of Mt. Fuji into the setting of British Columbia. In order to achieve a seamless montage that gives the illusion of capturing a real moment in time, Jeff Wall needed over a year and 100 photos to stage the scene. Mt. Fiji is missing, but the figures’ poses and the movement of a stack of papers in the wind make it easy to recognize the famous work Sunshu Ejiri.

You might also remember me writing about Wall in an earlier post, another example of his interesting appropriations.

Appropriation is the intentional borrowing, copying, and alteration of preexisting images and objects. It is a strategy that has been used by artists and writers for centuries. Art on art: appropriation, intertextuality, collages – opens up for many kinds of readings, dependent on the reader/viewer’s competence and experience. It’s not like you cannot enjoy Wall if you haven’t seen Hokusai, or Nelson if you haven’t seen Mitchell, but knowing the references create a kind of surplus value. For the artist appropriating is also a way of making connections, becoming a part of the larger community, finding ones place in the greater world of art and artists.

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (detail)