Sunday, April 10, 2016

Is Virginia Woolf relevant anymore?

I remember a conversation I had with a lady friend of mine sometime back. She was better read than me and had the grace to accept that what she knew was but a drop in the ocean. Predictably, she didn’t speak much, and instead allowed me, the empty vessel (by comparison), to make observations about this artist and that filmmaker over lunch.

I inexplicably trailed off to literature and picked on a writer. In this case, it happened to be Virginia Woolf, whom I had used to venerate back in the day, but whose stature had diminished as far as I was concerned since. She was, I thought, irrelevant.

I opened my mind. I talked about what I thought to be her narrow mindset, her inability to move beyond the social class she was born to, and her at times impossibly stiff characterisations of British people. I quoted the inimitable Regi Siriwardena, who had made these same observations, and waited for this lady to accept what I assumed to be the truth. The lady, however, disagreed.

She had an interesting reply to give. “You condemn her for being narrow-minded, provincial, incapable of moving beyond her social class in her novels,” she told me, “But my dear, which writer isn’t guilty of that? Never mind what Regi Siriwardena wrote, you tell me what it is in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ or ‘To the Lighthouse’ that doesn’t merit praise? Sure, they all have characters and they all came from the same social circumstances, which is to say they were all from the English middle-class. But would Martin Wickramasinghe’s writings be the same if they were about the Colombo upper-class?”

Now this lady never usually argued with me, and that made her point quite clear almost immediately. Today however, academics love to trash the likes of Virginia Woolf for the simple reason that she was unable to move beyond her family background. She wrote about inter-bellum Britain and the Empire, which emerged and survived somewhat between 1918 and 1939. Siriwardena would later term this the “English nostalgia for the era between the two world wars”. He is correct, but I wonder whether Mrs Woolf (who committed suicide 75 years ago last month) deserves the criticism that academics keep piling on her because of this.

Woolf could, all things considered, write. She could write so exquisitely that to watch her sentences grow and the rhythm in them assert itself was in itself a pleasure. Of her last, undervalued masterpiece, “The Waves”, she said she was "writing to a rhythm and not to a plot". For Woolf, and the literary movement she is associated with, Modernism, the plot was secondary to the psychology of the characters, and that psychology was almost never linear. In none of the novels of hers that I have read so far – including “Mrs Dalloway”, “To the Lighthouse”, and “Night and Day” – do the characters fall prey to the plot. They exist independently of an external reality, and for this reason, we are never sure where the story is taking us.

Perhaps we were mistaken, however, in thinking that this is Mrs Woolf’s greatest achievement. There are subtle undertones hidden underneath her stories, psycho-sexual in nature, which threaten to disturb a superficial charm. She begins “To the Lighthouse” with Mrs Ramsay telling her son that they can go visit the lighthouse (“if it’s fine tomorrow”), which evokes an almost sexual response in the son’s mind:

“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.”

And then Mr Ramsay negates what she says: “It won’t be fine”, which evokes an entirely different response, again almost sexual:

“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. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgement.”

There’s Freudian psychoanalysis at work here, of course, particularly with regard to the son’s love for the mother, his constant need to be consoled by her, and his hatred towards the father-figure. To read these lines today is to remember that Mrs Woolf and her husband, Leonard, published Freud’s collected papers. Indeed, one of her other achievements that she was able to transmit to the British public the thinking of continental philosophers and writers. Whether she was able to embrace the cosmopolitanism and open-mindedness of these thinkers is another debate altogether, which raises questions about her class orientation.

For many alleged that she was class-oriented. This is true. “A Room of One’s Own”, considered back then a standard feminist text, nevertheless betrayed Mrs Woolf’s inability to think outside her social class. When she argues that a woman needs “500 pounds a year and a room of her own” to survive as a writer of fiction, and when in the next few pages she goes on criticising the likes of the Bronte sisters (who survived as governesses and unmarried women) for what she thought to be disproportionate rage against men, we saw that despite her feminist leanings, she couldn't resist implying that a woman who was poor and was against patriarchy could never hope to be a good writer.

But then, I wonder whether Virginia Woolf could have written as she did without these same class inhibitions. There are passages in “Night and Day” and “To the Lighthouse” which shed some light on her class consciousness, such as when (in the former novel) she is writing sympathetically on her protagonist, a clerk to a lawyer who silently hopes for the heart of a well established aristocratic lady. To claim that these inhibitions prevented her from writing well is to claim that Martin Wickramasinghe would have written better had he asserted a less rooted, more cosmopolitan approach to life.

The rift between the writer and his or her text is fictional no matter who contends otherwise. The writer usually projects his or her prejudices into what he or she writes, and in the end the work of art (novel, short story, novella etc) becomes an instrument of ideology. Going by this, “Mrs Dalloway” seems more boring than what many of her contemporaries were writing back in the day, but despite that these novels still afford us a glimpse into the way people like her thought and behaved (she compared the likes of D. B. Jayatilaka and E. W. Perera, who were friends of her husband, to brown-faced monkeys, which goes to show how racist even liberal writers could be in her day).

Essentially then, Virginia Woolf was an English writer. She projected her way of looking at life, so insular and inhibited by mental illness, into her stories, and hence failed to transcend the specificity of their outlook. When I read “Mrs Dalloway” today, I need time to understand half the things she’s writing, not because she writes so elegantly or poetically, but because they are beyond my comprehension in terms of how relevant they are to my time. With Dickens, Shakespeare, and even the Bible, this isn’t the case. With James Joyce too (a writer she snobbishly regarded as an illiterate man), this problem doesn’t exist.

Does that make her a lesser writer? Maybe. That lady friend of mine had a point, I concede, but only insofar as it proves that even the most snobbish writer deserves to be read. That does not and will not give such writers the license to be held in esteem forever, for they deserve as much criticism as their contemporaries. Mrs Woolf, I must say, caught me at an early age, when I was tired of Jane Austen and Dickens and Shakespeare and Walter Scott. She seemed to be a pedant, someone with whom I could identify easily.

But that was then. Today even I doubt her relevance. She remains significant for me because she allows us in her writings to view an England that, for about 20 years, attempted to regain her lost glory, with an Empire that was seeing a sun that was slowly and surely setting. And when the sun finally did set, that significance of Mrs Woolf eroded away.

Note: In the version of this article published in THE ISLAND there were two errors. One, I wrote what the lady said as "You condemn her for NOT being narrow-minded..." when the word "not" negatives what she really said. Two, I wrote that Mrs Woolf wrote that a woman needed 50 pounds and a room of her own, when I missed a zero in the figure. It should be 500 pounds (of course). I apologise for both mistakes, minor and forgivable as they may be.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, April 10 2016