Assay@NFN15: The Lyrical Essays of Virginia Woolf

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Patricia Foster, Heidi Stalla, Anne Sand, Spenser Mestel, Alexanne Madison

Panel description: Although Virginia Woolf is best known for her modernist novels, she used many of the techniques of modernism—stream of consciousness narration, fragmentation, disjunction between internal and external time, and tunneling as a means of interiority—in her autobiographical essays. This panel proposes to examine specific essays and autobiography—Street Haunting, The Death of the Moth, On Being Ill, The Morning: Summer’s Night, and A Sketch of the Past, to consider how Woolf used complex patterns of images, shifts in point of view, digression and delay, emphasis on character, and emblematic moments to create her intimate, improvisational essays. We will also look at how her essay writing was bound up with her thinking about women, politics, and society, how it remains in conversation with her novel writing, diaries, and notebooks.

Patricia Foster wrote a letter to the narrator of “Street Haunting,” whom one can safely assume is Virginia Woolf.  Fosters wants to explore the story’s structure and suspense that bears down on the rhapsodic plot’s way of giving and withholding information. The first paragraph reveals the structure while setting the stakes: becoming that “vast republican army of anonymous trampers.” The plot explores the existential loneliness, the very bones of literature. “You can’t leave your house for that damn pencil without telling us a story of the conflicted self.” The scene of the dwarf is the seminal digression—it is the narrator’s kind of suspense, one that is complicated because the dwarf allows the narrator to explore the self—the gap between the ego and the secret self, besotted by beauty, an unraveling consciousness that tries to read the other as a way of trying to read the self.

Anne Sand sees her least favorite shadow in the first speaker of “Summer’s Night.” In this story, Woolf structures her essay so that each character speaks once with a quick portrait conveying anxieties, desires, and over-compensations while the others derail attempts to negotiate those internal forces. Woolf gives us the single linear unified scene of the essay: “He beats her every Saturday; from boredom, I should say….” It is creation of those lives in that garden: a working class dwelling. The only instance of “we” is to distinct one class from another. The four characters can’t escape themselves, their own identities, their anxieties. Sand feels these anxieties too.

Alex Madison feels that in comparison to contemporary women writers—Eula Bliss, Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison—who are frank on ways we are of our bodies that Woolf can sound like a strange aunt in “On Being Ill.” Woolf rejects the physicality of illness and believes that in illness alone does poetry become sensory. “We feel words,” sad Madison. Woolf sought cures by yanking teeth as a fever treatment. Is Woolf asking to lyric a toothache? In writing that we are searching for the unknown during illness, was she articulating the unknowability of illness? As a member of the “army of the upright,” it seems impossible to communicate illness. Woolf argues that illness is beyond sympathy—critiquing the idea of sympathy as a myth of communication. We don’t know our own souls let alone the souls of others. Our bodies are panes of glass that are never clear. Our minds are enslaved by our bodies.

Elena Carter admires Woolf’s empathy for the dying moth in “Death of a Moth.” Woolf explicitly admires the moth’s struggle to cling to life, which she pays homage on a sentence and tonal level. She and the moth are made of similar stuff. She uses gerunds in the essay, which gives the piece energy. Like the moth itself, the words lose their pulsing rhythm. We land on a single image: a dead moth, decently composed. “Death stranges the moth.”

Heidi Stalla responds to Woolf’s Conflicted Self. Woolf’s rhythmic language is what attracted her. Stalla wonders of Woolf’s androgynous state that comes out of shedding the self in the essays covered in the panel are really the best state for writing. For Woolf, shock makes things real—a modernist and an essayist’s project Stalla argues. The androgynous mind that surpasses the body isn’t real. One needs body and soul doubling to write. Woolf shape-shifts from “old me” to “new me,” is perpetually unable to know self and the other, and argues that sympathy  is an illusion. Does she really feel that to always be understood would be intolerable? We might as well give up and go home. It is human nature to be understood, to be liked. Moments in these essays where human nature persists are strange gifts—prejudice, violence, death—when shape-shifted we find sympathy. Woolf’s diaries—their pettiness and personal darkness—betray the ideal that Woolf preoccupies the self equally with the world. If we look with sympathy, we see Woolf struggling thought the demands of nonfiction genre.

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Patti Wisland is a prose writer and the managing editor of New Ohio Review. 

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