Monday, November 26, 2007


The solitary traveller is soon beyond the wood; and there, coming to the door with shaded eyes, possibly to look for his return, with hands raised, with white apron blowing, is an elderly woman who seems (so powerful is this infirmity) to seek, over a desert, a lost son; to search for a rider destroyed; to be the figure of the mother whose sons have been killed in the battles of the world. So, as the solitary traveller advances down the village street where the women stand knitting and the men dig in the garden, the evening seems ominous; the figures still; as if some august fate, known to them, awaited without fear, were about to sweep them into complete annihilation.
--Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

Woolf's situation in Mrs. Dalloway seems clear from the outset: to respond to the two greatest provocations of recent memory: the Great War (1914-19), and James Joyce's Ulysses (1917-22). To do so, she employs interior monologue and creates a character, Septimus Warren Smith, who, shell-shocked after his experiences in the war and in delayed mourning for a fallen comrade, goes to pieces in the streets of London and commits suicide from the window of a house in Bloomsbury -- that area where Woolf and her circle practiced their status as the most representative examples of British modernism. Smith, in fact, in his rambling stream-of-consciousness brings to mind not only Ulysses' Stephen in what Woolf calls "that boy's business of the intoxication of language," but also her sometime chum T.S.Eliot, who read to her his draft of "The Waste Land" -- a postwar poem of a young poetic sort going to pieces -- while also in mourning for a friend lost to the war. In other words, Septimus is something of a modernist manqué: he lacks the genius of Stephen or Eliot or Woolf (who also suffered from "voices," tried to jump out a window, and later killed herself), but he has a visionary mind-set, thinks of himself as a prophet (as Stephen thinks of himself as Hamlet and Eliot adopts the pose of Tiresias), broods on Shakespeare, and experiences, fatally, the alienation of the modern artist and the sacrificial role of the "sons killed in the battles of the world."

But the lines quoted above aren't from the mind of Septimus. They are from the mind of Peter Walsh, a middle-aged man who is asleep on a park bench, returned to London after years abroad in India. If anyone in the novel is its Bloom / Odysseus it is Walsh -- dreaming of himself as a "solitary traveller" for whom a maternal Penelopean figure waits. That figure's correspondent should be the novel's eponymous heroine. Much as Stephen's final image in Ulysses is in the mind of Molly (who likens him to a statue of a poet she has seen and considers sucking him off), so Septimus must "go a progress" through the mind of a matron (to alter Hamlet's line), making Clarissa feel "the beauty . . . the fun."

It's a curious formulation and resounds as the most enigmatic moment in a novel comprised of impressions and memories, of thoughts and phrases rarely uttered and fleetingly considered. When Molly thinks of Stephen, the "fun" is that he might become another extramarital fling more culturally interesting than her recent, somewhat debasing, bout with Hugh "Blazes" Boylan; when Clarissa thinks of Septimus, the "fun" is in the ability to "throw it away" -- but, as Clarissa realizes, his death, in being mentioned at her party, brings in the shadow of the end for them all, adding its undercurrent of gravitas to what might otherwise simply be another so-so social occasion. For a moment, as it were, Clarissa stands in high relief, not as one in mourning for what England has lost in its casualties, but as one frail consciousness against a background of "complete annihilation." She sees his death as a message for her: "a rider destroyed."

That such a state should be for a moment "fun" comes not as Hamlet's "consummation devoutly to be wished," but rather as the heightened sense of precariousness, of how easily we may terminate, how briefly we are here, how ephemeral is our grasp of what we recognize as ourselves. Woolf responds to Joyce not only by dropping sex from the equation of things -- the strongest passions in the novel are woman for woman, as when Clarissa recalls her teen-aged crush on Sally Seton, as when Miss Kilman faces the desperation of her attachment to Clarissa's teen-aged daughter, Elizabeth -- (Woolf found Ulysses "vulgar and low-bred" largely because of its smutty insistence on bodily functions), but also by bringing death into the novel.

No death occurs in Ulysses. Paddy Dignam gets buried, but he's already dead. Rudy died years ago as did Bloom's father. Stephen still wears mourning, but his mother has been dead some time. Both Woolf and Joyce give us events set on a single day in June; in Ulysses, it is the day that Molly "gets well and truly fucked" and the day on which Bloom and Stephen spend a few hours together. In Mrs. Dalloway, it is the day on which Peter Walsh sees Clarissa after years away, on which Clarissa sees Sally Seton after years apart, but most importantly it is the day on which Septimus Smith -- pursued in his mind by "human nature" in the guise of a nosy, questioning, bland and supercilious psychiatrist named Holmes -- kills himself.

That his sacrifice of himself is "fun" for a well-to-do society matron might be considered ironic if not outright satirical. But I don't think that's the main intention. Clarissa Dalloway, like Leopold Bloom, is not, as a person, particularly profound; she is a bit flighty, a bit staid, a bit nostalgic, a bit unimaginative and so on. The point of what Joyce did, and which Woolf pursues as well, is the rendering of an unexceptional intelligence exceptionally well. But Woolf also clearly understood the working dynamic of Ulysses -- that the structure makes significant a vision of what Bloom and Stephen make of each other, and what they are together (a cuckolded Shakespeare) -- and, perhaps, what they are for Molly (the phallic signified). Woolf -- who imagined Shakespeare's sister as herself in Elizabethan drag -- evades the phallic insistence of the search for a sexual partner, and is able to render more feelingly what Molly doesn't quite find in the loss of Rudy and what Joyce doesn't ever render in May Dedalus' loss of Stephen. Woolf herself was childless and Clarissa is no mater dolorosa, but there floats through the book a beneficent sense of maternal concern, of the matronly imagination -- "She felt somehow very like him -- the young man who had killed himself" -- that Woolf's great contemporary never registered so sympathetically.

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