A thoroughly modern melancholia: Virginia Woolf, author, daughter.
--Virginia Woolf, AROO 96
Elaine Showalter writes in A Literature of Their Own, "It is customary to make Leslie Stephen the heavy in Virginia Woolf's personal drama" (266). Woolf's feminism, Jane Marcus notes in her introduction to New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, "is too often lightly assumed ... a traditional form of rebellion against a Victorian father's oppression" (xii-xx, xix). However, if Leslie Stephen's role in Virginia Woolf's identification of herself as an author and a feminist is examined, rather than codified and solidified as a singularly dark patriarchal archetype of paternal possession, aggression, and suppression, the figure and authorship of Virginia Woolf are opened to alternative re-readings. Despite Sara Ruddick's cheerful assertion in "Private Brother, Public World" that "We have always welcomed attention to the powerful effect fathers have on their daughters' lives" (185), the figure of Leslie Stephen has been too easily dismissed as a crippled temperamental tyrant, rather than examined in its possible relationship to the formulation of Virginia Woolf's identity as an author. (1) Allowing that the figure Leslie Stephen was a significant, sometimes tempestuous and possibly damaging force in Woolf's psychological landscape does not preclude the possibility that Woolf did more than merely crumple or simply rebel in the face of that force.
In "As Miss Jan Says" Louise DeSalvo contends that, because of Woolf's propensity for situating people within historical categories, she could not see her father as an individual man; "he became representative, to her, of the archetypal Victorian father, with all the difficulties inherent in that historical type" (106). Perhaps it might be more accurate to suggest that Leslie Stephen has become representative to critics (2) of the dark archetypal Victorian father. Admittedly, we, like Woolf, may not always be comfortable with that which was learned "at her father's knee," with the student/pupil dialectic, or the patrilineal model it evokes. Perhaps we must agree with Woolf when she drolly suggests in "Miss Mitford," "That is the worst of writing about ladies; they have fathers as well as teapots" (195). (3) However, facing the "worst" and rereading Leslie Stephen as an influential model of the author in Woolf's texts allows us to glimpse the ways in which the narrating subject of those texts perceives the role of author.
One way of approaching Woolf's relationship with her father is through theories of object relations and one way of approaching theories of object relations is to read those theories through Virginia Woolf's relationship with her father. Rather than simply applying a stock psychoanalytic model to Woolf, and cutting and pasting until she fits, what I hope to do is to explore the ways in which several psychoanalytic texts, for the most part Freud's, can be used to give an understanding of Woolf's texts, as well as the ways in which Woolf's texts offer an interesting perspective on Freud's theories of object relations. Freud and Woolf wrote contemporaneously, and both dealt with interiority in ways that were innovative and had lingering impact upon the ways we read and understand both literature and generational dynamics today. In "Modern Fiction" Woolf contends that,
For the moderns ... the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology. At once, therefore, the accent falls a little differently; the emphasis is upon something hitherto ignored; at once a different outline of form becomes necessary, difficult for us to grasp, incomprehensible to our predecessors.... The emphasis is laid upon such unexpected places that at first it seems as if there were no emphasis at all; and then, as one's eyes accustom themselves to twilight and discern the shapes of things in a room we see how complete the story is, how profound. (162-163)
Woolf's 1919 description of modern fiction could quite easily be mistaken as a summary of psychoanalysis, which was just then barely beginning to become known in England. However, Woolf's disdain of Freudian theory is manifestly evident five years later when she writes to Molly MacCarthy that after having read some of the proofs for the Hogarth Edition of Freud (or at least a case study in lecture 17 of Introductory Lectures which she harshly caricatures in the letter) she claims that psychoanalysis proves very little except perhaps the "gull-like imbecility" of its advocates (L3 135). Freud's opinion of Woolf must be inferred from their sole meeting in 1939: all that we know is that Freud gave Woolf a single narcissus.
What are we as readers to do with the blatant and veiled animosity between Woolf and Freud? Woolf's remark in A Room of One's Own that "books have a way of influencing each other. Fiction will be much the better for standing cheek by jowl with poetry and philosophy" seems an important comment here (104). In what follows, I will address these and other questions directly and indirectly, through a reading of some of Freud's and Woolf's treatments of melancholia and creativity. Although Woolf and Freud may not have been directly influenced by each other, nor might either of them have welcomed the suggestion of such an influence, today readers of each author are influenced by the other, and reading Woolf and Freud cheek by jowl impels a re-thinking of the various prejudices and assumptions which continue to power a perceived split between Woolf the daughter, Woolf the author, and the ways the narrating subject perceives the roles of daughter and author.
Freud, Object Relations, and Identification
In May of 1915, Freud completed the final draft of "Mourning and Melancholia." As in earlier works, Freud uses the term "object" to denote either a real or imaginary "Other" toward whom the drives are directed. Although the drives and their aims are inherent, the "object" is a phenomenon of experience. The "object" is, at this point for Freud, simply the vehicle or the means whereby gratification of the drives is achieved or thwarted. In other words, Freud imagines a theory of one body rather than a relationship between two bodies. Here the relationship with the object is a result of drives and defenses, with antagonism and violence being enacted between the id and the ego of a singular body. In "Mourning and Melancholia," he discusses the means by which, through a splitting of the ego, an aspect of oneself that has been modeled upon the lost external object internally replaces this object:
An object choice, an attachment of the libido to a particular person, had at one time existed; then, owing to a real slight or disappointment coming from this loved person, the object relationship was shattered. The result was not the normal one or a withdrawal of the libido from this object and a displacement of it on to a new one, but something different, for whose coming-about various contradictions seem to be necessary. The object cathexis proved to have little power of resistance and was brought to an end. But the free libido was not displaced on to another object, it was withdrawn into the ego. There, however, it was not employed in any unspecified way, but served to establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object. Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object. In this way an object loss was transformed into an ego-loss and the conflict between the critical activity of the ego and the ego as altered by identification. (257-258)
The pathological condition evoked by this splitting of the ego and the replacement of an external object with an internal object is, according to Freud, melancholia. It is important to recognize that, in Freud's evaluation, melancholia involves two active aspects of the individual who has undergone this bifurcation of ego. The self is thus divided, split by defensive processes, into the subject-self and the object-self which entombs the lost other.
In his 1938 essay "Splitting the Ego in the Process of Defence," Freud discusses the ways in which splitting of the ego allows an individual to know and not know simultaneously, to function defensively with two disparate understandings of reality. In "The Ego and the Id" (1923) Freud noted that although normal processes of identification are not harmful, that when identifications become "unduly powerful and incompatible with one another a pathological outcome will not be far off. [However], there remains the question of conflicts between the various identifications into which the ego comes apart, conflict which cannot after all be described as entirely pathological" (370). From these three disparate Freudian discussions of object identification, what I would like to extract specifically is the notion that the ego, upon real or imagined loss of an object, attempts to preserve that object within itself through a fracturing of the ego, an event which may incur a conflict with other identifications. Special attention needs to be paid to Freud's assertion that the conflict arising between identifications is not necessarily pathological. Reading the experience between subject and object is not necessarily reading pathology, it is the reading of the primal interaction between the subject and the object, a savage meeting, a primitive crossing, in which domination and mastery are at stake. In every identification there is a conflict of power, a struggle of contrary instincts, through which the subject comes to define itself.
Against Proper Objects: Narcissus, A Thoroughly Modern "I"
Miglena Nikolchina notes that among Woolf critics "there is a general tendency to privilege Woolf's Diary (or her manuscripts for that matter) as the authentic place where the 'real' Woolf can be found. In Woolf's case such privileging disregards her quite conscious strategies for beating the system" (17). (4) In A Room of One's Own, Woolf claims that "'I' is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being" (6). Following Woolf's example, and reading the narrating subject, the "I" of the diary, as a character, a narrator, or a portrait mapped by Woolf, rather than as a veritable textual supplement of Woolf, challenges the critical assumption that the language of the diary and the essays is a looking glass through which Virginia Woolf is immediately apprehensible both psychologically and physiologically. When I speak of Virginia Woolf, then, I am speaking of a character created by many authors, a compilation of fictions over time, a character which is connected to the author of the texts, but which is less the author herself than she is the theories of the author textually realized. I suggest that it is through the "I" or perhaps the many "I's" of her texts that Woolf the author offers up her own theory of creativity and female authorship.
I propose that, to use Freud's theory, Virginia Woolf is depicted in her autobiographical and pseudo-autobiographical texts as undergoing an object identification and concomitant splitting of the ego resultant upon the loss of her father; thus a conflict is seen to arise between her feminine body-ego and her masculinized object identification with the paternal ideality of the melancholic author (these are Freud's terms and not Woolf's). On the basis of Woolf's depictions of her father and her own textually evident fascination with the connections between her madness and her creativity, I believe that melancholia was an important aspect of her internalized identification with her father and the corollary intra-psychic condition which that identification evoked.
In other words, Woolf identified a part of her ego with her self-proclaimed melancholic father, and the splitting of the ego, which that identification provoked, resulted in her own melancholic condition. An argument such as this, what might be seen as something of a psychoanalytic ouroboros, blurs not only the distinctions between self and other, subject and object, but also those between cause and effect. Addressing Woolf's melancholia as a doubled problem of identification is obviously not an exhaustive answer to all of the questions evoked by descriptions of Woolf's psychological disquiet. However, it does provide a context within which her work might be better understood, insofar as it allows for a reading of Woolf which does not present her life merely as a flight, a fight, a denial, a defeat, a sacrifice, a substitution, but rather as a tactic, an artful strategy, enabling her to become the prolific and ingenious writer that she was. (5)
Much Ado about "Daddy"
Just after Adeline Virginia Stephen was born in January of 1882, James Russell Lowell, United States Minister to the Court of St. James in London, was asked by his old friend Leslie Stephen, who was on holiday in Switzerland at the time of Virginia's birth, to become the child's godfather. Sending a silver posset dish, Lowell included with his gift the rather poetic wish that "the child would be/A sample of heredity." (6) As James King records in Virginia Woolf, when Virginia turned two, Leslie Stephen was again away on holiday in the Alps, and "wondered aloud in a letter to Julia why he and Virginia were so alike" (34). Seven years later, again on holiday, Leslie wrote to his wife: "today is Ginny's birthday--she is certainly very like me, I feel, though I cannot say how--but much more life in her than I had at her age." (7) Examining these scraps of epistolary evidence for Woolf's early relationship with her father, what becomes quite evident is that Leslie Stephen wanted his youngest daughter to be like him and identified her as such at a very early age.
Melanie Klein first introduced the concept of projective identification, a term which has subsequently been used to denote the ego which projects itself, or aspects of itself, onto an external other and then identifies with the object which it has imaginatively filled with itself. (8) Through a splitting of the ego, the projected aspects of the ego may be either wanted or unwanted elements; they are invested in the other for safety and an alleviation of anxiety. In the instance of unwanted elements being projected, it is the safety of the self, which is protected from the badness of the projected elements. On the contrary, where valued elements of the self are projected, the safekeeping and survival of the good elements is assured. Leslie Stephen's attitude toward his daughter indicates some evidence of a projected identification of valued elements of authorship and intellectual prowess. Although a deeper analysis would need to be done in order to glean the full implications of Leslie's identification with his daughter, for the purposes of this paper it is interesting to note that Leslie Stephen began to instill in his family, and in Virginia, the ideality that she was the child in the family who was most like him and thus most likely to be a writer.
If Leslie Stephen was so supportive, perhaps even directive, of Virginia's youthful forays into both the reading and writing of literature, why would Woolf's diary entry for 28 November 1928, the ninety-sixth anniversary of Leslie Stephen's birth, suggest that while alive he was a forceful impediment to her authorship?
Father's Birthday. He would have been 1928 1832/96 96, yes, today: & could have been 96 like other people one has known; but mercifully was not. His life would have ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;--inconceivable. I used to think of him & mother daily; but writing The Lighthouse, laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, but differently. (I believe this to be true--that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; & writing of them was a necessary act.) He comes back now more as a contemporary. I must read him some day. (D3 208)
The first five sentences of this extract have been cited to demonstrate the incessant and stifling demands the dying Leslie Stephen placed upon his daughter during his two-year battle with cancer, (9) illustrating the difficulty of being a daughter and being an author. This diary entry clearly does suggest that if Leslie Stephen had not died, Woolf would never have written a book; however, rather than examining the physical impossibility of taking on the role of full time nurse and author, I would like to examine this diary entry by reflecting upon why Woolf believed it a psychological impossibility to write before the death of her father, why she felt that his death somehow freed her to become an author. If we follow some of the clues we already have, perhaps it is more accurate to suggest that, as long as Leslie Stephen lived, Virginia Woolf's restrictions and prohibitions were self imposed.
Death, Loss, and Melancholia
Sir Leslie Stephen died on 22 February, 1904. After the arduous business of the funeral was completed, the Stephen children and George Duckworth went on holiday for about four weeks at the seashore in Manorbier. During this extended holiday in Wales a certainty that she was capable of writing a book suffused Virginia. In Virginia Woolf, James King reports that, in deep mourning for her father, "Virginia sustained herself with the certainty that she somehow knew all that was necessary for writing a book. That vision came to her with brilliant clarity at Manorbier as she walked along the cliffs by the sea" (89). Bringing together these two moments--the revelation at Manorbier and the pensive recollections written almost twenty-four years later at Rodmell--it becomes clear that Woolf believes that if her father had lived there would have been "No writing, no books--inconceivable," but immediately after his death she suddenly feels it is within her to write a book. The authorial capacity of Leslie Stephen has seemingly been passed on to, and internalized by, Virginia Stephen. Virginia identified her father as the quintessential man of letters, a man almost entirely engaged in authorship and the appreciation of literature. In "Impressions of Sir Leslie Stephen," all but two introductory sentences are devoted to a lengthy recitation of the many ways in which Sir Leslie appreciated literature. Woolf's suggestion that she "must read him someday" also suggests that Woolf saw her father foremost as a creator of books: an author. But as Wiley points out "The subjugation of the household's females by Stephen and its other authoritarian men (which extended to physical violence and sexual abuse), (10) enflamed by the worry and poor health that his monumental biographical project brought to him, led Woolf to connect with the genre with Victorian patriarchal domination and female oppression" (390).
The identity of author, while embodied in her father was not--could not--be hers; but the loss incurred by his death impels a recuperative gesture whereby she takes into herself the capacity of authorship--takes into herself a part of her father. In the November following her father's death, Virginia submitted her first article for publication, "Howarth, November 1904," to Margaret Lyttelton the editor of the Guardian, a weekly newspaper for the clergy. Virginia's first attempt at writing a publishable essay was completed and submitted nine months after her father's death. One way to read Virginia's move to authorship is to consider that given the lengthy illness and death of Sir Leslie, the domestic economy of the Stephen household had deteriorated somewhat, and it is quite possible that Woolf felt impelled to venture out into a paying career, and hence began to write essays--one of the few jobs she felt appropriate for a woman of the upper-middle-class. What I find of interest, is that after Leslie Stephen's death, Woolf begins conceiving herself as a writer and she delivers her first manuscript to the Guardian.
In "Mourning and Melancholia" Freud writes that the inception of melancholia is notable for its orality: "The ego wants to incorporate this object into itself, and, in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it" (258). In devouring the object the subject repudiates the death of the object, disavows the separation and desertion incurred by the loss of the object, and, in taking the object into the self, revives the object. To return to Woolf, the concomitant identification of herself as a writer and her first attempt at publishing, suggests that the incorporation of her father, or a part, or parts of her father, was experienced as a creative fomentation insofar as the lost object is revived within Woolf. The death of the father offers to Woolf a primary, and until this critical transition, unavailable, identificatory model; namely, as one who might create--as author.
According to Freudian theory the illusion of control, which is gained over the object through incorporation is an anodyne against future abandonment by the object, but it is also a form of vengeance, as the object was an ambivalent one--the target of both love and hatred. In Totem and Taboo, Freud explains that, in the primal horde, the sons of the patriarch feel both love and hatred for the father, ultimately killing him and ritually eating him, and that "in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him" (203). Behind the murderous and cannibalistic impulses of the sons of the patriarch are powerful and ambivalent feelings of love and hate, which, as Kristeva notes in Black Sun, are "without doubt the substratum of an unsuspected sexual desire" (11). Thus, the apparent incorporation of the father by the daughter works as the fulfillment of an Oedipal desire, and as an imagined sexually charged taking of her father into herself, creating the liberated daughter as author.
However, it should be obvious that Freud's Oedipal model is forged by means of a relentlessly problematic and rigid set of assumptions concerning sex and gender and concomitant gender politics, politics that were of significant concern to Woolf. As Parveen Adams points out in "Of Female Bondage," "It is one thing to say that the Oedipus complex is the source of all neurosis; it is quite another to recognize that the Oedipus complex pathologizes femininity and feminine sexuality" (249). Rachel Bowlby sheds some light upon the classic Oedipal conundrum of femininity and what a woman wants when she notes in Still Crazy after all these Years, that in Freud's model the wish for a baby simply acts as a substitute for, takes the place of, and camouflages the wish for a penis. Consequently,
There is no place of femininity at all; femininity itself is still the 'masculine wish for the possession of a penis'. Even the properly feminine woman is still caught up in the masculinity complex, still hankering after a penis, even if this is covered over by the wish for a baby, and still repudiating the femininity she is said to have obtained. (144)
Although laden with problems, most of which I have not even mentioned here, the Oedipal model does, in its most general terms, mark a girl's desire for something her father has, and which her experience of reality has indicated she cannot or should not have. Consequently, the desire for what is prohibited may at least partially be recast as a desire for the condoned. If Virginia Woolf's ambivalent love for her father is considered vis-a-vis this less rigid framework of Oedipal prohibition, her essay "Howarth, November 1904" may be seen as the condoned manifestation of a prohibited desire. Interpreting the circumstances of Woolf's first foray into the literary world allows for an understanding of Woolf's notion of the creative process insofar as it demonstrates a woman's adroit coping strategy--a way in which she could simultaneously disavow the loss of her father and make money, a way in which she could simultaneously refuse reality and accede to its demands. She might seize, through her father's death, his position as author.
Emphasizing the agentic elements provided by the event of Woolf's melancholy, rather than the supposed pathology of Woolf's melancholy, allows for a reading which does not suggest that Woolf became a great artist because she was melancholic, but rather contends that Woolf's ability to construct an artful reality, her ability, as articulated by Vita Sackville West in a letter, to "see things aslant rather than dully straight," (Noble 165) was a capability she brought to her melancholy, not an ability emerging from her melancholy.
Freud, on the other hand, seems to believe that the creativity of the artist arises because he is melancholic. Freud reasserts and reifies the well-established and privileged insight of masculine melancholy in his discussion of Hamlet in "Mourning and Melancholia." There, Freud avows that the melancholic "has a keener eye for the truth than others who are not melancholic ... [and] it may be, so far as we know, that he has come pretty near to understanding himself; we only wonder why a man has to be ill before he can be accessible to a truth of this kind." (11) Jacqueline Rose has suggested that Hamlet, in this passage and many other psychoanalytic texts, is "given the status of truth" (133). I would suggest alternatively that Hamlet is given access to truth through his melancholy, which, in turn, gives him the status of truth.
In the same passage of "Mourning and Melancholia" in which Hamlet appears, Freud speaks of a markedly generic and unnamed "good, capable, conscientious woman" (255), who does not seem quite the same as the flamboyantly tragic figure of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Suffering from melancholy, the "good, capable, conscientious woman" speaks hyper-critically of herself (just as Hamlet does), but seems to be no more than the competent yet bland, feminine foil to Hamlet's great male melancholia. Freud contends that the "good, capable, conscientious woman will speak no better of herself after she develops melancholia than one who is in fact worthless; indeed, the former is perhaps more likely to fall ill of the disease than the latter, of whom we too should have nothing good to say" (255). It seems that, according to Freud, melancholia provides an internalized privileged point of access to self-knowledge for men and an externalized privileged status to the male melancholic. However, the female melancholic must be satisfied with a suggestion that if she is melancholic, it is unlikely that she is entirely worthless.
Woolf's Refusal of a Binary Division of Gendered Creative Labor
If we ask Freud, or our reading of Freud's texts, to attend to Virginia Woolf, or a reading of her texts, we might find something substantive, rather than a reduction of the complex to the aporia suggested by woman and melancholia. In A Room of One's Own, Woolf offers a socio-political, rather than a psychologistic and deterministic explanation as to why a "good, capable, conscientious woman" is not likely to have access to the same exalted status of truth as the male artist.
Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry. (103)
Woolf's explanation suggests that for a daughter there is the added burden of discouragement, there "would always have been the assertion--you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that--to protest against, to overcome" (53). Taking into consideration some of the historical and material disparities between the male artist and the female artist, Woolf's argument grapples with a reality that is elided in Freud's essay: most women did not have the leisure time, the money, the education, or the encouragement that was afforded to Shakespeare's layabout prince. By definition, a "good, capable, conscientious woman" was a woman who knew her place was in the home tending to the needs of her family--the woman who missed Woolf's lecture in A Room of One's Own because she was "washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed" (108). This is, of course, a classic feminist point. But what is perhaps less well remarked is that Woolf seems to want to talk about, and to, the "one who is in fact worthless" in Freud's estimation, the woman who is not quite so enmeshed in the domestic model of good, capable, conscientious womanhood; a woman who also has desires for something else. In A Room of One's Own, Woolf's depictions of artists capable of creativity include women, women who, like men, will create ideas and books.
Judith Butler asks "How useful is a phenomenological point of departure for a feminist description of gender?" (522). I want to argue here the utility of a critical assessment of Woolf's phenomenological commentary concerning the problems attendant to a binary division of gendered creative labor. While her father lived, Virginia, the daughter, was consigned to inhabit and to enact a psychological relationship to her father predicated on each staying affixed to a stable enactment of gendered capacities. In Woolf's case, this included a relation as daughter to a father who inhabits the masculinized role of writer. As Butler points out regarding gender and its "truth effects," "as a strategy of survival, gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences. Discrete genders are part of what 'humanizes' individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished" (522).
Locating images that portend attention to the gendered aspects of authorial creativity and its creative labors in Woolf's texts is not a difficult exercise. In the diary entry of 28 November 1928, the same one in which she records her father's birthday and death, Woolf reflects on her writing of what would eventually turn out to be The Waves: "As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall" (D3 208). The reference to a pear tree is most telling here. Woolf underscores an analogy of sexual and textual creativity by insisting on an image of fomentation, therein refusing a more protypically feminine metaphor of creativity as birth.
Androgyny as a Form of Gender Trouble
Woolf's admiration for Coleridge's theories of the androgynous mind are oft-cited and well known, and seem quite closely connected to the model through which Woolf may have understood her own creativity. In A Room of One's Own Woolf claims "If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her" (94). The brain is not uniformly androgynous, but has two fully distinct heterosexual components: "two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body" (93), which must undergo a "marriage," enter into "intercourse" and "collaboration" to "celebrate ... nuptials in darkness" (99), in order to achieve "complete satisfaction and happiness" (93). "It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized" (94). The sexuality upon which Woolf's diction insists comes back again and again to metaphors of conception. As Elizabeth Abel writes, "Texts are mothered, not authored, in Room" (87). For example, in A Room of One's Own, in considering the Italian fascists' desire to "'develop the Italian novel'," Woolf contends, "it is doubtful whether poetry can come out of an incubator. Poetry ought to have a mother as well as a father. The fascist poem will be a horrid little abortion" (98). What might be extracted from this pastiche of nativity metaphors is not only their insistence upon the sexuality of the act of creation, but an assertion of female control over that creativity that is not compelled to remain within the bounds culturally ascribed to the feminine, when the author is a woman. Whereas Woolf, one must note, insists that "in the woman's brain the woman predominates over the man" (93-94) it is also the case that she insists "it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly" (169).
In A Room of One's Own, Woolf is also speaking with a wry wit, in her choice of self-appellation: "call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please" (6). Knowing quite well that the name Mary Carmichael was the name under which Marie Stopes, England's most vocal advocate of birth control, published Love's Creation in 1927, Woolf cryptically emphasizes the political need for female control (self control) of women's bodies and women's minds, sexual and textual production.
Indeed, in writing a mother into the act of textual creation in A Room of One's Own, Woolf responds to the depiction of masculine cultural production as childbirth, which was well developed by the late nineteenth century. Early organic metaphors of spiders spinning webs, seeds sprouting, and plants blooming gave way mid-century to metaphors of male gestation and midwifery. As Christine Battersby points out in Gender and Genius, "The artist conceived, was pregnant, laboured (in sweat and pain), was delivered, and (in an uncontrolled ecstasy of agonized-male-control) brought forth. These were the images of natural childbirth that the male creators elaborated" (73). The male artist was mother as well as father to his creation. The most that a female artist might hope for was to give birth to a male child, who might, in turn, give birth to a great work of genius.
Creativity and The Feminine
Virginia Woolf's production of texts and her failure to produce children have incurred a great deal of critical comment over the years. I have chosen as examples some of the arguments I think tend to exemplify a rather stale insistence that women must choose to be either mother or author. Jacqueline Rose proposed that Woolf herself believed and feared that writing was an act that made her an unnatural woman, and sequestered her from the gratification of domestic and maternal joys that other women experienced (212). Ronald Hayman concludes that for both Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf "stories and characters are a substitute for living and having children" (21). Hayman does not seem to feel, or at least does not mention, that for authors such as Leonard Woolf and E.M. Forster stories and characters were a substitute for living and having children. Michael Holroyd agrees that the pursuits of art and maternity are mutually exclusive, and, in the case of Virginia Woolf, "children with their wetness and noise would surely have killed off the novels in her: and it was about novels that she cared most" (qtd. Showalter 273). Frank Barron tidily sums up the argument that biological production precludes cultural production:
The creative act is a kind of giving birth, and it is noteworthy that as an historical fact creativity has been conspicuously lacking in women, whose products are their children. At the risk of making too much of a linguistic parallel, it might be said that nature has literally arranged a division of labour. Men bring forth ideas, paintings, literary and musical compositions, organizations of states, inventions, new material structures, and the like, while women bring forth the new generation. (221)
Herbert Marder declares that Mrs. Ramsay, who is notable for her lack of artistic production, must be seen as the female ideal of Woolf's model of the androgynous artist because of her stereotypically feminine domestic excellence: "Mrs. Ramsay as wife, mother, hostess, is the androgynous artist in life, creating with the whole of her being" (128). One might respond by saying that Marder seems to have confused androgyny with the angel in the house.
Granted, I have extracted some of the more extreme critical conclusions drawn from Woolf's nulliparity; however, they do come together to suggest that the ideality of the truly feminine does seem to exclude cultural production, which allows us a better understanding of why it was only by means of the internalization of her father as object that Woolf produced a form of gendered complexity that might permit repression of a determinative femininity and in so doing, providing access to the (at that time) seemingly masculine potentialities vested in authorship.
Beyond the Sexual Binary: Creativity and Gender
Woolf offers yet another reflection on the psychological constraints imposed by a rigidly gendered enactment of creativity in A Room of One's Own. In considering what is meant by "the unity of the mind," Woolf articulates what states of mind might be most conducive to creative insight, and takes as her example a woman who is walking down the street and suddenly feels herself to be an outsider:
Clearly the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives. But some of these states of mind seem, even if adopted spontaneously, to be less comfortable than others. In order to keep oneself continuing in them one is unconsciously holding something back, and gradually the repression becomes an effort. But there may be some state of mind in which one could continue without effort because nothing is required to be held back. (93)
Woolf's discussion of the ideal state, the "unity of mind," seems to reframe psychoanalytic ideas of repression and the unconscious to formulate an argument that it is not through a selective process of repression that creativity can emerge. Rather it comes from nothing being held back--neither sorrow nor joy, neither sanity nor madness, neither passivity nor violence. And it is here critical to underscore the argument that for Woolf (as for Freud) it has historically been the purview only of men to be able to access, and to make creative use of, the psychically uncomfortable, difficult and disturbing insights yielded up by the unconscious. This, for Woolf, is the severely constraining calculus of a rigid binary division of the forms that gendered labor can take within the imagination.
It is then by now clear that for Woolf, a woman writing in this manner--freely--is a woman writing beyond socially approved boundaries. Woolf asks in "Professions for Women," if the major psychological barriers and material obstacles were no longer in her way, what stands in the way of the female author just being herself in her writing? Woolf does not know, and does not believe that anyone else knows either. She contends that the reason the question is unanswerable is that women have been historically unable to overcome social constraints against a woman speaking freely and honestly about the body and its unwieldy desires. The language Woolf uses to make the point is highly figurative and oblique and becomes an example in itself of the impossibility of speaking directly of the body and desires. Although the account is rather long, it is worth quoting in its entirety.
I want you to figure to yourselves a girl sitting with a pen in her hand, which for minutes, and indeed for hours, she never dips into the inkpot. The image that comes to my mind when I think of this girl is the image of a fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the verge of a deep lake with a rod held out over the water. She was letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being. Now came the experience, the experience that I believe to be far commoner with women writers than with men. The line raced through the girl's fingers. Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pools, the depths, the places where the largest fish slumber. And then there was a smash. There was an explosion. There was foam and confusion. The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress. To speak without figure, she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist's state of unconsciousness. She could write no more. The trance was broken. Her imagination could work no longer. (104)
It is specifically the institutions of social conventions delimiting arbitrarily the apparent stability of the sex/gender system, that have made writing, for women--even the thinking--of the body and of desires, structurally foreclosed from the outset, and as such, impossible. Thinking about shattering these conventions paralyzes the female author's imagination. To give her audience even a vague image of what she is thinking Woolf turns to the body of the fisherman, suggesting that the female authorial body must be read, must be interpreted, through the male body, "against something hard"; it cannot be understood on its own.
Writing the female authorial body was a problem that vexed Woolf throughout her career. Insofar as she imagined the ideal state of creativity as one of holding nothing back, the female authorial body was, in effect, a limiting, and as such, horrifically stable container. The imagined violence of mind and body meeting is startling in the midst of the pastoral scene: "then there was a smash. There was an explosion." Smashing and exploding, foam and confusion result when the female imagination exceeds the feminine bodily position. The female author's inner life, her fishing expedition into the unconscious is rich, complex, even daringly adventurous, but the limitations of the female authorial body draw that imagination up short of artistic realization. It was only when the female artist was out of her skin that she could delve into the dark recesses of the pool, but is returned with smashing and exploding into her own skin.
We might then, to return to our initial goal of rendering unto Woolf a certain measure of agency in her efforts to disentangle the enframing contours of sex from those that give shape to authorial opportunities, read this passage as indicative of an effort to be engaged with the incompatibility of holding nothing back and the selectivity of the discipline of writing. To write is to be "conscious of what men will say," and, to be conscious of what women will say. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, to be conscious of the self and capable of sorting the imaginary gendered miscellany into a creative article. The pure visionary cannot translate internal experience to an external world. In The Waves Woolf writes of Rhoda, a fragile and intuitive woman who seems to live almost entirely in the realm of the mind and spirit. Rhoda is so disconnected from her own body and the world around her that she must press her toes against the footboard at night to maintain contact with the world. As van Buren Kelley says, Rhoda is Woolf's archetype of an individual who lives entirely within the realm of the visionary and the spiritual, and who consequently experiences outside realities as intrusive violations (152). The only way that Rhoda can see of escaping the buffeting and alienation of the external world is to commit suicide. Woolf knows that pure visionary and imaginative existence is not only lonely, but cannot survive, and most certainly cannot create.
In Woolf's narrative of the fishing author it is suggested that the constrictions imposed upon women radically restricted any possibility of writing the feminine experience and imagination without withholding, without keeping something back, something hidden. The passage also hints that between the internal imagination and the external world, between the imagining and the writing, one must overcome, or at least experience, the violence, the "smash" and "explosion" of the meeting of internal and external. It is evident in the narrative that all of this occurs in the imagination. The violence of the confrontation between imagination and object occurs in the deep pool of the unconscious; both quantities exist in the unconscious, not within a realm of conscious recognition. There is only the imagined internal confrontation of the feminine imagination smashing against a hard internalized object that is posited as the voices of men.
In Woolf's narrative the imagination of the young author fails when confronted with the "something hard" buried within the deepest recesses of her imagination. The violence of the confrontation overwhelms the young woman, startles her out of her reverie, and consequently "She could write no more." In Woolf's story, the young girl's imagination is shut down, effectively destroyed, by its violent confrontation with an internalized resisting object. The something hard is left lurking in the depths of the unconscious. What is not said in Woolf's narrative, and perhaps even more important because of that, is that for the female imagination to survive, the resistance of the something hard has to be destroyed, its absolute authority must be demolished. The battle between an imagination that is gendered female, and the boundaries that are erected in the wake of culture's imposed forms of repression in this binary division of creative labor, must be won by the imagination if the young female author is to be able to write.
To examine what might comprise the resistance of something hard which needs to be overcome, destroyed, I refer back to the diary entry of 28 November 1928, and Woolf's comment that "writing of them [Julia and Leslie Stephen] was a necessary act.... He comes back now more as a contemporary. I must read him some day." As I have remarked above, the last sentence is most intriguing because it suggests, rather surprisingly, that Woolf is, here, effecting a temporal shift in her own relation to the imaginative object constituted by her father's work. Clearly, Virginia had read Leslie Stephen's numerous texts but the fact that she wished to remind herself or to deceive herself, in her own diary, that while he lived she had not read Leslie Stephen, but that after his death had written Leslie Stephen is a statement of transition: a transition of power from one generation to the next. It is specifically a relationship between father and daughter, as Julia Stephen does not come back to Woolf as a contemporary, but seems to be left in the past. The transition of authorial power, the movement from reading (or not reading) to writing, is, for Woolf, movement from muse to writer, the movement from daughter to author.
In Playing and Reality, psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott suggests that for an individual to be able to use an object the object must be able to be destroyed and yet still survive in unconscious fantasy. The destroyed object "develops it own autonomy and life, and (if it survives) contributes in to the subject according to its own properties" (90). The object is always being destroyed or having to survive the ravages of destruction, and it is these repeated efforts at destruction of the object in which its expulsion into the external is managed. This allows the subject to experience the other-than me substances of the object. Entrance to a shared reality is dependent upon destruction of the object and the placing of the object outside of the subject's omnipotent control, that is, out in the world. Winnicott writes, it is thus, "the destructive drive that creates the quality of externality" (93). The narrative of Woolf's failed creativity as the destruction of the imagination by the rigid contours of the unconscious object must be read alongside her narrative of success and satisfaction in finally writing her father. In this way, I suggest that it is only through the repeated imaginary destruction of the internalized object of Leslie Stephen that Woolf comes to be able to identify with herself as a writer. Woolf thus shifts her identification with her father to a relation not as circumscribed by the paternalistic bond, but as a peer--a fellow author. And it is only through such a transformative experience that this authorial identification take place within a shared reality--neither strictly his nor hers. In both narratives Leslie Stephen, the father-to-the-daughter, is destroyed, but he is nevertheless resurrected in the unconscious fantasy: once Woolf succeeds in writing, he emerges outside of the pool of the unconscious.
This psychic operation, marked by an internalization of the paternal object, is again noticeable in Woolf's interesting relationship with her father's books--their reading, their writing, and their possession. The Woolfs built their library on the substantial collection of books that Virginia inherited from Leslie Stephen. She covered her father's books in brightly colored paper and did not write in them, (12) although she wrote marginalia in those she or Leonard had purchased or had been given as gifts from others. Decorated and preserved unsullied, Woolf's covering over of her father's books attests to a desire to both hide and draw attention to her father's inclusion in her library--simultaneously making them an integral part of her library by covering them with dust jackets of her choosing, but also making them stand out apart from her own uncovered books. The reluctance to deface her father's books with her own impressions, opinions, or commentary suggests a return, a memory, of the time before Stephen's death, when Woolf seemed to feel a prohibition against writing, the impossibility of writing, when/where her father had written, the impossibility of writing over, or overwriting, her father. He cannot be broken down, broken into, digested, but is preserved whole, as he was, just covered over.
I have discussed some of the possible interpretations of Woolf's relationship with her father insofar as it relates to Woolf's melancholia and her capacity as a creative artist. Along the way I have counterpoised Freud's texts with Woolf's, examining possible ways in which the texts speak to each other. Posing the possibility that Woolf's disavowal of her father's death and an internalization of a part or parts of him incurred within her a melancholic state of being, I have proposed that the experience of this melancholic union of object and subject was not only the impetus for but also the model through which she understood her own creativity.
I have elaborated how it is that a careful analysis of Woolf's relationship with her father allows us, by means of a critical application of object relations theory, to reassess this complex association with the paternal, and in so doing, avoid either a utopic or a dystopic engagement with Woolf's many gendered- and sex-based anxieties. This close reading allows us to think conscientiously, and with an attention to complexity and a non-reductionism, about the connections between what Hermione Lee has identified as a relation to the father structured by "wanting to do nothing that father did" (72) and its inevitable correlative double--a relation of idealization and imitation. I have undertaken here to theorize with a measure of historical precision, the significance of Woolf's reflections regarding sex, gender, kinship and creativity. As Kelsey (1932), and Showalter (1977) (and others) have carefully argued, it is by means of a critical reading that one can engage systematically with Woolf's phenomenological reflections on sex, gender and patriarchal systems without the overly hasty imposition of a contemporary ideological label, like "feminism." Woolf's melancholic relations with gender and these various ties (e.g., her relationship with "the father") are, then, properly, here, understood as thoroughly "modern" vis a vis the instability produced by these locations of creative and imaginative engagement, and therein, Woolf's deliberate and bold engagements with the multiplicity of the seemingly stable sexed self. I have emphasized that Woolf's model of creativity was repeatedly refigured by means of her thoroughly modern relation to an unstable account of the gendered self, and its various differences, which allows us insight into what Woolf meant by a "state of mind in which one could continue without effort because nothing is required to be held back" (AROO 93).
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Adams, Parveen. "Of Female Bondage." Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ed. Teresa Brennan. London: Routledge, 1989. 247-265.
Barron, Frank. Creativity and Personal Freedom. London: D. VanNostrand, 1968.
Battersby, Christine. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
Bowlby, Rachel. Still Crazy After All These Years: Women, Writing, and Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1992.
Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Theatre Journal. 40.4 (1988): 519-531.
DeSalvo, Louise A. "As 'Miss Jan Says': Virginia Woolf's Early Journals." Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury. Ed. Jane Marcus. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. 96-124.
--. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work. Boston: Beacon, 1989.
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(1) Critical scholarship that also addresses this theme includes Katherine Hill, "Virginia Woolf and Leslie Stephen: History and Literary Revolution," Louise DeSalvo's Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work, and Virginia Hyman, "Reflections in the Looking-Glass: Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf."
(2) Brenda Silver's Icon is an excellent discussion of the role of critics.
(3) In her review of Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings, by Constance Hill, Woolf contrasts the carefully constructed image of the cool "lady" who has the fine porcelain teapot (in Miss Mitford's case it was Wedgwood), and the emotional "woman" who has a less than admirable father. One of Woolf's principal criticisms of Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings is that the biographer takes far too much effort to assure her readers that Miss Mitford was indeed a "lady" of the finest caliber, and, in consequence, tends to downplay the less refined aspects of her life, such as her delinquent father. Hence the problem arises for the biographer, who is determined to create a portrait of a lady; that ladies tend to have fathers as well as teapots. Woolf's ironic comment, then, seems to suggest that writing about less-than-exemplary fathers has a tendency to give a "truer" picture of the woman author's life--and consequently shatter idealized notions of the woman author in question--something which Woolf finds many biographers unwilling to do.
(4) Eminent literary critics like Showalter and Silver have likewise emphasized the precariousness of any interpretation of Woolf's texts that presupposes a stable narrator.
(5) I have taken the notion of splitting the ego as an artful strategy from Freud, who notes in his discussions of a young boy's disavowal of castration anxiety in "Splitting the Ego in the Process of Defence," "This way of dealing with reality [splitting the ego], which almost deserves to be described as artful, was decisive as regards the boy's practical behaviour" (464).
(6) James Russell Lowell, quoted in Aileen Pippett, The Moth and the Star: A Biography of Virginia Woolf, 3. Posset is a drink made of hot milk curdled with some form of alcohol (wine, sherry, etc.) and often flavoured with spices. It was a beverage regularly prescribed as a remedy for minor maladies. It is interesting that in wishing Virginia "to be/ A sample of heredity" Lowell sent a vessel which, while often used in case of infirmity, is in sterling silver, so that, unlike other lesser posset dishes, it might be an article of display, pleasure, and privilege. The silver posset dish seems to carry with it a silent recognition that Leslie Stephen was a man for whom infirmity was not wholly unpleasant. In giving the newborn Virginia the dish, there also seems to be a suggestion that if she is going to be "a sample" of heredity she will be, like her father, plagued by maladies.
(7) Leslie Stephen letter to Julia Stephen of 25 January 1891, quoted in James King, Virginia Woolf, 48.
(8) Klein was also the first to introduce the concepts of the "internal object" and "internal object relations." Internal objects are the internal experiences (phantasies) of external objects.
(9) For accounts of the gendered division of labor involved in caring for Leslie Stephen, I refer the reader to the work of Heather Ingman, Phyllis Rose and Elaine Showalter.
(10) Whereas it is a particular form of historical realism to address issues of "abuse" from the perspective of their veridicality, here I am concerned (much like King), rather, with what Ken Plummer has called, "sexual stories"--the narration of gender, sex, and what could be constituted as "abuse" specifically, or as "violence" more generally, across both autobiographical and biographical sources.
(11) "Mourning and Melancholia" 255. Italics mine. It is interesting to note that Freud seems to construct his own creative process as one involving a foray into classical creative melancholy: "I am not pleased with anything here, and am in that bodily and mental state to which I am accustomed during intensive inner work--or, rather, the preparation for such. It is a kind of misery; I am rarely productive when I feel well" (Sigmund Freud in a letter of Nov. 5, 1911 to Sandor Ferenczi. Quoted in Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 2: 353).
(12) Alan Isaac has described Woolf's idiosyncratic bookbinding practices, and Silver has described at length Woolf's reliance on reading notebooks in place of her father's standard practice of intra-textual marginalia (see also King and Miletic-Vejzovic on the Woolfs' library and related bookbinding and annotation practices).
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|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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