Printer Friendly

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Virginia Woolf's The Waves : From Despair to Meaninglessness.

Between Emily Bronte (1818-1848) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), there seems to be a change of epoch. Bronte lived during the Industrial Revolution. But unlike Woolf, Bronte has not seen the Suffragettes' movement in Great Britain, and more generally, the first-wave feminism. However, from a literary (and even philosophical) viewpoint, Bronte and Woolf could be considered as sisters in the same literary (and even philosophical) continuum. Virginia Woolf (1980, 50) admired the way Emily Bronte integrated poetry within her novel (Wuthering Heights). In Emily Bronte, Her Life and Work, Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford have well understood the historical importance of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights:
Emily's principle characters--Catherine and Heathcliff--are figures
hurled headlong on their way bu the whirlwind force of their passions.
They have no sense of wrong; and small sense of the personality of
others (...) Emily's novel has indeed paved the way for the modern
novel of flux and sensation. The obsession of Catherine and Heathcliff
with their own subjective feelings, their complete lack of any
objective set of values, and their failure of interest in the outer
world of opinion (...) (Spark and Stanford 1953, 267).

Spark and Stanford suggested that Wuthering Heights has given birth to the stream of consciousness literary movement, including the following epoch-making novels: A la recherche du temps perdu (Marcel Proust), Ulysses (James Joyce), and To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf). In a way or another, there seems to be a connection which goes from Emily Bronte to Virginia Woolf. It is not an actual continuity between Bronte's Wuthering Heights and any novel written by Virginia Woolf. Rather, it is an issue of consciousness-oriented focus. Woolf's The Waves is probably her most philosophically-based novel: every reality is philosophically questioned. Even the notion of reality itself remained uncertain. But above all, Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Woolf 's The Waves dealt with despair and meaninglessness, although they were conveying a very different perspective. In this article, we will describe the way Emily Bronte considered the arising of existential despair and the way Virginia Woolf explained the arising of existential meaninglessness. Both processes are interconnected, although Bronte's and Woolf 's focus are quite different.

Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights (1847): The Arising of Existential Despair

In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte expressed a philosophical quest for the meaning of good and evil, while unveiling the intuition that good and evil can never be defined. In doing so, Bronte was designing her novel so that it could mirror a perspective of moral relativism. But how could we deal with moral issues without taking into account our habits, conventional/conformist behaviors, and social expectations? Bronte was full aware that habits are moulding our tastes and ideas (Bronte 2013, 36). The power of habits creates so close and strong ties that even our reason cannot get rid of them. It could even be cruel to loosen those ties, said Bronte (2013, 374). So, it is not an easy task to choose a moral relativism perspective, since our habits will tend to safeguard the status quo, although it would mean to keep some sense of good and evil. If such inner contradiction is not healed, then it could give birth to a process of existential despair. The inability to transform our own habits and to integrate moral relativism in our way of thinking, speaking, and acting will create inner thunderstorms. If the crisis is not well managed, then the process of existential despair will begin. Emily Bronte defined the process of existential despair in four basic steps. Firstly, we are discovering the various dimensions of our inner turmoil. Secondly, we are unable to denounce the unreasonable character of our own feelings and emotions. Thirdly, we are observing the growing feeling of meaninglessness in our heart and mind. Fourthly, we are losing any hope and falling into existential despair.

First step: Unveiling our inner turmoil

Bronte presented the inner turmoil as being made of cruelty, frustration, jealousy, and resentment. The inner turmoil is deeply harmed by wickedness, bitterness, and revenge. Pride as self-exaltation and the conviction of 'being perfect' are the most harmful ways to deal with the inner turmoil. The inner turmoil unveils our unability to transform our habits and to adopt the moral relativism perspective. There is then an a priori belief to the effect that moral relativism could make people feel calm and serene, when confronting moral dilemmas and/or being pervaded by negative emotions. Facing destructive emotions then makes us unpeaceful towards such spirit poisons.

Existential loneliness is certainly the basic context in which everything that happens in one's life is interpreted. The cruelest persons are subjected to envy and are broken by existential loneliness. They desperately need to be loved (Bronte 2013, 337). Bronte was strengthening the courage to live in the unsurpassable (existentially-based) loneliness. Frustration and resentment could provoke a fit of anger. Jealousy could also give birth to anger. However, the real origin of anger is often lost in the meanderings of the self. Bronte was implicity acknowledging that the origin of negative emotions (such as anger) is often unconscious. That's why Bronte talked about the strategy of psychological forgetfulness: the real origin of one's negative emotions is hidden (to himself/herself), and then falls through the cracks. We could ardently try to repress a feeling that makes us quite uncomfortable, said Bronte (2013, 350). But how could we explain wickedness? Bronte believed that the wicked person feels pleasure, when seeing people (especially, his/her enemies) suffering, or sinking into evil (Bronte 2013, 220, 240, 337). The wicked person feels pleasurable to express hatred and malicious gossip. He/she is not really concerned with what those emotions are unveiling. Bronte argued that the wicked person tries to harm those people he/she hates. The nasty individual can conceal his/her vengeance during many years and then go ahead with his/her cruel plan, with meticulousness, without feeling any remorse or guilt (Bronte 2013, 265-267). Bronte's view of wickedness seems quite close to Stendhal's image of wicked persons. In Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), Stendhal (1783-1842) talked about the 'wickedness of a wild boar'. Stendhal expressed the extreme, instinctive, and wild character of wickeness/nastiness (Stendhal 2011, 494-500). Stendhal and Bronte were both focusing on passion, energy, and existence. Both writers were writing in a way to deepen the feeling of one's existing. However, unlike Stendhal, Bronte was aware of the process of despair, as an integral part of human existence.

Wickedness have very negative consequences not only for the victims, but also for the wicked person himself/herself. One of them is bitterness. Sometimes, people who feel deep bitterness are acting in such way to provoke other's hate rather than love and friendship (Bronte 2013, 97). Anne Williams (1985, 125) explained that the main principle of Wuthering Heights's structure is human love as being linked to nature and passion. Human love is then defined as being disinterested (altruistic) and universal (egalitarian). Friendship and love are considered as the real foundations of humankind. That's why Bronte asserted that we could become selfish and irascible if we deeply lack signs of friendship and love (Bronte 2013, 255). Egocentrism and altruism are both connected to self-esteem, although the way one's self is loved by an egocentric personality cannot be compared with the way it is loved by an altruistic personality. But self-esteem remains the way we are loving what we are perceiving to be (our self-perceived self). Self-esteem implies that we cannot love a personal trait we do not actually have (Bronte 2013, 187). Self-esteem is also an issue of others' perceptions. When people we love (our parents and friends) show us our defaults and even their hate, we will be doubtful of our own being and worth. Our self-esteem is then under attack. One's doubt about his/her being and worth will eventually provoke so bitterness that he/she will hate everybody, as if everyone would be guilty to have annihilated his/her self-esteem (Bronte 2013, 300). Defending our self-perceived self against any attacker thus becomes our basic meaning of life.

Like wickedness, resisting to any critique of our self-perceived self could give birth to the spirit of revenge, thus initiating the vicious circle of violence. Emily Bronte (2013, 104) showed that we could be anxious, when discovering that we are rebelling ourselves against our own feeling of revenge. Yielding to our desire of vengeance could make suffering others as well as ourselves (Bronte 2013, 215-216). The spirit of revenge tries to annihilate others' wickedness. It could also aim at destroying any critique of one's self-perceived self. It could happen when pride has reached a very high level. The inner turmoil is made of pride as self-exaltation. Pride is the real cause of every inner turmoil, said Bronte (2013, 84). Self-exaltation is not compatible with truth. It rather implies to hide the truth behind impenetrable words, so that truth remains inaccessible. Self-exaltation could also make people believe that they could have access to truth itself, while it is impossible to know truth itself. The prideful individual could feel a very intense pain when the truth he/she has hidden in plain sight is unveiled. He/she desperatly tried to avoid such disclosure, in order to safeguard his/her own self-image and self-esteem (Bronte 2013, 189). Hiding truth about the real self should then be closely linked to the way some individuals are strengthening their self-image and fighting anyone who would like to criticize the truthfulness of their self-perceived self. The self-perceived self is presented as the real image of the true self, as if there could not be any gap between what-is-perceived and what-remains-hidden within one's heart and mind. Such distortion of the true self is made possible through a deep conviction to be perfect. Perfection is a delusive notion. Seeing one's self as being 'perfect' could be considered as an unreasonable way to be oneself (Bronte 2013, 189). Looking at somebody as a perfect being (rather than someone who suits us just fine) is distorting his/her own being. Perceiving somebody we love as if he/she would be a 'perfect being' could reduce our propensity to grow, psychologically and socially speaking. If the other is 'perfect', then we are 'imperfect'. The other overcomes our weaknesses, defaults, and wrongs. The 'perfect being' will eventually crashes the 'imperfect being'. The 'perfect being' will be the progressive destroyer of our self, that is, an enemy we have created by ourselves. Others' perfection could eventually project ourselves onto the existential despair.

Second step: Being unable to denounce the unreasonable character of our feelings and emotions

When we are deeply aware of our inner turmoil, then we will face the unreasonable character of our feelings and emotions. It is particularly the case when our attitude, words, and conduct clearly express a lack of fairness, of love, or of compassion. Sometimes, lacking fairness presupposes neglecting to use our reason (Bronte 2013, 64). Sympathizing with someone who is suffering is easy when we have been subjected to similar pain. It could even help to anticipate how the individual could suffer in the near future (Bronte 2013, 263). Cruelty and hate are directly denying any worth to love. Such negative emotions could stay in our memory for a very long period of time. Bearing somebody a grudge could make bad rememberings much more cruel that some harsh words (Bronte 2013, 199). We can hate someone simply because he/she reminds us very bad memories (Bronte 2013, 252). Being compassionate towards others and being pleased for others' happiness have common requirement: the origin of the emotion (compassion/happiness) is reasonably connected to concrete attitude, words, and conduct, without falling into extreme and abusive expressions. Sometimes, our joy is so great that we fear it could be grounded on something unreal (Bronte 2013, 127). Our joy could be meaningless, when its intensity is not compatible with the original events that make us joyful (Bronte 2013, 127). In his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith (1723-1790) reached the same conclusion (Smith 1999, 37-47). Life joy, anger could be meaningless, when it cannot reasonably follow from the original events (Bronte 2013, 132, 152). Melancholy is the certainty that joy is no longer possible on Earth (Bronte 2013, 215). It is not reasonably connected to its original events. When melancholy raises its height, the feeling of meaninglessness knocks on the door. The paradox of melancholy is that melancholy gives birth to a given certainty, while nothing is supposedly certain in the existence. Moreover, the paradox of melancholy conveys the message that we should denounce the unreasonable character of our feelings and emotions, while being absolutely unable to do so. Such powerlessness will make possible to fall into a feeling of meaninglessness.

Third step: Observing the growing feeling of meaninglessness in our heart and mind

Melancholy opens the door to the feeling of meaninglessness. It also makes possible for us to understand that we are not presently the totality of who-we-are. Our being is in becoming. We can only be who-we-are in becoming our own self. There would not be any meaning to be oneself if we would already be who-we-are, that is, without any possibility to become who-we-are (Bronte 2013, 112). Soeren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) defined truth as the passion for the infinite, that is, as subjectivity (Kierkegaard 1974, 181-182). An ethical life-view implies an ultimate passion for one's existing:
All knowledge about reality is possibility. The only reality to which
an existing individual may have a relation that is more than cognitive,
is his own reality, the fact that he exists; this reality constitutes
his absolute interest (...) the absolute demand is that he become
infinitely interested in existing (Kierkegaard 1974, 280).

Our heart is the birthplace of our feelings and emotions (Bronte 2013, 212-213). Bronte suggested that living with our inner trends and conditioning factors is better than being subjected to external realities. Self-affirmation could help us to find out hidden parts of our self. But it is only possible if we have abandoned any attitude of pride and self-exaltation (Bronte 2013, 189). Abandoning pride and self-exaltation could release us from the subjection to melancholy. That's why Bronte asserted that a sensible person is self-sufficient (Bronte 2013, 56). Not being self-sufficient would be meaningless. But extreme indulgence is meaningless (Bronte 2013, 303). Even stupidity becomes meaningless, when stretched to the limits (Bronte 2013, 149). Using vain and meaningless words could make us feeling shameful. We could be shameful to have meaningless thoughts (Bronte 2013, 45). Bronte (2013, 113) suggested that it is hard to find out any meaning from the totality of non-sense, which makes us suffering. Melancholy has gathered all non-sense together, so that there would not be any existential certainty. Even fears could be meaningless (Bronte 2013, 385). At any moment, self-esteem could be erased. Anxiety (and/or anger) could come along with humiliation, and vice versa (Bronte 2013, 150, 337). Suffering could give birth to anxiety, particularly when it is accompanied by delirium (Bronte 2013, 54). Anxiety could be the ultimate outcome of an unbearable pain (Bronte 2013, 376). But it would be meaningless to complain about a future pain that could occur in twenty years, or even in some unknown point (Bronte 2013, 276). So, meaninglessness takes various forms. Every emotion (anxiety, anger, fear) could be meaningless. The growing feeling of meaninglessness in our heart and mind makes more and more hard to recover any meaning from given emotions and feelings.

Fourth step: The arising of despair as the loss of any hope

The growing feeling of meaninglessness in our heart and mind gives birth to existential despair, which is closely linked to the loss of (religious) faith. Emily Bronte talked about the 'finally earned eternity'. Eternity is then not only a life without duration limitations, but also selfless love and fulness of joy (Bronte 2013, 204). But eternity is seen as superstition, since it is contradicting common sense (Bronte 2013, 54). After death, we cannot live with the same self which was the real origin of our existential suffering. Bronte expressed a deep doubt about the belief that the self is surviving after the death of the body. Bronte strongly insisted that we cannot live without our body (physical being) as well as without our soul (spiritual being). Human being is a physical and spiritual being. If dying is the final end of physical life, then our spiritual being cannot survive (Bronte 2013, 207). Such growing loss of faith will hasten the arising of existential despair.

Losing faith means that we are falling into nothingness. For believers, death makes the dream of the after-life realizing itself. Losing faith is being in despair, that is, having lost our hope in the after-life and any other existentially-based hope. Believers look at their death with a deep hope in eternity (as the afterlife). Despair is the irreversible end of any hope. Despair is even the deep conviction that any hope is delusive, vain, and self-destructive. That's what Emily Bronte used the term 'abyss of despair' (Bronte 2013, 278). Despairing is refusing any possible hope, particularly when it is quite attractive. Sometimes, the state of our heart is falling out between disdain and despair (Bronte 2013, 34). Despair could express the loss of any hope towards ardently wished change. Such hope could be lost for a more and less long period of time, said Bronte (2013, 35). Despair is not fate. It is not predetermined. We could avoid existential despair, although the potentiality of despair makes an integral part of human existence. Sometimes, we do not want to hide our despair (Bronte 2013, 197). Despair is the loss of any hope in a better world (Bronte 2013, 225). Emily Bronte analyzed the way despair could reach its height. In such situation, anxiety seems to disappear. Despair could be so powerful that it could annihilate any form of anxiety. Despairing is not only losing any hope, but also losing the capacity to feel anxiety. An overmastering despair makes existential anxiety disappear (Bronte 2013, 161).

Virginia Woolf and The Waves (1931): The Arising of Existential Meaninglessness

At the real beginning of her novel, Woolf (2017, 21) mentioned that the roots of oneself are disappearing into the depths of the world. Woolf defined the process of existential meaninglessness in three basic steps. Firstly, we become aware of our compartmentalized world. Secondly, we are uncovering the underground world: impermanent life, changing I/self, existential loneliness, meaningless and useless realities. Thirdly, despair helps us to recover our world, to reinvent Time, and to give worth to life experiences.

First step: Being aware of the comparmentalized world

The well-ordered world is compartmentalized, so that every syllable has a specific meaning (Woolf 2017, 29). The real world is only the world we are perceiving from a particular perspective. It is only true for here and now (Woolf 2017, 32). The real world is my own world, not only because I am here-and-now (the historicity of my own being), but also because I look at the world in specific way (my being-who-is-interpreting-reality). Everything seems to be real, without any illusion (Woolf 2017, 141). Such sense of reality makes arising a deep feeling of belongingness to the compartmentalized world (Woolf 2017, 191). Illusion seems to be a psychological distortion. It does not explain the perceived world. The compartmentalized world is characterized by the denegation of illusions, and thus, the absolutization of self-perceived realities.

Second step: Dis-covering the underground world

Refusing the compartmentalized world, Woolf introduced the 'underground world' (Woolf 2017, 31). The underground world is not the self without world, but rather the self who does not have any existential certainty, even about its own existence. Everbody does not exist, since he/she does not have any face (or appearance). That's why everybody is searching for his/her own face as his/her own existential project (Woolf 2017, 41). Having face is opening the way for self-improvement through others' perceptions and interpretations of our own self (Woolf 2017, 218). Being without face implies that we do not have any impact on others' behavior and thought. It means that the whole world can kick us out and go ahead with its own purpose and means (Woolf 2017, 124, 218). Being in the underground world is being without face. Our own existence is only recognized when people actually need to acknowledge it (Woolf 2017, 130). Being without face is still being-in-Beauty (Woolf 2017, 263). In the underground world, nothing is stable and conclusive. Things, beings, and phenomena are always moving (Woolf 2017, 53). Everything is always changing. Reality is basically change and flux (Woolf 2017, 94). The unstable universe (underground world) in which we live cannot provide us the hidden meaning of things, beings, and phenomena. We cannot know anything. Rather, we are experiencing life in its various forms, while mixing the known and the unknown (Woolf 2017, 120), without even seeing the frontiers between the known and the unknown. The unstable world (or underground world) cannot give us any feeling of calmness and any existential certainty (Woolf 2017, 244).

Living in the underground world makes us perceiving the overwhelming presence of impermanence. Life is always going to change (Woolf 2017, 115-116). Nothing is permanent (Woolf 2017, 242). That's why death is our ultimate enemy (Woolf 2017, 286). Life is ephemeral (Woolf 2017, 117). Every instant is passing away (Woolf 2017, 135, 176, 182). Every dying instant is tragical, since it is closely linked to the others. That's why our life does not have any intrinsic purpose. Life is an indivisible, undifferentiated, and unified mass of tragical instants (Woolf 2017, 131). Things, beings, and phenomena are combined to form a unified whole, although such wholeness is hardly perceived (Woolf 2017, 135, 198). In the compartmentalized world, Time seems to be infinite (Woolf 2017, 136). But in the underground world, living means feeling that the weight of the whole world rests upon our shoulders (Woolf 2017, 168). We can still create our own life, although it is always going on (Woolf 2017, 174). The will to live is shared by all human beings (Woolf 2017, 257). However, in the underground world, human beings are deeply convinced that the will to live is vain. Everybody feels the mystery of life, that is, its unfathomability (Woolf 2017, 258). In the underground world, nobody knows what it means to live. Individuals could have access to specific parts of life. However, they cannot grasp the indivisible life, its various contents and forms. Life then becomes chaotic. It is now a mix of cruelty and indifference. In the compartmentalized world, the mystical feeling of adoration implies that Divine perfection has triumphed over the universal chaos (Woolf 2017, 58). But in the underground world, there are only uncertainties, and thus an endless set of unreliable perceptions and interpretations.

Living in the compartmentalized world opens the door to very specific dimensions of one's self. We are presupposing that any I (self) is an history (Woolf 2017, 45). But is it really the case? What does it mean to have a personal history, if not an endless series of changes (Woolf 2017, 185, 211)? What does it mean to say that our personal history is true (Woolf 2017, 213)? True stories do not exist, so that a true personal history is meaningless (Woolf 2017, 232). Nietzsche (2008, 37) believed that every people needs some knowledge of their own past. However, such knowledge must favour the present and be used to define the future people are dreaming about. If not, any knowledge of the past become useless and meaningless. That's precisely what's the underground world all about. In the underground world, nothing is stable and meaningful. Even personal history is meaningless, since there are frail and vague frontiers between the past (who-we-were) and the present (who-we-are-now) as well as between the present and the future, and even between the past (who-we-were) and the future (who-we-will-be). The notion of an I/self becomes elusive. Even Time has no meaning at all. Does a relentless fate actually exist? Does fate influence my own actions? Is fate determining who-I-am-becoming (Woolf 2017, 57)? Becoming who-I-am implies to get rid of inner contradictions (Woolf 2017, 59, 64). The meaning of my self could even disappear (Woolf 2017, 77, 133). Every self is becoming what-it-is. Every self has the desire to become what-it-is. However, we cannot wholly be who-we-are. We have to become who-we-are. But we do not know exactly who-we-are as well as who-we-are-now-becoming. We do not even clearly know who-we-would-like-to-be (in the near future).

One's self can never be grasped as-it-is. Everybody is always changing, although his/her desires remain the same (Woolf 2017, 131). Everybody has multiple selves. That's why it is so hard to understand each other (Woolf 2017, 81). If I have had multiple selves until now, which one is really me (Woolf 2017, 85-86)? The real self does not have any historical, social, economic, political, cultural, and even religious/spiritual ground (Woolf 2017, 86). But having multiple selves makes quite difficult to know who-I-am, even here and now (Woolf 2017, 87). It could be striking for us to find out some hidden dimensions of our self, regardless of the specific self they are unveiling (Woolf 2017, 89). Woolf was deeply impressed by the literary genius of Marcel Proust (Forrester 2009, 262; Brisac and Desarthe 2004, 194). Like Proust (2001, 14, 126, 268-269; 1987, 153; 1987a, 262; 1972, 259-260), Woolf believed in the paradox of multiple selves: everybody has multiple selves throughout his/her own life, although he/she is the same being. Every self has successive layers (Woolf 2017, 254, 267, 274). The paradox of multiple selves does not eradicate the deep sense of one's identity: everybody is continuously building up his/her own self. But we cannot build up our self without taking into account the way people are looking at us (Woolf 2017, 118, 226). Although everybody has multiple selves, he/she is an indivisible being (Woolf 2017, 229). That's the way the strong feeling of the I/self is born (Woolf 2017, 250). Reducing someone to one of his/her multiple selves is destroying his/her desire (and project) to be who-he/she-is (Woolf 2017, 93, 250). Every individual is a complex being (Woolf 2017, 94). Thus, self-understanding is not an easy task (Woolf 2017, 212). Self-awareness is always fragmentary (Woolf 2017, 260). In every self, there is something that is always changing, unattached, totally free (Woolf 2017, 82). Our true I/self could be isolated from our factitious I/self (Woolf 2017, 84), although it could be quite hard to distinguish both selves. It is particularly the case when one's self is facing various self-destructive experiences, such as lying, concealing, doubting, and fearing (Woolf 2017, 109, 259). But Woolf remained convinced that we should have the courage to be ourselves. When we feel that all human beings belong to the same body and soul (as an undifferentiated mass of people), then we lose our desire of individualization, and thus our need of self-affirmation. As long as we are unable to do so, we will focus on our individual differences, even if we have to exaggerate our weaknesses and defaults (Woolf 2017, 138, 239). The underground world will progressively make us falling into the trap of meaninglessness.

The underground world is emphasizing the incommunicability of one's experiences, and thus the absoluteness of existential loneliness. Although they could be quite similar from an individual to another, one's life experiences remain incommunicable. That's the real origin of our tragical loneliness (Woolf 2017, 155, 174, 264). As an individual, everybody is incomplete. We help each other to bridge the gulf between others' loneliness and our own loneliness, from an existentially-based perspective (Woolf 2017, 73). Things, beings and phenomena are interdependent. We cannot do anything without others' help (Woolf 2017, 160). Existential loneliness makes extremely difficult to tolerate pressure (Woolf 2017, 133). Being-in-loneliness provides us a powerful sense of Being (Woolf 2017, 134). But the underground world is exacerbating the feeling of existential loneliness, so that feeling of nothingness is now arising into our heart and mind (Woolf 2017, 213, 219). The feeling of nothingness is interpreted as being the burden of our own existence (Woolf 2017, 115). But existential loneliness could also help us to unveil very important (and often mysterious) dimensions of reality (Woolf 2017, 255). We are responsible for the mystery of things, beings, and phenomena (Woolf 2017, 281), since our own being is always interpreting reality. We know nothing about the universe, although we could believe that it is a unified reality (Woolf 2017, 282-283). Accepting our existential loneliness requires to reject the 'shroud of Being' (Woolf 2017, 284). The underground world makes us quite aware of the unsurpassable and existentially-based loneliness.

In the underground world, we are facing illusions. We believe that the world could not unveil any intrinsic meaning (Woolf 2017, 263). The world is meaningless. Any meaning of the world is a projected (and illusory) meaning that has nothing to do with the essence of the world. Idenfying any meaning makes it disappear (Woolf 2017, 214). Meanings are created by our own mind. They are not intrinsic to things, beings, or phenomena. Any (created) meaning is disappearing, since it is not a reliable ground for understanding reality as such. In the underground world, individuals are often tormented by the fact that the meaning of things, beings, and phenomena is self-evident. We have to choose specific meaning among various historically-based meanings (Woolf 2017, 96). And such existential choice is fundamentally determined by inner and external conditioning factors. Ben Bachir (2012, 32) unveiled that Woolf 's conviction that life has no intrinsic meaning makes quite difficult for her to accept her own existing. The feeling of meaninglessness provokes voidness within our self (Woolf 2017, 139). The centeredness of life expresses the absence of any intrinsic meaning. Nothing is conveying an intrinsic meaning. The underground world is unstable because of its intrinsic meaninglessness (Nietzsche 1968, 318).

Ultimately, the underground world has to deal with death and Time. If death is meaningless, then existence and Time are also meaningless. People who are fighting the formless meaninglessness (Woolf 2017, 220) are living in the 'world of fight and effort' (Woolf 2017, 261). Fighting our meaningless existence is combating existential uncertainty, that is, the fact that our existing does not have any intrinsic meaning. This is the existential struggle against the idea of God. In Dostoyevsky's Demons (1962, 608), Kirilov said that we cannot believe in God's inexistence without affirming our own divine (free) will. In The Karamazov Brothers (2002, 808), Dostoyevsky explained that the annihilating the idea of God will deify humankind and make universal (and disintered) love possible. Fighting existential uncertainty will not make the underground world disappear. On the other hand, accepting existential uncertainty seems to be the only way for learning serenity and calmness.

Third step: The recovered world, from despair to the eternal renewal

The recovered world is neither the redeemed world, nor the annihilation of the underground world. It is not the renewal of the compartmentalized world. Rather, the recovered world is the unstable and uncertain world, as we could take it upon ourselves, with an existentially-based courage, without denying any worth to the experience of existential despair/meaninglessness. Everybody recovers the continuity of his/her own self, when becoming character of a collective procession (Woolf 2017, 42). The passionate meaning of one's existence makes possible to reinvent the worth of things, beings, and phenomena (Woolf 2017, 121). Woolf seems here to adopt a Kierkegaardian viewpoint. The world could be recovered through the experience of despair. Only despair can provide the 'eternal renewal' (Woolf 2017, 286). In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard (1968, 175-179, 208-213) asserted that every individual existence is despair. However, Kierkegaard believed that relation to the Absolute (God) could make possible to redeem such despair (defined as sin). Woolf rather insisted on the power of despair itself. The eternal renewal does not come from God, but from the power of despair itself.

The feeling of despair follows from the conviction that our own being is annihilated, so that our own life does not have any worth at all (Woolf 2017, 97). Everything is useless: birth and death, pleasure and joy, and all types of anxiety are useless. Everything is illusory. Woolf called such phenomenon the 'impartiality of despair' (Woolf 2017, 275). Perfection, renown, and money do not have any worth (Woolf 2017, 130). Meaningless words are not helpful, since they make the feeling of voidness increasing (Woolf 2017, 98-99). Despair gives us the conviction that our actions are worthless (Woolf 2017, 115). Despair could be so intolerable that it causes very deep and unspeakable anxiety (Woolf 2017, 140, 146, 179). Words remain useless, since our existentially-based experiences are unspeakable. What are words, if not pure creations of our mind (Woolf 2017, 55, 212)? Despairing is abandoning the 'old coat of my self ' (Woolf 2017, 277). But how could we describe world without any self (Woolf 2017, 277)? Without self, any world is useless and meaningless. Then, the radical absence of one's self destroys his/her existential certainty (Woolf 2017, 278). It provokes a endless set of doubts and oversights (Woolf 2017, 278).

We should never try to make despair disappearing. The potentiality of despair is an integral part of human existence. Despair gives us the opportunity to change our view on reality itself. For doing so, we must reinvent Time. Recovering our world needs to abolish the time of the clock (Woolf 2017, 179). Dorothy Bevis (1956, 14) rightly said that in The Waves, we cannot isolate the time of the mind from the time of the clock. Focusing on the time of the mind makes possible to dis-cover the unreal world of the past (Woolf 2017, 150). The absence of past and future makes the present moment overwhelming the flow of Time (Woolf 2017, 245, 269). In order to recover our world without denying the worth of despair, we must overcome such an 'abyss of Time' (Woolf 2017, 223). Wisdom implies not to be focused on our own future. Wisdom cannot be isolated from an infinite compassion (Woolf 2017, 155). Wisdom and compassion are the attitudinal components of the recovered world. But they imply to reinvent the worth of life experiences and to revisit the most basic human relationships. Friendship and love are the most sacred feelings of human heart, since they give access to Beauty and Truth (Woolf 2017, 143). Jealousy, hate, and envy are 'underground feelings' that make impossible to reach Beauty and Truth (Woolf 2017, 142, 159, 217). The recovered world emphasizes the importance of human body, imagination, and memory. Our own body has its own existence (Woolf 2017, 68). Our imagination is corporeally induced. We cannot imagine something that has nothing to do with our own body (Woolf 2017, 130, 216). Remembering any event is an internalizing process that could be quite harmful (Woolf 2017, 169, 256). The interdependence between human body, imagination, and memory will make possible to recover our world, without deying any worth to existential despair.


Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Virginia Woolf 's The Waves dealt with meaninglessness, while acknowledging the presence of a powerful paradox. Emily Bronte was dealing with the process of existential despair. However, when Bronte used the emotion of melancholy, she was aware of its intrinsic paradox: we have to denounce the unreasonable character of our feelings and emotions, but melancholy is certainty about the unsurpassable existentially-based uncertainties. Existential despair is the loss of hope, and thus the loss of (religious) faith. The only way to avoid existential despair is to take the paradox of melancholy upon ourselves.

In The Waves, Virginia Woolf showed how refusing the comparmentalized world will make us falling into the underground world. In the underground world, we will perceive any thing, being, and phenomenon as being meaningless. Even the quest for the meaning of our own I/self will be vain, since there is no meaning at all. Nothing is intrinsically meaningful. In the underground world, we will face the paradox of multiple selves: although any self includes successive layers over time, it is a unified reality. As long as we cannot take such paradox upon ourselves, we will be unable to recover our world, without denying the existential worth of despair. The feeling of meaninglessness will crush us forever.

Michel Dion

Universite de Sherbrooke


Ben Bachir, Nourredine. "Balade avec Virginia Woolf: Vivre ou la conscience de l'illusoire." Topique 118 (2012): 31-41.

Bevis, Dorothy. "The Waves. A Fusion of Symbol, Style and Thought in Virginia Woolf." Twentieth Century Literature 2.1 (1956): 5-20.

Brisac, Genevieve and Agnes Desarthe. V.W. Le melange des genres. Paris: Editions de l'Olivier/Seuil, 2004.

Bronte, Emily. Les Hauts de Hurle-Vent. Paris: Le livre de poche, 2013.

Dostoyevsky, Fedor. Les Freres Karamazov. Paris: Gallimard, 2002.

Dostoyevsky, Fedor. Les Possedes. Paris: Le livre de poche, 1962.

Forrester, Viviane. Virginia Woolf. Paris: Albin Michel, 2009.

Kierkegaard, Soeren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Kierkegaard, Soeren. Fear and Trembling, and The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Deuxieme consideration intempestive. Paris: Editions Mille et une nuits, 2008.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. New York: Random House, 1968.

Proust, Marcel. Albertine disparue. Paris: Gallimard, 2001.

Proust, Marcel. A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. Premiere Partie. Paris: GF Flammarion, 1987.

Proust, Marcel. A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. Deuxieme partie. Paris: GF Flammarion, 1987a.

Proust, Marcel. Le temps retrouve. Paris: Gallimard, 1972.

Smith, Adam. La theorie des sentiments moraux. Paris: Quadrige/PUF, 1999.

Spark, Muriel and Derek Stanford. Emily Bronte, Her Life and Work. London: Peter Owen Ltd, 1953.

Stendhal. Le Rouge et le Noir. Montreal: Editions Caractere, 2011.

Williams, Anne. "Natural Supernaturalism in Wuthering Heights." Studies in Philology 82.1 (1985): 104-127.

Woolf, Virginia. Les Vagues. Paris: Le livre de poche, 2017.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Volume III. 1925-1930. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980.
COPYRIGHT 2018 Vishvanatha Kaviraja Institute of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Dion, Michel
Publication:Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jan 1, 2018
Previous Article:India and the Virtuous Indian in Dante.
Next Article:Between Solitude and Solidarity: Objectification in the Existential Novels of Camus and Naipaul.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |