Melancholic patriotism and The Waves.
The critical conversation regarding Woolf and British national identity often resembles a game of "interpretive ping-pong," to use Jed Esty's phrase from A Shrinking Island (93). Critics continue to debate the degree to which Woolf s work is critical of or complicit with nationalism and imperialism, but there seems to be a growing consensus that the truth lies somewhere in between. Even critics who stake out this middle ground, however, struggle to describe Woolf's ambivalent national attachment without seeming to condemn either her politics or her literary achievement. Esty, who insists that his discussion of Between the Acts is not meant "as the latest round in the game" (93) and claims that the novel "is designed precisely to express both antinationalist and nationalist sentiments," nevertheless notes that this ambivalence "creates obvious strains in [Woolf's] writing" (87). And Jane Garrity, who reads The Waves as "revealing simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by the narrative of empire," finds that the novel's critique of imperialism is ultimately undermined by its reflection of "a form of 'imperialist nostalgia'" (244). In this essay I explore the intersection of grief and patriotism in order to develop a new terminology capable of registering the radical political potential of the national ambivalence we find across Woolf s body of work. A psychoanalytic vocabulary of grief can help us to identify and appreciate those literary moments, whether we are considering imperialism and The Wares or English nationalism and Between the Acts, where ambivalence reveals artistic and intellectual creativity rather than mere indecision.
If nostalgia is generally understood as the desire for some idealized lost past, what term can describe the desire to maintain connection with a past that's known to be problematic? In The Waves Woolf depicts a national attachment marked by an ambivalent sorrow and sense of loss, suggesting that the novels political orientation is best described by the term melancholia rather than nostalgia. Melancholia, a form of grief that declines to sever ties with lost objects despite being ambivalent and critical in its perception of what has been lost, can yield a preoccupation with the past that often appears to be nostalgic but contains a strong element of critical reservation. And because the loss evoked in The Waves is communal and strongly linked with national and imperial imagery, it seems profitable to ask how Woolf's portrayal of melancholia illuminates the question of how a national community ought to live with its losses. What kind of meaningful, productive connections to a troubling past should be maintained?
The redemptive portrait of grief that we find in The Waves is echoed in a recent critical trend described by Patricia Rae as the "depathologizing of melancholia" (18). (1) A number of critics have questioned the strict division between healthy mourning and pathological melancholia so influentially established by Freud. Might Freud's model of mourning, this approach asks, seem to endorse the abdication of responsibility for the past? Taking up the ethical question of melancholia, my essay introduces a distinction between individual and collective responses to loss in order to ask whether a healthy model of grief for individuals might not become problematic when applied to nations. In other words, can a model of mourning that emphasizes progress toward forgetting mask a community's troubling amnesia in regard to its own history? Reading The Waves, we become aware of how a melancholic response to loss can move a community to reconsider its troubled past. In times when national identities are being reimagined, melancholic patriotism might allow for a crucial stage of contemplation, encouraging an open relationship with a past that shouldn't be forgotten or denied.
A redemptive portrait of grief
Composed almost entirely of the thoughts and inner soliloquies of its six main characters, The Waves traces their experiences from childhood through old age, often as these experiences relate to the death of their friend Percival. Facing the loss of his beloved friend, Neville says, "I will not lift my foot to climb the stair" (152), recalling an image that reappears throughout The Waves in connection with grief and death. To pause on the stairs, as various characters in this novel do, is a metaphor for the melancholic refusal to move past the experience of loss. News of Percival's death leaves Bernard suspended between sorrow and joy, standing on the "staircase" between the room where his son has just been born and the world "that Percival sees no longer" (153).
Bernard accepts that this is a moment rich with possible revelation. He says, "Now then is my chance to find out what is of great importance" (155). He notes that "the machine" of civilization still works but only "as a thing in which I have no part." As Woolf describes it, this is the true power of this moment: experiencing the shock of loss, Bernard is able, at least briefly, to pause outside "the usual order." Neville's and Bernard's experiences suggest that it is the state of mourning, not its successful resolution, that encourages a revelatory perspective on one's culture and community.
The Waves describes a British culture that privileges a machine-like "precision" and an "orderly and military progress" (255). This is a national community characterized by movement and advancement. To be a member of this community is, as Louis says, to "press on, from chaos making order" (146) or as Bernard says, to walk "in step" on the "illumined and everlasting road" (259). In their grief Neville and Bernard are moved to resist their culture's emphasis on progress. They decline to walk "in step." They resent the call to "press on." Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" illuminates this tension between forward momentum and immobility in the face of loss. Differentiating between healthy mourning and its pathological manifestation, melancholia, Freud describes mourning as a process of reality testing whereby the attachment to the lost object is gradually overcome. This "work of mourning," as he terms it, results in an ego that is free from the "shadow" of the lost object (43). Although mourning and melancholia share a number of identifying symptoms, melancholia appears in Freud's essay not as a process with a definite endpoint but as an unresolved state founded on a profound and unconscious ambivalence toward the lost object. (2)
To link melancholia and The Waves is to introduce a puzzling question. When Bernard says of Percival "No lullaby has ever occurred to me capable of singing him to rest" (243), we must ask: what has become of the elegiac consolations we find in Mrs. Dalloway? Why, so many years after the traumatic losses of the First World War, do we find what looks like a regressive movement away from the portrayal of a more or less effective work of mourning and toward a much more ambivalent, unresolved portrait of communal loss? In "Mrs. Dalloway's Postwar Elegy" Christine Froula describes how Woolf's earlier novel reinvigorates the genre of elegy, working through communal grief toward consolation and hope. However, the final sentence of Froula's essay begins with the words "For the moment" (158), alerting us to the provisional nature of the resolution she describes. Clarissa may discover "trophies of consolation" (156) in Mrs. Dalloway, as Froula argues, but it is far from certain that these "trophies" will endure. (3)
Six years after Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf emphasizes even less the working through of the bereavement process. The bereaved state itself serves as a critique of the "machine" of British imperialism and helps to generate insights into the changing nature of British community and national identity. It is hardly surprising that Woolf would return to the theme of communal loss more than a decade after the end of the First World War. During the 1920s and 1930s economic depression, labor unrest, colonial rebellions, and the growing threat of another war all contributed to an awareness of imperial decline that had been steadily growing since the Anglo-Boer War at the turn of the century. The year 1931 saw the publication both of The Waves and a book by Lord Eustace Perry, Democracy on Trial, where he describes the sense of national anxiety and uncertainty that only intensified in the years following the war:
Above all, there is no national idea in which we any longer believe. We have lost the easy self-confidence which distinguished our Victorian grandfathers ... We are equally sick of imperial boastfulness and of humanitarian sentimentalities, but we have no reasonable faith to put in their place. (30-31)
By the end of the 1920s, the citizens of Great Britain had to negotiate not only the loss of those killed in the war but also the erosion of national identity and the loss of long-held assumptions about what characterized their community.
The Waves appeared at a time when British politics and culture were shaped by experiences of loss and despair, but Woolf's diary indicates that this was also a period of personal melancholy. In 1929, as she was just beginning work on the novel that would become The Waves, she writes of being "pitched into my great lake of melancholy" (140). "Lord how-deep it is!" To submit to melancholy as she describes it here, is a "sinking down, down," and it is only by maintaining a furious pace of reading and writing that she can "keep afloat." And yet she finds some potential value in this state: "As usual I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth. That is the only mitigation" (141). Her sense of sorrow and melancholy seems to have become even more pronounced as her work on the novel continued. Frustrated with her first attempts at writing The Waves, she writes:
Hence, perhaps, these October days are to me a little strained and surrounded with silence ... some inner loneliness--interesting to analyse if one could. To give an example--I was walking up Bedford Place ... and I said to myself spontaneously, something like this. How I suffer. And no one knows how I suffer, walking up this street, engaged with my anguish, as I was after Thoby died--alone; fighting something alone. (143-44)
That the emotions she experienced after her brother Thoby's death would somehow return to her during a period of personal and professional triumph surprises even her, and after writing "How I suffer" she goes on to recognize that triumph. And yet, she writes, "for all this, there is vacancy and silence somewhere in the machine" (144), just as there is in Bernard's experience of death in The Waves.
If Woolf is describing melancholia in this novel, though, her portrait contrasts with psychoanalytic accounts, which generally depict melancholia as a debilitating psychic wound. This discrepancy between melancholia as potentially enlightening and melancholia as incapacitating highlights a significant division in the large body of criticism on Woolf and mourning. Critics have long identified the elegiac quality of Woolf's work, but as Tammy Clewell has recently noted, much of the early criticism suggests that Woolf's novels were the result of "an unfortunate display of pathological grief" (197). Clewell's essay contributes to a shift in perspective inaugurated in the work of Thomas Caramagno, Susan Bennett Smith, and John Mepham, critics who celebrate Woolf's literary view of mourning as "achievement" rather than "symptom" (Mepham 143). Though Clewell limits her discussion to Jacob's Room and To the Lighthouse, I find that The Waves too reveals Woolf's interest in dramatizing the "endurance of grief" that Clewell locates in the earlier novels (219). (4) To identify a similar grief response where the lost object is empire might certainly appear politically problematic. However, as I will argue, this discovery is not inconsistent with the politically progressive Woolf we know from Three Guineas.
The Waves portrays a traumatic confrontation with loss that seems to bring, as Bernard suggests, a reprieve from identity and the opportunity to view life without the burden of desire. At the novel's end Bernard chronicles the process by which, for each of the six characters, "identity [became] robust" (262). But, he adds, "Into this crashed death--Percival's" (263). And it is an ensuing reprieve from identity that allows Bernard "to see things without attachment, from the outside, and to realize their beauty in itself." There is an accompanying "sense that a burden has been removed; pretence and make-believe and unreality are gone." Woolf connects this moment, and it is always only a moment, with the words "freedom," "discovery," and "sanctuary" (264, 265). At such a time Bernard can observe the world with "disillusioned clarity." "I was like one admitted behind the scenes," he says, "like one shown how the effects are produced" (266), recalling Woolf's feeling that sinking in melancholy will lead one to truth.
For Woolf, the positive potential of a melancholic response to loss involves its capacity to provide a particular kind of space. Standing on the stairs, Bernard says, "I need silence, and to be alone ... and to save one hour to consider what has happened to my world, what death has done to my world" (153). In The Waves, what "death has done" is to unsettle the easy acceptance of a problematic communal identity or "world," While in "Mourning and Melancholia" Freud seems most concerned with overcoming melancholia, Woolf suggests that grief might be too quickly foreclosed. (5) The melancholic pause, as she describes it, is a difficult one to sustain. Bernard cries: "I am exhausted with the strain and the long, long time--twenty-five minutes, half an hour--that I have held myself alone outside the machine" (158). His emphasis on the "I" standing "alone" recalls recalls Freud's own description of a link between melancholia and truth. In Freud's narrative the melancholic is in a state of "heightened self-criticism" (41). He has, Freud writes, "a keener eye for the truth than other people who are not melancholic." Though he "has come pretty near to understanding himself," Freud wonders "why a man has to be ill before he can be accessible to a truth of this kind. "This question leads me to ask whether a psychoanalytic model of healthy mourning for individuals will necessarily account for healthy national communities. What might a healthy relationship with the national past look like? Might "self-criticism" and an "eye for the truth" contribute to building healthier national communities?
In The Waves this "eye for the truth" illuminates a number of narrowly personal and more broadly existential truths. Bernard, attempting to prolong his time "outside the machine" by remembering Percival in an art gallery, sees clearly his own "infirmities" (156). Neville, in his refusal to "climb the stair," sees a more universal truth about the precariousness of human life: "We are doomed, all of us" (152). But such visions hint at national realities as well. The novel suggests that Percival, though linked with "the great elm trees" of a particularly English landscape and the cricket "playing-fields" of a distinctively English pastime, is Scottish (37). Taking a train to London after the final summer term, Bernard thinks of Percival, who "is now almost in Scotland" (71). Certainly, Scotland was known for generating colonial administrators, such as Percival would become, but this Scottish connection links him to an even older empire. Approaching Scotland, Percival "sees the long line of the border hills and the Roman wall," an image that recalls the ancient roots of imperialism in British civilization. And throughout the novel the initial responses to Percival's death involve repeated references to a particular place: Hampton Court. Bernard is tormented by the memory of his refusal to go with Percival "to Hampton Court that day" (158). Rhoda, wondering how and where to make a tribute to Percival, wonders, "shall I go to Hampton Court and look at the red walls and courtyards and the seemliness of herded yew trees making black pyramids symmetrically on the grass among flowers?" (161). As one of only two remaining palaces built by King Henry VIII, Hampton Court is strongly identified with an English history of continuity, and Rhoda's descriptions of the building and grounds emphasize just this sense of order and stability. Thinking of Hampton Court, she asks, "There shall I recover beauty, and impose order upon my raked, my disheveled soul?"
Rhoda does not visit Hampton Court that day, but years after Percival's death the six characters will gather there. As adults, they come together only twice in the novel, first at a London restaurant on the eve of Percival's departure for India, then at Hampton Court, where Neville will remember "that Percival comes no more" (226), Bernard will recall "when we dined together with Percival" (229), Jinny will reflect that their temporary unity has been "built up with much pain" (230), and Louis will wonder how they should put together the "message" sent back by the "dead." Here, moved by a "silence" that seems to echo Neville's experience of silence on the stairs, Bernard sees "Our English past--one inch of light," and knows this national history as utterly insubstantial:
But how strange it seems to set against the whirling abysses of infinite space a little figure with a golden teapot on his head. Soon one recovers a belief in figures: but not at once in what they put on their heads. ... It is a trick of the mind--to put Kings on their thrones, one following another, with crowns on their heads. (227)
Where Rhoda had hoped that the ostensible solidities of England's history might offer consolation in the wake of loss, through Bernard these solidities are demystified. National identity is merely "a trick of the mind" that cannot offer meaning to soothe disheveled souls.
The relationship of psychoanalytic theories of mourning to constructions of national identity was first explored by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich. Drawing on Freud, in The Inability to Mourn they examine the history and culture of Germany in the post-Nazi era in terms of a melancholic response to collective loss, what they call "mass melancholia" (25). Although the Mitterlichs accept Freud's distinction between mourning and pathological melancholia, they nonetheless suggest that melancholia would have been the most appropriate response in a nation for which the loss of Hitler and defeat in the war was "a blow to the very core of their self-esteem" (24). But, they write, this "mass melancholia" never occurred:
The Federal Republic did not succumb to melancholia; instead, as a group, those who had lost their "ideal leader," the representative of a commonly shared ego-ideal, managed to avoid self devaluation by breaking all affective bridges to the immediate past ... That so few signs of melancholia or even of mourning are to be seen among the great masses of the population can be attributed only to a collective denial of the past. (27-28)
For the Mitscherlichs, although "denial" is the most destructive response to collective loss, "nations always seek to shrug off their guilt sight unseen; far from repenting, they will steal away from the scene of the crime without compunction" (6) (xvii). Reviewing the Mitscherlich's work in relation to East German cultural experience following the fall of communism, Martin Jay identifies a key limitation in the "inability to mourn" model. It "was easy for the Mitscherlichs to identify the unmourned lost object of the post-Nazi era with the figure or Hitler," he writes, but in the case of the German Democratic Republic, "no such clear-cut equivalent is apparent" (74). In a similar absence of an obvious single embodiment of her community's "ego ideal," Woolf, with Percival, shapes the nation's past into a single figure who can function as the object of grief.
In a novel made up almost entirely of its characters' inner thoughts, we have no access to Percival's own mind. He is a screen, rather, on which the narcissistic fantasies of his friends are projected. Bernard, who imagines some day being worthy of a biographer's attention, says that Percival is a "hero" (123). Neville, who professes to hate "wandering and mixing things together" (19), says that Percival "imposed order" (122). Jinny, who longs to be admired and to dazzle "in bright dresses" (126), links Percival with "youth and beauty" (145). For the Mitscherlichs, true mourning "arises when the lost object was loved for its own sake," but in their view it is not an available option when the loss is of a national ideal:
loss that gives rise to melancholia reveals ... a narcissistic object choice. I chose the now vanished object after my own image and because it was willing to adapt itself to my fantasy. This applied perfectly to the Fuhrer; he fulfilled the ideal of greatness for his subjects. (27-28)
While his friends see Percival as a "hero" who "inspires poetry" (123), he will ultimately fail in the imperial mission to apply "the standards of the West" (40) and right "the bullock-cart" (136), and the loss of the fantasy that was Percival undermines the community that depended on it. Jinny says "we shall perhaps never make this moment out of one man again" (7) (145).
The six speaking characters of The Waves believe that together with Percival they form a world that is "entire" (22). Growing up, they drew around themselves a "globe whose walls are made of Percival" (145). Struggling to complete a math exercise after the other nursery school children have been let out to play. Rhoda says:
Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. ... Look, the loop of the figure is beginning to fill with time; it holds the world in it. I begin to draw a figure and the world is looped in it, and I myself am outside the loop ... the world is entire, and I am outside of it, crying. (21-22)
But of the globe made by Percival, Rhoda says with satisfaction, "Forests and far countries on the other side of the world ... are in it; seas and jungles" (145). Neville sees that "Happiness is in it." Of their meeting together with Percival, Louis says, "the circle in our blood, broken so often, so sharply, for we are so different, closes in a ring. Something is made."
The Waves certainly registers the appeal of the older imperial form represented by Percival with its seductive narratives of power and glory. Rhoda, so fearful and lonely in life, plays with petals in a basin like ships riding the waves (18) and dreams that "the diamonds of the Imperial crown blaze" on her forehead (56); she imagines herself an empress and says, "I am fearless. I conquer." Bernard envisions being asked "to assume command of the British Empire" because, as he says, "one has these fancies" (261). Louis exults in the global commercial work the Empire sustains: "We have laced the world together with our ships. The globe is strung with our lines" (200). But the novel also deflates such grandiose images. Rhoda imagines that her "hero" (137) rides a flea-bitten mare, and Percival utterly fails Louis's prediction that he will "die in battle" (37). Indeed, the seemingly meaningful community that these six create around Percival not only cannot survive his death but apparently never was the civilized buffer against chaos that it purported to be. Louis suggests as much when he says that their gathering around Percival before his departure for India is
Like the dance of savages ... round the camp fire. They are savage; they Lire ruthless. They dance in a circle, flapping bladders. The flames leap over their painted faces, over the leopard skins and the bleeding limbs which they have torn from the living body. (140)
What's revealed here at the heart of the civilizing mission of British imperialism is violent savagery.
At the same time, imperialism in The Waves begins to look like an almost understandable response to existential loneliness. Wondering "To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?" Neville finds that "There is nobody--here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skillfully organised to prevent feeling alone" (51). Woolf may be a critic of empire, but in her willingness to look closely at British imperial identity she registers the sadness so many might feel at its passing--at the loss of a communal identity that, at least imaginatively, could connect diverse populations, both across the globe and within the British archipelago itself. Rhoda loves Percival because through him she can believe that India, with its "twisted jungle, swarms of men," is "within our scope, part of our proud and splendid province" (135). Having lost him, the six seem to lose a connection both with one another and with a much larger world. Meeting together after Percival's death they no longer experience happiness but, as Neville muses, "what do we feel on meeting? Sorrow" (211). And rather than a globe or circle, their gathering, "is uncomfortable too, joining ragged edges, raw edges."
But is Woolf suggesting that it Is better to respond to such loss with melancholia rather than denial? Is pain valuable if the lost object is so unworthy? Neville grieves for Percival--"Come, pain, feed on me" (152)--but we cannot forget his ambivalent appraisal of his friend. He is "hopelessly in love" (36) with Percival but also discerning in his assessment of Percival's brutality (39). Louis, comparing his feelings for Percival to a file with two edges, claims: "I adore his magnificence ... I despise his slovenly accents--I who am so much his superior" (37). Describing Percival as one of "the boasting boys" (46), he elaborates:
They are the volunteers; they are the cricketers; they are the officers of the Natural History Society. They are always forming into fours and marching in troops with badges on their caps ... How majestic is their order, how beautiful is their obedience! ... But they also leave butterflies trembling with their wings pinched off; they throw dirty pocket-handkerchiefs clotted with blood screwed up into corners. They make little boys sob in dark passages. ... Yet that is what we wish to be, Neville and I. (47)
If Neville and Louis recoil from the brutality of the imperial system, they also desire the order and sense of community it provides, and they will be torn "asunder" (152) by the pain occasioned by its loss. In The Waves, then, a communal identity rooted in imperialism protects against the experience of alienation. Louis counters his isolation by repeating to himself, "I am an average Englishman" (93). When this communal identity breaks down, as with the death of Percival, one might, in denial, continue the inarch from stair to stair--but, Woolf suggests, this bypasses the opportunity for a critical moment of self-reflection. And where is this staircase leading? Are we headed to a new political paradigm that will merely replicate the coercive social pressures and even violence that marked imperialism?
Composed almost simultaneously with The Waves, A Room of One's Own registers the pain of a loss that one might recognize as a gain. Woolf wonders about the loss of romance and a kind of "musical" excitement in gatherings of men and women since the war (14) and finds a correlation to this loss in the vicissitudes of poetry. "Why has Alfred ceased to sing?" she asks. "Why has Christina ceased to respond?" (15):
Shall we lay the blame on the war? When the guns fired in August 1914, did the faces of men and women show so plain in each other's eyes that romance was killed? ... But lay the blame where one will, on whom one will, the illusion which inspired Tennyson and Christina Rossetti to sing so passionately about the coming of their loves is far rarer now than then.
Then, significantly, she begins to rethink the matter: "But why say 'blame'? Why, if it was an illusion, not praise the catastrophe, whatever it was, that destroyed illusion and put truth in its place?" Woolf's posing of this difficult question suggests that her perspective on the decline of British imperialism is related to a more general concern with narratives of connection. While Victorian poetry seemed to offer one way of imagining our connection to others, in The Waves Percival's ignominious death exposes the failures of other narratives of connection, explicitly national ones like the Arthurian legends recalled by Percival's name and the stories of national destiny such as the tales of exploration and sea mastery invoked by Rhoda's petals and basin. In The Waves we see a community that has lost the story of itself.
Little England and imperial decline
Believing that language can give form to a community, after Percival's death Louis says: "I shall assemble a few words and forge round us a hammered ring of beaten steel" (169). In this image of a community circled by steel we can glimpse the appeal of the "island" story of Englishness that would grow to dominate social and political discourse during the interwar years (8) as expressions of British imperial identity gave way to a much more insular form of cultural nationalism. (9) Called Little Englandism, this form of national identity had drawn widespread attention during the Edwardian period in the works of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Little Englanders advocated a restriction of the responsibilities and dimensions of the empire, arguing that English national virtues were being lost in the emphasis on a multinational British empire. As Esty persuasively argues, the rhetoric of Edwardian Little Englandism changed in the early decades of the twentieth century from "a specialized anti-imperial politics into the major resource for postimperial conceptions of England by intellectuals of various political stripes" (26). (10) By daring to grieve the loss of imperial glory and emphasizing the persistence of sorrow, The Waves registers a resistance to the comforting stories of enduring Englishness that were gaining momentum in these years.
"Remembrance and Hope," a 1931 Armistice Day editorial in the Times, suggests how sadness could be perceived as socially disruptive. It acknowledges the strong shift in the national mood since the years immediately following the war. Directing "our thoughts ... this morning to those who fought and died in the War," it notes that "in bygone years we regarded them gratefully as those by whose heroism we had regained the blessings of peace," but that "That vision of a golden age has faded, and to-day the outlook is very different." In overall tone, however, the editorial is optimistic, affirming that "the spirit of England lives." It criticizes earlier remembrance celebrations, when the "agony of bereavement" was "allowed to predominate so far as to convert what is properly a day of remembrance and hope into a day of mourning," suggesting that to "sorrow" as those without hope" does not "befit a people" who value "the spirit of England."
Though British and English are notoriously slippery terms, what often distinguishes their deployment following the First World War is a sense that England and English offer reliable and optimistic alternatives to a threatened Britishness. On 18 September 1924 this phenomenon was illustrated in a full-page advertisement in the Times sponsored by the catering and food manufacturing business J. Lyons & Co. that gave Harold Begbie's first-person account of an early morning stroll through London's Covent Garden market (17). Revealing the ubiquity of the belief in imperial decline, the ad begins: "It was so very early, that we set out not knowing what had happened to the world during the last 24 hours, not even whether the British Empire had survived the latest rumour of its dissolution." Upon arriving in Covent Garden the speaker's terminology shifts, and he exclaims that the market's bounty is "the evidence ... of England's unconquerable determination to keep her flag flying in spite of all the depression in the newspapers." It is England, and significantly not Great Britain, that appears to this marketplace observer as being "far from the edge of destruction." Indeed, he claims, "England appeared to us in the light of this discovery as an extremely youthful young person." Echoing the country-life nostalgia typical of Little England nationalism, the advertisement continues with a celebration of England as "the market-garden, hothouse, and orchard of the world, with villages no longer deserted ... and an English population working cheerfully and healthily in the fields." This is a celebration of an England with roots in rural life, yet it requires a full page of advertising copy to distance itself from the despair, disillusionment, and "depression" of the newspapers.
The Waves attends to just this despair and disillusionment. Meditating on the loss of Percival, Bernard acknowledges the "horror of the situation," a horror, he remembers, he had once briefly glimpsed in childhood. Running with Susan through their nursery school garden, he had discovered the English country house Elvedon, where "the gardeners swept" and "the lady at the table sat writing" (268). But the child Bernard senses danger and cries out, "We are in a hostile country" (17). Recalling the gardeners sweeping and the lady writing as an adult, he thinks:
But I now made the contribution of maturity to childhood's intuitions--satiety and doom; the sense of what is unescapable in our lot; death; the knowledge of limitations; how life is more obdurate than one had thought it. Then, when I was a child, the presence of an enemy had asserted itself ... I had jumped up and cried, "Let's explore." The horror of the situation was ended. Now what situation was there to end? Dullness and doom. And what to explore? The leaves and the wood concealed nothing. (268-69)
The English countryside thus offers no escape from the despair occasioned by Percival's death. Just after this loss, "Bernard visits Susan's farm but finds the rural busyness of haying, fruit picking, and gardening to be "hateful, like a net folding one's limbs in its meshes, cramping" (268). Percival had provided a sense of connection with a larger world, and Rhoda especially feels she can, through Percival, explore exotic places. With him, "the outermost parts of the earth--pale shadows on the utmost horizon, India for instance, rise into our purview. The world that had been shrivelled, rounds itself" (137). With his death, England becomes only a "shriveled" replacement for the expansive imperial ideal he embodied.
The insular worldview of Little England nationalism constitutes one break with Britain's imperial identity that Woolf particularly resists. While under imperialism England had a violent, oppressive connection with India and other colonies, proponents of Little Englandism would turn their backs on India entirely. I have argued that The Waves expresses sorrow for a lost imperial identity, but it might be more accurate to say that the novel grieves the decline of an internationalism that found at least some expression in the notion of empire. Particularly after the First World War, what is lost, or has remained unrealized, is expressed by Rhoda's desire for a community that would "embrace the entire world," that, in an echo of England's Victorian imperial boast, "might blow so vast a bubble that the sun might set and rise in it" (223-24). If Rhoda's wish is inflated, the six friends do strive for a community that is at once cohesive and various, like the "Society of Outsiders" Woolf champions in Three Guineas (113). By the novel's end Bernard's sense that "I am not one person; I am many people" (276) seems the redemptive inverse of a dull conformity, that walking in step enforced by "the machine."
Exploring the political and cultural meanings of Woolf's redemptive portrait of grief raises the question whether protracted grief for a national past can really have a beneficial effect on a community's future. Can melancholic patriotism impede the process by which destructive and debilitating national identities are reproduced? The elderly Bernard's unresolved grief--"no lullaby has ever occurred to me capable of singing him to rest"--prompts an awareness of the deficiencies in the national community's story of itself, a story in which the values Percival represents have long been central. Just before he acknowledges that he cannot put Percival "to rest," Bernard considers: "What is startling, what is unexpected, what we cannot account for, what turns symmetry to nonsense--that comes suddenly to my mind, thinking of him. The little apparatus of observation is unhinged. Pillars go down" (243). Remembering Percival thus gives Bernard a continuing openness to the past, an openness that feeds his growing conviction that literary narratives like the "true story" he has spent his life seeking, with their orderly progress from beginning to end, might ultimately misrepresent our world (187).
If Percival's death allows Bernard a moment "outside the usual order," over the course of the novel this idea of "the usual order" gathers social, political, and literary significance. Woolf suggests that melancholia might foster moments free from an oppressive social order and that a kind of textual melancholia might enable a meaningful alternative to the relentless onward drive or linear narrative, By textual melancholia I do not necessarily mean a text with a sorrowful subject or tone. Rather, just as melancholia arrests the forward momentum of mourning, textual melancholia might indicate a narrative that dwells on pauses, digressions, moments rather than momentum--elements beyond the outlines of a single, overriding "true story," the kind that Bernard comes most to suspect: "Let a man get up and say, 'Behold, this is the truth,' and instantly I perceive a sandy cat filching a piece of fish in the background. Look, you have forgotten the cat, I say" (187). In this way, the notion of textual melancholia helps illuminate both the narrative structure of The Waves--divided between narrative chapters and more lyrical, image-driven interludes--and Woolf's narrative style across the body of her work.
If The Waves suggests that literature's complicity with destructive communal identities can be understood in terms of the psychic meanings of an emotional investment in a problematic national past, we are left to wonder whether a communal reckoning with sadness might finally have yielded a better future. The advent of another war ensured that melancholia did not take root in British society. Instead, the busyness of war preparation offered a kind of cohesive communal energy that, at least temporarily, supplanted the need for some larger, more stable national identity. In his 1939 travel book I Saw Two Englands, H. V. Morton describes a country industriously gearing up for war. He observes with relief: "One of the most remarkable things about this war is the quiet way England has ceased to be a country or even a county for many of us, and has become a parish" (288). (11) The nation Morton appreciates, shrunk, it seems, to the size of a parish, is a Little England indeed. This cultural shift clearly lies behind Woolf's fascination with the enduring rhythms of the English parish evident in Between the Acts. Though her ambivalence toward English nationalism has proved difficult for critics reading this final novel to assimilate, especially given her strongly critical stance in Three Guineas, the more positive implications of national attachment represented in The Waves make Between the Acts appear much less idiosyncratic.
While The Waves offers no definitive prescription for what should follow a dying imperial community, Woolf does explore, through the metaphor of music, the possibility of a more promising communal structure. The "globe of life" created by the six characters of The Waves may have burst, but what remains is "like music": "What a symphony, with its concord and its discord and its tunes on top and its complicated bass beneath, then grew up! Each played his own tune, fiddle, flute, trumpet, drum or whatever the instrument might be" (256). This figuration of a healthy community is formed around the creation of something beautiful that depends on each, very different, voice. However, this notion remains vague; if melancholic patriotism offers a productive stance from which to consider the nation's past, it does not, ultimately, provide a replacement for the lost community. After Percival's death the six characters feel some connection, but their community no longer feels spontaneous. They again meet together, but as Bernard notes, "It was different once. ... Once we could break the current as we chose. How many telephone calls, how many post cards, are now needed to cut this hole through which we come together, united, at Hampton Court?" (216).
Still, a recurring idea in Woolf's work is that though modernity has produced profound losses, the First World War chief among them, it has also brought social and aesthetic gains. In Mrs. Dalloway Peter Walsh, considering how England has changed since his last visit, before the war, observes the "returned Anglo-Indian ... summing up the ruin of the world," but he is nonetheless "astonished by the beauty" of London (162), as, for example, the laughing, glittering young people enjoying a "prolonged evening." To Peter they seem entirely free of the "whole pyramidal accumulation" that had oppressed his generation and which, he thinks, had always "seemed immovable" (162). In The Waves Bernard as an old man walks a "melancholy path" (286), but pushed by "despondency" through "the colourless field," he discovers that light and color return "miraculously"; even in despair, "loveliness returns" (287). In her final novel, Between the Acts, Woolf celebrates the aesthetic achievement that is Miss La Trobe's pageant. It succeeds not merely despite but even because of the various gaps and losses that plague its narration. Music and dialogue are blown away on the wind, the performance is augmented, unintentionally, by birds and cattle, and even a rousing collective rendition of "God Save the King" cannot provide a satisfying ending for a work that leaves everyone, audience and actors, wondering, "How to make an end? ... Was that the end?" (194-95). But such disruptions and irregularities, the strange, combined music of gramophone, dialogue, conversation, birds, even the ominous musical "zoom" of "aeroplanes in perfect formation," seem essential to the play's aesthetic exuberance (193).
While The Waves is more elegiac, it too highlights the beautiful moments that can emerge even, or especially, in times of protracted grief--a beauty that brings not consolation but something more akin to exhilaration. This is what Rhoda feels after the "lightning strike" of Percival's death. It manifests the natural world as impersonal and amorphous, like the "enormous clouds" Bernard observes: "What delights me then is the confusion, the height, the indifference and the fury. Great clouds always changing, and movement ... Of story, of design I do not see a trace then" (239). The natural world here cannot be constrained by narrative or by national boundaries. Its exuberance cannot be made symbolic. In The Waves, then, where narratives fail and communities die, there remains some common basis on which to begin anew.
(1.) Rae notes that she takes this term from David L. Eng and David Kazanjian, who write: "a better understanding of melancholic attachments to loss might" depathologize those attachments, making visible not only their social bases but also their creative, unpredictable, political aspects" (3). For other articulations of this depathologizing trend, see the essays in Eng and Kazanjian's collection Loss, Jahan Ramazani's Poetry of Mourning, Rae's collection Modernism and Mourning, and Jonathan Flatley's Affective Mapping. As Ramazani observes in his afterword to Rae's book, there remains significant disagreement over the political implications of melancholia. Most of the contributors to Modernism and Mourning align melancholia with political progressivism, but a number of others find a politically conservative impulse in the experience of unresolved grief. I agree with Ramazani's suggestion that the politics of melancholia are likely "situational" (290), and this essay is not intended to establish a definitive political orientation for protracted grief. However, The Wanes introduces a new dimension to these debates by suggesting that grief for even flawed national ideals might encourage innovative political thinking.
(2.) Freud's claim that ambivalence can impede the usual forward momentum of mourning continues to be accepted by contemporary theorists. For instance, Carlos Sluzki explains that we retain our "resilient capacity to adapt, change, grow, and evolve" through experiences of gain and loss "unless a gain or a loss lays in the grey zone of ambiguity. Under those circumstances ... time freezes and evolution stops" (xiii).
(3.) This argument is also presented in Froula's subsequent book Virginia Woolf and the Bloosmbury Avant-Garde (125).
(4.) Though Clewell and I both identity a resistance to traditional mourning in Woolf's work, Clewell does not use the term melancholia, instead framing Woolf's approach as the "reinvention" of mourning (198).
(5.) Clewell makes a similar point--"Woolf's textual practice of endless mourning compels us to refuse consolation, sustain grief, and accept responsibility for the difficult task of remembering the catastrophic losses of the twentieth century" (199)--but where Clewell focuses on the human carnage of the Great War, my own concern is with Woolf's literary response to the more ambivalent-loss of a national self-ideal.
(6.) The Mitscherlichs' model of the cultural destructiveness of denial has been applied to a number of different national histories. For instance, Robert Jay Lifton's introduction to the first English translation of The Inability to Mourn ties their theories to the cultural and political situation of the United States following Vietnam.
(7.) Some critics concerned with the process of mourning abstractions rather than persons have questioned the Freudian theories that the Mitscherlichs rely on. Marlene Briggs, for instance, argues that Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" does not adequately distinguish between absent persons and the loss of ideals:
If ideals and values play a vital rather than a merely parasitic role in the psychic life of individuals and groups, then post-Freudian models of mourning need to expand their focus from mass bereavement to include the lasting impact of abstract losses in societies devastated by war. In short, when he advances a reductive homology between persons and abstractions, Freud underestimates the vexed afterlife of social and political identifications. (200)
(8.) Woolf will explore this discourse more explicitly in Between the Acts, where the village pageant is introduced as an "island history" of an England "Cut off from France and Germany" (76-77).
(9.) Another effect was the rise of the New Party, characterized by its protofascist rhetoric. Though less influential culturally than the shift to Little England nationalism, the rise of protofascism in Britain also seems to have influenced Woolf's portrayal of Percival, which involves a criticism of a dying imperial identity and a warning about the dangers of fascism. See especially Jessica Berman, who argues that Woolf's aesthetic in The Waves is "bound up with the emergence of British fascism in the period of crisis from 1929 to 1931." (140). More recently, Gabrielle McIntire has also argued that "we would do well to detect a subtext critical of fascistic impulses" in The Waves (37). These arguments suggest that the parallel between Percival and Hitler raised, by the Mitscherlichs' theories is relevant even beyond the novel's critique of imperialism and progress-oriented mourning.
(10.) For more on the history of Little Englandism see, in addition to Esty's comprehensive study, Paul Rich and Alex Potts. For an account of the importance of ruralism to the idea of Englishness during this period, see Martin J. Wiener.
(11.)This passage neatly illustrates Esty's claim that the Edwardian periods narrow political conception of Little England becomes more broadly defined and more popular, especially as the possibility of another war grows. Esty notes the rapid growth in domestic travel literature during the 1930s, though he does not mention this description by Morton.
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Briggs, Marlene A. "D. H. Lawrence, Collective Mourning, and Cultural Reconstruction after World War I." Modernism and Mourning. Ed. Patricia Rae. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP 2007. 198-212.
Clewell, Tammy. "Consolation Refused: Virginia Woolf, The Great War, and Modernist Mourning." Modern Fiction Studies 50 (Spring 2004): 197-223.
Eng, David L., and David Kazanjian. "Introduction: Mourning Remains." Loss The Politics of Mourning. Ed. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian. Berkeley: U of California P, 2003. 1-25.
Esty, Jed. A Shrinking Island; Modernism and National Culture in England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004.
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Ramazani, Jahan. "Afterword: 'When There Are So Many We Shall Have to Mourn.'" Modernism and Mourning. Ed. Patricia Rae. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2007. 286-95.
--. Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.
"Remembrance and Hope." Editorial. Times (London) 11 Nov. 1931: 13.
Rich, Paul. "British Imperial Decline and the Forging of English Patriotic Memory, c. 1918-1968." History of European Ideas 9 (1988): 659-80.
Sluzki, Carlos E. Foreword. Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss. By Pauline Boss. New York: Norton, 2006. xiii--xv.
Wiener, Martin J. English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.
Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. New York: Harcourt, 1941.
--. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, 1925.
--. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, 1929.
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--. The Waves. New York: Harcourt, 1931.
--. A Writer's Diary. Ed. Leonard Woolf. New York: Harcourt, 1953.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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