Mrs. Dalloway's animals and the humanist laboratory.
When Clarissa Dalloway ruminates on her love of life throughout a June day in. 1923, she pauses to savor her "secret deposit of exquisite moments" and to acknowledge the debt she owes to those who have given her life its particular luster: one must "repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it" (28-29). For all Clarissa's biocentric exuberance, what informs her generous gratitude toward those other sentient beings, whether human or nonhuman, who support her way of life is an unshakeable belief that it is singularly "blessed and purified" (28). Woolf's oft-cited intention "to criticise the social system" (Diary 248) in Mrs. Dalloway extends to a confounding of the categories of species, as in the above quotation, where servants are separated from dogs and canaries only by a frivolous affirmation.The social hostess clears her conscience over a debt of gratitude, the repayment of which she endlessly defers, to the animal that produces her exalted way of life, regardless of the class, ethnicity, or even species of that
The figure of the human surfaces. in Mrs. Dalloway in. a number of animal guises: the birds that chirp in Greek to the war veteran Septimus; the hatred Clarissa experiences as a hoofed brute within herself; and the resemblance of the German outcast Doris Kilman to a "prehistoric monster" (123), for example. Through these and other unreconstructed images of "man" as the animal of the polis, Woolf unearths the very fantasy by which humanity constructs its exalted status through the violent repression of the animal and animalistic. As a deliberate counter to this, the offices of the Harley Street nerve specialist Sir William Bradshaw provide an experimental laboratory in which the idea of the human is artificially produced through the doctor's division of the populace into different zones of life whose breeding can be regulated and "unsocial impulses" (99) contained.
Ultimately what is at stake, as in much of Woolf's fiction, is the changing shape of human character as its unexpected relations come to light. Set in London following Britain's victory in the first global war, the novel depicts the humanistic paradigm at the center of the empire that drives its self-image. At the same time, Woolf suggests the culture's demise through the very social strategies and sciences--medical, eugenical, and evolutionary--that work to define its place at the top of a great chain of being, itself understood as a geo-political as well as metaphysical hierarchy. The social process that surrounds these sciences--imagined by both Bradshaw and Clarissa as a kind of natural selection--becomes legible in Clarissa's party for London's elite, which, like the ancestral history Richard plans to write of Lady Breton's family, memorializes a ruling class and species whose moment of unchallenged precedence has passed. This paper aims to show how Woolf imagines the laboratory and the party as analogous social spaces that compulsively and neurotically produce such an idealized image of culture. These two spaces of socialization produce this metaphysical ideal not in isolation, however, but rather in concert, as they permeate and work implicitly to reinforce each other. In parallel to this more familiar social mediation, human character changes shape in the novel through the representation of animalistic qualities in humans and through the representation of human attributes such as speech, reason, and feeling in animals. Revealing attributes presumed to be exclusive to the human as proper to the nonhuman animal, Woolf attempts to close the affective distance between human and animal, or, in. the language of Mr. Ramsay's philosophy, "subject and object."
Animals abound in Mrs. Dalloway, whether figuratively as metaphors for human characters or literally as the Dalloways' beloved companions, one of whom can be heard howling during Clarissa's party. But animals provoke special anxiety when they can be seen looking out from human faces. Septimus Warren Smith, an avid reader of Darwin and a Great War veteran who has seen all manner of human atrocities, is confronted by the sight of a Skye terrier suddenly metamorphosing into a man before his eyes--a disconcerting compression of "eons of evolution" (66) that suggestively preserves the animal predecessor alongside its human descendent. As though glimpsing something out of H.G. Wells's surgical theater of horrors in the island of Doctor Moreau, (2) Septimus then witnesses the man turn back into a dog, through which Woolf intimates the Janus-faced nature of his vision, prophetically adumbrating the future landscape of an ever-evolving species and challenging the anthropocentric moorings of subjectivity itself.
For Woolf, as for Septimus, Darwin's evolutionary theory provided the conceptual apparatus for thinking "scientifically" about the natural continuum of life, even as it supplied a vocabulary for asserting and articulating differences within that continuum. In her recent investigation of the animal in British literary modernism Carrie Rohman identifies a "residual humanism" (3) that persists in both evolutionary and psychoanalytic discourses to forestall or compensate for the blows to human exceptionality that the Darwinian and Freudian discoveries delivered. As Rohman points out, both the Darwinian and Freudian imaginings of the human individual feature a struggle to transcend animality, whether that of one's evolutionary heritage or that residing in the unconscious, teeming with brute sexual and aggressive drives (7).
In Freud's essay entitled "One of the Difficulties of Psycho-Analysis" (1917), published by the Hogarth Press the same year as Mrs. Dalloway in the fourth volume of the Collected Papers, (3) Freud characterizes the history of scientific advance as a series of human decenterings, identifying three "blows" or "wounds" to humanity's primary narcissism, what he calls "the self-love of humanity" (4:350): the first is the Copernican or "cosmological" (351) blow that displaced earth from the center of the universe; the second was the Darwinian blow which challenged human precedence over the other animals by exposing their common biological origins, and the third and "most wounding" blow, he argues, was the "psychological," effectively intensifying and extending the second by granting Darwin's ancestral animal a permanent place within the human unconscious.
Woolf complained to a friend of the difficulties of writing Mrs. Dalloway with the floor of her house in Tavistock Square riddled with the pages of Freud's Collected Papers. Glancing down at the staggering piles, she was additionally dismayed to discover "large hoof marks half way through" one of the reams of paper (Letters 3:119). Freud's human beast left its hoof marks in Mrs. Dalloway, and, faced with the Germanophilic Doris Kilman, Clarissa feels something of his rough beast stir within her: "It rasped her, though, to have stirring about in her this brutal monster! to hear twigs cracking and feel hooves planted down in the depths of that leaf-encumbered forest, the soul" (12). "Degradingly poor" (120), trapped within an ugly and "unlovable body" that "no clothes suited" (126), and overmastered by the demands of the flesh, Doris Kilman is the quivering and perspiring image of Freud's traumatized being, that triply wounded animal that calls itself "human."
In her attempt to conquer the frailties of the flesh, Kilman enacts humanity's traditional repudiation of its animal constitution in favor of its supposed affinity with the divine, its aspiration to become, in the words of one of Kilman's fellow worshippers in Westminster Abbey, "a soul cut out of immaterial substance" (131). In her failed or incomplete conversion, unable to cast off the brute body and sever her animal flesh from the immortal soul, Kilman enacts the impossibility of Cartesian divisions: "But she had not triumphed; she had not mastered the flesh" (125).
Like the allergic reaction she provokes in Clarissa, Doris Kilman induces in others a Freudian anxiety of incomplete transformation from animal quadruped to erect andthropos and of thus failing to assume the full human dignity exemplified for Clarissa in Lady Bexborough's "perfectly upright and stoical bearing" (9). The psychoanalytic narrative of human acculturation is founded upon what Freud called "organic repression" (Standard XXI: 99), the subjugation of those very "fleshly desires" (125) with which Kilman is in perpetual struggle, even resenting a child in the cafe of the Army and Navy stores for taking the last pink cake, since "her food was all she lived for" (126).
For Freud, humanity's decisive adoption of an erect posture, a phylogenetic development he sees recapitulated in the individual's psychic maturation, occasions a series of developments through which humanity sublimates its organic, animal aspects, beginning with the devaluation of the olfactory senses and the consequent promotion of the visual. (a cultural trend toward cleanliness deriving from the repugnance toward excretory functions), proceeding to the founding of the family, and concluding with the formation of human civilization (Standard XXI: 99-100). Carrie Rohman suggests that Freudian psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century represents "a logical response to the threats of evolutionary theory," so that if "Darwinism releases the spectre of an imality for British modernists," then "psychoanalysis attempts to capture and tame it" (63).
In this vein, Freud's elaboration of the theory of organic repression passes breathlessly from the "person" who offends other people for lacking hygiene, thus "showing no consideration for them," to the dog, man's "most faithful friend in the animal world," whose name becomes a term of abuse for its reliance on the sense of smell and unabashed relation to its excrement and sexual functions (Standard XXI: 100). Lurching her way through the novel, "with her hat askew, very red in the face" (129), Doris Kilman remains encumbered by a grotesque physical body that in its "largeness, robustness, and power " literally obstructs the passage of the other worshippers in the Abbey, and Mr. Fletcher, prevented from getting by her in the pew, "could not help being a little distressed by the poor lady's disorder; her hair down; her parcel on the floor" (131). In contrast with the "bodiless" light of the Abbey (130), Kilman is all body, and this unyielding physicality might be the aspect of her that most "kills man" in its transcendental conception, her "overmastering desire" to "unmask" the likes of Clarissa (122).
Excluded from the guest list for the Dalloways' party, Kilman is left sniffing about the borders of human fellowship, outside the family fold of civilization much like another lesser cousin, Ellie Henderson, the poor spinster whom Clarissa snubs for "not even caring to hold herself up-right" (164). In this light, we might see Clarissa's "transcendental" (149) theories about life in London as a means of wresting the immortal soul from the jaws of evolutionary science and contending with the animals in our midst, those who fall below the threshold of the fully human or, in her terms, "perfectly upright" (128). Clarissa's love of life in general "life; London; this moment of June" (4)--is conditioned by a desire to protect it against certain forms of life in particular that threaten to dilute its vibrancy, what she calls its "divine vitality" (7). So with her "horror of death" (9) Clarissa invents an animistic conception of London which allows her to claim "odd affinities" with other urban lives.--"the fat lady in the cab," "some man behind a counter" (149)--in whom her soul might survive after death.
Mindful of the gaps in Clarissa's transcendental theory, Peter Walsh recalls the Victorian science that occasioned it: "possibly she said to herself, As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favorite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can (76). Clarissa's vision of a doomed human race and the alternative morality of her "atheist's religion" are appropriately informed by the work of anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley, a friend of Woolf's father Leslie Stephen, who coined the term "agnostic" and whose book Evidence as to Man's Plate in Nature (1863) is an. anxious meditation on the ontological status of the human in light of evolutionary science. The book's frontispiece features a skeletal procession of Man's pithecoid family, with a gibbon, orangutan, chimpanzee, and gorilla stooping behind him. Unearthing evidence of the physiological proximity of humans to the so-called "man-like" apes like the chimpanzee and the gorilla, Huxley asks provocatively, "is Man so different from any of these Apes that he must form an order by himself? Or does he differ less from them than they differ from one another, and hence must take his place in the same order with them?" (85-86).
Consolidating Man and Ape within the same order does not eradicate taxonomical distinctions, so much as shift the frontiers of such categories to cultural distinctions, where, Huxley suggests, "Men differ more widely from one another than they do from the Apes" (95). Philip Armstrong identifies a central paradox of the nineteenth-century life sciences, where studies in comparative physiology and anatomy were "abolishing any absolute biological distinction between humankind and other types of organism," while "the scientific paradigm reinstated an epistemological abyss between humans and all other organisms, by means of its conviction that only humans were capable of transcending the objective world through empirical investigation and abstract reflection" (83-84). Thus with characteristic rhetorical finesse Huxley could maintain "the vastness of the gulf between civilized man and the brutes" since "whether from them or not, he is assuredly not cif them" (130). And in Woolf's novel Mr. Bentley, one of the Londoners strolling in Regent's Park, employs "the Mendelian theory," contemporaneous with Darwinian evolution maintaining the genetic transmission of biological traits, to bolster his fantasy that the skywriting aeroplane affirms man's "determination ... to get outside his body ... by means of thought" (27).
Huxley likewise celebrates a transcendental vision of the human in the chapter "On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals," which he concludes with a paean to "the great Alps and Andes of the living world--Man" (132), demonstrating the metaphorical facility for which Clarissa admired his writing. Here the image of Man, having been dragged back by anatomical science through the primeval mud of his biological origins, emerges in all its prosthetic divinity upon the "roseate peaks" of civilized existence, "raised by inward forces to that place of proud and seemingly inaccessible glory" (131).The majestic splendor of the Alps and their centrality to a tradition of Victorian mountaineering, male camaraderie, and transcendental consciousness was familiar to Woolf through the Alpine "idolatry" practiced by her father, a hiking companion of Huxley and fellow agnostic. (4) Language itself continued to form for Huxley the crucial if fragile distinction between How and Pithecus: "But a race of dumb men, deprived of all communication with those who could speak, would be little indeed removed from brutes. And the moral and intellectual difference between them and ourselves would be practically infinite, though the naturalist should not be able to find a single shadow of even specific structural difference" (qtd. in Wallace 88, Lectures 149).
It seems that Huxley's gift for metaphor was not all Clarissa inherited from the anatomist's finely crafted descriptions of anthropoid and pithecoid physiology. Lady Bruton perceives the social hostess as a dissecting anatomist and ruminates on how she "had never seen the sense of cutting people up, as Clarissa Dalloway did--cutting them up and sticking them together again; not at any rate when one was sixty-two" (101).
Immediately preceding the chapter "On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals: Huxley introduces a woodcut of an African cannibal's butcher shop from a sixteenth-century travel narrative, which, although Huxley intended as satiric, in its suggestion of human savagery was the object of particular alarm and disgust among his contemporary readers. (5)
In spite of the outrage to Victorian decency, the wit of Huxley's indulgent insertion depends upon an entrenched and unshakeable belief in the Englishman's place at the top of a natural chain of being, even as he amasses evidence of human affinity with the great apes. And yet the comic relief that the illustration affords Huxley's readers suggests an entire network of para-evolutionary associations in the Victorian imagination of sacrifice, cannibalism, the atavistic human, and the racial other. Remarking on the same illustration in her comprehensive study of the science of classification from the late eighteenth through nineteenth centuries, Harriet Ritvo observes, "so axiomatic was the opposition between Britishness and barbarism that it could serve as the basis of humor that also reified the increasingly rigid human taxonomies of the late nineteenth century" (212). No sooner is the integrity of the human species disarticulated in the butcher's stall of evolutionary science, then its shadowy imago reasserts itself with greater intensity in the repression of other human subjects, in this case the "cannibalistic" African colonial whose dehumanization sustains Huxley's joke with his English audience.
Much like the dissevered head of the cannibal's victim in Huxley's woodcut that seems to gaze upon its body's dismemberment on the tree stump, Septimus sees the human form not as a composed totality but a loose assemblage of parts. As the character in the novel most in touch with nonhuman life, Septimus appropriates the canine perspective of the Skye terrier that had "snuffed his trousers" (66) earlier in Regent's Park, fixing its sight upon a single leg detached from the rest of the body and the sensual gratification it might offer. Seated on the couch in his Bloomsbury lodgings, he cautiously takes in the figure of his wife in discrete pieces: "He shaded his eyes so that he might see only a little of her face at a time, first the chin, then the nose, then the forehead, in case it were deformed, or had some terrible mark on it" (139).
Septimus's view of the human from the perspective of the animal. constitutes the novel's greatest challenge to scientific accounts of homo sapiens and occasions a rethinking of what it means to be a human in modernity. When he fears Rezia's deformity, what he projects is a diminished humanity, one marked terribly by its ambiguous relation to her species, as if she had been marked out for sacrifice. Central to recent theoretical investigations of the question of the animal has been Derrida's elaboration of the "sacrificial structure" of human identity formation in the Western philosophical tradition ("Eating Well" 112). At the origin of Judeo-Christian moral conscience, he argues, is a prohibition that denies animals since the injunction "Thou shalt not kill" has never extended to the nonhuman animal or to the living in general. As the preeminently typological species, humanity at once arrogates to itself a conceptual understanding of kinds and categories and supplies a justification for violence against animals through a non-criminal putting to death. Derrida contends in "Eating Well" that such ethical proscriptions "remain profound humanisms to the extent that they do not sacrifice sacrifice" (113). Offering up the animal upon the altar of the transcendental human subject, the ritually sanctioned protocols of sacrifice generate a space of residual violence that gets contained. and disavowed. This sacrificial operation not only determines relations among different species, but mediates relations within a single species as well by providing a strategy for separating out and violently repressing signs of animality within the human community, or in Sir William Bradshaw's eugenically inflected parlance, containing "unsocial impulses" and regulating "the lack of good blood" (99). (6)
The discourse of species that persistently underpins Western conceptions of subjectivity and sociality, Cary Wolfe argues, "relies on the tacit agreement that the full transcendence of the 'human' requires the sacrifice of the 'animal' and the animalistic, which in turn makes possible a symbolic economy in which we can engage in what Derrida will call a 'noncriminal putting to death' of other humans as well by marking them as animal" (6).The particular danger of such a model of subjectivity, and its conferral of privileges to a transcendent class or order of being, lies in its tremendous mobility across the natural and social spectra as a "ready-made" symbolic system that can be versatilely deployed "to countenance violence against the social other of whatever species--or gender, or race, or class, or sexual difference" (8).
In the psychiatrist's consulting room in Mrs. Dalloway, "human nature" emerges in all its repressed animality. Sir William Bradshaw's Harley Street office becomes the experimental laboratory in which Clarissa's transcendental theory is mechanically and "scientifically" produced. Possessed of a "natural respect for breeding and clothing, which shabbiness nettled" (95), the good doctor is custodian to the national hygiene. The narrator's derisory epithet for Bradshaw, "the priest of science" (92), echoes the term "the new priesthood" commonly deployed by Victorian antivivisection feminists to denounce experimental physiologists for their cruelty toward animals and other living subjects. (7) Like Wells's Dr. Moreau, Woolf's psychiatrist plays a kind of cultural vivisectionist, who extends his medical expertise to a doctrine of social governance rooted in evolutionary ideas of harmony and balance, or, as he explains, "proportion": "Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion" (97). Bradshaw's worshipful language as scientific "priest" testifies to the mysticism of a categorical ideal more easily asserted than rationally explained or scientifically defended, not least in its utterly negating refusal to accommodate the messy reality of "childbirth." The terms of the properly social existence--sane, human, well-proportioned. eugenically "fit"--appear not as natural and given, but as the elaborate production of the psychiatrist's diagnostic will to power. In the scientific conversions of Bradshaw's consulting roc -1, the very composition of London society is remade and renewed. Analyzing the technology of the laboratory, Bruno Latour maintains that one of its greatest innovations is the succession of displacements and changes of scale it effects. By way of this "metaphorical drift," Latour explains, "no one can say where the laboratory is and where society is" (154).
Huxley's career was defined by his advocacy of the laboratory over the museum as the appropriate site for scientific research (Alt 42-43; White 56-58, 65-66), in addition to his reputation as Darwin's bulldog, the vociferous champion and popularizer of the secular science of evolution over creationism). Such advocacy represented a theoretical shift in scientific study away from the mere cataloguing of dead specimens toward the experimental practices of the new biology, as Paul White has argued, effectively "transporting the pastoral virtues of the field to the enclosed and largely urban space of the institutional laboratory" (56), conducive at once to physiological investigation and to experimentation with live subjects. In Sir William Bradshaw's dismissal of the untrained, amateur diagnosis of the general practitioner Dr. Holmes, Woolf references the hostility of an increasingly specialized culture of professionals operating within the laboratory toward the antiquated practices of the layman in the field. (8)
If elsewhere Woolf's fiction upholds the experimental potential of the lab and its possibility as an emancipatory outlet for women (see Alt 109-114, 123-27), Bradshaw's consulting room fuses the worst aspects of Victorian taxonomy and new biological experimentation, so that Clarissa, having once accompanied a friend to his office, recalls her "relief to get out to the street again!" (178), as if fearful of falling under the figurative scalpel of his "exacting science" (98). The doctor's confidence in his "lightning skill" and "almost infallible accuracy in diagnosis" couples self-importance with the systematized and classificatory habits of the taxonomic tradition of the life sciences for which Woolf repeatedly expressed contempt. (9) It is the dogmatism and precise cataloguing of the taxonomizing mind that prompts Rezia's agonized realization that "Sir William Bradshaw was not a nice man" (96) and Clarissa's intuitive sense that "one wouldn't like Sir William to see one unhappy. No; not that man" (178).
Through the deep suspicion with which the other characters regard Sir William in his Harley Street office, a space that empowers him to reduce people to categorizable types, Woolf suggests the dangers of the scientific laboratory and its humanistic technology. One of the important contributions of the emergent interdisciplinary field of critical animal studies is its uncovering of what Kimberly. Benston identifies as the "metaphysical imperatives" (550) that organize the space of the laboratory and drive its practices, not only articulating and classifying the basic terms of existence but actively producing them in a diagnostic decision that is incontestable because juridically authorized. "In short this living or not living is an affair of our own" (99), Sir William's patients might protest. "But there they were mistaken," he corrects them; as he explains to Septimus's wife: "He had threatened to kill himself. There was no alternative. It was a question of law" (94). Effectively deputized as an agent of the common weal and protector of England's biological stock, the doctor collapses physician and sovereign into a single entity, a fusion that signals what Giorgio Agamben identifies as characteristic of modernity's entwining of the biological sciences and the state (Homo Sewer 154-59). The sinister byproduct of this fusion is the twentieth century's proliferation of extrapolitical spaces in which, like the prison, the concentration camp, or Bradshaw's sanatorium in Surrey, the standard legal and ethical protections are suspended and the political subject appears as nothing more than bare life. (10)
Thus two substitutive practices at the heart of the production of humanity--anthropomorphism and sacrifice--meet in Bradshaw's consulting room. He employs the language and logic of sacrifice (evoking the ideals of "family affection; honour; courage"  that drove young men like Septimus to war), but in terms subtly recalibrated to address the anxieties of the postwar world, where the external threat posed by an international enemy is translated into autoimmunitary terms--the need to protect the "good blood" of the populace from the taint of degenerate breeds. (11) As Benston argues, "while anthropomorphism and sacrifice might seem, in historical terms, polar substitutive practices (human for animal vs. animal for human, respectively), ideologically they converge as technologies for making and enlarging 'humanity' by effacing (writing over, killing) animality, a process in which violence is euphemized and transvalued in celebration of idealized being" (551). In the scientific conversions of the lab, Bradshaw's medical prerogative operates upon a series of sacrificial exchanges: the life of the individual patient for the health of the greater socius, the particular "case" for the general and juridical "law," and, to borrow a distinction Agamben draws from the ancient Greek, zoe (simple biological life) for Nos (politically qualified existence). The psychiatrist's experimental laboratory perpetuates the logic of sacrifice that undergirds transcendental humanism in its Cartesian imagining (partitioning human from animal, mind from body, reason from affect, etc.) through its production of representative samples or surrogates for its human beneficiaries: experimental subjects at once sufficiently similar to serve as substitutes but appreciably different so as not to obligate our full ethical consideration or elicit our compassion.
The moment he proscriptively defines the human, issuing medical decisions about the cases that come before him, Sir William becomes an animal himself: "He swooped; he devoured. He shut people up. It was this combination of decision and humanity that endeared Sir William so greatly to the relations of his victims" (99-100). The great doctor not only demonstrates the extent to which the identity of the human is the product of a decision--one that must be obsessively revisited with every patient he sees--but also suggests the way in which "humanity" produces itself from within the domain of the animal as an act of predatory selection, "swooping" upon and "devouring" the "victims" it forcibly silences and suppresses. Septimus's postwar treatment exposes the brutality that drives such an anthropocentric fantasy, and confirms his suspicion that man is the animal of the polis:
For the truth is (let [Rezia] ignore it) that human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment. They hunt in packs. Their packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness. They desert scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness. They desert the fallen. They are plastered over with grimaces. (87)
Reminiscent of the dream that haunts Freud's Wolf Man--a pack of white wolves sitting in a tree stare at him with devouring eyes--Septimus's zoo-anthropological vision reverses the phylogenetic narrative of the evolution of human society from the instinctual animal pack. (12)
Another of Sir William's "victims," Lady Bradshaw now sits inert in her husband's motorcar ensconced in "grey furs" (92) or appears "in ostrich feathers" (99) frozen in a picture that hangs in Sir William's consulting room like a collected specimen, and ultimately reminds Clarissa at the party of a zoo animal in captivity, "balancing like a sea-lion at the edge of its tank" (178), another specimen for her husband's scientific bestiary. Lady Bradshaw at once serves as mascot for Sit William's "exacting science" (96), in its attempt to purge the neurotic animal from our midst, and, as she occupies progressively more enclosed spaces--she "cramped, squeezed, pared, pruned, drew back, peeped through" (98)--enacts the plight of the animal In modernity.
The "verdict of human nature" (89) expels Septimus from the polls, but the "great distinction" with which his superior officers recognize he served in the war reopens the great divide between him and the animals, effectively placing him outside the zoo (94). Thus what we see in Septimus's exceptionality is not simply hisotherness in the conventional terms of humanist metaphysics--insanity or the lack of proportion, being mentally "unfit" or the insensible beast that "could not feel"--but instead humanity's own repressed animality, what is in the human more than the human.
Septimus's ambiguous status as a cultural, psychological, and even ontological type in Mrs. Dalloway destabilizes the human as a natural category, which in turn calls into question his status as a speaking subject. In other words, the capacity of language to confer subjectivity on the human is troubled by what happens to language around him. While language remained for Huxley, as it was for Descartes, a distinguishing sign of human rationality, Woolf undermines such a connection in the novel from within the symbolic operations of metaphor. Many of the characters in the novel resemble birds and take on birdlike movements, as several critics have noted, (13) but only Septimus hears them sing in ancient Greek, evoking the linguistic order associated with the origins of Western rationalism--as the Greek word logos, signifying both speech and reason, signals. What Septimus hears in the birds singing in Greek--a foreign tongue he cannot understand since he read "Aeschylus (translated)" (86)--is an opacity within language itself. In her essay "On Not Knowing Greek" (1925), Woolf famously calls Greek "the perfect language" largely because we cannot know what it means, "we do not know how the words sounded" and are "for ever making up some notion of the meaning of Greek ... with what slight resemblance to the real meaning of Greek, who shall say?" (Common Reader 23).
The birds chirping in Greek speak to an inhuman or nonhuman element within language itself that activates our instincts more than our rational or analytic faculties. Part of Woolf's fascination with the dead language she had studied for nearly two decades derives from its primal energy--the raw emotional intensity she hears in Cassandra's "naked cry" (Common Reader 26), and the brutal physicality of words that have "the power to cut and wound and excite" (31). Septimus's auditory hallucination, then, is at once madly literal and symbolic:
He waited. He listened. A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death. (24)
Speaking a dead language quickened to life, the sparrows chirp in proper names and, like a Keatsian nightingale, in timeless truths rather than figures or metaphors. And yet the lyrical beauty of their song is capable of sending the mind on fantastical flights, transporting Septimus to an unearthly or otherworldly paradise where "there is no crime," "there is no death," In this light, the radical implication for language of this Greek birdsong is not just that speech may no longer be exclusively human, but that speaking may in fact signal that one is no longer human. In her discussion of Woolf's Greek notebooks and translation of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, Yopi Prins argues that what is opaque, unpronounceable, untranslatable in the Greek "could be idealized as something beyond language, but is better understood as something materialized by and in language," sounding within speech what "is lacking in sense" and "can't be grasped as meaning" (181). (14)
Septimus's vision might be seen as an anthropomorphic fantasy or fable that merely gives back to animals the speech that the natural sciences had refused them. And yet the more Septimus invests the ostensibly non-verbal space of the animal with the eloquence of human language--transforming the sonorous "chirp" into the human articulacy of "words"--the more his human voice assumes the inarticulacy of the zoon alogon, animal without speech. As he strains to decipher the meaning of the birds' song, his own voice is reduced to senseless jibber and rendered literally barbarous: "What are you saying?" (24), his wife Rezia asks uncomprehendingly. Septimus, "staring, talking aloud," is no more comprehensible to Rezia than the Regent's Park Zoo animals, whose "barking, howling" the couple can hear over the palings of their caws. (15) Moreover, Septimus's traumatized consciousness turns animals into spectral humans. As Suzette Henke points out, he mistakes the "white" shapes he sees "assembling behind the railings" for the ghost of his dead friend Evans and the apparitions of other fallen war heroes, a "hallucinatory misprision of animals in the London zoo" (150).
But the question persists, whether reinvesting animals with linguistic ability suffices to acknowledge their legitimacy of being. In an extended meditation on the place of the animal in the Western philosophical tradition, The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida suggests that in order to think beyond the anthropocentric tendency that has consistently presumed human superiority to other species, "it is not just a matter of asking whether one has the right to refuse the animal such and such a power ... It also means asking whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal, and whether he can ever possess the purr, rigorous, indivisible concept, as such, of that attribution" (135). Derrida continues, "instead of simply giving speech back to the animal, or giving to the animal what the human deprives it or such as we might find in the anthropomorphism of animal fables, a new strategy would consist "in marking that the human is, in a way, similarly 'deprived' (160). The sparrows' mastery of an ancient language that Septimus can only access in translation blurs the increasingly fine taxonomical distinctions of evolutionary science, which while eroding the physiological bases for distinguishing between human and animal orders effectively shifted the frontier of difference from anatomy to epistemology. Denying animals the capacity for language and speech, as Brian Cummings points out, "is an attempt to shore up human. rationality against the possibility of something worse than incomprehension or nonsense: to be condemned to solipsism, self-referentiality, talking to oneself, alone" (180), which is precisely how Septimus seated on the bench in Regent's Park appears to other passersby.
Septimus's sensitivity to an avian language and sentience, however fantastical or delusionary, enlarges not only the field of language and response but of subjectivity and its claims upon human responsibility toward those creatures who might speak in a language not our own, and feel in ways that surpass our understanding. When the sparrows summon him by name, calling "Septimus, Septimus" (24), he may not understand all they have to say, but he hears the full ethical force of their appeal. His repeated insistence that "the trees were alive" (22) and that "Men must not cut down trees" (24) extends the concepts of subjectivity and consciousness to other forms of life beyond the human at the same time that it recognizes new ethical obligations toward them. (16)
When he perceives wolfish eyes gazing out from behind plastered human grimaces, hears the birds singing Greek, or witnesses a dog meta-morphose into a man, we might see Septimus as a character who anthro-pomorphically gives the nonhuman world the contours of the human. And yet another possibility suggests itself. As a man. who communes with the deceased and has himself been "lately taken from life to death" (25), Septimus haunts living London as a strange species of undead, as a being deprived of everything that ought to make him human: he cannot feel, cannot speak comprehensibly, and cannot even choose between living and dying. 17 Possessed of an impossible knowledge of both the life and afterlife of the human, Septimus enacts a crisis of witnessing akin to what Sara Guyer identifies in the testimony of Holocaust survivors. One of the enduring lessons of the camps is the indestructibility of the species despite every attempt by the SS to deprive the prisoners of the name "human." What Guyer calls "the anthropomorphism of the human" (140) emerges when the name of the human comes to signify "an infinite capacity to be destroyed." This counterintuitive operation reveals the human in all its nakedness, not as the aggregate of innumerable capacities denied the animals, but as what Guyer calls, in language reminiscent of Agamben, "a being whose life can be reduced merely to living" (68).
Within Woolf's body of writing, even the act of taking one's own life is not strictly speaking a guarantor of one's humanity. In Flush (1933), the fictional biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel, Flush returns to London from Italy, following Septimus's trajectory from the Italian front after the war, and learns "that Mrs Carlyle's dog Nero had leapt from a top storey window with the intention of committing suicide," having found the strain of living under Thomas Carlyle's roof "intolerable" (92). (18) As Woolf's mock editorial note amplifies, Nero "sprang from the library window, and, clearing the area spikes, fell 'plash' onto the pavement" (114) to survive with no broken bones, an unsuccessful version of Septimus's suicidal plunge from the window of his Bloomsbury lodgings onto Mrs. Filmer's "area railings" (146). (19)
In contemplating the "rather melodramatic business" (145) of hurling his body from the window, Septimus self-consciously plays out a humanistic script of ritual sacrifice: "It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia's (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing" (146). Selfless considerations enter into Septimus's practical choice of method, leading him, for example, to spare "Mrs. Filmer's nice clean bread knife with 'Bread' carved on the handle" (145).The same selflessness results ultimately in a fuller contemplation of anthropocentrism from a vantage that is decidedly outside the human, as he reflects, "He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings--what did they want?" (146). The gift that Septimus refers to in the ambiguous antecedent when he cries, "I'll give it you!" is of course his life, but by implication "it" is also the entire sacrificial system that he will satisfy with his death and that he reluctantly thereby acknowledges. Septimus draws attention in his reluctance to society's unwillingness to give up sacrifice. Here again we see the difficulty of escaping a humanism that founds subjectivity upon the exclusion of nonhuman forms of life and proves unable, in Derrida's phrase, to "sacrifice sacrifice."
Septimus's suicide literalizes a cultural practice of sacrifice and symbolic substitution that Sir William's priestly science seeks to mystify. And yet the function of his self-sacrifice in the novel is not to redeem a humanistic ideal through the violent repression of its brute animal double, but to restore to the human all that is imagined to be its opposite, and thus forestall Bradshaw's production of "intolerable" (180) lives. Septimus's unexpected appearance at Clarissa's party manages to restore to her celebration of life, in all its "transcendental" exuberance, the basic fact of humanity's animal being. In the little room where she retreats to contemplate Septimus's suicide, the pulse that ebbs from his dying body erupts into Clarissa's consciousness with "a thud, thud, thud" (179) to remind her "a thing there was that mattered; a thing wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life" (180). It is significantly the body in its vital animacy--the very flesh that Doris Kilman had repudiated--which serves as the means of Clarissa's reawakened ethical sensibility. Ralph Acampora makes a compelling case for bodily ethics, extending the sphere of moral regard across the species barrier by recognizing a "'humanimal' conviviality" (41) which, he argues, replaces rationality with compassion as the basis for moral consideration and looks beyond "the imaginative means of empathy usually appealed to" in moral discourse in order to realize a "cross-species compassion" mediated by shared corporal experiences (23).
Much of the power of this moment of spiritual and bodily convergence during Clarissa's party has been prepared for by the novel's physiological metaphors for filiation within and between species, a figural pattern through which Woolf animates connections that remain logically or narratologically tenuous. As Craig Gordon points out, the connection between the characters of Clarissa and Septimus, who never actually meet in the course of the narrative, is produced in large part through a "shared mode of nervous embodiment" (129), a corporeal language that, as if taking Septimus's cue that "one must be scientific above all things" (66), Gordon traces to the early twentieth-century bioscientific discourses of neurophysiology and psychiatry. Such nervous or somatic threads not only forge links among human characters, but between the human and nonhuman worlds: Richard senses a "spider's thread of attachment between himself and Clarissa" (112); Lady Bruton imagines "one's friends were attached to one's body ... by a thin thread" (109-110); Doris Kilman feels the pain of her young pupil Elizabeth taking leave of her, "drawing out ... the very entrails of her body, and stretching them as she crossed the room" (129); and Septimus feels a common vitality connecting his body with the elm trees so that "the leaves being connected by millions of fibers with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement" (22). In this light, the "matter" of life throbbing from Septimus's body to Clarissa's in her vicarious experience of his suicide strips human existence of its cultural protections to reveal our mortal being in all its anguished vulnerability, so that we might, like Clarissa suddenly seeing the old lady next door, turn toward those neighbors we have too long neglected--even those who are not, or are no longer, human.
When Septimus looks out the window from which he leaps to his death and when Clarissa looks out the window of the little room in the midst of her party, both see a figure "opposite" (146, 181) looking back at them. Pointing to this symmetry, Hilary Thompson astutely observes that in framing these "opposite figures," the window provides a glimpse of something "impinging from another side" that "remains other but affords us a vision of ourselves beheld from beyond" (96). Two such perspectives occur to Clarissa in the little room. Septimus reminds her of the unbridgeable alterity of death, while Elizabeth's howling dog in another room of the Dalloways' house recalls her to the mortality and suffering we share with other animals. Humanity's traumatized awareness of the extent to which its being is permeated by the animal haunts all registers of social existence in the novel: from the war veteran mumbling to himself outside the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park, to the society hostess who dreams of selecting out of the greater London population a perfectly upright species of guest, to the nerve specialist who mediates between the two through the humanistic calibrations of his psychiatric laboratory.
It is as if Clarissa were aware of the fate Woolf initially had in mind for her--"that Mrs. Dalloway was originally to kill herself, or perhaps merely to die at the end of the party" (Introduction vi). She emerges from the enclosure of the little room into an enlarged conception of human being and an understanding of everything that Septimus refuses to live with about human nature. When Clarissa opts to carry on living upon the extreme and violent terms of Septimus's death, she bears witness to the difficulty of remaining human in the company of the inhuman others who crowd in upon the party, that "offering" to what she inclusively calls "simply life" (11 8). Unable to endure the confinement of her little room any longer, Clarissa crosses the threshold sensing the need to return to her guests and the wealth of other living creatures that she to the last had attempted to exclude.
I would like to thank my colleague Stella Deen for-insightful comments on. an earlier draft, the audience at the 20th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf at Georgetown College, Kentucky, for helpful questions and suggestions on a portion of the article presented there, and my undergraduate research assistant Jenna Bragas for her diligent efforts.
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(1.) I take my cue here from Holly Henry's pioneering analysis of the discourse of science in Woolf's writing, especially that of astronomy, which, Henry contends, introduces an aesthetic mode for exploring alien perspectives and developing what she calls "a modernist human decentering and rescaling" (3).
(2.) In H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, Prendick encounters the troubling undecidability of one of Moreau's experimental creatures who, suspended in a liminal zone between animal and human, appears "the size of a man" but is "covered with a dull grey hair almost like a Skye terrier" (80). Of course, Woolf also had a pet Skye terrier named Shag in childhood.
(3.) See J. Howard Woolmer (26). The essay reappears in the Standard Edition XV11:137-44, translated by James Strachey under the tide "A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis," although I quote here from the earlier Joan Riviere translation available to Woolf.
(4.) See Leslie Stephen, The Playground of Europe (1895), p. 281.
(5.) The illustration so offended the delicate sensibility of the naturalist Hugh Falconer, that "he would let no young Lady look at it," as Joseph Hooker complained in a letter to Charles Darwin (26 February 1863; qtd. in White 63).
(6.) Bradshaw's professional oath is ultimately to the life of the socius not that of the individual patient, which, he takes pains to point out to Septimus, is not "an affair of I one's] own" (99) but "a question of law" that answers to "the police and the good of society" (94).
(7.) For an account of the nineteenth-century debates surrounding the practices of experimental physiologists in the laboratory and of feminist opposition to the male-dominated culture of Victorian laboratory-based science, see Rose. The term "the new priesthood" was coined in 1893 by the novelist Marie Louise de la Ramee, who used the pseudonym "Ouida," in The New Review, volume 8.
(8.) Christina Alt's recent study of Woolf's fascination with the contemporary developments of the life sciences has persuasively demonstrated her keen awareness of the scientific debates that took shape at the turn of the century, the scope of which extended beyond Woolf is well-documented familiarity with evolutionary science to include the emergent disciplines of biology, ethology, and early ecology
(9.) Just as the life sciences in the early twentieth century tended to define their methods and practices against the taxonomic tradition of natural history, Alt argues, "Woolf's childhood encounter with natural history led her early in life to form a critical view of the taxonomic tradition and its component practices of collection and classification. Thereafter, she repeatedly employed the collecting habit and the classificatory mentality as analogies through which to comment on social and literary conventions that she regarded as similarly restrictive and reductive" (72).
(10.) Hilary Thompson provides an illuminating reading of Septimus's messianic martyrdom in terms of Agamben's elaboration of sovereignty and the state of exception (90-94). Septimus and Bradshaw accordingly expose the limits of the legal order as Septimus embodies an exceptional figure privy to universal truths that suggest his extra-legal status and Bradshaw assumes the role of the sovereign whose prerogative is to declare the states of exception in which the law might be suspended.
(11.) Donald Childs (38-57) has persuasively shown how the eugenical values that motivate Bradshaw's policing of bad blood carry over into Lady Bruton's emigration scheme, the character of the Christian Doris Kilman (modeled upon Jean Thomas, the proprietor of the Sussex sanatorium where Woolf received treatment), Clarissa's ruminations on her daughter's Mongolian features, and even the narrator's description of Septimus's loose-lipped profile. Such moments in the novel do not go wholly unchallenged, however, and I am less inclined to view them as evidence of "Woollts personal eugenical anxiety" (51).
(12.) Freud's case history of the Wolf Man, entitled "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis" (1918), appeared in the third volume of the Collected Papers, also published by the Hogarth Press in 1925, the same year as Mrs. Dalloway. See pp. 498-519 for Freud's account of the Wolf Man's dream (Standard Edition XVII: 29-47).The genealogical significance of the tree is not lost upon Freud, who reads the wolves as surrogates for the patient's father and mother and Latin tutor, appropriately named Wolf.
(13.) See Sheehan (132-34) and Gordon (142-43). In what is arguably Woolf's first feminist polemic, her early essay on the Plumage Bill recognizes the significance of birds to the ethical debate over animal welfare and the extent of human obligations toward the nonhuman world. Though not an essay about birds and wildlife advocacy per se, "The Plumage Bill" (1920) suggests the coimplication of cultural attitudes toward animals and women as ontologically other. For a fuller discussion of Woolf's essay and her ambivalent relation to the animal protectionist cause, see Abbott and Mt (132-35).
(14.) In Woolf's Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with her cocker spaniel Flush at her feet, looks up from her writing to think about a form of sensibility that lies beyond human language and its imperfect communications: "'Writing', Miss Barrett once exclaimed after a morning's toil, writing, writing After all, she may have thought, do words say everything? Can words say anything? Do not words destroy the symbol that lies beyond the reach of words?" (27).
(15.) For a fuller treatment of zoo animals, both real and metaphoric, in Woolf's writing, see Espley. If her depictions of zoological encounters in works like Night and Day have not quite managed to have "wholly divorced the animal from animality" Espley argues, Woolf's awareness of the "fallacy of animality" prevents her from imposing its proscriptive discourse back onto the real animals she so frequently visited at the London Zoological Gardens (90-91).
(16.) The arboreal images that recur to Septimus throughout the novel are reminiscent of Darwin's repeated deployment of tree imagery for humans' and animals' common origins (see Beer 15-16 and Sheehan 133). Septimus's metaphoric borrowing from Darwin, whose work formed part of his prewar reading, signals a refusal to suppress the insights of evolutionary science and man's place alongside his animal cousins.
(17.) Examining the "fictional evolution" of Septimus's character from an earlier draft version of the novel's first section, "The Prime Minister," to the completed novel, Suzette Henke notes that Woolf introduced several important changes: deleting references to Septimus's intention to assassinate the Prime Minister, removing his cannibalistic wish to offer his body eucharistically to the city's hungry, and extending the expression of his hallucinations in such a way as to render them more sympathetic. Such emendations, Henke argues, have the effect of making his character more "humanized" and "more successfully integrated into the larger panoply of postwar society" (151).
(18.) Woolf's fictional biographer pretends to equivocate on the question of canine suicide: "Whether he wished to kill himself, or whether, as Mrs Carlyle insinuates, he was merely jumping after birds, might be the occasion for an extremely interesting treatise on canine psychology. ... For the present, Nero's motives must remain obscure" (114).
(19.) I am grateful to Jane Goldman for drawing my attention to this canine connection.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
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