Virginia Woolf Writing the World: Selected Papers from the Twenty-fourth Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf.
In their introduction to Virginia Woolf Writing the World: Selected Papers from the Twenty-fourth Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, editors Pamela L. Caughie and Diana L. Swanson present a map of the globe denoting the countries from which conference participants traveled. All in all, 18 countries were represented, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Qatar, South Korea, Sweden, and Taiwan. "The conference theme, Writing the World, was motivated by our desire to see what kinds of answers people... would have to the question of whether and how Woolf still matters in the world," Caughie and Swanson explain (xii). Presentations by the scholars, students, teachers, artists, creative writers, and common readers who responded demonstrate that Woolf is, unequivocally, very much a part of our global twenty-first-century world. Co-sponsored by Loyola University Chicago and Northern Illinois University, the conference and its attendant special events "allowed us to move through the city, across the campus, and into the community," the editors write, "as well as to virtually travel the world through the conference presentations" (ix).
The editors have divided the papers into four sections: War and Peace, World Writer(s), Animal and Natural Worlds, and Writing and Worldmaking. Fascinating in their own right, papers in each section also establish important dialogues with each other, as we see the unique topics driving each presenter's work along with how myriad ideas complement or worry one another. The War and Peace section opens with one of the conference's three keynote events, a roundtable discussion on Woolf and Violence chaired by Mark Hussey and with remarks by Sarah Cole, J. Ashley Foster, Christine Froula, and Jean Mills stemming from several suggested prompts, such as, "What are the sources of violence and war?" and "Does Woolf's 'thinking is my fighting' (D5 285) really make a difference now?" (4). Cole finds "that violence in Woolf's writing impedes change; it disrupts and derails the narrative of life, movement, thought" (5). Foster notes Woolf's understanding that "fighting...is a 'habit,' something cultivated and taught, and therefore can be either socially encouraged or sublimated." She also points to Three Guineas's revelation that "while the capacity for violence may always already be embedded within us, the use of force is not inevitable. There is a choice" (8).
Froula discusses the German zeppelin bombings of civilians in England during the First World War and Woolf's comments upon them in her diaries and letters, indicating Woolf's consideration of aerial warfare long before writing of the "ruined houses and dead bodies" of the Spanish Civil War. Mills takes up the question of whether Woolf's "thinking is my fighting" is "something we can usefully claim for ourselves today" (15). Her answer is a resounding "yes." Like Foster, she finds Woolf articulating alternatives to war when those in power would have us believe in warfare as the only suitable response to injustice or military aggression. "Violence is not everywhere," Mills writes. "And war is not inevitable" (16). It is imperative, Mills argues, that we share histories of nonviolence with our students--for instance that "Nonviolent actions have achieved historic gains for African Americans, for women, for farmworkers" (16).
In the same section, Judith Allen explores modes of control and surveillance in both Woolf's time and our own. "Woolf's writings," Allen states, "express and enact a different mode of surveillance, as her narrators prompt readers to 'see,' to observe, to expose, but also to be aware that much is hidden or re-named in an Orwellian sense. As citizens, as readers, we are urged to doubt, to think critically, to question everything" (26). Erica Delsandro's paper on modernism and memorials finds important affiliations between Woolf and Christopher Isherwood, writers often placed in opposition to one another given the discrepancies in their lived experiences of war. Delsandro brings together Jacob's Room, To the Lighthouse, and Isherwood's 1932 novel, The Memorial, to highlight each work's critique of "national memorialization through the use of absence and distance" (32). Christine Haskill discovers a strong Victorian strain in Three Guineas as she locates "the affinities rather than the radical ruptures between New Woman writers and Woolf" (43).
Additional papers in this section continue to highlight Woolf's understanding of war's incursion into virtually every facet of human life and the natural world. Ann Martin studies the car industry's involvement with warfare and munitions, while Eleanor McNees explores the 1914 "expurgated chunk" of The Years, particularly its array of civilian responses to war, excised from the published novel. The War and Peace section concludes with Maud Ellmann's keynote on Woolf and Sylvia Townsend Warner in which she considers "war and how it reverberates in Woolf's and Warner's fiction" along with "news and how it travels across the airwaves" (76). Ellmann also "examines how Woolf and Warner remind us of the atmosphere of war--an atmosphere in which the thunder and lightning of the bombing raids can scarcely be distinguished from the weather" (77).
In devoting significant attention to this first and longest section of the book, I hope to demonstrate the wide-ranging yet interconnected nature of the papers, evoked by the editors' careful selection and arrangement. The same holds true for papers in the subsequent sections of the book. In the World Writer(s) section, David J. Fine parses that much-bandied term "global citizenship" to render it more meaningful to his students than slogans and sound bites allow. Fine analyzes how Three Guineas in particular "productively complicates students' engagement with communities both local and global" (93). He assigns Three Guineas to foster in his students "a more rigorous interrogation of their privileges" (93) and to "reorient their vision toward their implication in political systems that systematically and historically privilege certain groups of insiders" (96). Teaching women students in the Middle East, Erin Amann Holliday-Karre finds Three Guineas valuable for "explor[ing] the limits of Western feminist ideology in the Middle East." Reading Three Guineas, her "students are introduced to the kind of argumentation that allows them to challenge an all-too-common tenet of liberal humanist feminism that insists upon the oppression of women in the Middle East" (99).
The Animal and Natural Worlds section reminds us of Woolf's deep engagement with nonhuman life. Elizabeth Hanna Hanson, for example, traces the hundreds of references to donkeys throughout Woolf's oeuvre and finds that "Woolf associates their work with the work of the writer--but generally the less significant, more difficult work, the work less facilitated by ease and inspiration" (136). Vicki Tromanhauser explores "dogmanity" in Three Guineas, arguing that the "sisters and daughters of educated men have been cultivated" like pets "to support their male companions" (141). Tromanhauser discerns how Woolf "endows her narrator with canine aptitudes in order better to navigate the fraught terrain of contemporary social life and sniff out its repressive structures" (142). In his paper on The Waves, Michael Tratner explains localization theory, a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century concept that "broke down the distinction between mind and body" (154) and "suggested physical analogues for functions that were previously considered the expression of nonphysical, mental, or vital powers" (Smith qtd. in Tratner 154). Reading The Waves "as presenting a localized view of consciousness," Tratner writes, "the six characters may then be not six separate individuals but six substructures within one body" (155).
Papers in the final section, Writing and Worldmaking, consider "how Woolf's writing directs our attention to writing itself' (Caughie and Swanson xvi). For instance, Amy Kahrmann Huseby considers Woolf and genre, noting "that Woolf's prose transformed into something different, something which no longer was purely the 'novel'" (191). Woolf infused Between the Acts, Huseby writes, with "Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, and so I chose euphonic prose as the name for Woolf's project": words that "are simultaneously poetry and prose" (192). Kelle Sills Mullineaux engages composition theory to discuss Woolf and matters of audience. Citing Peter Elbow's controversial injunction to writers to, "at least in the beginning stages of drafting, ignore their audience" (197), Mullineaux delves into Woolf's myriad writings on audience as an alternately energizing and inhibiting force. Most famously, Woolf described "how her own imaginary audience member, 'The Angel in the House,' haunted her early writing" and had to be killed (197). "Because Woolf explored such a wide variety of audience insecurities," Mullineaux states, "her theories on the subject are comparable to those of modern composition scholars" (198).
The volume closes with a paper by Madelyn Detloff, who seeks to "reassert the value of the imaginative, the well-wrought, the beautiful, to the common weal--the public good" (204) using Woolf as her touchstone. Detloff quotes one of New York Times columnist David Brooks's many hand-wringing editorials about academia's abandonment of the humanities in favor of political correctness. "But," Detloff asks, "who says the two concerns (truth and beauty/social justice) are mutually exclusive? One could ask Brooks: For whom are questions of race, class, gender merely external matters?" (204). Detloff explores Woolf's attention to similar matters along with how academia, material conditions, and those daughters of educated men can perpetuate systemic injustice and "compromise intellectual freedom" (206). Virginia Woolf, Detloff asserts, in her "aesthetically complex and intellectually challenging" writings (207), in her deep and sustained social critiques, and in her continually reminding readers of the "perilous consequences of lockstep thinking" (208), remains vital for cultivating the "habits of mind" that can lead to meaningful social change. Virginia Woolf Writing the World presents an important body of work on the power of literature--Woolf's works in particular--to delight, trouble, inspire, and instruct, and, as Detloff phrases it, to "enter into that experience of openness and transformation" (209).
--Kristin Czarnecki, Georgetown College
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|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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