Reelin’ in the Years - Reconsidering Virginia Woolf’s time-warped novel Orlando
We meet Orlando as a boy of sixteen years, introduced during the waning days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The bored son of nobility, Orlando is favored as the queen’s pet, fêted with privilege and riches, before he falls in love with a beautiful Russian princess during the great frost of 1608. After watching her boat sail away the morning the Thames thaws, Orlando loses nearly a century idly reading and writing in his ancestral estate before being sent to Istanbul as an ambassador; there, without explanation or histrionics, Orlando falls asleep for one week and wakes up a woman. Ultimately she returns to England in time to hold court with Alexander Pope and eventually marry, witnessing along the way the birth of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the end of Orlando: A Biography, Virginia Woolf’s account of over three centuries in the life of an apparent immortal, Orlando is in her midthirties, and the novel ends on the day of its initial publication: October 11, 1928.
Despite being subtitled “A Biography,” Orlando is very much a novel, and as with much of Woolf’s earlier work—Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927)—it is concerned with the disparity between the objective passage of time and subjective lived experience. “An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length,” the chatty narrator notes, “on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.”
Of course, by 1928 there already had been plenty of “fuller investigation” into this discrepancy. In 1889, philosopher Henri Bergson had proposed the concept of durée: an experience of time that was subjective rather than chronological. “I saw, to my great astonishment,” Bergson later wrote to William James, “that scientific time does not endure…that positive science consists essentially in the elimination of duration.”
In the wake of the Great War, theologian Paul Tillich invoked the Greek term kairos to diagnose the peculiar mood of the day. In Greek rhetoric, kairos can signify discerning and seizing the perfect moment for a rebuttal to an opponent’s argument. The word was in turn used by St. Paul throughout his epistles, referring to the precise moment when the Lord would return—time redeemed, time fulfilled, the past recaptured. Kairos, Tillich explained, expressed “the feeling of many people in central Europe after the First World War that a moment of history had appeared which was pregnant with a new understanding of the meaning of history and life…Its original meaning—the right time, the time in which something can be done—must be contrasted with chronos, measured time or clock time. The former is qualitative, the latter quantitative.”
This need for a method to oppose chronological time—quantitative, measured, and objective—was overwhelming: philosophers and writers drew on science and religion in search of ways to describe the time between moments, and the great writers of modernism took these ideas and embedded them in literary masterpieces, teasing out articulations of time based not on objective measurements but on subjective experience. A rough beast slouched forth from the horrors of the Somme; soldiers limping home were trapped in the terror of their own recent memories, as though time had stopped forever. Philosophers and industrialists gazed so far into the future that the present evaporated before them. It was clear to anyone paying attention that a single, monolithic definition of time would not provide an acceptable clock.
The tension between these two times was a singular preoccupation, if not the preoccupation,of modernist literature. Invariably, it was the time on the clock that was seen as the oppressor: chronological time was seen as artificial, contorting experience into an arbitrary, quantifiable landscape. Already in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf had written of the authoritarian power of the clock:
Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counseled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information gratis, that it was half-past one.Mrs. Dalloway is a novel that, like Ulysses, takes place over a single day, the ordinary diurnal rhythm played against the seemingly infinite unspooling of memory. Its structure poses memory as a counterbalance to the sense of time as purely a matter of minutes and seconds, substituting kairos for the regular passage of hours. What matters is the pregnant pause, the story that elapses between the tick and the tock. The exemplars of modernist literature had all adhered to this clock, most famously Marcel Proust’s three-thousand page In Search of Lost Time, a book contained within two bites of a madeleine.
But what if that pregnant pause were not a lifetime of memories, but rather an entire span of centuries? With Orlando, time of the mind becomes historical; Orlando’s vampiric longevity is a challenge to readers to think of the self as constructed over hundreds of years. Woolf doesn’t wish to explore the tension between chronos and kairos; she would rather annihilate it. “Yet I am now & then haunted by some semi mystic very profound life of a woman, which shall all be told on one occasion,” she wrote in her diary in the fall of 1926, “& time shall be utterly obliterated; future shall somehow blossom out of the past. One incident—say the fall of a flower—might contain it. My theory being that the actual event practically does not exist—nor time either.”
Orlando was the product, first and foremost, of Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Sackville-West was a novelist who moved in the same circles as Woolf; perhaps more intriguingly, she was nobility, the daughter of the third Baron Sackville, and she carried with her an aristocratic flair that captivated Woolf. Shortly after their first meeting, Woolf wrote in her diary, “Snob as I am, I trace her passions 500 years back, & they become romantic to me, like old yellow wine.” Their friendship flowered and by the end of 1925 had become sexual, tolerated by both of their husbands. (Sackville-West’s husband, Harold Nicolson, himself had homosexual affairs.) Then, in the fall of 1927, Woolf realized that Sackville-West could embody the “semi mystic very profound life of a woman” that had been haunting her; and on October 5 the idea for the new book crystallized in her, “a biography beginning in the year 1500 & continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to another.”
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