Virginia Woolf: Art and Sexuality

Since the publication in 1941 of her last novel, Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf s reputation has undergone radical transformation. At first characterized as “experimental” and treated from an esthetic vantage point, her novels received serious, if somewhat limited, examinations as literary productions, while a view prevailed of her as a rather precious Bohemian associated with slightly disreputable characters from Bloomsbury. But even as late as the sixties, when Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse—and by some, The Waves— were considered major works, she herself was not regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature, and as recently as 1975 the Norton Anthology did not consider her a “major author.” Still, with the gradual appearance in the sixties of Leonard Woolf s five-volume autobiography and the emergence of women’s and gay liberation movements, Woolf s reputation began to grow, rapidly accelerating after the publication in 1972 of Quentin Bell’s biography and the many reminiscences and biographical essays which began to flood the market shortly thereafter.

As an intrinsically interesting personality, as a figure of sociological interest, as a writer who seemed to have some measure of importance in literary history, and as an embodiment of a number of unconventionalities currently becoming conventionalized, Woolf has become virtually a cult celebrity. But if she is now regarded as a Major Literary Figure, it is more the case of a Major Figure who also happens to be Literary than a Literary Figure who happens to be Major. Indeed, her current status may turn out to have been achieved at a high price once her fortuitous enmeshment with present obsessions has had its day. For she now occupies the position with the ruling intelligentsia that Herman Hesse occupied during the late sixties with the student revolution. And so we see again a principally polemical use being made of a literary figure, this time with grossly disproportionate emphasis being placed on her life and its adaptability to current political-psychological programs. Nor is close scrutiny required to realize that most of the attention these days falls upon peripheral works by and about her: A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas, The Years, A Writer’s Diary, Bell’s biography, Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage, Woolf s letters and now her journals, as well as Moments of Being, an admittedly striking collection of previously unpublished autobiographical essays by Woolf herself. Far from being seen these days as an eccentric from Bloomsbury, a highbrow grafted away from her ancestral upper-middle-class roots, she is widely regarded as a patrician intellectual, a strong-minded and determined professional, and a somewhat sexually ambiguous feminist. Even her bouts with madness have served as a wound that can be shared with today’s educated and psychologically sensitized middle class.

Among the extraordinary quantity of writings about Bloomsbury that have recently pressed her into eminence can be found a number of journals and newsletters devoted exclusively to Woolf and her circle, founded in the main by women who are apt to be feminists and who frequently (though by no means always) indulge themselves in minute worryings of the details of Woolf s life, visiting Monks House, rifling through her papers, rubbing elbows with Quentin Bell, and then descending from this Parnassus to write reminiscences of tiresome inconsequence. With the widespread changes in social roles now being undergone by educated and academic women, their experiences in or with psychoanalysis, the availability of alternate sexual lifestyles, the possibility of escape from domesticity, the commonplaceness of divorce, and the earning of their own living, there is very strong identification with and admiration for Woolf in much of current female writing about her, an identification intensified by Woolf s own psychological and sexual problems. This phenomenon can be seen in such books as Nancy Bazin’s Virginia Woolf and the Androgynous Mind, Jane Novak’s The Razor Edge of Balance, and Joanne Trautmann’s Jessamy Brides, to mention a few. One of the most startling of essays, “Mrs. Virginia Woolf,” by Cynthia Ozick, appeared several years ago in Commentary and castigated Leonard Woolf as a tyrannical and repressive husband who was virtually an anti-Semite. For now, at any rate, this essay would seem to represent the limits of appropriation.

With so much of Woolf s current status derived from extraliterary valuations, one finds that despite some recent signs of shifting here and there the novels still tend to be seen as they have been for a long time. In other words, the literary identity of the novels has not changed a great deal, but a reshuffling of their importance has resulted from those examinations which appropriate them as feminism, mythopoetic thought, polemics for androgyny, attacks on the social system, etc.

One of the greatest impediments to a just literary revaluation of Woolf's novels has been, even from the earliest years, the objection that they are lacking in sexuality, deficient in earthy vitality, that they are precious and rather weak in the kind of human interest that is present in her contemporaries, Joyce and Proust. There is nothing in Woolf s novels, her denigrators might remark, that quite corresponds in its impact to Stephen Dedalus picking his nose or Leopold Bloom masturbating. Despite the contemporary agreement, at least in theory, that literary “realism” is a convention as “artificial” as any other, the imputed absence of such an impact has cost Woolf a lot. If you scratch even a sophisticated contemporary reader, it would seem, you are bound to find a die-hard representationalist under the skin. Mimeticism still reigns supreme. For all of the involutedness and stylization of Joyce, he is felt to be a “realist” after all.

This representational bias against Woolf s supposed sexlessness has actually increased and been afforded greater currency as a result of Bell’s biography, with its insistent emphasis on Woolf’s “aetherial” character and her low sexual energies as a person. Instead of subjecting to investigation what can be meant by the term “sexuality” when it is used in connection with fiction, the reviewers of Bell’s biography fixed upon Woolf s sex life, particuarly the harm that supposedly was wrought by George Duckworth’s erotic displays towards his half-sisters Virginia and Vanessa. Virginia Woolf alludes very unfavorably in later life to George’s behavior and, in Moments of Being, to Gerald Duckworth’s pettings as well, but the assumption that her coldness as a person and the “sexlessness” of her novels can be traced to all of this is both rash and absurd, especially since Vanessa received similar treatment and developed very differently. Surely the seeds of their sexuality were sown long before their experiences with the Duckworths. As it turns out, there is nothing Bell tells us that can account for the causes of Woolf s sexual “coolness.” But once given the rash and dramatic conclusions of the reviewers of his book, it was not very difficult to move along to the conclusion that Virginia Woolf was basically a sexless person and (as if more were needed) that that is why her fiction itself is so sexless. Bell wrote: “Vanessa, Leonard and, I think, Virginia herself were inclined to blame George Duckworth. George certainly had left Virginia with a deep aversion to lust; but perhaps he did no more than inflame a deeper wound and confirm Virginia in her disposition to shrink from the crudities of sex, a disposition which resulted from some profound and perhaps congenital inhibition [i. e. , Bell knows nothing about the whole matter. ]. I think that the erotic element in her personality was faint and tenuous.” As for Virginia’s relationship with her husband, Bell admits that beyond her coolness, he does not know the extent of their sexual activities. In a letter, shortly after their marriage, Virginia writes, “but certainly I find the climax immensely exaggerated,” and Bell alludes to her subsequently as “frigid.”

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