Abandonment, Richness, Surprise - Virginia Woolf

From a certain perspective, Virginia Woolf did not write criticism at all. Her literary essays and journalism are truer specimens of belles lettres than of the kind of writing that surrounds Woolf’s Common Reader series on my university library’s shelves, books with titles like Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism, or Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Language, or Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject, or Hellenism and Loss in the Works of Virginia Woolf. These are books written by and for specialists; their stock-in-trade is the relentless analysis of particulars, the meticulous interrelation of text and context–all self-consciously framed with theoretical abstractions. Associative leaps, bold assertions, insights born of intuition and experience rather than justified by detailed exegesis and authoritative citation: for today’s professional critics, these are as inadmissible as stolen evidence in a courtroom.
Against their painstakingly researched conclusions, Woolf’s commentaries seem—indeed, are—impressionistic, idiosyncratic, unsubstantiated. On what basis, with what justification, can she claim that Donne “excels most poets” in his “power of suddenly surprising and subjugating the reader”? What exactly does it mean to “subjugate the reader” anyway? Where are the quotations—where is the specific analysis of prosody and form, metaphor and imagery—to support that claim, or the claim that in “Extasie” “lines of pure poetry suddenly flow as if liquefied by a great heat”? Is there “something morbid, as if shrinking from human contact, in the nature worship of Wordsworth, still more in the microscopic devotion which Tennyson lavished upon the petals of roses and the buds of lime trees”? Is it “the soul that is the chief character in Russian fiction”? In all Russian fiction?
Why, too, does Woolf write so much about writers, and comparatively little about their writing? Or, more accurately, why is it so difficult to distinguish between the writers and their writing in her essays? “Gissing is one of the extremely rare novelists who believes in the power of the mind, who makes his people think”; “Nor was Hardy any exception to the rule that the mind which is most capable of receiving impressions is very often the least capable of drawing conclusions”; “At the end we are steeped through and through with the genius, the vehemence, the indignation of Charlotte Brontë.” So much for the death of the author or the autonomy of the text—and so much for any idea that critical conclusions must be both earned and rendered convincing by references to comprehensive evidence. Woolf never argues or proves: she probes, questions, illuminates, and asserts.
Yet next to The Common Reader, those rows of academic volumes are as lifeless as the novels of hapless Arnold Bennett, who, Woolf declares in “Modern Fiction,”
can make a book so well constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can creep in. There is not so much as a draught between the frames of the windows, or a crack in the boards. And yet — if life should refuse to live there?

 Woolf believes that some “essential thing” has moved out of Bennett’s house of fiction, and for all the perfectly sincere arguments I could make about the different purposes, standards, and values of academic criticism, when I read it I am often overcome with the same unhappy feeling that there too something essential has “moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained within such ill-fitting vestments” as those shelves of severe erudition.
Woolf’s criticism, on the other hand (and let’s, after all, concede her the term) is full of life and vitality. It is not criticism meant for cataloguing according to Library of Congress rules; it is not criticism as scholarship. It offers us no nuggets of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of our notebooks. Though definite, it is never definitive: its pronouncements are really provocations, at least to me—reading it, I simmer with questions and challenges and counter-examples, along with admiration for the lambent play of Woolf’s mind across her subjects. From the Oresteiato Ulysses, from the Paston letters to Gissing’s New Grub Street: Woolf seems able to talk with ease and wit about anything. Her criticism stimulates us to participate in the conversation with her, though not quite as equals—for there’s nothing common at all about the cultivation or polish of her writing.
In her essay on “The Pastons and Chaucer,” for instance, we get this:
Such is the power of conviction, a rare gift, a gift shared in our day by Joseph Conrad in his earlier novels, and a gift of supreme importance, for upon it the whole weight of the building depends. Once believe in Chaucer’s young men and women and we have no need of preaching or protest.
Conrad is an unexpected visitor in an essay on the fifteenth century, and also a distracting one. Is she right about that, I find myself asking? Why does she specify the “earlier novels” in particular? She doesn’t say, or give an example—and why should she? Conrad is just a passing thought here, after all. But in her essay explicitly on Conrad, I find not much more that is solid, not much that is supported with what in my daily work I call “textual evidence”—her brush moves too fast, the strokes are too thick with colour to limn in the details. “There are no masts in drawing rooms” in Conrad’s later novels, she observes:
the typhoon does not test the worth of politicians and businessmen. Seeking and not finding such supports, the world of Conrad’s later period has about it an involuntary obscurity, an inconclusiveness, almost a disillusionment which baffles and fatigues. We lay hold in the dusk only of the old nobilities and sonorities: fidelity, compassion, honour, service — beautiful always, but now a little wearily reiterated, as if times had changed.
There’s nothing concrete here, no spelling out of the abstractions she has summoned. The essay includes hardly any quotations from Conrad himself. I do not point this out as a criticism of her criticism, but to acknowledge how it works: her comments are convincing, not as conclusions about Conrad, but as evocations of Woolf’s experience of Conrad. In speaking so freely about it, she prompts us to think about Conrad for ourselves, and to test our experience against hers.
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