Sunday, August 30, 2009

In Virginia's Room: Organic, Writerly Criticism for the Ladies


Holy shit! I wrote this last summer and took it down, as I was still uncomfortable with "public writing" -- I didn't know I never put it back up. So here's why I love Woolf, and here's the first thing I ever wrote about her:

I’ve had a week of Virginia Woolf. She is called a critic, though she wrote several novels herself. I’ve been reading the criticism only. But after reading or attempting to read volumes of modern criticism penned by human beings of a single X chromosome, this woman’s elegant criticism hardly seem “critical” or “analytical.” And it is so refreshing!

Her criticism cannot be lumped together with that which we call “cultural” – race, gender, class-affected theory. She is a woman-critic in the early twentieth century, which puts her in a position where she might need to defend herself, but most of the time she does not resort to that. Her book-length essay A Room Of One’s Own takes care of all her disclaimers and grievances about her womanhood without setting her up as “an ardent feminist.”

She didn't need to write A Room Of One's Own for herself. She had a room of her own and her writing stood on its own without explanation or disclaimer. But I am so glad she wrote the essay that some call her "feminist manifesto" (hardly!), even if it was an act of mere charity on her part.

Yet the first thing I noticed, trying not to think of her gender, was how her style differed from these men I've been tackling all summer. Woolf gets impressions from authors, thinks about them as human beings, as artists (who must sort of detach themselves from that humanity to express their genius “whole and entire”), as historical figures in context or as emulations thereof in a new context. And yes, as men and as women.

Though she asserts that a woman needs "500 a year" (a social status) to write, and laments how women are hindered by their gender’s occupations and typically lower social status, she does not argue her case with brash feminist claims like her critics would have one believe. She does it by showing the history of women’s writing, by looking at their sentence “shapes,” indeed at the “shapes” of their novels.

She does not even show a preference for work by women, and as she would tell you, there is not enough of it to go round – she busies herself with Shakespeare, Lamb, Thackeray. She reads what the men read, only she does it differently.

If I had to choose a word to describe Woolf’s criticism, in this essay and in all her essays, it would be “organic.” Although, it is a comparison to the criticism of her male contemporaries and successors that gives me this image of organic thought. Her work comes to life in a way because of its differance, to use one of their terms.

The professors weave their tapestries – wait, one cannot describe a man’s work in terms of a feminine craft – they . . . engineer the outcomes of their arguments, carefully constructing theoretical edifices with innumerable architectural details – the sinewy rococo of purposely dense prose, the flashy filigree of a made-up word – that enhance the thrusting lines of their towers of conclusion. And lo! They have built a gothic cathedral of Idea.

Mrs. Woolf (Mrs!), in a conversational tone, as if we are sharing with her biscuits and cheese and water and prunes in a bed-sitter room, lets her ideas grow out of one another. She plants the seed, then watches and describes, poetically, what shoots up. Trunk to bough, bough to twig, twig to leaf, until each argument condenses to a drop of dew at the tip of each leaf. She can stop to let us drink one in, with her rapid transitions or a well-placed set of ellipses (she is the only person whose ellipses I can stand). Or she can let all the drops descend to the very tips, and stand back to let the whole glistening tree be illuminated by the sunrise, which the reader has barely noticed, though Woolf has been brightening the scene in imperceptible increments since the essay or chapter began.

Thinly veiled sexual metaphors my descriptions may be, but how can I help it? There is something hot, hard and blunt about the writing of many men. And something open, soft and flowing about the writing of many women.

So a man built a Gothic cathedral (Woolf would appreciate comparing writing to a building – she asks us to). It is a monument to his ingenuity, his power, his arguments. It is decorated with so many stained glass windows we should never be able to take them all in, and so tall are the soaring spires that we can only guess at their height – they appear distorted from down here. He toiled and sweated to make all this, and some of us might ask “Why?” No one but its architect can ever fully appreciate such a cathedral. Or perhaps another man who has the means and the time and the education to explore it.

Woolf draws our eye to her tree and stands back. A tree and a cathedral take about the same amount of time to get very big, and they have a similar life span. But a tree is much less work, and just as beautiful. We may never see all the veins in each leaf, or inspect the bark with a microscope, but we will understand it just the same. We need no tour guide to explain the allegorical picture windows or to thrill us by reciting the inflated measurements of a stratospheric ceiling vault. Everyone “gets” a tree.

Woolf is funny too, and she made me think about how men and women make us laugh. When a man chooses to be funny to get through to the reader rather than pound one over the head, one laughs as at prop gags or a streaker – a man's humor is as funny as his body. But when one laughs with a woman one shares in little flashes of her anger through sarcasm or one titters under one's breath at something, some subtle action of a character or observation of the author, without knowing quite why. A woman’s humor is not only softer and subtler than a man’s, it is more mysterious – like her genitals.

Woolf would not want me to carry her theories too far in this direction, and I, being no “ardent feminist” myself, will not continue in that vein. Woolf also argued that in order to write well, to express one’s genius “whole and entire” we must have a union of the sexes without and within. That is, men and women on the one hand, and our internal sexes -- the male mind and the female mind in all of us-- on the other. She does not say that writing should be sexless or suppress its author’s sex, but that it should overcome it – the best writing, she says, is by a man-womanly or a woman-manly (made-up words? She doesn’t hope to find them in a glossary of literary terms), and she quotes again and again from Coleridge on the genius of the androgynous, not the female, mind.

I think Virginia Woolf achieved in criticism what she hoped for women to achieve in their novels, biographies, and research papers. She asserted that women need to write A) after having overcome their anger about being displaced all these millenia, and B) with a shape that fits them, so not in imitation of a man, but also not in a style that could be pinpointed as "feminine."

Mrs. Woolf is as elegant and eloquent with her words as the most decorated, stole-covered professor. She is sarcastic at times, but not angry -- she merely observes the inequalities of her kind and laughs, as she wishes all women could. And she throws in some hilarious descriptions of the "superior" sex, like that of a male student who "breathes hard, wears a ready made tie, and has not shaved this fortnight." She works at bringing men down a notch without hitting below the belt, so to speak.

Her arguments, though I call them "organic," are never arguments of emotional passion unchecked. They are, however, intuitive and sometimes sentimental. There is nothing you could call proofs in them, and Woolf would agree that there can be no real proofs written on literature.

She has subdued her resentments and writes in a womanly shape that does not cry out "I am woman!" Success, Virginia!

A Room Of One's Own has given me a new way to write and her other essays, such as "The Novels of Thomas Hardy" and "How Should One Read A Book?" have given me new ways to read.

I can't express how glad I am to have run into this little red book, curiously the only Woolf on the shelf at the public library.

This is mostly unrevised and stands as I wrote it in my last year's mindset. I would write differently now, with more examples and references to other reading, but I am very happy with my "prosing" from that period. The words just flowed last summer, before I started thinking too hard! I was excited to find this time capsule just hanging out at the bottom of the documents folder.

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