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.

Trendy Tweets and Unconscious Volcanoes (and some Hegel)

Two things on my mind this evening.

#1 I just logged onto Twitter and found Wuthering Heights under the trending topics. This piqued my interest, but once I clicked on it I learned two new things I didn't like so much. It's trending first because there's a new movie adaptation, and second (this is terrible) because it is apparently referenced over and over in the Twilight series.

I guess there is no law that prevents horrible self-loathing writer-women from referencing other women's literary masterpieces to boost their pulp novels, but it sure makes things uncomfortable for those of us who take Bronte seriously. I mean, I don't take anything all that seriously... but still. I care. And Emily doesn't deserve that crap.

So I was about to finish a long entry I've been working on about women's writing. I have Wuthering Heights sitting out on the coffee table as I was going to post some Bronte examples of "the good stuff." I don't dare put any Twilight excerpts in it to make it relevant or anything like that. It's useless to compare the two. The whole Twitter incident just makes me not want to look at Heights right now.

#2 So my Heights avoidance takes the form of this brain dump, and the second part of it doesn't really have to do with unconscious volcanoes. That's my segue. You see, I'm practicing for the GRE and you know how they say pick the "best" answer? Sometimes, the best answer really is just the best out of five different bad answers. So it's not necessarily exactly right.

So, the antonym of "dormancy" is "consciousness." I mean, that does make sense. It's not really a bad answer. It's just not what you'd think of. We don't use the word dormant to describe someone who has a consciousness who's gone unconscious. So, I guess the volcanoes that have come out of dormancy have regained consciousness.

The segue was supposed to take me to unconsciousness. Talking about unconsciousness that is. A dream.

I don't normally write about dreams, but sometimes brains are just so clever and impose what seems like a really good order on them, immediately after you wake up. I was disappointed when I found out that's how it works. That dreams don't have a timeline and our minds just shift everything into place within an instant of waking, to make us think things happend in some order and had some cause and effect. That's pretty amazing, but I thought it was more fun when I was really dreaming stories.

Anyhow, I was in Germany working at a high school. I don't know what I did. Maybe I taught English to German kids. There was a big political uprising going on and things were getting bombed. For some silly reason, the writings of Hegel had been found to be against the state philosophy, and me and a bunch of other young people were running in and out of a big library saving all these giant books, putting them on trucks to be carted away to safety. It was the Hegel library. It even had his head on little pillars on either side of the doorway.

That's all I remember from that part of the dream (it got weirder and scarier, but there were no more Hegel references), except that on my last run to the trucks with what I guess were two huge philosophical dictionaries (they had the little thumb-cuts with letters printed on them), I thought (in slow motion) about how much I always make fun of Hegel, I dont like to read him, and I never agree with anything he says. But then I thought of Marx, and did it for him. It's what he would have wanted.

That thought was funny to have in a dream, and of course I know that's how I feel about it in waking life -- in my state of "undormancy." I do make fun of Hegel, and I like to get into arguments with people about him. I like to make exagerrations about him, and to imagine what he would have said about this or that current issue. Usually my Hegel impression ends with something like, "There you go! It's all figured out! No need to think about that ever again!"

But I also think he's an incomparable genius. Even if he has no sense of humor, even if he upholds the status quo, even if he doesn't write in any entertaining fashion whatsoever. I see him in Marx, of course (who is funny and who I love), but there's no denying I see him everywhere. It's axiomatic (GRE word) that all thinkers after Hegel must be influenced by Hegel -- he friggin' systematized the dialectic. And who can work without a dialectic?

So I argue with the die hard Hegel lovers for fun. If I ever encounter a die hard Hegel detractor, that argument will be more serious, and I'll have to temporarily join the ranks of Hegel defenders to protect his good name. If I can carry Hegel dictionaries out of burning buildings while I'm dormant, I think I can stand up for him while I'm conscious.

Some dreamy Hegel fan art

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Personae and Voice at the Smithsonian


Last Friday I took the Metro from Maryland into D.C. to visit some spaceships and dinosaurs. We don't have free museums in Chicago, so I wanted to get my fill of gratis peeks into the past and the future before heading home to the land of the $12 admission charge. I wish I had thought to bring a notepad. But I was only in the market for some gazing at gnarly bivalve shells, nasty-looking trilobites, and graceful crinoids. I didn't expect to find a museum wing full of little illustrated texts, or rather, one big text. An installation text, if you will! (You don't have to.)

The paleobiology wing was divided into not ages or epochs, but acts, like a play. The personae dramatis were introduced as if they were taking the stage, and at the end of each act we said goodbye to the extinct heroes of the previous epoch. The little plaques flowed together nicely across the millions of years, all keeping with the "play" package, but never stooping to cheesy references to the structure itself.

Even more impressive than the clever format was the clarity, surety, and overall voice of the prose. The first longer plaque I read gave me a tingly feeling, like it was something I would try to write if I knew anything about ancient coral species. Not that my prose is worthy of being preserved at the Smithsonian, but my point is this science writer (perhaps a scientist, perhaps a writer, maybe both) could write unlike a scientist, and unlike a museum collections manager. He or she wrote like a writer.

So seldom does one find a real "voice" behind those plastic descriptive squares that I was quite taken aback. Someone was telling me the story of how oysters learned to cling to their shells, and how nautilus formations evolved to prevent snails from being washed across the sea floor. The writer even used simple literary devices like repetition and alliteration to keep the descriptions fresh and readable. Bivalves burgeoned, grazers were greeted, and snails refused to become "backsliders."

I was charmed and enthralled by this little drama, and I found myself looking at those empty shells, saddened by their pending doom in the tale, and trying to imagine what it was like to be a snail 100 million years ago. Then I realized that sea animals don't know when they're living, and I tried to imagine being an animal without time. So well written did I find this semi-creative text, that exhibits which would normally only hold my interest for a few moments, and which I would look at in no particular order, had me riveted and engaged in the story, wanting to know what happens next.

The voice was speaking scientific facts. I took this into consideration. Can a voice speaking conjectures, emotions, or ideas have the same kind of quiet conviction? The descriptions at the art museums seem to point to "no." Every one of them attempts a criticism of the art it is describing, almost always unsuccessfully. (See, I keep talking about the description as doing the work, because it doesn't even seem like a human wrote it!) Perhaps if the art writers stuck to the closest things they have to facts (materials, dates, schools, contemporary issues), they could weave a better tale about the blobby Twombly painting or the Jeff Koons bathtub monstrosity. Or maybe not. Art begs criticism. Whereas the science writers only need to talk about what they know to overwhelm the visitor with true information, the art writers have to add some widely held critical views to fill up their plastic squares.

I have always found museum descriptions of paintings, specimens, dioramas, whatever, to be tedious. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History's Paleobiological wing was an amazing departure from mediocre writing and a creative way to present a huge volume of specimens that span unthinkable time periods.

Now if only the "description writers" at the art museums would take a cue from this kind of museum work, and make their collections more approachable and intelligible to a skeptical public by weaving a tale, or at least writing a little better and refraining from bad criticism. They like art -- you'd think they would have thought of a creative way to put a collection into a text before the scientists could! But I'm confusing art and literature again. Leave it to the art curators to sort the paintings. Perhaps, once that's done, they should call in a writer to describe them. (Wait -- is the description even necessary?)

Lame Excuses


I'm working on some things. Something on the Smithsonian's writers, something on cleverness, something on animal studies in literature.

But before I get started writing I want to make excuses for why I haven't been writing. I've been rather blurry and bleary and unable to work this summer, but I won't know why until my incredibly bad student health insurance kicks in next month. I was looking forward to summer as a time of productivity. Last summer I blogged with great frequency, and this past spring I successfully used this outlet as a primer for writing papers and as a creative break from the academic grind. I don't know if it's burnout or anemia (possible with the whole vegetarian thing), but something's been wrong and I hope it gets fixed soon. Physically, I'm pretty OK, but I haven't been able to concentrate and writing complete thoughts is kind of hard. Maybe I need some friggin' Qigong or something.

If any fellow students or avid readers have experienced a period like this, please let me know that it's normal and OK. After last semester, burnout makes the most sense as an explanation for my blahs. I had 20 credit hours plus French lessons, a play, and philosophy club. So that could have killed me and I'm lucky to be alive. I'm still very much interested in everything, and I'm still reading . . . And I think my sense of humor is still intact. I just can't DO anything. Better for this to happen now than in grad school, but it certainly stinks that it's happening while I need to be preparing for GREs and such. I'm hoping the first day of school will be a magic bullet.

I only have three classes this last, last (LAST!) semester, plus my senior project. Hopefully it will go by much more breezily than credit-crammed Spring '09.

Thanks for any suggestions.