Friday, December 31, 2010

Something to Remember

As 2010 closes (it's no longer drawing to a close -- it's 11:54pm), I want to remember not this past year, but the one before it -- the one where I was in school! Of course I had personal experiences worth remembering in these last twelve months, but as far as academics, writing, reading, and even thinking go, I am looking forward to a new beginning. After a spring semester that wasn't a semester but just a collection of months (I had finished a B.A. in December '09, and was in an awkward interim between programs), followed by my first wretched attempt at grad school that left me...

Happy New Year!

...more than a little pissed off and rightly disillusioned with terminal masters degree programs, I have little to show for 2010 as "A Student of English." That said, I must remember that a new beginning is here, not just because Pope Gregory said so, but because as arbitrary as a "New Year's Day" may seem, semesters always begin in January. I must also remember that writing is what I do, and that by most accounts I am pretty okay at my chosen vocation. I present to you the only paper I wrote for my "prose styles" class that received an 'A' grade. Yes I'm still pissed about the Bs and Cs, but just the same here is my one brief achievement (no paper over two pages was allowed), an assignment to write on Woolf's persona as gleaned from her prose style in the Death of the Moth book of essays:

In Virginia Woolf’s prose essays there is a precarious balance between an informal, stream-of-consciousness voice (a journal-keeper) and an almost pretentiously formal voice (a professional writer). Sometimes these voices inhabit different paragraphs of the essay, but often they are present together, sometimes within the same sentence. The inspired used of unlikely metaphors and the fast-flowing sentence structures of the journal-keeper are evidence of Woolf’s genius. The more formal constructions in her professional writer’s prose (i.e. the use of “one” instead of “I” and other characteristics of high diction), however, seem to be hiding something of her character, especially in her more reflective essays (“Death of the Moth,” “A Street Haunting”). Woolf’s persona comes off as one of a sort of sad brilliance, the professional writer in Woolf couching her depression in her confident “highbrow” formal diction, while the journal-keeper lets an occasional glimmer of inspiration shine through. In these reflective essays, Woolf makes observations of herself (which she sometimes claims are observations on humanity in general) that allude to her internal conflicts. But only in her humorous prose (“Professions for Women,” “Middlebrow”) does Woolf’s conflicted persona seem to resolve itself. She perhaps realizes the duality of her voices, and seeks to reconcile them ironically.

Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness constructions and poignant metaphors characterize her genius writing, those times when the journal-keeper bares herself and manages to share a bit of unbridled brilliance with her readers. The sentences in these sections (or the sections of these sentences) that fit the journal-keeper persona often exhibit asyndeton, ellipses, and other syntactical and rhetorical devices that require a filling-in of the gaps, as one would have to do when speaking to a familiar person. Some sentence fragments that exhibit Woolf’s typical stream-of-consciousness are: “beauty and beauty and beauty…” (13), “floating, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks” (24), “tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space…” (25), “Lady So-and-So with the curls and the emeralds…” (29). The same journal-keeper seems to be the persona who astounds us or invites us in with metaphors such as: “…one could only offer a thimble to a torrent that could fill baths, lakes” (14), “We are warmly wrapped in a rug” (15), “A nail fixed the whole being to one hard board” (211). Though these metaphors seem to grow out of the same raw Woolf who writes in spurts and commas, they begin to take on some of the diction of her more traditional and formal prose voice. It is as if a self-consciousness creeps into her just as she sees things most clearly, just as she wishes to reveal herself most completely.

Most of Woolf’s prose essays are in this more self-conscious voice, and those that are not humorous seem to belie her sadness especially when she takes her professional writer tone. The very language some part of her hopes will hide her fears betrays them. To speak of the death of a creature so tenderly, yet so detachedly at the same time (“…when there was nobody there to care or know, this gigantic effort on the part an insignificant little moth, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely” (11)) is odd. She has been writing on this “insignificant” moth for three pages, and yet she is only “moved strangely”? The understatement and detachment of her professional writer’s voice, its refusal to commit to a strong emotion or a wild metaphor, or to let itself run on at length until it expires all its meaning (as the journal-keeper does) is indicative of the protection from herself she hopes it will give her.

While Woolf’s wit does help her manage her various writing selves in her humorous essays, it is in her most reflective writing that we really find a window into her persona, “streaked, variegated, all of a mixture” (30). Her writer’s formality is her anchor in a river of troubled consciousness, and she holds onto it as long as she can, to keep from drowning.

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