Susan Rochette-Crawley (Cedar Falls)
Science and Sentience:
|Things seem clear, sane comprehensible, & under no obligation, being of that nature, to make one vibrate at all. Indeed, it's largely the clearness of sight which comes at such seasons that leads to depression. But when one can analyze it, one is half way back again. I feel unreason slowly tingling in my veins. If I could have a good morning's work! (Woolf 1977: 298)|
This tension between states of being that Woolf perceived as "well" and "ill," the urgency of her creative need and a concomitant preoccupation with fluctuations between shadow, light, perception and emotion show themselves in every story, especially those written after the First World War.
The story, "Solid Objects" (1920), reveals Woolf's concern with penetrating the need for light, the concomitant need for the darkness that offsets it. It is also an early story within which Woolf begins to formulate a type of narrative strategy that I refer to as "optic" narration, by which I mean a type of narration in which the narrative focalizer functions as a linguistic simulation of the prismatic refraction of light rays. Through slight shifts in word, image and point of view, the spectrum of story is revealed. The focalizing optic of the narration, the "point of view," in "Solid Objects" begins as an observing medium that detects the only moving object on the beach as being "a small black spot." This spot remains indeterminate until the observing eye the optic narrator brings it into greater focus and thus moves the reader closer to it. Ultimately, the "black spot" becomes distinguished as the figures of two men holding conversation with one another as they walk along the sand. The two figures, whose names are Charles and John, emerge in contrast to one another. Woolf's own critique of the illusion of solidity works through the figure of Charles, who is not immediately connected to the vitality of objects but must use a stick to uncover them in the sand. Charles is interested in the world of abstract thought, whereas his friend, John "Politics be damned!" revels in being the one to find and lay hands on the objects on the beach (Woolf The Complete Shorter Fiction 1989: 102). John is more concerned with the nature and feel of the stones and bits of glass he finds than in their worldly value. Yet it is because of this obsession that John, the dreamer, ultimately becomes lost to his dream; or, so it seems to his friend. By absorbing himself with the collecting of "beautiful" objects in fact he stands in direct contrast to his friend who pursues a much more sanctioned and apparently gainful life of intellect, position and money. At the end of the story, Charles is unable to do more than say "pretty stones" to his lost friend, leaving John in order to keep an appointment.
The reader is left either to wonder whether it is Charles or John who has the most "sense" of life, or if they both are only two small portions of a larger vision. Regardless, it is clearly Woolf's intention to prefigure in both Charles and John the character of Septimus Smith, who found it necessary to self-divide, or disassociate, in order to survive his experience of the First World War, a war that itself was the litmus test for technical applications of then current science. Woolf sets into motion the effect of her intention in the opening line, when the two men are as yet one, to be differentiated only as the narrative and its optical eye becomes more focused. Yet as they emerge separate, it is John, not Charles, who continues to respond too and become obsessed by the beauty of objects which play so effectively against, through and by the light.
Charles, it might be said, is the figure of duty that leads the Septimus Smith character into the "fray" of life only to find his other half fascinated by the very objects his formally trained self discards. Septimus Smith, a fictional version of Woolf's own sense of her fractured psyche, is caught in the struggle between bifurcated visions of self. In "Solid Objects," however, Woolf works to examine these two sides as distinct from one another. In this story, Woolf has chosen not only the character of a dreamer one usually associated with a fixity on the stars but a daylight scene on a beach as the means and scene of focus. It is through this setting and scene that self, nature, illumination and life story become one. In daylight, "Solid Objects" suggests, the beauty and terror of the dark self is revealed.
In many ways, the story makes fictional use of crucial early modernist scientific preoccupations; particularly in its use of a telescopic narrative point of view. The story opens with an aerial point of view of the scene on the beach. Once the two figures are in sharper and closer focus, the story moves ever more microscopically into the hearts and minds of both John and Charles. The obvious interest in the play of light both in finding objects and assigning them meaning accentuates the title of the story, "Solid Objects," wherein the reader is to understand that light both plays off those objects and still may penetrate them, if not in science, then through sentience. Beyond that, the story is early evidence that Woolf was doing all she could to make her particular artistic condition "illness," in medical terms work in a positive rather than destructive narrative manner. The story directly engages itself with the shifting states of mind peculiar to those who suffer from what is known today as manic-depressive, or bipolar, disorder. Evidence for this is contained in the story itself.
In the third paragraph, the ostensibly omniscient narrator becomes, to some degree, personalized. "You know how the body seems to shake itself free from an argument, and to apologize for a mood of exaltation; flinging itself down and expressing in the looseness of its attitude a readiness to take up with something new whatever it may be that comes next to hand" (Woolf 1989: 102). This statement, intrusive as it is into the story, is more than an analogy. It is, in fact, a forthright description of the onset of a manic episode. In narrative terms, it is an "optic" refraction of the story itself. What is frequently referred to as a narrative "intrusion," in Woolf's developing technique, is also a refraction, both of and by, the construct of the "narrator" whereby Woolf makes use of her own psychical sufferance to create depth of insight into the character of John and "bends" the light of the story back to the eye of the reader. An early germ of a technique that Woolf will use in her later works, the novels especially, this experimentation with focalization combines her artistically inclined scientific interest in light, illumination, with a means of breaking through her own illness to create a narrative strategy which only much later critics have come to appreciate.
To illustrate this point, "Fascination of the Pool" (1929), a story written over a period of time but dated from the typescript with holograph revisions of 1929 in The Collected Short Fiction of Virginia Woolf, not only revives the interest in light and the optics of narration found in Solid Objects but extends that interest into experimentations with time and space as well as light. Written while Woolf was working on The Moths, which was later titled The Waves, a choice that may, in fact, reveal Woolf's own inclination to accept the wave/particle nature of theories of light as opposed to theories of light travelling through an "ether" only the story clearly reveals a familiarity with the Einsteinian preoccupations of space and time and their dependency on theories of light, ideas Einstein had been obsessed with since at least 1901, according to Everdell (Everdell 1997: 229).
The first line of the story itself reveals the optic uncertainty of the narrator in perceiving the depth of the pool "It may have been very deep" certainly one could not see to the bottom of it." While this opening focuses the reader's attention on the mysterious effect on the imagination of water's play with light and perception, it also conforms empirically to the law of refraction, whereby the refracted ray from the original source lies opposite that of the ray emanating from the second source, each always in constant ratio to one another and dependent only on the nature of the reflecting media and its color, to paraphrase Southall (Southall 1964: 66). In other words, refracted light plays tricks on the eyes: shallow waters may appear deep and deep waters may appear to have less than actual depth. Thus, the second line of the story shows that Woolf was familiar, perhaps through Frye's influence on her own perceptibility, with how reflective light and its refraction can create the illusions of depth and shallowness in a body of water.2 The depth of the pool in the story is difficult to ascertain not only because of reflection and refraction but also because of the "something white," the "For Sale" sign that lies at the bottom of the water. It is this sign, which had been lying at the bottom for quite some time, that triggers the narrator's move from thinking about light and space to thoughts of time. As a result, dating the actually narrated observations within the story is as difficult for the reader as ascertaining the depth of the water is for the narrator. Characteristic of Woolf's interest in space/time relations, the past is alive in the present and the present is given life by means of the past.
Throughout the story the movements between light, space and time continually shift. They are dependent on one another yet they constantly dislodge themselves to mingle and reconfigure with both each other and the ruminations of the focalizer, the optical point of narration. Furthermore, as a result of this commingling, an aural as well as visual element is brought into the story. The deeper the narrator looks into the pool and the more layered that the emerging thoughts become, the more fully embodied the reflections become thoughts have voices, the voices combine with thoughts and visual images to take shape. At last it is the deepest voice, the voice beyond that of the sad voice of the drowned girl's lover, the voice at the bottom of the pool, that the narrator tells the reader "this was the voice we all wished to listen to (Woolf 1989: 227)" The optic narrator leads the reader deeper and deeper into the fascination. This fascination becomes embodied both visually and aurally. The playful and quizzical seduction of the senses in this passage in part deflects the reader's attention from the underlying pain that the process of perception initiates in the observing narrator that is straining to hear the voice that must "know" the reasons behind the stories that buried at the bottom of the pool and signified by the voice of the drowned girl. One cannot help but detect in this elegiac passage vestiges of the role that Woolf's own psychic pain played in the construction of her art. The description of thoughts as themselves animated, having both voice and image, the very image of the pool, itself fluid and resisting embodiment, and the introduction of the overriding image of the spoon as lifting thoughts and redistributing them from the bottom of the pool all coincide with the familiar state of mind experienced by a personality suffering deeply from its own dissociation and alienation.
Significantly, it seems, it is within the love story of the boy and girl, not within the story of Lord Nelson's death at Trafalgar, nor that of the narrator who had been to the 1851 Great Exhibition opened by Queen Victoria in London, that the mind's eye of the reader is directed. It is then the tragic story of the lovers that prompts the deepest reflections, the most pained and elusive reflections. The importance of this story as a narrative device around which the more abstract story of the fascination of the pool is structured coincides with the narrative refraction that occurs at the beginning of the last paragraph of the story wherein the first person focalizer is transformed again into the transcending "One" who precedes over the first paragraph of the story: the point at which the importance of the natural fascination with observing the play of light over a body of water, as well as the thoughts to which such "reflections" lend themselves is firmly established.
The final paragraph of the story brings the story full circle, back to the detached, seemingly dispassionate, observations of the first paragraph:
|One drew closer to the pools and parted the reeds so that once could see deepr, through the reflections, through the faces, through the voices to the bottom. But there under the man who had been to the Exhibition; and the girl who had drowned herself and the boy who had seen the fish; and the voice which cried alas alas! Yet there was always something else ... . One thought came and covered over another. For though there are moments when a spoon seems about to lift all of us, and our thoughts and longings and questions and confessions and disillusions into the light of day, somehow the spoon always slips beneath and we flow back again over the edge of the pool... .That perhaps is why one loves to sit and look at pools. (Woolf 1989: 227)|
The illuminative vision of the last paragraph is not identical to the opening metaphor: the metaphor of the spoon lifting thoughts and yet never actually capturing them completely insures that the "fascination" of the pool itself is not completely "fastened." The "whole of the centre," by the end of the story, returns to the reflection of the placard that lies at the bottom of the indeterminately deep/shallow pool. The story, then, through the use of Woolf's knowledge of light and what was known and theorized regarding its nature during her time, is a narrative in which Einsteinian theories are to some degree fictively treated. Furthermore and this is Woolf's signature artistic mark that these theories are made metaphor by means of Woolf's knowledge of the workings of her state of mind. Her illness, then, may be said to be itself a vehicle of art whereby the artist travels at the velocity of the imagination to reach distances which, scientifically, approximate travel at the speed of light.
Support for this idea may be found in many aspects of Woolf scholarship but Thomas Carmagno's recent study, The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf's Art and Manic-Depressive Illness (1992), prompts a closer look at the connections found in Woolf s work and her own articulation of her suffering. In reference to Woolf's mania and the "racing thoughts" she herself recorded as having to bear, Carmagno has detailed the "flight of the mind" as resulting to some degree in the uniqueness of Woolf's prose style and subject matter. These flights, or racings, of the imagination bear striking similarity to what is scientifically known regarding transmission of signals conveyed at speeds intended to approximate the speed of light. Woolf, when experiencing the tremendous burden of her illness had, according to Carmagno, "nowhere to go but back into her own mind."
According to Leonard Woolf, as quoted in Caramagmo, "I am sure that, when she had a breakdown, there was a moment when she passed from what can rightly be called sanity to insanity" (Caramagno 1992: 34). As contemporary medical evidence suggests, there is a series of moments of lucidity, the very essence of space/time experience that, in narrative terms, is captured in aphorism and metaphor, experienced by manic-depressives that charges the imagination and renders the individual temporarily captive to an euphoric thrall. In other words, the passage into a manic phase follows a temporal projectory akin to that conveyed through literary forms. The tragedy of this moment is that it is often irrevocable one's brilliance is lost almost simultaneously with experiencing its insights. Woolf, however, not only often captured these moments but also transformed them into art and distinct stylistic techniques. Combined with her consummate passion for the world of ideas and intellectualism, science and sentience intertwined in her work, particularly in her short fiction, or "sketches," as she called them.
Caramagno, by looking closely at Woolf's novels with the context of bipolar illness, has shown that Woolf's negotiating of subject-object relations results in a series of dichotomies and overlappings both within the characters' own thoughts and the narrative expressions of character and imagery that influence the fluidity of plot development. Dichotomies and overridings of imagery, narrative perspective and plot development abound in the short stories, especially as they relate to the questions of light, space and time. That Woolf was working with these images and their artistic possibilities over a period of time in even the short "sketches" is evident in both in the textual history and the story, "The Searchlight" (1939).3
The importance of light as both a literal and metaphorical preoccupation is established in the first paragraph wherein the light of the chandeliers, the absence of reflective moonlight and the probings of the searchlight across the night sky outside of London combine to set the scene, the focalization and the metaphorical direction of the story:
|The mansion of the eighteenth century Earl had been changed in the twentieth century into a Club. And it was pleasant after dining in the great room with the pillars and the chandeliers under a glare of light to go out on to the balcony overlooking the Park. The trees were in full leaf, and had there been a moon, one could have seen the pink and cream coloured cockades on the chestnut trees. But it was a moonless night; very warm, after a fine summer's day. (Woolf 1989: 269)|
The intense complications of light imagery, science and human emotion begin in the first paragraph. There the dichotomies between inside/outside, artificial/natural light and past/present are clearly established. In the former mansion of an Earl (past) now used as a Club (present), a group of friends move from beneath the chandelier (artificial light) dining table to the nightlit (natural light) balcony. At this point, however, there is a shift in narrative expectation, a shift of dichotomies: the reader expects the group to moving from artificial indoor light to natural outdoor nightlight. Instead, as the optic narrator tells us, what "would have" been seen in the moonlight the pink and cream cockades on the chestnut trees are hidden from the group by the fact that "it was a moonless night" (Woolf 1989: 269)
Yet precisely what the characters themselves could not see the cockades on the chestnut trees are seen by the reader through the shift in the narrative "lens," an optic refraction presented through the narrator's viewpoint. Along with this verbal shift comes a shift in the type of light imagery. From the "moonless night," a night lacking in natural reflective power, the group and the reader are placed on a balcony illuminated completely by the artificial light of the wartime searchlights. Even then, another turn takes place: "for a second a bright disc shone perhaps it was a mirror in a lady's handbag" (Woolf 1989: 269).
Within the space of these two highly condensed paragraphs, the light imagery, the narration and the emotional focus of the story have all been established and complicated. By the end of the second paragraph, the natural reflective power of the moon absent from that night sky has been replaced by the tenuousness of the possibility that it is the man-made reflective power of the mirror, shining brightly but for a moment, that will illuminate the group gathered on the balcony. In this way, Woolf sets up for the reader the suggestion that what insight the story may offer will be itself fleeting, made of the most vaporous of substances language. Momentarily, through the story of the young man with the telescope rushing out to meet the woman who would be the great-grandmother of the woman narrating the story-within-the-story, the reader takes a "flight of the mind." The vehicle for this flight and for Woolf's description of it is that of light and space, for the story moves back through time at several levels.
The means by which the reader is told this story inside the framing narrative is itself also a refraction of narration. The framing narrator moves aside as the woman telling her story comes into focus. But even within that shift there is yet another optic turn inward, into the "thoughts about the thoughts" of the narrator herself. For instance, as she begins to tell her story, she reflects that "I'm not young myself "(Woolf 1989: 269) Immediately within this thought another thought intrudes: "no, but she was very well set up and handsome" (Woolf 1989: 269). The complication of discourse here is such that it is difficult to say with certainty who is the narrator at this point. Is the woman reflecting on herself in third person? Has the narrator of the opening paragraph reasserted its presence? Or is this Woolf's use of the bipolar sensitivity to the often indistinguishable difference between oneself and the other, between the subject and the object relations of cognition?
That the story works simultaneously on several levels is what gives the contemporary reader satisfaction and prods one into that romantic state of mind Keats (1970: 43) referred to as "negative capability": the power to hold two opposing thoughts in mind at once without the sacrifice of either one. That narrative displacements, or refractions, make this possible can be seen at a simple level through the crisscrossing of narrators and stories: the framing narrative, the interpolated stories of the past and the present, as well as the shifts in voice, all of which are conveyed through the metaphors of light and dark, sky and earth, space and time.
The point at which these metaphors expressed as simultaneously as linear narration permit combine within the objective of the story itself occurs at the point when the framed story all attention is focused on the stars, both literally and figuratively. When the woman telling the story of the history of her genesis pauses in her subjective rendering of her great-grandfather's thoughts as he fixed his telescope to the night sky, she then pauses: "She was silent. They all looked at the stars that were coming out in the darkness over the trees. The stars seemed very permanent, very unchanging. The roar of London sank away. A hundred years seemed nothing. They felt that the boy was looking at the stars with them. They seemed to be with him, looking out over the moors at the stars" (Woolf 1989: 271). It is at this point that the story reaches its stillpoint wherein past, present, story and history become one. That this is true is reinforced by the next segment: "Then a voice behind them said: 'Right you are, Friday.' They all turned, shifted, felt dropped down on to the balcony again. "'Right you are, Friday" Ah, but there was nobody to say that to him,' she murmured. The couple rose and walked away" (Woolf 1989: 271). At this point the story reaches a momentary stasis of narrative oscillation. Just as earlier in the story "a bright disc shone," so now in echo "Right you are, Friday" a moment of nothingness is brought to presence. Time and space seem simultaneously to converge and change hands with each other. After this point a flight of the mind, a shift in mood the story returns to conventional narration.
The return to standard first-person dramatization is itself refracted through the irony of the boy with the telescope turning his lenses from watching the night stars to focusing on two figures on earth, meeting across the moors. It is by this action that he first sees the girl Mrs. Ivimey's great-grandmother and as a result of seeing her kiss another man drops his telescope and runs out across the fields, the lanes and the woods until, exhausted, he reaches the house where the girl has gone. This section of the story becomes the equivalent of manic euphoria, both for the boy and as the climax to the story. After this point Mrs. Ivimey herself trails off into flight, momentarily confuses herself with her great-grandmother and thus brings the story and the teller-the subject and its object-into a type of synchronistic harmony such as Woolf herself experienced during the manic episodes of her life.
Amidst this fugue moment, both in Mrs. Ivimey's fusion of self with past and the story's brief hiatus "But tell us, what about the other man, the man who came round the corner?" The searchlight, obverse the telescope, passes over the group and then moves on, returning Mrs. Ivimey to herself and the story only to again trail off: "That man? That man ... he, I suppose, vanished" (Woolf 1989: 272). And so too does the closure to the story. Without comment, the group then sets off for the play, and the light, as Mrs. Ivimey says, "only falls here and there."
Woolf's interest in the properties of light, their scientific complications and connections to specifically literary techniques involving space and time, were present at least from her earliest short fictions. Certainly these interests developed throughout the writing of her novels. Perhaps it is in these interests that Woolf found one of the most fruitful sources for tapping her own genius, a genius both hampered and aided by her own mania and depression. That even in these "sketches" she was artistically working out an optics of narration and a point of view that involved as closely as possible linguistic refractions of imagery and narrative voice seems beyond question. How deliberate Woolf was being in fashioning her narrative technique according to her knowledge of exact science must be inferred from what is known of her life and work and is commiserate with her passion for art and life whereby her work rises above the mark on the wall of measured time.
Within the wider study of twentieth century science and literature, then, Woolf's fictions of science and her narrative innovations within the science of fiction in these stories reveal what Taylor himself argues for science: "Science, then, is neither a mirror of nature nor intellectual anarchy. Rather it is a production of historically shifting social communities that rhetorically demarcate themselves from other communities" (Taylor 1996: 7). Just as myths and legends surround scientists and their findings, so to do fictions emerge from the scientific principles themselves. This is not to say that generically Woolf wrote "'science fictions" per se but that her interest in scientific principles lent to her fiction both an empirically verifiable authenticity and a narratively fascinating innovative technique that crosses the traditionally rigid boundaries constructed by scientists and literary critics alike who seek to keep literary artistry and scientific purity separate from one another.
Woolf, like Darwin, Einstein and Freud possessed a syncretistic vision wherein the world in all its disparate parts could yet be drawn together, if only for the fleeting moments during which the mind takes flight, through story language, through experimental samplings of ideas that received lengthier treatment in the design of her novels.
Furthermore, as Taylor suggests, the initial phase of twentieth century recognition that the boundaries between science, culture and art have been blurred is specifically timed with the span of Woolf's creative life (Taylor 1996: 110). Woolf's capturing of the effects of such unobservables as light rays, the dimensions of space and time, as well as the narrative innovations required to capture these effects, were aided by her illness, by the ability of the bipolar imagination to achieve a state of negative capability. Woolf's psychic discomfort, while it caused her great suffering and ultimately lead to her early death, also enabled her to break with 19th century narrative conventions to create fictions that must be understood within the context of her historical place in a century that even in its passing proved to be a future more astonishingly realized according to the principles of the exact sciences, perhaps, than any yet to date.
Caramagno, Thomas ( 1992): The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Everdell, William R. (1997): The First Moderns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Keats, John (1970): The Letters of John Keats: A Selection. Ed. R. Gittings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Southall, James P.C. (1964): Mirrors, Prisms and Lenses. New York: Dover.
Taylor, Charles Alan (1996): Defining Science: A Rhetoric of Demarcation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Whitworth, Michael H. (2001): Einstein's Wake: Relativity, Metaphor and Modernist Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Woolf, Virginia (1940): Roger Fry: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press.
Woolf, Virginia (1977): The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Volume One. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Woolf, Virginia (1980): The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Volume Three. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Woolf, Virginia (1989): Jacob's Room and The Waves. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Woolf, Virginia (1989): The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. 2nd ed. Ed . Susan Dick. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
1 Fry's interest in the science of nature was established in his childhood. His fascination with the effect of seeing the red poppies in his family garden is legendary. In gathering his family history, Fry's interest in science was reinforced by the power his great-grandfather Luke Howard (1772-1864) had on imagination. An essay written by Howard on the nomenclature of the clouds drew the attention of J. W. Goethe and inspired the poet to write a poem on the subject. See Woolf's biography on Roger Fry (Woolf 1940).2 The diary entry, dated May 28, 1929, indicates that Woolf had been preoccupied with this intersection between light, time and story construction long before she actually began work on The Moths: "I am not trying to tell a story Yet perhaps it may be done that way. A mind thinking. They might be islands of light islands in the stream I am trying to convey; life itself going on." (Woolf The Diary of Virginia Woolf . Volume Three 1980: 229. 3 See Susan Dick's note in The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf concerning John Graham's textual findings regarding the history of "The Searchlight," written over a period of ten years (303).