Friday, September 26, 2008

James and Woolf

This is a short thing written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one ends without a conclusion.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.


Objectivity and subjectivity, so we are told, didn’t exist until fairly recently. At least, this is the case with the sophisticated concepts these terms might refer to. Some of what they refer to, at least in part, might seem to be very old, and some quite indispensable to the very idea of being sentient. These would surely be large currents in the history of evolution, the history of ideas and culture, indeed, the history of history, to take hold of and pull apart. One strand of this larger web, however, is the history of our linguistic representation of our subjectivity, or—somewhat less pretentiously—how we represent the first-person point of view. How do we explain what it is like to be in our minds? And this question flows directly, for the poet or novelist, into how do we write like what it is to be in our minds?

James answers the first question by way of articulating a list of phenomena encountered while thinking and I should like to bridge to my second question, and Woolf, in talking about James. Woolf’s problem is not how we might better articulate our conception of consciousness, but how we might write to make the reader feel as though they are taking on the consciousness of another, how it might feel to have someone else’s first-person point of view. James’ list is convenient because he does quite well in listing the kinds of effects a writer needs to produce in the reader. James doesn’t get caught up in the problems of ontology, but rather wants to help us talk about what is going on whether or not we are happy with our descriptions of what the “what” is, “the fact of thinking itself.” (James, 224) James reorients us to the phenomenological standpoint and moves on with listing the phenomena, the facts of how we perceive. The first is, of course, that every thought is some person’s thought: “It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned.” (ibid., 226)

For James this might drown us in questions about how a presumably non-spatial entity might have a “location” (after all, a spatial metaphor itself), but for Woolf, this translates into a narrative perspective that always hovers around the mind of some person. Woolf writes from a perspective that occasionally rises above the action, to narrate completely in the third-person, and she occasionally dips completely within the consciousness of a character, written in first-person, but for most of Mrs. Dalloway the action is depicted in a third-person stream of consciousness, sometimes termed a “free indirect style.” The effect is a narration of events, not as God might see them, but as this one character sees them, a third-person point of view from the interior of a person’s mind.

Woolf “locates” the reader’s point of view by the use of the character’s full or proper name, for instance “Mrs. Dalloway” or “Septimus Warren Smith.” We are introduced to our first consciousness with the first line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” (Woolf, 3) And with that we are plunged into her mind. This plunge effect is created by the narration not using quotation marks when narrating an interior thought, leaving us in a state of ambiguity. Take this sequence:
“But she’s extraordinarily attractive, he thought, as, walking across Trafalgar Square in the direction of the Haymarket, came a young woman who, as she passed Gordon’s statue, seemed, Peter Walsh thought (susceptible as he was), to shed veil after veil, until she became the very woman he had always had in mind; young, but stately; merry, but discreet; black, but enchanting.” (ibid., 52)
We can conceive, and are led to believe, that Peter literally has the thought “But she’s extraordinarily attractive” cross his mind, but then a further use of the same signal, “…, X thought,…” gives us a third-person narration, given away by the pronoun, “until she became the very woman he had always had in mind.” This happens consistently throughout the novel, adding to the effect of floating, bobbing in the air near the action.

There’s an ethical dimension to all this centering on the first-person point of view, on subjectivity. Given the seeming necessity of beginning with the Cartesian standpoint, of our inability to ever quite fully scrape off the subjectivity of our statements, there has been no end of consternation over this effect on Truth. There’s no better meditation on this than watching Woolf’s characters recapitulate their own pasts as motivations for present actions. When the past is linked to our memory, tricky problems appear. One prime example is Clarissa’s relation to Peter. Early in the story we get, “So she would still find herself arguing in St. James’s Park, still making out that she had been right—and she had too—not to marry him.” (ibid., 7) Given the techniques that Woolf is using, it is ambiguous as to whether the italicized part is an objective pronouncement on her life, or a subjective reiteration (and possibly one of self-convincing). And then we compare this line with what we receive of Clarissa’s inner state when she actually sees Peter: “Now of course, thought Clarissa, he’s enchanting! perfectly enchanting! Now I remember how impossible it was ever to make up my mind—and why did I make up my mind—not to marry him? she wondered, that awful summer?” (ibid., 41) It makes us wonder whether any of our statements of truth are anything more than emotive or different degrees of superlative emphasis.


Works Cited

James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications, 1890, 1918.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1925, 1953.