May 04, 2007

Notes from the 16th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf

I have typed up my notes from a few papers that I saw at the conference.

Carol Dell’ Amico, California State University
‘The bounds of sympathy: Mrs Dalloway and Mcewan’s Saturday

Dell’ Amico defines Mrs Dalloway and Saturday as flâneur novels and using Glissant’s The Poetics of Relation describes these books as ‘texts of errantries. The protagonists are global wanders that consolidate their root identity through wandering. Thus Joyce’s Ulysses becomes a novel of Irish independence. There are relational root identities: groups, polarities etc. The flâneur leaves home in order to find selfhood.

Dell’ Amico discusses the ironic shipping out of English identity in Mrs Dalloway and points out that it relies on many stereotypes of English life: different classes and ethnicities. A relation is set up between the self and other selves, nations and other nations.

In Saturday, the central character of Henry Perowne is rather like Clarissa Dalloway, while his double in the piece – the working class Baxter – becomes a Septimus Smith type figure. In this book, the relationship between self and nation are problematised: how should one respond to other nations? Mcewan describes Perowne walking through a fish market and imagining the howls of anguish that would be heard if fish could express their suffering. Here is the question of moral sympathy and how to extend it to fish, foxes and Jihadists?

Interestingly, both books present reactions to a world crisis: the Armenian crisis in Clarissa Dalloway’s case and the attack on the World Trade Centre in that of Henry Perwone.
Dell’Amico heer brings in the example of when Clarissa Dalloway thinks of (what now is known to be) the Armenian genocide. Can Clarissa care about more than the local and personal?

And people would say, ‘Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt’. She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again) – no she couldn’t feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? But she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?) – the only flowers she could bear to see cut.

Here Dell’ Amico brings in Saul Bellow’s Herzog and its notions of suffering. She notes the courtroom scene in which Moses watches the abusers and the abused and is overwhelmed with empathy for their distress. Are there limits to one’s ability to eradicate suffering? Becoming a sponge for suffering certainly results in paralysis and madness in this novel.

Why are the characters at the centre of Mrs Dalloway and Saturday bearers of limited sympathy? Is because as in Herzog , to feel unbounded sympathy is untenable? In spite of their limits, Clarissa Dalloway and Henry Perowne are open to be being touched, to being sympathetic yet this remains within the limits of the local and personal. This however is a way of reforming the world even if it is in a local, personal sense.

Jocelyn Slovak
‘Ethel Smyth: Insider or Outsider’

This paper focuses on Dame Ethyl Smyth – composer, musician and suffragist – whom Woolf regarded in an ambivalent manner. I found this paper interesting in relation to my own, because Slovak presents an account by Woolf about Smyth that admires how Smyth ‘loses self-consciousness completely’. As I argue in my paper, to be unconscious of the scrutiny of others is a state much desired by Woolf. Interestingly, Woolf also stated that she loathed egotism and this is the source of her ambivalence about Smyth.

Sophie Blanch, University of Sussex
‘Woolf, writing, wit: pushing back the boundaries of the serious’

Blanch writes this paper to bring out the playfulness and pleasure in Woolf that is often ignored. Humour can be an inflammatory device that performs transformations. Humour is dangerous and laughter is a refusal.

Woolf thought that to have one’s character as a mouthpiece for one’s views would create a distortion and cause weakness. One should be an artist rather than a performer, a butterfly rather than a gadfly. However, many comic techniques performed transformational gender play.

Blanch gives a number of examples. Rose Macauley’s Dangerous Ages in which humour and dislocation coexists in a middle aged lady’s perception of ‘twinkling irony’. In Elizabeth Bowen’s short story, ‘Daffodils’, a spinster school teacher fears being laughed at and The Heat of the Day considers women laughing at other women. Blanch concludes that there is a doubleness between the comic and the serious here that allows the writers to damn certain kinds of behaviour obliquely.

Blanch concludes by noting Woolf’s reaction to Laycock’s study of humour, Frenzied Fictions. In a study (essay or book?), ‘Loud Laughter’ (1918), Woolf admires the tangled rubbish of the music hall because it has something to do with human nature. She also admires the wit of Stern, Swift and Dorothy Osbourne.

My notes run out here, but I was rather interested in this paper in relation to my own work, because I think that farce is an important part of Mrs Dalloway and Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight . The authors encourage identification with the heroine via a stream of consciousness, yet then that heroine is deflated. Perhaps I need to bring out this farcical element in writing on these books.

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