[Vwoolf] Number 1 misreading of Woolf?

mhussey at verizon.net mhussey at verizon.net
Thu May 21 15:34:59 EDT 2020

I think it also helps to think of the essay (especially in its initial 1919 version) as a gambit in the debate going on about fiction and character in the 1920s. Also, trying to identify nuggets of truth in Woolf is like trying to pick up mercury with one’s fingers (which is a strong memory from schooldays in the chemistry lab!).

And, as Jeremy suggests, “spiritual” is deployed as an antonym for “materialist” in Woolf’s taxonomy of writers; it can be substituted by any number of other terms (endlessly deferred, as Derrida—pace Stuart—might say).


From: Michael Schrimper <Michael.Schrimper at colorado.edu> 
Sent: Thursday, May 21, 2020 1:57 PM
To: Jeremy Hawthorn <jeremy.hawthorn at ntnu.no>; cfroula at northwestern.edu
Cc: mhussey at verizon.net; Woolf Listserv <vwoolf at lists.service.ohio-state.edu>
Subject: Re: [Vwoolf] Number 1 misreading of Woolf?


Like any decent essay since Montaigne, this one in question wanders. At times it contradicts itself. In my view Woolf ultimately proposes that “everything is the proper stuff of fiction; whatever one honestly thinks; whatever one honestly feels.” And the modern fiction writer can do anything, use whatever method they choose, in order to achieve this honesty, the emptying out of falsity. 


This proposal at the conclusion of the essay would be an endorsement of the collection of atoms method, then, but it would also open up Woolf’s support of all other kinds of methods; the idea is to rebuke falsity. 


I think that the levels of contradiction we see in this essay show that Woolf really used this essay as an opportunity to think.


In regard to Woolf’s own relation to the moderns of whom she speaks, the way that the essay collects its thoughts as it goes, no matter how they will be negated later (the proper stuff of fiction is X; there is no proper stuff), itself is illustrative of the collection of atoms method; all impressions are recorded.



Michael R. Schrimper

Ph.D. Student, Department of English

University of Colorado Boulder

Traditional Territories of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute Nations

 <https://www.colorado.edu/english/michael-schrimper> https://www.colorado.edu/english/michael-schrimper


On Thu, May 21, 2020 at 2:25 AM Jeremy Hawthorn via Vwoolf <vwoolf at lists.osu.edu <mailto:vwoolf at lists.osu.edu> > wrote:

On 18.05.2020 14:58, mhussey at verizon.net <mailto:mhussey at verizon.net>  wrote:

I don’t quite agree with Naremore here. Woolf mentions Joyce as ‘the most notable’ of ‘several young writers’ who are chafing at convention, and I think it is reasonable to see herself as implicitly included among those ‘young writers’. Her complaint about Joyce is more specific; his (narrative) ‘self’ ‘never embraces or creates what is outside itself and beyond’, he lays a ‘didactic’ emphasis upon indecency.  I don’t think those writers you quote are taking the lines from ‘Modern Fiction’ out of context, and it seems to me reasonable to take the essay (in both its 1919 and 1925 iterations) as a modernist manifesto, though not necessarily as a recipe for how to make a Woolf novel.


Well this and Christine Froula's response sent me back to reread "Modern Fiction" - which I have now done more than once. One conclusion I am sure of: Woolf does not "advise," or "instruct" or "insist" (all verbs used by the critics who I quoted) that the novelist "record the atoms &c &c." In the closing lines of the essay she writes: "nothing - no 'method', no experiment, even of the wildest - is forbidden, but only falsity and pretence. 'The proper stuff of fiction' does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss."

But does she include herself among the "young writers, among whom Mr James Joyce is the most notable" whose work contains a quality that distinguishes it from that of their predecessors? This is a more difficult question. To me, her criticism of Joyce in the essay would suggest that she does not, as does her praise of Conrad, Hardy, Sterne, Chekhov and Thackeray. Taken together, this means that she criticises quite strongly the only representative of the "young writers" that she names, while asserting the superiority of the work of five pre-modern writers to his fiction.

Taking up Christine Froula's question, I admit to being puzzled by "the spiritual Mr Joyce," especially when his work fails because of "the comparative poverty of his mind." He is spiritual because "he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain." I take it that "spiritual" is chosen to distinguish him from the "materialists" from whom she distances herself; Joyce is not interested in objects outside the self but in processes inside it. But it is an odd use of "spiritual."

Incidentally, Woolf's complaint about the emphasis on indecency in Joyce is somewhat at odds with her praise of Sterne. In his introduction to Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (Penguin edition, 2001), Paul Goring quotes Woolf's view that with Sterne "we are as close to life as we can be," notes her praise of Sterne's "many passages of . . . pure poetry," and references her quotation from the Paris scenes in Sterne's work. But Goring notes that Woolf appears to be completely oblivious of the succession of sexual innuendos in the passage she quotes to illustrate Sterne's "pure poetry."

Jeremy H


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