…or the problem of ravenous identity
Virginia wrote in her Diary on December 22nd 1930 that while listening to a Beethoven quartet she had the idea of ending Bernard’s final speech with the words ‘O solitude.’ In fact, the novel closes on the words ‘O Death!’ (capital D and an exclamation mark).
I would love to know which quartet she was listening to in order to be put in mind of aloneness. Perhaps one of the bleak late ones like the Op. 32 in A minor where the instruments seem at times to be painfully exposed, together but alone at the same time.
However, Woolf must have had a change of heart about the novel’s closing idea. In fact, the final note is one of almost swashbuckling defiance:
“I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!”
The word ‘solitude’ could not be dropped into this sentence. It would make no sense. O Death! is so … histrionic, almost like something from a hymn. And of course, there’s the spondee which is so much more blunt and unarguable than the waltzing syllables of sol-i-tude.
Bernard’s flinging of himself prompts me to turn back to an earlier passage in the novel where he reflects that:
“To be myself I need the illumination of other people’s eyes and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.”
His thoughts move on:
“The authentics like Louis, like Rhoda, exist most completely in solitude. They resist illumination and duplication.”
The most interesting thing in those two sentences is the splitting of myself into two words. Myself is a figure or a person, an entity. My self is a possession. In order to be oneself (one word) it is necessary to know or find the self one owns (two words).
This is not the only time the word is bisected and it demonstrates Woolf’s deep preoccupation with what defines an individual and distinguishes him/her from all the other people in the world.
Indeed, the novel is full of moments when the characters reflect on what it is that allows them to be fully and entirely themselves. They all notice things that distract / detract from this and the things that seem to make it happen more easily. They are all quite obsessed by ideas of identity and selfhood, although these are entirely metaphysical concerns (no identity politics here!)
What emerges over and again is the apparent fact that it is other people who either complete or dismantle the self. We’ve already heard Bernard identifying as ‘authentic’ the friends who are most themselves when they are alone. One such is Neville who senses that he is impinged upon and actively depleted by being with others:
“Yet how painful to be recalled, to be mitigated, to have one’s self adulterated, mixed up, become part of another. As he approaches I become not myself but Neville mixed with somebody…”
In the first sentence, the word self is again made separate. It might almost be italicised. Oneself would not do here at all.
Bernard believes that he needs to be beheld in order to be fully real. He is like the prism which must have light in order to glitter and shine. Elsewhere, he refers to the “unwholesome draperies” of solitude which seem to muffle him up and blot out sensation. What he longs for is jostle, and to mix with the unpredictable and unpredicted hither and thither of conversation – even if this is only with a waiter about wine.
Early in the novel there is a ball. Ginny and Susan are there, flitting and floating like clever little boats on a sea of dance of chatter. Rhoda is there too but she is flung about like a cork, “broken into separate pieces.” Full of terror, she walks out onto a balcony and finds comfort in two lovers standing under a plane tree in the square below.
What is comforting is that they are too far away to have faces. She finds solace in their statue-ness which seems to provide reassurance that there is after all “a world immune from change.”
It’s also interesting that what is needed for the self to be whole and unperturbed can also apply to language. Very early in the novel Bernard reflects that the best phrases are “made in solitude” and need “some final refrigeration”. Elsewhere he’s convinced that it’s observation – the pouring in of sensations and impressions – that sets sentences in motion. Daily life is the “cauldron” from which a sentence may be extracted like:
“a string of six little fish that let themselves be caught while a million others leap and sizzle…”
As is so often the case with Woolf, two things can be true at the same time.
Because we know how closely Virginia associates aliveness with the act of writing, it’s no surprise to find that whatever detracts from a sense of self also detracts from the ability to make sentences and images.
I find it fascinating that we are returning to the same ideas and dilemmas as when we were thinking about Woolf’s “things”. She loves the hither and thither of daily life in all its ordinariness – but she also cannot bear it. Or perhaps it is that she can only bear it for so long.
Words and phrases are just the same as people. They need to be set alight in the flicker of life and then left alone to solidify into their true selves – still and silent as statues.