I’m interested that a person who thinks with the subtlety and fluidity of Virginia Woolf should be so propelled – energised even – by opposites. Opposites are not subtle. Opposites are not fluid. They are either / or. They require a certain dogmatic-ness. At their heart is an extravagance, even a frivolity.
And yet the more I read The Waves and the more I read Woolf’s Diaries, the more I notice it.
It’s there right at the very start in the colours, red versus green for example. In the garden at Elvedon there are green ferns, red fungus and apples that are “red with age.” There is also a toad (who must be green without saying so). Soon Ernest is kissing Florrie the housemaid. He is wearing a green baize apron and her skin is white but it turns red when he kisses her.
It’s not long before the children are frightened by something – it’s the gardener with a black beard. Bernard warns everyone to run into the woods to escape the danger (unless they want to be shot like jays and pinned to a wall). When they get away, Bernard reassures them that now they are safe.
All this is a child’s view of the world. If you are not safe you must be in danger and vice versa. The world offers itself in two contrasting colours.
Susan’s thoughts appear to bear out this idea:
“I love and I hate. I desire one thing only ….. Though my mother still knits white socks for me and hems pinafores and I am a child, I love and I hate.”
What can she mean by desiring one thing only? Does she mean she is able to exist only in one state or in its opposite? A sort of reversal of Keats’s negative capability? Not loving something means hating it, and vice versa.
It is all rather like an overly simple equation in which there is either an equals sign or an equals sign crossed out.
A while later (the children are away at school) Susan is remembering that she really only loves things that are at home: her father, her doves and the squirrel she left in a cage for the boy to look after. The very next paragraph takes us to Jinny and begins thus:
“I hate the small looking-glass on the stairs. It shows our heads only; it cuts off our heads.”
It turns out that there are are things about her own face that Jinny hates, such as the fact that she shows too much gum when she laughs and that her eyes are set too close together.
This little narrative fillip happens because writing about what Susan loves makes propels Virginia (almost merrily) into writing about what Jinny hates. She bounces from the end of one paragraph into the beginning of the next. I love and I hate. We are on a lovely little see-saw whose energy is so natural that we barely notice what is going on.
As it happens, Woolf’s Diaries are also full of this sort of thing. Virginia appears to be either suffering and ill and hiding away from visitors or walking, talking and furiously writing. It even appears when she is writing about writing. It even appears when she is writing about writing The Waves.
On one Boxing Day she is lamenting:
“I don’t have it in my head all day like the Lighthouse and Orlando”
By January 12th she is rejoicing:
“Sunday it is. And I have just exclaimed “And now I can think of nothing else….. I can no hardly stop making up The Waves.”
Each condition brings its own acute discomforts but there is nothing to suggest that Woolf could ever be happy in any sort of mid-state (just as Susan could not). This is made explicit when she writes in October 1929:
“If I never felt these extraordinarily pervasive strains – of unrest or rest or happiness or discomfort – I should float down into acquiescence.”
For acquiescence read melancholy or listlessness, the blank state of not writing and not feeling of which Virginia was so afraid.
In fact, a rather simple aesthetic opposition lies at the heart of The Waves – that between the interludes and the thought-worlds of the ‘characters’. As we have already seen, the nine interludes move us through time, from sunrise to sunset and darkness. We are shown the world as it is – whether this is an interior where light falls upon a chair, a table etc. or outdoors as waves crash on a beach. The interludes are where things take over from minds. (Things are probably the opposite of minds.)
Virginia writes about this in various ways in her Diaries. Here (before the novel became The Waves) it is expressed as movement versus stasis, or as horizontality versus verticality:
“I must have the two different currents – the moths flying along; the flower upright in the centre.”
Elsewhere she insists on the importance of the interludes in their dwelling on “the sea, insensitive nature”. She doesn’t need to say that the sea is the opposite of the excruciating sensitivity and permeability of the ‘characters’.
The Waves does two things – it hurtles forwards until it ceases in order to stand and stare at the world.
Close to the beginning of the novel Rhoda reflects on the way in which life proceeds – which she says is by “intermittent shocks”. This is not a child’s thought. I think it must be Virginia’s.
Shocks derive their energy from contrast. We are shocked when we see a red apple lying beside a green fern because it seems not to belong there. A shock like this is largely pleasurable. We are shocked when someone dies because it is a reversal – the opposite of presence and being and thought and laughter. A shock like this makes the world come to an end.
And so now I find I am rethinking my original idea that opposites do not belong in a mind like Virginia’s. In fact, perhaps the reverse is the case.
A mind that is so precariously poised on the edge of suffering may be bound to experience the world as jolts and disturbances, as a series of unbalancing either / ors. After all, a sheet of tissue paper can be made to shake and flutter and lose its shape by an interference as delicate as breathing.