the Susan-ness of Susan

I know very little about Jungian archetypes and the collective unconscious etc., but thinking about The Waves gave me an idea that made me want to dig a little deeper into Jungian territories. My starting point was reading again Woolf’s interludes and feeling there was something more I wanted to say but having only the vaguest inkling as to what it was.

But it started something like this… When Woolf says ‘the sea‘ which sea does she have in mind? Does she hold in her head a particular beloved place in Sussex or Cornwall? Or is she ‘just’ imagining sea? 

I read that Jungian archetypes are based in part on Plato’s ‘Forms’. According to Plato there are two worlds – our visible world of objects which we can see, hear, touch, smell etc and another elsewhere world of unseen Forms which we apprehend using reason. Forms are perfect and timeless and changeless. A particular chair (and Woolf is rather fond of chairs) can only ever participate in and be an instance of chair-ness (or is it Chair-ness)?

If we go to a friend’s house we recognise chairs and know that we may sit down on one of them. We recognise the four-legged object with its plush cushion because we have seen many others. We might on occasion say “what a lovely chair” because we think this one a particularly beautiful example.

But I can’t imagine what we would say if we went to the other elsewhere world and met chair-ness in its ideal perfect form. Would it be like meeting God perhaps? We would most likely be speechless.

All of which brings me back to Woolf’s sea / waves. Is her sea an instance of the sea or is it sea / sea-ness in its ideal, changeless Form?  In other words, does she want her sea to be somewhere we might actually go and paddle, or is it a more abstract / abstracted place that she wants to make exist primarily in the imagination? (The imagination, after all, might have something to do with that other elsewhere world…)

So I re-read very carefully all the interludes and made notes in columns to find out exactly how Woolf writes about the sea and waves. It didn’t take long for my lists to reveal that her sea spends far more time doing than being. In fact, I could find less than ten instances of the sea being (ie ‘the sea was/is + adjective’). On the first page it is a grey cloth and it is like a sleeper. Somewhere else it is indistinguishable from the sky. 

But most of the time the sea is very busy. It becomes barred, its waves sweep and fan, they fall with a regular thud, with the concussion of horses’ hooves, they drum like turbaned men, their spray rises like the tossing of lances and assegais, they draw in and out with the muscularity of an engine, they fall like a wall, like a stone wall, like a great beast stamping, they leave a black rim of twigs. It might be more accurate to say that Woolf’s sea is most of the time busy doing what waves do. The sea does not exist simply by being there.

And so to Susan who is an exemplar of how Woolf draws all the characters in The Waves. (I love Susan but I promise I will also write about other characters soon.) We have no idea what she looks like, although we do know that her nails are bitten. We may occasionally see her from the outside  – as when Neville sits in the restaurant impatient for Percival to arrive, observing the manner of arrival of each of the friends who is not Percival. Bernard thinks she has eyes like lumps of crystal. Louis thinks that to be loved by Susan would be to be impaled by a bird’s sharp beak.

These are not descriptions that help us to imagine what Susan looks like. We may learn how a particular character stands or smooths their hair or that they are wearing the wrong clothes. But as for brown eyes, blue eyes, fatness or thinness or height we are left to make it up for ourselves.

Mostly we experience Susan from the inside out. We learn which words and phrases she keeps returning to when she is thinking, the ways in which she describes herself to herself, the things she chooses to remember and the things she can’t forget, the way she regards the others, the way she believes they regard her, the things that make her suffer or delight. And so forth. Susan’s mind is always in motion, always engrossed in the business of thinking. All this is extraordinarily vivid, to the point of being almost unbearable.

Which brings me very close to using the word Susan-ness. Susan is not an archetype , but neither is she quite a mere person. We understand certain things about her, all of which seem important: that she loves her father and her setters, that she enjoys the stare of shepherds met in the road, that she knows she does not dress well like Rhoda or Jinny. Susan accepts that she will become like her mother:

“silent in a blue apron locking up the cupboards.”

(Yes, I realise that there is an adjective here, but I would argue that the ‘silent’ is the silence of someone engrossed in being busy.)

We understand what is essential to Susan and what is essentially her. Rather than being a character, might she perhaps be a figure (which brings me even closer to using the word Form)? What Woolf gives us is the tough, inalienable essence of Susan, which is expressed by the things Susan thinks and does rather than by telling the reader what she is like.  Show don’t tell. Susan is unarguable and adamantine.

Or, Susan is like the sea. She enacts her Susan-ness in the same way as the sea enacts its sea-ness using its waves. Each does the things that make it itself. There is something unarguable about this way of being. (We might disagree about whether or not a friend is a patient person, but we cannot dispute the fact that they waited for a year to buy a puppy.)

Put differently, we might say that Woolf is never content to simply let things be… All must be perpetually set into motion, spun and spun around again to the point of shimmeringness.

Stillness as inexistence.

Woolf was thus in her own life, flickering and flaring at every moment so as to register a change in the light on the Downs, a quirk of syntax in an admired writer or an unkind remark from a friend. Often all this would become too much for her.

What she asks over and again in The Waves is what makes the sea the sea, what makes Susan Susan. And her answers do not live in adjectives but in verbs. And in verbs are contained the changeless timeless essence of the Form.

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