Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Silent Woolf

In 2005, Ann Rosén and Sten-Olof Hellström assembled speakers on a scaffold surrounding empty space; low frequency sound pumped into the space so that sonorous wavelengths met and canceled one another out, creating continually moving spaces of silence. Spatial Silences asked the audience to believe what they could not see, what they could not hear. The installation created ambiguity among the audience as to whether silence even exists at all, and if they thought they ‘had it,’ what exactly did they have? (Schrimshaw 2) Thus, forcing the focus inwards, to their own silence.

Silence’s illusive nature has been a source of intrigue over time, allowing individuals and groups to use it in various ways. Within the Western culture for instance, it is common to observe a moment of silence for the passing of life. Silence has been used in the United States legal system as a way to reject self-incrimination by invoking one’s Fifth Amendment rights. Within the Eastern community, it can reflect religious reverence; monastic communities observe silence in the morning and through breakfast as a way to come into communion with a higher power. In Japanese culture, silence is utilized as just one component of their communication style, often asserting it during business negotiations with Westerners “as a strategy to unnerve them.”[1] Whether it assigns personal control to one’s voice or shows the inability to express appropriate language at the appropriate time, humans are in constant desire of the intangible silence. Whatever way humans use silence, in the case of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, the empowering and debilitating role of silence oscillates, it often expresses a tension brought on by war - both micro and macro - and it exposes Woolf’s views of the creative during wartime, aggregately expressing a multitudinous role of silence.

Woolf, wrote “in August, 1940, for an American symposium on current matters concerning women” (TPA 173) that women’s roles during wartime was extremely important in that they had the opportunity to push against the conventions and – through thought – the highly charged atmosphere. She characterized silence, in this respect, as the unspoken action through a very active mind. She called on women in the essay “Thoughts of Peace in an Air Raid” to mentally fight against the current of the status quo, to think peace for the men who were out fighting the war. The title alone demonstrates the telepathy she desired and essentially, called on women to empower themselves during a precarious time. “Mental fight,” she said, “means thinking against the current” (TPA 174), a trajectory that was calling for more bloodshed and the loss of innocent lives. This idea of ‘mental fight’ she credited to Blake, who in his poem “Jerusalem” disavowed submitting to the dark days by fighting using the strength and ingenuity of the psyche. Silence for her meant the attempt to ease the destructive forces of war using the creativity boundless in the mind. However, while silence, with reference to concentrating the thoughts in order to making sense of the senseless and generate the feminine power from within, was conjured up, it conversely had a negative connotation when silence was made doubly manifest.

For Woolf, it could mean “[a]t any moment a bomb may fall on this very room […] during those seconds of suspense all thinking stopped” (TPA 176). Here, the role of silence is one that highlights loss, stripping the hearer of the very ownership of their thoughts. War clears out the mental cavity, leaving nothing, just as the bombs fall and destroy all that had stood. Similarly, she notes in a diary entry of August 1940 “[w]ill [the bomb] drop I asked? If so, we shall be broken together. I thought, I think, of nothingness […]” (410). Evidently, Woolf’s view of the war expresses the desire to control the contents of her mind, but at the same time reflects the vulnerable state with which it left her in.

In Between the Acts, for example, silence occurs in this submissive state where emptiness and the loss of words express the destructive forces looming. For instance, there are five uses of silence and five uses of emptiness (BTA 22) followed by language that suggests the impending war. The silent and empty room, which Candish surveys, is described like a “shell, singing of what was before time was” (ibid.). This description not only points to the shells of guns left over from a battle and the ringing of the ears after a bomb has exploded, but also, the language here reflects Woolf’s darker feelings about what war brings, nothing. This harkens back to the cesspool as well. Dried up, hollowed out so-to-speak, the viewer can “see plainly marked, the scars made by the Britons; by the Romans; by the Elizabethan manor house; and by the plough, when they ploughed the hill to grow wheat in the Napoleonic wars” (BTA 1). And yet, leaving the traces of what was suggests resilience in the aftermath. After all, both the room and Pointz Hall have been in the same family for generations.

Woolf’s thematic use of traces – crucially modernistic, expressed through the “orts, scraps and fragments” (BTA 116,133), the words that seem to be disjointed and blown away by the wind, or even the ringing left over from a bomb – represent those silent moments as resilience and hope. Trace in the Derridian sense reflects things existing because of their difference to their opposite. Silence, for instance, exists when the words, the utterance, are blown away; yet, those words still exist. Trace, naturally, has a foundation from which it came to be: the Heideggerian concept of ‘Being,’ which Derrida translates as a “‘voice of being’ […] silent, mute, insonorous, wordless, originally a-phonic” (316), still has a voice however intangible. Furthermore, according to Derrida’s reading of Heidegger, “between ‘the call of being,’ and articulated sound; such as rupture […] translates the ambiguity of the Heideggerian situation with respect to the metaphysics of presence and logocentrism” (ibid.). ‘Rupture’ here equates to the Woolfian silence, where the break occurs as the utterance leaves the speaker traveling to the hearer, and if the audience cannot hear it, must that call into question its existence? Spatial Silences rejects that claim, while at the same time an individual’s interaction with the work welcomes the doubt. The ambiguity, thus, exists within the realm of its emotional codification, where Woolf oscillates between the positive silence containing a regenerating quality and the negative that destroys all evidence of being, the pure essence of the individual and the collective, and consequently, where the tension can be located

For example, Woolf notes in her diary, “[b]ut perhaps next week will be more solitudinous – I should, if it weren’t for the war – glide my way up and up into the exciting layer so rarely lived in: where my mind works so quick it seems asleep; like the aeroplane propellers” (376). The war has the ability to take over so much so that she refers to her mind like the aeroplane propellers that will in Between the Acts ‘severe[]’ the word ‘opportunity’ (119); cutting off the reverends line of thought. When at times the reader will witness Woolf’s staunch refusal of allowing the enemy to gain control of her thoughts, there also exists a debilitating layer, particularly for a person who sees the new (war) technology and its powerful presence that entertains the notion of complete destruction, both physically and mentally. During the heightened use of propaganda by the Third Reich, “employees of the monitoring service were subject to nervous breakdowns” (Lewty 163) because of the language infiltrating their minds, attempting to control their thoughts. This paranoid, anxious version of silence infiltrates ‘opportunity’ because war can evidently take away one’s control over their minds. Moreover, since Woolf saw violence silencing the essence of creation, Candish looks through eyes that are wrought with tension, sees emptiness, and the reader is placed on the brink where something will happen. Consequently, the exhausted use of emptiness and silence (BTA 22) is followed with the entrance of Mrs. Manresa.

Silence here emphasizes Isa’s passive disapproval of the bond between Giles and Mrs. Manresa. For Isa though, it is not the prospect of an affair, she states after all, “[i]t made no difference; his infidelity […]” (BTA 69), but rather the woman whom he is fond of and whom Isa looks upon disapprovingly. She sees her as a disingenuous person, who dresses and acts too vulgarly, and she responds silently in her criticism, noting “‘[o]r what are your rings for, and your nails, and that really adorable little straw hat?’” (BTA 23) In fact, the moment when Isa feels Mrs. Manresa’s genuine nature, Mrs. Manresa has stripped herself of her decor, by rolling in the grass naked (BTA 26). Moreover, the observation of Mrs. Manresa’s vulgarity echoes Woolf’s disapproval of those women who believe they have no appropriate place in the political arena, and who instead enable the will for domination. She states, “women with crimson lips and crimson fingernails. They are slaves who are trying to enslave” (TPA 174). Woolf reflects here upon the negative version of trace in the master/slave dynamic.[2] She also refers here to women who are concerned only with their outward appearance being aligned with those men who are desirous of decorative medals; traditions, which teach that women ought to be pretty and men ought to be glorious. These emblems of pride produce nothing creative within, according to Woolf. She views them rather as the tools, spawned from the desire for power, which create the Hitlers of the world. Accordingly, Isa looks upon Mrs. Manresa as a shell. She describes her red nails “smooth as shells” (BTA 23) and teaching the women of town how to make “frivolous baskets out of coloured straw” (BTA 26). This basket mirrors what both Woolf and Isa see as hollow women, painted and pretty but containing nothing of substance. Silence in this case refers to the empty and uncreative aspects of war and strife. Moreover, after Isa notes Mrs. Manresa’s look, she “address[es] Mrs. Manresa silently and thereby making silence add it’s unmistakable contribution to talk” (BTA 23). In other words, she silently disapproves of Mrs. Manresa in an ostensibly passive-aggressive way. This passiveness though contrasts sharply with Mrs. Haines anger towards Isa in the beginning of the novel, and therefore, reflects the degenerative effects of silence in the negative.

Like Mrs. Manresa to Giles, Isa looks at Rupert Haines with desire. She feels Byron’s poetry encircle the two of them, describes herself and him as swans floating downstream, and characterizes his silence as one that denotes passion (BTA 2). This telepathic communion is so strong that even Mrs. Haines “was aware of the emotion circling them, excluding her” (ibid.) that upon rising to leave scolds Isa for not “recogniz[ing] my existence” (BTA 3). The difference here lies in the way each woman reacts to the other. Mrs. Haines reprimands Isa immediately and vocally extinguishes any further interaction between the two. She allows the passion for only a moment, but in the car ride home will “destroy it” (ibid.). There are multiple ways Woolf utilizes silence to discuss the two moments of emotional and physical adultery. Silence, as mentioned, refers to the passion and emotion floating between Isa and Rupert, just as the pockets of silence created in the installation exist even though they do so in the intangible realm. But it also refers to asserting disapproval without destroying or controlling the other. Mrs. Haines creates a silent void through her destruction, so much so that Isa only notes Rupert Haines when she sees him later as ‘the man in grey,’ referring to him as one who has been placed in an interstitial space. The grey denotes neither black, nor white but in between, and while their brief relationship was one that circled the air in a physically intangible – albeit emotional – fashion, Mrs. Haines has destroyed even the entertainment of passion.

The narrative ostensibly pays preference to Isa the poet, which further illustrates Woolf’s delineation of Isa’s silence as a creative force. War destroys, creates nothing or rather silences those creative impetuses. For Woolf, according to Alex Zwerdling, “Isa’s poetry must be seen simply as an escape from the tensions and abrasions of the real world in which she finds herself” (231), thus utilizing her poetry to, if not gain control of her surroundings, at least harness her thoughts. Consequently, she does so under the cover of silence, so as not to initiate her husband’s disapproving tongue by her playing anything other than the role of mother and wife, avoiding the inevitable confrontation. However, Isa is not a victim, nor faultless. She thinks destructively (BTA 34, 129), revealing in the narrative that feelings do not need to be acted upon, but can be transferred through the emotional will.

Isa notes, for instance, “[s]he could feel the Manresa in [Giles] wake […] (BTA 69). This emotional charge, floating in the ether, Isa observes just in the same way which Mrs. Haines notes the feeling of passion engulfing Isa and Rupert Haines. Isa, however, interacts with the moment silently, however much she can feel Mrs. Manresa. She, moreover, does not need to react against Mrs. Manresa, who is more of an irritant,[3] but her husband, who entertains the hollow, with whom she will battle. Precisely why, in the end, Isa knows that her and Giles “must fight, as the dog fox fights with the vixen, in the heart of darkness, in the fields of night” (BTA 136). This change from passive to active fighting will also bear “another life” (ibid.), one of the most natural acts we humans possess. Furthermore, if, as she has said, women ought to think peace for the men at war in order to, in some telepathic way, inspire peace and creation within the community, then by the act of bearing life after the fight, Isa and Giles’ war has a creative element. Moreover, the difference exists where the battles are chosen. It is not, as Woolf suggests:

[…] that we are free people, fighting to defend freedom. That is the current that has whirled the young airman up into the sky and keeps him circling there among the clouds. […] We are both prisoners tonight – he boxed up on his machine with a gun handy; we lying in the dark with a gas-mask handy. If we were free we should be out in the open, dancing, at the play, or sitting at the window talking together. (TPA 174)

Those notions, which imprison, are ones that have been passed down, infiltrating the mind for generations. Conversely, it is rather the individual’s will to choose their battles.

Juxtaposing the interaction between Isa and Mrs. Haines with Isa and Mrs. Manresa, illustrates the creative force of war when each individual purposely chooses those battles. Isa and Giles will possibly create, but Rupert Haines on the other hand has been robbed of color and been placed in the margins of the mind. This goes back to the notion of ‘trace,’ and accordingly, peace is rooted in its binary opposition, war, because without one, there is not the other. William James said in his essay entitled “The Moral Equivalent of War”:

"Peace" in military mouths today is a synonym for "war expected." The word has become a pure provocative, and no government wishing peace sincerely should allow it ever to be printed in a newspaper. Every up-to-date dictionary should say that "peace" and "war" mean the same thing, now in posse, now in actu. It may even reasonably be said that the intensely sharp preparation for war by the nations is the real war, permanent, unceasing; and that the battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the "peace"-interval. (Web)

Most notably in this passage is that the ‘preparation … is the real war,’ and Woolf echoes that sentiment. She felt that the tension of waiting for the bombs to destroy her existence, silenced her creative fervor, and impinged on her world dismantling the imaginative forces. She complained in her diary entry dated 23 August 1940, “[b]ook flopped. Sales down to 15 a day since air raid on London. IS that the reason? Will it pick up?” (411) What is the most crucial difference here is the frustration Woolf expresses with war that impinges versus those fights in the private sphere that are necessary. She felt within her community, particularly the reports coming through the radio and in the papers, the tension like a “heavy, suspended sentence – the lead-up to the war – had been rigidly orchestrated by radio” (Lewty 154). This assault on Woolf’s world – by the radio, for instance – has been said to be the catalyst for her community-oriented approach to the novel.

Melba Cuddy-Keane, in her essay entitled The Politics of Comic Modes in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, focuses in on this community-centered narrative of the novel. However, it is not in my estimation simply a call for “a new concept of community in which the insider-outsider dichotomy is erased and the bond of common identity is rewritten as unifying participation in common action” (Cuddy-Keane 275), but rather what she later notes is “Woolf’s sense of the vital spaces and silences in human communication – gaps that may fragment but also bestow individual freedom” (279). The narrative reveals and rejects the corrosive elements within a community that reject personal freedom for one acceptable line of thought. Especially in lieu of the ideological fervor of the Third Reich that proved to be of terrible consequence and where Woolf felt in direct threat of;[4] a clear indication of what one individual’s desire looked like when the community followed blindly.

Take for instance, Quentin Bell’s example of Leonard Woolf reflecting on a photograph that they had seen, which Bell describes in his biography on Woolf as “the image that stared Leonard and Virginia in the face in July 1940” (216). The image showed the humiliation of a Jewish man and Leonard noted “… what was even more horrible was the look on the faces of respectable men and women, standing on the pavement, laughing at the victim” (ibid.). As Leonard was Jewish, the Woolfs knew that this assault was not far from their own home, and as such, had prepared for their suicide to avoid capture by the German army. Accordingly, Between the Acts rejects the groupthink that was prevalent in the picture and what had helped fuel the war. Examining Rupert Haines who became a phantom when domination overpowered his will and stamped out his ‘passion’ against Giles left alone to his own vices, the individual mind is paramount.

Giles initially questions his essence, feeling first ‘fear’ that he is “‘not in [his] perfect mind […] [e]xiled from the festival […] and I … I … I,’ he repeated, forgetting the words” (BTA 53). Not only in this passage is the language reflective of the silence that negatively effects the mind, but so too are the uses of the ellipses between the word ‘I’ reflective of that silence. Unable to define and remember the words to describe his feelings, he repeats the single letter that points back at himself three times, pausing between each one and essentially forgetting the words. This stammer echoes Woolf’s view of the “disintegrating effect” (Lewty 158) of Elizabeth Bowen’s stuttering. Furthermore, Woolf cited fear as the force that silences the creative and when “[d]irectly that fear passes, the mind reaches out and instinctively revives itself by trying to create” (TPA 176). As Giles, who has been silently brooding over the war through the course of the narrative, tries to regain control of and relieve his mind, does so by violently crushing a snake devouring a toad. He calls that “action. Action relieved him” (BTA 62) and leaves the trace on his white shoe. The white symbolizes peace, the red blood war, and Giles is somewhere in between, oscillating from positive to negative silence. Consequently, Giles expresses how Mrs. Manresa, and presumably the violent action, “make[s] him feel less of an audience, more of an actor” (BTA 67). According to him he has gained control over some innate “ancient instincts, instincts fostered and cherished by education and tradition” (TPA 175), at his own behest, becoming an actor to essentially gain control of his private realm.

Moreover, this notion of protecting and controlling the personal field, where silence on the outside is beneficial when fostering the creativity on the inside, can be seen in both the widow’s reaction to the play and the use of the mirrors to express a supposedly community unifying force. The widows initially enjoy the simple notion of a village play bringing the community together; “[t]hat’s what’s so nice – it brings people together” (BTA 99) one widow observes. In this moment the widow’s voices are almost fused. Woolf frequently utilizes ellipses and virtually no dialogue tags to delineate which of the widows are speaking. Presumably, they are one in the same and interchangeable, both joined together by their solitude. But as their opinion of the play progresses, they begin to fracture and separate from one another. As they attempt to dissect the reference to Victorian England and whether it is an affront to their familial lines, the widows each individually “tut” and Etty Springett exclaims “how difficult to come to any conclusion! She wished they would hurry on with the next scene. She liked to leave a theatre knowing exactly what was meant” (BTA 101-02). Likewise, Mrs. Lynn Jones exclaims, “[w]hy she did not know” (BTA 101). Both of the widows are given separate voices, yet they remain equally unaware of the meaning of the play. After the Victorian picnic scene, the widows both disapprove of the reenactment of their younger days, not because it was an insincere representation, but because it expressed extravagance. “‘This is too much, too much,’ Mrs. Springett protests” (BTA 105), illustrating by the repetition of ‘too much’ the excesses and her general disapproval. Finally, after the interval the widows are in entire disagreement. Mrs. Lynn Jones calls the play “beautiful” (BTA 107) while Mrs. Springett says it was “[c]heap and nasty” (ibid.) with a snap to her voice. What is meant, according to Cuddy-Keane as a community engaging play, degenerates and the two women who had shared one voice, come out of the play with antithetical opinions to one another.

With respect to the mirrors, La Trobe hopes they will reflect back on everyone in their unguarded state, and break the fourth wall that separates the players from the audience, causing everyone, including nature, to be united. It, however, is not received with good intentions in mind and “all evaded or shaded themselves” (BTA 115), except Mrs. Manresa who uses the mirror to primp and “redden[] her lips” (ibid.). She turns the volume up to the very thing Woolf decries as prototypical of enslavers. Moreover, the mirror has already been utilized for deception. In the play entitled, Where there’s a Will there’s a Way, Flavinda talks about looking in her “[a]unt’s cracked mirror” (BTA 84). The audience discovers shortly that the aunt is planning on marrying Flavinda off to a cohort in order to acquire her niece’s dowry. The cracked mirror matched with the aunt’s persona reveals deception and the breaking of her promise to protect her niece from harm. Likewise, the mirror scene at the end utilizes broken mirrors supplied by the audience, but the audience has not sanctioned their actual use. Additionally, the words are silenced and replaced with ellipses (BTA 114). This shattering of the individual to unite the community falls flat, and while Cuddy-Keane notes “La Trobe is not a satiric portrait judged against the norm of traditional notions of successful leadership but is instead an amiable comic figure who functions to extend and redefine those very assumptions” (278), her failure has not induced a sense of community, but has rather pitted the audience against the players and the play itself. Her use of cracked mirrors on one hand to warn of impending deception does not slip the mind so easily to find the audience in awe of staring deception in the face. Furthermore, the attempt at uniting the fragmented faces of the audience with the fragmented language of the players, each reciting a piece from their part, only serves to confuse the message more.

This confusion of community coalescing calls forth Woolf’s feelings regarding the war affecting her words and how words are twisted on the radio, “resembl[ing] ‘a cross eyed squint’ like searchlight beams or even a jumble of wires through which there is no ‘getting at truth’” (Lewty 156). The village play, meant to bring the community together and share in their understanding of England on the brink of destruction, actually ends with destruction. The audience disperses, their words fragment and are silenced by the repetitive use of ellipses; Isa knows she will probably never see her co-conspirator again (BTA 128); and the play is silenced by nature and aeroplanes ready to bomb and destroy, reflecting a desire that Woolf had. She expressed a longing to reject the technological in order to revert back to pre-urbanite times. Bell reveals, “[a]t night it was so dark and so unsocial that she wondered whether she might not be seeing the end of urban life and the beginning of a time when badgers and foxes, owls and nightingales would populate the darkened city” (212). In fact, she noted in her diary a sense of exhilaration at the destruction of her Tavistock and Mecklenburgh homes (Diary 427-28). It filled her with a sense of liberation to be rid of the weight of stuff.

Woolf felt as if war was bringing an end to civilization and civility, as she knew it. Silence, in this context, refers to the effect of war on the individual and community, whether it is in reference to death or how an able body copes with stress. Again, she said, “[t]he emotion of fear and of hate is therefore sterile, unfertile. Directly that fear passes, the mind reaches out and instinctively revives itself by trying to create. Since the room is dark it can create only from memory” (TPA 176), from the trace of what was. But, if war destroys civilization and the tools that help an archeologist discern what that world had looked like, memory emerges irrelevant. Woolf crucially and palpably fears her indelible mark being erased. This is the negative effect of silence as nothing; this is La Trobe’s frustration with her words not reaching the audience and why they stood in confusion. Yet, this is why the Oliver’s must create; without creation there eventually cease to be words and memories for Woolf who she stared out at her world on the brink of annihilation. This is precisely why they, as a family, choose when to fight, when to create, and where the actual beginning of the play exists, when they finally choose then when to speak.

Works Cited

Bell, Quentin. "Chapter Ten: 1939-1941." Virginia Woolf a Biography. Vol. II. London: Hogarth, 1972. 211-26. Print.

Cuddy-Keane, Melba. "The Politics of Comic Modes in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts." PMLA 105.2 (Mar., 1990): 273-85. JSTOR. Modern Language Association, Mar. 1990. Web. 16 Jan. 2011.

Derrida, Jacques. "Of Grammatology." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell Pub., 2004. 300-31. Print.

James, William. "The Moral Equivalent of War." Constitution Society Home Page. Web. 16 Jan. 2011.

Lewty, Jane. "Virginia Woolf and the Synapses of Radio." Locating Woolf: The Politics of Space and Place. Ed. Anna Snaith and Michael H. Whitworth. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 148-63. Print.

Schrimshaw, William. "Movement, Affect, Intensity: Bodies and Populations in Interactive Sound Art." Scientific Commons. 2008. Web. 16 Jan. 2011.

Woolf, Virginia. A Writer's Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Leonard Woolf. London: Grafton, 1978. Print.

Woolf, Virginia, Jackie Kay, and Lisa Jardine. Between the Acts. London: Vintage, 2005. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid." Collected Essays by Virginia Woolf. Vol. IV. London: Hogarth, 1967. 173-77. Print.

Zwerdling, Alex. ""Between the Acts" and the Coming of War." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 10.3 (Spring, 1977): 220-36. JSTOR. Duke UP, Spring 1977. Web. 16 Jan. 2011.

[1] See

[2] See BTA 116

[3] See BTA 34

[4] See TPA and her discussion of Hitlerism

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