Moving Tropes: New Modernist Travels with Virginia Woolf
Lamont, Elizabeth Clea, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
The article concentrates on one of Virginia Woolf's profoundly lyrial novels, Mrs. Dalloway, to question the dominant acceptance of Woolf's British rootedness and lack of wanderlust. Through a close reading and analysis of pertinent passages, the article shows how Woolf was not simply experimenting with forms, but also pushing forward in her tropes movement across borders and travel. Every character in the novel is somehow related to a foreign place. The domestic dimension of this novel, stressed for so long, is problematized to give way to a fresh view of Woolf as more transnational than appears. The article calls on recent works in anthropological and feminist criticism related to boundary crossing to throw light on Woolf's text. The study draws parallels between movement of characters in London and the rhetoric of travel indicated or subsumed in the lyricism of the text. Even in shop windows gazed at by the protagonist in the novel, global relations of power are inscribed, destabilizing the stasis of home and creating metaphoric hybridity.
London is enchanting. I step out upon a tawny coloured magic carpet ... Faces passing lift up my mind; prevent it from settling ...
-- Virginia Woolf
All must end upon the Odyssey ...
-- Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf's profoundly lyrical fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway, set in London and focused on a day in the life of one woman and her preparations for a society soiree, is most often interpreted as a thoroughly British, purely `domestic,' novel. In fact, before feminist recuperations of her oeuvre made waves beginning in the early 1970s, Woolf's novels were valued by many scholars of the modernist period more for their aesthetic experimentation than the way in which they address important social and political issues. In the few sentences John Fletcher and Malcolm Bradbury devote to Woolf in their survey of canonical Modernism, her novels are described as "exploration[s] both of the aesthetic of consciousness and the aesthetics of art" characterized by "a kind of joyous artistic freedom" to focus on "form" (408-09). Beyond an interest in formalist issues, comparisons between Woolf and her Modernist contemporaries--T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Ezra Pound and others--have never been extensively drawn. One significant reason for this oversight is the fact that Woolf, living and writing in Bloomsbury, never embraced the wandering, expatriate, "starving artist" existence that other Modernists did. Geographical wanderings, critics insist, produced an added dimension to the works of the High Modernist canon noticeably absent from Woolf's life and work. (1)
And yet, Woolf's novel is teeming with hidden--or at least largely critically unrecognized--lyrical metaphors of movement and multiple tropes of travel at work within its English domestic setting that frustrate and problematize purely aesthetic readings of the novel. (2) Indeed, every character in the novel is implicitly or explicitly linked to "foreign" places, peoples or travel. And yet what does it mean that, punning, Woolf names one of Septimus's nerve doctors Dr. "Holmes"? Or that Dr. Bradshaw wants to commit Septimus to a home? Mrs. Dalloway seems to propose a dialectical relationship between incessant movement and domestic stasis that performs a radical re-interpretation of twentieth century ideas of the English home and empire. Of particular importance is a re-examination of the character, Peter Walsh, not as Clarissa's patriarchal nemesis, but as an Anglo-Indian struggling to fashion some sort of coherent identity out of his colonial past, and a character of central importance to Woolf. Further, how might Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus operate as doubles in a geopolitical sense? And what should one make of the Irish characters, Moll Pratt and Mrs. Walker, who appear briefly in Clarissa's movements as she prepares for her party? All the characters' private contemplations and mental musings take place while they are in motion, perambulating across Regent's Park, traveling down Bond Street or riding atop an omnibus across London. Spice winds, sirens and endless nautical metaphors pepper the text, endlessly complicating and confounding the domestic plane with a rhetoric of travel.
To begin to answer these questions, the recent work of several prominent modernist scholars and critics interested in transnational feminism, history, politics and race is extremely useful. They have begun to theorize about the ways in which the notions of travel and border crossing, as central tropes or thematic features of modernist texts, might be used as vehicles for ushering in new discussions of modernist writers and texts. (3) Their interest in female border crossings reflects another kind of travel-disciplinary boundary crossings--which have become critical to postmodern re-evaluations of literary modernism. Literary critics have become increasingly fascinated with the ways in which theories in cultural studies (anthropology and ethnography, in particular) can open up texts and render readings in hitherto unforeseen ways. A significant article articulating the nature of these border crossings has been Arjun Appadurai's "Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology." If we keep in mind Arjun Appadurai's definition of the subject matter of cultural studies as roughly equivalent to "the relationship between the word and the world," (196) these boundary crossings can be worthwhile expeditions for literary critics indeed. Appadurai argues that this conception of cultural studies can be used as a basis for a new kind of global ethnography, one that takes into account our "deterritorialized" postmodern world and finds a new translation of "this tension between the word and the world" (196). (4) Indeed, Modernist scholars need to reject "the dominant Western attitude toward hybridity that sees it as always elsewhere or infiltrating an identity or location that is assumed to be, to always have been, pure and unchanging" (198). Woolf's novel articulates the same sentiment, revealing the hybridity of a cosmopolitan center like London long before the term was en vogue among feminists and (post)modernist scholars. (5)
Another anthropologist whose work is particularly valuable for understanding the significance of travel in Mrs. Dalloway is James Clifford. In a number of essay collections he has edited and written since the 1980s, Clifford makes a vigorous effort to reconceptualize the project of Western ethnography. (6) In "Traveling Cultures," Clifford stresses the ways in which "diverse, interconnected histories of travel and displacement" are creeping into and problematizing "certain localizing strategies in the construction and representation of `cultures'" (97). Traditional cultural analysis establishes its objects of study spatially, using terms like "native" and "local" to describe the limited area of study; but with the drastic expansion of mobility in the modern age, including tourism, urban sprawl, immigration and migrant labor, more and more people "dwell" with the aid of cars, mass transit and airplanes. The exotic has become uncannily close as foreign populations immigrate while familiarity can often be found miles and oceans away. Clifford refuses to read Levi-Strauss's "great narrative of entropy" in this modernist fragmentary existence; he insists instead that cultural identity needs to be understood as a more complicated process of continual production and destruction (101). Clifford aims to "invert the strategies of …
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Publication information: Article title: Moving Tropes: New Modernist Travels with Virginia Woolf. Contributors: Lamont, Elizabeth Clea - Author. Journal title: Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics. Publication date: Annual 2001. Page number: 161+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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