The Waters of the Mind: Rhetorical Patterns of Fluidity in Woolf, William James, Bergson and Freud

By Sánchez-Vizcaíno, María Jesús López | PSYART, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Waters of the Mind: Rhetorical Patterns of Fluidity in Woolf, William James, Bergson and Freud


Sánchez-Vizcaíno, María Jesús López, PSYART


At the beginning of the 20th century, writers such as Virginia Woolf and thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, William James and Henri Bergson were trying to give a novel account of our inner and psychological life. The aim of this article is to compare Woolf's metaphorical recreation of the workings of the human mind by means of a rhetorical pattern articulated around the notions of container and content, surface and depth, fluidity and unboundedness with Freud's dynamic and topographical representation of psychological life, where streams of thought flow across the superficial and the deep layers with James's definition of consciousness as a 'stream of thought' and with Bergson's conception of psychological time as 'durée', an endlessly flowing process, apprehended by 'l'intuition'.

keywords:MWoolf, James, Bergson, Freud, modernism, fluidity, topography, surface-depth, durée, intuition

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2007_lopez01.shtml

At the beginning of the 20th century, writers such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Virginia Woolf regarded inherited narrative forms as inadequate, when trying to capture the complexity and mutability of the modern world and of modern human experience. The narrative techniques and strategies of what became known as the modernist novel were closely connected with the great transformations that the Western world was undergoing at a philosophical, political, technological and artistic level, and owed specifically a lot to the new ideas on the human mind that were spreading across Europe and America. Sigmund Freud, William James and Henri Bergson were among the chief creators of this modern psychology, and their writings, together with Woolf's, constitute attempts to give a novel account of our inner and psychological life.

Leaving aside the complex and obscure issue of to what extent they influenced each other in any direct manner and to what degree they were familiarized with each other's ideas,1 and taking into consideration the great differences that exist between these four authors' systems of thought, the aim of this article is to show how Woolf metaphorically recreated the workings of the human mind by means of a rhetorical pattern articulated around the notions of container and content, surface and depth, fluidity and unboundedness, notions that also prove to be central to Bergson's, James's and Freud's descriptions of the mind.

Modernism-both as a wide philosophical current and as a concrete literary movement-entailed radically new articulations of the human mind and of human subjectivity. These articulations took the form of a critique or questioning of old conceptions of the self-as we actually see in Freud, James and Bergson-and as Paul Sheehan sustains, a rejection of the humanist orthodox certainty about what it means to be human. According to Freud, the first "two great outrages" (562) upon humanity's "naïve self-love" (562) were the Copernican discovery that the earth was not the centre of the universe and the Darwinian affirmation of the human descent from the animal world. And he asserts that now

man's craving for grandiosity is suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavouring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind. We psycho-analysts were neither the first nor the only ones to propose to mankind that they should look inward; but it appears to be our lot to advocate it most insistently (562)

Marianne Dekoven refers to Eugene Lunn's enumeration of modernist features, one of which is "the demise of subjectivity conceived as unified, integrated, self-consistent" (175).2 Similarly, Astradur Eysteinsson claims that one of the modernist paradigms is the crisis of the subject -the "modernist destruction of bourgeois identity" (28)-, which can be observed in "a modernist preoccupation with human consciousness (as opposed to a mimetic concern with the human environment and social conditions). …

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