Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"The Spirit of the Age": Virginia Woolf's Response to Second Wave Psychology

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"The Spirit of the Age": Virginia Woolf's Response to Second Wave Psychology

Article excerpt

Let us always remember--influences are infinitely numerous; writers are infinitely sensitive.

("The Leaning Tower" 163)

Virginia Woolf was the most adamant of the modernists in her claim that "We are sharply cut off from our predecessors" (Essays III 357). However, she also believed in the continuity of culture, and in writers' role as "receptacles" of cultural currents (Meisel Absent 160). S. P. Rosenbaum has examined some of the currents operating on Woolf herself, but his claim that Woolf's "writing was shaped by a series of intellectual assumptions about reality, perception, morality, government, and art" ("Virginia Woolf" 11) needs to be extended to include human psychology. Woolf was influenced by psychologists' working hypotheses about many aspects of personality, and her extraordinarily sensitive antennae picked up psychological ideas in the air. In her own ambivalent, idiosyncratic way, Woolf acknowledged both of these sources in a draft of "Character in Fiction" (1924), a paper given before the Cambridge Heretics Society. She wrote:

No generation since the world began has known quite so much about character as our generation.... The average man or woman today thinks more about character than his or her grandparents; character interests them more; they get closer, they dive deeper in to the real emotions and motives of their fellow creatures. There are scientific reasons why this should be so. If you read Freud you know in ten minutes some facts--or at least some possibilities--which our parents could not have guessed for themselves. . And then there is a ... vaguer force at work--a force which is sometimes called the Spirit of the Age or the Tendency of the age. This mysterious power is taking us by the hand, I think, and making us look much more closely into the reasons why people do a. nd say and think things. (Essays III 504)

Here Woolf chooses Freud as representative of scientists of the mind, perhaps not surprisingly, since by 1924 he had the highest profile of psychologists whose ideas were discussed by the Bloomsbury group. Understandably, those few critics who have examined psychological influence on Woolf limit themselves to analysis of her problematic attitude to Freud. Woolf's claim that she knew psychoanalysis "only in the way of ordinary conversation" (Dec. 7, 1931) certainly does represent a severe understatement (Hoops 147). Whether she fully realized it or not, the conversations she had about psychoanalysis were far from ordinary, since they took place with those who were at the forefront of the psychoanalytic movement in Britain, as critics Jan Goldstein, Elizabeth Abel, and Douglass Orr have demonstrated. However, prior to her exposure to psychoanalysis during the years 1914-1918, Woolf was aware of ideas of earlier proponents of "new" or what I have termed second wave psychology,(1) and it is these neglected influences that I plan to examine in more detail before tracing a few of these strands primarily in her first two novels, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919).

Second wave psychology provoked a paradigm shift in psychology by positing that mind consisted of psychic energy in perpetual movement, unlike the first wave, which had viewed mind as essentially mechanistic, passive, and divisible into elementary contents. In the early nineteenth century Johann Herbart (among others) had prefigured the new dynamic approach through his suggestions about thresholds of consciousness and momentary repressions. He posited that the mind had three layers, a narrow, conscious one, separated by what he called the threshold of consciousness from two larger ones, in which representations were inhibited or repressed, but not destroyed (Sand 470; Boring 244).

Despite Herbart's pioneering efforts, however, the second wave of psychology gathered momentum only in the late 1880s through the work of Pierre Janet, William James, Theodule Ribot, Frederic Myers, and, later, Henri Bergson, William McDougall, Freud, and Jung, among others. …

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