Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"Each Is Part of the Whole: We Act Different Parts; but Are the Same": From Fragment to Choran Community in the Late Work of Virginia Woolf

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"Each Is Part of the Whole: We Act Different Parts; but Are the Same": From Fragment to Choran Community in the Late Work of Virginia Woolf

Article excerpt

In a familiar passage from "A Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf speaks to the organic, matrixial linkage between all of humanity, accessible through our participation in art: "we--I mean all human beings--are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art ... we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself" (72). Woolf sees beauty in sacred "moments of being" that transcend modes of living death with fullness of mind and spirit, all within the mesh of a wider web of humanity. As this passage and the line in my title from Between the Acts suggest, Woolf's art opens up the possibility for illuminated moments of communal awareness based upon convergence in spite of difference--what I term choran community. Further, Woolf's comparison of the world to art calls us to witness the redemptive power of the world. My argument here will be concerned with fragments, or isolated individuals, vs. choran community in Woolf's late work.

As Melba Cuddy-Keane comments, "Woolf's acceptance of difference and discord is closely related to her sense of the multiplicity of reality" (282), and, I would add, choran community. By choran community I mean textual instances that communicate the possibility of a genuine interface between self and other which also implies an awareness of the larger, interconnective community. My term draws upon Julia Kristeva's concept of "the semiotic chora," a prelinguistic state of consciousness of connection with the maternal body that leads to an integrated understanding of self and, by extension, other. (1) For, rather than ending her discussion of the semiotic chora with the individual psyche, Kristeva uses psychoanalysis as a model for accepting otherness within in order to, in turn, develop an ethics that will embrace peoples of different nations and ethnic backgrounds. She writes, "I love the other, who is not necessarily me, and who gives me the possibility of opening myself to something other than myself; what I call love is openness to the other, and it is what gives me my human dimension, my symbolic dimension, my cultural and historic dimension" (New Maladies of the Soul 379). As Kristeva's work suggests, choran community can be found in the late work of Virginia Woolf in descriptions of encounters between characters, denoting an expansion that also includes the wider interconnective community. Expanding upon Kristeva's work, I argue that the desire to create such an aesthetic moment allows Woolf (and her reading audience) to represent a wholeness of self--the first step toward finding intersubjectivity--and finally, to create choran community. (2) Hence, unlike the Joycean epiphanic moment, Woolf's choran moments happen not just for the sake of the solipsistic individual, but instead for the greater--yet still diverse--community. For Woolf, an acceptance of difference defines not only consciousness of self and other but also the human community itself. (3) Further, then, I contend that Woolf's choran moments evince a form of sacred, even redemptive modernity, as represented by interconnective encounters between her characters which promise renewal and wholeness.

What follows in this essay is an exposition of my concept of choran community in The Waves (1931), Three Guineas (1938), and Between the Acts (1941). In her late work, Woolf utilizes the ideal of choran community in order to give her characters and her readers a vital moment to think, to then reinvigorate a wholeness of self, and finally to rebuild a sense of communal unity. Carrying us through oscillations between fragment and wholeness, Woolf depicts and practices choran community throughout her later work. This essay is structured by this movement from fragment to wholeness as represented through a chronological picture of Woolf's developing theories and practices of choran community in response to "history," which was predominantly present for Woolf and her contemporaries in the form of fascism. …

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