Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"Little Accidents": Virginia Woolf and the Failures of Form in "The Moment: Summer's Night"

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"Little Accidents": Virginia Woolf and the Failures of Form in "The Moment: Summer's Night"

Article excerpt

"What are the elements of which the universe is composed," asks Leslie Stephen in his 1876 History of English Thought, "and how are they woven into a continuous whole?" (45). Stephen's question--a question about the possibility of perceiving unity in a fractured world--arises from his discussion of Hume and the crisis of thought Hume's work generated among eighteenth-century philosophers (Banfield 246). It leads to other questions: "Why do I conceive the world as something different from a series of sensations?" and then "Why do I regard the world thus constituted as regulated by certain invariable relations?" (Stephen 45). These questions of composition, sensation, and relation, written almost a decade before the birth of Stephen's youngest daughter, would be taken up in nearly identical terms by that daughter in a narrative essay published after her death, the title piece of The Moment and Other Essays called "The Moment: Summer's Night." (1) Echoing her father (perhaps intentionally?), Virginia Woolf poses in the opening paragraphs of this "essay-turned-fiction" a question that reverses his telescopic concern and focuses instead on the quotidian minutiae that held such interest for Woolf: "Yet what composed the present moment?" (9). (2)

This inquiry into the composition of the moment that unfolds in "Summer's Night" leads Woolf, like Stephen, to questions of "sensations" and "relations," but it does so in the context of aesthetics--specifically, the formalist aesthetics that arose from Roger Fry and Clive Bell's theorization of Post-Impressionist art. Much has been written in recent years about Woolf's relationship with Bloomsbury aesthetic theory, the best of which has provided a record of Woolf's initially reluctant movement toward and eventually (in the words of Christopher Reed) "through formalism." (3) In the first decades of the twentieth century and especially during the years when Roger Fry was organizing the first and second Post-Impressionist exhibitions, Woolf had little interest in the visual arts and the formalist doctrine that had, at the time, correspondingly scant interest in the literary. Despite (or, as Diane Gillespie has suggested, because of) her sister Vanessa Bell's active participation in London's artistic scene, Woolf kept herself aloof from visual art, claiming to regard literature as "the only spiritual and humane career" (L2 382). (4) Painting, on the other hand, Woolf felt "tend[ed] to dumbness," and artists were "rather brutes" (qtd. in Morrell 204), an "abominable race" (L2 15) for whom the adjective "literary" was something of a derogatory slur (Reed, "Through" 22).

As Woolf's relationship with Fry evolved throughout the nineteen-teens and--twenties, however, Woolf began to revise her conception of what formalism could offer her as a writer even as Fry began to revise his assessment of literature as an impure aesthetic medium. Woolf's 1920s novels attest to her engagement with formalism and its central aesthetic concept--"significant form"--which both Fry and Clive Bell came to agree could be articulated in "a pure or nearly pure art of words" as well as in painting (Fry qtd. in Dowling 17). (5) But as Reed has aptly demonstrated, Woolf's commitment to formalism, strongest in the 1920s, waned in her later work as she became equally committed to exploring extra-aesthetic political, sexual, and social issues in her writing ("Through" 37-38).

Though banished from the opening pages in favor of a strictly formalist landscape, these issues ultimately press their way into "Summer's Night," a piece that has not been given the critical attention it merits within conversations about Woolf's literary aesthetics. Their impact on the "sensations" and "relations" that Woolf makes central to the microcosm enclosed within this narrative essay significantly alters the composition of "the present moment" as well as the composition of the essay itself. For "Summer's Night" is a composition, in the pictorial sense of the word, a carefully structured aesthetic arrangement of color, line, and texture that attempts to capture the equally artistic composition of one characteristically Woolfian "moment of being. …

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