Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Discordant Syllabling": The Language of the Living World in Virginia Woolf's between the Acts

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Discordant Syllabling": The Language of the Living World in Virginia Woolf's between the Acts

Article excerpt

"Dare we, I asked myself, limit life to ourselves? May we not hold that there is a spirit that inspires, pervades...." (The swallows were sweeping round him. They seemed cognizant of his meaning. Then they swept out of sight.)                                --Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (192) 

Yes, the swallows' flight seems to answer, life does inhere outside of the parameters of the human, and expresses itself through modalities that are separate from conscious apprehensions of reality (such as those of the Reverend Streatfield, who speaks the above lines). Between the Acts (1941), Woolf's unfinished final novel, can be read not only as an intimation of the end of civilization (see Beer, Pridmore-Brown, and Zwerdling), but also as Woolf's examination of nonhuman modes of engagement with the world and her attempt to express them in writing. In it, Woolf seeks a new mode of language attuned to the sensuous dimensions of animal being and dwelling in the world that have predated (and will postdate) the existence of humans. Woolf's project takes on particular resonance in light of her anxieties about the onset of a Second World War that could potentially extinguish the human species and its conscious modes of worldly apprehension--the "complete ruin, not only of civilisation, in Europe, but of our last lap" (Diary V, 162), or the prospect of a world without "you" there to perceive it. In Woolf's diary entries from the beginning of World War II, a world without human consciousness is often conceived as the terrifying limit-point of culture's collapse into barbarism, with animal life functioning as a threatening, dark, and violent emergence aligned with fascism (see Diary V, 178). But Between the Acts, Woolf's later diary entries, and the work begun on her final incomplete manuscript "Anon" all demonstrate a greater openness to the idea of nonhuman life flourishing in the absence of human consciousness. Instead of approaching animal being as a sign for the negation of life, in these later works Woolf attempted to think animal being affirmatively, as a possible escape from a self-bound mode of existence and entree into new sensuous, nonconscious modes of apprehending the world. These works stage the epistemic limits of the human, of a personal "life" mediated by consciousness, as it confronts the overflow of "life, life, life, without measure" embodied by the nonhuman presences inhabiting and destabilizing the contours of the text. (1) Metaphor in particular, as I will argue, becomes a way for Woolf to reconfigure the representational language that upholds human exceptionality over the living world.

Woolf had explored the motif of what Bernard in The Waves (1931) calls "the world seen without a self" in earlier novels. Interlacing The Waves are scenes populated only by the rising sun's slow coloration of the world and the bird-singing that marks territorial circles on the shore. More explicitly perhaps, in the "Time Passes" section of To the Lighthouse (1927), the narrative perspective dissolves the boundaries between subjects and objects into a terrifying fluidity, an all-swallowing night in which "there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say 'This is he' or 'This is she'" (144). This reversion of the house back to nature, however, is still registered through a human time-scale. Nature is equated with "oblivion" and the absence of life, or regression into the nothingness of what Woolf calls the "long night." It is only the labor of the cleaning women, Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast, acting as "a force working; something not highly conscious," that shores up the fragments against ruin, preserving the house so that (human) life can persist. The minimal work of "conscious[ness]" is what impels life forward. In contrast to the perspective of To the Lighthouse and to commentators on Between the Acts such as Gillian Beer, who claims that Woolf's assault on human civilization aspires to produce "another idea of England, one which might survive" (147), I argue that in this final text Woolf confronts the possibility that human history is meaningful only insofar as it plays a role within a continually unfolding "prehistory," or evolutionary time-scale, that stretches beyond the parameters of human existence. …

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