But for our generation and the generation that is coming the lyric cry of ecstasy or despair which is so intense, so personal and so limited, is not enough. The mind is full of monstrous, hybrid, unimaginable emotions. That the age of the earth is 3,000,000,000 years; that the human life lasts but a second; that the capacity of the human mind is nevertheless boundless; that life is infinitely beautiful yet repulsive; that one’s fellow creatures are adorable but disgusting; that science and religion have between them destroyed belief; that all bonds of union seem broken, yet some control must exist—it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create, and the fine fabric of a lyric is no more fitted to contain this point of view than a rose leaf to envelop the rugged immensity of a rock.
“Poetry, Fiction, and the Future,”
Essays 4: 429-30; 1927
These words—with their sense of paradox and gloom that implicitly challenge the autonomy of art—could have been written for those of us living over ninety years later. That there are an unprecedented 650,600,000 refugees who have had to leave their homes. That poverty worldwide has decreased substantially; that the gap between rich and poor grows ever greater. That we can find our “tribe” on Facebook, but that racism has seldom seemed so permissible nor privacy so threatened. That scientists and scholars and artists delve deeper and deeper into the complexities of our world and our humanity. That large groups of people want our humanity to be defined by a single ideology—religious fundamentalisms or capitalism. That more people die at the hands of extreme weather than at the hands of terrorists. That we struggle to be in the moment, appreciating the hesitant green notes of spring. That we cannot, with respect to the health of ourselves and our planet, think about the future. That we cannot ignore our cell phones. That nearly thirty years after feminism’s Third Wave we need #me too. That we are connected as we have never been; that so many of us are alone. How can formalism, art, lyric poetry, beauty be a counterweight to the despair many of us feel after the evening news?
Woolf’s art was woven “between the acts,” between the two World Wars, on the warp of history with the weft of form, in pursuit of the kind of beauty she first wrote of in her apprentice diaries, and of an honest engagement with the historical moment and with the reader. Definitions of the autonomy of art vary widely, with music critic, Theodor Adorno, arguing for a kind of pure autonomy—as he could, given his framework. Gregory Jusdanis is rather relaxed about the autonomy of art, choosing metaphors that emphasize the many ways art remains true to itself and its vision while still relating to its historical moment. Woolf, of course, did not have the benefit of these; she wrote in the climate of Roger Fry’s fervent questions and Clive Bell’s certainty. She wrote without benefit of terms like “implied author” or “free indirect discourse”; indeed, she found herself, as artist and public intellectual, embroiled in arguments about what constituted literature’s artfulness and its legitimate resources, and whether these compromised the integrity of the work of art.
But she left us some touchstones. She believed in form and formalism. Her diaries, which record her often joyful, often fraught struggles with her work, almost always highlight her efforts to find the form that will contain her conception. She did not have the benefit of more recent philosophers who assert that form guarantees a work’s autonomy, but she intuited it nevertheless. One the one hand, the creation of a form was part of the hopeful play that infused her creative experience and expression. On the other hand, that creation of a form allowed her to find or create the surprising, illuminating perspective from which both she and her readers could consider themselves and the world.
In Three Guineas, Woolf’s narrator tells us that her interlocutor’s letter makes her believe in the efficacy of art. A Room of One’s Own begins with “But…” These two beautiful, tendentious essays (along with many others in her oeuvre) nevertheless affirm how profoundly Woolf believed that her work was a conversation that was open to each reader. Her later diaries reveal how much despair she felt when historical circumstances made it impossible for those readers to concentrate and to reply. Yet readers of Woolf have found a surprising comfort in her work, partly because her address to the reader allows us to feel we are not alone: we are talking with Woolf—and what a conversation it is.
Beauty as method and as subject infused her work—whether it was the beauty of Clarissa’s roses or of La Trobe’s “sham lure.” The first Woolf novel I read was Jacob’s Room, found in a tiny bookstore in Venice that carried very few works in English. When I finished it I said “I have no idea what this means, but it was so beautiful,” and immediately began to re-read it. I have a feeling that beauty has thrust many readers back into her work.
Like Woolf, each artist working now, unable to take his or her eyes off threats to safety, well-being, culture, off a society infused with intolerance and lack of belief in the rule of law—threats to themselves and to complete strangers—will nevertheless have to negotiate his or her relationship with the art of the past and the readers of the future. Each can benefit from the variety of strategies Woolf uses to affirm two important things. First, your private experience and private opinions count. You needn’t be powerful or famous or an ace TV detective for your experience to matter. Your relationship with art is one of the foundational privacies of your life. But at the same time, art is social, a chance for us to have conversations, both listening and talking. Her omniscient narrator of Jacob’s Room contemplates the lonely challenges of modern life, imagining our crises of identity and purpose: “Is this all? Can I never know, share, be certain? Am I doomed all my days to write letters, send voices, which fall upon the tea-table, fade upon the passage, making appointments, while life dwindles, to come and dine? Yet letters are venerable; and the telephone valiant, for the journey is a lonely one, and if bound together by notes and telephones we went in company, perhaps—who knows?—we might talk by the way” (126).