Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Ethics of the Imagination: Virginia Woolf (again)

In 1976, when I finished the coursework for my Master's Degree at the University of Michigan, I had a day to wander Ann Arbor (and Ann Arbor's book stores) before I packed myself up and returned to Winnipeg, where I was living at the time.  I felt strangely grown up, partly because taking courses at the University of Michigan during three consecutive summers was intellectually exhausting, and because I was going to start a Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba in the fall.  But there was also something about the lush, verdant Ann Arbor summer; my sense that my marriage was in trouble; a married man with a wonderful voice who had found me attractive (but neither of us would or could do anything about it); and a desperation to figure out what I could do besides return home.  People with an M.A. in English have no obvious job skills (it was even less obvious then than it is now), so I bought a book:  Max Frisch's Sketchbook 1966-1971.  I was attracted to the entirely different kind of reading that this would be, to the idea of being inside a writer's head, to the idea of European sophistication that seemed so unlike my entirely existential uncertainty.  One of the first entries contained this question at the bottom of the page:  "If you believe strongly in an idea, would you be willing to impose it on other people?"  There was a strategic page turn while you contemplated this question.  At the top of the next page, Frisch asked "Why not, if you are right?"

That question has bothered me for years, but was only answered by the work I am now doing on Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.  Here is Woolf's diary entry for 27 August 1918, but completed three days later:

"Now I confess that I have half forgotten what I meant to say about the German prisoners; Milton & life.  I think it was that    ?  (all I can remember now (Friday August 30th) is that the existence of life in another human being is as difficult to realise as a play of Shakespeare when the book is shut.  This occurred to me when I saw Adrian [Woolf's younger brother] talking to the tall German prisoner.  By all rights they should have been killing each other.  The reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one's imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him--the infinite possibilities of a succession of days which are furled in him, & have already been spent"  (Diary 1 186). 

Use your imagination to put that entry beside one way of looking at Mrs Dalloway.  While the novel's characters have a range of ways of seeing and understanding the complexity of other people, Woolf illustrates two extremes.  One belongs to what I call the fundamentalists, people who know they're right, people who have taken a body of knowledge or belief, like psychology or Christianity, and turned it into certainty, judgmental, destructive people like Miss Killman and Dr. Bradshaw.  Then there are people like Clarissa who can imagine the integrity and the experience of others.  It would take me paragraphs and paragraphs to give you the subtle evidence of Clarissa's view of others, but let me simply offer a synecdoche and a single example.  For Clarissa, who looks frequently out of a window and glimpses the old woman living in the house next door, the notion that "here is one room; there another" is one of life's mysteries and miracles.  Those rooms stand, I think, for the individual's integrity which wraps them round like a shell or a room.  We should no more break into that integrity by telling them "that they were this or were that" (7) than we would break into their house.  Clarissa can also imagine the suicide of a young man she's never met, a suicide that's talked about at her party:  "Always her body went through it, when she was told, first, suddenly, of an accident:  her dress flamed, her body burnt.  He had thrown himself from a window.  Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes.  There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness.  So she saw it.  But why had he done it?"  (156).

It's no accident that Woolf couples Milton or Shakespeare and life and German prisoners.  Milton urges us to understand Satan, to see both his hubris and his charisma.  Current research is leading psychologists to understand that a process they call "deep reading," which is essentially getting lost in a book, is crucial to the development of empathy.  Woolf's final unfinished essay is called "The Reader."  It concludes, or comes to a full stop, with her imagining a reader faced with Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy:  "It is here then that we develop faculties that the play left dormant.  [Earlier she'd imagined a literary world dominated by drama rather than essays or the novel.]  Now the reader is completely in being.  He can pause;  he can ponder; he can compare; he can draw back from the page and see behind it a man sitting alone in the centre of the labyrinth of words in a college room thinking of suicide.  He can gratify many different moods.  He can read directly what is on the page, or, drawing aside, can read what is not written.  There is a long drawn continuity in the book that the play has not.  It gives a different pace to the mind.  We are in a world where nothing is concluded" (Essays 6, 601).

The world of art is one in which nothing is concluded but everything imagined or suggested or questioned. Or as W.H. Auden put it in his poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats,"

For poetry makes nothing happen:  it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Art, poetry, the novel, provide moments for reflection, ask questions about how it is with the world and with ourselves, but it isn't an instruction manual.  It doesn't change the world.  What it changes is our thinking, and it cannot predict or determine how those changes will occur--or even if they will occur.

In the past, I've been tempted to begin my English 100 and 110 classes by telling my students, some of whom really don't want to be there, that their imagination is their only ethical faculty.  But I've never been able to do it.  If they don't understand by the end of thirteen weeks of me how the imagination works, my sermon, or "peroration," as Woolf would call it, isn't going to bring the message home.  Besides, if I began my class that way, I'd become one of the fundamentalists.

So last night, as I was chopping eggplant to make vegetarian chilli, and looking out at the blue hour, I was thinking of Clarissa Dalloway.  I have a word to describe the world's Bradshaws and Killmans.  I call them fundamentalists.  I don't care whether their certainty comes from religion or politics or science; certainty in this ever-shifting world (I was watching the light change) is dishonest and destructive.  And maybe stupid.  I can't find a single word that sums up Clarissa Dalloway's attempt to understand or just be curious about the people in her life.  Maybe language is teaching me something:  there is no word to sum up the people who rebel against the tendency to sum up.  But suddenly Max Frisch's question popped back into my head.  And I said out loud, thirty-six years later, "Because I'm a writer and a teacher.  I create spaces for people to think and suggest that there are many, many perspective from which we can see the world.  The rest is up to each person I touch.  Clarissa Dalloway is right:  here is one room, there another."


  1. Everything can be imagined; truly magical and ever-present ;)

  2. Wonderful post, Kathleen. Thanks