Thursday, June 12, 2014

Woolf in Chicago: Street Haunting

I am just back from the 24th annual Virginia Woolf Conference, which was held at Loyola University this year, co-hosted by Pamela Caughie, who teaches at Loyola, and Diana Swanson, who teaches at Northern Illinois University, about an hour west of Chicago.  It was a wonderful mix: old farts like me talking about the latest instalment of the work they've been doing now for ten years, and graduate (and even some undergraduate) students talking about their newfound love for Woolf.  I will freely admit that I found the young 'uns the most inspiring:  no matter how much I talk about the 2008 generation and their indifference or lack of discipline, that vision is undermined by the strongest students of that generation, young people who think carefully and passionately and express themselves with such grace and clarity.  They made me hopeful.

They also reminded me of two important principles.  First, nothing I learn is ever useless.  Second, all of my disparate interests somehow connect at their furthest reach, perhaps like the caves Woolf wrote of as she thought about the back stories of her characters when she was working on Mrs Dalloway.  For example, right now I'm reading Mark Kingwell's Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City, which considers how we experience cities in all their myriad manifestations.  Who knew that I would recommend this book to several Woolf scholars? Or that Woolf scholars would prompt me to realize that Woolf might have ideas that belong in the book of ekphrastic poems I'm writing that are inspired by Veronica's photographs?  Or that these two things would converge in the walking I did in the Loyola neighbourhood to clear my head after being bombarded by ideas?

One of my favourite panels occurred at 9 a.m. on the last day.  Called "Flanerie and City Spaces," it featured three young scholars, Elizabeth Goetz, Candis Bond, and Yike He, thinking about how characters' experience of the city is represented and how the characters interact with the city.  Candis Bond even argued that Woolf, along with de Certeau and Georg Simmel, is a spatial theorist of a kind.  They pointed out how transgressive her characters sometimes are, and reminded me of an essay that I've long loved and needed to re-read:  Woolf's "Street Haunting."  So I did re-read it a couple of mornings ago and realized how different her experience of London in the nineteen twenties and my experience of Chicago in 2014 were.  Woolf makes the point early on that she is walking late in the afternoon--between teatime and dinner--on a winter day:  

"The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful. We are not then taunted as in the summer by the longing for shade and solitude and sweet airs from the hayfields. The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room."

The effect, as any wintertime walker will note, is that the darkness outside brings the light from inside out onto the street, so that our imaginations roam among possibilities:  

"With no thought of buying, the eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances. Standing out in the street, one may build up all the chambers of an imaginary house and furnish them at one’s will with sofa, table, carpet. That rug will do for the hall. That alabaster bowl shall stand on a carved table in the window. Our merrymaking shall be reflected in that thick round mirror. But, having built and furnished the house, one is happily under no obligation to possess it; one can dismantle it in the twinkling of an eye, and build and furnish another house with other chairs and other glasses."

Walking in Chicago during the early summer is quite a different experience, though Woolf's engagement and imagination provide the tools we need. Coming from Regina, one first notices and hears traffic.  At the same time, however, Chicago is farther into summer than we are, so I smelled lilacs and roses (sometimes among the exhaust).  Among the enthusiastic Chicago runners who flood the streets on Saturday, though, one has the same anonymity that Woolf sought in the dusk of the London street.  

West of Loyola about four or five blocks is an older residential district with some grand old houses and many elegant brick apartment buildings, but the sunshine left them closed to the onlooker.  So I studied their facades to see how my imagination might play with this setting.  Small front yards mean that people are quite creative; sometimes the city even narrows the street briefly with small gardens enclosed by curbs.  Where space is at a premium, people make as much beauty with it as they possibly can.  This was true as well of the apartment buildings which made fine use of the 2 metres or so between the building's foundation and the side walk.  

Both the houses and the apartments threw one back into an earlier time as well as into a community much more culturally sophisticated than the average Regina neighbourhood is now.  The apartments in particular seemed the setting for a 50s black and white movie about the wealthy, creative class. Because you couldn't see into the rooms, you didn't imagine a setting, but instead invented a life to take place in those buildings. Kingwell notes that "freedom is both defined and limited by the drawing of boundaries," and that "every interior you enter or inhabit challenges you to ask who you are, this apparently individual consciousness among others" (Concrete Reveries 211, 195).   Woolf's winter time street haunting erases some of these boundaries, giving Woolf's imagination particular rugs or bowls to suit the boundaries of her imagination, allowing her to control the way the imagined interior challenges her.  In some strange way, my summer time street haunting left me more free to create that "apparently individual consciousness among others."  While she called her practice "street haunting," I might call mine "street daydreaming."  Something of one's mood, something abstract in one's circumstances is changed, as if Clotho had clipped the threads of one's fate in one place rather than another and as if a summer evening's stroll gave you a chance to imagine what that other fate might look like.

What is singular about street haunting or street daydreaming--Woolf's and mine--is that on some level it's a quest for unfamiliar, unexpected beauty. Both depend on purposefully setting out to see the beauty in the unfamiliar, the beauty in the strangeness of different lives. But the differences between our practices also suggest that while the search for everyday beauty is important, how we undertake that search, what we choose to notice, what assumptions we bring to the process, are equally part of our experience.   

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