Modernism and Woolf- Creation of “the Real”

Honestly, when i read the first 3 pages of Woolf I thought the entire thing was going to be insufferably boring- but I ended up reading the entire thing in one sitting. I really liked his writing style (the Modernist tendency if that is what you want to call it) because it really draws on aspects of story-telling and self-consciousness.

Woolf is precise at times and very vague at times. When he says that “there was something extraordinarily real and at the same time unreal in the sights and sounds and smells” (first page), I get the sense that he is describing his writing too (in terms of the kind of detail he uses/doesn’t use). This idea of self-consciousness continues when he says that he feels as though he is “acting in a play or living in a dream” (same page). I like the way in which this very self-consciousnessness in “fictional autobiography” spills over into “reality” (reality = the reality we are in as readers). In other words, as Woolf  (the young man in Jaffna) “play[s] a part in an exciting play” (page after that), we see the same Woolf (though “same” is questionable) playing the part as writer, and of course, us as readers playing our part as well.

The way in which he constructs a picture of Jaffna for us is interesting, because even though he seems concerned about providing “authentic” details (name-dropping of islands, people and companies), he undermines this at times. For example, he makes direct reference to the content and form of his writing when he mentions “leav[ing] this subject of animals”; coupled with the fact that he deliberately mentions his “readers” (page number is cut off), this adds an interesting element of self-reflexivity to his writing. Concerns like ‘subject content’ and pleasing the audience are indeed important to a writer, and the fact that Woolf makes reference to something OUTSIDE his own text’s fictional/non-fictional reality identifies it as “modernist”, and outside the realm of “realist” 19th-century novels.

Thus, while Woolf remains a master story-teller, we question the “real” authencity of his experiences. Woolf provides us with little episodes and little impressions that are either not the “full story”, or not the “true story”. However, in true post-19th-century fashion, if all “reality” before has been constructed for us, then does authenticity matter or even exist?

“Alice to the Lighthouse”

There is a book by Juliet Dusinberre called Alice to the Lighthouse that I find very interesting. She talks about the idea of the ‘irreverent generation’ that is first glimpsed in 19th century writing and then honed up by authors like Virginia Woolf. In my opinion, the ‘irreverent generation’ that is revealed during Modernism occurs mainly in the form of questioning authority; authority existing in the forms of God, culture, society, ideology, but most importantly, in convention. Modernist writers view convention as something distracting and inadequate, perhaps even destructive or false. They thus seek to explode (or at least question) existing ideas of art and the history of representation (in terms of form, plot, and other literary conventions).

Ezra Pound’s plea to “make it new” therefore rings true in the sense that Modernist writers appear to search for meaning beneath, and in spite of, everything that has come before in art, culture and any form of representation. Since Modernism is a post-war phenomenon, the fragmentation of the self and the multiplicity of identity arise from the disillusionment of WWI (questioning the cause of war à questioning the nation à questioning the self). This very idea of a doubting, struggling and suffering self can be seen in the writings of Woolf and Beckett. The bildungsroman of the 19th Century end in neat resolutions where “I married him” (Jane Eyre) suffices as a happy ending, yet in Modernism, writers signal to us that there is never an end to the search for identity, because of the fact that identity is never stable, and undergoes constant and painful metamorphosis. For a writer like Beckett, perhaps the end (and possibly the end of discomfort) starts only in death.