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  • Powerful Differences: Critique and Eros in Jeanette Winterson and Virginia Woolf
  • Christy L. Burns (bio)

It is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room. A scene from a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Taste is the faculty of estimating an object or a mode of representation by means of a delight or aversion apart from any interest . . . the judgement of taste, with its attendant consciousness of detachment from all interest, must involve a claim to validity for all men, and must do so apart from universality attached to Objects, i.e. there must be coupled with it a claim to subjective universality.

—Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement

[End Page 364]

Virginia Woolf was never ambivalent about taste; it was defined in part by sex and rifled with subjective prejudices. The very shape of the novel is for her constituted by emotions in conflict, and its evaluation tempered by subjective response. 1 While she shares with Kant and other philosophers of aesthetics a general awareness of the role of subjective interest and even calls on women writers to press toward a place of disinterestedness, she repeatedly resists the notion of universal value. For her, value could never be purely divorced from gender. As Christopher Reed points out, however, in the 1920s Woolf favored the abstracted version of phenomenology promoted in the aesthetic theories of Clive Bell and Roger Fry, a position that has sometimes confused issues and lead to arguments that her art was apolitical. 2 Influenced by phenomenology and Post-Impressionism, Bloomsbury formalism emphasized a rejection of strict realism in favor of a more transcendent abstraction of forms, which often left behind subjective definitions of experience. Woolf’s appropriation of this aesthetic, however, was marked by a strategy of balance and reversal, which she developed in her use of a feminine formalism to challenge “Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennet, and Mr. Galsworthy” in her essay “Modern Novels.” 3 More importantly, she invoked as feminine the phenomenologically sensate effects of the real, in the realm of the everyday, which extend beyond the reach of the rational and classical definitions imposed by Oxbridge. 4 Woolf’s early aesthetics is thus neither universal nor explicitly “value-laden,” in the sense of propounding a certain ethics; rather, it takes up the trace of evocative effects brought on by color, rhythm, or “the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses” (Woolf, Jacob’s 82). In her pursuit of this effect, Woolf was simultaneously acting on her awareness of gender’s formative influence on notions of cultural value and her need to escape from logical or more academic modes of persuasion. While this doubled desire has constituted Woolf’s particularly feminist appropriation of phenomenological ways of knowing the world, it has also contributed to the misunderstandings of her work that have often splintered reception into two distinct camps. Woolf’s initial claim to importance was as an experimental modernist, a writer to be read alongside Lawrence, Joyce, and Forster, and up until the 1970s, Woolf was predominantly praised for her narrative technique, following Auerbach’s effective canonization of her in Mimesis. 5 Woolf’s inheritance within feminism, however, [End Page 365] came to a head in the 1970s, when the import of social critique and the valorization of anger as resistance emerged as the necessary and most pressing goals for feminism. Indeed, the Woolf now inherited, particularly on the American scene, is in many ways the Woolf of the 1930s, the author of Three Guineas who is recreated by Jane Marcus as a “guerilla fighter in a...

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pp. 364-392
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