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Virginia Woolf is ideally suited to contemporary critical discourse. A remarkable number of key twentieth-century preoccupations, which remain the preoccupations of literary critics now, converge in her work. It is not just that her texts yield up riches, over and over again, to analysis informed by all current or recent critical orientations. That formulation makes her work seem a passive feeding ground for the publication-hungry critical establishment. Rather, her writing engages in a profound and multifarious way the issues out of which all those critical orientations have arisen.
Lucio Ruotolo succinctly formulates in his Introduction the central premise of his book: "The Interrupted Moment sets forth my claim that Woolf's evolving aesthetics encompass both existentialist and anarchist presumptions." The protagonist of this analysis, the "interrupted moment," "arouse[s] inventive impulses" in Woolf's life and fiction. Responding creatively rather than defensively to interruption is a measure for Ruotolo of Woolf's success in her writing and of her characters' success in their fictions. To embrace interruption, "the rhythm of the broken sequence" (Woolf's phrase in A Room of One's Own), is to be "open to life . . . open to an aesthetic of disjunction situated at the heart of human interplay."
Ruotolo's premise leads to major revisions of relatively consensual views of some of Woolf's best-known characters. For example, he groups together as negative characterizations—characters who respond defensively rather man creatively to interruption—Septimus Warren Smith of Mrs. Dalloway, whose suicide is seen by Ruotolo as his failure to respond openly to interruption rather than either a pathetic victimization or a sacrificial gift; Mrs. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse, whose ability to gather together disparate fragments, usually associated with a positive view in Woolf of art and the maternal function, is associated here with her love of self-annihilating solitude as retreat from the enabling flux of life; and Bernard of The Waves, who, far from being the largely positive protagonist he's generally taken to be, a stand-in for or approximation of the authorial point of view, becomes [End Page 275] here a narrow, limited, coercive character who serves to undermine the flux, indeterminacy, openendedness of the text by gathering it together into a false, reductive unity in his final monologue, associating himself with patriarchal-imperialist politics by taking up the sword of Percival.
Most notably, that artist's gift of merging and creating wholeness—Mrs. Ramsay's artist's medium is life, as Lily's is painting—of forging the perfect moment lifted out of time, which is usually regarded as a positive figure of art for Woolf, a life-force in opposition to Mrs. Ramsay's coerciveness rather than a facet of it, becomes for Ruotolo the enemy of Woolf's healthier existentialist-anarchist aesthetic. Wholeness, continuity, and perfection are on the side of ordered deathliness, hierarchy, and oppressive convention, associated for Ruotolo with coercive politics and with Woolf's defensive reaction against the threat of chaotic incoherence (the connection he makes between Mrs. Ramsay's love of order and her coerciveness is persuasive), The positive force in Woolf's art works against wholeness and order, disrupting her own inclination toward closed forms, and valorizes interruptedness, or creative openendedness and indeterminacy.
Ruotolo's arguments are responsible, persuasive, and carefully documented. Even if his reader does not want to assent finally to his radical revision of our sense of the function of "the vision of the whole," in Stephen Spender's phrase, in Woolf's fiction in particular, or modernist writing in general, preferring to see it either as the modernists saw it—an affirmative response to devastating modern dislocations—or, more neutrally, as in dialectic with modernist fragmentation, this reader, at least, comes away impressed, engaged, and with a sense of comfortable assumptions about Woolf and...