restricted access The Word Split Its Husk: Woolf's Double Vision of Modernist Language
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The Word Split Its Husk:
Woolf's Double Vision of Modernist Language

These queer little sand castles, I was thinking. . . . Little boys making sand castles. . . . Each is weathertight, & gives shelter to the occupant. . . . But I am the sea which demolishes these castles. . . . What is the value of a philosophy which has no power over life? I have the double vision. I mean, as I am not engrossed in the labour of making this intricate word structure. I also see the man who makes it. I should say it is only word proof not weather proof. We all have to discover the natural law & live by it. . . . I am carrying on, while I read, the idea of women discovering, like the 19th century rationalists, agnostics, that man is no longer God.

In private fantasies, like this late diary entry, as in formal essays like "Modern Fiction" and "The Narrow Bridge of Art," Virginia Woolf initiated a continuing feminist challenge to the high temples, reconstructed labyrinths, and reinforcing scaffoldings erected by the God-like men of literary modernism. She goes on to list T. S. Eliot as one of the "little boys" building castles for her engulfment. Her assessment of men of the [End Page 371] next generation, "The Leaning Tower," detected a privileged architecture already tilting from new, outside social and political forces (Collected Essays 2: 170-172). Through a series of architectural and natural metaphors, Woolf found the structure and power to declare that, as a woman, she had a different, more varied relation to language than many of her male contemporaries. Her female critical persona may assume the position and strength of a natural demolishing agent, the sea. Or she may visit the leaning tower, but unlike its inhabitants, she need not remain. She has her own philosophy that valorizes life, and she is able to read the word-builder as well as the word; her "natural law" enveloping "watertight" or inescapable constructions becomes, not simply an opposed alternative, but a new process, a "double vision" of modernist language.1

Woolf's frequent discussions of words articulate a quest or desire for new effects, serving new subjects, as is typical of modernists. Woolf repeatedly seeks "transparency" in words (for example, "A Sketch" 93). This is not wishing them away, or aspiring to simple representation; I do see it as connected to her struggle against the materialism of the Edwardians and the egotistical display of the moderns. She shows a double focus in saying that she wants to write "from deep feeling and not just love of words" (Diary 2: 248). Her comment in "Modern Fiction" that "it is a mistake to stand outside examining 'methods' " (Collected Essays 2: 108) is related to this attitude. In the notebook she kept while first reading Ulysses, she shows competence in keeping track of "method," as the text seemed to dictate. But the author's ability to get "thinking" into language interested her more than his "machinery" ("Modern Novels" notebook).

There is much in Woolf's sea fantasy to resonate with and still to direct contemporary feminist theory on both sides of the Atlantic. In a manner that suggests the French feminism of Julia Kristeva, Woolf questions the static, retentive qualities of phallogocentrism and disrupts the "phallic position" in cultures where "speaking subjects are conceived of as masters of their speech" (Kristeva 165). The adequacy of Kristeva's depiction of woman's relation to language is more problematic. Woman's creation of "an imaginary story through which she constitutes an identity" could serve to describe Woolf's repeated creation of fantasies, both in her diary and her essays, but it need not be taken as a negative symptom. Kristeva's statement that in women's writing, "language seems to be seen from a foreign land . . . from an asymbolic, spastic body," has several [End Page 372] interesting points, including its "asymbolic" term and its focus on the body at a primal level and interval of action (166). Woolf could not altogether object to it, having reported that she read Ulysses "with spasms of wonder, of discovery" (Diary 5: 353). But in its suggestion of...