restricted access Virginia Woolf and the Scene of Writing
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Virginia Woolf and the Scene of Writing

At One Point in Virginia's Woolf's 1928 Novel Orlando, the protagonist, a would-be poet, goes to live with a band of gypsies who have no word for "beautiful." Stricken with the "English disease, the love of nature," Orlando longs to extol the beauties of the earth and sky, but in the absence of a word for "beautiful" she repeatedly falls back on the one gypsy phrase that approximates her meaning:"How good to eat! How good to eat!" (O 94). Woolf comments:

[I]t is a curious fact that though human beings have such imperfect means of communication that they can only say "good to eat" when they mean "beautiful" and the other way about, they will yet endure ridicule and misunderstanding rather than keep any experience to themselves.

(94)

No doubt Woolf would be amused by my proposing to take seriously her contention that "beautiful" and "good to eat" are interchangeable. But in fact, the act of eating intervenes in the scene of writing throughout Woolf's texts. And although this is a relatively unproblematic equation for Woolf when she depicts a man writing, she portrays eating both as necessary to and as interfering with a woman's ability to write. The association of female writing with sexuality and corporeality prevents the woman writer from "consuming every impediment" when she writes, and the female body itself occasions artistic impotence. [End Page 81]

The intrusion of eating into the scene of writing alters the framework in which the subject of creativity in Woolf is typically addressed. Building upon Woolf's assertion that "we think back through our mothers if we are women" (AROO 79), many critics stress the importance of female bonding in generating both Woolf's perception of her own artistry and her more general claims about female creativity (for example, Marcus, Hawkes, Moore, Lilienfeld, and Ruddick). It is a critical commonplace that maternal metaphors dominate Woolf's descriptions of her writing, and that her mother's and sister's maternity remained the yardstick against which she measured her literary efforts.1 But with the notable exception of Elizabeth Abel, the insistent oral character of Woolf's maternal metaphors has gone unnoticed.2

Yet eating intrudes most overtly in the scene of writing when Woolf employs the maternal metaphor of textual production, a conventional trope in which the writer becomes pregnant with the word and delivers a work of art.3 In Woolf's descriptions of male writing, the biological metaphor remains safely figurative: whereas men in Woolf may eat actual meals, the texts they produce issue from minds that can only ever be analogous to wombs. But women's capacity to bear children collapses the distinction Woolf usually maintains between the literary and the literal. Yet why should this happen when the woman writer eats? And why, and in what ways, does female eating differ from male eating?

It is here that the theories of Melanie Klein may be of use, for Woolf's structuring of female creativity within the parameters of orality and maternity makes her conception strikingly homologous to Klein's psychoanalytic [End Page 82] structuring of women's creativity and conversion hysteria.4 According to Klein, the infant imagines the mother's body to be the site of all sexual and creative processes, a magically incorporative space that contains, among other things, babies and milk and the father's penis. As a result of real or imagined oral frustration, the child experiences aggressive and destructive phantasies of biting and devouring the mother and robbing her of the contents of her body. In girls, these destructive phantasies give rise to two kinds of anxiety: a fear that the mother will retaliate by robbing the daughter of her own reproductive organs and capacity for motherhood; and a fear that the daughter's phantasies have, in fact, damaged and mutilated the mother's body (Klein, "Early Stages"). In keeping with Klein's more general view that artistic creation is a form of reparation for the damage done to the mother in phantasy, the daughter's desire to destroy her mother can eventually compel her into...


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