- Orlando and Incandescence:Virginia Woolf's Comic Sublime
One of the most provocative and troubling aspects of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) is its simultaneous call for an aesthetics of "the thing itself," an aesthetics of detachment and egolessness, and its feminist call for women to think back through their mothers in order to assert themselves as writers. Woolf seems to be admonishing women to be both selfless and self-assertive, disembodied and female, apolitical and partisan, Kantian and feminist. Past critics have sought to resolve these antinomies with reference to Woolf's ideal of androgyny as expressed in the concluding chapter of the essay, her claim that "it is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. . . . Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated" (AROO 108).1
The last ten years of feminist criticism, however, have taught us that androgyny is a problematical concept, particularly because it often comes to mean a union of neatly complementary characteristics that are stereotypically masculine and feminine, an idealized synthesis of opposites that leaves political or power relations essentially unchanged.2 Thus, the feminist critic is, I think, disappointed when Woolf turns in conclusion to the image of a young man and woman getting into a taxi-cab together: [End Page 235] "Perhaps to think, as I had been thinking these two days, of one sex as distinct from the other is an effort. It interferes with the unity of mind. Now that effort had ceased and that unity had been restored by seeing two people come together and get into a taxi-cab" (AROO 100-101). There is even something of the clichéd Hollywood ending in Woolf's image of a man and a woman coming together and being swept away in a taxi-cab.3
If instead we look at the model of sexuality developed in the novel Orlando, first published in October 1928, the month during which Woolf delivered the two lectures that form the basis for A Room of One's Own, we find an exuberant and fantastic sexual ideal that might be said to be multisexual more than it is androgynous or even bisexual. Orlando, dedicated to and written as a fantastic "biography" of Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West, seems a kind of spontaneous prefiguring of Woolf's highly untraditional notion of "Vive la différence!" expressed in the lectures: "It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?" (AROO 91). Orlando, the hero-heroine of this fantastic romance, is an aspiring poet who is born male in the Elizabethan Renaissance and ends up female in 1928, with the sex-change having taken place in Constantinople toward the end of the seventeenth century. As a model of the human self, its sexuality and creativity, Orlando the modern has a very complex and self-contradictory subjectivity because s/he has memory traces of all her/his previous existences.4Orlando, in fact, brilliantly embodies the seemingly contradictory political and aesthetic theories of A Room of One's Own in a vision of the comic sublime that celebrates a mystical union of human sexuality and spirit and radically rewrites the Romantic sublime of Kant and Wordsworth. This mock sublime embodies Woolf's modernist, feminist perspective and challenges the dualisms at the very heart of the traditional sublime aesthetic.
A Room of One's Own is perhaps best known for its feminist-materialist demand that women claim both a room of their own and money of their own if they wish to gain the intellectual freedom necessary to artistic creation. But what does Woolf mean by intellectual freedom? Here, like other [End Page 236] female modernists—Gertrude Stein in "What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few Of Them?" and The Geographical History of America and Isak Dinesen in "The Dreamers"—she...