restricted access The Politics of Modernist Form; or, Who Rules The Waves?
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The Politics of Modernist Form; or, Who Rules The Waves?

After the Recent Publication of Jane Marcus' essay, "Brittania Rules The Waves," interpretations of Virginia Woolf's novel cannot legitimately ignore its political content. As for myself, before I had the opportunity to read the essay, I had already written briefly on the implicit critique of imperialism in The Waves(McGee 116-120) in such a way as to suggest my agreement with Marcus that the novel is about "the submerged mind of empire" (the words of J. M. Coetzee, cited by Marcus 136). Still, Marcus goes beyond my understanding of an implicit and partial critique to argue that an explicit critique of imperialism constitutes the center and organizing principle of the novel. Marcus has articulated a new space for reading The Waves —a space that should become the enabling ground for future readings of the novel. By articulating this space in the form of a political interpretation, she also makes visible the internal boundary or blank space that any interpretation hollows out of itself. This blank space allows me to pose the question of literary form that Marcus fails to address adequately with her emphasis on the transparency of social content and literary references. She does not claim, of course, that the meaning of the novel is obvious but that it becomes obvious once the text has been plugged into the specific dimensions of the historical context from which it derives. Marcus wants to reverse the critical history of The Waves which has tended to identify the novel as a static representation of upper-class culture and forms of identity. On the contrary, Marcus insists, "the project of cultural studies . . . now allows one to read The Waves as a narrative about culture making" (139). I agree with this statement. [End Page 631] Still, by subordinating the novel's form to its context without paying sufficient attention to the process of mediation, Marcus tends to overlook the politics of literary form at the heart of The Waves and possibly of the modernist project itself. In order to explain this politics, I will need to interrogate some aspects of Marcus' interpretation in detail.

For example, in part at least, she hinges her claim that Woolf intended to produce a full-blown critique of imperialism in The Waves (indeed, that the novel "records a precise historical moment—the postcolonial carnivalesque" [144]) on a particular reading of the poetic interludes. Marcus notes that these interludes "take the form of a set of Hindu prayers to the sun, called Gayatri, marking its course during a single day. These (Eastern) episodes surround a (Western) narrative of the fall of British imperialism" (137). Woolf supposedly got the idea for using this metrical form found in the Rig Veda from her cousin Dorothea Jane Stephen's 1918 book, Studies in Early Indian Thought. However, the term "Gayatri" does not appear in this book, and Stephen's chapter on the Rig Veda is very general and does not offer any concrete indication that Woolf was imitating Indian verse. If one thumbs through the Rig Veda itself, it does not seem altogether clear that Woolf's interludes have any direct relation to the Sanskrit hymns. Although the interludes trace the path of the sun during the course of a day, they are not exactly invocations of the sun, like the Gayatri, nor do they conform to the expanded significance of the Gayatri as a recitation leading to the fulfillment of human desire. Woolf certainly does not imitate the Gayatri meter of twenty-four syllables, usually in triplets of eight syllables each. I would not deny that Woolf may have had her cousin's study in mind when she wrote the interludes and may have wanted "to call up Indian philosophy and its emphasis on astronomy and the randomness of the universe" (Marcus 155). She may have wanted to create an echo of or resonance with the idea behind one of her cousin's summary statements: "In early Indian thought we have the boldest and the most consistent effort that the human mind has ever made to show that it is nothing" (cited by Marcus 155; see...