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  • Breaking Habits, Building Communities: Virginia Woolf and the Neuroscientific Body
  • Craig Gordon (bio)

Even among critics exploring the political stakes of Anglo-American literary modernism—or, more narrowly, of Virginia Woolf’s literary production—Woolf’s 1931 novel, The Waves, has been read persistently as a highly aesthetic (and therefore apolitical) experiment in the representation of consciousness. 1 The much commented upon experimental nature of the text is, of course, evident from its opening pages: the disembodied narrative voice of the first italicized interlude, with its abstract and highly figural description of an unlocatable landscape, gives way in the first chapter to the cacophony of the personalized yet significantly indistinguishable voices that emanate from within the unstable circumferences of individual characters—or, perhaps more accurately, are attached to proper names that designate different but overlapping spaces of enunciation. Yet even as we immediately are confronted by the formal properties that arguably constitute the apogee of Woolf’s narrative innovation, the opening interlude introduces a figural trajectory that draws us beyond the purview of the aesthetic, narrowly conceived. Describing a seascape at dawn, Wolff posits an original state of relative undifferentiation, in which “the sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles on it.” 2 The sun rises and sunders this undifferentiated state; “the air,” we are told, “seemed to become fibrous and to tear away from the green surface flickering and flaming in red and yellow fibres like the smoky fire that roars from a bonfire” (W, 3; my emphasis). This state of fibrous differentiation is, however, only momentary, for we immediately read that “gradually the fibres of the burning [End Page 25] bonfire were fused into one haze, one incandescence.” This unity is itself quickly qualified by the statement that this incandescence “lifted the weight of the woolen grey sky on top of it and turned it to a million atoms of soft blue” (W, 3). The opening interlude thus frames the novel by drawing our attention to a conceptual movement from undifferentiation to individualization to a renewed form of wholeness or collectivity that is understood as a state of fusion that paradoxically maintains or supports a constellation of discrete atoms.

It is, broadly speaking, this trajectory that Michael Tratner takes up in the chapter of Modernism and Mass Politics devoted to The Waves. Arguing the need to resituate British literary high modernism in the context of a variety of collectivist projects that were widely influential in the early part of the twentieth century, Tratner understands the text as an exploration of a politically Left collectivism. 3 Tratner turns primarily to the group psychology of Gustave Le Bon, Sigmund Freud, and William McDougall as the historical frame within which to approach the tension between individualism and collectivism in Woolf’s text. I, however, shall contend that the text identifies a different terrain upon which to explore structures of collectivity. Though Woolf is undeniably interested in questions of psychology, I shall argue that she elaborates her understanding of collectivity or community not preeminently in terms of the mind, whether of the group or the individual, but rather that she turns instead to the bodily categories provided by neuroscientific discourse. 4 To that end, it will be crucial to interrogate the text’s preoccupation with what it describes as “the raw, the white, the unprotected fibre” of the human nervous system and to explore the various registers in which this figure functions (W, 178). As we have noted, the text’s opening page inaugurates this figure in a nonphysiological mode through the repeated description of the process of differentiation as one of increasing fibrosis. I will pursue the trajectory suggested by this initial interlude in arguing that the text quickly redeploys this naturalistic metaphor and takes a different sort of fibre, that constituting the human nervous system, as the context within which to explore a movement from differentiation to fusion, from individualization to the fashioning of collectivity.

This situation of the human body as the term around which forces of individualization and structures of collectivity circulate constitutes three problematics—historical, literary critical, and theoretical. In an historical frame, attention to...

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