- Virginia Woolf and Trauma: Embodied Texts
“Trauma,” writes Holly Laird in her contribution to this important new collection of essays on Virginia Woolf, is “always already a matter of interpretation. . . . intractably an issue of reading” (pp. 250, 251). At its best, Virginia Woolf and Trauma, like Woolf’s fiction, “teaches a new way to read,” as Clifford E. Wulfman argues in his essay on The Waves (p. 176), one that involves us as empathic listeners capable of responding to the “affective resonance” (Claire Kahane, p. 227) of Woolf’s prose. We are the audience, as Bartholomew tells Mrs. Manressa in Between the Acts, and as many of these essays insist, we play an important part. For as Cathy Caruth has written, insofar as trauma is experienced as a latency and in its insistent repetition, “the history of trauma . . . can only take place through the listening of another.”1
The subtitle of the collection, Embodied Texts, nicely encapsulates the argument these ten essays, in different ways, present: namely, that Woolf’s prose transmits to the reader the “corporeal shock” of trauma (Eberly and Henke, p. 13, Patricia Moran, p. 200). The critical difference brought to light by this collection is how literary analyses of trauma seem to diverge along a clear divide between the priority of the body and the priority of the text. Kahane raises the question central to this collection: “Does the traumatic effect of representation depend on a real prior experience that is evoked?” (p. 235). While editors Suzette Henke (author of Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Life-Writing, 1998) and David Eberly assert in the introduction that the contributors all “share similar convictions about the influence of trauma on Woolf’s creative production” (p. 8)—and they do insofar as they draw on many of the same sources in trauma theory—what is most interesting, and useful, about the collection is precisely the ways the contributors differ in their readings of trauma.
On one side of the divide are those essays that answer Kahane’s question in the affirmative. Patricia Cramer, Toni McNaron, Karen DeMesster, Jane Lilienfeld and (to a lesser extent) Eberly read Woolf’s fiction and essays as reflecting her personal experience of trauma in childhood sexual abuse as well as the traumatic experiences of her generation, whether the domestic violence of the patriarchal household, the disturbing upheaval of world war, or more generally, the shock of cultural change that defined the modernist era. These critics read for the most part symptomatically, tracing the [End Page 167] symbols and images, or “trauma marker[s],” that betray the traumatic event and locating trauma in the author, the character, and the plot (Cramer, p. 39). For example, many of these essays analyze characters—most obviously, Rachel in The Voyage Out, Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway, and Rose in The Years, but also others, such as Clarissa Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay—as survivors of trauma. These readings support Louise DeSalvo’s controversial claim in her 1989 Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work that Woolf’s sexual trauma is replayed in her writing. McNaron goes even further, arguing that it is this reenactment—and for some contributors, therapeutic reformulation—of her personal trauma that makes Woolf’s writing more significant than any value “assigned it on purely literary grounds” (p. 51).
On the other side are those essays that focus more on the phenomenological and psychoanalytic than on the personal and autobiographical in their readings, providing insight into what Henke terms “ontological trauma”—“the incipient shock precipitated by a perpetual, haunting awareness of the fragility of human life” (p. 124). For these critics—most notably Henke, Wulfman, Moran, and Kahane—Woolf’s modernist writing is itself “a language of trauma,” not the representation of a specific prior event (Wulfman, p. 163). “Woolf’s task of fiction,” writes Wulfman, “is to re-create trauma’s stimulus upon the membrane of consciousness,” specifically the consciousness of the reader (p. 160). This “breaking through into consciousness of...