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117 VIRGINIA WOOLF: A REVIEW-ESSAY By Katherine C. Hill (C. W. Post Center, Long Island University) Perry Meisel, The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater (New Haven: Yale UP, I98O); Maria DiBattista, Virginia Woolf's Major Novels: The Fables of Anon (New Haven: Yale UP, I98O); Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (eds), The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume Six, I936-I941 (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 198UJT Having in the last twenty years thoroughly described nearly every characteristic of Virginia Woolf s modernism, critics are now beginning to examine more closely the sources of Woolf s radical innovations and locating them in her troubled relation to her literary past. Two new books from Yale University Press typify this trend. Perry Meisel's The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater and Maria DiBattista's Virginia Woolf's Major Novels: The Fables of Anon both take up the questions of literary inheritance and literary authority and, using the broad idea of Woolf s "anxiety of influence," both describe the way she reworks and transforms the nineteenth century. These two critical books, taken together with the recently published final volume of The Letters of Virginia Woolf, not only suggest the importance of the past to Virginia Woolf s present, but also delineate some of the sources, strategies and daily pressures of Woolf s feminism. Perry Meisel's The Absent Father is a tour de force of Bloomian criticism . Meisel describes the process by which wooif ardently embraces Pater's aestheticism as an escape from Leslie Stephen's extreme literary moralism, and analyzes the way in which her essays embody a set of literary values antithetical to her father's. Woolf at first imports Pater wholesale into her criticism, Meisel says, borrowing not only his critical ideas, but also his critical language. As a Paterian essayist, Woolf defines literature as the expression of idiosyncratic personality, celebrates the experience of the privileged moment, and uses her adopted mentor's chemical vocabulary to describe the process by which the dross of life is refined into the unalloyed purity of art. But, Meisel argues, the embarrassment of having stolen so heavily from Pater makes Woolf deny him as a precursor even while she acts under his power. Woolf tries to disavow and escape Pater's influence, paradoxically, but turning his own ideas against him. As Meisel puts it, she "doubles Pater's secondary or deindividuating profile" and realizes success as a "writer in his place by appealing to a theory of culture that she learns from him and that she turns against him" (p. xvi). When Meisel says that Woolf "doubles Pater's deindividuating profile ," he means that Woolf embraces a Paterian theory of the common life, and does so by adopting and transmuting Pater's epistemological anxieties about the boundaries of the self. Meisel argues that Pater, that high priest of personality who bases his aesthetic on expressing the gem-like hardness and integrity of "the self," finally confesses that "self" is an extremely unstable category. In his "deindividuating profile," Pater admits that "self" is made up of 118 the very stuff of the world around it, and, as an author, Pater identifies this "stuff" as language. Thus, for Pater, the whole challenge of expressing the self becomes the challenge of differentiating the self's language from the vast "undertexture" (p. 137) or "textuality" (p. 143) that makes up the common life of culture. If an author succeeds at this differentiation, he wins his originality, and situates himself in a new way on a map of influences. This last act requires repressing and rewriting some literary history, of course, and, as Meisel puts it, Marius the Epicurean teaches us that "a modification or rewriting of the past is the price of strength and composure in the present" (p. 145). Woolf buys her own strength and composure in the present, according to Meisel, by simultaneously incorporating and rewriting Pater's ideas, and thus repressing his influence. Woolf never wrote an essay on Pater; Woolf never discussed his work in any significant fashion and, Meisel argues, the very absence of apparent interest in him indicates the power of Woolf s repression. We see Pater's influence...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 117-122
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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