Penelope at Work
… but always
I waste away at the inward heart, longing for Odysseus.
These men try to hasten the marriage. I weave my own wiles.
As so often throughout our culture’s poetic text, one encounters in The Odyssey moments of abyssal self-representation when the poem tries to occupy a place in two different and mutually exclusive spheres, when it slips between representing something and being the something represented. One such moment, in book I, happens to coincide with the first direct representation of Penelope. In fact, Penelope enters the scene of narration in order to interrupt it. In the passage to which I refer, Telemachos and the suitors are gathered in front of the palace, where they are listening to “the famous singer… [who] sang of the Achaians’ bitter homecoming / from Troy.”1 Penelope, who “heeded the magical song from her upper chamber,” is drawn down the stairs and, in tears, begs the singer to choose another song. At this point, Telemachos takes the floor, reproaches his mother for her intervention, and says to her:
“Go therefore back in the house, and take up your own work,
the loom and the distaff, and see to it that your handmaidens
all men, but I most of all. For mine is the power in this household.”
Penelope went back inside the house, in amazement.
Much later in the poem, at a crucial moment that prepares Odysseus’ attack on the suitors, Telemachos again sends his mother out of the room, using almost the same terms but with one important difference. Instead of the poem or discussion, it is an instrument of force—Odysseus’ famous bow—that Telemachos orders his mother to leave in men’s hands.
“Go therefore back into the house, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff, and see to it that your handmaidens ply their work also. The men shall have the bow in their keeping, all men, but I most of all. For mine is the power in this household.” Penelope went back inside the house, in amazement.
By means of this repetition, the poem establishes a connection between the art of storytelling and the practice of force. Both fall within a son’s prerogative to exercise power in his household, the power to send women out of the room. If, however, a distribution of power and the sexes occurs here, it turns on the designation of woman’s work as “the loom and the distaff,” the instruments of weaving and spinning. Both of these tasks supply the poet with endless metaphoric possibilities in this tale of men whose fate, for example, is “spun with the thread at his birth” (VII, 198), where the storyteller can spin out a well-made tale, and where cleverness weaves designs and deceptions. Thus, in a way that we have been taught to recognize,2 the exclusion of the distaff from manly discussion is necessarily incomplete since Penelope’s work is set out as a kind of material support for the metaphorical field from which the poem draws its crafty designs and deceptive stories. But rhetorical repetition is not all that is working here to confound the distinction Telemachos would make. Power in the household is interrupted in quite another fashion by a woman’s art
Pressed by her household to choose a new husband, Penelope does not want to decide. Instead, she has given herself the tedious task of unweaving by night what she has woven during the day. It is not a terribly clever trick, nothing like saying “No man” to the Cyclops Polyphemos, although perhaps that is what her unweaving means. In any case, it is a homelier remedy in a tight spot, which works even though her suitors, unlike Odysseus’ Polyphemos, are perfectly able to see the tissue of her lies. Like a spider, she watches them fly into the web she has stretched across the entrance to the room in which she sits weaving. It is the same room she enters at night when others suppose her in bed. Here, then, is Penelope’s great secret, what no man can see for no man imagines her anywhere but in bed. It is this secret passage out of the bedchamber that allows Penelope to promise her bed and yet always defer the terms of the promise. No clever play on words but rather a spatial and temporal shift between the two centers of her woman’s life preserves Penelope’s indecision. The suitors remain strangers to a woman’s work which is never done, the tedium of the interior. As a result, their manly discussion is mystified by an obvious trick.
A Room of One’s Own, the published text of lectures delivered at Newnham and Girton colleges in 1928, begins with the question of its own title: “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of own’s own? I will try to explain.”3 Likewise, the title "Penelope at Work” needs some explanation. The title—that is, the right to claim attention to whatever Penelope might have to say about Virginia Woolf. Because authority here is a fiction, it can claim only the credit due the speculations of a common reader, in the sense that Woolf gives that notion in her two anthologies of critical essays, The Common Reader. I would add as well the other sense taken by the narrator of A Room of One’s Own when she sets aside a more systematic sounding of the depths, examining instead “only what chance has floated to [her] feet” (78).
I invoke Penelope in order to name what is at work in a text like A Room of One’s Own, although the phrase “at work” already covers up in too purposeful a fashion the way such work entails as well its own undoing. I take Penelope as a shuttling figure in power’s household, one whose movement between outside and inside, violence and poetry, the work of history and the unworking of fiction may allow us to frame one or two notions about the place of woman’s art. This figure, moreover, may also serve to reformulate that other notion of woman’s exclusion which always seems to arise whenever one takes up the question of power in stories and in histories. Finally, then, Penelope is the name I take in order to designate a conjunction of fiction in history in which a woman’s text plots the place of its own undoing.
As already mentioned, A Room of One’s Own opens with the question of its title. To provide an answer, the lecture’s narrator introduces another fictional narrator (“‘I,’” she writes, “is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being” ), who proceeds to recount a series of events interspersed with a chain of literary analyses. Asked to explain, in other words, the narrator promises an answer once she is through spinning out her story. But this narrative sets out from a doubling back or a crossing out in which a meaning, a sense of direction, gets lost.
Having finally fished up an idea for her promised lectures on women and fiction, the narrator has set off at a rapid pace across Cambridge’s campus, little heeding where her feet are taking her. Where she might have been going, however, no one can tell because she is instantly called back to an order of distinctions that her thought had put aside in its unruly eagerness:
Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help; he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face assumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done.… [However], what idea it had been that had sent me so audaciously trespassing I could not now remember. (6)
This setback, provoked by an interruption, is itself soon forgotten and the narrator is led, through a series of rapid associations, to set her course for a certain college library where one might consult the manuscript of Milton’s Lycidas. Once again, she is carried forward unconsciously, her bodily movement forgotten as one text leads to another until it is a question no longer about Milton but about a Thackeray novel that brings her to the door of the library. Once again, her unruly associations have transgressed a fundamental order and the intertextual weaving is broken off when the narrator is recalled to the reality of her own unfitness in such a place:
But here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of with wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction. (7–8)
In its initial movement, then, the text describes a zigzag, a series of interruptions and a repeated reversal of direction. From this angle, we may begin to see how A Room of One’s Own frames the question of women and fiction within the field of an exclusion. What appears there is a contradiction like the one the narrator exposes in the following passage: “If women had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of utmost importance… . But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Treveylan points out [in his History of England], she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room” (44–45). The zigzag produced by a reversal of sense is here more clearly coordinated with the contradiction of fiction by history. And this zigzag intersects as well with the question of the title: Is “a room of one’s own,” in other words, an image, a metaphor with which to call up the immaterial, the timeless, and the imaginary defeat of power, or is it rather that which supports the metaphor, the denotated foundation on the basis of which figurative space is constructed? A place in history which exists therefore in social, political, and economic contexts, or a place that transcends these limits much in the way the narrator looks down on the street activity from her study window? How does A Room of One’s Own, in other words, negotiate this angle of contradiction?
The narrator defers these questions by posing another in their place as if she had found another use for Penelope’s trick of leaving one room for another, as if the promise she has made engages here to keep the passage open between these two spaces, to let them interfere with each other. Woolf’s narrator, for example, cannot simply escape into the library from a ruder reality because once there she is drawn back into the rudest of scenes where young women are “locked up, beaten and flung about the room.” Here, then, is another locked room within the first. The second enclosure takes shape in the fully loaded bookshelves lining the walls. Having locked women out of the library, history still rages at her from within. The narrator runs into this locked door repeatedly in the British Library, and even at home, in her own library, the violent encounters continue. Again and again, she is shown the door. Again and again, anger flares as it did when she was politely told she could not enter the college library. “Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger” (8).
The narrator spins in the revolving door of the library. While anger pushes her out, something else pulls her back in. That something else has the force of forgetfulness—in its pull, one forgets one’s place, one’s self. In this back-and-forth motion, the narrator is strung out between an exclusion or negation of women and a forgetting of herself as woman. Here, then, may be as well one space of woman’s writing, which always risks hardening into the negative outline of anger and thereby losing its chance for forgetfulness. This is the sense of the encounter with Professor von X., whom the narrator sketches as she reads his thesis The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex.
Whatever the reason, the professor was made to look very angry and ugly in my sketch, as he wrote his great book.… Drawing pictures was an idle way of finishing an unprofitable morning’s work. Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. A very elementary exercise in psychology, not to be dignified by the name of psychoanalysis, showed me on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger. Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. (31–32)
In this moment, the narrator has a view not only of the ugly face of the historian but also of her own distorted features: “My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with anger.” Yet these interceptions, which snatch the pencil from the hand and push thought off the path it was following, always set up the possibility of a new direction in which to proceed. When the negations of history are made to turn on themselves, the door of the library spins, setting the narrator in motion once again.
All that I had retrieved from that morning’s work had been the one fact of anger. The professors—I lumped them together thus—were angry. But why, I asked myself, having returned the books, why, I repeated, standing under the colonnade among the pigeons and the prehistoric canoes, why are they angry? And, asking myself this question, I strolled off. (33)
Through these deflections which turn a discourse back on itself, A Room of One’s Own defines a novel position in relation to the locked room of history. That is, since women’s history cannot be studied in the library, it will have to be read into the scene of its own exclusion. It has to be invented—both discovered and made up. As it spins around its promise to decide on the place of woman’s writing, this text ravels the crossed threads of history and fiction. It ravels—which is to say it both untangles, makes something plain or clear, and it entangles or confuses something. An alternative definition of the transitive verb to ravel is (quoting from the decisive Oxford authority) “to unravel.” Turning in the door of culture’s most exclusive institution, Penelopean work blurs the line between historical prerogatives and fictional pretensions, always deferring the promised end of its labor, raveling/unraveling clear historical patterns at its fictional border.
In order to specify further this figure of the self-raveling text, one may turn to three different moments in A Room of One’s Own where interruption marks the scene of writing. First, however, let us take a rather large detour whose only logic may be that of one text interrupting and unraveling another. The digression is proposed in order to step beyond a limited notion of interruption and thus a limited reading of Woolf’s text. It passes through the work of Michel Foucault, most particularly his Will to Knowledge [La Volonté de savoir).4 It might be useful to break into A Room of One’s Own with Foucault’s history of sexuality so as to point up the zigzagging fault lines in Woolf’s speculations about woman’s writing. Although the fault lines are quite plainly there, they can be too easily overlooked when this text is taken as a model authority for a critical practice content to go on making nasty caricatures of Professor von X., the nameless author and authority of masculine privilege and feminine subjection. The fault line beneath this sketch is the notion of sexual differentiation as a historical production which, if it has produced a privileged masculine subject, cannot also be understood as originating in the subject it only produces. To the extent, however, that one accepts to see “man” at the origin of his own privilege, then, one chooses paradoxically to believe the most manifest lie of “phallosophy”: that of man giving birth to himself as an origin that transcends any difference from himself. It is with just such a notion of production that Professor Foucault’s history, for example, may interrupt whatever sketch we might make of privileged masculine subjectivity.
To resume very quickly, Foucault elaborates his history over against a certain Freudian-Marxian tradition that has consistently distinguished sexuality from the power mechanisms that repress it. According to this common notion, which Foucault labels “the repressive hypothesis,” power is structurally opposed to the anarchic energy of sexuality and functions to repress it, for example, by forcing conformity to the model of the monogamous heterosexual couple. The corollary to this hypothesis, therefore, is the value placed on sexual liberation as evidence of effective resistance to the bourgeois hegemony of power. Foucault, on the other hand, proposes that the repressive model of power is at best a limited and at worst a mystified one insofar as it accounts only for negative relations and ignores the far more pervasive evidence of power’s production of positive—that is, real—effects. He argues that, for at least two centuries in the West, power has maintained just such positive relations to sex and sexuality—sexuality, that is, is to a large extent produced by power—and these have progressively assumed a more important role as means for articulating power effects in the individual and society. All of which is why the various movements of sexual liberation need to be systematically reevaluated as instances also of the deployment of a will to knowledge, of power’s articulating itself in the first-person confessional mode that also constitutes sexual identity. In an earlier work on disciplinary institutions (Discipline and Punish), Foucault gives an even clearer distinction of power in modern Western society as articulated in the various sciences of the subject, through the increasingly refined and differentiated techniques of identifying and classifying the “I” of any discourse.
While one should hesitate to force Woolf’s text into parallel with this analysis, one may at least accept to see in it a background for a certain ambivalence. Woolf consistently sets the apparent political and social gains of a new women’s consciousness over against the disturbing signs of an intensification of exclusive sexual identities, of sexually grounded subjectivity, and of subjectively grounded sexuality. What can emerge perhaps from the excursus into Foucault’s history is another context within which to read A Room of One’s Own as turning away from this historical preoccupation with the subject, closing the book on the “I.” The gesture which one can now read somewhat differently is that of the narrator when, near the end of her story and after leafing through the works of many women writers from Aphra Behn to her own contemporary Mary Carmichael, she takes one last book off the shelf. It is a novel by a certain Mr. A. (whose initial, like the Professor’s X, seems to stand for the whole alphabet of possible proper names). Quickly, however, she replaces it on the shelf because
after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter “I.” One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it. Whether that was indeed a tree or a woman walking I was not quite sure. Back one was always hailed to the letter “I.” One began to be tired of “I.” (103)
What our detour through the Foucauldian critique should allow us to see is that the power of this “straight dark bar” to obliterate everything it approaches is not a power derived from the identity of a masculine subject to which the “I” simple refers. Rather, the identification of subjects is already an effect of power’s articulating itself on bodies and “objects” in general, differentiating and ordering their intercourse, mapping the space of meaning.
Having noted this, however, we wonder what remains of Woolf’s particular critique of the patriarchal subject’s historical privilege. Have we not passed over this aspect in order better to assimilate Woolf’s text into the broader critique of the humanistic subject which is Foucault’s project? Is it simply insignificant that the latter’s analysis never interrogates the hierarchical opposition of the sexes as an important link in the deployment of power, while that distinction repeatedly forces itself on Woolf’s thought, interrupting it, causing it to lose direction? Is there not, in other words, a sense in which The Will to Knowledge itself occupies a privileged space that knows no interruption?
Consider, for example, what one may call the narrator of The Will to Knowledge, the “I” that assumes direction of the discourse’s argument. Like the narrator of A Room of One’s Own, this “I” is “only a convenient term for somebody who has no existence,” it marks only a relative position in a discursive or textual network. Nonetheless, it is in a clearly different position. As we have seen, A Room of One’s Own proceeds on the model of an interruption that forces the narration to deviate in some fashion, that intrudes with an effective, forceful objection to the momentary forgetting of a woman’s identity. In The Will to Knowledge, on the other hand, it is the narration that defines other discursive procedures as “deviations” and, compared to Woolf’s narration, itself proceeds virtually free from distraction since no one ever gets in its way with anything but spurious objections.5 To cite just one instance, it anticipates the particular obstacle to its progress which the Lacanian theory of desire might pose, the theory, that is, of desire as constituted in and by, rather than against, the law. That theory, then, has already carried out a critique of ego psychology’s repressive hypothesis, but its implications for a history of sexuality are opposed to those drawn by Foucault. One need not enter here too far into the details of this debate in order to appreciate the discursive mode in which this objection is first formulated. Foucault writes:
I can imagine that one would have the right to say to me: By referring constantly to the positive technologies of power, you are trying to pull off a bigger victory over both [Lacanian psychoanalysis and ego psychology]. You lump your adversaries together behind the figure of the weaker one, and by discussing only repression, you want to make us believe incorrectly that you have gotten rid of the problem of the law [which is constitutive of desire].6
While the “I” will eventually respond to this objection, notice how in this moment (but there are many such moments)7 the discourse imagines another position from which to address itself as “you.” Is it any wonder the narrator is never at a loss for a reply? These interruptions of the narrator’s pursuit of the analysis may be frequent, but they are never serious since no figure appears there who, like the Cambridge beadle, has the position and the power to wave the narrator off the turf or to demand to see his permit to enter the library.
It is in this sense, at least, that a discourse like Foucault’s can still retain a place in the privileged domain of patriarchal thought, a train of thought which has been trained, precisely, to think without interruption. And, in a very important sense, the privileged space in question is The Room of One’s Own. These capital letters will refer us back to the original room, the room properly named, the room of the Cartesian subject, where Ego sum is struck as an emblem bearing a proper name, taking up space whose limits can be delineated and, perhaps most important, where the subject becomes one—an individual and whole. Michel Foucault is among those who have forced entry into this room so as to see what is going on there. In an appendix to the second French edition of Histoire de la folie (Madness and Civilization), he writes that it is “a peaceful retreat” to which Descartes’s philosopher retires in order to transcribe the exercise of radical doubt. In that exercise, the subject of the meditation encounters an early “point of resistance” in the form of the actuality of the moment and place of meditation: the fact that he is in a certain room, sitting by a fire, before a piece of paper. These conditions—a warm body next to a fire, writing instruments—are then taken by Foucault as synecdoches of the whole system of actuality which the subject cannot be thought to lack and still be posited as the subject of a reasonable discourse. In the appended essay to which I refer, “Mon corps, ce papier, ce feu” (My body, this paper, this fire), Foucault imagines that the meditating subject would have to reason as follows: “If I begin to doubt the place where I am, the attention I am giving to this piece of paper, and of the fire’s warmth which marks my present moment, how could I remain convinced of the reasonable nature of my enterprise? Will I not, by putting this actuality in doubt, make any reasonable meditation impossible and rob of all value my resolve to discover finally the truth?”8 For Foucault, Descartes’s place in the history of the Western episteme is so important because it situates the juncture of an exclusion—of unreason, of madness—with the seizure of material reality by the Subject of Reason. By means of that exclusion and that seizure, reality can be a quiet place in which to meditate on oneself.9 However, when Foucault takes up the synecdochic figure “My Body, This Paper, This Fire” as the title of his essay, he does so in order to reassert the abrogated claims of madness, to reassert, that is, the points of resistance to the elaboration of a reasonable subject. In a certain sense, these points provide leverage on the subject’s discourse and give access to intrusion into it.10
It was as if someone had let fall a shade.… Something seemed lacking, something seemed different. And to answer that question, I had to think myself out of the room. (11)
Let us place this scene of a certain kind of intrusion into reason’s discourse beside another that is imagined by Woolf’s narrator. One will recognize a few reasons for doing so: the actuality of a scholar’s meditation, a resistance, intrusion—all are in play here. The narrator in this passage is spinning out her image of the great man of letters, seen not as he labors in the overheated library of Cartesian discourse, but rather in an idle moment. In fact, he has left the actuality of the library for another room.
He [e.g., Johnson, Goethe, Carlyle, Voltaire, or any other great man] would open the door of drawing-room or nursery, I thought, and find her among her children perhaps, or with a piece of embroidery on her knee—at any rate, the centre of some different order and system of life, and the contrast between this world and his own … would at once refresh and invigorate; and there would follow, even in the simplest talk, such a natural difference of opinion that the dried ideas in him would be fertilised anew; and the sight of her creating in a different medium from his own would so quicken his creative power that insensibly his sterile mind would begin to plot again, and he would find the phrase or the scene which was lacking when he put on his hat to visit her. (90)
A man of letters, a scholar, leaves his place by the fire in that quiet room and opens the door to a drawing room or nursery. There, the weary philosopher’s work is supplemented by a “different medium,” and he is given to see “the scene which was lacking” from the drama taking shape behind the other closed door. Notice that Woolf’s narrator is both making up this scene and making up for its lack in the scene of history. It has no place, that is, in the history and the biographies of great men which one may consult. It is thus invented, but to take the place of what is missing in the scholar’s medium. In other words, the encounter with a supplemental difference takes place as fiction in history. Or rather, it takes place in a mode that has as yet no proper name. Woolf writes:
It would be ambitious beyond my daring, I thought, looking about the shelves for books that were not there, to suggest to the students of those famous colleges that they should re-write history … but why should they not add a supplement to history? calling it, of course, by some inconspicuous name so that women might figure there without impropriety? (47)
When it acts to restore a missing scene in history’s self-narrative, the narrative of the great man, Woolf’s text catches history at a loss for words, interrupted in its train of thought. What is restored here, then, is not simply some unrecorded moment in the history of power but an interval, a hiatus where that discourse has been momentarily broken off.
In order to figure such an interval or interruption, Woolf’s text creates a passage out of the library and into another room. Let us briefly compare this passage to the one located by Foucault in the Cartesian scene of meditation. The subject of that meditation reappears in Foucault’s essay just as he depicted himself, sealed in his heated study. Now, we could say that Foucault, unlike Woolf, simply finds no reason to imagine the philosopher wandering about from room to room at a loss. No doubt, one would have to acknowledge that such moments occur, but it is reasonable for the historian of discourse to exclude them. Indeed, if one did not exclude them but allowed such idle fantasies to intrude, then it could hardly be called history that one is writing. Notice how, when it is considered in this manner, the reasonable omission reassembles the elements of the Cartesian subject’s exclusion of its own madness. In this sense, at least, it constructs history by figuring only this comfortably situated position of power.
To return to the scene as it is imagined by Woolf’s narrator: surely the interruption figured there is too quickly, too easily recuperated to the benefit of the suspended work. The great man is just taking a little break. Woolf’s text, however, also figures two other sorts of interruption which are not so neatly resumed within the continuous work of history. Both are described as eruptions into the space of woman’s work.
The first frames the nineteenth-century middle-class woman who, if she wrote, “would have to write in the common sitting-room” (69) as Jane Austen did and where, of course, “she was always interrupted” (70). The narrator quotes this passage from James Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his Aunt Jane: “How she was able to effect all this is surprising, for she had no separate study to repair to, and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions. She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants or any persons beyond her own family party.” To this, the narrator adds: “Jane Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper.” Austen, in a recognizably Penelopean fashion, undoes her work repeatedly so that it might continue. Each interruption blots out evidence of a fictional work and replaces it with the cover of domestic tasks.11 The homely fiction of domestic enclosure disguises the worldly fiction. That fiction is thus situated historically, materially. At the same time, however, a certain historical determination of woman’s place is also seen to be conditioned by a fiction and based on a ruse which hides the contradictions of history.12
To understand some of the possible implications of this double-hinging effect of interruption, what I am calling Penelopian labor, one need only imagine that the weary scholar whom we earlier followed out of his study into a drawing room might have himself, without realizing it, walked in on someone like Miss Austen and found her “with a piece of embroidery on her knee—at any rate, the centre of some different order and system of life.” The scholar’s visit to this lady culminates in an inspiration which allows him to fill a gap in the discourse of reason, the discourse produced in a space of no difference, no interruption. By rewriting this familiar scene as we are suggesting, the phrase “some different order” comes to imply not only a difference from the order that governs the scholar’s work but as well a difference from itself insofar as that piece of embroidery just may hide the text unraveling the domestic scene. The inspiring vision of difference, that representation which always implies an identity, is acted out as a mask for this other difference from itself, the difference within identity. The scholar is able to draw inspiration for his task because he believes he has glimpsed a scene other than the scene of writing, caught sight of someone different, doing something else. Yet, because there may be a hidden text in the picture, it is perhaps someone much more like himself whom he has interrupted. The man of letters—historian, biographer, novelist, playwright, or literary critic—has failed to see himself as already represented in the room he has entered, and it is precisely a blindness to his own reflection that induces a credulous inspiration for his work. Is he not, like one of Penelope’s suitors, fooled by his eagerness to find her keeping the promise of her embroidery? What the text may thus display beneath its embroidered cover is a self-delusion and in the very place, at the very moment that the scholar imagines for himself a way to fill a gap in the self’s narrative. If history records the subject’s delusion about its own identity, then fictions like Austen’s and Woolf’s restore to history the moments that precipitate such delusions, moments when difference can just be glimpsed before it disappears beneath a reassuring cover of familiar design.
All of this, of course, is quite fanciful speculation. Indeed, the little fiction about Jane Austen may be even more farfetched than it appears since at least one of Austen’s recent biographers suspects that the whole description of the author hiding her manuscripts is apocryphal, at the very least an exaggeration. Despite her caution, however, this biographer cannot wholly avoid perpetuating the fiction for she writes: “I think this story … must be the happy later embroidery of Austen’s nieces.”13
Nevertheless, the caution is well placed. Let us try to conclude on more solid ground by returning to the language of Woolf’s text and yet another scene of interruption. The passage in question begins simply enough with the phrase: “One goes into the room,” followed by a dash, a punctuated hesitation. This pause is just long enough to raise a question about the identity of the “one” in the opening sentence. Then, having hesitated, the narrator goes on: “but the resources of the English language would be much put to the stretch, and whole flights of words would need to wing their way illegitimately into existence before a woman could say what happens when she goes into a room” (91). This sentence marks the limit, or threshold, of any lecture on women and fiction. Unlike the ease with which one can imagine the scholar walking in on the drawing room or nursery, a woman enters the room in an unfamiliar, yet-to-be-written, even illegitimate mode. Clearly, for Woolf, such forced entry into the language will not simply substitute a feminine “one” for a masculine. This becomes clear when, as the passage continues, Woolf shifts, without transition, from the question of the identity of the subject entering the domain of language to that of the many rooms one may enter.
One goes into the room—but the resources of the English language would be much put to the stretch, and whole flights of words would need to wing their way illegitimately into existence before a woman could say what happens when she goes into a room. The rooms differ so completely, they are calm or thunderous; open on to the sea, or, on the contrary, give on to a prison yard; are hung with washing; or alive with opals and silks; are hard as horsehair or soft as feathers—one has only to go into any room in any street for the whole of that extremely complex force of femininity to fly in one’s face. How should it be otherwise? For women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force. (Italics added)
In effect, Woolf displaces the issue of the “one” who enters the room by figuring in rapid succession a series of rooms to be entered, surveyed, plotted, described. But less obviously intervening here in the question of one’s identity is the insistence of a form of self-interruption. By substituting the passive “a woman’s room is entered” for the active “one goes into the room,” this passage creates a disturbance on both sides of the threshold of subjectivity. And when the place of the feminine subject is abandoned in view of the multiple places of the “complex force of femininity,” then, retroactively and with a certain delay, it has become possible to begin to say what happens when a woman enters the room: in a word, femininity, already there, already at work, flies in one’s face. We must try to hear this phrase—a figure of self-interruption—in both of its possible senses at once: to become overwhelmingly obvious and to transgress flagrantly some law or rule. There is both a recognition and an infringement of the place of a creative subject which is no longer or not yet a “one.” The feminine “subject” is here constituted through illegitimate intervention in the language: its “one-ness” resides already in the other’s place(s), its unity derives retrospectively from an infraction that flies in the face of the grammatical order of subject and predicate. The “one” is at once predicated and divided.
Far more radically than first imagined, A Room of One’s Own can offer refuge to no “one,” for the history, no less than the fiction, accumulated there leaves the door open to intrusion. As we began by suggesting, Penelope’s clever labor is figured by and reiterates the cleverness of Odysseus. The stories of their different exploits together assemble the elements for a meaningful reunion. In that fictional moment that closes the circle of the poem, when the ruse of power rejoins the ruse of no power, it has become impossible and thus irrelevant to know who is interrupting whom, whose task is suspended and whose continues, or which room is being entered and which left behind. Interpreted as a space of interruption, A Room of One’s Own cannot give title to the room it names in its title. No “one” figures there who is not already many, and no ownership guarantees there an undivided property. Instead, the title promises a place of intermittent work, a book that, like a woman’s thought, a woman’s body, is frequently broken in on. And broken off. We can leave the last word to the narrator, who advises the audience at her lecture that “the book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady uninterrupted work. For interruptions there will always be” (81).
Epilogue: The Heterotext
The work (or play) of the Penelopean text implies a mutual interruption of fiction and history, feminine and masculine space. Its back and forth movement makes/unmakes, ravels/ unravels logical or “natural” oppositions—including the opposition that organizes the field of mutually exclusive contraries, that of logic or reason to unreason or madness. The writing of such a text is not attributable to any subject, whether singular or collective. On the contrary, it is the subject that is written into the text, and thus into the play of differences with itself.
We will look briefly here at fragments of a Woolfian heterotext—Virginia’s and Leonard’s—while retaining the notion of mutual interrupting instances.14 The term heterotext is forged in view of better resisting the homology that urges itself all too easily on the attempt to read across sexual difference. The temptation is to apply a logic of sexual opposition, to impose its authority on the pattern of authorial instances and their signatures suspended in—or interrupted by—each other. The writing couple of the heterotext, however, has its “life” in the biographic and not in the biologic sense. Or rather, this difference is also being inscribed/effaced by the heterotext. Indeed, to read such a text, one must be ready to recognize the points at which the graphic of sexual difference—its inscription and erasure—already supplemented the logic of sexual difference—the exteriority of one to the other—even as this couple lived and wrote.
In January 1915, Virginia Woolf was at work on what was to become—after many turnings and returnings—the novel eventually published in 1919: Night and Day.15 At about the same time, Leonard Woolf had begun work on a report for the Fabian Society which he describes in his autobiography as a study in view of “understanding the causes of the 1914 war and of war in general and of finding ways, if possible, of making war less likely in the future.”16 This report eventually found its way into “Leonard Woolf’s influential book International Government (1916) used by the British government in its proposals for a League of Nations” [Diary, 22, n. 63). These two writing instances encounter each other on yet another writing stage, which is Virginia’s diary, for in January 1915, Virginia Woolf resumed the diary she had kept for several short periods earlier. Although the return to the autobiographical habit continued almost without interruption through January, it was broken off at the entry for 15 February. The result, therefore, is something like a fragment diary, one that is situated, moreover, between what its editor terms “two fearful tempests of lunacy,” between two phases of a manic depressive moon. The depressive phase had, in September 1913, taken the form of a suicidal compulsion by which Virginia had nearly succeeded in putting herself to sleep with no waking. The fragment, therefore, seems to introduce an autobiographical compulsion over against an auto-thanatological one. According to most accounts, the moon’s manic phase began in mid-February 1915, about the time the diary breaks off.
With the four texts I have just referred to—Virginia’s diary, Leonard’s autobiography (based in large part on his own diary), the novel Night and Day, and the treatise International Government—we have the contiguous strands of this heterotextual fragment.
There has been a turn within Woolf scholarship toward a figuration of the oppressor of Virginia’s writing and, beyond that, of women’s writing in general. Leonard Woolf is one of the names given to this figure. One need only cite a recent title—All That Summer She Was Mad: Virginia Woolf: Female Victim of Male Medicine—to see how lines of division have hardened into accusations.17 The author of this study, Stephen Trombley, argues that Leonard represented and relayed the male-dominated psychological institution which diagnosed and prescribed treatment for Virginia in her lunar phases. As such he was complicitous in passing a judgment on her sanity or insanity, which, as Trombley documents, constituted a moral, ethical, and political judgment in England around 1915. Trombley holds Leonard principally responsible for suppressing the truth of Virginia’s madness which was its reason, even its reasonableness. The crucial period for his interpretation includes the dates of the diary fragment—the first six weeks of 1915. Actually, however, Trombley has little to say about Woolf’s diary from this period and refers only in passing to the events of early 1915. He is far more concerned with reconstructing the details surrounding the suicide attempt of September 1913. It is here that Leonard is judged by Trombley with the same force of ethical, moral conviction that is itself being judged.18 Thus this exercise has to end up repeating the presumption that one can reasonably distinguish reason from madness, and it does so because it takes Leonard and Virginia as logical subjects that can be sorted out from the heterotextual overlay. It is this presumption that we would test by considering how the heterotext graphically implicates these subjects in each other in a fashion that has to overwhelm the use of logic.
My friends, and Maynard [Keynes] especially, were discouraging; they thought that I should find the whole thing very boring and a waste of time. It is significant that all these highly intelligent people … thought of the problem [of war] as simply and solely a question of arbitration… . The main reason for this was that in the happy, innocent golden age before 1914 intelligent people did not worry themselves about international relations and the problem of preventing war—they left all that to professional politicians and diplomatists. (BA, 184)
In effect, Leonard Woolf had to invent the very subject he was writing on. “You could not become an authority on international government in 1915 by reading books, because the books did not exist; you had to go to what are called original sources” (BA, 187). By immersing himself in a sea of data, Leonard became an authority in his own terms.
I have often irritated people by saying that an intelligent person can become what is called an “authority” on most “questions” or “subjects” by intensive study for two or three months. They thought me arrogant for saying so, or, if not arrogant, not serious. But it is true. … In 1915 I worked like a fanatical or dedicated mole on the sources of my subject, international relations, foreign affairs, the history of war and peace. By 1916 I had a profound knowledge of my subject; I was an authority. (BA, 185)
This description of Leonard’s work crosses over the hetero-textual border between fact and fantasy, logical argument and graphic supplement, at several points. The first sign to follow is the question of Leonard’s possible arrogance about claiming authority. A similar possibility has been raised when in his autobiography he discussed the events of Virginia’s 1913 illness and suicide attempt. A reflection on “the state of knowledge with regard to nervous and mental diseases … in 1913” leads the autobiographer to confront his understanding as a “person … with experience of only one case of mental illness” (BA, 161) with that of the so-called authorities called in to consult, diagnose, and prescribe in Virginia’s case: “It may sound arrogant on my part when I say that it seemed to me that what they knew amounted to practially nothing. They had not the slightest idea of the nature or the cause of Virginia’s mental state … and they had no real or scientific knowledge of how to cure her. All they could say was that she was suffering from neurasthenia” (BA, 160). Woolf’s “arrogance” led him to question the diagnosis of “neurasthenia,” that catch-all term which designated many behavioral disorders. In particular, he sought to ascertain why this term rather than the (in 1913) new-fangled description “manic-depressive” applied in Virginia’s case: "When I cross-examined Virginia’s doctors, they said she was suffering from neurasthenia, not from manic-depressive insanity, which was entirely different. But as far as symptoms were concerned, Virginia was suffering from manic-depressive insanity” (BA, 161). Although Woolf does not claim to have become an authority on manic-depressive disorders, as far as "Virginia’s case” was concerned, he “watched and studied it intensively for months” and thus can write: “I have very little doubt that some of my conclusions were right.”
In one and the other case of study, Leonard Woolf had to invent his own authority. To understand madness on a global or an individual scale, to diagnose its causes and prescribe a regimen for the prevention of its recurrence, one has to face the possibility of one’s own arrogance. This, it would seem, Leonard Woolf was doing on both fronts in early 1915. There is room to suppose that these fronts were projected on to each other in a crisscross pattern, the work on international government taking shape in the face of a constant threat of destruction closest to home—the succession of “happy, innocent days” and war supplying a background for the manic-depressive alternation. The speculation on a transcendent superrationalism (Woolf conceived of what he called a “Supernational Authority,”)19 maintains a link to the most fundamental gesture of reason, necessary before reason can authorize or autograph itself: the definition or delimitation of madness. This gesture, however, may always be arrogant, which is to say that the delimitation of madness is never simply accomplished since reason’s claim to its own authority may itself have transgressed the limit between reason and unreason, factual and fictional authority.
Because of the risk of one’s own madness or arrogance, the biographer (and a fortiori the autobiographer) who would decide where to divide reason from unreason may have to encounter an illogic that betrays the finality of that decision. Leonard’s autobiography exhibits a striking example of this disturbance within the determination of madness. It concerns the chronology of Virginia’s illness which at one point is outlined as follows: "From the summer of 1913 to the autumn of 1915, Virginia’s mental breakdown was not absolutely continuous. There were two insane stages, one lasting from the summer of 1913 to the summer of 1914 and the other from January 1915 to the winter of 1915; there was an interlude of sanity between the summer of 1914 and January 1915” (BA, 160; italics added). One can already begin to note an indecision here when the text gives both the autumn and the winter of 1915 as the end of the second insane stage.20 Yet the term January 1915 is exactly repeated and, unlike the other dates, has the relative accuracy of a specific month rather than a season. Nevertheless, further along in the autobiographical narrative, when this outline chronology is filled in with some detailed events, January will be replaced by February 1915 as the month in which Virginia’s manic phase began. We pick up the narrative at the end of 1914 when “it seemed as if things were going well… . Virginia’s health seemed to have improved and she had begun to work and write again. I… had begun a book commissioned by the Fabian Society on international government. Then quite suddenly in the middle of February there was again catastrophe” (BA, 171–72). After describing some of the symptoms of the catastrophe, the text restates the chronology: “It was the beginning of the terrifying second stage of her mental breakdown.” Putting this passage together with the preceding one, where January rather than February dates the beginning of the recurrence, one might conclude that the autobiography performs a retrospective diagnosis which detects latent symptoms behind or before the quite sudden outbreak of manifest symptoms in the middle of February. This alternative between the latent and the manifest appears to have occurred to Leonard because he writes, “it seemed as if things were going well” and “Virginia’s health seemed to have improved.” That a doubt persists on both counts might make it reasonable to date the beginning of the catastrophe in January before it openly declared itself. While this reasoning explains the chronological contradiction, it itself remains latent since at no point is it openly put forth as argument. It is precisely the status of Leonard’s reasoning which cannot be decided, that is, whether it is reasonable or unreasonable to write that in January 1915 Virginia Woolf began to go mad again even though she “seemed to have improved and … had begun to work and write again.”
No such doubts remain in Virginia Woolf’s official biography by Quentin Bell or in the counterbiography by Stephen Trombley.21 Indeed, the decision of this question opposes the two historical portraits and distills the opposition male/female that glosses Trombley’s title. But to decide the question of Virginia’s madness and Leonard’s reason, both biographical stories have had to neglect the Woolfs’ heterotext, the implications in each other of the author of fictions and the factual authority. The biological opposition of male to female may serve only to rationalize rather than analyze these implications. For another example, we can turn to a passage from Virginia’s January 1915 diary which we have reason to place in the balance with Leonard’s self-implicating indecision about his wife’s mental state when she began keeping this diary.
As I began this page, L[eonard] stated that he had determined to resign his commission to write a pamphlet about Arbitration—& now I shall stop this diary & discuss that piece of folly with him. It is partly due to my egoistical habit of always talking the argument of my book. I want to see what can be said against all forms of activity & thus dissuade L. from all his work, speaking really not in my own character but in Effie’s. Of course it is absolutely essential that L. shd. do a work which may be superbly good. (Diary, 22)
Just two remarks for the moment: first, note the use of the term "Arbitration,” the word with which Leonard specifically characterizes the misunderstanding that greeted his work on international relations among his “highly intelligent” friends. That Virginia was one of those “friends” who, like Maynard Keynes, was discouraging is not simply confirmed here, however. Instead, and this is the second remark, if Virginia wants to see if she can “dissuade L. from all his work,” she speaks “not in [her] own character but in Effie’s.” Effie, it seems, was at this time the name of the central character in what would later become Night and Day.22 Her intervention at this point signals that a graphic supplement is at work within the logical opposition of the project to “dissuade L. from all his work.”
That Effie’s supplementary “argument” may have produced an effect is suggested by the next diary entry for 19 January which begins:
L’s melancholy continues, so much so that he declared this morning he couldn’t work. The consequence has been rather a melancholy day. Outside it is cold & grey too … the trees all black, & the sky heavy over London; but there is enough colour to make it even lovelier today than on bright days, I think. The deer exactly match the bracken. But, Leonard was melancholy, as I say. (Diary, 22–23)
References to Leonard’s inactive melancholy, which may or may not be an effect of Effie’s activity, bracket this passage. Within that repetition, the passage traces a move from inside to outside, away from the subject of Leonard’s inactivity toward an exterior object that both relays and relieves the inert melancholic weight. By following this excursion, we see that it inscribes a reversal of the subjective projection onto the seasonal landscape—gray days turn out to be “even lovelier” than bright days—and ends up with an image that effaces not only the subject in the landscape, but every distinction except color: “the deer exactly match the bracken.” Because this movement is succeeded by recalling to mind Leonard’s state of mind, it describes a pocket of forgetfulness within the self-absorption of that state which, as we shall see in a moment, the rest of the paragraph goes on to analyze as “sheer lack of self-confidence in his power of writing.” As with Effie’s intervention, there is here a detour created within logical exchange, a detour that is also the space given over to a written exchange of dark and light, night and day. Writing thereby contrives to defer the question of its truth or falsity by exercising its power to erase the subject in the landscape, shifting its depressive features.
But the time comes to say what one really means.
But Leonard was melancholy, as I say. All I can do is to unsay all I have said; & to say what I really mean. Its a bad habit writing novels—it falsifies life, I think. However, after praising L’s writing very sincerely for 5 minutes, he says “Stop”; whereupon I stop, & theres no more to be said. When I analyse his mood, I attribute much of it to sheer lack of self confidence in his power of writing; as if he mightn’t be a writer, after all; & being a practical man, his melancholy sinks far deeper than the half assumed melancholy of self conscious people like Lytton [Strachey], & Sir Leslie [Stephen] & myself. There’s no arguing with him. (Diary, 23)
With this passage we reach something like maximum density in any attempt to reason with and within a heterotext. The possibility of saying what one really means has been disturbed by Effie’s supplementary/supplanting effect. Writing novels indeed falsifies life, but it also urges one to propose questions about authority, about the power of writing, about “fiction” in its effect on the “practical.” These terms, that is, are knotted together in the form of questions to the dark future of the author’s authority—his or her power to make light of that darkness. Whether, however, the question is posed by Virginia speaking in her own character or in Effie’s, or by Leonard, and whether it is addressed to herself, to himself, or to the other, that’s not to be said. The trace of Effie’s intervention continues to throw a wild card into the exchange between authority and madness.
It is possible, of course, that when Leonard dated the return of madness as January 1915, his reason lay in episodes such as Effie’s argument on 18 January. He may have confused the discussion with Effie and his other discussions with the “mad” Virginia, which he describes as follows:
Her insanity was in her premises, her beliefs… . These beliefs were insane because they were in fact contradicted by reality. But given these beliefs as premises for conclusions and actions, all Virginia’s actions and conclusions were logical and rational; and her power of arguing conclusively from false premises was terrific. It was therefore useless to attempt to argue with her. (BA, 164)
Note the echo from Virginia’s diary, where the discussion with Leonard’s melancholy breaks off at the phrase “There’s no arguing with him.” These would be but two instances where logical argument must break off in the face of the madness within logic, the implication of the one in the other.
If one approaches the heterotext in order to read women’s writing as simply authored out of an opposition, then it is the implications of the subject’s own doubleness which will have to be ignored. Precisely because Virginia Woolf is an exemplary woman writer, it is important not to conclude with a too-singular version of her authority, to preclude, in other words, the authority of otherness.
A shortened form of this chapter appeared in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 16, no. 1 (Fall 1982). Copyright © 1982, Novel Corp. Reprinted by permission.
1Trans. Richmond Lattimore (New York, 1957), 325–27; other references are noted in parentheses.
2By, for example, J. Hillis Miller in “Ariachne’s Broken Woof,” Georgia Review 30 (Spring 1977).
3Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York, 1929I, 3; future references are noted in parentheses in the text.
4Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1978).
5One might argue that this difference is simply that of genres or modes of discourse, which indeed it appears to be. But if we were to adopt these terms, what genre or mode would we assign to A Room of One’s Own? The fact that Woolf writes beyond genres of discourse, according to a rhythm of their interruption, and does so by necessity, cannot be accounted for in terms of generic difference alone.
6Foucault, History of Sexuality, 108.
7Perhaps the most striking example of the technique is the final section of Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1972), where the discourse, in effect, interviews itself and answers all the questions it can think of.
8Foucault, “Mon Corps, ce papier, ce feu,” in L’Histoire de la folie, 2d ed. (Paris, 1972), 595–96. For a critique of Foucault’s reading of Descartes, see Jacques Derrida, “Cogito and History of Madness,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, 1978).
9See Susan Bordo, “The Cartesian Masculinization of Thought,” Signs 11(3), for another, significantly different account of “masculinization” as an effect of separation.
10However, as Foucault writes in La Volonté de savoir, points of resistance “by definition … can only exist in the strategic field of power relations” (126). Jean Baudrillard has pointed out that resistance has a rather unexplained status in Foucault’s discourse; see Oublier Foucault (Paris, 1977), 50ff.
11On how this “cover story” may be functioning thematically in Austen’s novels, see Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, Conn., 1979), 153ff.
12Woolf’s tampering with the distinction between fiction and history should also be read as an effect of their mutual implication in each other. For an excellent study of this question, see Suzanne Gearhart, The Open Boundary of History and Fiction: A Critical Approach to the French Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J., 1984).
13Jane Aiken Hodge, Only a Novel: The Double Life of Jane Austen (New York, 1972), 133; italics added.
14An earlier version of this epilogue was presented at an MLA special session titled “Writing Couples” organized by Naomi Schor.
15The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell (New York, 1979), 1:4, n. 6; referred to as Diary in page references included in the text.
16L. Woolf, Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911–1918 (London, 1964), 183; referred to as BA in page references included in the text.
17Trombley, All That Summer She Was Mad (New York, 1981). Trombley quotes Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s “official” biographer, who writes: “In the very large volume of literature devoted to the study of Virginia Woolf there is a kind of lunatic fringe, and in this of late it has been possible to find authors who are ready to denounce Leonard, to find in his rationalism an unsympathetic and insensitive quality which, so the story goes, made him incapable of making his wife happy. There is a distinct air of quackery about such writers, a rejection of reason.” Trombley then comments: “Thus the battle lines are drawn” (298). The same battle lines have been redrawn in an acrimonious exchange between Quentin Bell and Jane Marcus in “Critical Response I, II,” Critical Inquiry 11 (March 1985).
18See, for example, Trombley, 163–67.
19For a summary of International Government, see Duncan Wilson, Leonard Woolf: A Political Biography (London, 1978), 66ff.
20In the preceding chapter, Leonard Woolf rearranges these dates in yet another fashion, placing the beginning of Virginia’s illness in 1914 and her suicide attempt in 1915; see BA, 76–77.
21“By the end of the year Virginia was writing again—a novel or a story which has been lost; she also began to keep a diary. It is the record of a perfectly sane woman leading a quiet but normal life.” Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography (London, 1973), 2:22.
22See Elizabeth Heine, ‘’Postscript to The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. I: ‘Effie’s Story’ and Night and Day,” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 9 (Winter 1977), 10.