4. Virginia Woolf’s Interworld: Folds, Waves, Gazes

Ariane Mildenberg1


School of English, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK

Ariane Mildenberg

Email: a.mildenberg@kent.ac.uk

Virginia Woolf’s diaries are pervaded by speculations on the connection between direct experience of the visible world and the written word. In a 1928 entry she writes:

The look of things has a great power over me. Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively ‘What’s the phrase for that?’ . . . But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes. 1

‘But who knows,’ ponders Woolf elsewhere, ‘—once one takes a pen & writes? How difficult not to go making “reality” this & that, whereas it is one thing.’ 2 What we usually call ‘reality’ is ‘real’ only because we learned to see it that way. In ‘Modern Fiction,’ she famously criticises her Edwardian predecessors Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy for being ‘materialist’: ‘they write of unimportant things . . . they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.’ But Woolf wonders, ‘Is life like this?’ and ‘Must novels be like this?’ 3 If only one could suspend the conventional forms of depicting the real, Woolf seems to argue, and return to the ‘one thing’ that reality is before it is processed by some trivial objectivism, before attempting to pin it down in the ‘this & that’ of our everyday fact-world. 4 ‘[I]f we escape a little from the common sitting room,’ Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, to realise ‘that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women.’ 5 Woolf never stops seeking after that which is given to us in immediate experience without being obstructed by the habits of daily life—‘the world of men and women’—offering a perhaps surprising image of the writer as neither a mystic concerned with ‘a kind of exalted subjectivity,’ 6 nor concerned with depth psychology, as others have argued, 7 but as a literary phenomenologist. 8 Critics have stressed the interiorisation of Woolf’s exploration of human consciousness in The Waves. Jean Guiguet has claimed that ‘everything is turned inward’ in The Waves, suspending the ‘external elements’ of an ‘objective universe’ that appeared in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. 9 Mark Hussey has argued that the ‘aesthetic failure’ of The Waves ‘is partly due to its inwardness.’ 10 In what follows I take issue with this tendency to bifurcate Woolf’s writing in accordance with the separate categories of ‘internal’ or ‘external,’ whereas the doubleness of The Waves evidences a ‘doubling up of my body into inside and outside,’ 11 that ‘‘[t]he world is entirely on the inside and I am entirely outside of myself.’ 12 In Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible, this same notion of in-each-other is also referred to as ‘the fold, the application of the inside and the outside to one another, the turning point.’ 13 This ‘folding,’ as Frank Chouraqui notes, is ‘the key mechanism for what Merleau-Ponty calls “chiasma” of perception that he regards as the general structure of the flesh.’ 14 In light of this chiasmatic ‘fold,’ I propose to read the wave-like rhythm and structure of The Waves as a text that perpetually collapses inside/outside polarities and relations. 15 Woolf’s voices turn inward only to discover that they cannot escape being pulled out by a world within which they are already immersed as carnal beings.


A number of critical studies have previously pointed out similarities between phenomenology and Woolf’s ontology. 16 In ‘Nature and Community: A Study of Cyclical Reality in The Waves,’ Madeline Moore briefly refers to phenomenology but leaves unexamined the following statement: ‘It was not Woolf’s purpose in The Waves to overcome the phenomenological opposition between subject and object, but rather to dramatize that conflict.’ 17 The term ‘phenomenological opposition’ has the unfortunate effect of indicating that phenomenological thought involves a separation of subject and object. When commenting upon Woolf’s usage of brackets in the ‘Time Passes’ section in To the Lighthouse, Patricia Ondek Laurence presents us with a similar idea: ‘If for Edmund Husserl, the phenomenologist, objects exist independently of ourselves in the external world, and anything beyond our immediate experience is “bracketed”—then for Woolf it is the opposite.’ 18 Woolf, she argues, offers a ‘unique treatment of the outward and the inward as the “march of events” is relegated to brackets (with the exception of The Waves) while the inner discourse of characters is centre stage.’ 19 Ironically, in claiming that ‘objects’ in Husserlian thought are independent in the ‘external world’ and thus detached from the subject, Laurence, like some Stevens critics mentioned, charges the goal of the epoché with a disregard of the external world of facts whereas nothing is disregarded or denied in Husserl’s method. Being nothing but ‘a new kind of practical outlook,’ 20 phenomenological ‘bracketing’ sheds light on the world’s essential structure, exposing the world in its pre-givenness and the implicit involvement of consciousness with it (intentionality). The object-world, then, is not at any point separated from the subject: ‘the world experienced in this reflectively grasped life,’ stresses Husserl, ‘goes on appearing, as it appeared before; the only difference is that I, as reflecting philosophically, no longer keep in effect (no longer accept) the natural believing in existence involved in experiencing the world—though that believing too is still there.’ 21 Now read the following passage from ‘Time Passes’ in To the Lighthouse:

The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. . . . Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

[Mr Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.] 22

And a few pages later:

The spring without a leaf to toss, bare and bright like a virgin fierce in her chastity, scornful in her purity, was laid out on fields wide-eyed and watchful and entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders.

[Prue Ramsay, leaning on her father’s arm, was given in marriage that May. What, people said, could have been more fitting? And, they added, how beautiful she looked!] 23

What is placed in brackets here are the hard facts of daily events (Mrs Ramsay’s sudden death, Prue’s marriage), while our attention is re-directed to the inevitable passing of time, the presence of night itself, the continuity of the seasons—that is, the pre-predicative dimension of experience, which is ‘always . . . in advance,’ 24 providing the ever-present ground of our human acts, relations and expression. Neither Husserl’s nor Woolf’s ‘brackets,’ then, close off subjective experience from the external world; rather, they open onto the world, bringing to light the condition that is ‘prior to any theorizing reflection,’ 25 underlies experience itself and makes it possible.

Throughout her work Woolf challenges us to such a shift of attitude, always redirecting our attention to what in ‘Modern Fiction’ she calls ‘life, spirit, truth or reality, this the essential thing,’ 26 that is, the natural, and unspoken order of things, which has always been there before we could even reflect on it, before we even learned to pin it down in conventional language. It is this essential order that Lily Briscoe tries to grasp through painting in To the Lighthouse: ‘Phrases came. Visions came . . . But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything.’ 27 Woolf’s writing reflects her perpetual struggle to translate into words what is inherently mute and yet, in the words of Merleau-Ponty, ‘continues to envelop language.’ 28 ‘[L]ife is a luminous halo,’ Woolf tells us in ‘Modern Fiction,’ ‘a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’ 29

‘Gigantic Conversation’

In The World Without a Self: Virginia Woolf and the Novel, James Naremore argues that Woolf, in her novels, ‘tries to evolve a technique which will allow her to present the “luminous halo” of experience, even the “tremor of susceptibility” in the self, without neglecting what is “outside . . . and beyond.”’ Drawing on the work of Harvena Richter, who ‘has suggested that we set aside the conventional terminology’ and ‘approach the question of voice,’ which, in Virginia Woolf, ‘is at once conscious and unconscious, personal and impersonal, individual and collective,’ Naremore attempts ‘to indicate how the narrator of Mrs Woolf’s novels modulates between these extremes until it becomes the voice of everyone and no one,’ but stresses: ‘It is probably impossible to find a term that would accurately characterize this voice.’ 30 More recently, Maureen Chun has offered an illuminating approach to the puzzling language in The Waves, claiming that the novel ‘accomplishes something new and largely unrecognized in modern narrative’ in that it ‘traverse[s] the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity and frame[s] sensations, perceptions, and thoughts as physical presences in the real world.’ 31

There are signs in Woolf’s diary that the author struggled to perfect the new ‘voice’ that Naremore questions and Chun attempts to analyse. Woolf particularly struggled with the book’s closure: ‘[H]ow to . . . press it into one,’ she wondered, ‘it might be a “gigantic conversation.”’ 32 The final version of The Waves never presents us with ‘conversation’ in the usual sense of the term. Like waves in a sea, the words of the book’s six voices are at once dispersed and yet gathered in Bernard’s closing soliloquy, bringing to light an intersubjective world where voices ‘melt into each other with phrases’ as they are ‘edged with mist. . . . [and] make an unsubstantial territory,’ 33 not unlike the ‘mist’ between people that Clarissa Dalloway meditates upon in Mrs Dalloway. 34 Merleau-Ponty’s ‘flesh (la chair)’ provides us with a term for this ‘unsubstantial territory.’ ‘The flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance,’ he writes, but rather a ‘general thing,’ a phenomenon of reciprocal contact between perceiving subjects. Our ‘operative language’ Merleau-Ponty suggests, is inscribed in this world of flesh, within its folds. 35

Taking my bearings from Merleau-Ponty’s reworking of Husserl’s reduction through an emphasis on the notion of ‘flesh,’ I propose a twofold change in our approach to The Waves. One is to show that the reduction speaks of something central to Woolf’s aesthetic concerns, that it functions as the engine of the wave-like movement that hold The Waves together, thus offering a reading of this work as Woolf’s strongest aesthetic statement. 36 The other is to provide through the notion of ‘flesh’ and the related chiasmatic ‘fold’ a terminology for the new kind of voice in Woolf’s work.

Not only is The Waves the most phenomenological of Woolf’s longer works, it is also the most poetic in terms of its language and genre. Woolf called it a ‘play-poem,’ ‘[a]way from fact; free, yet concentrated, prose yet poetry; a novel and a play.’ 37 The square brackets used in the ‘Time Passes’ section of To the Lighthouse are still there but implicitly, presenting us with a much denser vision which ‘saturate[s] every atom’ in order to ‘eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity; to give the moment whole, whatever it includes. Say the moment is a combination of thought, sensation, the voice of the sea.’ 38 A similar attempt to shed light on the ‘voice’ of the totality of things pervades Merleau-Ponty’s thinking. Consider the following passage from The Visible and the Invisible:

In a sense the whole of philosophy, Husserl says, consists in restoring a power to signify, a birth of meaning, or a wild meaning, an expression of experience by experience, which in particular clarifies the special domain of language. And in a sense, as Valéry said, language is everything, since it is the voice of no one, since it is the very voice of things, the waves and the forests. 39

The bringing to light of a more primordial ‘wild meaning’ from which our clear language arises sits well with Woolf’s aim to reveal in one ‘moment’ the totality of the spoken and the unspoken, a ‘combination of thought, sensation, the voice of the sea,’ which would, eventually, shape itself as a ‘gigantic conversation.’

Whereas the word conversation is often associated with purely linguistic interchange, the ‘gigantic conversation’ that Woolf seeks to ‘press into one’ has overtones of something more primordial, something of pre-semantic insubstantiality, existing prior to our usual form of communication. ‘The world is always “already there” prior to reflection,’ 40 Merleau-Ponty writes in his Phenomenology of Perception; it is ‘already there’ in the shape of the givenness of experience, the fringe or ‘misty horizon’ of infinite and indeterminate reality that can never be completely outlined but remains at the periphery of our acts and expressions. In The Waves we never lose sight of this misty indeterminacy at the edge of the six speakers’ perceptions. ‘We are edged with mist,’ says Bernard, the book’s most dominating voice, ‘[w]e make an unsubstantial territory.’ 41 It is against this misty horizon that all creative acts, including that of writing stand out: ‘One sees a fin passing far out,’ wrote Woolf elsewhere, suggesting that first and pre-semantic impulse of creativity: ‘What image can I reach to convey what I mean?’ she wrote: ‘Really there is none.’ 42

The Waves presents us with three separate and yet interconnected cycles of creation: that of nature, that of the human being and that of the creating artist, the writing lady to whom Bernard repeatedly refers. 43 This writing figure, a hidden and yet active force inside the text is not unlike Joyce’s ‘artist’ who, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ‘like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.’ 44 Bernard, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, Neville and Louis are six ‘essences’ in the phenomenological sense of the term, presenting us with a form of ‘free variation’ or ‘free fancies,’ as Husserl called it, which is related to the ‘eidetic reduction,’ 45 the shift of standpoint from the world of fact to the world of essence or eidos, challenging us to play with variations of the essential characteristics of the phenomenon. 46 When the mind deals with essence, there is a concern with the possible rather than the actual. The point of free variation, Judith Butler explains, is ‘not to fix the actuality of the object, but to render its actuality into a possibility,’ revealing the object’s essence, ‘the strangeness of quiddity, that it is rather than not.’ 47 In ‘The Leaning Tower,’ Woolf writes about the writer’s encounter with the object as exactly such a process of variation: ‘A writer is a person who sits at a desk and keeps his eye fixed, as intently as he can, upon a certain object. . . . A writer has to keep his eye upon a model that moves, that changes, upon an object that is not one object but innumerable objects.’ 48 Recalling the Husserlian free variations of ‘apple’ in Stein’s prose poem, challenging us to play with variations of the essential characteristics of the phenomenon, the voices of Bernard, Lily, Susan, Rhoda, Neville and Louis in The Waves are one mind’s (that of the ‘lady writing’) imaginary variations on one ‘model.’ Just as the writing lady’s eye is ‘upon’ her ‘model’ from within the book, so are the eyes of the six essences directed towards specific objects and each other.

The phenomenal feature central to experience exposed through the reduction is that consciousness by its very nature is always directed toward some object. As noted, this fact that every act of the mind implies an object thought of bears the name of ‘intentionality.’ People do not exist in and for themselves but only in and through intentional acts; through thoughts, memories, and perceptions of. The monologue-like soliloquies that make up Woolf’s The Waves can be characterised as intentional acts, continuous streams of fresh perceptions of things. Like the birds in the book’s third interlude, Woolf’s six perceivers are ‘aware, awake; intensely conscious of one thing, one object in particular’:

 ‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers

 and hangs in a loop of light.’

  ‘I see a slab of pale yellow,’ said Susan, ‘spreading away

 until it meets a purple stripe.’

  ‘I hear a sound,’ said Rhoda, ‘cheep, chirp; cheep

 chirp; going up and down.’

  ‘I see a globe,’ said Neville, ‘hanging down in a drop

 against the enormous flanks of some hill.’

  ‘I see a crimson tassel,’ said Jinny, ‘twisted with gold


  ‘I hear something stamping,’ said Louis. ‘A great

 beast’s foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.’

49 Through the eyes of Woolf’s perceivers we ‘see . . . fine substance[s] strangely,’ 50 to borrow from Gertrude Stein, but only to uncover this strangeness as ‘the condition of possibility of the ordinary.’ 51 From the outset of Woolf’s ‘play-poem,’ we plunge into a strange, abstract universe of pure sensory perceptions. Presenting us with what the book’s second interlude calls ‘a mosaic of single sparks not yet formed into one whole,’ 52 these perceptions suggest an openness to the world before opinions are fully formed and could be indicative of both early childhood and the primary phase of artistic creation. These first perceptions manifest themselves against the cyclical pattern of a horizon in the interludes: the rising and setting of the sun, the singing of birds, and the breaking of the waves. Woolf’s diary tells us that she imagined these perceptions to appear as ‘islands of light—islands in the stream that I am trying to convey; life itself going on.’ 53 What the six speakers perceive is conditioned by the ongoing stream of life against which they see it. What Louis calls ‘the central rhythm . . . the common mainspring,’ which he watches ‘expand, contract; and then expand again’ 54 is exposed not only through the cyclical pattern of nature, described in the interludes, but also through the speakers’ insistent waves of fresh perceptions, embracing the ever-new.

The interaction between the six voices’ perceptions and the continual change of nature in the interludes takes on the shape of some ‘gigantic conversation’ that goes beneath and beyond our ordinary forms of communication, calling to mind Stevens’s ‘shapeless giant,’ referring to the shapelessness of pre-semantic experience, the first creative impulse, which, like Woolf’s ‘fin passing far out,’ has not yet been fully crystallised: it is ‘on the horizon, glistening.’ 55 Echoing Woolf’s thoughts, in The Waves Bernard notes: ‘A fin turns’ in a ‘waste of waters.’ Signifying the primal creative impulse which he ‘shall in time to come uncover and coax into words,’ this ‘bare visual impression is unattached to any line of reason, it springs up as one might see a fin of a porpoise on the horizon.’ 56


As discussed in Chapter 3, when presenting the thoughts of a character through free indirect discourse, known from the work of for instance Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, refined by George Eliot and pushed to yet a different level of central importance by such writers as Joyce, Kafka and Woolf, third-person narration places itself into the experience of the character, adopting the latter’s perspectives. The narrative is thus situated on the slippery threshold between outside and inside, merging the omniscient and subjective voice, allowing us to delve into a single character’s thoughts and yet keeping us at a distance so that a certain doubling takes place, at once turning readers into non-participants as well as immanently close participators. In free indirect discourse, then, the relationship between the subjective and the objective is neither completely dichotomous nor completely unitary; rather, this form of discourse points to a dissolution of the body-mind problem that phenomenology embraces, particularly the fields of intersubjectivity and reversibility—‘the medial entre-deux between the whole of Being and each individual fragment’ 57 —illuminated in Merleau-Ponty’s late work.

Although the free indirect discourse of her earlier novels is left behind in favour of an even more refined experimental style, a ‘doubling’ still lies at the heart of Woolf’s The Waves. Collapsing any distinct inside/outside polarities and relations, this work is neither purely internal nor purely external, neither subjective nor objective; rather internal and external elements, essence and fact at once merge and separate, creating a constantly rippling whole very much like waves in a sea. 58 Anna Snaith, in her excellent study of public and private negotiations in Woolf’s works argues that Woolf’s specific ‘technique’ of discourse ‘neither unites or separates the public and private realms; rather, it places them in a dialectical relation.’ 59 Similarly, while Tamar Katz has stressed that the speakers in The Waves are ‘at once distanced from and formed by culture’ and that The Waves as ‘an epitome of modernism’ is ‘bound’ to this form of ‘doubleness,’ 60 Ann Banfield argues for a dualism in Woolf’s vision of ‘subject and object, mind and matter, . . . the public and the private’ that is influenced by the philosophy of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. 61 What the following pages explore, however, is the non-dialectical quality of Woolf’s configuration of this doubleness, a dialectic without synthesis, like the ongoing movement of the sea, anticipating Merleau-Ponty’s notion of ‘hyperdialectic’ and the final chapter of this book. Located within a continuum of the modernist attention to the Husserlian ‘thing itself,’ it uncovers pre-reflective intentionality through the reduction, which ‘does not take me out of the world. Instead it serves to point out a central paradox in human experience as Husserl explores it’ that is also a form of doubling: ‘How is it that I am both a subject experiencing the world and an object within the world?’ 62 By reflecting upon and imposing meaning upon the world, we separate ourselves from it, and yet we are always already an integral part of the same world; both encroaching upon the world and, simultaneously, enchroached upon. 63

From the unperceived écart emerges Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the entanglement of the body-subject and the world—the fact that ‘the same body sees and touches’ while also being ‘visible and tangible,’ that there is a ‘chiasm,’ a ‘crisscrossing . . . of the touching and tangible’ and the seeing and seen, articulating a ‘reversibility’ and mutuality that also defines the ontology of the ‘flesh,’ the pre-logical intertwining of body and world: ‘my body is made of the same flesh as the world, . . . this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it’; ‘It is for that same reason that I am at the heart of the visible and that I am far from it.’ The chiasmatic structure of flesh, Merleau-Ponty stresses, is ‘not an obstacle between [subject and object]’; rather, ‘it is their means of communication.’ 64

Already in the first holograph draft of The Waves, it is clear that, for Woolf, subjectivity cannot but be intersubjectivity where a single ‘world’ gives way to ‘interworld.’ 65 Both the experiences and inner voices of the six essences in The Waves interact, transform and at times disappear into each other, pointing to an interlacing that chimes with Merleau-Ponty’s common world of ‘flesh.’ Throughout Woolf’s ‘play-poem’—a work that is neither fully play nor fully poem but, rather, ‘an abstract, mystical eyeless book,’ 66 dwelling in the ‘fold’ between poem and play—the six essences live in worlds of their own while being immersed in a shared world full of others like themselves. Both enveloping and enveloped, this intertwining and reversibility between perceiving subjects is a form of folding: ‘it is only in the fold between the sentient and the sensible, in their chiasmatic intertwining, that experience (including the artistic event) is possible at all.’ 67 Waves in a sea fold over themselves, break and vanish only to emerge again from below.

Originally emerging from what Woolf describes in the book’s holograph drafts as ‘folds in the napkin’ and ‘folds in the table cloth,’ the rhythm of Woolf’s novel is that of perpetually folding and breaking waves of perception. 68 Chiasmatic intertwining of the self and the other indicates an event that is neither a complete separation nor a complete unity between the subjective and the objective, invisibility and visibility, mute perception and speech; rather, it lives in the fold between the two. The subject, Merleau-Ponty told us, has a twofold being that locates it at once apart from other sensible beings as a seeing/sensing subject and among them as a seen/sensed ‘thing’: ‘every perception is doubled with counter-perception,’ 69 as when Woolf’s Louis is ‘alone’ in the early morning garden: ‘I am green as a yew tree in the shade of the hedge. My hair is made of leaves. I am rooted to the middle of the earth. My body is a stalk. I press the stalk. . . . Now something pink passes the eyehole. . . . She has found me. I am struck on the nape of the neck. She has kissed me. All is shattered.’ 70 Louis experiences the woods, feels Jinny kissing him; Jinny sees Louis, kisses him; Susan sees Jinny kissing Louis, despairs and runs away; Bernard sees Susan despairing and runs after her:

‘I was running,’ said Jinny, ‘after breakfast. I saw leaves moving in a hole in the hedge . . . What moved the leaves? What moves my heart, my legs? And I dashed in here, seeing you green as a bush, like a branch, very still, Louis, with your eyes fixed. “Is he dead?” I thought, and kissed you, with my heart jumping under my pink frock like the leaves . . . I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of flight. I lie quivering flung over you.’

‘Through the chink in the hedge,’ said Susan, ‘I saw her kiss him.’ 71

Bernard ends up going after Susan who ‘was not crying, but her eyes, which are so beautiful, were narrow as cat’s eyes before they spring.’ A few pages later, Neville wonders, ‘Where is Bernard? . . . He has my knife. We were in the tool-shed making boats, and Susan came past the door. And Bernard dropped his boat and went after her taking my knife, the sharp one that cuts the keel.’ During their first lesson at school, each of the six speakers sees words differently. Rhoda struggles with the exercises and has to stay behind, ‘left alone to find an answer,’ when the others have finished and despairs about it: ‘”Oh save me, from being blown for ever outside the loop of time!”’ Louis sees Rhoda, struggling on her own through the classroom window: ‘There is Rhoda staring at the blackboard.’ 72 Thus, ‘experiences are constantly de-centred and intertwined with each other in a plurality of relationships.’ 73

Looking while being looked at, kissing while being kissed, touching while being touched, the ‘eye/I’ and the Other in The Waves fold over each other so that they become ‘collaborators in perfect reciprocity’ whose ‘perspectives slip into each other.’ 74 Calling attention to both difference and similarity, Woolf’s six essences have an intentional bond with that world as active/passive beings, ‘visible-seer[s]’ 75 :

The enigma is that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the ‘other side’ of its power of looking. It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself. . . . Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught up in the fabric of the world and its cohesion is that of a thing. . . . Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are encrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the same stuff as the body. 76

At the heart of Woolf’s rippling, constantly folding and unfolding narrative, there is such a ‘double-touch’ experience, 77 the fact that the same bodies both see/touch and are seen/touched, are at once intertwined with and distanced from the world in which they exist but cannot stop questioning. 78 It is the phenomenon of the double-touch always ‘originating within the experiences of the lived-body’ that makes Woolf’s text extract and expand over and over again in wave-like movements of perception and counter-perception 79 ; ‘I am not concerned with the single life,’ wrote Woolf in the first holograph draft, ‘but with lives together.’ 80

Bernard’s ‘Little Language’

Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenon of flesh allows us to articulate more clearly the paradox of experience that Woolf struggled to ‘press into one’ in The Waves. The book’s ‘gigantic conversation’ reaches its zenith in Bernard’s final summing up. Here Bernard’s voice and those of the other five merge, creating one ‘gigantic’ voice, indicating that the flesh of the single body is at once shared and reflected by the world : ‘Who am I? I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know.’ 81 How can it be, Woolf seems to suggest, that we are conscious of other people, who are, simultaneously, conscious of us? Her six speakers are, on the one hand, part of the surging ‘stream’ of ‘life itself going on,’ but are, on the other hand, above it, looking down from their dry ‘islands of light,’ stressing at once their difference and similarity, their distance and intertwining: ‘At the moment when I am most disparate,’ says Bernard, ‘I am also integrated.’ 82

Woolf’s diary reveals that she was fascinated with Proust’s writing. ‘The thing about Proust,’ she writes in a 1925 entry, ‘is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. . . . He is as tough as catgut & as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom. And he will I suppose both influence me & make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.’ 83 Merleau-Ponty was equally impressed with Proust’s capacity to capture the unseizable within the solid: ‘No one has gone further than Proust in fixing the relations between the visible and the invisible, in describing an idea that is not the contrary of the sensible, that is its lining and its depth.’ 84 Proust most clearly highlights this idea when in Swann’s Way he refers to a ‘little phrase’ of a sonata for violin and piano, which is ‘dancing, pastoral, interpolated, episodic, belonging to another world.’ 85 Merleau-Ponty draws upon this notion when elaborating his own phenomenon of flesh. Like the ‘little phrase,’ flesh is a ‘general’ notion, like ‘the notions of light, of sound, of relief, of physical voluptuousness,’ which we cannot quite ‘get at . . . immediately and lay hands on.’ In our ‘operative language,’ Merleau-Ponty writes, ‘sense and sound are in the same relationship as in the “little phrase.”’ 86 The full meaning of language lies not merely in our spoken words but in the mute perception or silent language inhabiting these words.

Proust’s concerns with the unrepresentable seem to have influenced the gigantic project of The Waves in particular. When ‘[s]um[ming] up . . . the meaning of [his] life’ to provide us, the readers, with a final story, Bernard claims that he is ‘tired of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground.’ 87 ‘Distrust[ing] neat designs of life that are drawn upon half-sheets of note-paper,’ he ‘long[s] for’ a different kind of language, 88 which is not of our usual conversational kind, calling attention to yet another fold, what Eva Meyer calls ‘the shifting fold between writing and being’ 89 wherein dwells

some little language that lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on the pavement. I begin to seek some design more in accordance with those moments of humiliation and triumph that come now and then undeniably. 90

Just as Proust’s ‘little phrase’ catches the invisible lining of the visible, the sense within the sound, so Bernard’s ‘little language’ highlights the intangible and immaterial hidden within the ‘neat designs’ of our conventional language. This ‘little language’ refers to the ‘broken’ and ‘inarticulate’ but it is not the opposite of what is ‘whole’ and articulate; rather, it is that invisible/mute element that inhabits our visible world and words. What Bernard longs to express is a more direct experience of the ‘thing itself’ without the obstructions of beautiful, neat phrases—a ‘poetry [that] rediscovers what articulates itself within us, unbeknownst to us.’ 91

‘It is Percival who inspires poetry,’ Bernard tells us elsewhere in The Waves. 92 Like Jacob in Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922), Percival is a god-like and ‘eyeless’ presence whose essence is built up in all its possible manifestations through the eyes of the others. When he dies in India, the six essences gravitate around an empty space in the middle of their world where Percival—a religious symbol of sorts—used to be and their unity temporarily fractures. Percival’s death recalls the sudden death of Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, leading to the decay of the Ramsay’s holiday home, indicating a questioning of the objective ‘God-like survey’ of nineteenth-century omniscient narration, the collapse of traditional nineteenth-century domestic values and, in the case of Mrs Ramsay, the disappearance of woman as a domestic figure. What is left instead and mirrored in Lily Briscoe’s ‘white space’ of her canvas is ‘an emptiness about the heart of life,’ as Clarissa Dalloway calls it, 93 which must be filled in new ways.

Percival’s death is also a typically modernist subversion of imperial quest narratives inscribed ‘as conquest to establish imperial supremacy’ expressed through the ‘monomyth’ of Western literature, a ‘manifestation of the archetypal quest . . . fashioned by the prevailing ideologies of Western culture.’ 94 As Julia Rawa points out, this modernist subversion of the quest trope also seen in Conrad, Eliot, Rhys and Joyce—to mention but a few—becomes ‘a vehicle for cultural representation’ and a form of ‘resistance to the rhetoric of nationalism and imperialism.’ 95 Instead the polyphony and polysemy of modernist texts interrogate and subvert the ‘god-like survey’ of the totalising, linear narration central to the archetypal monomyth. If Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is ‘the most famous of all Grail poems of the twentieth century,’ although it is ‘about the absence of the grail,’ 96 The Waves must have earned its place as one of the most famous of all twentieth-century Grail novels in that it is about the absence of the last Arthurian Grail King—Perceval—an all-important absence that marks the six selves’ search for a different kind of truth, not one that is objectifying, totalising and ‘beyond our experience’ but one that is always already ‘implied within it.’ 97

Just as the absence of Mrs Ramsay inspires Lily Briscoe’s final epiphany in To the Lighthouse, so Percival’s death in The Waves at the time of the birth of Bernard’s baby triggers both doubt and a sense of a new beginning, leaving Bernard feeling like a latter-day Adam in a new world, overwhelmed with wonder ‘as on the first day of creation.’ Gradually new meaning takes the place of the emptiness at the centre, a new kind of meaning that has little to do with objective truth and totalisation but depends on subjects’ immediate and often erratic experience and has to make do with ‘an imperfect phrase’ and broken words. 98

The mute and ‘eyeless’ figure of Percival, then, who is brought into existence purely through the others’ perception of him, is neither a character nor a presence who, even after his death, becomes a metaphor for some ‘core of primary signification,’ 99 to use Merleau-Ponty’s term, in which the acts and the expressions of the others are anchored. When Percival arrives at his own farewell dinner, he instantly inspires one gigantic moment and makes visible the common ground of the six beings, the ‘flesh of the world’:

‘Now once more,’ said Louis, … “Do not move … do not go. Hold it for ever.”’

‘Let us hold it for one moment,’ said Jinny; ‘love, hatred, by whatever name we call it, this globe whose walls are made of Percival, of youth and beauty, and something so deep sunk within us that we shall perhaps never make this moment out of one man again.’

‘Forests and far countries on the other side of the world,’ said Rhoda, ‘are in it; seas and jungles; the howling of jackals and moonlight falling upon some high peak where the eagle soars.’

‘Happiness is in it,’ said Neville, ‘and the quiet of ordinary things. … And the petal falling from the rose, and the light flickering as we sit silent, or, perhaps, bethinking us of some trifle, suddenly speak.’

‘Week-days are in it,’ said Susan, ‘Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; the horses going up to the fields, and the horses returning; the rooks rising and falling, and catching the elm-trees in their net, whether it is April, whether it is November.’

‘What is to come is in it,’ said Bernard. 100

What the six voices seek to do is hold and freeze the fleeting and intangible but only to realise that ‘the imperfect is our paradise,’ to borrow from Stevens. 101 The repeated ‘it’ in the above passage directs our attention to the ‘gigantic’ horizon of experience that cannot be completely expressed, and yet it is the ever-present ground of our acts, relations and expressions. ‘It’ refers exactly to that we cannot ‘get at . . . immediately and lay hands on’ but which is, nevertheless, ‘the common tissue of which we are made.’ ‘It’ is ‘not matter . . . not mind . . . not substance’ but one of those unsubstantial ‘general’ notions like ‘the notions of light, of sound, of relief, of physical voluptuousness’: love is in it, happiness is in it, week-days are in it. 102

In this light, let us finish this section by considering the opening of Woolf’s short story ‘A Haunted House’:

Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure – a ghostly couple.

‘Here we left it,’ she said. And he added, ‘Oh, but here too!’ It’s upstairs,’ she murmured. ‘And in the garden,’ he whispered. ‘Quietly,’ they said, ‘or we shall wake them.’

But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. ‘They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,’ one might say and so read on a page or two. ‘Now they’ve found it,’ one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open. 103

As Woolf with ‘A Haunted House’ was sowing the seeds of the ‘Time Passes’ section in To the Lighthouse, the method and concern in these works is similar. 104 Just as the repeated ‘it’ in the short story points to the pre-reflective dimension of experience, so is the silent, empty, ‘eyeless’ house, ‘beholding nothing’ in ‘Time Passes,’ 105 exposed as the ever-present condition round which the people in the house normally operate. ‘A Haunted House,’ then, presents us with a phenomenological ‘bracketing’ of conventional ‘neat designs’ of representation, laying bare ‘it’ or ‘life, spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing,’ 106 the more primordial dimension of experience that is the condition of expression and creativity alike. This is implied when the narrator stops her pencil upon thinking ‘Now they’ve found it.’ ‘It’ marks that cry for origin, the ‘fin passing far out,’ which Woolf struggled to ‘get down into [her] pen’ and out on her page, thus calling attention to textual genesis, laying bare the open passage between pre-semantic perception and articulation. 107

Like the ‘mist,’ edging the ‘unsubstantial territory’ of The Waves, the repeated ‘it’ in ‘A Haunted House,’ then, represents what we are always, already haunted and somehow framed by: ‘we are always already in. . . [and] of it;’ 108 it is ‘not what I think, but what I live [ce que je vis].’ 109 This ‘essential thing’ is inscribed in the ‘gigantic’ region that Woolf never stopped questioning and struggled to express in words, which, like the Husserlian concept of the horizon, ‘appear[s] only . . . in a changing configuration, which varies according to the point of view and the moment in time, and which prompts the viewer to guess as much as to perceive.’ 110

Exchanging Secrets: Woolf and Cézanne

‘In or about December 1910 human character changed,’ stated Woolf in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.’ 111 It is well known that 1910 was the year that painter, critic and member of the Bloomsbury group Roger Fry rented the Grafton Galleries in London to mount an exhibition entitled ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists,’ introducing the British public to French post-impressionist paintings. The exhibition shocked London into the modernism of Gauguin’s primitive nudes and real life subject matters, van Gogh’s thick and distinctive brush strokes, and Cézanne’s distorted forms and geometrically warped still lifes and landscapes, promoting a visual art that was not an illusion. ‘What can 6 apples not be?’ Woolf wondered about Cézanne’s apples. ‘What can 6 voices not be?’ we might wonder about the voices in The Waves. The number seven, denoting the fullness, completeness and perfection of God’s word in the Bible, is missing for, as Woolf told us, ‘there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.’ We, the readers, take the place of the seventh, the missing Percival in The Waves and Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, the central orchestrator of interaction between the novel’s other six characters. Bringing Cézanne into dialogue with Woolf, the final part of this chapter sums up the ontological questions at the heart of The Waves and sheds light on how the reader or viewer is an integral part of the modernist composition. 112

For Merleau-Ponty the roots of our habitual world are found in primordial ideas, not of how phenomena appear to pure consciousness, as Husserl set out to show, but of how they appear to the embodied subject. Only by enacting the reduction, by ‘bracketing’ what we, according to habit, believe to be real, can we return to a zero-point of perception, to what the philosopher, appropriating Husserl’s ‘nullpunkt,’ calls ‘rediscover[ing] [a] naïver contact with the world’ in order to ‘provide a direct description of experience such as it is.’ 113 Merleau-Ponty found in Cézanne’s painting an example of the reduction: ‘Cézanne’s painting suspends … habits of thought,’ he writes in ‘Cézanne’s Doubt,’ ‘and reveals the base of inhuman nature upon which man has installed himself.’ 114 When describing how Cézanne’s canvasses suspend the familiar, uncovering our ‘wild’ and primitive ground of existence—a prelogical muddiness within being itself, to borrow from Stevens—we are, once again, reminded of the myth of Eden before the Fall:

Nature itself is stripped of the attributes which make it ready for animistic communions: there is no wind in the landscape, no movement in the Lac d’Annecy; the frozen objects hesitate as at the beginning of the world. It is an unfamiliar world. 115

‘I am telling myself the story of the world from the beginning,’ Woolf wrote in The Holograph Drafts, as reflected in the first draft:

This is the beginning . . . birds have sung; & the . . . spiders webs have been lit by starlight. . . . The blank . . . of profound night has cleared little by little. On this white space first the trees have shown, ponderous with mist. And then the sea, moving, has shown truly distinct from the fields. 116

Offering us a secular creation myth of sorts, Woolf’s six essences fall from their innocence in the Garden of Elvedon where a ‘lady sits between the two long windows, writing.’ Elvedon is a place of creative conception, a garden prior to the Fall from which Bernard and Susan run, 117 ‘another version of Eden,’ as Julia Briggs observes, ‘from which the fallen couple are banished, not by an angel with a sword, but a gardener with a broom.’ 118 ‘We are cut, we are fallen,’ Bernard sums up in his final soliloquy, ‘this is the eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again.’ 119 Notably, apples appear frequently throughout the book: It is ‘an apple tree’ that becomes ‘the tree that [Neville] cannot pass’ upon learning of a murdered man and becomes ‘the immitigable tree which we cannot pass’ leading to ‘rotten apples’ in a later interlude. 120 The apple tree, then, becomes a representative of the fall from innocence and the struggle to come to terms with the lack of fit between experiential life and external facts.

Both the early holograph draft and the final book show us Woolf’s thoughts about an entirely secular ‘fresh philosophy,’ 121 or what in ‘On Being Ill’ she calls a ‘new language . . . more primitive, more sensual, more obscene,’ a fresh language that stems from a place that is as unfamiliar and frozen as Cézanne’s stripped landscape: ‘There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown.’ 122 The untrodden and cold landscapes of Woolf and Cézanne are landscapes of reduction, laying bare the preliminary phase of artistic creation. A ‘new’ and ‘more primitive’ language presupposes the reduction: a ‘stripped,’ ‘white space,’ a blank page or zero-point. Each by means of a different medium, the painter and writer sought to re-create a language of ‘the beginning,’ using paint and words to communicate the pre-communicative, which remains the source of creativity.

Like his apples and vessels, Cézanne’s people are stripped of the characteristics of the ordinary. The figures in the portraits Portrait of Mme Cézanne in a Red Dress (1890–1894), Old Woman with a Rosary (c. 1896), Woman with a Coffee-Pot (c. 1893–1895), and Boy with Skull (1896–1898) appear to stare into nothingness in a dream-like manner. The gazes of these strange people are stiffened, their lips are tightened and their expressions are completely arrested. These figures, too, ‘hesitate as at the beginning of the world,’ 123 a ‘pre-world,’ 124 which is still silent and timeless. 125

‘Time shall be utterly obliterated,’ Woolf wrote in a diary entry on The Waves. Like Cézanne, she was concerned with textual genesis, the process of aesthetic production: ‘I want to watch & see how the idea at first occurs. I want to trace my own process.’ 126 Throughout Woolf’s work, the pre-communicative dimension of experience—‘a zone of silence’—is ever-present as the source of this first idea; ‘[t]he artists themselves live in it,’ she wrote in ‘Walter Sickert.’ 127 The six essences that constitute The Waves certainly ‘live in it.’ Like Cézanne’s strange fruit and inanimate people, the inner voices of Bernard, Rhoda, Louis, Neville, Susan and Jinny operate on the basis of the reduction. Woolf has brought to fruition her ‘new . . . more primitive’ language through a series of ‘suspended present tense’ 128 soliloquies, realising the ‘more primitive’ language that she spoke of in ‘On Being Ill.’ This form of speech suspends the habitual, puts out of play usual references to time and place and registers only the immediate, creating an ongoing stream of fresh zero-points: ‘I flutter, I ripple, I stream like a plant in the river.’ 129 In Woolf’s phenomenological pre-world, ‘the normal is abolished,’ exposing a stranger, more primordial viewpoint as the condition for expression and aesthetic production. 130 Through a shift of standpoint, Woolf leads us away from factuality and objectivity—what in ‘A Mark on the Wall’ she calls ‘the surface, with its hard separate facts’ 131 —and back to the pre-predicative ground of experience. She suspends our preconceptions about what a novel ought to look like to recover a more original image of ‘reality, this, the essential thing’ obscured by ‘the cotton wool of daily life.’

As noted, Gertrude Stein once praised Cézanne for showing that ‘in composition . . . [e]ach part is as important as the whole,’ just as phenomenology applies equal importance to the single unit and the horizon. The single unit is highlighted but only to provide a clear view of its involvement with the whole frame—the horizon—within which it exists, which includes other things and other people. At every point this equal balance between part and whole can be detected in The Waves and Cézanne’s paintings. In the latter’s The Large Bathers (1906), 132 the natural setting of sky, water and slanting trees envelope a group of nude bathers who are, even more so than Cézanne’s earlier people, strange and abstract figures. The brown hair and far from sensual but rather plant-like shapes of these slanting women, each of whom seems enclosed within a space of her own, mirror the equally brown and slanting tree trunks that frame their space. 133 The scene accentuates at once separation and interrelation between the natural and the human, the single unit and the horizon. Cézanne’s plant-like women remind us of that moment in The Waves when Louis intertwines with and becomes inseparable from the object he intends: ‘I hold a stalk in my hand. I am the stalk. My roots go down to the depths of the world, through earth dry with brick. . . . I am all fibre.’ 134 Similar moments of intertwining occur in To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway. Whereas Mrs Ramsay ‘often found herself sitting, and looking with her work in her hands until she became the things looked at—that light for example,’ 135 Septimus does not meditate on becoming the tree towards which his eyes are directed, he already is the tree: ‘when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement.’ 136 In other words, he is ‘the words; . . . the music; . . . the thing itself.’

Whereas the aim of the Impressionists (Claude Monet, Georges Seurat, Pierre-Auguste Renoir) had been to grasp the immediacy of the fleeting impression, Paul Cézanne wished ‘to make of Impressionism something solid, like the art in the museums,’ that is to say, to find a turning point of sorts—a fold—between the broken and the solid, the fleeting and the tangible. 137 Woolf’s writing also demonstrates that experience is only possible in the very fold between the self and the other, humans and nature, depth and surface, transcending both Cartesian rationalism and subject-object dichotomies. Our attention, then, is re-directed not to things in themselves but to the folds between them: those between bodies and trees, clouds and sky. Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse demonstrate similar concerns, anticipating a theme that would come to ‘saturate’ The Waves completely. 138 In Mrs Dalloway Clarissa ponders on the ‘the ebb and flow of things’:

[S]omehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling, all to bits and pieces as it was, part of the people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself. 139

Offering a literary version of that unperceived and misty divergence within being from which self, other and world arise in mutual and reciprocal relations—‘this flesh of my body is shared by the world’ 140 —Woolf links the prosperous Clarissa with the poor and poetic Septimus, in the eyes of whom all conventional interests are ‘bracketed,’ leaving the world exposed as phenomenon:

[L]eaves were alive; trees were alive . . . The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern; the white and blue, barred with black branches. Sounds made harmonies with premeditation; the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds.

Intuitively grasping that ‘the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art,’ the non-judgemental Septimus sees clearly the interconnectedness of the visible and the invisible, the silent and the audible. 141 Lily Briscoe, in To the Lighthouse, echoes this idea: ‘The question was of some relation between those masses.’ 142

In his reading of The Large Bathers, T.J. Clark draws particular attention to what he calls the ‘double figure’ in the right side of the painting: the bodies of two women merge and seem to disappear into each other; it looks as though the one’s shoulders become the other’s buttocks and vice versa. 143 Like Bernard in The Waves, these intertwined figures seem to wonder: ‘Who am I? . . . Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know.’ 144 The reversibility of the seeing and the seen takes place within what Merleau-Ponty terms the ‘interworld (l’intermonde),’ exposing our common world of ‘flesh,’ an ‘intermundane space . . . where our gazes cross and our perceptions overlap.’ 145 Within this crossover space, the sentient and the sensible, the subjective and the objective intertwine. It is here that vessels and fruit ‘exchang[e] secrets,’ as Cézanne had pointed out, and where nude bodies seem more plant-like than human. 146

Although each of the six voices in Woolf’s play-poem repeatedly tries to impose imaginative order upon a world of flux—‘We . . . stride not into chaos, but into a world that our own force can subjugate and make part of the illumined and everlasting road’—all are integral parts of the same world and ‘made of the same stuff.’ Thus, as ‘life comes; life goes,’ Woolf’s six free variations of the ‘lady writing’ vacillate between interrelation and separation; between the need for community and the need to be private selves. While ‘[o]utside the undifferentiated forces roar,’ the six essences contract like waves and look ‘inside [where] [they] are very private, very explicit,’ but only to be pulled back into the upsurge of the visible world. 147 Hence the play-poem’s continual wave-like movements of reduction and expansion:

The mind grows rings; the identity becomes robust; pain is absorbed in growth. Opening and shutting, shutting and opening, with increasing hum and sturdiness, the haste and fever of youth are drawn into service until the whole being seems to expand in and out like the mainspring of a clock. 148

Cézanne’s bathing bodies—the double figure in particular—and the perpetually ‘shutting and opening’ body of Woolf’s six figures lay bare a paradox of experience that is at the heart of the artistic event itself. The world that the artist tries to arrest in language or paint is, simultaneously, the world of continuity and change within which he/she is rooted as a carnal being. Thus, the tensions between bodies and natural worlds in The Large Bathers and The Waves bring about a balanced shifting between unit and horizon, the fleeting and the tangible, attempting to ‘make of Impressionism something solid.’

As pointed out by critics, when looking carefully, the middle of Cézanne’s The Large Bathers reveals the face of a woman. 149 Her eyes are hidden in the sky, the water’s edge forms her mouth, and the slanting trees constitute her hair. While mirroring the mirror-relation between bodies and trees, the sky too approaches the human, once again stressing the mutuality of body and world. Once this face is spotted it returns our gaze, drawing us into the painting and yet pushing us away, giving us the feeling of being ‘visible-seers.’ In a similar manner, Woolf’s The Waves makes us aware of our self-reflexivity. Our being conscious of the ‘lady . . . between the two long windows, writing,’ 150 a figure of the writer as a hidden and yet active force inside the text, calls attention to ‘that which we actually perceive,’ making us reflect on our own activity of reading. 151 Thus, Merleau-Ponty’s ‘intermundane space . . . where our gazes cross and our perceptions overlap’ is also the space at which our eyes are directed: the picture surface and the page of the book. In our experience of looking or reading, we too begin with reduction.

This brings us full circle and returns us to the theme of ‘doubling’ in that the reader or viewer is at once a quasi-transcendent onlooker and a quasi-immanent participator. This does not signify some sort of split; rather he/she is ‘neither an outside witness, nor a pure agent.’ 152 Cézanne’s face in the sky and Woolf’s hidden lady suspend the expected and bring into focus the particular phenomena to which we are oriented. As Woolf writes in ‘The Moment: Summer’s Night’: ‘One becomes aware that we are spectators and also passive participants in a pageant.’ 153 Woolf’s readers are at once active ‘spectators,’ projecting their own visions onto the work, and ‘participants,’ components within a horizon: parts of the whole work of art—at once ‘impassioned [passionelle]’ and passive, as Merleau-Ponty taught us. If each part of the composition is as important as the whole, then the viewer or reader’s viewpoint is an integral part of the composition’s landscape. Woolf reminds us of this in ‘How Should One Read a Book’: ‘Do not dictate to your author, try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice.’ 154 Writer/Painter, reader/viewer and text/painting: each is an essential part of the artwork’s making and re-making. Hence Bernard in The Waves: ‘To be myself (I note) I need the illumination of other people’s eyes’; ‘I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.’ 155 Just as Cézanne, during the process of painting, was ‘germinating’ with his landscape, 156 we are ‘germinating’ with The Waves, folding with the foam of each wave over itself only to begin again and again: ‘The waves broke on the shore.157



Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 3, ed. Anne Olivier Bell (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 191.


Ibid., 196.


Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ in The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, 6, 7, 8.


For an insightful reading of the connection between Woolf’s own aesthetics principles concerning ‘Subject, Object and the Nature of Reality’ in relation to the philosophy of the Cambridge Apostles, see Ann Banfield, The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell and the Epistemology of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Whereas Banfield’s study accentuates a dualism between subject and object in Woolf’s vision, this chapter argues for the collapse of such a subject-object binary.


Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Penguin Books, 1945), 112.


See Frank McConnell, ‘“Death Among the Apple Trees”: The Waves and the World of Things,’ Bucknell Review 16 (December 1968): 25. Other critics who characterise Woolf’s writing as ‘mystical’ include Madeline Moore, who refers to Woolf’s moments of ‘mystical unity’; Stella McNichol, who calls The Waves a ‘mystical work,’ and Cyril Conolly who describes The Waves as ‘one of the books which comes nearest to stating the mystery of life.’ See Moore, ‘Nature and Community: A Study of Cyclical Reality in The Waves,’ in Ralph Freedman, ed., Virginia Woolf: Reevaluation and Continuity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 222; McNichol, Virginia Woolf and the Poetry of Fiction, London: Routledge, 1980), 118; and Conolly, Enemies of Promise (New York: Macmillan Company, 1949), 49.


Among critics who stress Woolf’s concerns with cognitive or post-Freudian psychology are Robert Humphrey, Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959), 14; and Jean O. Love, Worlds in Consciousness: Mythopoetic Thought in the Novels of Virginia Woolf (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970), 200, xi. Also see Emily Dalgarno, Virginia Woolf and the Visible World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Dalgarno offers a reading of the visible and invisible in Woolf by drawing upon psychoanalytic theory, in particular that of Lacan.


Using aspects of Heidegger’s phenomenology, Suzette Henke has already demonstrated that the ontology of The Waves is ‘more phenomenological than mystical,’ thus taking issue with scholars who place emphasis on the ‘mystical’ dimension in Woolf’s writing. See Henke, ‘Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: A Phenomenological Reading,’ Neophilologus 73.3 (July 1989): 461–472.


Jean Guiguet, Virginia Woolf and Her Works, trans. Jean Stewart (London: Hogarth Press, 1965), 379.


Hussey, The Singing of the Real World, 82, 87, 88.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 264.


Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 430.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 118, 244, 146, my italics.


Frank Chouraqui, Ambiguity and the Absolute: Nietzsche and Merleau-Ponty on the Question of Truth (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), 196.


Connections between Woolf’s ‘folds’ and Deleuze’s more recent figure of the ‘fold’ have been explored by Jessica Berman in ‘Ethical Folds: Ethics, Aesthetics, Woolf,’ Modern Fiction Studies 50.1 (2004): 151–172; and by Laci Mattison in ‘Woolf’s Un/Folding(s): The Artist and the Event of the Neo-Baroque,’ in Derek Ryan and Stella Bolaki, eds., Contradictory Woolf: Selected Papers from the Twenty-First Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2012), 96–100.

I want to draw attention to Merleau-Ponty’s original notions of folds and intersubjectivity, which also influenced Deleuze. However, Stephen Günzel argues that Deleuze’s grasp of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of ‘flesh’ is too superficial in ‘Deleuze and Phenomenology,’ International Studies in Phenomenology and Philosophy 2.2 (2014): 31–45. Similarly, Jack Reynolds and John Roffe have argued that ‘Deleuze’s basic criticism of phenomenology, as well as his and Guattari’s problems with the concept of flesh, do not adequately come to grips with Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy,’ in ‘Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: Immanence, Univocity and Phenomenology,’ Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 37.3 (October, 2006): 228. Frank Chouraqui, echoes this claim in his observation that Deleuze’s understanding that in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology intentionality is ‘object-directed in the sense of object-affirming’ is ‘arguably a wild misreading of at least the whole of Merleau-Ponty’s writings since the foreword to Phenomenology of Perception—to the point that it interprets Merleau-Ponty’s mention of a learning process (which is meant as an expression of the self constituting the world) as referring to the acquisition of some supposed objective knowledge,’ in Ambiguity and the Absolute, 117. See also Stephen Zepke, Art as Abstract Machine: Ontology and Aesthetics in Deleuze and Guattari (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2005), which stresses that Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the ‘fold’ anticipates Deleuze’s.


See, for instance, Harvena Richter who briefly refers to both Bergson and Husserl in Virginia Woolf: The Inward Voyage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970); and Mark Hussey who uses Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, alongside the philosophies of Sartre and R.D. Laing, as a point of departure for examining the role of the body in Woolf’s work in The Singing of the Real World: The Philosophy of Virginia Woolf’s Fiction (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986). While the phenomenological quality of Woolf’s ontology has been examined from a Heideggerian perspective by Suzette Henke in ‘Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: A Phenomenological Reading,’ Carole Rodier has offered a chronological examination of Woolf’s novels by drawing upon the thinking of Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard, Gilbert Durand, and Jean-Pierre Richard, in Rodier, L’Univers imaginaire de Virginia Woolf (Paris: Editions du Temps, 2001). A critical study that has attempted an in-depth exploration of the kinship between Husserlian phenomenology and Woolf’s philosophical concerns is M.L. Wadikar’s Journey Towards the Centre of Being: Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson (1980). Although Wadikar, like Richter, points out that ‘[i]t is not… easy to establish any direct influence of Husserl on the two novelists,’ he aims to explore the ‘curious resemblance’ between their speculations by offering a ‘detailed examination of Husserl’s position’ and using this to shed light on Woolf and Richardson’s work. Unfortunately, Wadikar’s examination of the novelists’ ‘journey[s] towards the centre of being’ in light of how consciousness, according to Husserl, ‘effectuates ideas or essences,’ lacks clarity in places because the epoché, the most radical and essential of Husserl’s procedures, is not explored. See M.L. Wadikar, Journey Towards the Centre of Being: Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson (Meerut, India: Anu Prakashan, 1980), 3–4.


Moore ‘Nature and Community,’ 222, 220.


Patricia Ondek Laurence, The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1991), 110.


Ibid. Critics who, like myself, stress parallels between the epoché and Woolf’s aesthetic concerns include Henke, ‘Virginia Woolf’s The Waves,’ 467; and Douglas Mao, Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), 228.


Husserl, Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philisophy, 169.


Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology, trans. Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhof, 1977), 19–20.


Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 175.


Ibid., 179.


Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 110.


Husserl, Ideas, 78.


Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ 7.


Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 260; my italics.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 176.


Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction,’ 8.


James Naremore, The World Without a Self (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973), 75.


Maureen Chun, ‘Between Sensation and Sign: The Secret Language of The Waves,Journal of Modern Literature 36.1 (Fall 2012): 53.


Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3, 285.


Woolf, The Waves, 11.


Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, 11.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 139, 153.


In arguing this, I take issue with Arthur Koestler’s claim that The Waves is a ‘masterpiec[e] at dead ends,’ in Koestler, The Yogi and the Commissar (London: Jonathan Cape, Ltd., 1945), 31; and with Mark Hussey who has argued for the ‘aesthetic failure’ of The Waves, suggesting that it is an example of ‘antireading’: ‘The Waves is hostile to reading, and yet, it has nearly always been read as a complete, harmonious work of art. It is, though, a product of crisis and reflects this in its form.’ See Hussey, The Singing of the Real World, 86–87.


Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3, 139.


Ibid., 209.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 155.


Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, vIxxi.


Woolf, The Waves, 11.


Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1, ed. Anne Olivier Bell. London (The Hogarth Press, 1977), 113.


The writing lady re-appears on pp. 102, 201, and 224.


James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 231.


Husserl, Ideas, 198, 55.


The book’s six inter-locking voices have often been referred to as ‘selves’ or aspects of one whole self or creative mind. For instance, Jean Guiguet claims that the six voices are ‘originally merged in one single voice—the thinker,’ and James Naremore argues that ‘[t]he speeches often seem like one pervasive voice with six personalities.’ See Guiguet, Virginia Woolf and Her Works, 285; and Naremore, The World Without a Self, 152. It has also been pointed out that Woolf did not think of these voices as ‘characters’ in the usual sense of the word. Michael Rosenthal writes: ‘Woolf did not conceive of these voices as adding up in any way to literary “characters”’ and quotes the following passage from her diary: ‘What I now think (about The Waves) is that I can give in a very few strokes the essentials of a person’s character’ (A Writer’s Diary, 157).’ See Rosenthal, Virginia Woolf (London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 145.


Judith Butler, Introduction, in The Erotic Bird, xii.


Virginia Woolf, ‘The Leaning Tower,’ in A Woman’s Essays, 159.


Woolf, The Waves, 59, 5.


Stein, Tender Buttons, 4.


Judith Butler, Introduction, in The Erotic Bird, xv.


Woolf, The Waves, 21.


Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3, 229.


Woolf, The Waves, 76.


Stevens, Collected Poems, 442.


Woolf, The Waves, 157.


Kearney, Anatheism, 90.


According to Derek Ryan, in his recent study of Woolf, The Waves challenges this much-discussed ‘subject-object relationship’ in that that there is no longer ‘“an edge to [Bernard’s] mind,” a clear border between his internal focus and external forces.’ Indeed, as Ryan argues, ‘subject/object distinctions’ transform into ‘what Deleuze and Guattari describe as an “assemblage” which includes “semiotic flows, material flows and social flows simultaneously.”’ See Ryan, Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 185–186. In another recent reading of Woolf’s The Waves, Maureen Chun also stresses that The Waves ‘traverses the boundary between subjectivity and objectivity’: ‘the language, imagery, structure, and themes collectively establish the continuity of word, narrative, and world through a non-subjective, physicalized consciousness.’ See Chun, ‘Between Sensation and Sign: The Secret Language of The Waves,’ 53.


Anna Snaith, Virginia Woolf: Public and Private Negotiations (London: Macmillan Press, 2000), 69.


Tamar Katz, ‘Modernism, Subjectivity, and Narrative Form: Abstraction in The Waves,’ Narrative Columbus 3.3 (October 1995): 235, 248. Pamela L. Caughie offers a point not unlike Katz’s when claiming that Woolf ‘enact[s] a way of thinking about and responding to narrative discourse that considers different ways of relating things rather than the distinction between two things.’ See Caughie, Virginia Woolf & Postmodernism: Literature in Quest and Question of Itself (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), xii.


Banfield, The Phantom Table, 73.


Kingwell, ‘Husserl’s Sense of Wonder,’ 99.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 249.


Ibid., 134, 133, 248, 135.


Ibid., 48.


Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3, 203.


Reynolds, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, 74.


Virginia Woolf, The Waves: The Two Holograph Drafts, ed. J.W. Graham (London: The Hogarth Press, 1976), 9, 3. Elsewhere in The Holograph Drafts Woolf writes: ‘in the fold of the napkin was a seat such as gardeners stand their pots on’ (12); ‘Here the fold in the … napkin showed clearings in a wood’ (15).


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 264.


Woolf, The Waves, 8.


Ibid., 8–9.


Ibid., 9, 13, 15.


Berman, 413.


Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 370.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 260, 262.


Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 162–163.


Ibid., 411.


As Merleau-Ponty writes in The Visible and the Invisible: ‘since the same body sees and touches, visible and tangible belong to the same world,’ 130.


Berman, ‘The Hyperdialectic in Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology of the Flesh,’ 411.


Woolf, The Waves: The Two Holograph Drafts, 9.


Woolf, The Waves, 227–228.


Ibid., 62.


Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3, 7. Hermione Lee has also pointed out that Woolf ‘wanted to feel what Proust felt and to see if she couldn’t turn this world into something like À La Recherche,’ in Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996), 468.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 149.


Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: Swann’s Way, trans. Lydia Davis (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), 221.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 139, 149, 150, 153.


Woolf, The Waves, 199.




Eva Meyer, ‘A Matter of Folds,’ Parallax 5.4 (1999), 97.


Woolf, The Waves, 199.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 208. Notably, Patrick McGee also argues that Bernard’s ‘little language’ stands for the unseizable but in a different way: ‘the little language is the discourse of the Other,’ which ‘signifies something beyond… at which all language aims.’ Unlike my suggestion that the pre-semantic dimension of experience, which I see as exposed throughout Woolf’s work, offers a clue to her phenomenological concerns with aesthetic production, McGee uses his notion of the ‘Other’ to point out a ‘compatibility’ between Woolf and Lacanian theory, claiming that Woolf ‘reaches toward the unrepresentable … the locus of the signifier before it is captured by the symbolic rule of patriarchy.’ See McGee, ‘Woolf’s Other: The University in Her Eye,’ Novel 23 (Spring 1990): 244, 230, 245.


Woolf, The Waves, 30.


Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, 39.


Julia Rawa, The Imperial Quest and Modern Memory from Conrad to Greene (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), 29, 14, 1.


Ibid., 1, 30.


Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 327.


Kearney, Anatheism, 92.


Woolf, The Waves, 220, 181.


Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Ixxix.


Woolf, The Waves, 118–119.


Stevens, Collected Poems, 194.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 139, 149, 150, 153.


Virginia Woolf, ‘A Haunted House,’ in A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1972), 3; my italics.


As Hermione Lee puts it, ‘A Haunted House’ foreshadows ‘the questing airs in the “Time Passes” Section of To the Lighthouse.’ See Lee, Virginia Woolf, 318.


Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 183.


Woolf, ‘A Haunted House,’ The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, 7.


Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3, 191.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 248.


Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Ixxx.


Michel Collot, ‘Phenomenology and Literary Experience,’ trans. Carole Bourne-Taylor, in Bourne-Taylor and Mildenberg, eds., Phenomenology, Modernism and Beyond, 328.


Woolf, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,’ in A Woman’s Essays, 71.


Anthony Uhlmann offers an enriching but very different reading of ‘Woolf’s interaction with the ideas of Paul Cézanne (via Roger Fry and through Cézanne directly), drawing out her understanding of “sensation” and processes of translation between the visual arts and literature.’ See Uhlmann, Thinking in Literature: Woolf, Joyce, Nabokov (New York and London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), 5.


Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Ixx.


Merleau-Ponty, ‘Cézanne’s Doubt,’ in Sense and Non-Sense, 16.




Woolf, The Waves: The Two Holograph Drafts, 6.


Woolf, The Waves, 12.


Julia Briggs, Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life (London: Allen Lane), 244. As Briggs remarks, Woolf’s Holograph Drafts was ‘much closer to the biblical Genesis since it concerns a couple in flight from that “first” Edenic garden’ (Ibid., 243).


Woolf, The Waves, 234, 247.


Ibid., 18, 197.


Woolf, The Waves: The Two Holograph Drafts, 758.


Woolf, ‘On Being Ill,’ in The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, 45, 46.


Merleau-Ponty, ‘Cézanne’s Doubt,’ in Sense and Non-Sense, 16.


F. Novotny as cited in Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 337.


Meyer Schapiro makes a point not unlike that of Merleau-Ponty when claiming that Cézanne’s fruit and vessels imply a ‘still unordered world.’ The fruit, he argues, ‘is not yet fully part of human life.’ See Schapiro, ‘The Apples of Cézanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still Life,’ in Modern Art: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York: George Braziller, 1978), 25.


Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3, 118, 113.


Virginia Woolf, ‘Walter Sickert,’ in Collected Essays by Virginia Woolf. Vol. 2, ed. Leonard Woolf (London: The Hogarth Press, 1966), 236.


For this terminology I am indebted to Stephen J. Miko who perceptively remarks that the ‘suspended present tense’ of Woolf’s six voices ‘seems to reduce existence to a moment perpetually, to collapse both past and future without giving up consciousness of both past and future,’ in ‘Reflections on The Waves,’ Criticism 30.1 (1988): 69.


Woolf, The Waves, 83.


Woolf, The Waves, 83, 97.


Virginia Woolf, ‘The Mark on the Wall,’ Selected Short Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 55.


Cézanne painted three different versions of The Large Bathers, two of which are in the Barnes Collection, Pennsylvania, and the National Gallery, London, respectively. In my discussion, I am referring to the last 1906 version, which is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


For this insight I am indebted to Ulrike Becks-Malorny’s comment that the ‘The figures are also aligned in the same way as the trees… The women are self-absorbed; they exist only for themselves.’ See Becks-Malorny, Paul Cézanne 1839–1906: Pioneer of Modernism, trans. Phil Goddard in association with First Edition Translations Ltd. (Köln: Taschen, 2001), 88.


Woolf, The Waves, 7.


Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 68.


Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, 28.


Cézanne as quoted in Stephen F. Eisenman, Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 345.


Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1, 209.


Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, 1, 11; my italics.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 240.


Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, 28, 72.


Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 200.


T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 157.


Woolf, The Waves, 240–241.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 48.


For a careful examination of this ‘exchange’ of space, see Brendan Prendeville, ‘Merleau-Ponty, Realism and Painting: Psychophysical Space and the Space of Exchange,’ Art History 22.3 (September 1999): 364–88.


Woolf, The Waves, 120, 145, 12, 213.


Ibid., 215.


Sidney Geist calls Cézanne’s hidden images such as the face in the sky ‘cryptomorphs,’ in Geist, Interpreting Cézanne (Harvard University Press, 1988), 1–2. For another insightful discussion of Cézanne’s hidden images, see Joyce Medina, Cézanne and Modernism: The Poetics of Painting (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995).


Woolf, The Waves, 12.


Merleau-Ponty, ‘Cézanne’s Doubt,’ in Sense and Non-Sense, 14.


Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 90.


Virginia Woolf, ‘The Moment: A Summer’s Night,’ in Collected Essays by Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2, 293.


Virginia Woolf, ‘How Should One Read a Book,’ in The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, 60.


Woolf, The Waves, 95, 109.


Merleau-Ponty,‘Cézanne’s Doubt,’ in Sense and Non-Sense, 17.


Woolf, The Waves, 248.

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