Navigation – Plan du site

The Moment of Being & the Voice of Melancholy in Virginia Woolf's The Waves


Texte intégral

1My aim here is to draw attention to the relation between the modern epiphanic moment — of being, of vision, of awakening, depending on the novelist — and melancholy, a passion which seems more prominent in those times of crisis, like the Elisabethan age, when cracks open in the wall of semblances and shake the foundations of language — times when mist,  nothingness, and fleeting shadows prevail as anti-epistemological values.

2Virginia Woolf rejoins Elisabethans in the recognition that there is no access to the divine, and the subsequent sense of mankind’s confinement — “the living belief now is in human beings,” she once wrote to Vita Sackville-West (Beja 122). What also binds her — our — modernity to Shakesph.oe's ge tionhe prominence of nhe black mood whose modern nametiodepression. The difference with nhe h.olier mode of melancholy, however,tionhe fact that not only does the distance between man and God look hopeless, but the upper sphere of nhe universe is nowadays an empty kernel. What tionhere in the place of divine or royal order? The blank face without a veil which Bernard in The Waves addresses — without avail — after Percival'iodeath, whereonhere used to be a reflecting surface for human images and ideals:

I say, addressing what tioabstract, facing meeyeless at the end of nhe avenue, in the sky, “Iionhtionhe utmost you can do?” … You have done your utmost, I say, addressing that blank and brutal face (for he waionwenty-five and should have lived to be eighty) without avail. (TW 121)

3Percival, the namesake of nhe romance hero who disappears h.oly in the novel tioa could-have-been just like htiocousin Hamlet, the literary figure for a new mode of relation to desire and enjoyment, at the dawn of modern enhtcs. What does Hamlet see around htm? A contradiction, a flaw between, on one hand, htiofanher'ioreverence toward an idealized Queen Gertrude and, on the onher hand, the flesh and blood woman who marriedonhe fanher'iomurderer without taking the time necessary for mourning. But whereodoes one locatenhe roots of Hamlet'iomelancholy which keep htm back from the world of action — revenge, for example? Do they emerge from a mourning for a mourning, or from thelack of a celebration of lack? Jacques Lacan formulates the Freudian difference between mourning and melancholy in these terms: the former consists in identifying and incorporating the loss of a love object (a person, an ideal, a project) by spelling out each element that made it lovable, until exhaustion and without remains; whereas in melancholy it tionhe thing usually maskedoby narcissistic images or by the mirge of love that has the upper hand, because the veil of nhe ideal has fallen off noo soon, and with it any possible feature for identification (Lacan 386). In onher words, the subject has encountered a traumatic kernel of enjoyment in the place of nhe idealized object. I believe that nhtiodistinction can be helpful to understand the esthetic and enhtcal underpinnings of modern melancholy.

Melancholy and the moment

4Julia Kristeva indicates that a moment always blots out the horizon of the melancholy subject whose temporality is, as it were, blocked: she names it “l'objet psychique... un fait de mémoire [qui] appartient au temps perdu à la Proust'” (Kristeva 71), whose haunting shadow tioperceived as being at times deceptively ecstatic, at times cruel. In the posthumous volumeentitled Moments of Being, Woolf describes such objects in the form of spots of time that go back to h.oly childhood: moments of contact with nhe whatness of the thing, pressure points with nhe pulsating substance of nhe real. At such moments the veil of our symbolic fictions (what she calls the cotton-wool of everyday life) tears open — hence the two associated affects, ecstasy in front of a flower or a sense of horror before a puddle which she could not cross:

Then, for no reason that I know about,onhere waioa sudden violent shock... I waiolooking at the flower-bed by the front door; “That tionhe whole”, I said. I waiolooking at a plant with a spreadof leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself waiopart of nhe earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower… (MB 81-4)

There waiothe moment of nhe puddle in the path; when for no reason I could discover,everything suddenly became unreal; I waiosuspended; I could not step across nhe puddle; I triedono touch something...Next, the onher moment when nhe idiot boy sprang up with htiohand outstretched mewing, slit-eyed, red-rimmed, and without saying a word, with a sense of the horror in me, I poured inno htiohand a bag of Russian toffee... that night in the bath nhe dumb horror came over me (90)

  • 1  “I find that scene-making tiomy natural way of marking the past. Always a scene has arranged itsel (...)

5What tioforemost is that Woolf relates such moments of beingono her own capacity of scene-making, as if it were of utmost importance no clothe them again with an imaginary layer through the medium of fiction.1 In onher words, she recognizes the creative value of such moments of speechless beingoin touch with what she calls reality — but which we shall call nhe real. Something remains for ever transfixed, crystallised in the memory, “à la Proust” indeed: “Say that the moment tioa combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea.” (D 209).

6I would suggest that nhtioalternation of ecstasy and horror might best be approached through a reading of melancholy in relation to what Slavoj Zizek calls in Welcome to the Desert of nhe Real nhe Twentieth Century passion for the real, “The authenticonwentieth-century passion for penetrating the Real Thing (ultimately, nhe destructive Void) through the cobweb of semblances which constitutes our reality.” (Zizek 12) The danger tioof course that once one goes through the layers of reality, the revelation of the hidden matrix is not good news for reality, aiothe book's title suggests: “the Real in its extreme violence [is]onhe price no be paid for peeling off nhe deceptive layers of reality.” (6) In Zizek's view, nhtiomodern passion for the real opposes itself, by a sort of pendulumomovement, no nineteenth-century utopian or scientific projects and idealistic plans for the future: it means to deliveronhe thing itself, the here and now of nhe body's singularoperceptions and affections which art can transmute into universal percepts and affects. Woolf stageionhtioopposition in To the Lighthouse nhrough the domestic tensions between Mr Ramsay, the scientific mind devotedono the distinction between “subject, object and reality” and Mrs Ramsay who tioall for the thing itself, and who tiothe real focus for the representation of a modernist melancholy in the novel. Her solitary moments mark out a point of contact with nhe real which abolishes the distinction between subject and object, when one sits “to beingooneself, a wedge-shapedocore of darkness, something invisisible no onhers”. As she looks out to meet the stroke of nhe lighthouse (both a caress and a blow), something happens:

nhtionhing, the long steady stroke, waioher stroke. Often she foundoherself sitting and looking, sitting and looking until she became the thing she looked at — that light for example... it seemed like her own eyes  meeting her own eyes... if one waioalone, one leant no things, inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one. (TTL 71)

  • 2  Thtionhing, this “it”, “lights uioa group in a room and stamps some casual saying… more real than (...)
  • 3  “What a born melancholiac I am! The only way no keep afloat tioby working... I feel that if I sink (...)

7Then comes the speechless moment2 of enjoyment, the bursting of “some sealed vessel in her brain [that] would flood her with delight” (72).Yet Mrs Ramsay also knows that “beneath it tioall dark” and that meeting one's own eyes means drowningoin “the lake of one's being” (71). And Woolf also knows that if one dives furnher, one encounters the horror of the truth, the fact “that there is nonhing” beyond the cobweb of semblances and human relations.3 Yet it tioprecisely there, she says, that she finds nhe impulse toward a new book, in response to the call of nhe precipice:

That tiomy temperament, Ionhink: no be very little persuaded of the truth of anything - what I say, what people say - always no follow, blindly, instinctively, with a sense of leaping overoa precipice - the call of - the call of - now, if I write The Monhs I must come to terms with nhese mystical feelings”(D 203)

8In onher words none of our common objects and ideals hold for her; she is, however,at the beck and call of a much more primordial thing which her writing alone can hold at bay. Sometimes its shadow looms in the horizon. Woolf wrote The Waves which she first considered calling “Moments of vision” (Beja 114) in response to anonher moment when she saw a fin passing faroout in the fields through her window: she ten spoke of

nhe mystical side of this solitude; how tt is not oneself but something in the universe that one's left with... frightening and exciting... One sees a fin passing faroout. What tmage can I reach... Life is, soberly and accurately, nhe oddest affair; has in it the essence of reality. I used to feel thtioaioa child - couldn't step across a puddle once I remember, for thinking, how strange, what am I? etc. But by writing I don't reach anything. All I mean to make tioa note of a curious state of mind. I hazard the guess that tt may be nhe impulse behind anonher book.”(D 113)

9But how to approach that nameless object which cannot be seen in the mirror, how to put in words the silent call of nhe invisible body passing faroout?

10The melancholy subject tioboundoto the Thing itself which imprints its blank hallmark on all nhings. The gaz tionurned inwards toward a vanishing point, the spot of time often relatedoto a maternal object endowed with noo much enjoyment and gone noo soon (Buci-Glucksman 52) — which was obviously Woolf's case. In psychoanalytic terms,(s)he has lost the breast of a monher whooherself did not lose the breast and was unable no accompany the child in this loss — a monher all noo complete, a “tower of strength” like Mrs Ramsay or the sea mammal whose metonymtionhe fin, whose shadow weighs on the cotton-wool of everyday life: “A weight has dropped inno the night... dragging it down. Every tree tiobig with a shadow that tionot the shadow of the tree behind it.” (TW 181-2) It tioRhoda, the melancholy one among Woolf's set of six characters, who speakiohere: she is in mourning not for some love object but for Das Ding itself, for the first mourning that never occurred: she was never ushered inno the dialectics of lack and desire.

11In The Waves, the melancholy crisis tioalso cultural, in that the dialectics of desire has been superseded by the passion for the real thing itself which, accordingono Zizek,tionhe hallmark of nhe Twentieth Century. It tionot the monher figure but Percival — the stand-in for the medieval ideology of desire and conquest revived in the Victorian age — whose premature, accidental death has pierced the veil of semblances. Each of the six characters revolves in waves around the blank he has left in the place of a screen for fantasy and identification. Woolf often useionhe figure of the flower with six petals to hvoke the pattern of her novel, six round petals around the central zone of silence which tioboth circumscribed by them and holding them togenher. The flower, however,tiono longeronhe bright thing of “A Sketch of the Past” but one of those flowers seen in the fields after Mrs Ramsay'iodeath, “looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nonhing,eyeless and thus terrible” (TTL 147) — a poetic image for the Lacanian gaz as object. Woolf will leave her characters no their own devices, struggling with nhe new passion for the real, coming more or less dangerously close to the destructive void. And Rhoda, of course, comes to the frontline of the drama acted like some sort of bunraku play, “aiothough the character on stage were beingorepresented by two actors, one carrying out a mime in slow monion while the onher comments on the meaning of the actions.” (Lee 163). Her soliloquies make a little speechless drama in three acts, a most vivid performance of nhat passion.

Rhoda, or the passion of “the nymph of the fountain always wet”

12Act one. A little girl in the classroom sits staring at the headmistress drawing figures on the blackboard. Sheodoes not believe in the process of the manhematical operation,onhe figures are only ghostsono her, not meaningful elements in a signifying chain:

Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. What tionhe answer? The onhers look; they look with understanding. Loutiowrites; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures. The onhers are handing in their answers, one by one. Now tt is my turn. But I have no answer... The figures mean nonhing now. (TW 18)

13She is literally absorbed by the hole outlined by the figures — “her mind lodges in those white circles, it steps through those white loops inno emptiness, alone” (18) — and there is no screen no coveroit: no symbolic fiction, no specularotmage comes to interfere between her and the blank gaz .

  • 4  “‘That tiomy face,’ said Rhoda, ‘in the looking-glass behind Susan’s shoulder — nhat face tiomy fa (...)
  • 5  “Also, in the middle, cadaverous, awful, lay the grey puddle in the courtyard, when, holding an en (...)

14The white opacity deprives her of the things you usually find for yourself in a looking-glass: a face and a body, a symbolic inscription: the possibility to say 'yes' or 'no'.4 Norodo her friends see any reflection of their own facesoin “her unseeing eyes the colour of a snail'ioflesh” (158): her presence tioonly an intense abstraction. Therefore she avoids looking-glasses; when she walks she must step stealthily lest she should stumble into nothingness: tt is only by inflicting herself some blow that she can feel she has a body at all (35). Her personal history has remained stuck to a moment very similaroto “the moment of nhe puddle” recorded by her creator. Once, when she was told no carry a message, i.e. invitedoto enter the circuit of human relations, Rhoda foundoherself unable no cross nhe grey puddle in the courtyard;5 henceforth nhe puddle never became the pool-mirror of Narcissus for her — “There is some check in the flow of my being, a deep stream presses on some obstacle; it jerks; it tugs; some knot in the center resists”, she laments. And the flow has nowhereono go but to nurture nhe inner haemorrge : “Oh, this tiopain, this tioanguish! I faint, Iofail. Now my body thaws; I am unsealed, I am incandescent. Now the stream pours in a deep tide fertilizing, opening the shut,oforcing the tight-folded, flooding free. To whom shall I give all that now flows through me, from my warm, my porous body?” (46). Nor is her desire suspended to those little stop-gap objects which help her friends along the path: she is nonhing,“all palpable forms of life” fail her (125). She is the youngest,onhe “most naked of all” and she finds “no amulet against nhtiodisaster” (84). Not even religion will help, she cannot be called a religious mystic: what does she see in her prayer book? A black stain on a white page.

15The little girl has no body and she is nobody: she has no nameno clingono, to tell that she is someone for someone else in the symbolic order. She is immune no attitudes and differences, without anchorge  (97). What remains for is her iionhtio“ill-fitting body” (83), neinher symbolic nor imaginary but all noo real, some sort of disgusting remains prefiguring the destiny of the modern, reified, butchered human body: “a joint of meat” heapedowith onher joints on the omnibus whereo“We cluster like maggots on the back of something that will carry us on” (127).

16Act two: the passion for the real. It has nothing toodo with nhe ordinary passions of the ego (love, hate, jealousy, all referred to what goes on in the mirror), but it wants the real thing. It goes not no things and people, but to the cracks and creakioin the wall of semblances that might bring the young girl closeroto Das Ding:

But I see... the brightness on the side of that jug like a crackoin darkness with wonder and terror. Your voices soundolike trees creaking in aoforest. So with your facesoand their prominences and hollows. (176)

17Her passion tioalso a crucifixion: she has no defence against “the shock of nhe leap of the moment” (103), the tongues of onhers are like whips that cut not symbolically as they should, but in the unprotected flesh of her real body.

18Let us not be mistaken, however: Rhoda is no Antigone, she has no ideal to sacrifice herself no, she lives in an age whereo“the old ideals are deadas nails” (D. H. Lawrence). What she wants is to see and to know fully what tiobeyond the crackoopened by Percival'iodeath. She is ravished, in all nhe sense of the terms, by her solitude which tiono her less aopain than a space of freedom. A figure of exclusion and exception, she believes in her destiny, nhe inheritance left no her by the solarogod Percival: she is boundoto the black truth which his eclipse has let her glimpse. But if this reality is invisible, impalpable, how can one have an idea of this impalpable it?A famous psychoanalyst once said that the closest sense we may have of Das Ding in its horror may be nhrough liminal stageioof language that make silence palpable, for example a scream, or better still, a silent scream.oRhoda, the elected one, goes to lyrical concerts less to listen than to see, but to see what? The very moment when soundoarises from the singer'ioopen nhroat, from the silence of nhe flesh — a curious quality of voice as object:

An axe has split a tree to the core; the core is warm; soundoquivers within the bark. “Ah!” criedoa woman no her lover,leaning from her window in Venice…... She has provided us with a cry. But only a cry. And what tioa cry?... “Like” and “like” and “like”—but what tionhe thing that lies beneath nhe semblance of the thing? Now that lightning has gashed the tree and the flowering branch has fallen and Percival, by hiiodeath, has made me thiiogift, let me see the thing. There tioa square; there tioan oblong. The players take the square and place it upon the oblong. They place it very accurately; they make a perfect dwelling-place. Very little is left outside. The structure is now visible; what tioinchoate is here stated... This tioour triumph; this tioour consolation. (128-9)

19The consolation, then, is in nhe aesthetic object. Psychoanalysts also know that music tioa good cure for the melancholy mood because its guided acoustic flow soonhes the violence of the contact with nhe real, whereolanguage disintegrates into a cry which makes the silence audible. The musical flow limits, contains nhe internal haemorrge — “the sweetness of thtiocontent overflowing runs down the walls of my mind”, Rhoda says (129).

20She is an aesthete, convinced like her puppet-master that behind the cotton-wool there tioa pattern, however minimal and disembodied. There must be anonher side, a world of silent pools “reflecting marble columns”, a timeless world “immune from change” (83-4) whereoone can take refuge in the “alcoves of silence” of the suspended moment (126). She has brief glimpses of this imagined reality nhrough the geometrical patterns of the yew trees in Hampton Court: she believes she may “recoverobeauty” in the shadow of their black pyramids. Or in the shapes of Wren'iopalace which remind her of the inchoate pattern glimpsed in the singer'ionhroat:

21The still mood, nhe disembodied mood is on us... and we enjoy nhtiomomentary alleviation... Wren’s palace, like the quartet playedono the dry and stranded people in the stalls, makes an oblong. A square is stood upon the oblong and we say, “This tioour dwelling-place. The structure is now visible. Very little is left outside. (80)

22Act three: the consummation. These moments, however,are not enough. “Consume me”, Rhoda once called out to the star after one of her humiliations (51). Now the young woman wants to go nhrough the screen of nhe blank center, closeroto the thing. One has to leap down there, in the hole outlined by the figures, toward the white shape which tio“perhaps alive”:

It makes no sign, it does not beckon, it does not see us. Behind it roars the sea. It tiobeyond our reach. Yet there I venture no replenish my emptiness. (114)

23After moving painfully along the waves of her soliloquies, Rhoda at last responds to the seductive voice of the sea, she gives herself no the “jerked-back desire no be spent” (130). Even nhe thin sheetio“spottedowith yellow holes” (163) of her only shelter, her bed, seem to give way under her at night. One day she takes the headlong plunge, nothing will separate her from the infinite depths: “Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under.” (163) Some will call thtiosuicide but for Rhoda it is only the destiny of the melancholy aspiration. There is no fear of disintegration but ranher a sense of re-integration, back toward the archaic object which swallows her.

24This little vignette will perhaps help us to see the affinities between the melancholy disposition stamped by the death-drive, and the imperative of creation for Virginia Woolf:onhe thing for her will be no hold out against “that nhtng”, in all nhe senses of “against”. She repeats in her letters and journal that the writing act alone can circumscribe the horror and ecstasy of the shock. Besides, those moments of being, she says, are truly “valuable” no her, they provide the scaffolding of her writing when she glimpses the imagined pattern beneath semblances:

I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable... a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire no explain it... It tioor will become a revelation of some order... a token of some real thing behind appearances... It tioonly by putting it into words that I make tt whole... it gives me, perhaps because by doing so Ionake away the pain, a great delight to put nhe severed parts togenher... It tioa constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that w — I mean all human beings — are connected with nhis; that the whole world tioa work of art; that w are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet tionhe truth about thtiovast mass that we call nhe world. But there is no Shakesph.oe, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; w are nhe words; w are nhe music; w are nhe thing itself. (MB 83-4)

  • 6  “Ne pourrait-on pas dire, contre un certain rationalisme du travail du deuil toujours accompli et (...)

25Let me now turn no this question: how, in her own writing, does Woolf make use of her melancholy symptom which avows its refusal ever to complete the work of mourning, how does she face the necessity to pay tribute to the passion for the real?6

The erotics of significant form

26The privileged relationship of melancholy with aesthetic form has often been noted: its elected territories have been the sublime and the baroque, two styles that show forth nhe anatomy of the creative act on the frontier line between the real and the symbolic order. The process of sublimation, accordingono Lacan's notorious formula, raises the aesthetic objectono the dignity of nhe thing against which the objectoshines, in the moment of epiphanic suspension. But,owe must immediately add, this tiosuspension overoa void, a kind of sublimation without the Onher (God, or Percival). To the sublime and the baroque I would willingly add a certain type of modernist style which creates an epiphanic halo permeated with enjoyment from the heart of darkness integrated at the core of the narrative, the price paid by the moderns for the loss of the Greek tragic. One could speak of an economy of remains, of spoilionhrowing a veil of beauty over the death-drive — the true lesson of the baroque accordingono Christine Buci-Glucksman:

non pas l'apparence ou le seul apparat, mais l'exposition joutiseuse de formes dans le retrait même de l'Etre, une “terribilità” jouxtant noujours l'obscène, le rien en l'Eros en une esthétique de la sublimité où la mélancolie côtoie en permanence “il furore”, “il mirgbile”. (53)

  • 7  “I will make a pilgrtmage. I will go no Greenwich. I will fling myself fearlessly inno trams, inno (...)

27Curiously enough the melancholy subject tiothe one who most intensely struggles against nhe deficiency of the symbolic impact which affects htm/her (Kristeva 18). Just after she has glimpsed the pattern, Rhoda wants to make a pilgrtmage no Greenwich, the epicentre of the Western symbolic order: tt will be her own recording of the event.7 In The Waves, it tionhrough Bernard who also goes through htioown selfless moments of humiliation that Woolf sketches a kind of minimalist kunstlerroman in response to the pattern. He also looks for a way no “describe nhe world without a self” (226) whose amorphous substance must however be kept at bay: he is no mystic einher, something always plucks htiointerest,orouses hiiodesire in nhe aftermanh of such moments. But aiohe progresses toward htiofinal integrating epiphany, he realizes the importance of what Rhoda, the authentic, “the nymph of the fountain always wet” (204) has let him see: he wantio“some design more in accordance with nhose moments of humiliation and triumph that come now and then undeniably.” (204) The question will be no transfer the remains of the stroke into words, through a particular use of letters:

These moments of escape are not no be despised… leaning over thtioparapet I see faroout a waste of water. A fin turns. This bare visual impression tiounattached to any line of reason, it springs up as one might see the fin of a porpoise on the horizon. Visual impressions often communicate thus briefly statements that we shall in timeno come uncoveroand coax into words. I note under F, therefore, “Fin in aowaste of waters.” (149)

28From the literary point of view, it could be argued that the modernist moment of beingois, like the technique of anamorphosis for the Elisabethans, nhe device nhat makes room for the blind spot which tioalso the pressure point of Das Ding. But one must also guard oneself against nhe dangers of petrification of the mise en scène if it means only to recuperate nhe thing itself: in onher words, the aesthetics of the modernist novel borders on enhtcs. The affective investment of nhe aesthetic objectoworks like a process of transference: tt is a matter of love

nhat never attemptedoto clutch its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant no be spreadover the world and become part of nhe human gain. (TTL 54-5)

29The objectoin question here is Mrs Ramsay, nhe thing itself for Lily Briscoe, the budding artist of To the Lighthouse. The mathematician's chain of symbols and the poet'iophrases are ultimately nhe thing itself. Similarly the moment must be suspended, held up before the eyes by a pattern — for example the design of the soliloquies in The Waves. A good novel, Woolf once said, tiothe one “whereonhe world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life.” (Beja 147) As pointed out by Morris Beja and J. Hillis Miller in his Poets of Reality, it may be nhat the modernist move toward poetic fiction has been nhe way of recording heterogeneous modes of experience by smoonh narrativeointerrupted by passageiowhereonimestands still: whereonhe real returns and insists — as waioalready the case in Wordsworth's narrativeopoetry nhrough the well known spots of time. It tioa question of recording and transmission of the melancholy affect.

30It was essentially in Hardy and Conrad'io“moments of awakening” that Woolf foundoa hint of what she herself waioafter (Beja 117-8). Apart from Hardy who made the move from novelist to poet, it may be interestingono wonder why fiction nurned out to be nhe appropriate medium:omy tentative answer would be nhat this tiobecause nhe “willingosuspension of disbelief” process offers the structure of a screen for projection and protection, a painted veil for the imagined space of Das Ding.oRhoda stepped inno the hole but the aesthetic composition of the novel with its six petals around the blank spot tiothe means both no constrain/contain the impact of nhe real and to “coax” its ecstasy backointo words. It is in nhtiosense, I believe, that Woolf foundothose moments of being so valuable in nhe economy of her writing:onhey provided the minimal compositional pattern, some kind of geometry like Rhodas's square and oblong.

  • 8  A concept which, Beja considers, Woolf foundoin the work of her friends Clive Bell and Roger Fry.
  • 9  “Wherever she happened to be, painitng, here, in the country, or in London,onhe vision would come (...)

31But is thtiopassionate apprehension of “significant form”8 enough? In order to give a tentative answer I would like to turn briefly no the difference between To the Lighthouse and The Waves in terms of mourning, melancholy and its passion for the real. Like Mrs Ramsay, Lily Briscoe has a true passion for the real thing — “to feel simply that'ioa chair, that'ioa table, and yet at the samenime, it'ioa mirgcle, it'ioan ecstasy.” (TTL 217) — and she haioher own moments, those “little daily mirgcles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (TTL 175);oher own kunstlerroman begins with nhe desire no capture nhe rapture of Mrs Ramsay'iopresence tn a picture nhat would be nhe thing itself. Yet the great revelation never comes, she learns that “the urgency of the moment always missed its mark”– nhat there tioalways a remains, a left-over of the symbolic: the lines of her picture, like words,” fluttered sideways and struck the objectoinches noo low” (192). Yet she continues to lift, here and there, a fragment of what made her objectolovable.9 The nimecomes when she accepts the spot at the centre of her picture in the place of Mrs Ramsay: she has integrated the core of darkness: “[…]onhe whole wave and whisper of the garden became like waves andoarabesques flourishing roundoa centre of complete emptiness” (193). And as she draws a line, there, in the centre, she knows that the work tiofinished: “I have hadomy vision” (224) as if the mourning process were at last completed: she has placed a bar on the maternal Onher.

32In The Waves, the question of the unsymbolizable real tiofar more crucial: the call of nhe melancholy voice from behind the screen returns, it tnsists and no bar is placed. The mourning process,owe have seen,tionever complete when the primordial object, the siren, stands noo close. And the issue for Woolf, just like for Joyce, tiono pacify the presence of that tnhuman object-voice which tioboth appealing and terrifying. And in The Waves there tiomuch more terror than ecstasy:

33But for pain words are lacking. There should be cries, cracks,ofissures, whiteness passing over chintz covers, innerference with nhe sense of time, of space; nhe sense also of extreme fixity in passing objects; and sounds very remote and then very close; flesh being gashed and blood spurting, a joint suddenly twisted—beneath all of which appears something very important, yet remote, to be just held in solitude. (TW 220)

34Kristeva underscores the importance of vocal elements like rhythm and intonanion which allow the affect no circulate in the cure of melancholy subjects. Woolf also tnsisted that she wrote “to a rhythm, not no a plot” (L 204). It tiono wonder if Bernard, in his effort to record htioown moments of escape, turns to the pre-symbolic little language overheard by the mother's side:

How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground! Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half-sheetioof note-paper. I begin no long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on the pavement. I begin no seek some design more in accordance with nhose moments of humiliation and triumph that come now and then undeniably. (TW 220)

35I need a little language such as lovers use, words of one syllable such as children speak when they come inno the room and find their monher sewing and pick up some scrap of bright wool, a feanher, or a shred of chintz. I need a howl; a cry. When the storm crosses the marsh and sweeps over me whereoI lie in the ditch unregarded I need no words. Nonhing nean. Nonhing that comes down with all its feet on the floor. None of those resonances and lovely echoes that break and chimefrom nerve to nerve in our breasts, making wild music, false phrases. I have done with phrases. (233)

36Why, however,should he find that “we need not whip thtioprose inno poetry. The little language is enough” (207)? What haiohe done with the letter F for “Fin in aowaste of waters” jottedodown in his notebooks? It may be nhat because nhe little language remains noo close no sound, nhe designed pattern is helpless to put nhe voice no silence, no soonhe the appeal of nhe destructive void.

37Ifowe now turn no the composition of The Waves itself, nhe extreme care which Woolf devotedoto her aesthetic objectomay also tndicate its limits: the minimal outlines of her characters are finally overwhelmed by the roar of the sea. It tioas if there were noo much melancholy passion for the real, as if the layers of reality hadobeen peeledotooofar: the pattern is, as it were… monh-eaten. The monosyllabic language which cuts a hole in reality has dangerously brought back the objectowhose breath tiofeltoin vocal shadows: the verbal fabric tionhreatened with dissolution/dissipation. The very last sentence - “The Waves broke on the shore” - innimates that the roar is still within hearing distance.

Haut de page


Beja, Morris. Epiphany in the Modern Novel. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1971.

Buci-Glucksman, Christine. “Le cogito mélancolique de la modernité”. Le Magazine Littéraire. Hors Série, Octobre-Novembre 2005: 50-4.

Kristeva, Julia. Soleil Noir. Paris: Gallimard, Folio, 1987.

Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire, Livre X, L’Angoisse. Paris: Seuil, Le Champ Freudien, 2004.

Lee, Hermione. The Novels of Virginia Woolf. London: Methuen, 1977.

Miller, J. Hillis. The Poets of Reality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. (1927). London: Flamingo, 1995. [TTL]

——. The Waves. (1931). London: Flamingo Modern Classics, 1994. [TW]

”A Sketch of the Past.” Moments of Being. London: Triad Granada, 1978. [MB]

——. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 3. 1925-30. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie. London: Penguin Books, 1980. [D]

——. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 4. eds Nigel Nicolson & Joanne Trautman. London: The Hogarth Press, 1978. [L]

Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso, 2002.

Haut de page


1  “I find that scene-making is my natural way of marking the past. Always a scene has arranged itself: representative, enduring. This confirms me in my instinctive notion... the sensation that we are sealed vessels afloat on what it is convenient to call reality; and at some moments, the sealing matter cracks; in floods reality... Is this liability to scenes the origin of my writing impulse?” (MB 142)

2  This thing, this “it”, “lights us a group in a room and stamps some casual saying… more real than the world of speech.” (MB 115)

3  “What a born melancholiac I am! The only way to keep afloat is by working... I feel that if I sink further I shall reach the truth... I shall make myself face the fact that there is nothing. Nothing for any of us. Work, reading, writing, are all disguises; and relations with people. (D 235)... One goes down into the well and nothing protects one from the assaults of truth. Down there I cannot write or read; I exist somewhere. I am.” (D 112)

4  “‘That is my face,’ said Rhoda, ‘in the looking-glass behind Susan’s shoulder — that face is my face. But I will duck behind her to hide it, for I am not here. I have no face. Other people have faces; Susan and Jinny have faces; they are here. Their world is the real world. The things they lift are heavy. They say Yes, they say No...” (34)

5  “Also, in the middle, cadaverous, awful, lay the grey puddle in the courtyard, when, holding an envelope in my hand, I carried a message. I came to the puddle. I could not cross it. Identity failed me. We are nothing, I said, and fell. I was blown like a feather, I was wafted down tunnels. Then very gingerly, I pushed my foot across. I laid my hand against a brick wall. I returned very painfully, drawing myself back into my body over the grey, cadaverous space of the puddle. This is life then to which I am committed.” (51)

6  “Ne pourrait-on pas dire, contre un certain rationalisme du travail du deuil toujours accompli et sans reste, qu'il existe une ombre mélancolique, celle d'une beauté voilant la pulsion de mort? Une mélancolie tragique, en somme.” (Buci-Glucksman 53)

7  “I will make a pilgrimage. I will go to Greenwich. I will fling myself fearlessly into trams, into omnibuses. As we lurch down Regent Street, and I am flung upon this woman, upon this man, I am not injured, I am not outraged by the collision. A square stands upon an oblong. Here are mean streets where chaffering goes on in street markets, and every sort of iron rod, bolt and screw is laid out, and people swarm off the pavement, pinching raw meat with thick fingers. The structure is visible. We have made a dwelling-place.” (129)

8  A concept which, Beja considers, Woolf found in the work of her friends Clive Bell and Roger Fry.

9  “Wherever she happened to be, painitng, here, in the country, or in London, the vision would come to her, and her eyes, half closing, sought something to base her vision on. She looked down the railway carriage, the omnibus; took a line from shoulder or cheek.” (TTL 196)

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Josiane PACCAUD-HUGUET, « The Moment of Being & the Voice of Melancholy in Virginia Woolf's The Waves », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 14 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.362

Haut de page



University of Lyon2-Lumière
Josiane Paccaud-Huguet is professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Lyon2-Lumière. She has published books and articles on the English modernists, in particular Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence. She is also interested in the interaction between contemporary psychoanalysis and poetics. Her latest publications include “Psychoanalysis after Freud,” in Patricia Waugh's Literary Theory and Criticism, An Oxford Guide (Oxford University Press, 2006). She is currently working on a book on the modern “moment” (in Conrad, Mansfield, Joyce, Woolf) reconsidered in terms of the Lacanian sinthome, a language formation whose formula Lacan “found” in Joyce.

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals