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


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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 Shakespeare's age is the prominence of the black mood whose modern name is depression. The difference with the earlier mode of melancholy, however, is the fact that not only does the distance between man and God look hopeless, but the upper sphere of the universe is nowadays an empty kernel. What is there in the place of divine or royal order? The blank face without a veil which Bernard in The Waves addresses — without avail — after Percival's death, where there used to be a reflecting surface for human images and ideals:

I say, addressing what is abstract, facing me eyeless at the end of the avenue, in the sky, “Is this the utmost you can do?” … You have done your utmost, I say, addressing that blank and brutal face (for he was twenty-five and should have lived to be eighty) without avail. (TW 121)

3Percival, the namesake of the romance hero who disappears early in the novel is a could-have-been just like his cousin Hamlet, the literary figure for a new mode of relation to desire and enjoyment, at the dawn of modern ethics. What does Hamlet see around him? A contradiction, a flaw between, on one hand, his father's reverence toward an idealized Queen Gertrude and, on the other hand, the flesh and blood woman who married the father's murderer without taking the time necessary for mourning. But where does one locatethe roots of Hamlet's melancholy which keep him 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 is the thing usually masked by narcissistic images or by the mirage of love that has the upper hand, because the veil of the ideal has fallen off too soon, and with it any possible feature for identification (Lacan 386). In other words, the subject has encountered a traumatic kernel of enjoyment in the place of the idealized object. I believe that this distinction can be helpful to understand the esthetic and ethical 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 is perceived as being at times deceptively ecstatic, at times cruel. In the posthumous volume entitled Moments of Being, Woolf describes such objects in the form of spots of time that go back to early childhood: moments of contact with the whatness of the thing, pressure points with the pulsating substance of the 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, there was a sudden violent shock... I was looking at the flower-bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower… (MB 81-4)

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

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

5What is foremost is that Woolf relates such moments of being to her own capacity of scene-making, as if it were of utmost importance to clothe them again with an imaginary layer through the medium of fiction.1 In other words, she recognizes the creative value of such moments of speechless being in touch with what she calls reality — but which we shall call the real. Something remains for ever transfixed, crystallised in the memory, “à la Proust” indeed: “Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea.” (D 209).

6I would suggest that this alternation 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 the Real the Twentieth Century passion for the real, “The authentic twentieth-century passion for penetrating the Real Thing (ultimately, the destructive Void) through the cobweb of semblances which constitutes our reality.” (Zizek 12) The danger is of course that once one goes through the layers of reality, the revelation of the hidden matrix is not good news for reality, as the book's title suggests: “the Real in its extreme violence [is] the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality.” (6) In Zizek's view, this modern passion for the real opposes itself, by a sort of pendulum movement, to nineteenth-century utopian or scientific projects and idealistic plans for the future: it means to deliver the thing itself, the here and now of the body's singular perceptions and affections which art can transmute into universal percepts and affects. Woolf stages this opposition in To the Lighthouse through the domestic tensions between Mr Ramsay, the scientific mind devoted to the distinction between “subject, object and reality” and Mrs Ramsay who is all for the thing itself, and who is the real focus for the representation of a modernist melancholy in the novel. Her solitary moments mark out a point of contact with the real which abolishes the distinction between subject and object, when one sits “to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisisible to others”. As she looks out to meet the stroke of the lighthouse (both a caress and a blow), something happens:

this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke. Often she found herself 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 was alone, one leant to things, inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one. (TTL 71)

  • 2  This thing, this “it”, “lights us a group in a room and stamps some casual saying… more real than (...)
  • 3  “What a born melancholiac I am! The only way to keep afloat is by 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 is all dark” and that meeting one's own eyes means drowning in “the lake of one's being” (71). And Woolf also knows that if one dives further, one encounters the horror of the truth, the fact “that there is nothing” beyond the cobweb of semblances and human relations.3 Yet it is precisely there, she says, that she finds the impulse toward a new book, in response to the call of the precipice:

That is my temperament, I think: to be very little persuaded of the truth of anything - what I say, what people say - always to follow, blindly, instinctively, with a sense of leaping over a precipice - the call of - the call of - now, if I write The Moths I must come to terms with these mystical feelings”(D 203)

8In other 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 another moment when she saw a fin passing far out in the fields through her window: she ten spoke of

the mystical side of this solitude; how it is not oneself but something in the universe that one's left with... frightening and exciting... One sees a fin passing far out. What image can I reach... Life is, soberly and accurately, the oddest affair; has in it the essence of reality. I used to feel this as a 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 is a note of a curious state of mind. I hazard the guess that it may be the impulse behind another 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 the invisible body passing far out?

10The melancholy subject is bound to the Thing itself which imprints its blank hallmark on all things. The gaze is turned inwards toward a vanishing point, the spot of time often related to a maternal object endowed with too much enjoyment and gone too soon (Buci-Glucksman 52) — which was obviously Woolf's case. In psychoanalytic terms,(s)he has lost the breast of a mother who herself did not lose the breast and was unable to accompany the child in this loss — a mother all too complete, a “tower of strength” like Mrs Ramsay or the sea mammal whose metonym is the fin, whose shadow weighs on the cotton-wool of everyday life: “A weight has dropped into the night... dragging it down. Every tree is big with a shadow that is not the shadow of the tree behind it.” (TW 181-2) It is Rhoda, the melancholy one among Woolf's set of six characters, who speaks here: 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 into the dialectics of lack and desire.

11In The Waves, the melancholy crisis is also cultural, in that the dialectics of desire has been superseded by the passion for the real thing itself which, according to Zizek, is the hallmark of the Twentieth Century. It is not the mother 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 uses the figure of the flower with six petals to evoke the pattern of her novel, six round petals around the central zone of silence which is both circumscribed by them and holding them together. The flower, however, is no longer the bright thing of “A Sketch of the Past” but one of those flowers seen in the fields after Mrs Ramsay's death, “looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless and thus terrible” (TTL 147) — a poetic image for the Lacanian gaze as object. Woolf will leave her characters to their own devices, struggling with the 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, “as though the character on stage were being represented by two actors, one carrying out a mime in slow motion while the other comments on the meaning of the actions.” (Lee 163). Her soliloquies make a little speechless drama in three acts, a most vivid performance of that 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. She does not believe in the process of the mathematical operation, the figures are only ghosts to 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 is the answer? The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures. The others are handing in their answers, one by one. Now it is my turn. But I have no answer... The figures mean nothing 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 into emptiness, alone” (18) — and there is no screen to cover it: no symbolic fiction, no specular image comes to interfere between her and the blank gaze.

  • 4  “‘That is my face,’ said Rhoda, ‘in the looking-glass behind Susan’s shoulder — that face is my 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 Nor do her friends see any reflection of their own faces in “her unseeing eyes the colour of a snail's flesh” (158): her presence is only an intense abstraction. Therefore she avoids looking-glasses; when she walks she must step stealthily lest she should stumble into nothingness: it 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 similar to “the moment of the puddle” recorded by her creator. Once, when she was told to carry a message, i.e. invited to enter the circuit of human relations, Rhoda found herself unable to cross the grey puddle in the courtyard;5 henceforth the 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 nowhere to go but to nurture the inner haemorrage: “Oh, this is pain, this is anguish! I faint, I fail. Now my body thaws; I am unsealed, I am incandescent. Now the stream pours in a deep tide fertilizing, opening the shut, forcing 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 nothing, “all palpable forms of life” fail her (125). She is the youngest, the “most naked of all” and she finds “no amulet against this disaster” (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 name to cling to, to tell that she is someone for someone else in the symbolic order. She is immune to attitudes and differences, without anchorage (97). What remains for is her is this “ill-fitting body” (83), neither symbolic nor imaginary but all too real, some sort of disgusting remains prefiguring the destiny of the modern, reified, butchered human body: “a joint of meat” heaped with other joints on the omnibus where “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 to do with the 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 to things and people, but to the cracks and creaks in the wall of semblances that might bring the young girl closer to Das Ding:

But I see... the brightness on the side of that jug like a crack in darkness with wonder and terror. Your voices sound like trees creaking in a forest. So with your faces and their prominences and hollows. (176)

17Her passion is also a crucifixion: she has no defence against “the shock of the leap of the moment” (103), the tongues of others 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 to, she lives in an age where “the old ideals are dead as nails” (D. H. Lawrence). What she wants is to see and to know fully what is beyond the crack opened by Percival's death. She is ravished, in all the sense of the terms, by her solitude which is to her less a pain than a space of freedom. A figure of exclusion and exception, she believes in her destiny, the inheritance left to her by the solar god Percival: she is bound to 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 through liminal stages of language that make silence palpable, for example a scream, or better still, a silent scream. Rhoda, the elected one, goes to lyrical concerts less to listen than to see, but to see what? The very moment when sound arises from the singer's open throat, from the silence of the flesh — a curious quality of voice as object:

An axe has split a tree to the core; the core is warm; sound quivers within the bark. “Ah!” cried a woman to her lover, leaning from her window in Venice…... She has provided us with a cry. But only a cry. And what is a cry?... “Like” and “like” and “like”—but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing? Now that lightning has gashed the tree and the flowering branch has fallen and Percival, by his death, has made me this gift, let me see the thing. There is a square; there is an 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 is inchoate is here stated... This is our triumph; this is our consolation. (128-9)

19The consolation, then, is in the aesthetic object. Psychoanalysts also know that music is a good cure for the melancholy mood because its guided acoustic flow soothes the violence of the contact with the real, where language disintegrates into a cry which makes the silence audible. The musical flow limits, contains the internal haemorrage — “the sweetness of this content 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 is a pattern, however minimal and disembodied. There must be another side, a world of silent pools “reflecting marble columns”, a timeless world “immune from change” (83-4) where one can take refuge in the “alcoves of silence” of the suspended moment (126). She has brief glimpses of this imagined reality through the geometrical patterns of the yew trees in Hampton Court: she believes she may “recover beauty” in the shadow of their black pyramids. Or in the shapes of Wren's palace which remind her of the inchoate pattern glimpsed in the singer's throat:

21The still mood, the disembodied mood is on us... and we enjoy this momentary alleviation... Wren’s palace, like the quartet played to the dry and stranded people in the stalls, makes an oblong. A square is stood upon the oblong and we say, “This is our 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 through the screen of the blank center, closer to the thing. One has to leap down there, in the hole outlined by the figures, toward the white shape which is “perhaps alive”:

It makes no sign, it does not beckon, it does not see us. Behind it roars the sea. It is beyond our reach. Yet there I venture to 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 to the “jerked-back desire to be spent” (130). Even the thin sheets “spotted with 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 this suicide but for Rhoda it is only the destiny of the melancholy aspiration. There is no fear of disintegration but rather 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: the thing for her will be to hold out against “that thing”, in all the 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” to 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 to explain it... It is or will become a revelation of some order... a token of some real thing behind appearances... It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole... it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together... It is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But 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. (MB 83-4)

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

25Let me now turn to 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 the anatomy of the creative act on the frontier line between the real and the symbolic order. The process of sublimation, according to Lacan's notorious formula, raises the aesthetic object to the dignity of the thing against which the object shines, in the moment of epiphanic suspension. But, we must immediately add, this is suspension over a void, a kind of sublimation without the Other (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 spoils throwing a veil of beauty over the death-drive — the true lesson of the baroque according to Christine Buci-Glucksman:

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

  • 7  “I will make a pilgrimage. I will go to Greenwich. I will fling myself fearlessly into trams, into (...)

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

These moments of escape are not to be despised… leaning over this parapet I see far out a waste of water. A fin turns. This bare visual impression is unattached 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 time to come uncover and coax into words. I note under F, therefore, “Fin in a waste of waters.” (149)

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

that never attempted to clutch its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain. (TTL 54-5)

29The object in question here is Mrs Ramsay, the thing itself for Lily Briscoe, the budding artist of To the Lighthouse. The mathematician's chain of symbols and the poet's phrases are ultimately the 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, is the one “where the 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 that the modernist move toward poetic fiction has been the way of recording heterogeneous modes of experience by smooth narrative interrupted by passages where time stands still: where the real returns and insists — as was already the case in Wordsworth's narrative poetry through the well known spots of time. It is a question of recording and transmission of the melancholy affect.

30It was essentially in Hardy and Conrad's “moments of awakening” that Woolf found a hint of what she herself was after (Beja 117-8). Apart from Hardy who made the move from novelist to poet, it may be interesting to wonder why fiction turned out to be the appropriate medium: my tentative answer would be that this is because the “willing suspension of disbelief” process offers the structure of a screen for projection and protection, a painted veil for the imagined space of Das Ding. Rhoda stepped into the hole but the aesthetic composition of the novel with its six petals around the blank spot is the means both to constrain/contain the impact of the real and to “coax” its ecstasy back into words. It is in this sense, I believe, that Woolf found those moments of being so valuable in the economy of her writing: they provided the minimal compositional pattern, some kind of geometry like Rhodas's square and oblong.

  • 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 (...)

31But is this passionate apprehension of “significant form”8 enough? In order to give a tentative answer I would like to turn briefly to 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's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, it's a miracle, it's an ecstasy.” (TTL 217) — and she has her own moments, those “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (TTL 175); her own kunstlerroman begins with the desire to capture the rapture of Mrs Ramsay's presence in a picture that would be the thing itself. Yet the great revelation never comes, she learns that “the urgency of the moment always missed its mark”– that there is always a remains, a left-over of the symbolic: the lines of her picture, like words,” fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low” (192). Yet she continues to lift, here and there, a fragment of what made her object lovable.9 The time comes when she accepts the spot at the centre of her picture in the place of Mrs Ramsay: she has integrated the core of darkness: “[…] the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like waves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness” (193). And as she draws a line, there, in the centre, she knows that the work is finished: “I have had my vision” (224) as if the mourning process were at last completed: she has placed a bar on the maternal Other.

32In The Waves, the question of the unsymbolizable real is far more crucial: the call of the melancholy voice from behind the screen returns, it insists and no bar is placed. The mourning process, we have seen, is never complete when the primordial object, the siren, stands too close. And the issue for Woolf, just like for Joyce, is to pacify the presence of that inhuman object-voice which is both appealing and terrifying. And in The Waves there is much more terror than ecstasy:

33But for pain words are lacking. There should be cries, cracks, fissures, whiteness passing over chintz covers, interference with the sense of time, of space; the 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 intonation which allow the affect to circulate in the cure of melancholy subjects. Woolf also insisted that she wrote “to a rhythm, not to a plot” (L 204). It is no wonder if Bernard, in his effort to record his own 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-sheets of note-paper. I begin to long for some little language such as 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. (TW 220)

35I need a little language such as lovers use, words of one syllable such as children speak when they come into the room and find their mother sewing and pick up some scrap of bright wool, a feather, or a shred of chintz. I need a howl; a cry. When the storm crosses the marsh and sweeps over me where I lie in the ditch unregarded I need no words. Nothing neat. Nothing that comes down with all its feet on the floor. None of those resonances and lovely echoes that break and chime from 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 this prose into poetry. The little language is enough” (207)? What has he done with the letter F for “Fin in a waste of waters” jotted down in his notebooks? It may be that because the little language remains too close to sound, the designed pattern is helpless to put the voice to silence, to soothe the appeal of the destructive void.

37If we now turn to the composition of The Waves itself, the extreme care which Woolf devoted to her aesthetic object may also indicate its limits: the minimal outlines of her characters are finally overwhelmed by the roar of the sea. It is as if there were too much melancholy passion for the real, as if the layers of reality had been peeled too far: the pattern is, as it were… moth-eaten. The monosyllabic language which cuts a hole in reality has dangerously brought back the object whose breath is felt in vocal shadows: the verbal fabric is threatened with dissolution/dissipation. The very last sentence - “The Waves broke on the shore” - intimates that the roar is still within hearing distance.

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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]

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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)

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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 24 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.362

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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.

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