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2. Modernist Non-fictional Narratives: Rewriting Modernism

Modernist Disavowal

Stephen ROSS


Cet article montre que la manière dont les Modernistes conçoivent leur différence avec les Victoriens fonctionne selon le mécanisme psychologique du déni. C’est dans la répudiation franche du spiritualisme et de la spectralité, telle qu’énoncée dans des écrits clés de Joseph Conrad et Virginia Woolf, que se situe le point focal de ce déni. En lisant de près ces écrits non fictionnels et en les comparant à l’usage que ces auteurs font de la spectralité et du spiritualisme dans leurs romans, cet article montre que ces grandes figures fondatrices du modernisme littéraire mettent en œuvre un déni exemplaire. Bien qu’ils déplorent ouvertement le recours au surnaturel, Conrad et Woolfy recourent dans leur fiction. Ce double déni – de l’exemple victorien et d’une persistence du surnaturel dans leur œuvre – n’est pas l’apanage de Conrad et Woolf mais se retrouve dans les divers moyens qu’utilisent les Modernistes pour tenter de comprendre et de formuler leur rupture avec les Victoriens. Le déni du surnaturel apparaît alors comme étant à l’origine de la vision que les Modernistes ont du modernisme, et le défi qui consiste à « faire du neuf » comme relevant directement de préoccupations éthiques et esthétiques.

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1Disavowal is tricky business with a sketchy starting point. For Freud, it marks a double negative from the outset. It begins by construing sexual difference as absence: the girl’s lack of a penis. This absence is immediately cancelled, though, as the child disavows this apparent lack and substitutes a fetish in its place. Though we may justly take issue with the specifics of Freud’s etiology, the concept he adumbrates remains potent: disavowal names a process by which un-knowing the absence of something leads to a logic of supplementarity, where a fetish – which is also not there – is formed to replace the ‘missing’ object. The result is not that we overcome ignorance to achieve new heights of knowledge, but that we install ignorance by replicating its logic. In the terms I focus on here, it helps us delineate a logic of generational tension that can help us understand some key particulars of how the modernists thought about their supposed difference from their Victorian predecessors, and how they articulated that difference.

  • 1 The relationships between the supernatural, occult, spiritualism, magic, gothic, and modernism have (...)

2In what follows, I intend to show that two central theorists of modernism, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, articulated this set of relationships through a mechanics of disavowal. For them, as for many other modernists besides, the supernatural affords a pivotal point of differentiation.1 To their modern eyes, the Victorian fascination with the supernatural was a naïve relapse into superstition when the truth of cognition itself lurked just around the corner. Faced with the collapse of a wide range of certainties through the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Victorians responded with disavowal. Like Freud’s imaginary child, they determined not to know about the absences emerging all around them, and redoubled their investment in various fetishes: empire, class, race, nation. Notably, this dynamic also generated a widespread mania for spiritualism and occultism. Where aporias flourished, ghosts swarmed, marking Victorian culture irrevocably with a spectral aura the moderns could scarcely avoid. Conrad and Woolf were keenly alive to this dynamic, and it inevitably informed their efforts to conceive of the novelty of modernism. Intuitively, perhaps, they understood the deceptions involved in Victorian disavowal, objecting to it primarily in terms of aesthetic failure: for them, use of the supernatural marks a failure of imagination and betrayal of the contract between writer and reader. As such, both Conrad and Woolf break with the immediate past by disavowing its lingering influence on their own works – chiefly, by proclaiming their impatience with and rejection of the supernatural.

3As always, though, there is still one more turn of the screw: both Conrad and Woolf’s denigration of the supernatural is itself a form of disavowal. Though they explicitly deplore the use of the supernatural, both rely upon it in their fiction. This specific dual disavowal – of the Victorian precedent and of a lingering supernaturalism in their own work – is not just limited to Conrad and Woolf, but, I argue, informs the larger means by which the modernists strove to understand and articulate their break with the Victorians. Disavowal of the supernatural stands at the origin of modernist self-conception, anchoring the challenge to ‘make it new’ directly in a matrix of ethico-aesthetic concerns.

  • 2 For a representative sampling of critical work in this line, see Peacock, Coroneos, Carabine, Ross (...)

4Let’s begin with Conrad, whose oeuvre is so thoroughly saturated with spectral rhetoric that we can only finally read his repudiation of the supernatural as an especially potent case of disavowal.2 Virtually everything Conrad wrote is spectral. Phantoms, ghosts, spirits, and shadows pervade Nostromo, Almayer’s Folly, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Under Western Eyes, The Secret Agent, or Victory – let alone the even more explicitly spectral works such as The Shadow Line or The Secret Sharer. Noel Peacock, Con Coroneos, and Keith Carabine have all traced modes of supernaturalism in Conrad. For Conrad, the spectral functions as a fetish imbued with any variety of ethical concerns, but is equally characterised by disavowal. This reliance upon that which is simultaneously disavowed colours Conrad’s aesthetic theory, and his particular commentary on the supernatural, from his earliest artistic statements to the Author’s Notes to the collected edition of his work in his last years. Jeffrey Meyers quotes Conrad’s letters to his cousin, in which he explicitly characterizes his writing practice in terms of holding parlay with ghosts (118, 119). More famously, after completing work on Under Western Eyes, Conrad lapsed into a fever in which he conversed in Polish with the shades of the very characters he had ostensibly just laid to rest.

5Conrad’s first overt statement of artistic principle, and the first invocation of the supernatural as key to his aesthetics, is the “Preface” to The Nigger of the “Narcissus.” He begins by aligning art with justice, and asserting the primacy of the “visible universe:” “art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect” (145). It is a matter of searching in the shadows for “what is enduring and essential” (145). Illumination is the task at hand for thinker, scientist, and artist alike. “Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle,” as the scientist and the thinker, the artist differs in her paradoxical fusion of subjectivity and universality as the terms of her “appeal” (145).

6Conrad repeatedly refers to the artist’s task as an “appeal,” a call for aid or justice, for a reconsideration of a verdict. He depicts the artist as an advocate, someone seeking justice for the visible world by bringing bits of evidence to light that had been previously obscured. This legalistic framing takes on a spiritualist cast with his description of life as an “enigmatic spectacle.” Conrad’s use of “enigmatic” here is no doubt informed by his prior immersion in French, where “énigme,” “chose ou personne difficile a comprendre; mystère,” is one of the primary definitions. It likewise invokes agency and a dynamic of veiling/unveiling that anchors it in broader spiritualist investigations: the OED notes “intentionally obscure metaphors” as a key aspect of enigmas as “short compositions in prose or verse,” and Larousse includes “ambiguïté volontaire” as the leading terms of its leading definition. Even as it insists upon the primacy of the visual, the use of “spectacle” here, combined with “enigmatical,” practically insists that we explore the multiple valences by which the visual is constituted as illusory, refractory, obscure, occulted – the extent to which it embeds the variable logics of disavowal. The artist’s “appeal,” then, forms a unit with the effort to discover the “enduring and essential” in the “enigmatical spectacle” of life itself.

7The “Preface” hews remarkably closely to the dictionary definition of aesthetics as “cognition through the senses,” repeatedly insisting that the artistic appeal “must be an impression conveyed through the senses,” that “all art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses,” etc. (146). It also consistently uses the language of enchantment: “an unrestful episode in the obscure lives of a few individuals,” “the secret spring of responsive emotions”, and “magic suggestiveness” (twice). It culminates in the famous declaration that “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see!” (147). Crucially, the Conradian artists aspires to show not the flux of daily life, but the “inspiring secret” that animates life: “the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment” (147). “Convincing” is telling here, suggesting that there is persuasion in artistic representation, and that the truth revealed through successful artistry is as much argument as revelation.

8On this point Conrad cuts back against the notion that art exists to illuminate truth, suggesting instead that the “temporary formulas” of the writer’s craft – “Realism, Romanticism, Naturalism; even the unofficial sentimentalism” (147) actually obscure the truth: each only “imperfectly veils” the truth (147). Conrad concludes the “Preface” with a scene of a ghost laid to rest: “And when it is accomplished – behold! all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile – and the return to an eternal rest” (148). Redeemed, having sought and received justice, “all the truth of life” returns to its final resting place.

9Almost twenty years later, Conrad returns to the topic to flesh out these suggestions in his Author’s Note to The Shadow-Line. Responding to the “more than one critic” who have discovered effects of the supernatural in his story, Conrad writes,

I believe that if I attempted to put the strain of the Supernatural on it it would fail deplorably and exhibit an unlovely gap. But I could never have attempted such a thing, because all my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is; marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural, which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity. (vii-viii)

10Apparently forgetting that he has in fact written outright supernatural tales such as “The Inn of the Two Witches,” Conrad rhetorically flits from position to position here in a vain attempt to elude the charge of introducing the supernatural into his story. Let’s quickly unpack the four key elements in this rather dizzying set of claims. The logic is precisely that of disavowal, and bespeaks an insistent but absent referent which is itself the key to the logic.

11First, Conrad declares that he “could never have attempted” to use the supernatural in his story because his “imagination is not made of stuff so elastic as all that” (vii). He immediately shades this claim, though, and shifts the ground away from a matter of what’s possible to a matter of conviction: “all my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction” that whatever we perceive must belong to nature (vii). The tricky bit here is that the conviction Conrad alludes to is a matter of what he thinks he thinks, and it may perfectly well be betrayed by what he actually does. The gap between intention and execution is where supposedly “invincible” convictions separate from demonstrable behaviours. His subsequent reference to humans as a “self-conscious” part of the natural world tips his hand here, as it opens the door to considering operations of which we are unaware, and their unintended effects.

12Second, the incoherence indicated here manifests next as Conrad establishes a false opposition between the marvellous and the supernatural. In fact, he just lets the marvellous absorb the content of the supernatural. On the side of the marvellous, Conrad places “marvels and mysteries” that act “upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that” they almost justify “the conception of life as an enchanted state.” First, this phrasing openly allows for unconscious effects – the “marvels and mysteries” act upon our consciousness in inexplicable ways. Second, it conforms wonderfully with the ethos behind such spiritualist investigations as those undertaken by the Society for Psychical Research, a quasi-scientific organization founded in 1882 to put spiritualist and occultist claims to the test. Its membership has included such prominent scientists, philosophers, politicians, and literary artists as Henry Sidgwick, Edmund Gurney, William Barrett, Lord Rayleigh, Gerald Balfour, Eleanor Sidgwick, Arthur Balfour, Frederic Myers, Henri Bergson, and William James (these last two served as president for SPR). Such research was au courant, and the division between science and magic, between the marvellous and the supernatural, was nowhere as nearly delineated as we imagine it to be today. And indeed, there is nothing contrary to spiritualism in Conrad’s characterisation of the “marvellous.” Whether you call the phenomena supernatural or marvellous, the SPR advanced its research upon the premise that sufficiently rigorous methods would provide empirical evidence that the “supernatural” is in fact natural. Conrad simply empties the content of the supernatural into the category of the marvellous and then denigrates the supernatural as a “manufactured article,” a mere “fabrication.” He gets to keep the “marvels and mysteries,” along with their “inexplicable” effects upon “our emotions and intelligence” that typify popular conceptions of the supernatural, while jettisoning the supernatural.

13Third, Conrad introduces the ethical horizon for his disavowal of the supernatural, but he does so in distinctly ghostly terms. Rounding out his denigration of those who believe in the supernatural when the marvellous is more than enough to make us wonder at the almost enchanted nature of the world, Conrad writes that the supernatural is “the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity” (vii-viii). Trumping all Conrad’s other concerns and reservations about the supernatural is its violation of ethical precepts anchored in a specific relationship not just to the past and the future, but to the dead and the living. The terms of this appeal are powerful: “intimate delicacies,” “desecration,” “outrage on our dignity.” Conrad is not playing about. For him, what began as a defense on aesthetic grounds – his imagination is not “so elastic as all that” – has assumed ethical import.

14His last word on the topic explicitly invokes conscience and morality, in fact, even as it protests just a little too much over an issue he would appear to have put to rest by now. After claiming that his approach in The Shadow Line has been to explore “the effect of a mental or moral shock on a common mind” (viii), Conrad reintroduces the supernatural as a function of Mr Burns’ diseased mind: “Burns’ moral being […] in his diseased state turns into a mere superstitious fancy compounded of fear and animosity” (viii). In this one phrase, Conrad coalesces notions of morality, superstition, and otherness. He focalises the pervasive spectrality and overarching ethical concerns of the novel through Chief Mate Burns’ frustration and eventual madness, dismissing it all as “mere superstitious fancy.” And yet he is not convincing. Aside from the fact that Conrad thus misrepresents his novel – the spectrality and ethical concerns occur throughout, and not solely in relation to Burns’ perspective – Conrad draws attention to the nexus of irresolvable issues at the novel’s core by disavowing them. This rhetorical feint is part of his effort to leave behind the question of the supernatural, but, it seems, he cannot leave well enough alone. He concludes this paragraph by returning to the issue with a vehemence that belies the content of his claims: “This fact is one of the elements of the story, but there is nothing supernatural in it, nothing so to speak from beyond the confines of this world, which in all conscience holds enough mystery and terror in itself” (viii). Addressing his imaginary readers, whom he might well have convinced by now, Conrad invokes “conscience” as the guarantor of his “invincible conviction” that everything that can be perceived “must be in nature.” With this final word on the topic, Conrad returns to the land of conviction rather than fact, asserting a belief he thinks he holds, and almost physically pushing away the evidence to the contrary. Invoking “conscience” here, Conrad makes the aesthetic issue into an ethical issue and re-activates the very charge he is trying to refute by insisting too much on its falsehood. Even the language of this last repudiation hedges: “there is nothing supernatural in it” is assertive enough, but then “there is nothing so to speak from beyond the confines of this world” re-introduces wiggle-room. “So to speak”? Nothing “so to speak”? What is the “nothing” explicitly turned into a trope just when Conrad is putting paid to the supposedly erroneous critical discovery of supernatural influence in his novel? The overdone attempt at dismissal is instead transparent disavowal. It’s a mode that translates itself to many subsequent modernists, particularly those of the next generation, such as Virginia Woolf.

15Perhaps because she was so much younger than Conrad (Conrad was born in 1857; Woolf in 1882), and thus more immediately invested in distinguishing herself from her parents’ aesthetic regimes, Woolf more openly sought to differentiate her generation’s approach from that of its predecessors’. Consequently, and no doubt because she wrote so many more essays than Conrad, Woolf likewise provides a wider set of comments upon the supernatural and the modernist break with the Victorians. George Johnson has most incisively charted the overlap between Woolf and the spiritualist milieu of the early twentieth century, advancing excellent readings of Night and Day and Mrs Dalloway in particular as evidence of her persistent use of the very aesthetics she so openly disavows in her non-fiction prose. Karen Levenback, David Seed, J. Hillis Miller, and Judith Wilt have likewise linked Woolf to the Victorian popular cultural mania she worked so hard to break from. Most of this work has focused on Woolf’s fiction, but as we will see, her non-fiction prose is equally fraught, simultaneously denigrating and drawing upon the supernatural to make its claims.

16Woolf articulates her sense of the difference between the Victorians and the moderns in stark terms: on the one side naïveté, sentimentality, unselfconsciousness, objectivity; on the other, experience, unflinching perception, self-consciousness, and the higher truth of subjective experience. She writes, the Victorians “heard a sad story; they were genuinely moved by it; they wrote it down straightforwardly, asking no questions and without a trace of self-consciousness; and this is what we cannot do, and this is what we find most strange in them” (“A Victorian Echo” 150). Quoting Thomas Gordon Hake, whose verse she is reviewing, Woolf continues, “Each of the quotations seems to us typically Victorian. Each is an example of the Victorian passion for getting Nature perfectly accurately, for her own sake, into poetry” (150-151). By contrast, and taking James Joyce as her exemplar of the modern mood, Woolf notes that modernist writers attempt “to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests and moves them by discarding most of the conventions which are commonly observed by the novelists. Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern” (“Modern Novels” 33). The distinction is clear. Where the generation of writers metonymised by Hake indulge in sentimentality and a naïve engagement with Nature (with the upper-case “N”), the moderns concern themselves with the brutal and confusing reality of human experience. They think about what they write rather than responding to it simply and recording that response childishly. The modernist writer is “concerned at all costs to reveal the flickering of that innermost flame which flashes its myriad messages through the brain[, and] he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious” (“Modern Novels” 34).

17Nowhere does Woolf find this difference more clearly manifest than in her distaste for the supernatural, and especially for ghosts, in novels: “we ought to confess two, perhaps unreasonable, prejudices: we do not like the war in fiction, and we do not like the supernatural” (“Before Midnight” 87). Using the royal “we” to generalize her pronouncement, Woolf attacks the Victorian mania for the gothic, spiritualism, and ghost stories in general. In her view, they represent aesthetic strategies that surrender rather than meeting head-on the true difficulties of ethical uncertainty. Invoking class snobbery to carry her point, Woolf notes that “The skull-headed lady, the vampire gentleman, the whole troop of monks and monsters who once froze and terrified now gibber in some dark cupboard of the servants’ hall. In our day we flatter ourselves the effect is produced by subtler means. It is at the ghosts within us that we shudder, and not at the decaying bodies of barons or the subterranean activities of ghouls” (“Gothic Romance” 306-307). Aligning “our day” with those who live upstairs, Woolf slyly puts the Victorian mania for the supernatural on the wrong side of the aesthetic and ethical divide. For her, it is simple, sentimental, easy, and weak-minded.

18Even Henry James is not fully exempt from this criticism. Woolf’s disappointment in the aesthetic achievement of his “The Great Good Place” is put down instantly to his reliance upon the spectral: “to us, in 1921, ‘The Great Good Place’ is a failure. … Something has failed to work, and we are inclined to accuse the supernatural” (“Henry James’s Ghost Stories” 320). Again making her point a matter of class, Woolf follows up by declaring that the supernatural is unsophisticated and needlessly spectacular: “What use is made of the supernatural? Poor Owen Wingrave is knocked on the head by the ghost of an ancestor; a stable bucket in a dark passage would have done it better” (“Henry James’s Ghost Stories” 324).

19The problem, for Woolf, is that the supernatural in literature smacks of laziness, of a failure or inability to engage with the real problematics of modern psychology. Where there are ghosts, she argues, there ought to be direct and unblinking engagements with psychopathology. Reviewing Elinor Mordaunt’s Before Midnight, Woolf writes,

Nobody can deny that our life is largely at the mercy of dreams and visions which we cannot account for logically; on the contrary, if Mrs Mordaunt had devoted every page of her book to the discovery of some of these uncharted territories of the mind we should have nothing but thanks for her. But we feel a little aggrieved when the writers who are capable of such delicate work resort instead to the methods of the conjurer and ask us to be satisfied with a trick. (“Before Midnight” 87)

20Ironically, the Victorians are abused for failing to explore sufficiently the “uncharted territories” of the mind – the dark continents of the human psyche. By contrast, “The tendency of the moderns and part of their perplexity is no doubt that they find their interest more and more in [the] dark region of psychology” (“Modern Novels” 35). In Woolf’s view, recourse to the supernatural smacks precisely of disavowal, of an inability to deal with a traumatic fact, and to supplement that inability with a fetish that can cover it up. Rather than trying to contain the darkness of human psychology, the moderns confront it, embracing “perplexity” as a valuable part of that confrontation.

21And indeed it is precisely under such conditions that Woolf appears to reverse course and allow that the supernatural does have its uses. Insisting upon a distinction between old-fashioned ghosts and those subtler ghosts of which the moderns may still avail themselves sparingly, Woolf writes, “Henry James’s ghosts have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts – the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons. They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed by the strange.” (“Henry James’s Ghost Stories” 324). Having previously criticized James for his use of the supernatural, Woolf – perhaps suddenly aware that her house, too, is made of glass – reverses course to distinguish now among types of the supernatural. The author of “A Haunted House,” of the thoroughly spectralized Mrs Dalloway, of the haunted and haunting To The Lighthouse, begins feathering her views, nuancing a distinction she has thus far tried to uphold quite rigorously. So long as “the apparition fits the crisis of passion or of conscience which sent it forth so exactly,” the supernatural may be embraced because it is “also symbolical” (324). Woolf repeats this distinction between the “real” ghosts of the Victorian era and the psychological ghosts of the modern age in “Gothic Romance” and “The Supernatural in Fiction” Eschewing the literality of the Victorian ghost story, Woolf nonetheless patently sees value in the rhetoric it provides: “It is at the ghosts within us that we shudder” (“Gothic Romance” 133), the author “must seek to terrify us not by the ghosts of the dead, but by those ghosts which are living within ourselves” (“The Supernatural in Fiction” 294). Adding that “The great increase of the psychical ghost story in late years … testifies to the fact that our sense of our own ghostliness has much quickened,” Woolf links the ghost story to spiritualism: “A rational age is succeeded by one which seeks the supernatural in the soul of man, and the development of psychical research offers a basis of disputed fact for this desire to feed upon” (294-5). The psychological insights generated at the turn of the twentieth century do not obsolesce the ghost story for Woolf, as increased communication technologies do for the gothic. Rather, they force it to adapt, providing modernism with a powerful idiom for engaging with a wide range of concerns. In this light, she tells us that “The horror” of The Turn of the Screw comes not from its gothic residues, but “from the force with which it makes us realize the power that our minds possess for such excursions into the darkness; when certain lights sink or certain barriers are lowered, the ghosts of the mind, untracked desires, indistinct intimations, are seen to be a large company” (295).

22Fading into view here is the spectre of Victorian aesthetics and ethics, of a necessarily disavowed shared set of concerns. Nuancing her blunt declaration that “we do not like the supernatural,” Woolf begins to undercut her disavowal. In “Gothic Romance,” she allows that the supernatural is, in fact, tempting to use, despite the risks: “Yet the desire to widen our boundaries, to feel excitement without danger, and to escape as far as possible from the facts of life drives us perpetually to trifle with the risky ingredients of the mysterious and the unknown” (306-307). Like Conrad, however, she cannot quite bring herself to align her critical sentiments with her literary practice. Just on the verge of allowing the supernatural here Woolf yet follows Conrad in asserting the priority of the natural world and especially of the marvelous. Again writing of Mordaunt, Woolf claims that “it is when she is keeping strictly to what she has observed that we catch sight of those curious hidden things in human life which vanish instinctively directly there is talk of ghosts or of gods” (“Before Midnight” 88). “Those curious hidden things” that tempt the writer to use the supernatural as a metaphor, a use she almost sanctions if it is sufficiently “symbolical,” remain ultimately distinct from the ghostly. The aesthetic come-down is too far for Woolf’s comfort, too “downstairs,” too old-fashioned. As she puts it again in relation to James,

The truth is perhaps that we have become fundamentally sceptical. … Surely, we might say to a writer set upon the supernatural, there are facts enough in the world to go round; surely it is safer to stay in the breakfast room with Brown. Moreover, we are impervious to fear. Your ghosts will only make us laugh, and if you try to express some tender and intimate vision of a world stripped of its hide we shall be forced (and there is nothing more uncomfortable) to look the other way. (“Henry James’s Ghost Stories” 321)

23Recalling Conrad’s rhetorical sleight of hand, Woolf insists that the natural world affords plenty of material for a writer of talent; one need never condescend to use the supernatural. Her aesthetic sense enforces her view of the supernatural as childish, perhaps even when it is “symbolical” – perhaps even in the hands of the Master himself. This is textbook disavowal, though, just as was Conrad’s own set of contortions. Just as Conrad sets the marvellous against the supernatural, so Woolf here asserts that there are “facts enough” to make recourse to the supernatural something of an aesthetic failure. A certain disingenuousness haunts this claim, though, as Woolf seems only able to conceive of appeals to the supernatural in their comic-book penny-dreadful form: “your ghosts will only make us laugh.” The disingenuousness comes in when we consider more sophisticated uses, such as her own invocation of the ghostly in Septimus’s visions of Evans, or Lily Briscoe’s visions of Mrs. Ramsay, or even the retroactive ghostliness of Jacob Flanders. Woolf of course knows very well that such nuance and sophistication is on the table, and yet she behaves here as though she does not know it is possible. In this, she mimics precisely the formula of disavowal: “I know very well … but just the same…” In a final move that looks for all the world like a direct response to Conrad’s assertion that the artist’s task is “to make you see” precisely what is normally hidden from view, Woolf apparently contradicts her own artistic practice even more outrageously by declaring that any attempt “to express some tender and intimate vision of a world stripped of its hide,” would be simply embarrassing – it will simply force us “to look the other way.” And yet what else does Woolf do so brilliantly, and so consistently, in her works? What could possibly lead her to make such an uncharacteristic claim? Jacques Derrida memorably wrote that “coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire” (279), to which we might simply add the insight that awareness of that contradictory coherence may itself lead straight to disavowal: “I know very well that what I’m saying is contradictory, but just the same I insist on its coherence.”

24Like Conrad, Woolf is haunted by a lurking recognition that her own work relies upon the supernatural more often than she might like to admit. Her works are infused with the language of spectrality, if not actual ghosts – though even a few of these appear from time to time. Though she does not write any outright ghost stories, Woolf draws upon the figurative power of the supernatural throughout her oeuvre to articulate complex psychological and cultural perspectives. I have already mentioned the “ghost” of Evans in Mrs Dalloway, and that of Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, but there are plenty more, too. The spectrality that shadows the spectators and players alike in Between the Acts, the titular haunting of “Street Haunting” and “A Haunted House,” and the ghostliness that punctuates Orlando all mark out a clear spectral register in Woolf’s writing. As with Conrad, the longer one looks at Woolf’s writing, the more ghostly it comes to seem, though it is true that there is nary a “blood-stained sea captain” in the lot. And yet, Woolf remains stubbornly determined not just to deny its existence in her own work, but to denigrate its use by others.

25In doing so, she repeats the very logic of disavowal we began by tracing. Faced with the lack of a clear distinction between the Victorians and the moderns, Woolf and Conrad both produce a fetish – the supernatural – which they can then attack as a sign of aesthetic and ethical weakness. They likewise disavow the fetish’s persistence in their own work, producing just the sort of double negation outlined by Freud. Faced with the lack of a clear distinction, Woolf and Conrad likewise disavow the signifier of that lack, insisting instead that they and their cohort are in possession of aesthetic, psychological, and ethical truths. And yet, as any attentive reading of their work will reveal, both the lack and its signifier consistently return to haunt their novels. This is why we need to rethink modernism itself as a mode of disavowal, a self-contradictory hauntology that at once advances along the battlements and fades with the sun’s rising.

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1 The relationships between the supernatural, occult, spiritualism, magic, gothic, and modernism have been traced by Surette, Materer, Cottom, Tryphonopolous, Longenbach, Wilson, Riquelme, Owen, Thurston, Smith and Wallace, Hay, Margaret Mills Harper, and del Pílar Blanco and Peeren.

2 For a representative sampling of critical work in this line, see Peacock, Coroneos, Carabine, Ross 2011.

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Stephen ROSS, « Modernist Disavowal », E-rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 20 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6170

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Stephen ROSS

University of Victoria, B.C., Canada
Stephen Ross is Professor of English and Cultural, Social, and Political Thought at the University of Victoria in Canada. He has published several pieces on modernism and critical theory, and is the General Editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism ( Most recently, he has co-edited The Handbook to Bloomsbury with Derek James Ryan (Bloomsbury Academic).

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