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2. Modernist Non-fictional Narratives: Rewriting Modernism

Facing the Monolith:” Virginia Woolf, Modernism and Impersonality



L’objectif de cet article est d’examiner la vision qu’a Virginia Woolf de l’impersonnalité et de la comparer à celle de T.S. Eliot telle qu’il l’a exprimée dans « La tradition et le talent individuel » par sa célèbre formule sur l’« extinction de la personnalité continuelle ». Sa réaction au stéréotype romantique du moi hypertrophié n’était pas vraiment une nouveauté: Gustave Flaubert et peut-être de manière paradoxale, John Keats avaient déjà exprimé la nécessité d’une éclipse de l’emprise auctoriale sur le texte littéraire. La position de Woolf dans cette dispute littéraire est significative: elle refuse assez ouvertement d’endosser l’ostracisme auctorial eliotien et propose une autre solution qui met en avant le principe de « saturation », c’est-à-dire une inclusion boulimique plutôt qu’une sélection minutieuse.
Cet article montre que c’est dans ses écrits non fictionnnels que Woolf élabora pour la première fois une réaction critique à l’impersonnalité, développant le concept de
« présence », qui se trouve au ceur de son idéal essayistique, dans « The Modern Essay ». En outre, le besoin fort d’une aura auctoriale dans le texte littéraire sous-tend l’élan qui porte inexorablement Woolf vers l’écriture de soi, à la fois dans sa fiction et sa non fiction. La genèse de cette idée, qui est à chercher dans la littérature grecque ancienne et surtout, dans les essais de Montaigne qui brossent son auto portrait, ancre fermement Woolf dans la tradition culturelle occidentale expressionniste.

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1. An idea of modernism

1Literary histories often convey stereotypical images of authors, works, and, in many cases, of literary movements, and English modernism is a case in point: historiographical practice has contributed to the spread of a monolithically conceived idea of this literary movement, stressing its experimental nature, prompted by the period’s intellectual unrest, and its tendency to sound the depths of human consciousness. Yet, this homogenous façade has been criticized in contemporary theoretical approaches (eg. Hapgood & Paxton or Ross & Lindgren), ensuring for posterity a more protean and variegated image. Elements of continuity with fin de siècle literature have been detected by Nicholas Daly, positing the existence of a “popular modernism” (Daly 9) that partially undermines the widespread image of a highbrow literary elite. In fact, oversimplification runs the risk of losing a soundly informed perspective:

[…] if we allow our view of literature in this period to be engrossed by the heroism of a small band of modernist pioneers – James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf – then we lose sight not only of a wealth of creative work by their contemporaries but also, self-defeatingly, of the very distinctiveness of the leading “modernists” themselves, to appreciate which requires some awareness of the mainstream from which they diverged. (Baldick 3)

2One of the most commonly evoked critical labels that are used for a quick synthesis of modernism is unquestionably impersonality. This theoretical generalisation is mainly to be attributed to T. S. Eliot, whose description of the work of the poet in his “Tradition and the Individual Talent” features some definitions that have by now reached the status of maxims: the most famous is, precisely, the “continual extinction of personality” (The Sacred Wood 44). Eliot’s dogma has been abused and its original context overlooked, that is the critical reflection, begun by T. E. Hulme and Ezra Pound, about a supposedly widespread abuse of the “pernicious illusion” of the “late romantic cult of genius and individualistic subjectivity” to which “an open poetics that corrodes or subverts the autonomy of the traditional bourgeois subject” (Litz and Rainey 65) proved an apt antidote. The Flaubertian matrix of this process is quite evident, and Roland Barthes’ notorious “death of the author” pamphlet would provocatively suggest an extremist need for the reshaping of the role of the historical creator of the work of art. In the British Isles, though, the most iconic (fictional) pronouncement is to be found in James Joyce’s Portrait, where one of Stephen Dedalus’ most memorable epiphanies sets forth the matter vividly:

The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak. The estethic [sic.] image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of estethic [sic.] like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails. (Joyce 180-181)

  • 1 Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist begins with some reflections about egotism which ironically inse (...)

3Although overtly ironic, Joyce’s statement can be very profitably applied to the theoretical issues at stake in this paper, since its almost mock-Wildean1 aphoristic and essayistic dialogic quality recalls Flaubert’s pronouncement “comme Dieu dans l’univers, présent partout, et visible nulle part” (Flaubert 691). Joyce apparently shares with Flaubert (and with Eliot) a drive towards the divestiture of the author from his role of creator and demiurge, in an almost ascetical path of “empowerment based on renunciation, characterised by self-reflexivity and a concern with process” (Gott 16). Though seemingly absent, the author remains a constitutive tutelary deity of the work of art.

2. “Off with their head!”

4The same ambiguity remains in Eliot’s poetical practice. A notorious confession to his brother has led many critics to engage with a biographical decoding of Eliot’s poetry that could air “lurid speculations” (Sultan 192):

Various critics have done me the honour to interpret the poem in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism. To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling (The Waste Land 1)

5The ostracism of the authorial voice, the “continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” derives from Eliot’s theoretical consideration about the fragmentation of human consciousness, that it is merely a “receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together” (The Sacred Wood 43-4). This calls for the conclusion that “[t]he poet doesn’t express his or her personality not because it is healthy self-discipline not to, but because there is nothing so coherent as a personality to express” (Menand 31). Such aversion to a personal expression in literature would appear the perfect corollary to Eliot’s notorious hostility towards Romantic poets, and the traditional ideal of a poet driven by “spontaneous overflow.” In fact, Eliot’s bias against the Romantic’s excessive externalisation of their inner universe is paradoxical, since, although Shelley’s famous Defence bequeaths an image of a demiurge poet, many literary figures of the first half of the nineteenth century had already reacted against a morbid and exceedingly emphasised role of the poet. S. T. Coleridge, for example, in his poem “The Eolian Harp,” posits an “indolent and passive brain” traversed by “full many a thought uncalled and undetained, / and many idle flitting phantasies” (Coleridge 27), and John Keats’s justly famous letter to Richard Woodhouse outlines a stern rejection of egotism, that can be read as an over annihilation of the poet’s personality (Cortázar 738), in favour of a chameleon poet:

As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort, of which, if I am anything, I am a member; that sort distinguished from the Wordsworthian, or egotistical Sublime; which is a thing per se, and stands alone,) it is not itself – it has no self – It is everything and nothing – It has no character – […] What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet. […] A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity – he is continually in for and filling some other body. […] If then he has no self, and if I am a poet, where is the wonder that I should say I would write no more? (Keats 147-148)

6Such a statement might be considered peculiar, given how many times Keats “represents poets, and notably himself, in his poems” (Gray 45). Yet the epistolary “confession” does not entail a lack, but rather a superfetation of personality. The poet is thus bound to represent humankind in its many facets (here Coleridge’s “myriad-minded” definition comes immediately to mind), and can be labelled, borrowing a tag designed for Woolf’s authorial figure, a “nameless multiple author” (Beer 3). Keats’s letter depicts a poetical figure that refuses to be reduced to a mere inward musing creature, and strives to present his audience with a poetry that is “great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject” (Keats 58), and most of all a poetry that, similar to the nightingale’s song, should come innately and with the outmost simplicity: if it “comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all” (Keats 66). Poetry is conceived as a process liberated from the hindrances and setbacks entailed by an egotistical individuality. Abandoning all singularity and individuality, the poet surrenders to a higher power, becoming almost a ventriloquist’s doll, which does not exist before the act of creation, his very life beginning with his poetry and ceasing when the music fades. In this frame of reference reality causes what Keats labels “Soul-making,” that is the idea that the poetic soul is the product of a complex interplay of sensations and imagination (Keats 232).

7Despite these profoundly anti-egotistical positions, Keats does not manage to escape Eliot’s disapproval, earning a very unflattering charge of narcissistic self-centredness: “Keats’s egotism, such as it is, is that of youth which time would have redeemed” (The Use of Poetry 100). In this perhaps too punitive judgement Eliot is not entirely yielding to an idiosyncratic urge to dismiss an author that he despises, but in effect he is reacting against a widespread preconception about Romantic literature, that is, the excessive attention accorded to the expression of the self’s nature and inner mechanisms. As a matter of fact, Eliot’s reaction against this “expressivism” can be seen as a campaign against a bourgeois, conformist, and hypocritical identity-making model, which is heir to Flaubert’s speculations about art (Gott 49). For extremist revolutionary modernist writers, impersonality meant “a set of evaluative ideals that they adopted […] to signal their opposition to expressivist accounts of the self that were dear to middle-class popular culture” (Moses 327).

3. Summoning the dead

8Borrowing the “nameless multiple author” label to synthesise Keats’s ideal of the impersonal poet brings us to the main focus of this paper, Woolf’s reactionary ideal of the role of personality in literature. Woolf is one amongst many other early twentieth-century voices that did not endorse Eliot’s trenchant decapitation of the author. The opposite stances of the two artists emerge from a lesser-known entry in Woolf’s extensively quoted diary, where she connects herself, Tom Eliot and young John Keats in a delicate reasoning on the topic of artistic self-disclosure. An unexpected taxi ride prompting a literary exchange in March 1921 reveals a lot about the differing ideas the two leading modernists had of both the impact of their literary output and the significance of their work in comparison with that of the “masters”:

We had Eliot to dinner on Sunday & went to Love for Love, he & I in the Pit, L. upstairs, with a ticket from The New Statesman. Eliot & I had to drive in to Hammersmith in a taxi, having missed our train. We passed through dark market gardens. “Missing trains is awful” I said. “Yes, but humiliation is the worst thing in life,” he replied. “Are you as full of vices as I am?” I demanded. “Full, riddled with them.” “We’re not as good as Keats,” I said. “Yes we are” he replied. “No: we do not write classics straight off as magnanimous people do.” “We’re trying something harder,” he said. “Anyhow our work is streaked with badness” I said. “Compared with theirs, mine is futile. Negligible. One goes on because of an illusion.” He told me that I talked like that without meaning it. Yet I do mean it. I think one could probably become very intimate with Eliot because of our damned self-conscious susceptibility: but I plunge more than he does: perhaps I could learn him [sic] to be a frog. (The Diary of Virginia Woolf 103-104)

9Eliot unquestionably shows a stronger sense of his literary value, while Woolf confesses not to feel “magnanimous” enough as an artist, thus incapable of “writing classics,” as John Keats did. The attribute “magnanimous” is noteworthy: literally meaning possessing an elevated soul it engenders an ethical self-evaluation, entailing the necessity of a worthy inward side to produce great art. This moral (and literary) inferiority is stressed in the comparison with Keats. A path of atonement seems necessary, given the fact that the moderns are “full of vices” and “streaked with badness.” The discrepancy between Keats’s magnanimousness and his modernist grandchildren’s self-consciousness, lies in the different degree of self-disclosure which was deemed acceptable in early twentieth-century literary practice. While Virginia feels the need “to plunge more,” and acknowledge her many faults, Tom thinks that he has already found his own golden ratio in matters of personality. Yet, acknowledging their mutual “self-conscious susceptibility,” Woolf suggests a more thorough understanding of Eliot’s doctrine of impersonality. In fact, Eliot’s “extinction,” if not a “personal impersonality” (Good 139), was surely a more complex tenet than the mere elimination of the author from the final work. By claiming to forsake any surfacing of personality in the work of art, Eliot is striving to cleanse the literary text from the abuses of the past, to outrun the Romantic expressivist (and egotistical) standard. Claiming impersonality, on the one hand Eliot gets to rein in the excessive vainglorious self-disclosure, yet on the other he also renounces the modesty that (in many cases) emanates from a sincere self-exposure. Woolf too had a path in mind that could lead towards universality, but it entailed a very different notion of impersonality: no elimination but an androgynous fusion of the male and female that could lead to a more universally valid literary “voice.” “If, for Woolf, impersonality is synonymous with ungendered anonymity, a form of bareness and purity, it is also equated with universality” (Reynier 24); it could thus represent one of the most viable means of achieving what can be considered Woolf’s most coveted literary desideratum, the fictional translation of human life on a page (Miller 1988). Life-writing was Woolf’s literary hobbyhorse, and she would try in every possible way to sketch a valid ‘translation’ of life into literature. In the nonfictional domain, what Orlando’s biographer described as the task of plodding “in the indelible footprints of truth” (Woolf 1928, 17) was the main subject of many essays, letters and diary entries:

Ann: Shall I go on skipping?

Judith: I seem to gather that the wall papers were dark and the sideboards substantial.

Ann: Yes, but we’ve too much furniture already. Life is what we want. (Essays 3, 182)

10Whereas Keats and Eliot sought, in a certain sense, to expunge all idiosyncrasy in the final output of the literary process, Woolf is shown to be driven by a different, somewhat ambiguous method: to “attain life” in literature, no selection is needed, as far as the subject matter or the enunciating source is concerned, yet the literary result should not be burdened with superfluous details. As a matter of fact, in the 28 November 1928 entry of her diary, she voices this tension, emphasizing that if on the one hand a writer needs to adopt a selective process, on the other he or she also needs to implement a very subtle process, which she refers to as saturation, i.e. the process of incorporating the wholeness of the specific moment he or she wants to capture in his or her writing, resulting from a process of compression that grants the raw material of life the status of literature:

The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes. Say that moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea. Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don't belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry – by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novelists? that they select nothing? The poets succeed by simplifying: practically everything is left out. I want to put practically everything in: yet to saturate. That is what I want to do in The Moths. It must include nonsense, fact, sordidity: but made transparent. (The Diary of Virginia Woolf 209-210)

11The inclusion of “sordidity” is quite significant, and it links directly with the “vices” about which Woolf reasoned with Eliot in 1921. Life, predictably for the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, the Victorian biographer, was a conundrum to solve via fictional and nonfictional outputs. If a mock-canine memorial of Barrett-Browning’s dog, or the choral stream of consciousness of six friends were not enough, Woolf tackled the same life-writing issue in her essays, with a very rigorous attitude that went as far as proposing a reformation of biography:

We can no longer maintain that life consists in actions only or in works. It consists in personality. Something has been liberated beside which all else seems cold and colourless. We are freed from a servitude which is now seen to be intolerable. No longer need we pass solemnly and stiffly from camp to council chamber. We may sit, even with the great and good, over the table and talk. (Essays 4, 474)

12Woolf’s life-writing ideal was thus a paean to individual personality: she did not seek to bundle facts together, she aimed in fact at a vivid rendering of the “rainbow-like intangibility” (Essays 4, 474) of the individual self that became the object of the life-narrative. This siding with the intimate party was in fact primarily intended with specific regard to the object of writing, that in many cases were the private existences of those “obscures sleep[ing] on the walls, slouching against each other as if they were too drowsy to stand upright” (Essays 4, 118). The neglected can easily be paired with another odd category of literary persons, that is the unidentified, the disremembered, who became the subject of perhaps Woolf’s most famous stance about the personal-impersonal dynamics:

It is obvious in the first place that Greek literature is the impersonal literature. […] When we read Chaucer, we are floated up to him insensibly on the current of our ancestors’ lives, and later, as records increase and memories lengthen, there is scarcely a figure which has not its nimbus of association, its life and letters, its wife and family, its house, its character, its happy or dismal catastrophe. But the Greeks remain in a fastness of their own. Fate has been kind there too. She has preserved them from vulgarity. Euripides was eaten by dogs; Aeschylus killed by a stone; Sappho leapt from a cliff. We know no more of them than that. We have their poetry, and that is all. (Essays 4, 39)

13Ancient Greek literature furnished the ideal variety of impersonality that Woolf could mould with her personal “New Biography tenets” about the iridescence of personality. Readers, when authors were no longer identifiable, were welcomed to craft a visual simulacrum of the now forgotten creators of the anonymous texts, regardless of those “author centred associations” (Koutsantoni 104) that were a constant, for example, of Sainte-Beuvian criticism as mocked by Marcel Proust in his Contre Sainte-Beuve. Anonymous texts are pristine entities, which assure utter aesthetic gratification even though no indisputable inference can be made about their actual originators. This indeterminacy was, for Woolf, an occasion to raise some gender-related issues, connected with the sexuality of the writer. As her essay on Jane Austen testifies, successful novelists should “absent from themselves”, in an utopian quest towards a sexless universe in which “men and women are equal and unhampered by gender differences” (Koutsantoni 106), and gender boundaries are eliminated in favour of an androgynous ideal, a liminal identity state of mind based on both male and female characters, which by definition rejects a too limiting affirmation of a single personality. The androgynous mind, as Coleridge maintained, was “resonant and porous” (A Room of One’s Own 41) in the sense that it could achieve universality through a male-female “saturation”, very similar to that which Woolf advocated in the “father’s birthday” diary entry quoted earlier. This male-female homogenous mixture, able to represent a universally acknowledged voice to express the mystery of Life, is linked to Woolf’s ideal of a “rise of self-conscious literature” (A Room of One’s Own 15) which is related, even linguistically, to the “damned self-conscious susceptibility” she was referring to in her discussion with Eliot.

4. Fitfully haunting essayistic presences

14In the ideological, literary and social upheaval of the beginning of the twentieth century (Frigerio 61), Woolf envisioned an ideal of authorship whose prominence neither Eliot’s “extinction,” nor Wyndham Lewis’s “Great Without” (Lewis 103) could possibly undermine. If personality was the core of her biographical pursuit, and a fusional ‘neutral’ voice was her standard for the fictional enterprise (as patently witnessed in Orlando and in her short stories, see Reynier 84), it is perhaps in her essayistic prose that the peculiarity of her (im)personality appeared more clearly. Given how much a necessity for a private and personal touch was the prerequisite for any effective and successful essay, a genre that despite the common opinion is a “haven for the private idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble” (Sanders 660), Woolf found in it a favourable means to try out her delicate balance between faceless abstraction and subjective involvement. The personal essay, being a ‘compromise formation’ between fiction and nonfiction (Atkins 149-150), was the perfect site to foreground a voice that stood in between these two “sturdy poles” (Hoagland 25). In perhaps one of the most accomplished “essays on the essay” in the history of western civilisation, Woolf argued for the necessity of “the natural richness of the speaking voice” (Woolf 222), and maintained that, to attain this goal, the stiff and severely pseudo-objective stance of nineteenth-century Victorian essayists was to be substituted by a novel attitude towards both subject and audience. Woolf labelled this ideal state as “presence,” and gave an account of it in her famous “essay on the essay,” where, describing Mr Beerbohm’s exquisite art, she managed to propose an ideal of the modern essay, and of the model modern essayist:

What Mr. Beerbohm gave us was, of course, himself. This presence, which has haunted the essay fitfully from the time of Montaigne, had been in exile since the death of Charles Lamb. Matthew Arnold was never to his readers Matt, nor Walter Pater affectionately abbreviated in a thousand homes to Wat. They gave us much, but that they did not give. (Essays 4, 220)

15Victorian essayists were mainly focused on the assertion of their unquestionable judgement about a work of art, or on the infallibility of their interpretation. Yet, exceptions abounded, as in Walter Pater’s “vision, such as we get in a good novel where everything contributes to bring the writer’s conception as a whole before us” (Essays 4, 218). This novelistic capacity had already been highlighted by Woolf in an essay about Joseph Addison. It goes without saying that Mr Beerbohm, Charles Lamb, Joseph Addison and the other essayists she had in mind, had learned their craft from the very “father” (and the most accomplished practitioner) of the essay, Michel de Montaigne. The seventeenth-century retired French jurist held pride of place in Woolf’s personal literary hierarchy, thanks to his primacy in resorting to casual, spontaneous prose to disclose his personal and individual miscellaneous ideas, that are nothing but “chimeras and imaginary monsters […] without order or plan” (Montaigne 27), yet they are significant, or at least are considered such by their author. The essayist turns out to be a “self-liberated man sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest” (White ix):

These essays are an attempt to communicate a soul. On this point at least he is explicit. It is not fame that he wants; it is not that men shall quote him in years to come; he is setting up no statue in the market-place; he wishes only to communicate his soul. Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness. To share is our duty; to go down boldly and bring to light those hidden thoughts which are the most diseased; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing; if we are ignorant to say so; if we love our friends to let them know it. (Essays 4, 76)

16This “essayistic subjectivity” is one of the most vivid pieces of evidence of Woolf’s rejection of an aseptic and objective literary standard. Everything an artist produces is “tainted” with a more or less recognisable intimate matrix. In a talk she delivered for the BBC radio series “Words Fail Me” in 1937, Woolf reflected on the mysterious ways in which a work of art comes to its most perfected state; while she was by then nearly at the end of her career, she still had to face the “inescapable interference” of the self in the process:

No writer presumably wishes to impose his own miserable character, his own private secrets and vices upon the reader. But has any writer, who is not a typewriter, succeeded in being wholly impersonal? Always, inevitably, we know them as well as their books. Such is the suggestive power of words that they will often make a bad book into a very lovable human being, and a good book into a man whom we can hardly tolerate in the room. (Essays 6, 94)

17In the light of this later statement, the Woolfian imperative for a personal literary standard becomes palpable. In the aforementioned extract, “impersonal” is used in the way T. S. Eliot would have used it in 1919, with the provocative note of the elimination of any trace of introspection in the act of creation. Woolf, in fact, might have been claiming an affinity with Keats’s chameleonic attitude in the production of the work of art, in light of the preponderance of the role of an androgynous frame of mind on the part of the author. According to Keats – who drew extensively from Hazlitt’s Essay on the Principle of Human Action (1805) – “unpoetical” poets could construct their own self-perception avoiding self-conscious susceptibility rightly because they shaped an image of themselves plunged “into the lives of others” (Keats xxv), filling, basically, “some other body” (Keats 148).

18 Again, like Keats, Virginia Woolf was very concerned about self-disclosure in writing: she was “an autobiographer who never published an autobiography; […] an egotist who loathed egotism” (Lee 5). Taking these considerations into account it is not hard to perceive that Woolf sided with a party that was favourable to (if not the direct expression of inner subjectivity) at least the acknowledgement of the inevitable oozing of the author’s personality into every form of literature. In this respect Woolf is more akin to what W. H. Auden maintained in “The Well of Narcissus”:

Literary confessors are contemptible, like beggars who exhibit their sores for money, but not as contemptible as the public who buys their books. One ceases to be a child when one realises that telling one’s troubles does not make it any better (Cesare Pavese.) Exactly. Not even telling it to oneself. Most of us have known shameful moments when we blubbered, beat the wall with our fists, cursed the power which made us and the world, and wished that we were dead or that someone else was. But at such times, the I of the sufferer should have the tact and decency to look the other way. (Auden 73-74)

19Auden does not believe that the self, although imperfect, limited and “full of vices,” can be ignored not only while judging, but also (and most importantly) while creating. In the words of Charles Taylor, who put forward perhaps the most thorough recognition of human consciousness to date, literary modernists maintained an almost schizophrenic attitude, as the antithetical positions of Eliot and Woolf might have already shown:

Twentieth-century art has gone more inward, has tended to explore, even to celebrate subjectivity; it has explored new recesses of feeling, entered the stream of consciousness, spawned schools of art rightly called “expressionist.” But at the same time, at its greatest it has often involved a decentring of the subject: an art emphatically not conceived as self-expression, an art displacing the centre of interest onto language, or onto poetic transmutation itself, or even dissolving the self as usually conceived in favour of some new constellation. There seems to be a slide to subjectivism and an anti-subjectivist thrust at the same time. These should be opposed, and they are certainly in tension. But in their genesis they belong together, and this may not be too difficult to explain. (Taylor 456)

20Eventually, this paper too has perhaps come to an extremist view of modernist subjectivity. But inwardness and subjectivity are not to be considered mere additions to the literary act that could be removed when an author feels the urge to be free from the limitedness of human consciousness. An author is always dealing with his personal experience, just as Michel de Montaigne affirmed in one of his best Essais: “[a]uthors communicate with the world in some special and peculiar capacity; I am the first to do so with my whole being, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian, a poet, or a lawyer” (Montaigne Essays, 1993, p. 236) And Virginia Woolf was able to do exactly the same, granting her continuous yet unobtrusive presence in everything she wrote.

21One of the first pages of Lewis’ Tarr furnishes, paradoxically enough, one of the most satisfactory summings-up of Woolf’s peculiar partiality towards impersonality, in the specific sense of the convergence of many voices into one, in an almost carnivalesque assortment that exemplifies the necessity for a redefinition of the self, which was unquestionably a shared quest at the beginning of the twentieth century:

Tarr needed a grimacing tumultuous mask for the face he had to cover. He had compared his clowning with Hobson’s pierrotesque variety: but Hobson, he considered, was a crowd. You could not say he was an individual, he was in fact a set. He sat there, a cultivated audience, with the aplomb and absence of self-consciousness of numbers, of the herd – of those who know they are not alone. – Tarr was shy and the reverse by turns; he was alone. A distinguished absence of personality was Hobson’s most personal characteristic. Upon this impersonality, of crowd origin, Tarr gazed with the scorn of the autocrat. (Lewis 15)

22Although Lewis’s carnival is obviously too loud, one might refer to a more disciplined polyphony, the one which Eliot envisaged as a preliminary label for his masterpiece. He do the police in different voices, in fact, was already a way out of a too castratingly dogmatic impersonality (as Eliot admitted later in his career in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism); and a way to become, in a sense, the epitome of the magnanimous poet who, in a 1920s taxi ride, Woolf professed to be Keats, a poetic soul made great, exactly, by a compresence of many different voices, whose gathering allowed for a zeroing of the limitedness of a single voice, in favour of an embodiment of the whole of poetry, which, in a sense, was the same aim as Eliot’s ideal of tradition.

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1 Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist begins with some reflections about egotism which ironically insert themselves in the same Flaubertian suspicion-driven dimension of gradual estrangement of authorial issues from the literary text: “Even in actual life egotism is not without its attractions. When people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown weary, they would be perfect absolutely” (Wilde 97-98).

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Paolo BUGLIANI, « Facing the Monolith:” Virginia Woolf, Modernism and Impersonality », E-rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 24 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Pisa, Italy
Paolo Bugliani is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pisa, Italy, where he is currently working on the Anglo-Italian cultural relations in the essays of Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt. In 2017 he defended his PhD dissertation on Charles Lamb. He has also published articles on such essayists as Woolf, Auden and Wallace.

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