‘Flooded’: Virginia Woolf

After my post about Claudia Rankine I was talking to my daughter about other writers who might have interesting things to show us about flooded and unflooded minds. She swiftly noted that three of her A-level texts could fit the bill very well indeed. So here I am, following her lead, taking advantage of her suggestions, and starting with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. This novel could stand for quite a few other modernist works (by Woolf herself, Joyce, and others) which are often thought to have found new ways of representing the turbulent workings of the mind. One of the things with which such novels might generally be associated is something like ‘flooding’ in the sense I set out here. The ‘stream of consciousness’ technique can be an overwhelming flow, and often it is made up of memories and projections of the type discussed by Barzykowski et al.
      In Mrs Dalloway there are many moments where characters are beset by thoughts of the past. Traumatised Septimus Smith suffers terribly; in the case of Clarissa Dalloway herself things are more benign. As she goes about her business, and makes her plans, she has many thoughts about the past. Some come into the category of the sort of involuntary interruptions that constitute the more worrying version of the ‘flood’ of thoughts, but others are musings, a kind of play with memory. The circulation of this mental energy does get quite dark, though:

She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away. They went on living (she would have to go back; the rooms were still crowded; people kept on coming). They (all day she had been thinking of Bourton, of Peter, of Sally), they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre, which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. (p. 202 in my 2000 era Penguin Classic)

The moment I want to focus on is the parenthesis, kind of an aside, where she notes that the day has passed, at least partly, in repetitious reminiscence. This is in contrast with something ‘that mattered’, which is whatever Septimus was trying to catch and/or defy in his suicide — this whole paragraph describes her response (in private, having stepped out of her own party) to hearing about the young man’s death. We could take ‘chatter’ to be the trivial hubbub of social life, but we could also take it to mean the trivial hubbub of mental life. So while Clarissa may have the privilege of a comfortable enough existence that her mental wanderings are mostly quite enjoyable, she also feels the lack of some sort of focus, something to which she must commit absolutely at the expense of all other thoughts.
      For another character, Peter, Clarissa herself becomes that focus in the novel’s wonderful conclusion. He finds himself absolutely centred and present, unsure why and then entirely certain:

What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with this extraordinary excitement?
It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was.

This is a moment where it seems he has nothing else on his mind but what is ‘there’, and after all the complexities of thought and syntax in the novel, we are left with simplicity, for a moment at least. Why are we not flooded? The interesting question I’m engaged by is what keeps the capacity to remember and project within boundaries. Woolf’s novel seems to be saying that we often are, more or less gently, flooded, if we are in the right state to receive the signals. It also seems to be saying at times that the things which can mostly take us out of that state are powerful, tending towards terror and/or ecstasy, everything you want and unbearable. It’s easy to be disparaging about ‘chatter’ as opposed to ‘matter’, but chatter is a medium in which to muddle along, at least.
      I really have just scratched the surface here and recognised the fairly obvious, which is that writers of streams of consciousness present us with interesting questions — and kinds of knowledge — about the flow of those streams. More A-level texts soon, probably.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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