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The Will to Create as a Woman
By Ruth Gruber
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Ruth Gruber
All rights reserved.
THE POET VERSUS THE CRITIC
Virginia Woolf is determined to write as a woman. Through the eyes of her sex, she seeks to penetrate life and describe it. Her will to explore her femininity is bitterly opposed by the critics, who guard the traditions of men, who dictate to her or denounce her feminine reactions to art and life.
Seen through the struggle between poet and critic, a history of literature would appear as an endless conflict between two forces, one creating and one destroying. Dislocated by the War, modern literature is facing this conflict with desperate intensity. The literary world is torn between tradition and experiment. Poets defend themselves, critics their standards. Absolute values, in thought or style, become more than ever, esoteric and diffuse.
Of the contemporaries, Virginia Woolf is ordered within this struggle, evolving as she confronts it. Conscious of the forces against her, she molds herself in her poetic struggle for existence. Her problem is either that of adaptation, of accepting the protective standards of masculine critics, or of asserting her own identity and standing with heroic defiance, alone. In a confessional parenthesis, suggesting through an image the oppression, the "lash" of the critic, she acknowledges her struggle and its inevitable toll: "so cowardly am I, so afraid of the lash that was once almost laid upon my own shoulders."
The blinding command "Thou shalt do this", the commandments of life or style which impel her to create, are distinguished as they are dictated by the critic or by her own poetic impulses. The professional critic, not the creative one, is acknowledged as he chooses or negates his poets, and establishes authoritative standards. The poet, not merely the maker of verse but the creative writer who can pour his vision into literary form, is acknowledged as he "consumes all impediments", detaches himself from the critics, and creates molds standardized in turn by critics to come. The critic, seen as a menacing force, has two great means of impeding the poet: either by decrying him with arbitrary standards, throwing him into a state of doubt and struggle, and thereby, draining his imagination, or by offering him a crutch, which he swears has helped all the great poets of the past. In either, progress is aborted. The poets who fall victims to the critic, are of course the weaker ones, literature remaining the purer for their decease. Criticism becomes another form of wilderness temptation, destroying the unfit and maturing those who succeed against it. But for the young poet, still uncertain of his art, criticism, while vital, is most precarious. Struggling for a style, tasting and seeking literary influences before composing her early novels, Virginia Woolf apprehends this danger. Impressed by the wisdom of authority, she is conscious that not all traditions are despicable; that in the evolution of style, there has been a constant recurrence to the past. An unconditional submission to the critic, however authoritative, yet implies for her self-betrayal and poetic annihilation.
The critic, as he has been seen by poets from almost the beginning of stylistic time, is rarely presented in a flattering light. Personal grievances have made him a figure of either ridicule or baseness; the Simon Legree of literature. Only the deeper creative critics, like Pater or Wordsworth or Ruskin have done him justice, seeing in him the true arbiter, endowing him with the judicious, creative intelligence they perceive in themselves. Wordsworth, while he held no brief against the "Critic" as Virginia Woolf does in "Orlando", her satire of criticism, yet condemned that "numerous class of critics" who misunderstood him, and who "when they stumble upon these prosaisms, imagine that they have made a notable discovery, and exult over the Poet as over a man ignorant of his profession." In "Orlando", the critic condemns not prosaisms but poeticisms, revealing a law of poetic action and critical reaction. With the persuasion of skill, the poets of one style become the most intolerant critics of the other.
The poet's complaint against the critic is probably as old as poetry itself. Speculation might surround even Homer with dissenters finding fault with his metaphors and his extravagant concepts of reality. Of the famous arguments against the critic, it is Fielding who denounces the whole race: "For a little reptile of a critic" to condemn "a great creation of our own ... is a most presumptuous absurdity." Lacking his masculine self-confidence, Virginia Woolf does not obliterate the critics so egregiously. Yet she resents their tyranny with as personal a grievance. She has allowed the truth of their condemnations too intimately to denounce them in one blow as ignoramuses. Her method is more subtle: tracing critics from Elizabeth to the present reign of King George, she burlesques all their criticism in the same clichéd formula. Ironically, like a catechism for critics, comes the axiom: "marked by precious conceits and wild experiments."
Against the critic, Virginia Woolf exhorts integrity, the Shakespearian "To thine own self be true ..." She justifies the heroic poet who clings inexorably to his own judgment whether he be ridiculed or neglected by his generation. Although by their majority, critics and tradition and academies would appear to be the keepers of truth, and the poet with his single concept, deluded, she upholds this single concept, supported by the historical errors of the critics, as Gifford's negation of Keats. Integrity for her, "that integrity which I take to be the backbone of the writer" lies in ignoring the critical admonishers and remaining inflexibly true to herself. In a lecture on women and fiction delivered to a women's college and expanded into the essay "A Room of One's Own", she sounds this cry for integrity. "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters ... But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery ... "
Only that writing impelled by inner necessity and modulated by her own "vision" has significance, whether that vision be the impulses of the woman, of the romanticist or the classic poet. Analyzed through the qualities she seeks in others, through the urgent truthfulness she demands from women, her own writing gains comprehension.
It is through the implicit peculiar vision of her sex, that she seeks to penetrate reality. The psychic consciousness of woman is her imperative medium. Her struggle for the "true" style and philosophy is determined not only by her own feminine impulses, but by her inheritance from the creative women who have preceded her. "We think back through our mothers if we are women" as the thoughts of men are directed by Shakespeare and Napoleon and Christ. Like a feminine Stephen Dedalus, she seeks a spiritual mother from whom she can learn, and if possible, in herself surpass. Jane Austen, recently discovered by the moderns, by women especially like Katherine Mansfield, is for Virginia Woolf, of all poetesses, closest to Shakespeare. That will to remain true to herself, to create as a woman, she seeks and discerns in the nineteenth century novelists, in Emily Brontë and Jane Austen. "What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Brontë. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue—write this, think that."
She blames an aesthetic and moral break-down through adverse criticism for the poverty of great women writers in the past. Suggesting personal experience, she condemns the ubiquitous masculine critic as the negating force in their history. Women, she insists, must be allowed to dream their dreams after their own fashion; an intellectual emancipation is more vital than the vote. The past inferiority of women as creative writers she attributes to their long slavery, their subjugation to men. Like their minds, their writing was deformed in their struggle for freedom. The oblivion which has taken most of their work, she ascribes with trenchant self-analysis to the concessions they have made. Rebelling violently or defending themselves, the literary "mothers" sacrificed their objectivity beneath the critic's lash. "One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was "only a woman", or protesting that she was "as good as a man". She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. It does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself. Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the center of it ... She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others."
Beneath this analysis of the failure of women novelists, lies not only a personal observation, but the will to grow from the errors she has observed. Immortality is not insured by selling herself, as though the critic were a Mephistopheles grown respectable. From the bitter deception of momentary applause, she flees to the other extreme of desperate sincerity: "Praise and blame alike mean nothing." And in her urgent cry for true self-expression, fame loses its immediate significance. Integrity alone is the great motto of her life: "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters, and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say."
Such integrity has its pitfalls. Fanatic blindness to all standards may be as destructive to the poet, as the lash of the critic. A Jane Austen, refusing to be told how to think, achieves greatness, not because she breaks all conventions, but because she adapts them to herself, circumscribing them in her own way. She does not shock the critics; she does not shake the laws of rhetoric to their roots. Rebelling, yet avoiding the extremes of fanaticism, she achieves quietly what the heroic Duchess of Newcastle sought in eccentricities. Violating nearly every custom she could touch, the Duchess wrote and philosophized when women were supposed to be pouring tea. Genius with its right to insanity, ruined her style, making it extravagant and grotesque. Signally for her own struggle against tradition, Virginia Woolf uncovers the Duchess' proclamation against the critic. In a veritable manifesto of integrity, the Duchess wrote, "I do not love to be led by the nose, by authority, and old authors; ipse dixit will not serve my turn. The romanticism of such a character, breaking with a Napoleonic gesture, imperious literary bounds, appealed to Lamb's imagination. Like so many others whom Lamb had favored, the Duchess has a singular attraction for Virginia Woolf. Characteristically, she admires the Duchesses' "native wit, so abundant that outside succour pained it, so honest that it would not accept help from others." But this honesty of wit, her extravagant integrity, led to purblinded egotism. She planned tremendous feats which she could never accomplish. In violent conflict with external forces and authority, she lost her stability and her judgment. Sensitive to such danger, Virginia Woolf deplores how "she became capable of involutions and contortions and conceits," the pitfalls of integrity grown fanatic.
Between these two extremes, between exaggerated integrity and self-betrayal, Virginia Woolf attempts to steer her way. The course of being true to herself and yet admitting reasonable bounds, the course which Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Tolstoy had followed, she perceives to be the vital one for true creation. It is then that objectivity may be achieved, there being a freedom from inner struggle and outer rebellion. Analyzing the important problem of the mental state she considers "most propitious for creative work," she holds that it must be a mind which has risen above conflicts, "incandescent". "There must be no obstacles in it, no foreign matter unconsumed." Shakespeare is her model, great because he has not made of his works confessional memoirs. Ill-concealed autobiography, lacking this incandescence, becomes sentimental and limited. Extravagantly subjective, such writing, Virginia Woolf holds, can never become immortal. Yet in defence of subjectivity lies Goethe's record that his works were "the fragments of a great confession". To Shakespeare's power of assimilating and thus concealing his conflicts, she ascribes his cause for greatness. "We are not held up by some revelation which reminds us of the writer. All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded. If ever a human being got his work expressed completely, it was Shakespeare. If ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded ... it was Shakespeare's mind." That Shakespeare has risen serenely above conflicts is comprehensible to her; being a man, in a tradition of male poets, he could disregard the critics, whether they denounced him or grovelled at his feet. But only a "miracle" could endow Jane Austen, a woman, with such incandescence. "Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote ... and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare." The great objectivity of their work she attributes not to the more obvious fact that little is known of their grievances, but to their ability to subvert their conflicts. The historical deficiency does not show her that if more were known of their lives, their readers could deduce what was hatred and what prejudice in their writing.
Upon this superb detachment, this critical harmony, she measures the greatness of her "spiritual mothers". Lady Winchilsea, Addison's contemporary, had fallen short in failing to obliterate her conflicts, to strike harmony with man. Distorted by her critical struggle, her mind was "harassed and distracted with hates and grievances. The human race is split up for her into two parties. Men are the 'opposing faction'; men are hated and feared, because they have the power to bar her way to what she wantsto do—which is to write ... Yet it is clear that could she have freed her mind from hate and fear and not heaped it with bitterness and resentment, the fire was hot within her."
Vital for her conflict of tradition versus experiment, is the force with which Virginia Woolf is drawn to the women who repel literary influence. Originality, as the romanticists had conceived it, unreceptive and highly fitful, attracts her; she praises Charlotte Brontë because she "at least owed nothing to the reading of many books." This freedom from traditions seems to have a paradoxical charm for Virginia Woolf in search of a maternal guide. Yet she blames this very "obstinate integrity" for the "flaw" in this "woman who ... had more genius in her than Jane Austen." Like almost every woman novelist, except Jane Austen, she was broken in the desperacy of her war with a masculine world. With her measurement of superb detachment, Virginia Woolf is persuaded that restless and unhappy, the novelist Charlotte Brontë "will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly ... She will write of herself where she should write of her characters." Lacking that serene objectivity, she fails because her art becomes too polemic, too subjective, too confessional.
Excerpted from Virginia Woolf by Ruth Gruber. Copyright © 2005 Ruth Gruber. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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