Mysticism in Woolf’s Waves

Virginia Woolf perhaps does, as Walter Allen suggests, look to art to make order from chaos, substituting art for religion with the “mystic’s intuition.” Allen bestows Woolf with the agency of a mystic, assuming that intrinsic intuition is the medium from which her art is wrought. Definitively, a mystical visionary strives to bring the human experience of the phenomenological world to a place painfully out of reach for even (and maybe especially) the most outstretched finger. Mysticism, as an act of self-surrender, aims to uncover truths that lie beyond the human scope or ordinary experience. Mystical writers, like W.B. Yeats, for example, strive to illustrate the shortcomings of the human consciousness by actively undermining language in a medium that relies upon language to communicate. To transcend the earthly ties of language a mystical writer may emphasize style – the form – as the mystic’s tool: the mind’s eye, not the mind’s mouth.

Yeats’s poetry, for example, often centers on the complications of the ego as it attempts to surrender the “self” by stalking through uncertainty and cosmic darkness. In “Man and the Echo,” Man seeks absolution, acknowledgment, and reassurance in his quest for happiness by attempting to uphold language as spectacular (as spectacle). Man struggles to establish an elite identity by showing his relationship with/to words, trying to prove that his use of language manifests a kind of reality; “Did words of mine put too great strain/On that woman’s reeling brain?/Could my spoken words have checked/That whereby a house lay wrecked?”

In the poem Echo responds with terse repetitious phrases to Man’s paroxysms: “Lie down and die,” she says. For Yeats the nemesis of ego is death and old age.  However, there are other sponges by which ego becomes absorbed. “Meditations in Time of Civil War” shows both the constructed, artificial world (“rich man’s flowering lawns,” “a grey stone fireplace,” “my house,” “my table”) and the natural world (“the bees,” “the mother birds,” “white glimmering fragments of the mist”) as obfuscating forces to the identity of a once “growing boy.” Yeats juggles ego with the sublime or the beautiful so consciousness is negotiated – it is beyond language.

If Woolf creates art through the mystic’s intuition then she, like Yeats, should illustrate a sacrifice of ego in her texts which amounts to an absorption of consciousness into something more obscure and perhaps more significant. In The Waves Woolf juxtaposes consciousness with the natural flux of the ocean tide. She initially establishes six individual ego systems, shown through six different characters, to blur the boundary between self and other. The narratives of Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis begin in youth where they as characters and we as readers struggle to establish their identity. Woolf mocks both her characters’ and her readers’ desire to distinguish one consciousness from another. She posits that we/they cannot count on language to define an ego. Yet by allowing each character her own set of qualities, Woolf invites the illusion that individual human consciousness is possible.

Each character does seem to possess unique markings. Bernard is easily identifiable by his phraseology and reliance on language; “I require the concrete in everything.  It is so only that I lay hands upon the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence.  Yet I think it is likely that the best are made in solitude.” While he seems stalwart in the belief that he possesses an individual, separate consciousness from the other characters, there are moments in which he is able to transcend this ideology. Bernard mentions, “I am only superficially represented by what I was saying tonight,” and “the truth is that I need the stimulus of other people. Alone, over my dead fire, I tend to see the thin places in my own stories.” Bernard has moments of epiphany, like these, that transform the representations of his individual consciousness into a lie. He remains unaware of using other characters’ linguistic refrains in his own language. When he uses the word “hoarder,” for example, he is unaware of both Susan’s and Jinny’s reference to their hoards. Similar to Bernard, when Louis “tore the date from the calendar” he makes no reference to Susan’s antics of tearing calendars in her youth. Each character believes that his actions or thoughts belong to himself.

At some point in the novel all six characters embrace Bernard’s utterance that “I am one person — myself.” But these collective thoughts are complicated by Rhoda’s obsessive identification with the vanishing, nonexistent, or merged self. Bernard later reflects Rhoda’s philosophizing when observes that “to be myself (I note) I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” Bernard, perhaps, changes more than any other character in The Waves, as his movement from one extreme to another shows his attempt to embody ideology (as Byron in particular), individuality (as himself), universality (as everyone else), and his failure in each of these endeavors. Woolf chooses Bernard to house all other characters’ conscious experiences by the conclusion, giving the impression that he has reached the highest plane of truth. He has recognized other’s consciousness, he has deconstructed his own, and he has built an empire of language and torn it down again. In this way, Bernard showcases Woolf’s use of the mystic’s tool. As in Yeats’s poetry, Bernard’s final narration is a motion to negate ego.

The similarities, however, end there.

Bernard shelves the egos of others and discovers the contradictions of his own ego in this way. He finds his voice amidst other human voices. Ego becomes dissolved by ego. Woolf ironically leaves the phenomenological element of “other” right outside Bernard’s door, but he fails to recognize it. His consideration of the waves, which symbolize an ultimate surrender of ego and consciousness, amounts to a mere acknowledgment without understanding, an aesthetic observation; “But for a moment I had sat on the turf somewhere high above the flow of the sea […and had seen] the waves breaking.” An old nurse tells Bernard, “‘Look. This is the truth,” but his narration continues to use language in the same form. Despite the waves outside his window he fails to move beyond this collective – shelved – consciousness which persists in taking the ego as foundation.  Even his last apostrophe, “O Death!” arises from an extensive linguistic and egocentric remembrance of the past. In this way Woolf, unlike Yeats, does not use the tool of the mystic’s intuition to create art, as Walter Allen suggests, but rather to reaffirm the stronghold of an intelligible world: a reality shaped by the intersecting voices of history, perception, experience, and nature. Bernard’s louder voice is that of the solo white male.


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