VIRGINIA WOOLF: "MIND" AND "MATTER" ON THE PLANE OF A LITERARY CONTROVERSY

by Wyndham Lewis

"We must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments." -- Virginia Woolf
But with such a challenging capitulation as that of Body and Soul, or Mind and Matter, a misunderstanding is to be anticipated, and its action must now be forestalled. It has not been courted by me, but I have allowed the issue which might be responsible for it to remain dormant, in the margin, possibly dogging my progress, in order to deal with it at the conclusion of this phase of my argument.

The effect of what I have said so far might be to throw the reader into one camp or the other--and he might certainly have got the idea that only two, clearly defined, generally recognized, positions were involved: and he might in the end find himself in what, even from his own standpoint, was the wrong camp.

But Body and Mind, I need not remind the reader of such a book as this, are, philosophically, two very shadowy counters. There are, on the market today, patterns of belief extending from the extreme position, on the one hand, that there is in fact no traceable psyche, but only one stuff, out of which our world is composed, properly neither "matter" nor "mind"; to the extreme position on the other, which, as a matter of fact, is much the same as the former, only with a more strongly marked subjective flavouring. The single basic stuff is more soulful at that end that it is at the other, the deterministic end, that is all.

What, then, in the course of such an argument as this, one is compelled to anticipate, is a confusion arising from the equivocal nature of the popular counters one is bound to employ. For between the extreme positions I have indicated above there lie all the more orthodox concepts: it is in that strongly black and white, half-way region, in between, that the contests of the "materialists" and the "idealists" are fought out. For instance, the old battle of the Woolfs and the Bennetts had very little meaning outside of, or beyond, that orthodox plane.

Now there is one obvious division or opposition staring you in the face -- and inviting you, on one side and the other, to drop into its pigeon-hole and be at peace -- that is the classification by gender: the Masculine and the Feminine departments of the universe. Is it necessary for us to repeat here for the thousand and first time how illusory this division is found to be, upon inspection: to point out that many women are far more grenadiers or cave-men than they are little balls of fluff; and that, on the other hand, many men are much more fluffy and "girlish" than are their sisters: that a veneer of habit, and a little bit of hair on the chin and chest, is about all that fundamentally separates one sex from the other?--But this is not an account of the matter that would be found acceptable by militant feminism. I am afraid that a great deal of what might be termed sex-nationalism is to be met with, though certainly there are some very enlightened women, just as there are a handful of enlightened men, who frown on, and smile at, such working-up of hot party-feelings.< In the present chapter I am compelled, however, to traverse the thorny region of feminism, or of militant feminine feeling. I have chosen the back of Mrs. Woolf--if I can put it in this inelegant way--to transport me across it. I am sure that certain critics will instantly object that Mrs. Woolf is extremely insignificant--that she is a purely feminist phenomenon--that she is taken seriously by no one any longer today, except perhaps by Mr. and Mrs. Leavis--and that, anyway, feminism is a dead issue. But that will not deter me, any more than the other thorny obstacles, from my purpose: for while I am ready to agree that the intrinsic importance of Mrs. Woolf may be exaggerated by her friends, I cannot agree that as a symbolic landmark--a sort of party-lighthouse--she has not a very real significance. And she has crystallized for us, in her critical essays, what is in fact the feminine -- as distinguished from the feminist -- standpoint. She is especially valuable in her "clash" with what is today, in fact and in deed, a dead issue, namely nineteenth-century scientific "realism," which is the exact counterpart, of course, in letters, of French Impressionism in art (Degas, Manet, Monet).

But the photographic Degas, he is literally the end of the world, luckily-- he is more than off the map; and following forty years behind the French mid-nineteenth century realists, the late Mr. Bennett was such a dead horse (dragging such a dead issue) that Mrs. Woolf was merely engaged in an undergraduate exercise in her pamphlet about him, it might be asserted. In spite of that, so long as prose-fiction continues to be written, the school of "realism" will always have its followers, in one degree or another. Mr. Hemingway is a case in point, and so is Mr. Faulkner. But in any work at all of prose-fiction, however disembodied in theory, there is, as an important, and indeed essential component, a great deal of the technique of "realism": further than that, it could quite well be contended that most of its technique was the realistic technique, put into the service of the depicting of the "disembodied." And, in any event, satire is a very live issue today, about that there can be little mistake. The most brilliant and interesting of the youngest poets, of the "new signatures," Auden, is above all a satirist. Mr. Roy Campbell, in his Georgiad has produced a masterpiece of the satiric art, which may be placed beside the eighteenth-century pieces without its suffering by that proximity. And what goes for prosody, goes for prose too. We are probably on the threshold, according to all the signs and portents, of a great period of imaginative satire--the times are propitious. And, establishing as I am here the theoretic foundations for such work, I have found that the criticism of "realism" is of very great use for a full illumination of my subject. And that is why I have considered it worth while to dissect in detail the Woolf-versus-the-realists controversy: and this course is, as I have said, especially indicated, owing to the part that the feminine principle plays in this debate.

Equipped with this explanation, I think we may now proceed. Well then, when Mrs. Woolf, the orthodox "idealist," tremulously squares up to the big beefy brute, Bennett,' plainly the very embodiment of commonplace matter -- it is, in fact, a rather childish, that is to say an over-simple, en-counter. It is a cat and dog match, right enough: but such "spiritual" values as those invoked upon Mrs. Woolf's side of the argument, are of a spiritualism which only exists upon that popular plane, as the complement of hard-and-fast matter. The one value is as tangible, popular and readily understood by the "plain reader" as the other. I doubt if, at bottom, it is very much more than a boy and girl quarrel (to change the metaphor from dog-and-cat). I believe it is just the old incompatability of the eternal feminine, on the one hand, and the rough foot balling "he" principle--the eternal masculine--on the other. There is nothing more metaphysical about it than that.

"If we tried to formulate our meaning in one word we should say that these three writers [Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy] are materialists. lt is because they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us," writes Mrs. Woolf. Is it so simple? Or rather, were we compelled to decide upon the respective merits of a person, of the same calibre as, say, Bennett, but who was as delicately mental as he was grossly material, and of Bennett himself, should we not have to say, that in their respective ways, their masculine and feminine ways, they were much of a muchness--indeed, a good match? The preoccupations of Mrs. Dalloway are after all not so far removed from the interests of Mr. Bennett's characters. One is somewhat nearer to "the Palace," the other to the "Pub." But does not that even suggest a subtle kinship, rather than an irreconcilable foreignness?

The question, indeed problem, of James is far more complicated. But still, even with him, we can I believe resolve the diffficulty, in part, by making use of (without at all abusing) the categories of sex. There is a good deal of meaning in the statement that his was a "feminine" art. Before he had spent his first full year in Paris, in close contact with all the devils of "realism" in the flesh, we have surprised James suffering, at a distance, the first impact of that masculine doctrine: and, invested with that "famous realistic system which has asserted itself so largely in the fictitious writing of the last few years,"we have discovered him sighing "for a novel with a dramatis personae of disembodied spirits": and what he subsequently did in that direction himself has become a monument, to which to refer the impatient world (which will not, even in England, quite take the shadow for the substance and which insists, barbarian that it is, upon its daily lump of bloodshot beef). Entrenched in the merely select regions of "difficult" authorship, we encounter many a talent which does not dispose of the necessary strength to brave the light of common day.

Again it must be remembered that even Henry James is a phenomenon exclusively of Anglo-Saxon letters. He has no such standing outside Anglo- Saxony as he has in it. He is a good example, it is true, of that class of non-universal intelligences, so spiritually idiomatic as to be at the best a mere curiosity for the outside world. If any meaning can be found for the term "classical," it certainly would be found to describe what James was not. But the sort of English writers for whom his prestige has been found useful, are exceedingly delicate plants--just as un-universal as himself and much more frail. If James proved himself unable "to stomach these ferocious companions" (namely the Flauberts, de Maupassants, de Goncourts and the rest, when he entered their vociferous circle in Paris) and if even the amiable Turgenev found that James's writing "had on the surface too many little flowers and knots of ribbon," that it was not "quite meat for men," how much more would that have been the case with these small, often portentously advertised, "misunderstood" intelligentsia, thrown up by our intellectually corrupt and dilettante society in England today? Accepted as Anglo-Saxon oddities d'outre Manche (with the prestige of the British banking system, rather than of British art), they would have been, in the exclusive circles of French literary craftsmanship of the Third Empire: never as fellow-artists.

In our island-controversies between the highbrows and the lowbrows, the typical British lowbrow can stand, as is to be expected, for the "creeping Saxon" right enough, or the imperial "squatter," who has dulled and degraded any part of the globe where he has "squatted"--staking out his claim to import and propagate a civilized vulgarity unheard of before the colonizing of the Anglo-Saxon began. But that is really not the point. The snobbish colonial offficial--the Anglo-lndian as the worst offender--is quite as vulgar as the antipodean squatter--he only looks grander and mixes yogi with his Scotch and baby "polly." But he is of the same indelibly materialist stock, and the yoginess does not alter that fact.

I must assume that you do not know, or I must recall to your mind, the parable of Mrs. Brown and Mr. Bennett. Mrs. Woolf tells us, in a skilful little sketch, how she enters the carriage of a suburban train, and in so doing intrudes unwittingly upon a rather passionate conversation of two people -- one, very large, a blustering, thick-set, middle-aged bully of a man: the other, very small, a very pathetic, poor little old lady (not quite a lady--"I should doubt if she was an educated woman," says Mrs. Woolf-- but none the less to be pitied for that!). The big bully had obviously been bullying the weaker vessel: and Mrs. Woolf calls the former Mr. Smith, the latter Mrs. Brown. As to make conversation before the inquisitive stranger in the other corner, or else dreaming aloud, the little old woman asks her vis-a-vis if he could tell her whether, after being the host for two years running of caterpillars, an oak-tree dies. And while Mr. Smith (who is a shamefaced coward, as are all big bullies come to that) is eagerly replying to this impersonal question, glad to be able to mask beneath an irrelevant stream of words his blackguardly designs upon the defenceless old lady, Mrs. Brown begins, without moving, to let fall tear after tear into her lap. Enraged at this exhibition of weakness on the part of Mrs. Brown (which he probably would refer to as "water works" or something brutal of that sort) the big bully, ignoring the presence of a third party, leans forward and asks Mrs. Brown point blank if she will do, yes or no, what he asked her to do just now, and poor Mrs. Brown says yes, she will. At that moment Clapham Junction presents itself, the train stops, and the big bully (probably jolly glad to escape from the eye of public opinion, as represented by Mrs. Woolf we are told--for he had little streaks of decency left perhaps) hurriedly leaves the train.

Now the point of the story is, we are told, that Mrs. Woolf, being born a novelist of course, and this episode occurring apparently before she had written any novels (1910 is the date implied) is in a quandary as to what to do. She would have liked to write a novel about Mrs. Brown, she tells us. But how was she to do it? For after all Wells, Galsworthy and Bennett (the only novelists apparently that, true child of her time, she knew about) had not taught her how to do it: the only tools (she apologizes for this professional word) available were those out of the tool-box of this trio. And alas! they were not suitable for the portrayal of Mrs. Brown. So what was poor little she to do?

She then enlarges upon her dilemma--which she tells us was also the dilemma of D. H. Lawrence, of E. M. Forster and the rest of the people she recognizes as the makers and shakers of the new-age (all, to a man, ruined by the wicked, inappropriate trio--I need not repeat the names). Finding himself in the same compartment with Mrs. Brown, Wells would have looked out the window, with a blissful faraway Utopian smile on his face. He would have taken no interest in Mrs. Brown. Gals worthy would have written a tract round her: and Bennett would have neglected her "soul" for her patched gloves and stockings.

This was really a terrible situation for a novelist to be in, in 1910: and everything that has happened since, or to be more accurate, that has not happened since, is due to the shortcomings of this diabolical trio (but especially, we are led to understand, to the defective pen of the eminent Fivetowner).

And what this has meant for the novelist, it has meant also for the poet, essayist, historian and playwright. The sins of the fathers shall be visited -- it is the old old story: it is the instinctive outcry of the war-time Sitwells and Sassoons, that is was their fathers and grandfathers who had caused the war--which, as I have been at pains to point out elsewhere (The Great Blank of the Missing Generation) is very much neglecting the fact that there were many other and more formidable persons in the world at the same time as the amiable and probably inoffensive old gentlemen who were responsible for this recriminating offspring: and that probably those progenitors of a "sacrificed" generation were just as powerless as their sons, or fathers, to cope with the forces, visible and invisible, which precipitated the World-War -- although they no doubt deserve a curse or two, just as we do ourselves, for being so short-sighted, and so ill-equipped for defence, against all the dangers that beset a modern democracy.

What Mrs. Woolf says about the three villains of this highly artificial little piece is perfectly true, as far as it goes: "the difference perhaps is," she writes, "that both Sterne and Jane Austen were interested in things in themselves; in character in itself: in the book in itself." Of course, of course! who would not exclaim: it is not "perhaps" the difference--is as plain as the nose was on Hodge's face. Of course Sterne and Jane Austen were a different kettle of fish, both to Mrs. Woolf's three sparring partners or Aunt Sallies, and to Mrs. Woolf herself.

And then Mrs. Woolf goes on to tell us that we must not expect too much of Messrs. Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence, Forster, or Strachey either. For they all, in their way, were in the same unenviable position. All were boxed up with some Mrs. Brown or other, longing to "bag" the old girl, and yet completely impotent to do so, because no one was there on the spot to show them how, and they could not, poor dears, be expected to do it themselves! Do not complain of us, then, she implores her public. Show some pity for such a set of people, born to such a forlorn destiny! You will never get anything out of us except a little good stuff by fits and starts, a sketch or a fragment. Mr. Eliot, for instance, gives you a pretty line -- a solitary line. But you have to hold your breath and wait a long time for the next. There are no "Passion flowers at the gate dropping a splendid tear" (cf. A Room of One's Own) -- not in our time. There are just disjointed odds and ends!

"We must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments. We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition. Ulysses, Queen Victoria, Mr. Prufrock--to give Mrs. Brown some of the names she has made famous lately--is a little pale and dishevel led by the time her rescuers reach her."'

There you have a typical contemporary statement of the position of letters today. Its artificiality is self-evident, if you do no more than consider the words: for Ulysses however else it may have arrived at its destination was at least not pale. But here, doubtless, Mrs. Woolf is merely confusing the becoming pallor, and certain untidiness of some of her own pretty salon pieces with that of Joyce's masterpiece (indeed that masterpiece is implicated and confused with her own pieces in more ways than one, and more palpable than this, but into that it is not necessary to enter here). As to the "strength spent in finding a way," that takes us back to the fable of Mrs. Brown, and the fearful disadvantage under which Mrs. Woolf laboured. Anyone would suppose from what she says that at the time in question Trollope, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Maupassant, Dostoievsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, etc., etc., etc., etc., were entirely inaccessible to this poor lost "Georgian" would-be novelist: it is as though she, Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy had been the only people in the world at the time, and as if there had been no books but their books, and no land but England.< The further assumption is that, prior to Prufrock, Ulysses and Mr. Lytton Strachey's biographies, there had been either (1) no rendering of anythingso exclusive and remote as the "soul" of a person: or else (2) that the fact that there was not much "soul" in the work of Mr. Bennett made it very very difficult for Mr. Joyce to write Ulysses: and that by the time he had succeeded in some way in banishing Mr. Bennett, he had only strength enough left to concoct a "pale" little "fragment," namely Ulysses.

But, again, it is obviously the personal problems of Mrs. Woolf getting mixed up with the problems of Mr. Joyce above all people! For it is quite credible that Clayhanger, astride the island scene--along with his gigantic colleagues, Forsyte and Britling--was a very real problem for the ambitious budding pre-war novelist (especially as she was a little woman, and they were great big burly men--great "bullies" all three, like all the men, confound them!).

But let us at once repudiate, as false and artificial, this account of the contemporary situation in the "Mrs. Brown" fable. Joyce's Ulysses may be "a disaster"--a failure--as Mrs. Woolf calls it in her Plain Reader. But it is not a fragment. It is, of its kind, somewhat more robustly "complete" than most of the classical examples of the novel, in our tongue certainly. It is not the half-work in short, "pale" and "disheveled," of a crippled interregnum. Nor is there anything half-there about D. H. Lawrence's books. Far from being "pale," they are much too much the reverse.

If you ask: Do you mean then that there is nothing in this view at all, of ours being a period of Sturm und Drang, in which new methods are being tried out, and in which the artistic production is in consequence tentative? I reply: There is nothing new in the idea at all, if you mean that the present time differs from any other in being experimental and in seeking new forms: or if you seek to use that argument to account for mediocrity, or smallness of output, or any of the other individual "failures" that occur as a result of the natural inequality of men, and the certain precariousness of the creative instinct--subject, in the case of those over-susceptible to nervous shock, to intermittency of output, and, in extreme cases, to extinction.

Then why, you may enquire, is it an opinion that is so widely held?-- Because--I again make answer--the people who have been most influential in literary criticism, for a number of years now, have been interested in the propagation of this account of things--just as the orthodox economists have, consciously or not, from interested motives, maintained in its place the traditional picture--that of superhuman difficulty -- of some absolute obstructing the free circulation of the good things of life.

Those most influential in the literary world, as far as the "highbrow" side of the racket was concerned, have mostly been minor personalities, who were impelled to arrange a sort of bogus "time" to take the place of the real "time"--to bring into being an imaginary "time," small enough and "pale" enough to accommodate their not very robust talents. That has, consistently, been the so-called "Blooms bury" technique, both in the field of writing and of painting, as I think is now becoming generally recognized. And, needless to say, it has been very much to the disadvantage of any vigorous manifestation in the arts; for anything above the salon scale is what this sort of person most dislikes and is at some pains to stifle. And also, necessarily, it brings into being a quite false picture of the true aspect of our scene.< So we have been invited, all of us, to instal ourselves in a very dim Venusberg indeed: but Venus has become an introverted matriarch, brooding over a subterraneous "stream of consciousness"--a feminine phenomenon after all--and we are a pretty sorry set of knights too, it must be confessed,--at least in Mrs. Woolf's particular version of the affair.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all . . .
It is a myopic humanity, that threads its way in and out of this "unreal city," whose objective obstacles are in theory unsubstantial, but in prac- tice require a delicate negotiation. In our local exponents of this method there is none of the realistic vigour of Mr. Joyce, though often the incidents in the local "masterpieces" are exact and puerile copies of the scenes in his Dublin drama (cf. the Viceroy's progress through Dublin in Ulysses with the Queen's progress through London in Mrs. Dalloway -- the latter is a sort of undergraduate imitation of the former, winding up with a smoke-writing in the sky, a pathetic "crib" of the fire work display and the rocket that is the culmination of Mr. Bloom's beach-ecstasy). But to appreciate the sort of fashionable dimness to which I am referring, let us turn for a moment to Mrs. Woolf, where she is a peeping in the half-light:.

"She had reached the park gates. She stood for a moment, looking at the omnibuses in Piccadilly." She should really have written peeping at the omnibuses in Piccadilly!--for "She would not say of anyone in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young: at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything: at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense as she watched the taxicabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day." To live outside, of course that means. Outside it is terribly dangerous--in that great and coarse Without, where all the he-men and he-girls "live-dangerously" with a brutal insensibility to all the risks that they run, forever in the public places. But this dangerousness does, after all, make it all very thrilling, when peeped-out at, from the security of the private mind: "and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this, the cabs passing."

Those are the half-lighted places of the mind--in which, quivering with a timid excitement, this sort of intelligence shrinks, thrilled to the marrow, at all the wild goings-on! A little old-maidish, are the Prousts and sub-Prousts I think. And when two old maids--or a company of old maids--shrink and cluster together, they titter in each other's ears and delicately tee-hee, pointing out to each other the red-blood antics of thisor that upstanding figure, treading the perilous Without. That was the manner in which the late Lytton Strachey lived--peeping more into the past than into the present, it is true, and it is that of most of those associated with him. And -- minus the shrinking and tittering, and with a commendable habit of standing, half-concealed, but alone -- it was the way of life of Marcel Proust.

But it has also, in one degree or another, been the way of life of many a recent figure in our literature--as in the case of Marius the Epicurean, "made easy by his natural Epicureanism . . . prompting him to conceive of himself as but the passive spectator of the world around him." Some, not content with retreating into the ambulatories of their inner consciousness, will instal there a sort of private oratory. From this fate "the fleshly school" of the last century was saved, not much to its credit certainly, by the pagan impulses which still lingered in Europe. And it became ultimately the "art-for-art's-sake" cult of the Naughty Nineties. Walter Pater was, of course, the fountain-head of that cult. And he shows us his hero, Marius -- escaping from that particular trap, waiting upon the introverted -- in the following passage:

At this time, by his poetic and inward temper, he might have fallen a prey to the enervating mysticism, then in wait for ardent souls in many a melodramatic revival of old religion or theosophy. From all this, fascinating as it might actually be to one side of his character, he was kept by a genuine virility there, effective in him, among other results, as a hatred of what was theatrical, and the instinctive recognition that in vigorous intelligence, after all, divinity was mostly likely to be found a resident.
That is, from the horse's mouth, the rationale of the non-religious, un-theosophic, pleasure-cult, of which -- in that ninetyish pocket at the end of the nineteenth century, in full, more than Stracheyish, reaction against Victorian manners -- Oscar Wilde was the high-priest. And there is, of course, a very much closer connection than people suppose between the aesthetic movement presided over by Oscar Wilde, and that presided over in the first post-war decade bv Mrs. Woolf and Miss Sitwell. (Miss Sitwell has recently been rather overshadowed by Mrs. Woolf, but she once played an equally important part -- if it can be called important -- in these events.) It has been with considerable shaking in my shoes, and a feeling of treading upon a carpet of eggs, that I have taken the cow by the horns in this chapter, and broached the subject of the part that the feminine mind has played -- and minds as well, deeply feminized, not technically on the distaff side -- in the erection of our present criteria. For fifteen years I have subsisted in this to me suffocating atmosphere. I have felt very much a fish out of water, very alien to all the standards that I saw being built up around me. I have defended myself as best I could against the influences of what I felt to be a tyrannical inverted orthodoxy-in-the-making. With the minimum of duplicity I have held my own: I have constantly assailed the swarms of infatuated builders. So, having found myself in a peculiarly isolated position, I had begun to take for granted that these habits of mind had come to stay, in those about me, and that I must get used to the life of the outlaw, for there was nothing else to do. But it seems that I was perhaps mistaken. There is, to judge from all the signs, a good chance that a reversal of these values -- the values of decay -- is at hand. So in my next chapter I make, with more likelihood of a certain, not unpowerful, support than is customary, an expedition into the bad-lands.