Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lost, Found, and then Lost Again in Translation

In "Kew Gardens," Woolf makes it starkly clear that a relative lack of experience with her work does not put us at a disadvantage, but instead allows us to see her illuminations "as a sleeper waking from a heavy sleep sees a brass candlestick reflecting the light in an unfamiliar way" (87). With cinematic precision, she details people, places, and plants, the last of which serve as a naturalistic metaphor for the novel experiences of the infancy of our species. Indeed, I’m afraid to lose my sense of innocent wonder about her work. Zen practitioners, for instance, often paradoxically declare that the goal of Zen is to return the mind to the state it was in when it was naive about Zen. Of course, our impressions of Woolf are “lighted” by things we’ve been taught about her, things we've overheard, and certain notorious pieces of common knowledge. Particularly, when we read writers such as Woolf, it's often tempting to mutter, "This is a suicide note."

However, Woolf's piece demonstrates that such accusations of existential despair are not always baseless. The young man in the first couple she describes remarks that the fate of his love with his partner "Lily" seemed to rest precariously upon a dragonfly's decision on whether to land (84). While the descriptions of fluorescent flowers and youthful intellectuals ruminating on the purpose of existence clearly indicate that Woolf does not mean "Kew Gardens, Queens," the "omnibuses" and their interminable bustle suggest that we are also far from the ignorant bliss of the Garden of Eden (89). The world is no longer a blank canvas upon which we can paint, giving us time to think forever, to “reflect credit” upon us with thoughts that do not "directly praise" ourselves (Mark on the Wall, 79). Instead, the unstable planet has rendered our thoughts more like a Jackson Pollock painting. We cannot seem to find a beginning and end, a past and present, or an inner peace in the midst of a raging war.


  1. I really like your analogy of thought being like a Jackson Pollock painting. That's an excellent way of putting it.

  2. Similar to your mention of Pollack, your parallel to Zen was also really interesting. Perhaps, as English majors taking a graded course on Virginia Woolf, we can also find a parallel in Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus on philosophical logic broke down human existence and, arguably, the entire universe in a list of rather mechanical mathematical proofs. His final proof instructs the student who has read and understood the Tractatus to cease thinking on the topic, experience life, and only return to the topic with a clear mind. Maybe, in order to understand and appreciate Woolf more, we do have to go through a period of methodical examination, then a period of rest (ie. Summer vacation?), and, only then, return to Woolf and just read for a bit of Zen-like enjoyment; we’ll have clear minds but have the practice behind us.