Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hidden Sights, Hidden Feelings

While Woolf explicitly mentions only her work on To the Lighthouse in the personal diaries she kept during the General Strike, she also reveals in these worrisome journals the impressions, sensibilities, and sense of fear that guide "Street Haunting. If World War I revealed uncertainty and madness in the state of the world, the General Strike revealed uncertainty and madness in Woolf's immediate context-- her beloved London. Gone are Mrs. Dalloway's flowing passages on skywriters, encounters with heads of state, or other such communal experiences. In "Street Haunting," this sense of British national pride is replaced by feelings of solitude and despair, and the vibrant imagery by grotesque figures and hidden "crevices." Rather than a mysterious and intriguing car that may hold the Prime Minister, in her diaries Woolf describes a "commonplace & official" voice reminding the Londoners in a "very trivial" way that the Prince of Wales is returning (woolfonline.com, personal diaries, “5th May 1926).

Woolf encounters the strike with similar unease, feeling a similar sense of desolation. She writes, "...there is a brown fog; nobody is building; it is drizzling... There are no buses. no placards. no newspapers..." (5th May 1926). The strikers have cut off public transportation, the means of Elizabeth's foray into flaneuse-ing. Hence, any woman who wishes to have a wandering, solitary urban experience must instead stroll, like the narrator of "Street Haunting." One can imagine Woolf taking a stroll during this time of unrest, encountering strange rabblerousers, and marveling at the British working class that seems to have crawled out of the woodwork. As Woolf discovers with fright, if the poor are not driving the buses and building the homes, they gather in the public square. Suddenly, the modern urban world seems much more imposing, much more crowded, much more difficult to grasp within the conventional human understanding of the way the world, or the city, is supposed to work. As in Woolf's lengthy dissertations on the "dwarf" and the two blind men, London seems to her "tedious and depressing," while at the same time it presents an "unprecedented spectacle" (5th May 1926).

Woolf's diaries during this period illuminate the point of view of the narrator in "Street Haunting." Though Woolf may have supported the strikers in principle, she fills her diaries with an uncanny sense of fear and instability, rather than with socialist platitudes. "L.(eonard) & I
quarreled last night," she writes, "I dislike the tub thumper in him; he the irrational Xtian in me" (9th May 1926). In this brief interlude, we understand that Woolf does not stand blindly behind Labor ambitions, and indeed, perhaps holds on to some of the flavor of her bourgeois upbringing. She concludes another entry, "Now to dine at the Commercio to meet Clive" ("7th May 1926"). While we would be unfair to expect Woolf to cease the activities of her normal life, Woolf here reveals that she is clearly not among those taking to the streets. Her following entry of May 20th, which mentions chess, tea, and poetry, suggests even more the objective, outside observer of "Street Haunting."

The conversation with Leonard also allows us to witness an instance that might drive Woolf, an "irrational" woman according to Leonard
, to want to "obtain a pencil” (“Street Haunting”). Leonard unfairly attributes Woolf’s perspective purely to her fright, and to what he perceives as prudishness. At the same time, in the wake of the war, Woolf may be right to suggest that more violence and unrest will only make things worse. Woolf hence elucidates why a woman would then turn to her diary, or to a long walk through the dangerous but fascinating streets.

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