Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Irresponsible Wanderer

While Street Haunting is an essay about London, about its characters, it is also an essay about letting go of one’s identity and becoming, or rather realizing that each person is part of something larger. This, perhaps, is why the narrator’s gender and personal identity are so elusive at times, as she slips effortlessly into and out of other people’s lives and stories. Walking through London streets at night is not only amusing and entertaining for the narrator, but it is an escape, as she becomes part of each character and place she comes across.
After we leave our homes, which themselves have over time acquired our identities, Woolf writes, “We are no longer quite ourselves.” This shedding of our skin that we wear so proudly, or with shame, can be entirely liberating, as “who we are” is forgotten whilst shuffling through crowds of “anonymous trampers.” Clarissa Dalloway, felt comforted when she, “…felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere”(Woolf 167). This feeling of smallness, but also the feeling of being a part of everything can be a relief. It reveals for a moment that “our own temperaments” are not really our “own”, that we can toss them away.
Woolf writes, “But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others is broken…” When we leave our homes and the objects which sit in the glow of “the memories of our own experience”, our identities become vague and like puddy; we have nothing to support the claims that, “this is who I am,” no objects to use as proof. Immediately, Woolf’s narrator exalts at this moment thinking, “How beautiful a street is in winter!” Moments prior, the narrator says, “The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow,” as if staying true to one’s identity is a responsibility, as if shedding our skin completely is a childish, reckless act. The narrator’s excuse of going out to buy a pencil is significant, as she is still carrying out the responsibilities of her identity. Though we might attempt at times to completely rid ourselves of “ourselves”, be it, “banker, golfer, husband, father,” we do it hesitantly, not delving too deeply into the experience of another, knowing we should “be content still with surfaces only.” Woolf writes, “We halt at the door of the boot shop and make some little excuse, which has nothing to do with the real reason…” And then, “…we may ask… ‘What, then, is it like to be a dwarf?” Rather than superficially and mockingly observing, I believe the narrator is deeply intrigued by the idea of being someone else- that instead of separating or distinguishing herself from this dwarf, she is blurring the lines by attempting to understand and determine her thoughts.
Though this essay reveals the differences of people, of genders, of classes, it also shows that, “we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run.” Like Clarissa Dalloway, the narrator of Street Haunting asks, “Am I here, or am I there?”
I believe the essay continues Clarissa Dalloway’s thought that, “… the part of us which appears, [is] so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide…”(Woolf 167).

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