Making Existentialist Waves (2)

A few weeks ago, I was thinking aloud about the similarities that struck me between Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, published some seven years after Woolf’s book. The more I read the Woolf, the more striking the similarities seemed. Two more examples struck me forcibly. Bernard, towards the end of the book, almost quotes Edmund Husserl’s famous phenomenological dictum, “to the things themselves”:

How much better is silence; the coffee-cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee-cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself. Do not come and worry me with your hints that it is time to shut the shop and be gone. I would willingly give all my money that you should not disturb me but will let me sit on and on, silent, alone.

Virginia Woolf: The Waves

The second concerns Sartre’s preoccupation with biography in Nausea. His character Roquentin discovers (as I described in my last post on the subject) that, for him, writing biography is impossible since the chaos of real life bore little resemblance to the recorded anecdotes told of a life. Woolf’s character Bernard makes several references to his biographer, all of which carry echoes of Sartre’s preoccupations, including this:

‘Once I had a biographer, dead long since, but if he still followed my footsteps with his old flattering intensity he would here say, “About this time Bernard married and bought a house . . . His friends observed in him a growing tendency to domesticity . . . The birth of children made it highly desirable that he should augment his income.” That is the biographic style, and it does to tack together torn bits of stuff, stuff with raw edges. After all, one cannot find fault with the biographic style if one begins letters “Dear Sir”, ends them “your faithfully”; one cannot despise these phrases laid like Roman roads across the tumult of our lives, since they compel us to walk in step like civilized people with the slow and measured tread of policemen though one may be humming any nonsense under one’s breath at the same time- …’

Virginia Woolf: The Waves

It is intriguing to speculate how not only Woolf’s stream of consciousness style might have influenced Sartre but also, subconsciously or otherwise,  the ideas she was writing about. As TS Eliot probably said, “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” It often pays for artists to play down their most significant influences. Draw attention to them and they risk commentators endlessly speculating on the similarities and differences between the artist and their model. This can be a distraction.

I know this might only be interesting to a small group of people who have read and enjoyed both of the books concerned. There is, I think, though, a more general point. I, for one, being a casual reader, was surprised to find the similarities I found. Rightly or wrongly, I kept Woolf and Sartre in quite separate compartments in my view of things: although I thought of both as Modernist novelists I had not made the connections between them I discovered by reading their work side by side. Partly, I think, this is to do with their very different backgrounds and with the very different backgrounds of the characters they invented. It is also to do with what they set out to achieve: for example, Sartre, I read, was very influenced by American “hard boiled” fiction. There is also the matter of the use of the “existentialist” label: the words existentialism and Sartre are inseparably wedded. Occasionally, the word is linked with Woolf, but not often: I may be missing something but in a quick search I found only one or two footnotes to essays suggesting that it would be interesting to explore existentialist ideas in Woolf’s writing.




Making Existentialist Waves

Perhaps I’m misjudging her but I find it hard to imagine Virginia Woolf in a black, turtle-neck sweater, smoking a Gitane. I also think Jean Paul Sartre might have raised an eyebrow or two at  her preoccupation with the servant problem. However, rereading The Waves (published in 1931) as I am, and having read  Sartre’s first novel Nausea (1938) relatively recently, I was struck by the similarities of theme. Simone de Beauvoir said that Sartre was influenced by the use of stream of consciousness by Woolf and other Modernist writers but does it run deeper than that? And could one usefully describe Woolf as an Existentialist novelist? I’ve had these thoughts at the back of my mind all the way through The Waves. The passage below is one of several where, for me, the issues came to the fore. The characters in The Waves are said to resemble specific members of Woolf’s circle. The character Rhoda is said to be based on Woolf herself and the state she describes herself as being in bears more than a passing resemblance to the “nausea” described by Sartre’s character, Roquentin. The emphases are mine:

There were lamp-posts,’ said Rhoda, ‘and trees that had not yet shed their leaves on the way from the station. The leaves might have hidden me still. But I did not hide behind them. I walked straight up to you instead of circling round to avoid the shock of sensation as I used. But it is only that I have taught my body to do a certain trick. Inwardly I am not taught; I fear, I hate, I love, I envy and despise you, but I never join you happily. Coming up from the station, refusing to accept the shadow of the trees and the pillar-boxes, I perceived, from your coats and umbrellas, even at a distance, how you stand embedded in a substance made of repeated moments run together; are committed, have an attitude, with children, authority, fame, love, society; where I have nothing. I have no face.

‘Here in this dining-room you see the antlers and the tumblers; the salt-cellars; the yellow stains on the tablecloth. “Waiter!” says Bernard. “Bread!” says Susan. And the waiter comes; he brings bread. But I see the side of a cup like a mountain and only parts of antlers, and the brightness on the side of that jug like a crack in darkness with wonder and terror. Your voices sound like trees creaking in a forest. So with your faces and their prominences and hollows. How beautiful, standing at a distance immobile at midnight against the railings of some square! Behind you is a white crescent of foam, and fishermen on the verge of the world are drawing in nets and casting them. A wind ruffles the topmost leaves of primeval trees. (Yet here we sit at Hampton Court.) Parrots shrieking break the intense stillness of the jungle. (Here the trams start.) The swallow dips her wings in midnight pools. (Here we talk.) That is the circumference that I try to grasp as we sit together. Thus I must undergo the penance of Hampton Court at seven thirty precisely.

Virginia Woolf: The Waves