WILDE VERSUS WOOLF

Virginia Woolf: a beauty with an audacious mind. A supreme opponent in Oscar.

WILDE:

 

I should have said that great artists worked unconsciously, that they were “wiser than they knew,” as, I think, Emerson remarks somewhere, but it is really not so.

All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate. No poet sings because he must sing. At least, no great poet does.  A great poet sings because he chooses to sing. It is so now, and it has always been so. We are sometimes apt to think that the voices that sounded at the dawn of poetry were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours, and that the world which the early poets looked at, and through which they walked, had a kind of poetical quality of its own, and almost without changing could pass into song. The snow lies thick now upon Olympus, and its steep, scraped sides are bleak and barren, but once, we fancy, the white feet of the Muses brushed the dew from the anemones in the morning, and at evening came Apollo to sing to the shepherds in the vale. But in this we are merely lending to other ages what we desire, or think we desire, for our own. Our historical sense is at fault. Every century that produces poetry is, so far, an artificial century, and the work that seems to us to be the most natural and simple product of its time is always the result of the most self-conscious effort. There is no fine art without self-consciousness, and self-consciousness and the critical spirit are one.

The longer one studies life and literature, the more strongly one feels that behind everything that is wonderful stands the individual, and that it is not the moment that makes the man, but the man who creates the age. Indeed, I am inclined to think that each myth and legend that seems to us to spring out of the wonder, or terror, or fancy of tribe and nation, was in its origin the invention of one single mind.

 

WOOLF:

 

It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex.

It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death. It ceases to be fertilized. Brilliant and effective, powerful and masterly, as it may appear for a day or two, it must wither at nightfall; it cannot grow in the minds of others. Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.

If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous.

No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own. The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame. It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion; it must have made them lay an emphasis upon their own sex and its characteristics which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged.

The blame for all this rests no more upon one sex than upon the other. All seducers and reformers are responsible. All who have brought about a state of sex-consciousness are to blame, and it is they who drive me, when I want to stretch my faculties on a book, to seek it in that happy age, when the writer used both sides of his mind equally. One must turn back to Shakespeare, then, for Shakespeare was androgynous; and so was Keats and Coleridge. Shelley was perhaps sexless. Milton and Ben Johnson had a dash too much of the male in them. So had Wordsworth and Tolstoy.

The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace. Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn. The writer, once his experience is over, must lie back and let his mind celebrate its nuptials in darkness. He must not look or question what is being done. Rather, he must pluck the petals from a rose or watch the swans float calmly down the river. And I saw again the current which took the boat and the undergraduate and the dead leaves; and the taxi took the man and the woman who came together across the street, and the current swept them away, as I heard far off the roar of London’s traffic, into that tremendous stream.

 

Modern literature and the sexes; modern life and the sexes; life and the sexes; the sexes.  Rather inescapable, isn’t it?

The unhappy marriage is at the heart of all literature.

Literature is perhaps the invention of the unhappy marriage.

Wilde, in the Madness passage quoted, sounds like he would have admired Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” and it’s perfect, for at the top he rebukes Emerson, the anti-Poe.

Woolf strives towards some aesthetic reconciliation between man and woman: is it doomed to failure?  Is it a mere abstraction, this sexual intercourse of the spirit? We think we know what she means, this hankering after the “androgynous” mind of the genius; it’s an attempt to reconcile all unhappy marriages, and what’s so bad about that?

Woolf wants two sexes for the mind. Wilde wants one mind: the self-conscious, critical artist.  One versus two.

 

WINNER: WILDE

 

6 Comments

  1. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    April 8, 2014 at 4:44 am

    I just can’t imagine Woolf thinking those kind of thoughts. Oscar Wilde was more insouciant than you made him out to be.

  2. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    April 8, 2014 at 4:46 am

    Are these really direct quotes? I’m confused, obviously.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    April 8, 2014 at 11:05 pm

    Yes, Diane, these are slightly edited quotations from the authors themselves.

  4. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    April 8, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    What are the titles of the works these passages come from? Woolf is always touted as being a feminist. Yet, in the above quote, we seeing her blaming the suffragists for the “sex-consciousness” of the age.

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 9, 2014 at 12:33 am

      Woolf was not your ordinary feminist.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    April 9, 2014 at 11:34 am

    The remarks are from Critic As Artist (Wilde) and Room Of One’s Own (Woolf).


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