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the voyage out

After tracing Virgina Woolf's increasingly complex modernist experiments - 'Mrs. Dalloway', 'To the Lighthouse', 'The Waves' - reading 'The Voyage Out', her first novel, is like finding a missing link between 19th and 20th century literature. Published in 1915, 'The Voyage Out' contains many of the familiar themes and ideas of Woolf's later work, but it is in the shape of a conventional, 19th century novel - the form that she would later break away from and ultimately abandon completely.

In a kind of Victorian coming of age story, we follow the young and dreamy-eyed Rachel Vinrace, who embarks on a voyage to South America on one of her father's ships. Among the other passengers is her eccentric aunt, Helen Ambrose, who takes her niece under her wing. On the way, Richard and Clarissa Dalloway make a brief appearance, though here they are only two of a great many peripheral characters, all academic, literary and leisure class types, who Woolf sketches with subtle satire.

Once there (it never becomes quite clear where in South America), Rachel falls in love with an aspiring writer, the equally dreamy Terence Hewlett. Against the background of a group of English upholding their etiquette in the heat of the jungle, their slowly developing relationship occupies most of the book. But however romantic, it is doomed to be thwarted by a sudden, tragic ending.

Though the story is conventional, Woolf's style already has that uniquely fluid, meandering quality, lighter than air, full of commas, touching upon this and that, and meanwhile almost imperceptibly shifting the perspective from third person narration to the subjective experiences of her characters. Here, for example, is the moment when Rachel has just started on her journey and she watches England receding behind her.

(Characteristically, it isn't clear at first that these are the impressions of Rachel, who imagines herself to speak for all the passengers, not just of this particular ship but of all who ever embarked on a voyage and saw England disappearing behind them. Note the shift of person halfway through.)

Not only did it appear to them to be an island, and a very small island, but it was a shrinking island in which people were imprisoned. One figured them first swarming about like aimless ants, and almost pressing each other over the edge; and then, as the ship withdrew, one figured them making a vain clamour, which, being unheard, either ceased, or rose into a brawl. Finally, when the ship was out of sight of land, it became plain that the people of England were completely mute. The disease attacked other parts of the earth; Europe shrank, Asia shrank, Africa and America shrank, until it seemed doubtful whether the ship would ever run against any of those wrinkled little rocks again. But, on the other hand, an immense dignity had descended upon her; she was an inhabitant of the great world, which has so few inhabitants, travelling all day across an empty universe, with veils drawn before her and behind. She was more lonely than the caravan crossing the desert; she was infinitely more mysterious, moving by her own power and sustained by her own resources. The sea might give her death or some unexampled joy, and none would know of it. She was a bride going forth to her husband, a virgin unknown of men; in her vigor and purity she might be likened to all beautiful things, for as a ship she had a life of her own.

Like Woolf's later work, 'The Voyage Out' is ultimately not about the relationships between people, but of people with reality. Reality, which to Woolf, as she put it in 'A Room of One's Own', appeared to be "something very erratic, very undependable". As if to illustrate this, we find these small jolting moments in the story when reality becomes strange and incomprehensible to the characters:

...and they found it unexpectedly difficult to do the simple but practical things that were required of them, as if they, being very tall, were asked to stoop down and arrange minute grains of sand in a pattern on the ground.

A similar sense of strangeness pervades the relationship between Rachel and Terence, which isn't passionate in the usual sense, but seems to be a much deeper, hesitant outreaching of two souls who aren't fully convinced the other is real. If this sounds sentimental, Woolf's treatment of it is anything but. Take the following scene, when during an expedition into the jungle they wander off from their party, so overwhelmed by their own feelings that Rachel feels they are enveloped in a mist.

"What's happened?" he began. "Why did I ask you to marry me? How did it happen?"
"Did you ask me to marry you?" she wondered. They faded far away from each other, and neither of them could remember what had been said.
"We sat upon the ground," he recollected.
"We sat upon the ground," she confirmed him. The recollection of sitting upon the ground, such as it was, seemed to unite them again, and they walked on in silence, their minds sometimes working with difficulty and sometimes ceasing to work, their eyes alone perceiving the things around them.

Perception - which again has to do with the relation of the observer with reality - would be a lifelong theme in Woolf's work. Here it takes on an almost hallucinatory quality when Rachel falls ill. The vivid descriptions of Rachel lying in bed, lost in fever dreams, seem to mirror the earlier scenes in the misty jungle, though framed in tragedy.

The sights were all concerned in some plot, some adventure, some escape. The nature of what they were doing changed incessantly, although there was always a reason behind it, which she must endeavour to grasp. Now they were among trees and savages, now they were on the sea, now they were on the tops of high towers; now they jumped; now they flew. But just as the crisis was about to happen, something invariably slipped in her brain, so that the whole effort had to begin over again. The heat was suffocating. At last the faces went further away; she fell into a deep pool of sticky water, which eventually closed over her head. While all her tormentors thought that she was dead, she was not dead, but curled up at the bottom of the sea. There she lay, sometimes seeing darkness, sometimes light, while every now and then someone turned her over at the bottom of the sea.

Note how distant the only objectively real event ("someone turned her over") appears here. Scenes like these reveal the direction Woolf was to take, submerging further and further into her characters' inner worlds, and viewing reality as a distant and "erratic" affair. 'Stream of consciousness' is a poor and inexact term to describe her ventures into this utterly subjective, phenomenological realm.

Usually described as one of Woolf's most accessible books, 'The Voyage Out' foreshadows, in both style and themes, Woolf's radical departure from the classic novel. At the same time it provides a uniquely sensual reading experience, with an intensity and vividness comparable to 'War and Peace' (perhaps the pinnacle of the classic novel).

digital detox

Hm, shouldn't be posting this, nor should you be reading this... Adbusters' Digital Detox Week has just started.

manhole 69

"...What do you think the next step forward will be?"
"Forward where?" Morley asked.
Lang gestured expansively. "I mean up the evolutionary slope. Three hundred million years ago we became air-breathers and left the seas behind. Now we've taken the next logical step and eliminated sleep. What's next?"
Morley shook his head. "The two steps aren't analogous. Anyway, in point of fact you haven't left the primeval sea behind. You're still carrying a private replica of it around as your bloodstream. All you did was encapsulate a necessary piece of the physical environment in order to escape it."
Lang nodded. "I was thinking of something else. Tell me, has it ever occurred to you how completely death-oriented the psyche is?"
Morley smiled. "Now and then," he said, wondering where this led.
"It's curious," Lang went on reflectively. "The pleasure-pain principle, the whole survival-compulsion apparatus of sex, the Super-Ego's obsession with tomorrow -- most of the time the psyche can't see farther than its own tombstone. Now why has it got this strange fixation? For one very obvious reason." He tapped the air with his forefinger. "Because every night it's given a pretty convincing reminder of the fate in store for it."
"You mean the black hole," Morley suggested wryly. "Sleep?"
"Exactly. It's simply a pseudo-death. Of course, you're not aware of it, but it must be terrifying." He frowned. "I don't think even Neill realizes that, far from being restful, sleep is a genuinely traumatic experience."


"Eliminate sleep," Lang was saying, "and you also eliminate all the fear and defense mechanisms erected round it. Then, at last, the psyche has a chance to orientate towards something more valid."
"Such as...?" Morley asked.
"I don't know. Perhaps... Self?"

From J.G. Ballard's 'Manhole 69', from his short story collection 'The Disaster Area' (1967). Another story from this collection is online: 'Minus One' (PDF).

For the ultimate in Ballard's bizarre dystopic visions, see 'The Atrocity Exhibition' (some excerpts are online), the precursor to 'Crash' and inspiration for the Joy Division song of the same title. In his introduction to the book, W.S. Burroughs wrote apocalyptically:

The line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down. Earthquakes can result from seismic upheavals within the human mind. The whole random universe of the industrial age is breaking down into cryptic fragments.

investigation of a citizen above suspicion

Elio Petri's 1970 'Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion' ('Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto') is both a scathingly sarcastic political pamphlet and a highly original character study of a psychopath. Its unpredictable plot and quirkily unsettling score by Ennio Morricone make this hard-to-find film worth a search.

The film is best summarized by its own motto, which appears at the end, a quote from Kafka's 'The Trial':

Whatever he may seem to us, he is yet a servant of the Law; that is, he belongs to the Law and as such is set beyond human judgment.

Essentially a satirical examination of this statement, the film reverses Kafka's perspective of the little man crushed by the Law, and instead focuses on the "servant of the Law", the citizen above suspicion. As such, the film provides an interesting counterpoint to Alan Pakula's paranoia trilogy.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

In the opening scene, a man murders his mistress, then calls the police to report the murder. However, the man, a great role by Gian Maria Volontè, is also the chief of the police's homicide department. In fact, he has just been promoted to head of the security forces. With supreme arrogance, he proceeds to deliberately scatter clues to incriminate himself - and then watches what happens, confident that his own authority will protect him. Who will dare suspect, let alone accuse him?

As the saying goes, 'power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. In this case, power shields, and complete power shields completely. Nobody is capable or willing to follow the obvious clues that lead to their own chief - raising the interesting question whether the hierarchy is so rigid that they are unwilling to accuse a superior, or if the sheer light of authority is so blinding that they simply cannot see it. (The latter interpretation is certainly the more Kafkaesque.)

That same evening he holds a furious speech for his new department that reveals the Fascist tendencies of the Law.

Underneath every criminal hides a subversive person. Underneath every subversive individual there hides a criminal. In the city under our control subversives and criminals have already spun their invisible web that we have to destroy. What is the difference between a gang that robs a bank and organized subversion, legalized and institutionalized? None. They have the same objective even if they use different methods. They want to upset the social order.

In a later scene, inspectors hilariously report on the number of political slogans that have been found on the walls of Rome. "Last year there were 3,000 writings for Mao, 10,000 for Ho Chi Minh, 1,000 for Che Guevara and eleven for Marcuse." It sums up the countercultural climate of the late '60s, when Marxists waved Mao's 'Little Red Book' against the Fascist pigs in power.

But if its political commentary sometimes seems dated, 'Investigation' gains depth in its exploration of the psychology of its main character. In flashbacks, his relationship with his nymphomaniac mistress is shown to have been one of sexual games of dominance, revealing him as a childish bully revelling in his own power. In fact, his motive for murdering appears to have been that she ridiculed his male capabilities.

The motives behind his megalomaniacal plan are left ambiguous, as both an assertion of his power, a twisted proof of his own exalted status, and a masochistic test of the very Law which he embodies. In that sense, he is testing himself, and one part of him does want to get caught and punished, like an emotional child desperate for moral stricture.

The climax of his twisted experiment plays on these different interpretations, resulting in a very convincing pathological case study. The strength of Petri's film is that at the same time it all adds to the punch of its moral and political message.

bat for lashes

With one of the coolest names around and an equally original voice, Bat for Lashes is carving out a genre all of her own. Her 2006 debut, 'Fur and Gold', already earned her comparisons with Kate Bush and Tori Amos, while her new album, 'Two Suns', further explores her private universe of glittery dreams and haunted ghosts.

In between she also delivered one of the best covers of The Cure in years - her rendition of 'A Forest' (mp3) being, if possible, even more morosely spooky than the original.

Bat for Lashes - Daniel

But just when it all starts to get a bit too ethereal and twirly, there's her new single, 'Daniel'. In what must be the sleeve of the year, she can be seen wearing another of her '80s pop culture inspirations proudly on her back... (Yes, 'The Karate Kid''s name was Daniel.)

See also the video for 'Daniel', as well as her endearing 'Donnie Darko'-esque video for 'What's a Girl To Do'.


Word of the day: 'bokeh', Japanese for fuzzy/blurry, and borrowed in English for the aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas in photographs and film, most notable when shot with a narrow depth of field.

Flower bokeh - 1

The term appears to be quite recent, so can't be found in classic filmmaking or photography books. But a quick web search reveals this elusive quality to be a hotly debated issue among photography geeks. There is good and bad bokeh, too, dependent on the specific feel of the blur and the shapes that points of light make. One term for an undesired kind of blur is 'nisen bokeh', 'cross-eyed' or 'double-lined' blur.

Not sure how to rate the bokeh of this one...

Flower bokeh - 2

A film that comes to mind making use of bokeh a lot is 'Out of Sight'. See for example this still, from a collection of "fuzzy lights" from different films.

For the optic theory behind this lense behavior, see 'Understanding Bokeh'.

who's afraid of virginia woolf?

First performed in 1962, Edward Albee's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' is still shockingly savage in its portrayal of a disillusioned marriage. In Onafhankelijk Toneel's version, 'Wie is er bang voor Virginia Woolf?', the actors manage to infuse the play's three hours of relentless verbal warfare with enough emotional depth to let the tragedy behind all the abuse and bitterness hit home. Illustrative of the play's brilliance, it is still possible to discover shreds of love among the wreckage.

In one long liquor-drenched night (the story starts after a party and ends at daybreak) the cynical and twisted mind games that George and Martha have been playing for years come to a violent climax. The arena is a university campus, where George is a history professor and Martha the rector's daughter. But this is not a civilized duel - it is a gloves-off fistfight, with both fighters aiming to open up every old wound they can find, breaking all previous rules and limits of their relationship.

Martha: You've really screwed up, George.
George [spitting it out]: Oh, for God's sake, Martha!
Martha: I mean it... you really have.
George [barely contained anger now]: You can sit there in that chair of yours, you can sit there with the gin running out of your mouth, and you can humiliate me, you can tear me apart... ALL NIGHT... and that's perfectly all right... that's OK...
George: That's a desperately sick lie.

The unwitting witnesses to - and catalysts for - this marital battleground are a young couple, Nick and Honey, who have a few skeletons in their own closet. In fact, as they provide a mirror for George and Martha, so are Nick and Honey perversely drawn to look into the mirror that this older couple provides for them. What they see may be ugly and cruel, but there is an honesty to it that they haven't been able to reach in their own relationship.

George [claps his hands together, once, loud]: I've got it! I'll tell you what game we'll play. We're done with Humiliate the Host... this round, anyway... we're done with that... and we don't want to play Hump the Hostess, yet... not yet... so I know what we'll play... we'll play a round of Get the Guests.

So what has Virginia Woolf to do with all this? Not that much, apparently, except her name makes a play on the Disney song 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?' According to Albee, he found the phrase in a bar:

I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf... who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.

Apart from the connotations of intellectualism, Woolf's name also conjures the deep fear most Albee characters harbor of going insane. Most of the play, in fact, takes place inside the game or fantasy world that George and Martha have created together - a folie à deux almost. Albee, however, insisted that both were fully capable of distinguishing reality from their co-concocted fantasy.

Indeed recognizing the fact that it was a symbol. And only occasionally being confused, when the awful loss and lack that made the creation of the symbol essential becomes overwhelming - like when they're drunk, for example. Or when they're terribly tired.

Without wanting to spoil the nature of this symbol which all George and Martha's games revolve around, it is safe to say it doesn't survive this particular night.

Martha: You know what's happened, George? You want to know what's really happened? [snaps her fingers] It's snapped, finally. Not me... it. The whole arrangement. You can go along... forever, and everything's... manageable. You make all sorts of excuses to yourself... you know... this is life... the hell with it...

The Dutch translation by Coot van Doesburgh also deserves mention, not just conveying meaning but adding new dimensions in Dutch as well. To give one small example: what in English is described as "peeling the labels" (off liquor bottles - Honey's neurosis curled up on the bathroom floor) in Dutch becomes "de etiketten afpulken", adding a word play on labels also being etiquettes. This resonates further in George's comment:

George: We all peel labels, sweetie; and when you get through the skin, all three layers, through the muscle (...), and get down to bone... you know what you do then?
Honey [terribly interested]: No!
George: When you get down to bone, you haven't got all the way, yet. There's something inside the bone... the marrow... and that's what you gotta get at.

Albee is quoted from a 1966 in-depth interview from the Paris Review: 'The Art of Theater No. 4: Edward Albee' (PDF).