Can Language Be Understood as a Spiritual Medium?
Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, and the Use of Form to
Investigate Truth and Death
When F. H. Myers—inventor of the word telepathy and founding member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)—died in Rome in January 1901, American psychologist William James awaited the message Myers had promised him from beyond the grave. According to the doctor who’d been treating Myers, writes John Gray in The Immortalization Commission, the two had made a solemn pact: whoever died first would send a message as soon as he crossed over into the unknown. Too grief-stricken to remain in the room with his dying friend, James reportedly sat outside the open door, and—pen in hand, notebook in lap—appeared ready to diligently transcribe Myers’s spectral communication. When the doctor returned, however, James “was still leaning back in his chair, his hands over his face, his open notebook on his knees. The page was blank.”
The purpose of the SPR over which first Myers, then James, and later Henri Bergson presided, was to “examine paranormal phenomena in ‘an unbiased and scientific way,’” writes Gray. Like Myers, whose best-known publication is a book titled Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, James believed that communication could continue after death, and that, eventually, the phenomenon would be scientifically explained. A series of interconnected automatic writings, produced over several decades by various mediums, served to confirm the thesis that human personality could indeed survive “bodily death.”
Gray quotes Alice Johnson, a member of the SPR, who tells us that the automatic writings collected from various mediums were characterized by their fragmentary and indirect nature. “What we get is a fragmentary utterance in one script,” she explains, “which seems to have no particular point or meaning, and another fragmentary utterance in the other of an equally pointless character; but when we put the two together, we see that they supplement one another, and there is apparently one idea underlying both, but only partly expressed in each.” Johnson’s description of automatic writing could equally characterize the “stream of consciousness” literary technique employed by Virginia Woolf and other modernist writers; indeed, the literary term takes its name from James’s influential description of consciousness in The Principles of Psychology as “a ‘river’ or a ‘stream.’” Consciousness, James argued, cannot be “chopped up in bits,” and neither could it simply disappear. “It is nothing jointed,” he avers; “it flows.”
That the most notable innovation in modernist narrative takes its name from James’s writings on psychology and paranormal phenomena is more than an incidental detail. The “stream of consciousness” technique—and later postmodern literary techniques that employ fragmentation and non-linear progression—are rooted in a Jamesian sense of human psychology and spirit as multi-vocal, continuous, and—ultimately—shared. The literary implementation of “stream of consciousness” signals modernist writers’ commitment to pushing beyond the preconceived boundary of language and selfhood to access what exists beyond the surface of the embodied subject—and to render inspiration (from the Latin spiritus: breath) perceivable on the page.
“There looms ahead of me,” Woolf once confided to her diary, the shadow of some kind of form which a diary might attain to. I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously and scrupulously, in fiction. What sort of diary would I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes to mind.
Woolf expresses a desire to move past the “conscious” domain of narrative fiction—a domain wherein, she suggests, even “disjointed” or “illogical” progressions are scrupulously ordered by their author—toward a more expansive form that extends not only to the subconscious but also to the extra-conscious—that is, to the “loose, drifting material of life” that exceeds the ordering capacities of the conscious mind. What “looms ahead” of Woolf, both in and as the potent (potential) form she envisions, is a way of accessing and expressing the material of life and experience outside of conscious apprehension.
This orientation beyond the finite limits of the speaking subject is also an orientation toward “truth”—a term I understand here in Hélène Cixous’s revelatory sense as that which, existing beneath or outside of representation, can only be accessed by moving specifically away from categories of language, and reason. “We have to lie to live,” Cixous writes in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing.
But to write we must try to unlie. Something renders going in the direction of truth and dying almost synonymous. It is dangerous to go in the direction of truth. We cannot read about it, we cannot hear it, we cannot say it; all we can think is that only at the very last minute will you know what you are going to say, though we never know when that last minute will be.
Writing, as presented here by Cixous, is a double negative (to “unlie” is to negate a negation of truth) that does not produce a positive. It is the presentation not of any object or idea, but rather the possibility of its expression: a necessarily imaginative projection toward “the last minute,” toward death. Although writing may in this way be understood as an orientation toward truth and death, it is—in itself—neither one. Instead, Cixous explicitly aligns writing with living: the deferral of the “last minute” suggesting a continuously generative beginning that is nonetheless founded upon the idea of the end. “To begin (writing, living) we must have death,” she writes. Cixous’s deferral presents us with an unknown, a remainder—and reminds us that truth/death is already immanent within writing/living.
Crucial to Woolf, as well as to other writers experimenting with techniques of fragmentation and multivocality over the course of the last century, is this notion that the supplemental “outside” is already immanent within and confluent with the “inside,” or, to use James’s terms, that an infinite number of sources and possible directions outside of human consciousness are fundamental to, and therefore already immanent within, consciousness’s stream. When Woolf writes, toward the end of The Waves, for example, in Bernard’s voice, “We felt enlarge itself round us the huge blackness of what is outside us, of what we are not,” she situates us not within the flow of a limited human psyche, but at the border between subject and object, life and death. She continues:
The wind, the rush of wheels because the roar of time, and we rushed—where? And who were we? We were extinguished for a moment, went out like sparks in burnt paper and the blackness roared. Past time, past history we went.
Although our speaker claims that this atemporal, disembodied experience lasted “but one second,” the record of it extends the experience immeasurably beyond its embodied framework. “If I could measure things with compasses I would,” reflects Bernard,“but since my only measure is a phrase, I make phrases . . .” Language, Woolf suggests, is the elastic form that extends, beyond living/writing—beyond the ordering impulses of both the body and the mind—toward the infinite flow of truth and death. Language therefore has the capacity to measure and record not only the activity of individual consciousness but the point of contact that every individual consciousness maintains between itself and what exceeds it absolutely.
“But how describe the world seen without a self?” Bernard asks us finally, before continuing with this further meditation:
There are no words, Blue, red—even they distract, even they hide with thickness instead of letting the light through. How describe or say anything articulate in words again? . . . One breathes in and out substantial breath; down in the valley the train draws across the fields lop-eared with smoke.
In the end, for Bernard, there are no words. Subjectivity cannot be expressed except through and as breath, which is at once both the substance of being—what is continuously taken in, what sustains and indeed becomes the living body—and that which is always outside: what the body is obliged (in order to live) to continuously express. The subject can thus never be thought of as a closed or finite system, but instead must be recognized as a systemic relation between inside and outside, language and breath. It is not, then, that linguistic expression of the highly subjective experience of being alive is impossible, but that expression itself is, inherently, a movement beyond a subjective frame.
The Waves is Woolf ’s effort to express the process of expression itself. She probes the relationship between writing and dying and ends the book with a direct address to death itself:
What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride . . . I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
Although Woolf ’s closing passage—voiced again by Bernard—presents an antagonistic opposition between life and death, the final lyrical invocation—“O Death!”—suggests a point of possible reconciliation between two seemingly opposite realms.
Bernard’s address to the beyond is followed by a single, italicized line: “The waves broke on the shore.” Like other purely descriptive passages in the text, which are similarly italicized and presented without quotation marks, this final line offers an apparently objective description of the natural world outside of the concerns of the characters; it thus serves to contextualize Bernard’s subjective confrontation with death within a larger flux and flow. It is the waves—not Bernard, and not death—that have the final word in the novel. The “stream,” made literal here as the flux and flow of the outside world, is shown to continue beyond—and thus to provide the framework for—both subjective experience and lyrical address.
Anne Carson’s Decreation similarly addresses the limits of the subject, and of literary form, by enacting—and pushing against—the boundary between inside and outside. As Fiona Sampson’s review of Decreation in the Guardian observes, what fascinates Carson above all “is the human, ‘the ancient struggle of breath against death.’”
Carson borrows the title of her book from the 20th French philosopher, mystic, and political activist Simone Weil. For Weil, in Gravity and Grace, “decreation” is the process by which we “undo the creature in us” in order to pass beyond the limits of individual consciousness and selfhood and move closer to God. In all 13 discrete sections of Carson’s text—a hybrid of verse, prose, libretto, and a screenplay—Carson explores the possibility of transcribing experience that extends beyond the limits of “bodily life.”
“My personal poetry is a failure,” she writes, for example, in a poem titled “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions.”
“I do not want to be a person. / I want to be unbearable.”
The speaker of the poem asks to be unborn, to exist before or beyond bodily form, while at the same time pushing against the limits of textual form through experimentation with different genres, line breaks, and blank space. Carson’s language becomes literally “unbearable”: it spills over, repeats, interrupts, or vanishes entirely from the page.
This disjunction is necessary to Carson’s project, because—as for Woolf—language functions as an expression not of any particular subject or object but of the essential flux and flow between subjects and objects, materiality and immateriality, measure and the unmeasurable. One of the more arresting ways in which Carson indicates this continuity between subject/object, writing/living, and truth/death is through her evocation of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cinematic procedure, temps morts, “whereby the camera is left running on a scene after the actors think they have finished acting it.” Because actors continue, “out of inertia,” to act into moments that “seem ‘dead,’” every action recorded by Antonioni using this technique becomes an “error.” In later films, the filmmaker would even continue to run the film after the actors had left the set, “as if for a while something might be still rustling around there in the empty doorway.”
In Carson’s own unfilmed screenplay based on the 900-year-old love story of Heloise and Abelard, she employs the temps mort technique through language, rather than through performance and filmic images. Heloise begins the exchange:
The camera is still running. My time is up.
What shall I—?
Abelard has let go his swing and flies out of the frame without answering. Heloise continues to swing.
Because Heloise notes that the moment she and her lover are participating in, though ostensibly unscripted, is still being recorded, their exchange becomes an “error,” a “supplement” to the agreed-upon text. Realizing this, Abelard announces—and simultaneously invents—his own subjective limit, while Heloise is left to point, via her unfinished sentence, to her continued existence beyond the story’s frame.
As in Antonioni’s temps morts, the tension Carson renders apparent here, between the lived moment (however scripted) and the unscripted expanse beyond, points to the continuity rather than the disjunction between presence and absence, as between consciousness and what exceeds conscious apprehension. The dash that follows Heloise’s unfinished question is not an empty gesture. It is, instead, an effort to extend the utterance beyond the embodied experience of the subject or “actor” on the stage. Like one of Sappho’s fragments, which Carson includes in the title section of Decreation, the words are charged with their own ending, with the fact that they “break off,” that we “don’t know where [they are] headed from here.”
As Carson points out in relation to Sappho’s poem, what we see is the “turn toward” that unknown content, toward its “unreachable goal”:
And cold sweat holds me and shaking Grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost I seem to me
But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty . . .
Here, at the end of the fragment, grammar breaks down. The personal pronouns, confused, turn inward to address and, finally, “undo” the poem. Past simple being (“I am”) and the supplement of death; past the gesture of writing and its attempt (a simple stroke across the page “—”) to bridge the divide between what “is” (simple being) and what is “not yet” (the supplement of death); past uncertainty; past the subjective territory of seems, “all” is still “to be dared.”
Writing is the inscription of this absolute potential and, as such, it acts as a medium for what, beyond the finite framework of subjectivity and the individuated body, persists in and as that absolute. For Woolf, writing and language had the capacity to transcribe the waves of human consciousness; for Carson, it has the capacity to transcribe silence and what remains unscripted and unknown. Both authors strive through their writing to disrupt and ultimately dissolve the border between inside and outside, life and death. In their works, both subject and language falter and break down, but they are never negated. Disjunction, blank space, and absence function not as means to deny or evade meaning, but instead work to clear and hold place for the supplement, for “truth.” An always necessarily imaginary and projected plenitude—a plenitude that will fulfill itself only in the “last moment”—is thus revealed in, and as, the fundamental content of the work.
When F. H. Myers died, William James sought to transcribe a message from his friend from beyond the grave, but, in the end, he was confronted with an empty page. What this encounter, like much of Carson’s and Woolf ’s work, illustrates is that, although subjective experience and its transcription may never objectively transcend the limits of the body or the page, nor express what is quite literally beyond them, they may nevertheless be activated as a point of receptivity and as a negative figuration of this beyond. It is, in other words, precisely through an encounter with the limitations of language, the body, and the private mind that we render apparent the point of contact between inside and outside, self and other, and begin to recognize and potentially employ both language and the body as vehicles of inspiration—of the “in and out of substantial breath.”
From Johanna Skibsrud’s The Nothing That Is, which is out now from Book*hug Press. Used with permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2019 by Johanna Skibsrud.