Woolf and Modernism

This began with a conversation about how different ‘eras’ lined up across different areas of culture. Specifically, the question was whether certain writers in the early 20th century were “Modernist” or “Postmodernist”. One of the writers in question was Virginia Woolf. Now, as it happens I happened to have just come across a copy of an essay Woolf wrote about the condition of literature in the 1920s, which firmly contrasts two generations of writers. Her opinions seemed so strongly connected to what I considered modernism that I wanted to write something about it, but I didn’t get around to it. Now, gradually, I have.

In the following, I look at what Woolf has to say, and why I think that what she is saying sounds very Modernist.

I then go on to look more closely, through parallels with the history of philosophy, at different successive movements that might be considered part of ‘Modernism’, and at which ones Woolf seems closest to and which ones Woolf is rebelling against.

I also hope that people will agree to take Woolf as broadly representative of other potentially ‘Modernist’ writers of her day, although I cannot address all of them; in particular, I’m aware that some people believe that Joyce was a postmodernist, even if Woolf was a modernist, and that this is a significant difference between them; I don’t know enough about Joyce to comment.

Please note that this is just an over-inflated reply in an online conversation. It doesn’t pretend to be literary criticism or philosophical history, and neither its (top of the head and imprecise) content nor its (rambling and discursive) form pretend to be of academic quality. But hopefully somebody might find it interesting.


“Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” shows us how Woolf perceived the literary landscape of her day, and what she considered the purpose of writing.

Several things Woolf says in this essay lead me to think of her as a ‘modernist’, rather than a ‘postmodernist’.

First, and most voluminously, Woolf sets everything in terms of veracity, of successful representation of reality, of there being a truth that it is the writer’s duty to ‘catch’. That truth, for Woolf, is character – for Woolf, some character suddenly appears to the writer (in this case the eponymous Mrs. Brown, a woman Woolf met on the train), and demands to be represented accurately: “Come and catch me if you can”. Most, however, do not succeed – “few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair”.

Note that Woolf is not talking about a need to ‘build’ original characters, but a need to ‘catch’ real characters that already exist in the world. Everything is about reality – she approving quotes Bennett’s claim that “if the characters are real the novel will have a chance; if they are not, oblivion will be its portion.”

Woolf is not a naïve Enlightenment rationalist – she acknowledges that there are several ways to perceive and portray the truth. She expresses this in terms of differences in national character (essentialism! not very postmodern of her… later, she goes on to dismiss Conrad on the grounds that he is ‘a Pole’ and hence ‘however admirable, not very helpful’ – sure, he may write in English, but how could any English writer with an English soul learn anything from an essentially alien Pole!?): “The English writer would make the old lady into a ‘character’; he would bring out her oddities and mannerisms; her buttons and wrinkles; her ribbons and warts; her personality would dominate the book. A French writer would rub out all that; he would sacrifice the individual Mrs Brown to a more general view of human nature; to make a more abstract, proportioned, and harmonious whole. The Russian would pierce through the flesh; would reveal the soul – the soul alone, wandering out into the Waterloo Road, asking of life some tremendous question which would sound on and on in our ears after the book was finished… you see one thing in character, and I another. You say it means this, and I that. And when it comes to writing, each makes a further selection on principles of his own. Thus Mrs. Brown can be treated in an infinite variety of ways, according to the age, country, and temperament of the writer.” Woolf does therefore admit that there may be more than one way to get to the truth, and that different portrayals may be better suited for different audiences. Indeed, she very briefly goes further and toys with the idea of questioning the whole idea of reality: “I must ask myself, what is reality? And who are the judges of reality?… There is nothing that people differ about more than the reality of characters, especially in contemporary books.” Here she may begin to sound postmodern. But she does not dive into this way of looking at things, but instead immediately pulls back: “But if you take a larger view I think that Mr. Bennett is perfectly right.” Yes, she admits, we may not be able to have a clear and uncontroversial ranking of characters by how real they are, in the details of looking at each character one by one… but in ‘the larger view’, we know reality when we see it. So she praises the great classics for the reality of their characters, and goes on to criticise later authors for their failure to grasp reality.

Those are the grounds on which Woolf attacks the ‘Edwardian’ novelists, Bennett, Galsworthy and Wells: “They have looked very powerfully, searchingly, and sympathetically out of the window; at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at [Mrs. Brown], never at life, never at human nature”. Woolf thinks there is such a thing as life, such a thing as human nature, and that there’s a clear difference between a book that tells us about these things and a book that does not. Woolf explains how this is compatible with the diversity of novelistic styles: “Mrs. Brown is eternal, Mrs. Brown is human nature, Mrs. Brown changes only on the surface, it is the novelists who get in and out”. Reality is permanent and unchanging and essential, but different explorers can bring back different bits of it to show us. Yet there is still a fundamental difference between bringing back a part of reality and bringing back something else, something that does not ‘catch the phantom’ of truth, and that’s the treason-to-life of the Edwardians: “Mr. Bennett has never once looked at Mrs. Brown in her corner… there she sits and not one of the Edwardian writers has so much as looked at her.”

The utter artistic failure of this approach in Woolf’s view is hard to overstate: “For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.” Not playful words!

It’s not just reality, it’s specifically familiar, understandable, ordinary reality. “The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognises… and it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark.” The task of the writer is “to make us believe in the reality of [their character]”.

Again, Woolf explains her method, contrasting an Edwardian novel with the one she wanted to write: “But if I had done that I should have escaped the appalling effort of saying what I meant. And to have got at what I meant I should have had to go back and back and back; to experiment with one thing and another; to try this sentence and that, referring each word to my vision, matching it as exactly as possible, and knowing that somehow I had to find a common ground between us, a convention which would not seem to you too odd, unreal, and far-fetched to believe in.” Saying what you mean. Finding common ground. Being believable, making us believe in the reality of the things described. Avoiding the unreal, the odd and the farfetched. Postmodern? No.

One last quote: Woolf describes Mrs. Brown, rather desparately, as “that vision to which I cling though I know no way of imparting it to you.” Woolf is a writer struggling to communicate accurately and comprehensively a particular meaning that is dear to her – she knows it’s difficult, maybe impossible, but she isn’t giving up – she certainly doesn’t seem to be endorsing the death of the author! Or again: “Your part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown.” Come on literary people, stop looking for adulation and applause and just make sure you’re describing reality truthfully…

The second thing I’d like to point out is Woolf’s sense of historicism. The essay (mostly in passing) lays out a very clear progression of history, through a series of stages. There is the old way of the world. Then, “in or about December, 1910, human character changed”. Woolf sees a paradigm shift in society – in life, since all of human life is ultimately just facets of the same reality. She connects the way that modern cooks, unlike their predecessors, might ask advice in buying a hat, or borrow a copy of a newspaper [again, note how Woolf sees people first as cooks, second as people, with no hesitation in her assumption that her audience was made up entirely of the employers of cooks, never of cooks themselves] with trends in literature. “All human relations have shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature”.

Woolf has an almost millenarian belief in a total transition from the old way of life to a new Modernity. It’s a shift that’s so fundamental that all other value judgements seem to have to be indexed to this dichotomy between the Modern and the pre-Modern (though she doesn’t use those precise words). Accordingly, she admits that the techniques of the older novelists (those that are ‘ruin and death’ to Moderns) were not only impressive and powerful and understandable in their time and place but actually good – “the convention worked admirably… for that age and generation, the convention was a good one.” So to the extent that prior conventions have to be discarded, it’s not because they were bad conventions, but because they no longer suit the material conditions. And the solution? Find new conventions to abide by. Unfortunately, that may take some time, and may involve a lot of loud noise as the old conventions are replaced. These new conventions will NOT involve getting rid of the representation of objective reality. Quite the contrary: “There was Mrs. Brown protesting that she was different, quite different, from what people made out, and luring the novelist to her rescure… at whatever cost of life, limb and damage to valuable property Mrs. Brown must be rescued, expressed, and set in her high relations to the world.”

So there is turmoil. “Thus it is that hear all around us, in poems and novels and biographies, even in newspaper articles and essays, the sound of breaking and falling, crashing and destruction… at the present moment we are suffering not from decay but from having no code of manners… the feeble are lead to outrage, and the strong are led to destroy the very foundations and rules of literary society… Grammar is violated; syntax disintegrated… the more adult writers do not, of course, indulge in such wanton exhibitions of spleen. Their sincerity is desparate, and their courage tremendous.”

But fear not! “Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction — we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.”

So that’s why I think Woolf is a modernist, why the movement she was part of was, largely, modernist. Three things: commitment to representation of reality and accurate communication of the author’s specific intentions; a linear interpretation of history that puts her age at the cusp, and demands violent reform to throw away the old world and usher in a new ‘golden age’ of society and literature; and an all-pervading seriousness and sense of importance, rhetoric of death and destruction and ruin and vast metaphysical and sociological significances and above all struggle and campaign.


But perhaps what’s more interesting is if we go beyond broad, sweeping cultural terms like ‘modernism’, and look at the specific philosophies Woolf is engaging with.

In the first corner, largely unmentioned, as a backdrop, you’ve got what we might broadly call ‘Romanticism’, an ideology of dualities, of free and autonomous souls in enslaved and mechanistic worlds, where reason, but only reason, can pierce through the illusions to the world beyond. Woolf’s description of the mystical questioning of the hypothetical Russian novelist, in particular, seems very Romantic.

Then you have what emerged out of that. Philosophers after Kant increasingly stressed the interconnectedness of things, the world-soul. Individuals were done away with into abstractions – the person came to be seen only as a reflection of greater things. Sometimes this was mystical or metaphysical, as in Hegel, or more importantly in Bradley. Sometimes it was sociological, as in Comte and Spencer. Sometimes it was economic, as in Marx. In literature, we can probably associate it with social realism, the key word there being ‘social’.

This is the ideology that Woolf is attacking when she attacks the ‘Edwardians’. She gives three different variants in turn: Galsworthy, who sees the individual in terms of social relations, of factories and exploitation and commerce; Wells, who sees the individual in terms of their historical, and specifically their future-historical position, as a series of problems and inadequacies to be overcome in the coming Utopia; and Bennett, who sees the individual as a sum of their social relations, and seeks to describe the individual by describing their bank accounts, their possessions, the view from their window, the occupation of their father, the amount of smokes that issues from the local flour mill, whether the houses nearby are held leasehold or copyhold and what powers the landlords have over the tenants, and so on.

In fact, I’ll quote her quoting Bennett, attempting (this is the fourth or fifth or sixth paragraph) to describe his character, Hilda: “It was one of the two middle houses of a detached terrace of four houses built by her grandfather Lessways, the teapot manufacturer; it was the chief of the four, obviously the habitation of the proprietor of the terrace. One of the corner houses had been robbed of its just proportion of garden so that the seigneurial garden-plot might be triflingly larger than the other. The terrace was not a terrace of cottages, but of houses rated at from twenty-six to thirty-six pounds a year; beyond the means of artisans and petty insurance agens and rent-collectors. And further, it was well-built, generously built; and its architecture, though debased, showed some faint traces of Georgian amenity. It was admittedly the best row of houses in that newly-settled quarter of the town.” And so on and so forth. One gets the impression that if you sat down with enough of Bennett’s books and a spreadsheet, you could work out the entire economic system of turn-of-the-century England, down the last flour mill. But would we know anything about Hilda, as a person? Bennett, Woolf thinks, assumes that she’s just a collection of facts about her place in society.

Where Woolf’s sympathies lie is instead the analytic movement. Both the analytic movement and the phenomenological movement reacted against this big-system style of thought by forcing concentration on the particulars: the particulars of experience, the particulars of thought. And having a great skepticism as regards all of the big systems. Where the systematisers stressed unity and integration, the analytics, as the name suggests, broke everything down into componants. They were atomists. Woolf’s approach seems very much a literary equivalent of this movement: she discarded the big-system synthetic thinking, the idea of using the individual to explore the wider social, biological, economic, historical or mystical context, or that the individual may perhaps be no more than one particular instantiation of that context, and instead wanted to focus on the individual. The pure, singular individual, not her parents or her handbags, but on her, and what made her different from all the other people.

Historically, of course, this allegiance of Woolf’s shouldn’t be a surprising: aside from her general historical context, she was personally a member of the Bloomsbury Set, a group almost defined and founded in expression of the immense personal and philosophical influence of G.E. Moore [fun fact: although sometimes you see him referred to as ‘George’ Moore, he so detested his given names that he refused to ever use them, and he went simply by ‘G.E.’ - or by some other name if that seemed inappropriate. His wife, for instance, called him ‘Bill’]. Moore was one of the founding figures of analytic philosophy, and relentless in his attacks on the previous generation of philosophers; Woolf’s essay can probably be seen as an attempt to extend Moore’s philosophical critique into the literary realm. Moore (along with Bertrand Russell, and later Ludwig Wittgenstein (also lesser influences on Bloomsbury – Keynes once described the latter’s return to England from his self-imposed exile as a primary school teacher and jobbing architect by saying simply “God has arrived”)) swept away the old metaphysics, almost entirely abolished metaphysics itself (their followers would later go the whole way), and focused attention on the analysis of each sentence to find out and assess it’s true content, if indeed it had any – Woolf seeks to do the same to people. Moore was also influential ethically – he stressed that some things and some actions had a purely intrinsic worth, regardless of their consequences and effects, made beauty the highest good (famously once suggesting that murder was wrong because the threat of being murdered was a terrible distraction from the real endeavour of appreciating beautiful works of art), and lauded personal friendship as the route to happiness, while encouraging rebellion against counterproductive social rules and mores. This ethic of intrinsic worth and of artistic justification is echoed, for instance, when Woolf complains of the Edwardian novelists that it feels as though their novels are not finished when one reaches the last page, and that one feels one has to do something in response, like donate to charity or something. Well, that’s all very well and good for the old world, suggests Woolf, but there’s something fundamentally wrong about art that exists to change people’s behaviour! Indeed, she’s not sure “if we are right to call them books at all.” It’s an odd comment, but it makes sense when you think about it in light of Moore – art is art, entire and of itself, and on some level the rest of society just exists to allow books to be written and read, so of course it’s perverse for novels to subordinate themselves to political action, as though, I don’t know, ending child labour or liberalising marriage laws or eliminating starvation were somehow important in their own right. Even if Woolf might(?) not consciously go as far as Moore in subjugating society to art, she probably thinks that at the very least a book ought to have its own value in itself, an intrinsic worth that comes only from what’s within the pages, not from any do-gooder-ism it may happen to inspire – and while that inspiration may not be a bad thing per se, putting too much effort into achieving it is likely to mean sacrificing the purity of art for art’s sake. Thus, a really good book is “self-contained; [it] leaves one with no desire to do anything, except indeed to read the book again, and to understand it better.” [my italics]

Woolf allies with Moore. But at the same time, it’s fair to say that she may not be speaking entirely in unison with him. Perhaps there are hints of postmodernism in her cursory discussion of truth and reality – or maybe they’re only premonitions of Wittgenstein’s ‘second philosophy’. But in truth, I think those abortive ruminations are a lot more to do with Bradley.

More important than the possible brief glimpse of the future is the amount of the past still in Woolf – the degree to which she’s still in debt to the pre-analytics. The most obvious part of that is her historicism – her sense of progress in mankind, of things being appropriate or inappropriate to their age, her perhaps naïve faith in sudden, epochal shifts in social relations. These are traits of the tendency she attacks in the ‘Edwardians’, the tendency toward big systems and context, and largely alien to the following wave of philosophy (except inasmuch as they perhaps thought themselves to represent the end of history).

But deeper than that, there are also echoes of British Idealism. This philosophy, the end-point of Hegelianism, can in turn be broken into two parts. The first part is F.H. Bradley.

Bradley was without doubt the most important, influential and famous philosopher of the age (though Russell and Moore have succeeded in largely eliminating him from history in the century after his death). He can fairly be described as the pope of the British Empire – not because he specifically supported imperialism, but because the culture of all those officials sent out all over the world was primarily Bradleyan. And Bradleyism was a form of late Hegelianism – or, as he would have seen it, an attempt to go beyond Hegel.

There are places where Bradley meets the Analytics. Bradley was an early and influential proponent of logical analysis, to whom Russell was greatly indebted technically. He also encouraged attention to the particulars, warning that all abstraction was falsification (and hence that all possible propositions were false), and here we can see some influence on Woolf. But Bradley was a very, very big metaphysician. Bradley’s metaphysics is a strange combination of the permanent and the transient: the self, he frames in terms of a ‘universal’, an identity that exists throughout time and space but only through a variety of actual instantiations, “Mrs. Brown” being a single unitary thing like the colour red, but only ever seen in “Mrs Brown doing X” and “Mrs Brown thinking Y”, just as we can never see ‘red’, but only a bewildering variety of red things, red letterboxes, red dogs, red leaves on a tree. Mrs Brown now and Mrs Brown yesterday are no more the same than a red dog and a red leaf… yet there is still something the same, the universal seen in all the particulars. I think there is something of this in Woolf’s evocation of her Mrs Brown as something unchanging and immortal – indeed, her conception of life and human nature as unchanging, despite being so different at different times, her metaphor of something that ‘changes only on the surface’.

But Bradley goes far beyond this. Eventually, he decides that there is only one true concrete universal: everybody is one person. Everybody, in fact, is one thing, the same thing as all the other things. There is only one thing in all the universe, including the universe: one thing, the Absolute. Things do not have relations with other things, except in that they are all the Absolute. The Absolute is not composed of matter, there is no matter, the Absolute is only experience (hence the ‘Idealism’). But where Hegel believes that the rational is the real, Bradley believes that the Absolute transcends all attempts to apprehend it. Appearances are illusions. All claims and judgements are false. Yet at the same time, everything we say must be partly true – the Absolute contains all things, including all possibilities. So rather than true and false being opposite, all things are false, but they can be more or less false. Specifically, each attempt at a description captures some part of the Absolute, and the more true a description is the more of the Absolute it manages to describe. And this I think is where Woolf gets her occasional moments of semi-postmodernism from: from this Bradleyan faith in the eternal and unchanging that at the same time cannot be captured, about which contradictory statements can be equally true, about which all statements are ultimately false. And it’s worth mentioning in passing, particularly given Woolf’s degree of passion, that Bradley also denied the correspondence theory of truth – that is, he did not believe that true beliefs must correspond with reality. Oh no – he believed in an identity theory of truth. A true belief IS reality – or reality is only true beliefs; beliefs, judgements, are only beliefs and judgements because of their place in a wider reality that proves them all false. In the end, there is only one true belief, the true belief that contains the whole of existence, and that belief is simply the same as existence itself, as the Absolute. And there is something thrilling about this for a novelist. Because in this account, if Woolf succeeds in saying something ‘true’ for some adequate value of truth, she is not merely saying something that corresponds to reality, thinking something that corresponds to reality, she actually is thinking reality. Mrs Brown is an idea in her head that she cannot convey not merely in a metaphorical sense, but in a literal sense. The injunction to be true to Mrs Brown, to ‘rescue’ Mrs Brown, takes on not merely an aesthetic importance but a thoroughly metaphysical, almost religious one!

And finally, it is worth mentioning briefly Bradley’s moral views. Although he is, in the modern world, most famous for his description of Hegelian ethics in his essay “My Station and Its Duties”, in which he outlines with persuasive power the Hegelian account of a society in which each person knows their place, and in which each place comes with its own particular and unique set of duties and obligations, a sort of tailor-made morality that recognises each person’s identity as a mechanism in the greater machine, Bradley himself did not hold such views (though he found them appealing). Instead, he rejected them on the grounds that such an account would end up endorsing the structure of society itself, whereas in reality some societies were themselves structured in immoral ways. Instead, and seemingly paradoxically given his monistic metaphysics (the two sides of his philosophy were never entirely reconciled), he argues that it is everybody’s duty to find a way to their own self-realisation within society. The emphasis thus shifts from the individual as the tool of society to the society as the tool of the collectivity of self-realising individuals. This was a view very much at odds with previous Hegelianism, whether right (nationalist) or left (communist); but a view very amenable to Woolf and her friends. Of course she’s not happy to see how Bennett describes Hilda through her society, to the extent it seems almost as though he’s describing society through Hilda – what really matters, after all, is Hilda’s own moral struggle to be true to herself, to discover what and who she is, in which context ‘society’ is mostly of interest only as an externally-imposed obstacle, an illusion to be seen through, an obstacle to be overcome. But more than that: of course Woolf shouldn’t be writing novels that force people “to join a society, or more desparately to write a cheque”! Then she’d just be a tool of society – no, her job is simply to realise herself as completely as possible by writing books that express her own self, and society’s job is to continue to provide her personally with an independent income, good food and drink, and sufficient leisure time to let her get on with this fantastic, ethically-endorsed, project of art.

Those who followed Bradley, however, for the most part attempted to stay true to his general ideology while dropping the belief that All Is One. These philosophers remained Idealists, they continued to believe that reality was composed of experience, not bricks and bones; they continued to believe that a great deal of appearance was illusion (the one philosophical argument that has been allowed to survive from that era and still be taught in textbooks is McTaggert’s argument that time does not exist, typical of the immense, countercultural swagger of the Idealist’s project, which seems at times to have set out to take a hatchet to common sense). But they tended to harken back consciously to Leibniz and his monadism – the view that the world consists of an infinite number of feeling, striving, indivisible substances or entities, with little or no connection between them (Leibniz’s famous saying that there are no windows in a monad). This view took Bradley’s ideas of moral struggle for self-realisation and applied them to the whole of reality, making not only every person but every inanimate object into a quest for self-realisation. And from my limited reading of Woolf (one novel, Mrs. Dalloway), I can’t but think that she was influenced by this sort of position. Mrs. Dalloway sees the eye of the narrator flit between numerous characters, who live in the same world, and, as it were, each contains a mirror of the others, but who at the same time seem fundamentally atomistic, each mind its own monadic arena for its own stream of consciousness.


Anyway, there we are. I think it’s fair to distinguish at least three ‘waves’ of ideas that we might associate with “Modernism”: and perhaps my inability to pick just one is a part of what Modernism means. Because Modernism was revolutionary, a casting out of the old and the formulation of the new. And if we accept that social changes take time, and social movements exist for a period of time, then a revolutionary idea will end up turning against itself. The revolutionary “Modernist impulse”, as we might call it, was a sentiment that affected the world for decades, for generations, and inevitably generation was lead to revolut against generation until the impulse passed. And so we can distinguish three waves: the first wave, the systematising, socialising wave; the mystical, universalising wave (it’s worth stressing here how influential Bradley and the other Idealists were on ‘Modernist’ artists, despite being forgotten today – T.S. Eliot, for instance, even wrote a doctoral dissertation on Bradley, and, later, Borges was deeply influenced and explicitly references him) (I’m no Continentalist, but I wonder whether maybe Heidegger might be an analogous figure there?); and then the analytic, de-metaphysicalising wave. One might perhaps also include a fourth wave, including both the behaviourists and the ordinary language philosophers, as the final phase of the impulse. Each wave was associated with ‘Modernist’ artists, but each wave rebelled against the previous – so Woolf, for instance, is primarily rebelling against the first wave, not against the Romantics. This may be why it’s tempting to assume that she’s postmodern, in that she’s arguing against modernist – but I would argue that she’s still several iterations of Modernism away from real postmodernism.


And now, then, I seem to remember that when I started writing this, I had some sort of aim or purpose in mind. If that was the case, I seem to have lost hold of it. I’ve written 5,000 words, over a period of weeks, and now I feel I can’t end before some sort of perorative conclusion… and I don’t have one. So…. I’m going to stop now. I think? Yes.


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