We cannot make a cotton cap out of a metonymy; we cannot put on a comparison like a
slipper; we cannot use an antithesis as an umbrella; unfortunately, we cannot lay a few
gaily-colored rhymes on our body by way of a waistcoat.
Gautier: Mademoiselle de Maupin (1834) (My translation)
‘But if there are no stories, what end can there be, or what beginning?’
Woolf: The Waves (1931)
It should not be difficult to imagine him, imprisoned, bound, just as the suggested title of what later becomes De Profundis (1905) verbally pictures for us, its Latin (In Carcere et Vinculis) lucidly situating Oscar Wilde in a place from which he may not move. There, without evident succession or extension–for time moves so “slowly” that it may not be said to proceed at all, and the lineaments of the world are constrained by the architecture of his cell–he begins “the day by going down” on his “knees and washing the floor” of his cell (921). Indeed, one thing becomes a metonym for another: the day, its “very minutest detail like it brother,” endlessly repeatable, duplicated by its twin and thus vulnerable to the substitution of twinship, resembles the “one long moment” of time, physicalized in “an unchangeable pattern” so that time, space, and the man bound by them persist, without differentiation (904). And yet the day–a day, some day–begins, and he falls to his knees in order to wash the stone floor of his cell. Behind him, the “small iron-barred window” yields little light, rendering the space beyond and bound by the window homologous (904). Later, sitting beneath the window, he will begin to write, only to turn what he produces “over each night to the warden”; this work, as Richard Ellmann informs us in the biography (1988), will not be “returned to” him the “next day” (510). Originating in a place where “motion is no more” (904), how can the word review the immobility of its conditions? How can the writer’s “heart” resist the “stone” all around him (921)? What would such resistance sound like?
To explore these questions, it is important to begin with a discussion of the culture out of which De Profundis emanates, the culture whose judgment Wilde strives to order. This is a culture, H. Montgomery Hyde reports, which, with the advent of the second trial, charges Wilde with committing “‘indecent acts’” (153), a culture whose judicial representative–Sir John Bridge–rejects Wilde’s application for bail with the declaration that “‘there is no worse crime than that with which’” Wilde has been “‘charged’” (157). How is the legal prosecution of the “‘gravest of all offences,’” whose perpetrators “‘suffer from a species of insanity,’” logically constructed (99, 197)? To grapple with this question is to contextualize Wilde’s recasting of the terms on which his culture’s jurisprudence is founded. Such jurisprudence, such knowledge of law, purports to be organized by logic–by the techne, the art, of reason. And yet it is precisely the art of reasoning, the means by which we construe the phenomena of our world, that Wilde adverts to when he asserts that “the fatal errors of life are not due to man’s being unreasonable” but “to man’s being logical” (894). This logic, this “‘common sense’” documented by Hyde (115), this mode of subsuming the particular under the weight of the general, is grounded in a causality arising from a series of equivalences: heterosexuality = normality; normality = virility; virility = the breed of “‘common sense’” that understands these equations to be self-evident, and under the operations of which the regularized world continues. What follows from this is the need to categorize human behaviors which will not fit the equivalences ordained for them, so that homosexuality = abnormality, abnormality = effeminacy, and effeminacy = aestheticism, the latter becoming a de facto figuration of same-sex relations. Such figuration claims that same-sex relations are dangerous, that what ensues from them is a cessation of community, a disintegration of community, propagated by those who will not consent to fit the correspondences by which humankind values and recognizes itself.
Moreover, the work of art and its maker, under the auspices of this logic, subsist in a synonymy from which there is no removal because the interstitial, the intervening space between one thing and another, has been deemed unworthy of being made room for. Thus, the “corrupt” book is a surrogate for its author, whose “sodomitical habits” thenselves, Hyde tells us (114, 349), were historically inaugurated on Anglo-Saxon soil by the “Normans” (349); hence, sodomy becomes a signifier of incursion, the product of a virally configured invasion whose peril is that the virus is contagious. The aforesaid pathological model and the ostensible 1:1 ratio between art-object and artist are identically constructed, so that to proclaim the veracity of either model is to affirm that there is nothing beyond, nothing outside the operations of, this logic, “fatal” because it denies relationship by withdrawing its constituents from the world of differences in which our species may be said to live. In this system of equivalences, the human subject is effectively erased, obliterated by its alleged representations: therefore, nothing may be predicated of it. And it is much of the work of De Profundis to declare the merits of the particular human subject whose predications are broader, more compassionate than, the “fatal logic” by which that subject has been judged. By means of the word, then, Wilde pronounces the potential for the subject–whose frailties, knowingly or unknowingly, are answered by our own–to exist at all. . . .
And it is these visions of the human body, weighted with the generation of movements that at once terminate and fail to terminate, that launch us into territory so vital to The Waves. We have seen the Wildean body of De Profundis stooping to scrub the floor of his cell, suffused with the sorrow actuating that body, its representations resisting the conventional hierarchy of subject and object. We have watched Isadora Duncan raise her arms so slowly–after moving across the stage seemingly beyond the scope of mensuration–that we do not know how she has come before us. We cannot know what she is, if defining the body requires pinning word to thing, as though the thing were spatially fixed by the single name we give it. We must revise our looking, re-see what we have seen. But how can we name, render legible, the body that is more than its own singleness?
By connecting my texts, I maintain that each begins with visions of the body, with what we can imagine the body doing and with what is done to the body. As Woolf goes to such lengths, in the fiction and the essays, to rhetoricize the body, to consider how words rise from it, she urges us to rethink the evidently isolable nature of our materiality, contending that the individual and the community cannot fruitfully be separated, that to re-conceive our corporeality will transform our experience of the world in which we stand. A constellation of figures, each valuing the effort to speak in another way, Wilde, Duncan, Edward Gordon Craig, and Woolf can be yoked together by Yeats, whose belief in the “occult,” Woolf muses in her Diary, entails that all his “writing depends on it,” hangs on the struggle to typify how the hidden and the unconcealed, the invisible and the visible, orient each other (Diary 4, 256). It is true that Woolf writes only sparingly of Wilde, categorizing his work as “persuasive and lucid” (“South Wind” Essays II, 126), importantly pointing to Wilde’s emphasis on rhetorical procedures which reorganize the distance between writer and reader. It is also the case that Woolf and Yeats knew each other, that Yeats admired Craig’s set designs that so significantly spurred Duncan to reimagine her approach to moving through theatrical space. And if, according to Lynn Garafola, “modernist performance,” as evidenced by the Ballets Russes, “was rife with anomalies . . . depersonalized yet replete wit emotion” (87-88), such valuation of the anomalous can be traced to Duncan’s body, traversing the breadth of a stage as though that body were simultaneously single and permeated with the force of a motion finally beyond her, larger than what it moves. It is not for these reasons alone that I position our texts in a species of impingement, but because each enacts Woolf’s assertion, in an essay on Thoreau, that “the common things are so strange,” that the “usual sensations” they evoke in us are “astonishing” (Essays II, 135), and that strangeness and astonishment are valuable for us. One of the virtues of the “common things” being “strange” is that their perceived strangeness alerts us to their complexities, goads us to consider that the local, the so evidently given thing, is intricately compounded. We can think of the body as an exemplar of the commonness of “things,” and it is fitting that Woolf begins The Waves where we begin, in the body.
Yet as The Waves formulates the origin of the body, we find the body itself in multiple manifestations. Thus, each corporeal entity is attended by, doubled by, paired with, another from which it cannot ultimately be disjoined, so that the ground of our inception–the thingness in which we start–confutes any notion of a single point of origin. A consequence of this is that, while it may be impossible here to speak of one thing without reference to another, impracticable to trace our way back to a body’s inaugural moment, the world of things is compacted of the relations which render it discernible, representable. And what is describable–sonically, pictorially–can be read, permitting us to ascertain the proportions in which things persist under the work of our readerly gaze. As early as 1917, Woolf notes the “dominion which writers have over us,” how “it is their actual voice that we hear in the rise and fall of the sentence; their shape and colour that we see in the page, so that even their old shoes have a way of being worn on this side rather than on that, which seems not gossip but revelation” (Essays II, 161). Through the act of reading, we bring our body to bear on the physicality Woolf envisions in the page and meet that physicality with our own. To read, then, is to be included in the “revelation” of a community of the body, for we are paired with the page before us. . . .
In an effort to evince that Duncan’s solo has a history and to represent “‘some common emotion’” which ropes each of us together, even in our differences, I turn to a final ekphrasis or word-picturing (The Waves, 126). It is 14 June 1926: Woolf and Vita Sackville-West are walking, the latter’s letters tell us, “with the dark blue sky overhead” (151-152), the sky that emblazons “how it is not oneself but something in the universe that one’s left with” (Diary 3, 113), in order to see one of Stravinsky’s new ballets. They are about to take their seats, to find before them the Ballets Russes performing Nijinska’s vision of Les Noces, which at once reveals “a new and cogent classicism” by referencing steps belonging to “the traditional lexicon” (Garafola, 127) and defies pointe’s “conventional usage” as the dancers’ toes will rhythmically thump the ground, emphasizing the downward jabbing of the foot rather than the knee’s arced lift, as though plunging into the surfaced depth that supports us, that binds us to where we stand upon it (128). As her brother did in Le Sacre du printemps–where “human sacrifice” secured the “continuity” of “primal” man and tribe (Garafola, 63)–Nijinska will give us a dance “predicated on the very absence of the individual,” embodied by an “ensemble” of “human pyramids, phalanxes, mounds, wedges” (Garafola, 126), marking how we gather ourselves into the structures that we make, into the designs that speak of how we can conceive of making. For the curtain rises, exposing a mound of female bodies encircled with the braid of the bride-to-be, who is merely one of a company of women, her tresses soon to be combed out, pulled, plaited again, signifying (as A.H. Fox-Strangways will later argue in The Observer) that this is an “epic” in which “things happen once, and once only, and they can’t be undone; the family counts, after all” (329). But the family’s counting is a product of how we imagine familial procedures, and now–when the music begins–Stravinsky enfurls us in a “family” of sounds whose initial octaves ring in bars, the beats of which shift from three, to four, to seven, a sonic world where the soloists do not sit in individual roles but slide from one role to another within the order that contains them. Even so, that order’s conclusion will not simply repeat its beginning: into the bell-like resonance of four pianolas, harmonium, and percussion, something will be added. Within, around, the octaves’ reverberation, we will hear the donging chime of major second, coupled with its permutation, the major ninth, as though sonically decreeing our addition to what we see, attesting to our place in the choral dance in which we will have taken part by means of our senses. If “glasses we wear, though we cannot see them” (“Not One of Us” Essays IV, 466), Woolf and Sackville-West nevertheless gaze at Nijinska’s women, whose pyramidal form illustrates that to configure the problem we are in pictures how we inhabit it, that to regard a moving picture may waken our responsibilities to what we see. But now, slowly, the figures seem to open their mouths and surrender, as will the voices in The Waves, to an amalgam of speech and song.
Bruce Bromley’s book,Making Figures: Re-imagining Body, Sound, and Image in World That Is Not for Us, from which this material is excerpted, will be published by the Dalkey Archive Press in 2013. He composed and performed the piano score to the Oxford Theatre Troupe’s production of Hamlet at the 1986 Edinburgh Theatre Festival, his paintings serving as the set designs. The Troupe performed Hamlet in repertory with his play, Sound for Three Voices, for the duration of the 1986 Festival.
The painting inserted above is by Neil Merrick (acrylic on canvas, 2011).