Sounding Figures: Chapter Beginnings/Roundings

It is inevitable, as well as desirable, that we should bear each other’s burdens.
E.M. Forster: “The Eternal Moment” (1928), 294.

The actors in Antigone open their mouths. The sounds that pass between their lips, combined with the resolute immobility of their bodies, with the way in which each declaration answers another and reflects the very thinking it amends, as though syntax, syllabled out, were capable of attaining a physicality equal to that of the body–all this assumes the fact of our presence, given that the argument before us appears to exact a judgment of each individual’s strategy for participating in the whole of which he is a part. But what do we owe to the whole whose expanse our eyes cannot measure? How can we “bear each other’s burdens” if we fail to recognize their urgency?

The sentry has escorted a young woman to the palace, stiffly grasping her arm, though the woman has not balked the judicial imperative of being guided. Indeed, she submits to the weight of the sentry’s grip as if submission logically followed from everything that preceded it. When her cry, out in the noonday heat, covered over the “great empty air” (462), when she “poured a triple stream / of funeral offerings” and “crowned the corpse” of her brother with all that had been refused it (474-475), she saw the consequences of her choice: the charge of an arresting arm; the cast of Creon’s body, buttressed by the law for whose rectitude he stands.

She saw, too, the inevitability of the scene arising from her efforts to honor the ligaments connecting the living and the dead, how the public world extends beyond what we see, proportioned by the “Justice” that “lives with those below” (495). She saw that to separate the public “proclamation” from the “Justice” which ordains it renders that “proclamation” a nullity (494), a heap of words thrown in air as though nothing stretched beneath it. But now the chorus–in which each distinguishable voice is enfolded in a speaking whole–asserts that Antigone “does not know / how to yield to trouble” (516-517); while, in the sunlight, her body draped but for the shaft of her neck, her face surmounted with a mask, we see Antigone briefly close her eyes. We can imagine all her dead ranged behind her, the father guilty of parricide and incest, the brothers equally embraced by the “god of death” (570). So that when she opens her eyes, announcing that it is her “nature to join in love, not hate” (576), Antigone proclaims the struggle “to join” what must be joined equivalent to a yielding that cannot be repudiated, a yielding acknowledging the very “trouble” of its cost.

But what species of joining “love” is this, so freighted with the “trouble” of apparent disconnection? And what vision of community does such “love” enact? For Antigone, the present becomes an apostrophe to the past, a kind of mobile locution directed at the ways in which the ancestral and the immediate past must remain undivided, as both inundate the fact of the present moment, making of time a vessel that cups together the familial and the singular self in a breed of mutual flood. Thus, the identifiable, particular self cannot be seen without reference to the selves who are her origin. To attempt to sever the living woman from the dead who endlessly modify her would be tantamount to positioning her in an incoherent category whose terms she could only choose not to recognize.

Moreover, to admit those terms–their import, their utility–would necessitate that she should be separated out from the corporate body that orders her, would entail her expulsion from a temporal plenitude in which each choice embodies our commonality with the dead. So removed, expelled, Antigone would find herself in a domain where everything is always the present, impoverished, diminished by its lack of common ground with all that antedates it. Such impoverishment would, in turn, vitiate the work of “piety” (574): we perform our “reverence” for the dead (1001)–dutifully, taking the “trouble” to give what must be given, to honor the bridge between the outside through which we move and the “below” where our dead await us–or we are nothing. Hence, asserting that ‘there is nothing worse / than disobedience to authority” (726-727), Creon renders himself the material criterion by which all phenomena are organized, without context, the past effaced by the minatory “discipline” to which we can only pay obeisance (730), the future a tautology for the present, without end.

Before the illimitable extension of such a present, Antigone commits herself to the “love” that claims to rupture the relation between the laws “of God” (978) and worldly “authority” requires that we should give “precedence” to our duty to the lost (970), a duty less adventitious than mere “authority” by fiat. To obey the quotidian decree without consideration of divine law is to proceed as though we were not bound to share the burdens of our dead, as though all we had left was an “outside,” unshadowed by something that exceeded it. But giving “precedence” occasions its trail of losses: an Antigone “unbedded, without bridal” (974); the suicides of Haemon, of Eurydice–all ensue from dicta in collision. Nevertheless, joining those “below,” Antigone embraces the community–the interlinking of past, present, and future–in which we start.

Yet how does Antigone, as a model of the philosophical system on which classical drama rests, exhort us to imagine the relations between first and last things? Are the two territories–one the scene of our arrival, the other that of our recovery of everything we have lost–conceived so that they amount to a single dominion whose seamlessness contains all things, without differentiation? Rather than conceiving a junctureless structure, depicting the provinces of the living and the dead locked in mere metonymical correspondence, Antigone argues that the two precincts are bound in a proportionate relation: the individual’s actions above the ground are weighted with, contiguous to, his mnemonic debt to recall those “below.” And this presents us with a double burden whose capaciousness we must be stalwart enough to carry. We must shape our actions with regard for our obligations to those adjacent to us, while choosing not to forget that we do not act alone, in a kind of quarantined isolation, but find ourselves fastened to the bulk of those who have preceded us. Even so, the conceptual system here models room for difference and for solidarity, as we are free to abjure the encumbrance of realizing that the self is not a world segregated from all other phenomena, however costly such abjuration may be for us. We are free to imagine ourselves detachable from our dead, and to proceed as though disentanglement were identical with defining the scope of what it means to be an individual. But no matter how we adjudge the relations between self and other, others remain around us, as the dead persist below us; hence, to posit the self in sequestration affirms that we move always alone, that the terrain of the dead is a pleonasm for that of the living, duplicating the self’s cloistral environs.

At the conclusion of Antigone, however, when Creon avows that he does “not know where to turn” his “eyes / to look to, for support” (1416-1417), the play gives us a new form of proclamation: the king who stepped through the world as though the operations of selfhood were equal to right adjudication awakens to the fact of his bereavement. Bereft of community, of son, of wife, he cries out at being sealed in the detachment on which his self-conceptualization was predicated. And his cry sounds the need for our “support,” since the chorus around him stands for us, for the solidarity between self and other, for the common ground whose amplitude embraces the generality of the living and the lost.

Crafting the relationship between the particular and the general directs us to Woolf, who, in “On Not Knowing Greek” (The Common Reader, 1925) and Three Guineas (1938), puzzles out the virtues of being “for ever drawn back to Greek,” to the “impersonal literature” of classical drama (24). Puzzling out the nature of an “impersonal literature” necessarily entails a consideration of what we mean by the primary terms of “personal” and “impersonal,” and summons their corollaries in a kind of convocation. For, as we define the characters of the personal and the impersonal, we place those characters under the auspices of the particular and the general, conferring spatial breadth on the purviews in which these associated terms operate. Hence, the particular, as manifesting the personal, can be assimilated to the local “life indoors,” the “inside” which seemingly affords us the option of secluding our selfhood from the community that formally regulates it (33). The life “transacted out of doors,” under the aegis of the generalized “community,” logically follows from this, detectable in the “common stock” from which, grooved “for centuries,” customs “have arisen,” tethered to “hilltops and solitary trees,” to the “outside” permeated with the accumulated drama of our shared experience (25-26). But such accumulation postulates that we infuse, inscribe the turf outside us with what we say of it, and that what we permit ourselves to say of it matters.

The act of saying, then, the energy that propels the act of saying, redistributes the relations between our primary terms and the associative net arising from them. If “legends have” customarily “attached themselves to hilltops,” to “solitary trees” (25), the single voice that raises itself in speech at once stitches together, by a type of reverberatory knitting, the personal and the impersonal, the inside from which the voice ascends and the outside it addresses, the particular, vocalizing self and the general nature of the ritualized word. It is critical here that we note Woolf’s syntax: to contend that “legends have attached themselves” to the territorial markers of “hilltops” and “trees” argues that “legends” precede the speakers found for them, that the “legends” themselves spur the generation of human speech into which they are enfolded, and by which the verbal and the physical are looped together. Thus, Woolf’s contention rearranges the conventional order by means of which speech is said to function, and simultaneously reviews the ways in which the personal and the impersonal are habitually aligned. “Legends” become the principal agents, the subjects that inaugurate the sonic arc of the voices shot through with them, while the scenes of their narration are permeated with all that we consent to tell of them. The propulsive force at work in the act of saying consequently renders human voices the instruments of the “legends” whose scope includes and surpasses the speakers who can countenance yielding to the gift of orchestrated sound. Indeed, our work is to accede to uttering the “legends” that move through us, that narrate how the general breaches the particular and that sound out the “great fund of emotion” from which we may profitably draw (27).

But to draw from that “fund” is not without its risks. While the things of the earth resound–lingeringly, memorially–with the “legends” that human voices have sung of them, it is nevertheless the project of “each new poet” to weigh, to stress the commemorative reservoir of “emotion” in “a new place” (27). Taking Sophocles as an exemplar of the “new poet,” Woolf exhibits the imperative that Sophocles, under the impetus of “those legends . . . known to every one in outline” (26), should “at once impose his stamp” upon them (27). To “impose” our “stamp” on the communal store of “legends” fostering our capacity for song shows us how Woolf elaborates her vision of the kinship between the impersonal and the personal: generalized, legendary stock may initiate song, but the singer must fashion what he sings so that–marked with him, interleaved with him–it testifies to the way in which he serves the narrative heave of his material. The general and the particular reveal their interdependent affiliation as the “new poet” shapes the swell of the tale which simultaneously predates him, transfuses him, only to be re-forged in the work which will signify how he leaned, how he stood on the ground that once widened beneath him. Reflecting on the instance of Sophocles and his Electra, Woolf visualizes the “design” which affords the poet his opportunity for interlarding himself with the venerable curve of the tale he treats (27), and it is here that we confront potential failure.

The elements of Electra’s chronicle, in their very priority to Sophocles’s treatment of them, seem to typify the task at hand: how do we bend ourselves to what is always before us while honoring the integrity of our act? Woolf pronounces that the “genius” of Sophocles belongs to the “extreme kind” in that it marks the prominence of “design,” of fabricating a concentrated whole whose failure would be disclosed in “gashes and ruin, not in the blurring of some insignificant detail,” and whose success “would cut each stroke to the bone, would stamp each finger-print in marble” (27). Importantly, Woolf’s metaphor renders corporeal the “legendary” Electra who materializes as both “bone” and “marble,” susceptible to and inspiriting the shaping-work of Sophocles’s hands. By implication, Woolf asks that we register how each modeling sweep, each sculptured twist of his material shows us the particularity of Sophocles positioned within the generality of the “great fund” from which Electra emerges. “Each movement must tell to the utmost” because each has the “whole weight” of condensed design–of “legends” both figuring the personal and overtaking the merely personal, together with the language by which we know them–“behind it” (27). The peril here, the hazard that identifies this as “the dangerous art where one slip means death” (27), lies in the poet’s obligation always to remember the impersonal “stuff” which his making negotiates, so that the personal and the impersonal are conjoined in mutual predication, mutual anchorage: we radiate from the impersonal, which nevertheless requires us to speak of it. . . .

Yet how can we acquiesce in feeling, in the imagination at work in feeling, when the general and the particular–the public and the private–are at such odds that the one appears to swallow, to obliterate, the other? At the heart of Three Guineas, Woolf lodges the figure of Antigone, the woman whose speaking frame pledges that the public and the private mutually potentiate, precipitate, each other, and whose bodily sufferings assure us that when one term usurps the legitimacy of another, our peril is in misjudging usurpation as being identical with the world as such. Licensing the engulfment of one word in the enclosure of another repeals both the coordinate nature of words themselves and their conditioning labors: without its complement, the magisterial word telescopes our vocabulary and the aptitude it affords us of conjuring a world as expansive as ourselves. Woolf installs, in the center of her argument, “Antigone’s five [Greek] words” (82)–“My nature is to join in love, not hate.” “Worth all the sermons by all the archbishops” (82), at once diminutive and comprehensive by virtue of the compass they betoken, Antigone’s words signal the reach in striving to “join in love” without negating love’s correlative, without lopping off the companion-term by which each is comprehensible. And, unlike hate, love founds itself on the affirmation that self and other are co-extensive; the other remains ineffaceable because he is so eminently there. Hate, however, or the act etched in the word, blurs the fact of the other, consigns the latter to seeming indistinguishable from the sentiment that rubs him out, as though he could be expunged by a word.

That rubbing out is where Three Guineas begins, as Woolf offers us a “collection” of images sent by the “Spanish government” at the advent of the Civil War, photographs detailing “what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s,” so “mutilated” that it might be neither; yet those figures “certainly are dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house” (10-11). So we dismember one another and the houses that cohere us; so we tender one body as the analogue of another, disseminating “abomination” and “barbarity” due to our failure of imagination before the limpidity of others who are not ourselves (11). But “the eye is connected with the brain,” and the “brain with the nervous system,” that “sends its messages in a flash through every past memory and present feeling” (11). These concatenations, Woolf implies, concurring with her father’s meditation on the merits “in seeing facts through the medium of the imagination” (“Charles Kingsley” Hours in a Library [1904], Vol. 3, 323), can educate us in reorienting the way in which we see and how we speak of seeing. If “every past memory and present feeling” is charged with connectivity, the way in which we brook such saturation is capable of transfiguring how we sit in the world around us.

As in “On Not Knowing Greek,” when she correlates the Platonic project of The Symposium with that of Sophoclean drama, asserting that Plato “had the dramatic genius” because his text animates the contention that “truth is various,” that “it is not with the intellect alone that we perceive it” (33-34), so Woolf grounds Three Guineas in the drama, in the “ancestral memory” of Antigone’s cluster of little words, uttered by a woman who tutors us that “without private there can be no public freedom” (120). What follows from this–as we look again, with Woolf, at the mauled human figure in one of the aforementioned photographs–is that “we cannot dissociate ourselves from that figure,” that “we are not passive spectators doomed to unresisting obedience but by our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that figure” (142). To behave differently will be to ruin “both houses,” the “public and the private, the material and the spiritual, for they are inseparably connected” (143).

And so Woolf’s performance, coupling epistolary and dramatic structures, becomes–in Proustian terms–an “incitation,” an incitement to the riveting together of thinking, feeling, and action (Contre Sainte-Beuve [1908-1909], 176). When Proust declares that “la lecture est au seuil de la vie spirituelle; elle peut nous y introduire: elle ne la constitue pas” (178), he presages the engagement which Woolf requests of us when she mobilizes classical drama as her template. The readerly act may summon us to the threshold of contemplative action, but we must embark on the task of awakening to the “figures” that we could be, should we risk purling together the state of predication with all that can be made of it. Such is the urgency of bearing our own and others’ burdens.

. . . The maker of the book, moved, exhorted, by the stimulus of “incitation” to foment the book’s schema, finds herself stirred by the incentive (echoing the Latinate substratum of the word) to “set the tune” she rouses into form. If “incitation” and “incentive” resound with each other by virtue of their being verbal kin, the combined actions of rousing and singing that produce the book may, for us, bear the potency of re-disposing the song we sing of the world we know. Thus, by extension, reading may stimulate our ability to “change”–to amplify, to re-set–the “figure” of the world we experience. I dwell on the potential for transmutation fundamental to the making and the reading of the book as, in “On Not Knowing Greek,” in Three Guineas, Woolf’s recourse to classical drama imbues her diversification of the essay with elements of the poetic, the dramatic, and the imagination enacted in them, so that the essay can be seen to bear the “burden” of other generic forms. Further, when she muses–in “On Not Knowing Greek”–on the “undifferentiated voices” of the Greek chorus (30), Woolf foretokens the value of knotting together classical and musical models as the scaffolding for The Waves (1931). Enjoining us to ruminate over how the merging, inseparable voices of the chorus are equal to a “means” by which the “general and poetic” can be “freed without interrupting the movement of the whole” (30), Woolf prepares the ground for the chorus in The Waves whose vocal instruments “sing” in the “pauses of the wind” (30), in the variation of the tonal and typographical contrasts at play in the novel’s A sections. I maintain that the service–for Woolf, for us–of integrating models drawn from the domains of music and classical drama rests in how such integration magnifies the “burdens” that the novel and its discursive procedures can be said to bear. And what does generic coalescence make of the book itself? The Waves becomes an avatar of the “new poet’s” possible fruit–to reapportion the relations between the personal and the impersonal, to augment the boundaries of the sayable and all that we may ponder doing with the sayable.

. . . What would it mean to disburden the word of its capacity for limitation? Such disburdening would be founded on the assumption that the language we speak simultaneously represents and mediates our experience, so that the way in which we transact the repertory of linguistic conventions accessible to us permits us to figure our experience, even as those conventions constrain what we may say of it. And, if my language functions as an assembly of verbal customs, such customs affect how I can deliver myself to the experience I am permitted to call mine. But who is this “I” that speaks? To disburden the word of its ability to curb both our deliverance to experience and how we compose such deliverance would necessitate a revision of the “I” who conceives of speaking.

I argue that The Waves demonstrates how Woolf reviews the tradition of individuality–the tradition averring that I am distinguishable from you, that my distinction is in being apart from you, and that my apartness defines me–by means of presenting the “I” as a community of voices whose phrasal constructions foreground connection over division. Thus, Woolf’s investigation of classical drama nourishes her depiction of the individual as a collocation of voices, a type of the vocalizing act itself. If the “I” becomes a chorus, it follows that its pronouncements will abstain from honoring the language-conventions which render possible the preeminence of the “I” as a subject always sundered from its objects. Moreover, by such abstention, Woolf displays the tenability of utilizing the instrument of sound in another way. While the Greek chorus assists her in expounding the self and its utterances, Woolf requires a method for setting those utterances in motion, a means of affording the choral-word a formalized duration. And this is precisely how music serves her. Woolf’s vision of the morphology of musical structure, how the phrase spins out over the expanse of an aural shape, produces the “design” with which she will “stamp” the application of her characters’ verbal delivery, for music sustains a congregation of voices. Though Wagner’s Lohengrin launches “Impressions at Bayreuth” (1909), her first publication on music, Woolf proliferates, from 1913 onwards, anti-Wagnerian material in the Letters. I therefore propose the work of another composer as a model for Woolf’s conceptualizing the fecundity of sonic organization. That composer is Beethoven.

We know that over five days in April 1921, Woolf attends Beethoven Festival Week at the Aeolian Hall, during which all sixteen string quartets are played in chronological order; that she “knows the tunes” (Diary 2, 114); that she impresses upon us, in The Voyage Out (1915), the mind of Rachel Vinrace entering into “communion” with the “spirit” of Beethoven as it fathoms the intricacy of connection between the two movements of the final piano sonata, op. 111 (29). We know, too, that in December 1930, while listening to “a Beethoven quartet”–and at work on The Waves–Woolf begins to imagine merging all her characters’ “interjected passages into Bernard’s final speech,” so that Bernard will “absorb all those scenes,” all the chanting voices and personalities soon to be sunk in his ruminative declarations, ordaining Bernard the pitch whose vibrations will incorporate the intonations of the friends nominally separable from him (Diary 3, 339). This “speech” may show that, unlike “the waves” themselves, “effort, effort, dominates” (339); it also reveals Bernard as the “absorber” who distends the patterned system that supports him. Yet, thinking that we are “mosaics,” not “immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes” (Diary 2, 314), Woolf rears a novelistic form whose elasticity flexes rhythmic repetition and–in the case of Bernard’s concluding “speech”–sectional tumidity, allowing “design” to replicate the composite of human character.

And we know that, for Woolf, music develops the ability “to stimulate and suggest” (Diary 2, 320), to exhibit a “sensibility” become “externalized” (193), as though the capacity to feel, formally delivered, could “exist independently” of its agent, rendering the agency “externalized” by form a type of pluralized dominion, whose tensility included both maker and listener (221). When we hear Beethoven affirm, in 1820, that “good singing” is his “guide” (25), that he “must accustom” himself “to think out at once the whole, as soon as it shows itself, with all the voices” in his “head” (28), we can sense the value of being conducted by the articulations of the voice, the value of a “whole” buttressed by voices, that he and Woolf share. I offer the third movement, the canzona of the fifteenth quartet, op. 132, in A minor (1825), as Woolf’s exemplar of the “mosaics” that sound can join together, because it shapes a “whole” out of evident inconsistency and steers us to comprehend that a “whole” can stand, even while it seems to come apart.

Though the canzona emanates from the solo voice, from the first violin’s major sixth–echoed in graduated entrances by the quartet’s remaining constituents–the inaugural A section appears to sound out a totality whose comprehensiveness renders it at once a proclamation and a summation. It is as though each bar provided us with the following report: this is; this was and will be. Two affiliated methods of organization permit us to experience the initial 31 bars as both a crying-out and a summing-up. Rejecting the key signatures customary to Beethoven’s time, the music is ordered by the F Lydian mode (whose subdominant becomes a tritone, rather than a perfect fourth) and by polyphonic procedures that sling its pitches into motion. The modal ordination of what we hear spurs us to remember that the church modes, and their ancient Greek incarnations, originated in the resonant declaration of a vocal line, while polyphony subdues a plurality of voices so that each part traces the contours of a privileged melodic turn and legislates that every voice will sound together. Thus, we are given a statement, a melody that proclaims its ability to knot all contiguous voices together, repeatedly summarized by the corpus through which it moves. But if we listen to that corpus, to that body of sound, we may waken to the variousness at work in all we hear.

. . . The quartet, as it quadruply magnifies the fact of the music’s horizontal axis, presents us with a melodic structure amplified by its almost improvisatory treatment. But the subject itself, the tune that submits to modification, appears to describe a stillness, a constricted sense of movement. After its leap of a major sixth, of a perfect fourth, the line sung by the first violin circumambulates around the tonic, around the F that signals the acoustic home from which its attendant voices–and we who hark to them–need not move. This hovering around the site of rest occurs five times, each occurrence lasting for nearly seven bars, so that the initiatory A section and its phrasal negotiations value the uneven, the evidently off-balance. And yet the notion of imbalance is shaded over by what the quartet’s vertical axis so plentifully gives us: a range of pitches striking together as chordal incidents. We can opt to foreground apparent homophonic motion, however delimited, and to immerse the horizontality of vocal lines in the successive chords such lines occasion. While the music may appear to ask this of us–this forgetting of one element in the hoisting up of another–such a listening would diminish its very object. As Theodor W. Adorno insists, Beethoven may reduce musical work to “elementary forms” so that the work “no longer manifests itself as material at all,” but reduction serves to articulate a “positive negation: discard, that you may acquire” (Beethoven [1998], 39). I would qualify Adorno’s insistence by adding that the challenge for us, the canzona’s listeners, remains that we must not “discard,” must not submerge, the vividness of melodic variation in the homophony that simultaneous voices appear to engender. To do so would be to remit ourselves to an only seeming-acquisition at the expense of the text outside us. It would also fail to prepare us for the appearance of the B section, whose startling nature has nevertheless been implied by what we have heard–if, indeed, we have attended with care to all that the music demands of us. . . .

As we enter the B section’s dominion, we will find ourselves in foreign territory if we forget our passage there. Though we have moved from a modal pitch-world to the more acoustically recognizable D major scale–and from 4/4 to 3/8 time–our motion has been prepared for us by the first violin’s inauguratory leap and by the A section’s instancing its 31 bars as a disequilibrium we start from. Thus, if we can remember that the shift from F Lydian to D major describes the interval of a major sixth, that the A section presents us with imbalance as a kind of ground, we can apprehend the source-materials through which the B section may be charted.

Our apprehension necessarily implies that apparent imbalance, of phrase and section length, can intimate the potential to think of a state-of-balance in another way. Such thinking, however, presses us to ask: what are the elements poised here? For the theme announcing the B section’s initiation hinges on the (dominant) A that previously constituted the mediant within the precincts of F Lydian, so that the significance of the note common to both tonal systems, Beethoven drives us to consider, can be modulated if the nomenclature which organizes it alters. In consequence, nomenclature becomes a way of seeing whose modification revises the function of the “thing”–the repeatedly sounded A–whose identity we imagined had been fixed for us. Indeed, we are in a realm of things, as D major can be understood to mark the sonic conventions of the early nineteenth-century, together with that period’s advancement of the empirical ethos, in which objects are always exposed to our probing, to our investigation, to our use, of them.

The very theme, in the broad scope of its pitch-contents, in its residing so confidently in the first violin’s upper register, exhorts us to identify it as a subject; nevertheless, these behaviors comprise a sonorous mask–the thing we hear consists in the object of scale-material punctuated by underlying accompaniment figures. And as the B section’s rhythmic structures originate in a diminution of those so prevalent in the preceding section–for eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second notes attest to the diminishing of the A section’s quarter-note base–the music requires that we think back to our prior position in order to comprehend the league between A and B sections. Such looking back acts a method for moving forward, for realizing that these two locations, however disparate on the surface, condition each other. So that to identify the nature of the balance in play here, we must reflect on subjects, objects, and the mind that calibrates their relationship.

If we recall the canzona’s beginning, we see that the thematic subject seems strung through each of the quartet’s voices, ostensibly heralding that our attention focuses on the supremacy of a subject, multiply reinforced. Listening further, however, we perceive that each part manipulates, maneuvers, varies the rudiments of the theme’s acoustic shape, treating that shape as though it were an engine for conversion–for diversifying the material that appeared so invulnerably singular due to the Lydian preeminence of its subjecthood. But what we have categorized as a motif, capable, in its primacy, of decreeing that each part should capitulate to the ringing out of its aural contour, now appears an entity ripe for treatment, for the usage to which any quarry must submit. Hence, the canzona tenders us a subject that subsequently transmogrifies into an object. Yet which of these entities, subject or object, remains predominant? And what force incites such metamorphosis?

Before examining these questions, we need to note that, here, Beethoven’s music assembles an argument concerning the affinity between subjects and objects, a rapport whose difficulty calls for our deliberation, given that the perceptible thing–in this case, a melodic construction–is both one and manifold. The music’s arguing over the character of materiality permits us, I think, to understand the theme and its behaviors as typifying our own predicament, for we, too, are speaking things. So that when we arrive at the B section, when we confront the division between the first violin’s subject and its colleagues’ accompanying gestures, only to fathom the theme itself as the trilling of a D major scale, as an implement for figural invention, we return to our original dilemma: the subject is simultaneously an object; our quest to identify the crux of our attention endures. Such endurance testifies to the abiding problem of how we nominate the many things on which our concentration pivots and confirms the integrity at work in what we hear. While Adorno claims that the “fragmentariness” in the “last quartets” is “achieved by the abrupt, unmediated juxtaposing of bare axiomatic motifs and polyphonic complexes” (152), I suggest that perceived abruptness follows from a dismissal of the argument at hand regarding what it means to be a subject, an object, and how we might heed their affiliation.

Moreover, Beethoven’s labors perform the import of Iris Murdoch’s vision, in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), that the “object” at once “requires and guarantees the subject” (148), a guarantee signifying that both are bound in a mutual pledge whose fulfillment denies the fragmentary character of their relation, as well as their mere isolation. The canzona will deliver to us, if we stay in the arduousness of its declaration, that subject and object may be envisioned as commensurate, mutually proportionate, reciprocally dependent, and that their dependence demands the galvanism of our attention, since how we conceive their reciprocity will affect the world we see and move in. But, intra and extra-textual, arising like its listeners from the province outside the score, a tertiary element hovers among the notes: a residuum of Beethoven’s contouring mind, which points to what it makes, to the utility of a concordance (however peremptory its perceivers’ burdens) communicable by the act of composing sound.

. . . To posit a concord, a conjunction, admits that we face organisms other than ourselves, that the sphere in which we live extends us the opportunity to recognize how we subsist among distinguishable things. If the world is inexhaustible, it follows that the elements of which that world is composed may be deemed equally illimitable–in their import, in their capacity for being known, in the potential for experiential contact they offer us. Such concord also acknowledges what Brian Stock, in Listening for the Text (1996), appoints the “problem area between subject and object, with conscious thinking as the mediator” (89), given that mind and world “jointly make up the mind and world,” and that the world is there (105). Hence, the “conscious thinking” by which we envisage the intervening space between subject and object characterizes our facility for wakening to how we comport ourselves, signifying that our comportment influences the life of the differentiable things we inch towards, as we move through the “area” where we may enact the “problem” of choosing to pound out, through a sort of mental erasure, the interstice between one thing and another.

But one of the merits of the fellowship with which Beethoven presents us lies in its provoking our consistent effort to experience the possible liaison of subject, object, and the mind that designs the manner of their association. And, while we struggle with the fraternity reverberating throughout the canzona, we may come to understand that Beethoven spurns the customary antipathy of its component parts. As Stock advises us, “social reality”–the reality of things and their behaviors–describes a “compromise between an objectivity that cannot be known in toto and a subjectivity that cannot be wholly reflected upon while it is being experienced” (87), yet Beethoven’s music, in this case, performs the interdependence of quasi-sensuous materials whose score affords us the duration on which we can expend our vigilance.

We can reflect on the way in which the themes repeal the prescription that a thing should mean in one way and one way only, for as each subject appears, it is varied by the arbiter of its variation; we can discern the evidence of this thinking-arbiter in the composite quality of the whole he conveys to us, how his design coordinates ABA structure (conventionally allied to the lyricism of a subject rising up in song) with theme and variation form, where the motif’s receptiveness to transformation witnesses its fertility. On thematic and structural levels, we can see how subjects and their formal distension annul unitary meaning–that, for a thing to mean, its music must signify in multiplex ways. We can take note of Beethoven’s aligning discontinuous temporalities due to his rendering adjacent the antiquity of the modal world and the present of a D major scale, referencing the classicism by which nineteenth-century sonic vocabularies were codified. Such alignment becomes a testimony to how one thing orients another, to how things–musical themes as well as the minds that treat and perceive them–verge on entities transcendently other than themselves, if transcendence names an otherness resistant to definitive summation. All this can our watchful attention yield to us, if, notwithstanding its transitory duration, we elect to look, to listen.

I wish to transfer the freight of attending to Beethoven’s canzona to an investigation of Woolf’s linguistic deployment in The Waves, to a probing of its import and of what that import presupposes. My reading of Beethoven assumes that the work of our imagination, under the auspices of art, may be seen to adumbrate our manner of generating worldly action, that the process by which we fabricate figures prepares us–and our consciousness–for the inclination to act. My reading further assumes that the discursive procedures which embody our making-imagination speak to the world beyond them, outside them, the world they cannot exhaustively represent but to which their gestures may conduct us, so that the worlds within and without the work persist in a contiguity whose serviceableness for listeners, viewers, readers resides in its reminding us that we do not abandon the world while we attend to the art object–but vouch for the latitude of our participation in it.

This deictic quality of the imaginative product, how it points both to itself and to what outdistances it, returns us to a view of the relationship between the transcendental and the quotidian, the transitory stuff among which we move. Though the work by definition can only fail to offer us access to the transcendent, it can nevertheless give us figural manifestations of its magnitude. If transcendence refers to that which surpasses us, to an conclusive otherness somehow beyond the edge of linguistic limits, our negotiation of aural, verbal, and pictorial languages may still demonstrate a pushing up to the edge of the expressible in remembrance of the fact that there are two sides to any limit. Beethoven indicates such a pushing with his use of modal practices, which advert to a musical history precedent to him, to an orality in which the voice swelled with song and honored a plenitude it could call to but which it could not contain within its melodic frontiers. Yet the canzona’s conjoining the systems of F Lydian and D major connects the orality and literacy from which each respectively proceeds, prefiguring Stock’s claim that “there was no orality without an implied textuality,” no “literacy without the primal force of the spoken word” (4). And, as though Woolf’s listening to Beethoven edging up to the verge of the ineffable functioned as her generative model for reimagining how language demarcates its own boundary, together with the unreachable on the other side of it, The Waves reorganizes how we can permit ourselves to see the relationship between our recourse to words and all that recourse may conjure, between our impermanent selfhood and the permanence of an otherness at which we may–with difficulty–aim.

Woolf aims at correspondence on macro and micro levels, correlating the former unit with the locale of the transcendent and the latter with that of our daily straining through time, which, multiplied, becomes a life. The problem, the snarl we must brave facing here, is one of terminology. To define the transcendent and the fleeting by reference to “locales” treats both as though they were equivalent to distinguishable districts, to insulated vicinities, their placements spatially anchored by how our terms indicate them. This effort on the part of language and its users to impute a referential tactility, a fixity of position to discriminative objects may involve us in the belief that our terminologies stabilize the things they designate. As words transmit the thinking illuminated by their use, assigning word to percept, I appoint the latter a thing, a discoverable particular. But what we need, and what Woolf’s congruity between permanence and impermanence instructs us to posit, is a vocabulary of forces.

If we are “mosaics,” composites, we stand in proximity to that which at once structures our visibility and transcends the phenomena it shapes. Yet we and our available diction truck with things, so it often follows that our mode of naming the energies, the forces that order the disposition of our component parts–and whose yoking together allows us to be discerned–renders its referent a mere entity, bridled by the act of calling. Nevertheless, turning first to the macro-formal level, we can identify how Woolf exhibits the way in which the zones of the permanent and the impermanent may be intermingled, by virtue of the potency of their invocation.

By its very form, by the rhythm punctuating the sequential nature of its constructive parts, The Waves mobilizes a vision of how the object at which we gaze may seize us. If the object “requires and guarantees the subject,” in its corporeality, its ripeness for perception, for being fluttered over by our eyes, the object answers for the possible achievement of our congress with it and can secure us against the loss implicit in the belief that the subject remains defined by its exile from proximity to others. Indeed, the novel requires that we think of things under the concept of propinquity: we may hypothesize segregating one wave from another, but it is through their corporate, serial character that waves are knowable and on which we train our attention, when we summon the forces at play in them with a word. The Waves extends this by bringing the thought to bear on the human subject–we may detach the individual from his group in an effort to palpate the phenomenon he embodies, yet the illusion of detachment here consists in the implication that we can reasonably divide the knower from the known. In order to annul such division, the novel agglutinates one thing with another, in the title by which it is invoked, in its portrait of humankind, in the sequence of A and B sections under whose locomotion its form develops.

While we may segregate each A and B segment due to the tenet that segregation would fortify the driving thrust of our regard, Woolf presents admixture–of segments, persons, and domains–as a value. Echoing the kind of procedural “glue” by which Beethoven’s canzona manifests a seeping of one section’s rhythmic and register-characteristics into that of another, The Waves tests the stamina of our gaze by admixing A and B, the transcendence and flux of their respective domains, the dynamisms permeating them, together with the discourse-systems with which each may be associated, as though the power of one element could only surge in exercising its ability to figure the power of another. While exploring these concerns, we need to observe how they picture the relationship between the seer and the seen, the maker and the made, committed to a mutual seizing, which suggests that agglutination arises from a way of looking at the usefulness of connecting the putatively segregable. Our observation, however, evokes the following question: what causes such adhesion?

I will postpone the latter question in favor of moving from effect to cause, for inverse motion stresses the musicality that superintends the novel’s language employment. We need here to remember the exemplary function of Beethoven’s canzona, how it exhibits the sinews by which music demonstrates the endeavor to mean at all. A single tone cannot attain to meaning; solitude expunges its capacity for resonating together with other tones. So music schools us that meaning cannot be given, but only made. Out of the relations between one tone and another, the ringing character of the whole underpins our comprehension. Such accreting of signifying elements becomes an analogue of the way in which The Waves administers the confluence of its A and B sections. The former visualize the discharge of energies fired through sky, sun, and sea, emblematizing the “given” quality of the scene that precedes and outlasts us. The authority of A lies in a continuance we cannot check, absolute in the sense that the forces powering the triadic bodies do not stop.

But the typography that represents this ceaseless intensity alludes to the stopping inherent in the fact of literacy: italicized, the words issue from what Marshall McLuhan, in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), specifies as an “explicitness,” a successive unfolding, which “means the spelling out of one thing at a time, one sense at a time, one mental or physical operation at a time” (18). Before us, materially there, Woolf’s italics–even in their succession–permit our focus to pause over the cargo of the emphasized word. So that, modifying the canzona’s work, the novel immediately foists upon us an amalgamation over which we must deliberate. In order to appraise the labors of amalgamation, I juxtapose McLuhan’s “explicitness” with two claims from Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1982): “there is no way to stop sound and have sound”; “sound cannot be sounding without the use of power” (32). If we cannot “have,” cannot probe, cannot scrutinize sound without reference to its auditory flux, our junction with the sonic rests in its continuous propulsion through air. Yet the “power” whose “use” fuels our experience of the aural field remains divisible from its utterance, for the latter functions as the effect of a diffusive cause, towards which our language may pilot us, but which will not be subordinated to our trawl-net of names for it, among which we will find “power.”

Hence, there is always a brimming-over, a residuum untrammeled by the nominal act that cannot be menaced away, as it exceeds our very ordinance. Nevertheless, I nominate what Ong terms the “sound world” as the sphere of the novel’s A sections because it guides us in the direction of a vibratory power which will not be held, to a recoil from custody which we can analogize with the problem of the visual (32). Are sky, sun, and sea identical with the forces they harness? This question, whether or not the discernible object is equivalent to to the stimulus that energizes it, leads us to the process of amalgamation: while the A material expounds the notions of indissoluble forces, it must somehow represent them, and literate procedures–with their tacitly fixed point of view, their ability to occasion rereading–afford us a sense of what we cannot hold, of what balks at the prospect of a final capture. Thus, Woolf’s A sections convene the seemingly disparate as a means of shaping half of a two-part, consonant form whose musicality disposes distinguishable elements in apposition, only to advance the vigor of their aggregation.

Yet, after drawing us to the “sound world,” after angling our eyes on its incarnated, typographical assemblage, the focus of The Waves appears to vary. Since its B sections supply us with the procession of six human lives, when we turn from A to B, we may feel obliged to swerve from one nub of concentration to another, as though our movement lacked the ballast of modulation. But a shift in focus need not foster a revolution of the gaze, for–if we listen–we hear chorusing voices, individuated to the extent that each is concatenated with a proper name, whose diction and syntax nevertheless redouble our sense of their acoustic consanguinity and prompt our impression that these voices sustain a saturation originating in a cause which will always outstrip its effects. Over the course of the novel, our transit from A to B tempers the “sound world’s” visualized pulse with the throb of its resonant transcription, alerting us to acknowledge the pulsatory force which at once produces differentiable phenomena and connects them. But it fails to follow from this that a shaping dynamism can be equated with its visual and sonic manifestations; in its evident lurch from one concentrated field to another, The Waves prevails upon us to linger in the task of apprehending association and of remembering that linkage is not a synonym for identity.

Attending to the B sections and their voices, we find evidence of the toil inherent in detecting the associative without subsuming the latter’s components under the category of equivalence: it is so easy to elide the distinguishable points of view at work among each character’s words that the language appears to require this of us. To surrender to such elision, however, would be to vacate the novel of the ways in which its method supports its signifying power, to smudge out the rhythm of what we read. Rather, we must see the B material as a permutation of the A sections’ locus, given that in both the phenomenal emerges from the vibrant. We must see the human permeated with a discursive energy that surpasses it, absorb how this preponderating vibration resounds with Woolf’s insistence that the “new poet” should deliver himself in supplication to the “legends” whose “great fund of emotion” his song will punctuate in a “new place,” if he petitions the “common stock” to direct the circuit of his sound. To innovate, then, is to consort with the cadence of the “common,” just as to permute–for Beethoven, for Woolf–presumes a springing up from a groundwork of repetition.

. . . The Waves may fail to award a name to the assembler of its materials, but we can spot her evidential train. We can site her, however partially, in the A sections’ predominate figuration, since the verbal figure exacts its generator, even if the latter appears to dissipate in the generation she offers us. We can position her as the transcriber of the choric voices in which the novel’s B sections consist–though, like Percival, hers is a voice we cannot hear without impediment; and, again like Percival, she remains a body we never directly see. Yet we can dwell on what she effects: how, throughout the A sections’ cumulative palpitations, the “sound world” pulsates, its representation ordered by the ascendancy and dispersal of a single day; how six voices resonate, from childhood to middle age, through the B sections’ progress. Our dwelling must nevertheless attest to the transverse motion intrinsic to such double ordainment. In terms of discourse, orality governs the “sound world’s” moment to moment sequential character, while literacy supplies us with the text we read, so that the A constituents’ literate negotiations particularize the general effusion of energies that erupt into sensible phenomena. Indeed, within each A element, we can instance the tension consequent on the crossing of two discursive systems, as the language seems to advance omnisciently in the third person, but all its figuration executes a free indirect discourse that resounds, through the entirety of the A material, like a second voice.

With regard to the novel’s B components, their literate, textual fact generalizes the particularity of the utterances reported to us: the species of orality here may originate in transcription, yet each voice accords with another in diction, syntax, and in the rhythm they precipitate. The narrator persists throughout in being only typographically signified by the quotation-marks from which we can derive that she was there. Thus, we encounter a whole built of the criss-cross of discursive organizations, of the chiasmus at work when synchrony and diachrony intersect, when the sequence of the day meets the transcriptional cavalcade of six lives through time. But what is the “I” at the heart of these transverse gestures?

Bernard, in the novel’s third B section, may help us when he contends that “‘I am not one and simple, but complex and many'” (76). The chiastic form of his declaration shows us an “I” enveloped in the inestimable persons who congregate under the shadow of the pronominal sign. It follows that–if “I” am intricate, ceaselessly extensive–in application and utility, mind, body, and the objects they hold fast to may be similarly manifold. Keeping to the ground of such logic, we discern that the narrator who disposes A and B in criss-crossed accordance may claim a diversity equal to that avowed by Bernard. But this discernment leads us to reflect on what lies behind our narrator, whose coordinative presence we can merely infer.

. . . Preferring, in The Waves, not to restrict the identity of her narrator, Woolf safeguards her from limitation, figuring only how she intervenes in the domains of A and B, how she modifies and is modified by the words through which we intuit her. My use of the feminine, however, is speculative; unnamed, unsexed, Woolf’s narrator becomes our proxy, so that the very industry of her interventions counsels us to recall the pairings of in and out, the book before us and the “one brain . . . of literature” vast enough for the seeming contradiction of plurality (Letters 4, 4). The extra-textual nature of The Waves, how its narrator–like her readers–is both within and without the book, returns me to Murdoch and her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. The “limited surround” of “art” may provide us with the “consolation” of feeling punctuated by form, yet “human fates” will always “exceed art,” just as, according to Woolf’s argument, the individual case of “literature” will be exceeded by the “brain” superordinate to it. Hence, the book, any book, possesses “an open texture,” a “porous or cracked quality”: “the object is as it were full of holes through which it communicates with life, and life flows in and out of it” (96). The virtue of porosity lies in its redeeming the fact of the book and the world, the fact of mind, matter, and the outside ambit that encompasses them. Reclaiming each, porosity reminds us that we need them all.

. . . Once we reach the ninth and final B segment, however, the very magnification of its rhythm urges us to ask–how might the struggle to “‘sum up,'” despite its requisite failure, be said to serve us? We must always escape or summations, seeing that we cannot inhabit the verbal house they strain to erect around us: even the dying Percival eludes the book whose linguistic condensations authorize our deducing that he was there. Thus, faced only with the deposit of Bernard’s voice, with his syllabic surge over the totality of the closing B section, we encounter a prolonged tempo shift, which at once beats out the priority of presence and acknowledges the ”illusion'” that “something adheres'” to lift up over the verity of loss (238). But such lifting up requires an addressee, necessitates the “‘you'” who sits “‘at a table opposite'” Bernard (238). Unaffiliated with a proper name, both singular and plural, “‘you'” comprehends the triumvirate of interlocutor, transcribing narrator, and reader. Hence, we implicate ourselves in the communicative toil of “‘story,'” of the “‘design'” traced in it (239), which can gesture towards “‘what we cannot account for'” (243), the “‘deep below'” the “‘precision'” of what we say (255):

‘I begin now to forget; I begin to doubt the fixity of tables, the reality of here
and now, to tap my knuckles smartly upon the edges of apparently solid objects and say,
‘Are you hard?’ I have seen so many different things, have made so many different sentences.
I have lost in the process of eating and drinking and rubbing my eyes along surfaces that thin,
hard shell which cases the soul, which, in youth, shuts one in–hence the fierceness, and the
tap, tap, tap of the remorseless beaks of the young. And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been
talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and
distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead; Rhoda is dead; we
are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no
division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ This difference we make so much
of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome. Yes, ever since Mrs. Constable lifted
her sponge and pouring warm water over me covered me with flesh I have been sensitive,
percipient. Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on the nape of my neck
is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill with Susan’s tears. I see far away, quivering like
a gold thread, the pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rush of the wind of her flight when she

Bernard admonishes us to see the interlineations of loss and gain, how the scrape of “‘hard shell'” against outside “‘surfaces'” ejects us from the nomenclature of antithesis and friction, from the echolalia of “‘I, I, I,'” which insists on the gulf between one thing and another (296). But now “‘objects'” only seem, their “‘fixity'” as apparent as the “‘I'” who questions it, both released from the naming-system that rigidifies all it invokes, delivered to the permeability of seeming as though in a kind of birth.

Yet this birth, this egress, is preceded by another, by “‘Mrs. Constable'” raising the baptismal “‘sponge'” whose immersing stream initiates Bernard into the world of responsive flesh. Arrowed with “‘sensation,'” that flesh becomes a “‘new body'” (239) enlisted in the domain of “‘separate bodies'” (241). A “‘sediment'” forms; “‘I'” forms (253), only to be enrolled in the normative “‘convenience'” of a “‘military progress'” (255) in which “‘Tuesday follows Monday'” (257), in which “‘we marry'” and “‘domesticate,'” in which words collect in “‘phrases'” whose conventions “‘compel us to walk in step'” and echo those who antedate us (259). But we are shown another sort of gathering-in here beyond that of the “‘consecutive,'” the “‘orderly'” (251). Baptized, Bernard secures admission to a body imprinted with “‘sensation'” other than its own–the “‘blow'” of Percival’s descent; the “‘kiss'” connecting Jinny and Louis; the suffusion of “‘Susan’s tears'”; Rhoda’s vision wile she “‘leapt'” into the outside that embraced her when she fell. Such imprinting may render the body more than itself, may turn narrated “‘symmetry to nonsense'” and so describe the benevolence of gain (243), but how can we speak of a death that exceeds the little “‘syllable'” of its name (295)?

For “‘grief'” arises from the communion of the twinned “‘blow,'” “‘kiss,'” “‘tears,'” and “‘pillar,'” when those we love, for example, tangled in the plexus of dying, return to the exterior through which we move and which we attempt to proportion to what we say of it (264). Yet “‘grief'” awards us “‘a kind of transparency,'” the benefaction of “‘things seen through'” so that “‘things'” and seer seem to glean an “‘immunity'” from “‘division'” (264). Even so, the “‘canopy of civilization'” recurs (296); “‘immunity'” does “‘not last'”; we forget our dead when we “‘remember inevitably what had been said'” of them “‘by others'” (264-265). Thus, our dead become “‘symbolical,'” sapped-over with “‘this lily-sweet glue,'” which culminates in a conventional wreath of imported “‘phrases'” (265). But, at this point, we must pause, haul our eyes from the page, and wait on what that page tells us.

Bernard’s struggle, our struggle, the struggle of Antigone before her immurement, of Beethoven while he revivifies the modal world in a present which forgets it, is “‘not to let the lilies grow,'” to resist the ignominy of a double burial in which we “‘cover'” over our dead with conventions that purport to organize our experience of them (265). Like Bernard, we may identify death as “‘the enemy'” against whom we “‘fling'” ourselves, though that battle we can only lose (297). As Woolf forecasts in Three Guineas, however, our potential achievement lies in remembering that “by our thoughts and actions” we can “change” the “figure” we make of the dead, rouse their memory up out of the gradual heave of neglect. And when “‘the dead leap out on us at street corners, or in dreams,'” our watchfulness fails to let them rest; indeed, that watchfulness honors the attention we owe to them, told by how our language-use acknowledges the weight that words may be said to carry and to redistribute (274). If–from the vantage-point of the ground we share, readers of and actors in a magnetic world–we stand on our dead, if our dead stand on us, the load of reciprocity cannot be shirked. Such is the burden, such is the gift, of mutual guardianship.

Bruce Bromley is Senior Lecturer in expository writing at New York University, where he won the 2006 Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence. This essay is an excerpt from his book, Making Figures: Re-imagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us, which the Dalkey Archive Scholarly Press will publish in 2013. The painting above is by Neil Merrick.