the of course

We are not utterly cut off.

There was, for instance, Mary Collier. An agricultural laborer, a washerwoman, and a poet. She was taught the crude elements of reading and writing and, in the midst of her toils, took some precious time out of the day to read. She read, for instance, Stephan Duck, another peasant poet, and noted his disparaging words about women “sitting in the fields” rather than swinging their scythes. She cried out against the lie here in her own poem, The Woman’s Labour an epistle to Stephan Duck, which was published in 1739. Collier gives us first hand an account of standing outside in the cold winter dark of early mourning, waiting for the maid to get up and let her and other washerwomen into the house, so they could begin the laundry.

But when from Wind and Weather we get in,
Briskly with Courage we our Work begin ;
Heaps of fine Linen we before us view,
Whereon to lay our Strength and Patience too ;
Cambricks and Muſlins, which our Ladies wear,
Laces and Edgings, coſtly, fine, and rare,
Which muſt be waſh'd with utmoſt Skill and Care ;
With Holland Shirts, Ruffles and Fringes too,
Faſhions which our Fore-fathers never knew.
For ſeveral Hours here we work and ſlave,
Before we can one Glimpſe of Day-light have ;
We labour hard before the Morning's paſt,
Becauſe we fear the Time runs on too faſt.

AT length bright Sol illuminates the Skies,
And ſummons drowſy Mortals to ariſe ;
Then comes our Miſtreſs to us without fail,
And in her Hand, perhaps, a Mug of Ale
To cheer our Hearts, and alſo to inform
Herſelf, what Work is done that very Morn ;
Lays her Commands upon us, that we mind
Her Linen well, nor leave the Dirt behind :

In Collier’s account, the labour is overwhelming. Duck had compared the endlessness of it to Sisyphus – and Collier replies:

“While you to Syſiphus yourſelves compare,
With Danaus' Daughters we may claim a Share ;
For while he labours hard againſt the Hill,
Bottomleſs Tubs of Water they muſt fill.”

What Collier complains of most, in the end, is

Our Toil and Labour's daily ſo extreme,
That we have hardly ever Time to dream.

It is being cut off from something vital that is felt to the very root of one’s wet being. And these nattering ghosts can’t be put down, then, by the utilitarian faith that the market will eventually make all parties happy. I’m making a wager that the vital portion is not the philosopher’s individuality, but Rousseau’s solitude – a flashing, unstructured portion of life upon which the community worth having – the community dreamt of by the aliens from happiness culture, the community in which there is time to dream – must be built.

And so she passes by – one of the obscure. Although not by Virginia Woolf’s standards.

“Ann married Mr. G., of course—of course. The words toll persistently through these obscure volumes. For in the vast world to which the memoir writers admit us there is a solemn sense of something unescapable, of a wave gathering beneath the frail flotilla and carrying it on.”

Virginia Woolf’s stunning essay on the literature of the Obscure is not about the literature of the working woman or man, not about the Mary Colliers, but that of the midlevel, that of families in the very cage of respectability, like Jane Austin’s Bennets, who sense how precariously they are perched. If we search for what has been left behind – what dirt, what voice, what soul – in order to reconstruct the wave gathering underneath these routines, we have to have an ear for lateral communication – those moments when the obscure speak to obscure in their own ever twisting language.

We are not utterly cut off.

“The atmosphere of London is so charged with particles of carbon and black smoke that if you hang up a white cloth in a current of fresh air, you will find it, at the end of two hours, entirely covered with little plack spots, and the white vest that you put on in the morning is dirty before the hour of dinner.” –A year in London, Auguste Jean B. Defauconpret, 1819 – my translation.

In Domination and the arts of resistance, Scott wisely sees that the very form of Hegel’s presentation of the master-slave relationship is politically coded. It is a dyadic form, master on one side and slave or servant on the other. This face to face form has been inherited by philosophy since, and even considered the nucleus of revolutionary thought, but… as Scott points out … the dyad is the master’s preference. ‘The politcal symbolism of most forms of personal dominance carries with it the implicit assumption that the subordinates gather only when authorized to do so from above.” And though we have been told that his personalized struggle for recognition is the very essence and myth of liberation, what is avoided here is the lateral, the association, the crowd. When the slave, in the great myth, faces the master, what is pre-emptively excluded is what Scott calls the hidden transcript, and what I would call lateral communication.

‘One has only to imagine a feudal lord noticing a large number of his serfs advancing unsummoned to his manor, a large number of beggarts (masterless men by definition) moving through the countryside, or even a large crowd of factory workers gathered near the plant manager’s office to recognize the possibilities.” (63)

These two modes of conversational direction – vertical and lateral – are, of course, our old friends from school, our first sense of disciplinary space. Lateral speech, at the wrong time, is punishable.

It may seem a long stretch from masterless men to the Bennet daughters, attending a ball in Pride and Prejudice, but I think that the novel, and especially the novel as the symptom of female insubordination or corruption, participates in this grid. Of course, lateral speech happens at the top as well as at the bottom – and the English novel, supremely, wants to make a place in the middle for it. However, even at the top it is felt to be somewhat lowering when it is exposed, as if the masters speaking among themselves go down the hierarchical scale and gossip. They reveal secrets, they lose the mask – and these secrets are precisely what they are accused of by the slave. It is not all recognition, you see.

The pathos of the obscure, the heavy “of course” that Virginia Woolf correctly sees as forming all the motion that sweeps the obscure across history, is lodged in the fact that the secrets aren’t interesting. That so and so slept with x, that uncle y was a drunkard – all of this, in the memoirs that Woolf picks up, has faded away. It has lost our interest. Such is the difference between synchronic interest, in which busy-ness itself engages us, and diachronic interest, in which only the heroic engages us. One definition of revolution is that it is the time when the arms, so to speak, of the synchronic and diachronic are squeezed together, imposed one on top of the other, so that the obscure becomes heroic, the complaints (doleances) of the blanchisseuses of Marseilles exert an oversocial force that is as riveting as the beheading of a king. Obviously, here, too, the forms of vertical and lateral communication correspond, in some way, link up with the synchronic and diachronic sense of interest.

Time, as Hamlet points out, is out of joint. Time, as Derrida points out, quoting Hamlet in Specters of Marx, is out of joint.

No, we are not utterly cut off. We are wired in.

It is this revolutionary energy to which Woolf unconsciously refers when she says that ‘Sometimes it seems as if her creatures were born merely to give Jane Austen the supreme delight of slicing their heads off.”


Anonymous said…
LI, for some reason I cannot seem to post my comment. It might be to long, I'm going to see if I can divide it in two. Sorry, about that.

She had a little speech on the tip of
her tongue which she meant to speak over the book as she buried it. (It
was a copy of the first edition, signed by author and artist.) 'I bury
this as a tribute,' she was going to have said, 'a return to the land of
what the land has given me,' but Lord! once one began mouthing words
aloud, how silly they sounded! She was reminded of old Greene getting
upon a platform the other day comparing her with Milton (save for his
blindness) and handing her a cheque for two hundred guineas. She had
thought then, of the oak tree here on its hill, and what has that got to
do with this, she had wondered? What has praise and fame to do with
poetry? What has seven editions (the book had already gone into no less)
got to do with the value of it? Was not writing poetry a secret
transaction, a voice answering a voice? So that all this chatter and
praise and blame and meeting people who admired one and meeting people
who did not admire one was as ill suited as could be to the thing
itself--a voice answering a voice. What could have been more secret, she
thought, more slow, and like the intercourse of lovers, than the
stammering answer she had made all these years to the old crooning song
of the woods, and the farms and the brown horses standing at the gate,
neck to neck, and the smithy and the kitchen and the fields, so
laboriously bearing wheat, turnips, grass, and the garden blowing irises
and fritillaries?
Anonymous said…
So she let her book lie unburied and dishevelled on the ground, and
watched the vast view, varied like an ocean floor this evening with the
sun lightening it and the shadows darkening it. There was a village with
a church tower among elm trees; a grey domed manor house in a park; a
spark of light burning on some glass-house; a farmyard with yellow corn
stacks. The fields were marked with black tree clumps, and beyond the
fields stretched long woodlands, and there was the gleam of a river, and
then hills again. In the far distance Snowdon's crags broke white among
the clouds; she saw the far Scottish hills and the wild tides that swirl
about the Hebrides. She listened for the sound of gun-firing out at sea.
No--only the wind blew. There was no war to-day. Drake had gone; Nelson
had gone. 'And there', she thought, letting her eyes, which had been
looking at these far distances, drop once more to the land beneath her,
'was my land once: that Castle between the downs was mine; and all that
moor running almost to the sea was mine.' Here the landscape (it must
have been some trick of the fading light) shook itself, heaped itself,
let all this encumbrance of houses, castles, and woods slide off its
tent-shaped sides. The bare mountains of Turkey were before her. It was
blazing noon. She looked straight at the baked hill-side. Goats cropped
the sandy tufts at her feet. An eagle soared above. The raucous voice of
old Rustum, the gipsy, croaked in her ears, 'What is your antiquity and
your race, and your possessions compared with this? What do you need with
four hundred bedrooms and silver lids on all your dishes, and housemaids

At this moment some church clock chimed in the valley. The tent-like
landscape collapsed and fell. The present showered down upon her head
once more, but now that the light was fading, gentlier than before,
calling into view nothing detailed, nothing small, but only misty fields,
cottages with lamps in them, the slumbering bulk of a wood, and a
fan-shaped light pushing the darkness before it along some lane. Whether
it had struck nine, ten, or eleven, she could not say. Night had
come--night that she loved of all times, night in which the reflections
in the dark pool of the mind shine more clearly than by day. It was not
necessary to faint now in order to look deep into the darkness where
things shape themselves and to see in the pool of the mind now
Shakespeare, now a girl in Russian trousers, now a toy boat on the
Serpentine, and then the Atlantic itself, where it storms in great waves
past Cape Horn. She looked into the darkness. There was her husband's
brig, rising to the top of the wave! Up, it went, and up and up. The
white arch of a thousand deaths rose before it. Oh rash, oh ridiculous
man, always sailing, so uselessly, round Cape Horn in the teeth of a
gale! But the brig was through the arch and out on the other side; it was
safe at last!

'Ecstasy!' she cried, 'ecstasy!' And then the wind sank, the waters grew
calm; and she saw the waves rippling peacefully in the moonlight.

Virginia Woolf, Oralndo

Anonymous said…
Damn it, the text came out with weird line breaks. Sorry. It can be read at Project Gutenberg. The passage is near the end of the book.

roger said…
I have noticed for a while this comments machine is acting wierdly - sorry Amie!
I will have to look at Orlando. Shamefully, I have only seen the movie.