Virginia Woolf: Becoming a Writer (Book Review)

Author:  Dalsimer, Katherine
Publisher: Yale University Press, 2001
Reviewed By: Wedny Wiener Katz, Spring 2003, pp. 33-35

It is common knowledge to the three-year old pupils in a preschool with which I am familiar that composing a letter to an absent loved one often has the magical effect of soothing the pangs of separation. That the evocation of a mental representation of the object makes possible multiple complex transformations of inner experience is a basic tenet of psychoanalytic developmental theory. Additionally, the concrete act of writing itself has affect-transforming powers, as numerous researchers have documented (e.g., Brand & Powell, 1985; Litowitz and Gundlach, 1987). In Katherine Dalsimer’s new book, the use of writing in transforming object representations and managing emotional states is taken up as a central theme in understanding the early writing of one of the most important figures in modern literature.

Virginia Woolf: Becoming a Writer is an elegant, psychoanalytically sophisticated expansion of the biographical literature on Woolf. Beyond that, it is an exquisitely sensitive exploration of the workings of memory and the process of mourning, using Woolf’s writings as an example—one that vastly exceeds in richness and scope any case vignette in our clinical literature. As Dalsimer observes, the immense volume of her writing and its autobiographical content make Woolf an excellent case for the examination of “the way a life is told and retold over the course of time.”

Dalsimer’s primary interest, as stated in her introduction, is in shedding light on the way that Woolf “used” the process of writing in coping with the many traumatic events of her life, and in working over her memories of events and relationships. All too often literary biographers make use of diaries and personal writings to provide accounts of the daily activities and experiences of their subjects, with little appreciation for the way that fantasy and affect filter experience. In contrast, Dalsimer shows great understanding of this factor and of the way that unrecognized transferences to imagined readers shape and color such accounts. She ingeniously reads, as she puts it, “between the lines” of Woolf’s diaries and other writings to create a double exposition, both of the emotions that Woolf was experiencing at the time, and of a theory about how emotion colors what we notice and how we interpret reality. In this, the book’s twofold appeal is clear. For literary scholars, it brings a sophisticated, up-to-date psychoanalytic understanding to bear on writing, and to clinicians, especially those who teach about clinical inference, a demonstration of this process in the literary realm. In addition, this book, with its lovely, jargon-free limning of such important concepts as internalized object relations, condensation, and screen memories, would make an excellent introduction to the core of psychoanalytic understanding, for students of all levels.

Dalsimer, the author of Female Adolescence: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Works of Literature, has a particular interest in Woolf’s teenage years and early adulthood. During this period Woolf suffered a series of catastrophic losses and traumas, including the deaths of her parents and two siblings, and the onset of her manic-depressive illness. Dalsimer views this as the period of “becoming a writer,” and asks how Woolf’s writing served her in her coping with these difficulties. She gives a close reading of a wide variety of Woolf’s early writings, with a focus on their meaning in her life at the time of writing. As a psychoanalytic therapist, Dalsimer reads with an eye for imagined scenes in Woolf’s fiction and in her reminiscences, seeing them not as veridical replicas of autobiographical events, but as products of a mind—phenomena condensing memory and fantasy and performing multiple psychic functions. She is influenced by Freud’s concept of “screen memories,” and, further, by later psychoanalytic understandings of fantasy formation. Her approach—second nature to a clinician listening to a patient’s “material”—may be controversial in the world of literary criticism, where psychological, author-centered interpretive approaches are no longer au courant. Nevertheless, Dalsimer is so sensitive and so focused on the material rather than on the theory, that it seems likely that she will win over a postmodernist or two.

Dalsimer divides her book into eight chapters, each of which takes up one or two of Woolf’s works. These writings are addressed in chronological order, with the exception of Woolf’s great novel To the Lighthouse, which is taken up in Chapter One and sets the stage for a theme that will be explored throughout the book: maternal loss and its emotional sequelae. This first chapter addresses the mystery of how Woolf laid to rest her “obsession” with her dead mother by writing the novel, as Woolf herself claimed she had done. Dalsimer rightly doubts Woolf’s own rather pat explanation that the writing had somehow been simply cathartic, and seeks to provide a more complex explanation for the fact that Woolf, who claimed she had constantly imagined her mother’s voice and presence during her entire adult life, completely ceased to do so after completing this book, experiencing this as a relief. The novel itself centers around a fictional representation of Woolf’s mother, who died when the author was thirteen. Dalsimer’s discussion illuminates the way in which the book is not only about the death of a mother, but how the text “enacts” a certain experience of grief (p. 8) and shows how grief is actually induced in the reader (pp. 21-22) who has been subtly drawn to the child’s point of view.

Dalsimer’s answer to her own question is that Woolf’s achievement with this novel was, in effect, to “kill the angel in the house” that her mother had always represented, by “silencing” her, and by giving voice to her own rage at the loss. Dalsimer believes that this solution allowed Woolf to be rid of the haunting voice of her mother that had preoccupied her but did not allow her to keep an internalized good representation of her mother. It is not clear why she believes this—is she taking Woolf’s continuing episodes of depression and eventual suicide as evidence that a good object is absent? Other interpretations are certainly possible, especially if one considers that it is equally likely that writing the novel was not a cause of the lightening of this life-long burden, but rather a result of it. For example, one might understand the “obsession” as a representation of the painful, constant yearning and pining for a maternal figure, a state that Dalsimer describes movingly in later chapters. As Woolf moved from a state reminiscent of unrequited love to a state in which she gained a hold on the object by imagining its inner mental life, she may have been increasingly able to relinquish this symptom. By force of imaginative effort, she may have achieved a state in which she felt she inwardly possessed the desired object, and this, more than an expression of rage, may have enabled her to stop craving it.

Dalsimer goes on to explore Woolf’s earliest writing and to look at how memories are revised by examining the “newspaper” produced by the Stephen siblings in the years before their mother’s death. The Hyde Park Gate News mimicked the language and presentation of real newspapers, and covered family events large and small, outings to the park, lost toys, all noteworthy meals, and other happenings of interest to children. Dalsimer provides a sensitive interpretation of their clever and delightful accounts of the events of family life, reading between the lines to reconstruct some of the nuances of family relationships. While some of the inadequacies of the maternal relationship are highlighted, Dalsimer notes that there is also much lightheartedness in these accounts that contrasts sharply with the depiction of even these early days in Woolf’s later autobiographical writing. Dalsimer uses this contrast to discuss the malleability of memory, remarking that in Woolf’s case, “memory itself...(became) colored by grief and rage” (p. 38).

Woolf’s diary kept at age 15, is the subject of a particularly interesting chapter. The diary was begun during a period when Woolf was recovering from her first mental breakdown following her mother’s death. Dalsimer takes the startlingly dry, factual, rigidly-structured format of the diary as a reflection of “her effort to hold onto the world of ordinary experience and, more particularly, to fix it in place by its representation in words; it had proved too fluid already” (p. 42). In Dalsimer’s hands, this apparently dry material yields some of the book’s richest insights into the young writer’s inner world and her uses of writing and reading. It is not surprising that Dalsimer, whose other publications have focused on female adolescence, is at her best in analyzing the writing of this period of Woolf’s life.

This chapter contains some of the most subtle uses of Dalsimer’s clinical skills, as she pulls out for scrutiny the affective sense of Woolf’s narration of daily events, and links it to the important events known to have been occurring at that time. She sees in this diary an enactment of obsessional defenses, especially the isolation of affect, and the triumph of the chapter is the reunification of the feelings with their likely precipitants. For example, Dalsimer discusses a period of time documented by the diary during which Woolf’s older half sister becomes engaged. While no negative feelings about this are acknowledged manifestly in the diary, rage and a “sense of imminent loss” are evident in her descriptions of external events. Suddenly, language and subject matter change in meaningful ways. The specific events deemed worthy of recording, and even descriptions of the weather, emphasize the dangerous and malevolent, the “violent” and “diabolical.” Then, after the wedding, when this sister falls fatally ill, danger and rage are again found all around her (Dalsimer talks of “projection onto the external world”). Woolf’s anxiety about her own rage and its power to harm, as well as a marked hostility toward older women, find expression in displaced images. In this period, it becomes evident that writing itself is becoming an act that comforts and protects, as the young writer reflects on the way that writing seems to drain events of their “power to hurt.”

In an examination of the diaries of Woolf’s later adolescence and early adulthood, which were freer in style and contain much self-reflection on being a writer, Dalsimer again shows her appreciation for the diary’s special meaning as a source. She focuses on the unusual physical aspects of the diary, and raises questions about the meaning of these. Woolf pasted her diary onto the pages of a published book, ostensibly in order to appropriate the handsome leather binding of the book. Rather than accepting this reason at face value, Dalsimer explores the meaning of this act of containing the diary, as well as of the choice of the particular book (Logick, or The Right Use of Reason) in conjunction with the mostly depressive themes emphasized in the diary. Dalsimer also brings together and makes sense of the numerous fragments written in margins, on backs of pages and upside down throughout the diary, by inferring likely associative connections and thereby restoring meaning. She also includes in this chapter some contemporary correspondence with Violet Dickinson, an older friend of the family, to depict movingly Woolf’s first love affair, during her father’s illness and slow decline. Her account emphasizes the deeply maternal-erotic tone of this relationship, and its yearning quality, continuing the theme of a basic driving need to work through the early loss of the mother.

Later chapters deal with other early writings, and their role in Woolf’s management and working through of her grief. Woolf’s early book reviews and essays, written during the period when her father was dying, are examined in light of the way that Woolf’s love of reading and writing reflected and enacted her tie to him. The death of Woolf’s brother, Thoby, is linked with the young men who populate her fiction. Dalsimer looks at Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, including fragments from early drafts. She examines the way that the figure of the dead mother “haunts” this first novel, and is depicted amid a whirl of fantastic, erotic and destructive images. Here, Dalsimer again emphasizes the central place of the mother’s death in Woolf’s imagination. She implicitly links Woolf’s early loss with her developing fascination with elusive memory, the unattainable, and the absent.

These later chapters are less compelling, although they contain much that is insightful and interesting. This may be an effect of the way that the book was organized around the question of the function of writing. While these chapters further the project of addressing this question, the question itself seems in conflict with the thread that truly seems to unify the book, namely, the question of the relationship between memory’s fluidity and the process of mourning. While the material presented, when analyzed as deftly as this is, does much to illuminate Woolf’s experience, it seems to me that the question of how writing “served” may yet be unanswerable. The notion that Woolf was “writing” and “re-writing” her mother, moving back and forth through time, and “thinking through” her, would seem to be more sensibly harnessed to an exploration of memory rather than to an analysis of the meaning of writing itself. Is it not possible that these imaginative efforts of Woolf’s, accessible to us because of the brilliance of her gift, would have occurred even if she had not been a writer? The way that Woolf’s play with fantasy contributed to the reworking of internal images, which, thereby, reorganized her inner experience, is the theme that stands out in this book.

It is as though Woolf spent her life using her creative gift to represent the turns of her inner psychic kaleidoscope; when she turned it to create To the Lighthouse, she was able finally to modify a certain rigid and oppressive representation of her mother. Dalsimer has used Woolf’s earliest writings to reconstruct the turns preceding this momentous one, and in doing so has created her own masterful work of insight and imagination.

References

Brand, A. & Powell, J. (1985) Emotions and the writing process: A description of apprentice writers. Journal of Educational Research, 79 : 280-285.
Litowitz, B. & Gundlach, R. (1987). When adolescents write: Semiotic and social dimensions of adolescents’ personal writing. Adolescent Psychiatry, 14: 82-111.

Reviewer Note

Wendy Wiener Katz is a candidate at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and practices in New York City.

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