Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

VIRGINIA WOOLF: A Room of One’s Own (Searching for Truth II)

The heroine in Virginia Woolf’s story (A Room of One’s Own) goes to the library in search of truth.  The logical arrangement of subject headings only baffles her.  So she develops her own research method by “making a perfectly arbitrary choice of a dozen volumes.”  Random selection is a kind of method.  But are her selections really arbitrary?  Woolf is motivated by Freudian theory and believes “it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”  The books chosen “arbitrarily” by the heroine leads, in her mind, to a submerged truth.  Or maybe it’s a personal demon.  She was (subconsciously perhaps) led to pick up a specific book entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex.  It was, the heroine says, “the one book, the one phrase, which had aroused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women.  My cheeks had burnt.  I had flushed with anger… it was anger that had gone underground and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions.  It was anger disguised and complex, not anger simple and open.”  Her own method of research had led to the discovery of her own truth: “professors (I lumped them together thus) were angry… why are they angry?” 

Why are these professors, all men, so angry?  The battle of the sexes is an old theme that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden in Genesis (GB1).  It’s also a major theme of A Room of One’s Own.  What makes this reading different is what lies beneath the surface (or “underground” as the heroine puts it).  There’s a deeper and more complex question than the relationship between men and women.  It’s the relationship of the reader (or researcher) to truth.  In the introductory notes Virginia Woolf says reading is a two-step process, the first step being “to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, the second to pass judgment.”  This story serves as a good test case. The original purpose in going to the library was the search for truth.  Now the question becomes, where is it?  There are three possibilities to help guide us in our search.  (1) The truth is out there and we can find it.  Our task is to find it and follow wherever it leads.  This is the path followed by Oedipus the King (GB5).  (2) The truth is out there but we can’t really know it first-hand.  The best we can do is view it from afar and try to follow it in our own lives.  This is the path followed by Kant using the compass of Conscience (IGB3).  (3) The truth is not “out there.”  It lies within us.  The best thing we can do is project our own truth onto the world around us.  This is the path followed by the heroine.  During her search she found the one book that crystallized truth for her.  Her anger was the compass pointing to that one book.

One other example may help in our own search for truth.  In his notes about Observation and Experiment (IGB1) the French scientist Claude Bernard said “observers must be photographers of phenomena… we must observe without any preconceived idea; the observer’s mind must be passive, that is, must hold its peace…”  He was talking about observing nature but we could apply the same method to literature.  Bernard’s advice is to let Virginia Woolf speak for herself and “as soon as she speaks, we must hold our peace; we must note her answer, hear her out and in every case accept her decision… we must never answer for her.”  Literary truth is not the same thing as scientific truth.  We can’t control variables and conduct experiments.  We can only “receive impressions with the utmost understanding.”  Those impressions are the key to literary truth.  Bernard says “it has often been said that, to make discoveries, one must be ignorant … it is better to know nothing than to keep in mind fixed ideas.”  The heroine doesn’t agree.  She wants to keep her fixed ideas.  And this is part of the charm of Woolf’s heroine.  She doesn’t care what Claude Bernard thinks.  He’s just a university professor.  A male university professor.     


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