Fractal Myth

Virginia and I.

[Michelle Chapman ©1997]

An exercise in creative essay writing, based on an extract from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

Virginia and I (imagine us as you will) sit peacefully on the green velvet bank near a clear crystalline stream - behind those shrubs is a particularly deep and peculiar-looking rabbit hole - but we don't see it, so preoccupied are we with our game. A large pile of pebbles lies in front of us: jumbled together are precious and semi-precious stones, smooth, dull river pebbles, flashy pieces of quartz and dense granite. Virginia chooses each pebble with exactness, painstakingly polishing it until it glows with perfection. She places them in exquisitely precise patterns, rearranging and enhancing designs which encompass worlds beyond my experience. I am less refined, plunging my hand into the pile of pebbles in search of serendipitous treasure - whatever my fingers close around, I wet in the quiet stream, admiring the sparkling sunlight which reflects off diamond-bright water and glistening stones. My pebble-patterns stay stubbornly muddled, resisting my attempts to impose order, but as I despairingly admire Virginia's neatness I am amazed to feel her reciprocal appreciation of my chaotic, creative freedom.

Soothingly the sun shines and a gentle breeze blows through blue rosemary and grey-foliaged lavender. By the stream, sweet herbal scents surround us, while the fragile floating bubbles that drift by reflect image after image with shimmering rapidity. I cannot resist scattering the images with a careless spin, only to watch them seamlessly reform. If I reach too eagerly, the swirling surface explodes; the images become plain text once more; the pebbles are merely inadequate words.

I look earnestly for Virginia's glimmering little fish but see only the reflections changing in the mirrored pool of my mind. She (is it not obvious who I mean?) once envisioned future writers (that's me, I guess) as never needing to emerge from the satisfying exploration of these myriad images, through the assumption that one's audience is already familiar with reality.(1)

It occurs to me that this relies on a common cultural awareness between writer and reader, or at least requires that Wordsworthian willingness to suspend disbelief and give the fascination of the text opportunity to inspire one's everyday understanding. This semantic epiphany occurs when a writer brings to authorship both craft and consciousness, in the combination creating a jewelled textual bubble: "flawed and imperfect, but starred with poetry."(2) Such a magical congregation of mundane words, ambiguous meanings and frustrating forms was well known to T.S. Eliot. Only when every word is settled snugly in its space does the text finally, fully, come alive: "The complete consort dancing together."(3)

In A Room Of One's Own, Virginia Woolf remarked on Charles Lamb's reverence for the textual stability he perceived in Milton's Lycidas, to the extent that the subjective 'rightness' of the words is privileged, and the creative role of the author is denied.

Crush fragrant rosemary to revive the fainting Lamb: his complacent masculine bubble which encompassed only the pure perfection of the text has been popped by the crossings-out of composition. Woolf's contrasting impulse involves investigating the paradoxes of authorship - "What Milton altered, and why" - in so far as it was available to a reader devalued due to her gender.

Walking the web of a past author's quest to combine method and meaning can lead to valuable insights about language use; but it can also leave you tangled in a sticky mess, as you attempt to distinguish the silk from the sky: "one would have to decide what is style and what is meaning, a question which - but here I was".(4) Though denied access to authoritative answers for her questions, and subjected to intrusions from restrictive, rule-driven masculine reality, Woolf's persona merely looked out from her self-contained bubble in mild annoyance at the interruption. Seamlessly iridescent, glistening with images, when the surface is disturbed this bubble reforms with the reflective radiance of the river after the rower has passed.

On the "semi transparent envelope"(5) the skilful author's words project polysemous pictures. Right and wrong, clear and vague, proven and imagined, the possible and the probable present themselves for my inspection. "Saint Charles, said Thackery, putting a letter of Lamb's to his forehead."(6) First I see a canonical retinue of English literary figures of renown, each congratulating his (yes, his) predecessors on the brilliance of their style and subject (or criticising the lack thereof); each aspiring to be better than the past, while somehow transcending the present. Each generation expresses a need to reinvent their language so it can coherently meet the innovative demands of today's communication.

The Modernists, with their catch-cry 'make it new' at once rejected and reaffirmed Wordsworth's Romantic impulse to make the language of the common man the language of poetry. At the end of the twentieth-century, it appears to me that poetry and prose can freely mix and intermingle with impunity; the relativity of interpretation and relaxing of formal rules accepted by the contemporary canon allows the juxtaposition of otherwise incongruous images and styles - but the word-quests to make meaning live remain arduous. In opening up new semantic vistas, we have proliferated the pitfalls of abstruseness, inexactness and uncertainty which provide the paradoxes of authorship.

The surface stirs, the colours change and flash and glow. I see Thackery exclaiming "Saint Charles" as he licks Lamb's letter and pastes it to his brow. In my bubble there is always room for "puns, pathos and parody",(7) for sarcasm may show what seriousness leaves unquestioned - the ridiculous element in the 'boys' club' reverence for patriarchal ways of making meaning, a tradition defiantly dismissive of female participation. Why was this image chosen by Woolf from the library of hooks on which she hung her thoughts - unless she, like me, believed it capable of conveying more than surface levels suggest?

An image to make a reader stop and think can be more valuable than a thousand clear and concise explications but it carries the concurrent danger that another reader will stop and close the book at the same point. The distinction between concrete and abstract meaning is as fragile as a soap bubble, and guessing the tolerances and preferences of a largely unknown audience provides an author with an extra paradox: if, like Virginia Woolf, you wish to reject the 'established literary taste' - how do you know you have been successful? With what can you compare?

As my bubble spins, smearing old images into new, I see Thackery (and Woolf) paying honest homage to that rare genius in Lamb's writings, that magic victory over the paradoxes of authorial endeavour. Preserved in the physical existence of the text is that mystical moment when elusive meaning is finally captured in one's carefully knitted net of words. Or is it? Slippery and subjective, the semantic monolith seems as unstable as the silvery moon that shines, ancient masculine archetype of flux and fickle femininity, a bubble of light in the night. In a Post-Modern world (where my thoughts are all I have to offer) I am supposedly aware that writers have political agendas which the reader carries the onus of uncovering: experience with onion skins may help - there's bound to be infinite layers, and involuntary weeping may accompany the dissection of a living language structure into an insignificant pile of slushily transparent words which may, or may not, suggest the author's apparent purpose.

The mystery of authorship involves more than a game of 'hide the hegemony'. For me, it encompasses the idea of passing on imaginative examples, bubble reflections, which are empowering - encouraging the individual to survive in an antagonistic world, and the author to continue the quest to capture the clarity of that magic spark. Perched on a perilous pile of pebbles, the writer is an angler painstakingly crafting "style and sense" into a lure, and testing its effectiveness on one's own free-swimming imagination.

The reader is a most spectacular fish, with innumerable iridescent scales, each unique, mirroring the text's images in manifold ways. Reflections of reflections, the reader's thoughts are bubble images rising irresistibly to the surface. Before they break, they must be carefully examined: we collect some as treasured insights, attempting to identify and discard the red herrings. The walls surrounding the library of infinite meaning have become as permeable as the delicate membrane around the bubble in my mind. The guardian angel may no longer bar the way, but he is not handing out Dewey catalogues either.


1. Virginia Woolf - 'The Mark on the Wall' in James Reeves (ed.) Great English Essays (Cassell & Co. Ltd. 1961) p.352:

"... Supposing the looking-glass smashes, the image disappears, and the romantic figure with the green of forest depths all about it is there no longer, but only that shell of a person which is seen by other people - what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in. ... And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking a knowledge of it for granted ..."

2. Virginia Woolf A Room Of One's Own.
3. T.S. Eliot - (poem title unknown) in Cleanth Brooks A Shaping Joy - Studies in the Writer's Craft (Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1971) p.51:

"... every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new.
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together ..."

4. Virginia Woolf A Room Of One's Own.
5. Virginia Woolf 'Modern Fiction':

"... life is a luminous halo, a semi transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? ..."

6. Virginia Woolf A Room Of One's Own.
7. Line from a Monty Python comedy skit.

Marker's comments.

83% - A delightful piece of writing!

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