The Frontal Cortex

The Waves

Lincoln Center recently featured a stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Here’s what Ben Brantley had to say in the Times:

Life unfolds in a series of exquisite contradictions in “Waves,” a remarkable, genre-defying work from the National Theater of Great Britain that raises the bar for literary adaptations. The world that is so magically summoned in this improbable page-to-stage translation of “The Waves,” Virginia Woolf’s most challenging novel, is one of fragmentation and flux, of impenetrable solidity and ghostly transparency, of simultaneous bloom and decay.

The six lives this piece traces, by means that include up-to-the-minute video simulcast and old-radio-style sound effects, are at once singular and universal: discrete, jagged pieces of a whole that never can and yet somehow always do come together in harmony. “We differ, it may be, too profoundly, for explanation,” as one of the characters in the novel, surveying his tribe of friends at a dinner party, thinks. “But let us attempt it.

The folks at Lincoln Center were kind enough to ask me to contribute to the Playbill. I didn’t get a chance to discuss The Waves in my book – it just felt a little too difficult – so it was a special pleasure to reflect on the novel in light of the play. I’ve pasted in my essay below the fold:

In 1928, after completing her gender-bending satire of biography, Orlando, Woolf confessed to her diary that she wanted her next book to be completely different. “Something abstract poetic,” she wrote. “I want to put practically everything in…to give the moment whole, whatever it includes.” While Woolf had always been interesting in expressing “the flight of the mind” on the page, translating the stream of consciousness into modernist prose, she wanted this book to push the boundaries of fiction.

The very first page of The Waves announces its avant-garde intentions. Woolf takes a single moment in time and demonstrates how each of the six characters (they turn out to be friends) perceives the same slice of reality: Bernard detects a ring, Susan observes “a slab of pale yellow,” Rhoda hears a chirping, Neville imagines a globe against a hill, Jinny sees a crimson tassel and Louis makes out a faint stamping sound. In other words, everyone experiences the identical moment in completely different ways. The end result is a subtle sort of loneliness, a sad epistemic confusion. The characters think they know each other, but they know nothing. They all inhabit different worlds.

Why does everyone experience a different reality? The Waves pinpoints the self⎯”the essential thing”⎯as the secret source of these variations. Although Woolf knew that experience is made out of a “shower of innumerable atoms,” she believed that the elusive self bound those atoms into a whole. It took the “shivering fragments” of sensation and turned them into a coherent stream of consciousness. “I press to my centre,” Woolf wrote in her diary, “and there is something there.”

In The Waves, Woolf tried to expose this “something,” to capture the arc of thought that makes someone see a “pale slab of yellow” while someone else hears a “cheep, chirp” sound. (“I want to trace my own process,” Woolf wrote in her diary, shortly before starting to write the novel.) Although she begins The Waves with a description of impersonal sensation⎯”the sea that is indistinguishable from the sky”⎯that amorphous world soon ripens into a subjective experience, which immediately leads to another experience, and so on. The resulting work is a snapshot of reality as seen from slightly different angles, a kind of cubist literature. For Woolf, the inconsistency of these descriptions isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it’s just the way things are. Whenever we sense something, we naturally invent a subject for our sensation, a perceiver for our perception. The self is simply this subject; it is the story we tell ourselves about our experience. It just so happens that everyone writes the story a little bit differently.

And yet, even as the self keeps us separate, it also allows us to come together. That is the real moral of this plotless novel: The self might condemn us to ourselves, but without the self we are condemned to nothingness. We would have nothing to say, no realities to compare. As Woolf wonders in The Waves, “How to describe the world seen without a self?” Her answer was simple: “There are no words.” There is only silence, the endless breaking of waves on a shore.


  1. #1 jess
    November 25, 2008

    This is beautifully stated. It’s difficult to sum Woolf’s words, but you have done so. Your description makes me think of my favorite quote from her book ‘Jacob’s Room’:

    “It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows. And why, if this — and much more than this is true — why are we yet surprised in the window corner by a sudden vision that the young man in the chair is of all things in the world the most real, the most solid, the best known to us–why indeed? For the moment after we know nothing about him.

    “Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”

  2. #2 Mike
    November 25, 2008

    The Waves is one of my favorite novels. Brilliant.

  3. #3 jb
    November 26, 2008

    There is our experience through our senses and mind, and our thoughts and words about our experience. They are not the same thing; words can only point to our experience.

    But words are useful to communicate. So, of linguisitic necessity, we split our experience into self and other to describe it with our words and mull it over in our thoughts. And those thoughts and words are embroidered with our projections about self and other as, of a more basic necessity, we assign meaning to our experience through these thoughts and words, and act accordingly.

    But experientially we need not split into self and other, embroidered thoughts and words can be dropped, and communion can happen. Virginia Wolf glimpsed this and so can we.

    Tonight I spent an hour watching my aging aunt go through her nightly routine and listening as she explained what she was doing and why, to me who has no such routine. Earlier today I had heard two reports of her increasing dementia from staff at her assisted living residence. My response had been to caution her about expressing her anger inappropriately when things are not to her liking but I was not sure she can control her response or even remember that she had lashed out seconds later.

    Tonight however, on the eve of my departure, all of that fell away. For a time, there was just watching when there were no words and listening when there were.

    Thank you Virginia, Jonah, and Jess for causing me to pause and be grateful. May everyone have a good Thanksgiving!

  4. #4 jb
    December 1, 2008

    PS See the movie “Synecdoche, NY” for a slightly more optimistic view of our plight than Virginia Woolf’s.

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