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Posts Tagged ‘Sanita Fejzic’

This is the fifth in a new series of posts that will offer a global perspective on Woolf studies, as proposed by Stefano Rozzoni at the 29th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf. If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact Blogging Woolf at bloggingwoolf@yahoo.com.

By Sanita Fejzić

The 29th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio, was the first formal gathering of Woolf scholars I attended.

Virginia Woolf portrait by Mathieu Laca hanging above writer Sanita Fejzić

I am not a traditional ‘Woolf scholar’ because my speciality is broader and outside English Literature: I am a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University in Canada with a focus on the relationship between environmental ethics and cultural production (with an emphasis on the written word). Yet, Virginia Woolf permeates so much of my thinking. A Room of One’s Own (1929) was an initiation, a provocation, an intellectual opening into thinking-as-woman in the university setting, a site of intellectual and creative production denied to a young Woolf.

Turning to Woolf to understand queer identity

In a period of generalized homophobia and literary censorship (think of Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness) Virginia Woolf penned Orlando (1928) in honour of her lover, the aristocratic poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West. Vita’s son Nigel called it, “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

As a lesbian, it is impossible for me not to turn to Woolf for her depth of understanding of what it means to assert a queer identity in heteronormative societies. Her exquisite play-poem, The Waves, accurately portrays the seeming impossibility of establishing lesbian desire and sense of self precisely because identity is relational and constituted by power.

Critics are quick to point out that Rhoda is the most abstract character of The Waves (1931). Yet Rhoda’s extreme social timidity coupled with her sense of alienation, her very literary way of processing events and people, her inability to express herself and her eventual suicide are not mere abstractions. These are the material symptoms of a profound social sickness.

In The Waves the self is constituted by others, specifically six other petals of the flower that make up a group of friends (or in childhood, a nuclear family). There is a palpable sense of how characters co-create one another throughout the text. The self is also shaped by social institutions like the school, and other state apparatuses.

Rhoda, whose sexual attraction for Miss Lambert is stunted and repressed, never fully blossoms into lived experience. How can lesbian desire and sexuality emerge in public and intimate spaces that deny the very possibility of romantic and sexual love between women? That is why, as I have argued elsewhere, Rhoda’s suicide was a co-creative act, one that was precipitated by homophobic and sexist social circumstances.

Virginia Woolf’s understanding of the ways in which power subjugates women and in particular queer women was a scaffolding in the limitations (and stubborn necessity) of my will to invent what I desire. My MA thesis focused on Virginia Woolf even though its subject was transcorporeality (a posthumanist term coined by Stacey Alaimo to signify fluidity between bodies, human and nonhuman bodies as well as theoretical bodies) and more-than-human intersubjectivity.

The Waves and our place in the world

Because if many have pointed out that Woolf was a protofeminist, I would suggest she was also a proto-posthumanist. It is impossible to read To the Lighthouse (1927) or The Waves, for example, without contending with the entanglement between humans and what we call ‘nature,’ an umbrella term for animals (which includes us), plants, water, landscapes, climate and geography and all the other vibrant materialities we coexist with.

The Waves reminds us of our place in the world. Our lives are, on the grand scale of geological time, but a single note in the grand cosmic symphony we come in and out of, like a wave emerging, peaking and disappearing in a vast ocean of movement. Today, we know today that humans are a geological force responsible for climate change, mass species extinction, ocean acidification, unhealthy levels of toxicity in our bodies and nonhuman bodies, threatening our very own survival. Woolf never fully let us forget our entanglements with our organic and inorganic (yet lively) co-existents.

If Virginia Woolf wanted to see a modern fiction concerned with the soul, with our inner lives, abandoning old pillars including linear plot, marriage, comedy and the rest, her work was nonetheless deeply attuned to the impact of seemingly impersonal historical hands on private lives. Between the Acts (1941) is a testament to the ways in which humanity (an abstract concept we never experience outside of cognition) and its past continues to affect and shape our present and future.

This, I think, is the most pressing philosophical issue in our ecologically compromised times: how to contend with a humanist and Enlightened past in times when the very concept of ‘human as separate and autonomous from nature’ is under great tension.

Woolf a good starting point

It is my view that Virginia Woolf is as good a starting point to begin thinking about posthumanism as the work of Nietzsche, Foucault or Haraway. As anthropologist Marilyn Strathern reminds us, who we think with matters, and Woolf’s fiction and non-fiction are so rich in breadth and depth that her work is, as the French say, inconturbable. I often imagine that had Woolf been permitted into a university, she would have instinctively gravitated toward research-creation as her methodology, writing fiction starred with theory and theory taken by poetic will.

To continue to read her and to gather in her honour as we do at Woolf Conferences is to utter a loud, prolonged, mournful yet exalted howl—for everything she has given us and for all we have lost when she took her life.

Editor’s Note: From the age of 15 to 19, Woolf took classes in continental and English history, beginning and advanced Greek, intermediate Latin and German grammar at the King’s College Ladies’ Department. She also had private tutors in German, Greek and Latin. One of them was Clara Pater, sister of critic and essayist Walter Pater. Read more.

Read more in the series:

Sanita Fejzić (at left in pink top) among the Woolf scholars at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library during a reception at the 29th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf.

Woolf scholars at the Saturday night banquet for the 29th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati in June 2019.

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