07/17/2014 04:36 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2014

The Book About Nothing Is the Perfect Book: Virginia Woolf Writes of Utopia (or the No Place)

There is more to the line, to its straightness and its surface. I can see the poor-perfect Mrs. Dalloway trying to escape the text, or is it Virginia Woolf. At the beginning of any text there is what remains closed, unseen. The text is born every time it's read as we impose our own minds and ideas onto it. The text becomes a place of possibility, capable of infinite interpretation. Possibility is the child of this tension, which opposes a strict narrative thesis. Possibility is the antithesis, and without it there can be no opening. There is no-place we enter and enter at the same time, which becomes a utopia (the no place) or pure book--the book about nothing--as Jacques Derrida once noted.

Possibility produces anxiety. A thesis may assume a safer route. The thesis, a position or proposition that a person advances and offers to maintain by argument; or the antithesis, which suggests a type of foreignness, that challenges, contrasts ideas or words to yield a rhetorical effect. When I think of Virginia Woolf, I think of her commitment to such a process: the duality of the possible and impossible, working to locate patterns of consciousness rather than sequences of events in the external world. I admire how she challenged structuralist notions of literary texts, how she restrained herself from writing toward a "poetical thesis"; or preordained patterns of composition (a term coined by Edgar Allen Poe).

Instead, Woolf reunites us with the darkness, the interiority of disconnect and she shows us how one is supposed to survive within the dim light. Her desire to implement a form (stream of consciousness) that conveyed inner life pushed the genre (fiction) past its structural limit. Stream of consciousness shows the preconscious mind, the mind before structure and limits. It's the no-place where all possibility exists. While the form has traditional elements of fiction, including a beginning, middle and end, it also challenged it. The text became elliptical and even more implicit. Creative writer and reader were both translating and producing meaning. Woolf described the form as recording a type of free fall, a recording of the sensation of experience as it falls on the mind.

Woolf's best writing often mirrors this type of fall. Her capacity to write the inner dialogues of her characters has become a familiar trademark of her writing. I think about Mrs Dalloway and Woolf's gracious hostess (Clarissa Dalloway), anxiously preparing for the activities of her London party: buying the flowers herself, taking the doors off their hinges for expected guests. I also think of Septimus Warren Smith, the ex-soldier who suffers a posttraumatic mental illness. Septimus and Clarissa never meet, yet their minds are symmetrical, and the reader begins to feel this connection surface from behind the text.

I remember Clarissa's "sheets . . . tight stretched in a broad white band from side to side. Narrower and narrower would her bed be . . . where Richard insisted, after her illness, that she must sleep undisturbed." This reminds me of Septimus's doctor urging him to take a "long rest . . . [and] lie in a bed in a beautiful house in the country." I see Septimus, alone in his room, recalling the sound of "dogs barking and barking far away" just as Clarissa, in her similar isolation, "listens to . . . the dog barking, far away barking and barking." Later, during Clarissa's party, Septimus commits suicide, and she thinks, "Here is death, in the middle of my party." At that moment, Clarissa intuitively understands her allegoric double, Septimus, like her, is here, but absent, lingering in a non-place.

But then there is Septimus's suicide, which creates a utopian conflict. In "Something's Missing," Ernst Bloch says, "where the threshold of death is not at the same time considered, there can actually be no utopia . . .. Death is nothing other than the power of that which merely is just as." Woolf doesn't let Clarissa's day remain immortally pure. The novel works up towards recognition of mortality juxtaposed against an ideal immortality (the party). Woolf immerses the reader in the impossibility of a ruined party, but the planning only distracts us from the possibility of death. Even Clarissa believes in this fantastical arrangement.

Upon completion of Mrs Dalloway, Woolf wrote in the introduction to the Modern Library Edition "it is difficult--perhaps impossible--for a writer to say anything about his own work. All he has to say has been said as fully and as well as he can in the body of the book itself . . .. Once a book is printed and published it ceases to be the property of the author; he commits it to the care of other people." Personal encounter with a text is subjective, which makes meaning subjective. When the author physically separates from the text, authorship shifts to the reader, an idea otherwise known as Roland Barthes' death of the author. I am also suggesting a partnership between creative writer and reader that shapes the text. The shape becomes a space, which is both passable and impassable; the shape becomes the space in life we can't enter in life. The text develops inward: both creative writer and reader become committed in an effort to understand. Thus the space produced remains (un)translatable. There is no opposition, just revelation.

Further Reading

Bloch, Ernst. "Something's Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W.
Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing." (February 2005).

Culler, Jonathan. Barthes: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Derrida, Jacques. "Force and Signification," in Writing and Difference. London: Routledge,
1978. Trans. Alan Bass. (pp 1-36)

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.