Virginia Woolf, Noise, and Modernism


"But the noise!" she said. "The noise!"

"The sign of a successful party." Nodding urbanely, the Professor stepped delicately off. –from Mrs Dalloway

Posted on November 14, 2016



Virginia Woolf may not be the first writer who comes to mind when thinking of the auditory in literature. After all, the reception of Woolf is focused strongly on the visual dimension rather than the auditory, frequently pointing out connections to visual art – and artists – in Woolf's work. However, Woolf may be regarded – or rather listened to – as a pioneer of the representation of sound and music in literature: She frequently anticipates "ideas" and concepts of 20th century music; interweaving them with some of the characteristic dynamics of literary modernism while revealing a rich – at least implicit – knowledge of the auditory, which is central not only to her portrayal of the processes of perception, but also to her reflections on art and politics.

In investigating and explicating this knowledge, "noise" comes in handy as a Leitmotiv.


In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf's 1925 novel, which – like Joyce's Ulysses – accompanies its characters on their strolls and errands through London within the span of a single day, the city is not merely a backdrop, but becomes central to Woolf's exploration of the workings of perception.

As the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, steps out of her house at the very beginning of the novel, Woolf greets her heroine with an onslaught of urban noise:

"In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June."


Make no mistake, Clarissa, who is the epitome of the sheltered upper class lady and who, besides, has a weak heart, is absolutely elated by "the bellow and the uproar". While Woolf's contemporaries are frequently complaining of the link between urban noise and the fashionable diagnosis of neurasthenia or "nerves", Woolf has her character revel in the loud, discordant song of the city.

But not only is noise pleasurable, it is also meaningful. The nexus of listening and knowing – both knowing and recognizing one's surroundings, but also knowing and recognizing oneself – is introduced a few lines earlier:

"For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? over twenty, – one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense […] before Big Ben strikes"


This particular elaboration of the motive of church bells not only conflates time and space; Clarissa's sense of place or rather, the auditory emergence of a place through the tolling of Big Ben, articulates how acoustic communities are defined by the reach and tuning of church bells, a concept that has been elaborated within the World Soundscape Project. Also, the paradoxical extension of the  church bells' ringing into the past, into the moment of anticipation and suspense, anticipates Cage's famous dictum: "There is no silence that isn't pregnant with sound". Silence is not the absence or opposite of sound, it carries both its precondition and potentiality. Woolf's urban soundscapes depict noise as neither deafening nor random: In the intricate weave of noise and silence, sound is as multi-layered and complex as the life in which it comes to function as an epistemic resource. But the noise of the city does not merely provide the listening subject with a sense of place and, what's more: belonging in this particular space; it also has a social dimension that goes beyond the shared knowledge of  how to decipher certain auditory clues, which in turn, becomes part of one's identity. Indeed, noise for Woolf is the sonic figure of the social; of togetherness and communication. The climactic party in Mrs Dalloway, which reappears as a metaphor for writing in the essay "Character in Fiction", is explicitly associated with noise as Clarissa speaks to one of her most intellectually distinguished guests,  Professor Brierly (who lectured on Milton):


"But the noise!" she said. "The noise!"

"The sign of a successful party." Nodding urbanely, the Professor stepped delicately off.


In this sense, Mrs. Dalloway's party is not merely a bored rich lady's way of spending time (as is repeatedly suggested by several of the novel's characters; an accusation which truly stings Clarissa), it is a deeply political event, articulating an attitude towards the social that embraces plurality and even antagonism and therefore differs markedly from Miss Kilman's aggressive dogmatism, Peter's removed idealism, and Richard's scheming pragmatism. Noise is the sonic figure of the social both quite palpably in the vivid description of the party – "people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room" – but also metaphorically, as it replaces consonance with chaos, and agreement with antagonism. While this motive seems to be one among many at the time of Mrs Dalloway's publication, its conceptualization of noise as a cipher for a certain idea of society becomes acutely relevant a decade later.

In Woolf's last novel, Between the Acts, which was barely finished at the time of her death in the spring of 1941, noise becomes something more: A weapon in the fight against fascism and a lifeline for experimental art and pluralist societies. As the diverse cast of Between the Acts comes together at Pointz Hall to watch a pageant depicting the history of England from medieval times to the present day, Woolf continuously introduces noise in various forms, most obviously – or rather: audibly – and famously through a gramophone which keeps misbehaving:

The needle "scrape[s] the disk", the machine "chuff[s], making "the noise of something

gone wrong", it "reel[s . . .] as if drunk with merriment", and "turn[s] ironical".

While the pageant's author and producer, La Trobe, orders the gramophone to be hidden in the bushes, setting the stage for an acousmatic experience, she partly orchestrates these malfunctions herself, drawing attention to a communication channel, and thereby exposing it as more than an innocent "medium": For Woolf, communications technology is charged with meaning itself and deeply embedded in power structures, their perpetuation and reinforcement, but also, potentially, providing leverage for their challenging and subversion.

Therefore, Woolf again links the gramophone to the negotiation of identity:


"All you can see of yourselves is scraps, orts and fragments? Well then listen to the gramophone affirming… A hitch occurred here. The records had been mixed. Fox trot, Sweet lavender, Home Sweet Home, Rule Britannia — […] Dispersed are we, the gramophone triumphed, yet lamented, Dispersed are we…[…] The gramophone gurgled Unity — Dispersity. It gurgled Un … dis… And ceased.“


These malfunctions subvert music's potential for physical and emotional manipulation, which is harnessed for militaristic and propagandistic purposes: In short-circuiting what Woolf repeatedly terms the "herd impulse" of the human animal, the aesthetics of noise expose a plurality of perspectives. By affording and emphasizing the co-existence of multiple and possibly even contradictory interpretations of a "message", noise makes it possible to imagine an alternative to the fascist logic of using media to exert power, replacing imposed certainties with situated knowledges, that do not erase the perceiving individual – its body and its social status, as well as its desires and fears. Noise for Woolf – like Silence for Cage – is the site of the confrontation with the Other; of the ethical encounter in which the totality of the ego is broken in the face of the infinite strangeness of the Other, which can never be subsumed into one's own being and to whom one owes an infinite obligation.

However, this re-negotiation of power structures is not just social but also aesthetic, as La Trobe's most radical move toward noise is the surrender of her own power as an artist in her concept for the (re)presentation of the historical present in the pageant:


"Miss La Trobe stood there with her eye on her script. 'After Vic.' she had written, 'try ten mins. of present time. Swallows, cows etc.' She wanted to expose them, as it were, to douche them, with present-time reality.“

The idea of a performance defined merely by an empty duration, which turns its own reception into the real object of "representation" and "stages" the confrontation of the audience with itself and its own present, is of course well known from John Cage's 4'33", the "silent piece" which was premiered eleven years after Woolf's death, and can be seen as a precursor to or "germ cell" of the Happening. At the same time, the style of La Trobe's stage directions is reminiscent of instruction pieces in concept art (think Ono or Knowles). What all of these artistic concepts have in common is that they contain very little information and a lot of static: chance, un-intentionality, whatever way you want to call it. Therefore, from an informational perspective, they are noisy.

However, this embrace of noise is fraught with considerable risk, which becomes clear as La Trobe's experiment gets completely out of hand, leaving La Trobe wishing for the security and authority of illusion:


"But something was going wrong with the experiment. 'Reality too strong,' she muttered. 'Curse ’em!' She felt everything they felt. Audiences were the devil. O to write a play without an audience — THE play. But here she was fronting her audience. Every second they were slipping the noose. Her little game had gone wrong. If only she’d a back-cloth to hang between the trees — to shut out cows, swallows, present time! But she had nothing. She had forbidden music. Grating her fingers in the bark, she damned the audience. Panic seized her. Blood seemed to pour from her shoes. This is death, death, death, she noted in the margin of her mind; when illusion fails. Unable to lift her hand, she stood  facing the audience.“


Quoting literary theorist Roland Barthes, this scene has been called the "death of the author". Indeed, what happens to La Trobe is a negative and extreme example of what performance scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte terms "auto-poietic feedbackloop": This dynamism is the epitome of the performance as an emergent event unfolding between the performer and her audience. Therefore, introducing noise into a work of art – indeed, replacing the concept of the work with the shared experience of the performance and the closure of the piece with the open-endedness of the concept – entails a shift of responsibility and power from the production side of art to its reception. Woolf's portrayal of the mechanism of this emergence as confrontation and antagonism instead of collaboration and amplification, is proof of the relevance of this move from author to audience; from authority to collaboration. As for Cage and Ono, Woolf's awareness of the necessity to challenge the artist's authority comes from a radically democratic, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, anti-totalitarian, and anti-patriarchal impetus. If power needs to be shared and if the act of communication is more important than the message to be shared, the work of the artist cannot be exempt from these politics.

Indeed, this dynamism is not only at play in performative arts but also in literature, and Woolf doesn't just write about it, but also with it: Her narrations are not just to be read as freely associating introspection and meandering streams of consciousness, but it is precisely among the silences, ambiguities and discontinuities; omissions, imprecisions and juxtapositions, that the fabric of the text opens up to literature as a collaborative effort, as the reader is forced to make sense. Of course, the literary text is realized only in the act of reading, and emerges anew with every repetition of this act. In other words: Where Woolf's texts become noisy, her reader is, like the audience at Pointz Hall,  confronted with her own present, with the situated activity of reading. Noise as a poetological device highlights the collaborative effort that is required for the constitution of meaning, and by extension, for the contingent creation of the text in the "intimate" collaboration between writer and reader. Literary language is opened beyond the logic of representation toward communication, and beyond the singular toward the possible. Indeed, noise is present on every level of Woolf's work; from the micro-level of style and grammar, to the macro-level of character, multiple perspectives and open forms; she is constantly instilling doubt, contradiction, and surplus. Woolf's writing isn't domesticated, "effeminate" middle-brow literature; if you listen properly, you can hear the bellow and the uproar of literary modernism as loudly as in Ulysses or Infinite Jest.


In her use of noise as a resource for fuelling creativity and communication, Woolf offers a narrative that is different both from the fascist project to extinguish noise, i.e. the site of dissent, from propagandistic messages; as well as from the pessimist interpretation of quantum physics and information theory, which holds that noise inevitably means the demise into chaos and entropy. As Michele Pridmore-Brown writes in her study of the gramophone motive in Between the Acts:

"The creation of order out of noise can, in Michel Serres's words, be thought of as a temporary reversal of our entropic drift 'towards the noise and black depths of the universe'."

Woolf highlights in her work that it is actually necessary to first introduce noise into order to afford the observing subject with the freedom to constitute meaning independently; it is necessary to dare sharing power and confronting the Other to be able to create.






Continue reading:


Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. 1941. Stella McNichol, ed. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000.


—-. Mrs Dalloway. 1925. Stella McNichol, ed. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1992.


Pridmore-Brown, Michele. „1939-40: Of Virginia Woolf, Gramophones, and Fascism.“ PMLA 113, 3 (May 1998), 408-421.







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