The Waters of the Mind: Rhetorical Patterns of Fluidity in Woolf, William James, Bergson and Freud

by María Jesús López Sánchez-Vizcaíno

January 1, 2007


At the beginning of the 20th century, writers such as Virginia Woolf and thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, William James and Henri Bergson were trying to give a novel account of our inner and psychological life. The aim of this article is to compare Woolf's metaphorical recreation of the workings of the human mind by means of a rhetorical pattern articulated around the notions of container and content, surface and depth, fluidity and unboundedness with Freud's dynamic and topographical representation of psychological life, where streams of thought flow across the superficial and the deep layers with James's definition of consciousness as a 'stream of thought' and with Bergson's conception of psychological time as 'durée', an endlessly flowing process, apprehended by 'l'intuition'.



At the beginning of the 20th century, writers such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Virginia Woolf regarded inherited narrative forms as inadequate, when trying to capture the complexity and mutability of the modern world and of modern human experience. The narrative techniques and strategies of what became known as the modernist novel were closely connected with the great transformations that the Western world was undergoing at a philosophical, political, technological and artistic level, and owed specifically a lot to the new ideas on the human mind that were spreading across Europe and America. Sigmund Freud, William James and Henri Bergson were among the chief creators of this modern psychology, and their writings, together with Woolf’s, constitute attempts to give a novel account of our inner and psychological life.

     Leaving aside the complex and obscure issue of to what extent they influenced each other in any direct manner and to what degree they were familiarized with each other’s ideas,1 and taking into consideration the great differences that exist between these four authors’ systems of thought, the aim of this article is to show how Woolf metaphorically recreated the workings of the human mind by means of a rhetorical pattern articulated around the notions of container and content, surface and depth, fluidity and unboundedness, notions that also prove to be central to Bergson’s, James’s and Freud’s descriptions of the mind.

     Modernism-both as a wide philosophical current and as a concrete literary movement-entailed radically new articulations of the human mind and of human subjectivity. These articulations took the form of a critique or questioning of old conceptions of the self–as we actually see in Freud, James and Bergson-and as Paul Sheehan sustains, a rejection of the humanist orthodox certainty about what it means to be human. According to Freud, the first “two great outrages” (562) upon humanity’s “naďve self-love” (562) were the Copernican discovery that the earth was not the centre of the universe and the Darwinian affirmation of the human descent from the animal world. And he asserts that now

    man’s craving for grandiosity is … suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavouring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind. We psycho-analysts were neither the first nor the only ones to propose to mankind that they should look inward; but it appears to be our lot to advocate it most insistently (562)

Marianne Dekoven refers to Eugene Lunn’s enumeration of modernist features, one of which is “the demise of subjectivity conceived as unified, integrated, self-consistent” (175).2 Similarly, Astradur Eysteinsson claims that one of the modernist paradigms is the crisis of the subject –the “modernist destruction of bourgeois identity” (28)-, which can be observed in “a modernist preoccupation with human consciousness (as opposed to a mimetic concern with the human environment and social conditions).” This preoccupation led to “the use of the stream of consciousness technique,” to “a radical inward turn” and to an “exploration of the human psyche” (26).

     Those exactly are the features that Woolf found in Dorothy Richardson’s novels, and that she herself adopted, transformed and improved. Richardson was the first English novelist to consistently use the stream of consciousness method,3 as she was “concerned with states of being and not with states of doing” (Woolf, Essays 52). Thus the reader “is not provided with a story; he is invited to embed himself in Miriam Henderson’s consciousness; … to follow these impressions as they flicker through Miriam’s mind, waking incongruously other thoughts” (Essays 16). According to Woolf, however, Richardson partly fails, since “we still find ourselves distressingly near the surface” (16), and she proposes instead “to be rid of realism, to penetrate without its help into the regions beneath it” (17), as she makes clear in her famous essays-and declarations of principles-“Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” and “Modern Fiction”. In “Modern Fiction,” originally published in 1919, Woolf rejects the method of the Edwardian writers, whom she calls “materialists,” since “they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body” (158), and describes the modern novelist as a “spiritualist,” for whom “the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology” (162).

     The attempt to reproduce in the novel what happens in those “dark places of psychology” led to an emphasis on subjectivity, to the dissolution of the boundaries between the objective and the subjective, and to the rejection of the single and omniscient narrator and of fixed narrative points of view. Erich Auerbach devotes the last chapter of his celebrated book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which he uses to illustrate the new modernist narrative techniques. Auerbach explains that in the literature of the past “there was hardly any attempt to render the flow and the play of consciousness adrift in the current of changing impressions” (535), whereas Woolf’s writing aims at rendering “the continuous rumination of consciousness in its natural and purposeless freedom” (538), as she is led by the desire “to fathom a more genuine, a deeper, and indeed a more real reality” (540).

     In their examination of the world of psychological phenomena, Freud, Bergson and James were also driven by the wish to probe a deeper reality. In fact, Woolf’s wish to penetrate into “the source beneath the surface, the very oyster within the shell” (Essays 15), her interest in what is hidden beneath the mind’s superficial manifestations, may be seen as related to Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, of a world in the individual of unseen material that lies under the obvious and the visible, an idea that utterly transformed art and culture in the early 20th century. As Woolf herself explains in one of her essays, this new vision implied a conception of the mind as a three-dimensional space divided into two basic levels, “the upper” and “the under” (Woolf, Essays 163), the surface on top and the room behind it. Internal and psychological processes, as described by Woolf throughout her fiction, are usually built upon the notion of the mind as a container, and of thoughts, ideas, sensations or dreams as the elements contained in it. In “A Sketch of the Past,” she describes life as “a bowl that one fills and fills and fills” (Moments 75), and sees herself as “the container” of feelings (78), whereas in “The Lady in the Looking-Glass,” the “mind” of the protagonist is likened to “her room, in which lights advanced and retreated, came pirouetting and stepping delicately” (Stories 92). In To the Lighthouse, words are presented as making a “pattern on the floor of the child’s mind” (64), and the mind is described as “a pool of thought, a deep basin of reality” (203). In the essay “More Dostoevsky,” there is a reference to “the pool of our consciousness” (Books 141); in The Waves, to “the walls” (19) and “the lake” (26) of the characters’ minds; and in Mrs. Dalloway, to “the mind’s sandy floor” (147).

     Freud mapped the divided geography of the mind in a very elaborate manner, and in his lecture on resistance and repression, he explicitly describes the mental apparatus in spatial terms:

    The unconscious system may therefore be compared to a large ante-room, in which the various mental excitations are crowding upon one another, like individual beings. Adjoining there is a second, smaller apartment, a sort of reception-room, in which consciousness resides. But on the threshold between the two there stands a personage with the office of door-keeper, who examines the various mental excitations, censors them, and denies them admittance to the reception-room when he disapproves of them (566)

His topographical conception of the mind is also based on the surface-depth dichotomy: “consciousness is the superficies of the mental apparatus” (700), whereas the vast region below the surface is divided into the unconscious and preconscious layers. This dichotomy between what lies under and what is upper, and the relations, movements and exchanges that are established between those different mental levels are essential to understand Freud’s rhetorical descriptions of the mind. For example, his seventh lecture, on manifest content and latent thoughts, is completely structured around this idea. He explains how “our method is to allow other substitute-ideas, from which we are able to divine that which lies hidden, to emerge into consciousness” (489); that those substitute-ideas are a means “of bringing into consciousness the unconscious thoughts underlying the dream” (490); and that “resistances invariably confront us when we try to penetrate to the hidden unconscious thought” (490).

     This topography of the psyche is adopted by Woolf in her essay “The Leaning Tower,” from 1940, where she makes an explicit reference to “Dr. Freud” (Essays 175), and defines “unconsciousness” as the “state” at which “the under mind works at top speed while the upper mind drowses” (163). Here, Woolf describes a process in which the most interesting perceptions “swam to the surface, apparently of their own accord; and remained in memory,” while “what was unimportant sunk into forgetfulness” (163), and argues that writers should achieve “a whole state of mind, a mind no longer crippled, evasive, divided” (175), so that they sink into unconsciousness and tranquillity and are able to deal with what is beneath the surface.

     If we pay attention to both authors’ words and proposals, we find the idea of the constant movement of mental contents. As it is well known, Freud’s conception of mental processes depends not only on the already discussed topographical perspective, but also on the dynamic one: “Psycho-analysis has departed a step further from the descriptive psychology of consciousness ... Up till now, it differed from academic (descriptive) psychology mainly by reason of its dynamic conception of mental processes; now we have to add that it professes to consider mental topography also” (431). As Freud tries to exemplify mental ‘dynamics,’4 he describes an interaction of submerged and emerging elements and forces, of material slipping back and forth between the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious, so that the underlying rhetorical configuration is that of the mind as a fluid and watery world. Anyone familiarized with psychoanalysis and with Freud’s works will have found, in different sources such as textbooks and popular media, plenty of references to a supposed statement by the German thinker in which he compares the mind with an iceberg, of which only a small percentage is visible (the conscious), whereas its largest part is beneath the water (the preconscious and the unconscious). There has been much speculation about whether this image was actually employed by Freud or not, and after having looked through Freud’s writings and having read several discussions on this matter, I believe I can assert that Freud never made use of this metaphor of the mind as an iceberg. However, what is interesting for our purposes, is the fact that an analogy which superbly conveys Freud’s understanding of the mental world should conceptualize the mind in terms of water. Woolf’s metaphors of the mind as a ‘pool,’ a ‘basin’ or a ‘lake,’ and her account of perceptions as ‘swimming’ and ‘sinking’ in the mental world also figuratively depend upon the medium of water, the symbol of mutability and fluidity par excellence. In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf reveals how her life stands upon her first memory, that of being in bed in the nursery at St Ives and hearing the waves breaking (Moments 75). Certainly, water as a semantic field and as a rhetorical notion haunts her imagination and determines her vision of reality throughout all her works.5

     In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud elaborates a mental world structured around the surface-depth dichotomy and the fluid movement of elements in the waters of the mind. He describes how “two trains of thought” meet, “the former on the surface, the latter covered up” (304), and refers to “dreams that show an accelerated flow of ideas” (336). The “recollection” of “the affective impulses prevailing in dream-thoughts” is compared to how “the bowl of a fountain collects the water that flows into it. From this point the dream-thoughts flow along the following channels” (330). “Annoyance” is said to draw “reinforcement from springs that flow far beneath the surface, and so swells to a stream of hostile impulses” (329). Or we get to know how in the forgetting of dreams, “directing ideas immediately exert their influence, and henceforth determine the flow of the involuntary ideas” (348). Freud’s articulation of the mind as a space in which thoughts, ideas and dreams are living entities in constant movement strikingly resembles Woolf’s, for whom “in one day thousands of ideas have coursed through your brains; thousands of emotions have met, collided, and disappeared in astonishing disorder” (Essays 86), and who writes about words “twisting about to make Heaven knows what pattern on the floor of the child’s mind” (Lighthouse 64), or about an “idea” that “sunk back again” (Lighthouse 202).

     The examples above show that Freud’s mental dynamics constitute what Harold Bloom has called a “civil war within the psyche” (Canon 377), a battle for supremacy between different forces. Words such as ‘conflict,’ ‘forces,’ ‘opposition,’ ‘battle’ or ‘struggle’ appear once and again in Freud’s texts, and they are symptomatic of Freud’s structural model of the mind, according to which the id, the ego and the superego constantly wrestle with each other for dominance. Thus, in “The Ego and the Id,” he describes the interaction between the three components of the mind in terms of a struggle or a battle: he argues that the “conflicts” of the ego with the object-cathexes of the id are carried on in “conflicts” with their successor, the super-ego, and asserts that “the struggle which once raged in the deepest strata of the mind … is now carried on in a higher region, like the Battle of the Huns which in Kaulbach’s painting is being fought out in the sky” (708). In Freud’s writings, the mind is constructed as a space in which mutable entities are engaged in a dynamic and usually conflicting relationship: he explains how “a stubborn conflict is going on in the patient between libidinal desires and sexual repression” (624); talks about the “normal struggle between conflicting impulses” (624) and about the “battle of the repression” (627); makes reference to “how, as each individual resistance is being mastered, a violent battle goes on in the soul of the patient–a normal mental struggle between two tendencies on the same ground” (627); or contends that “the transference is thus the battlefield where all contending forces must meet” (634).

     Freud then saw the mind as irreducibly divided, whereas what Woolf proposes in “The Leaning Tower” is “a fusion of the two minds, the upper and the under” (Essays 173), a figuration that resembles Henri Bergson’s and William James’s conception of consciousness as an ever changing, mutable and protean stream, flow or continuum.6 Let us remember William James’s famous words in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

    Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as “chain” or “train” do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A “river” or a “stream” is the metaphor by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life (155)

James claims that “within each personal consciousness, thought is always changing” (146) and “is sensibly continuous” (146). As opposed to John Locke’s and David Hume’s vision of thought as composed of independent and discrete elements juxtaposed alongside of each other, both James and Bergson saw psychological phenomena as constituting a continuous flow, and hence the astonishing resemblance between the quoted paragraph by James and Bergson’s following words in Creative Evolution (1907): “Each of them is borne by the fluid mass of our whole psychical existence. … Now, states thus defined cannot be regarded as distinct elements. They continue each other in an endless flow. … a flux of fleeting shades merging into each other” (3). Later on, in that same book, we are told that “we perceive duration as a stream against which we cannot go” (38). It is precisely this inner flowing stream that leads Bergson to formulate in Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1889) his famous notion of durée, which stands for psychological time or inner duration, and which does not lend itself to any logical, quantitative or intellectual analysis: “Pure duration is the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states” (100).

     According to Shiv K. Kumar, la durée is the distinguishing feature of the stream of consciousness novel, in which, following Bergson’s principles, modernist writers present it as something incapable of measurement, and not to be captured by conventional and spatialized representations of time. Indeed Woolf abandoned the conventional plot and the conception of time as a linear sequence of events, and by means of an extremely lyrical and evocative language, rich in suggestive and beautiful images of transitoriness and openness, and based on a fluid and scattering syntax, she articulated her great novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Between the Acts (1941) and especially The Waves (1931) around the rhythm of her characters’ thoughts, sensations, perceptions and feelings, all of which constitute this stream of consciousness, this fluid durée.7

     Woolf’s characters undergo privileged “moments of beings” or of revelation, which we can identify with the famous modernist epiphany, so important for James Joyce, and in which the characters’ senses become especially receptive so that an intense connection is established between the profusion of outer sensations and their inner consciousness. And since consciousness is conceived of as a ‘stream’ or a ‘river,’ characters figuratively sink into themselves, submerging or plunging into the waters of their minds. We find such a moment in To the Lighthouse, when in the evening, Mrs. Ramsay is silent and alone. Then, “her life sank down for a moment” (72), and we get to see that “beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep” (73). The moment of lyrical and emotional climax comes when the lighthouse’s ray of light strokes “with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight” (75), and “waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind” (76). In a similar scene in The Waves, Bernard and Neville, in silence, allow the fin of their thought8 to “sink back into the depths,” and they begin to think “with the unlimited time of the mind” (194). The “wide and dignified sweep of [their] mind” (194) contracts as they hear a clock tick.

     These new ideas about the mind moved away from a conception of the self as built around a hard and changeless core, the self as a monolithic, stable and seizable entity, and purported instead a vision of inner life as a dynamic process, as a heterogeneous, unstable and elusive entity.9 The Waves is probably Woolf’s most experimental and daring novel in this sense. In it, Woolf “sets in parallel series the reflections of six characters, in such a way as to suggest the permeability or friability of selfhood” (Trotter 94), as the novel’s narrative pace is built upon a continuous stream made up of the impressions and subjective processes of the six characters, whose mental states flow into one another. In this novel, we experience then the “dissipation or streaming away of identity … its accumulation, accretion, acceleration, augmentation and sedimentation” (Trotter 94). As Bernard, one of the protagonists of the novel, puts it, “I could not recover myself from that endless throwing away, dissipation, flooding forth without our willing it” (198).

     We also find this challenge to the old stable ego in Woolf’s memoirs “Reminiscences,” “A Sketch of the Past” “22 Hyde Park Gate” and “Old Bloomsbury.” These autobiographical pieces constitute an attempt at apprehending and recollecting an always elusive and mutable identity, a self that is continuously being re-shaped by the incessant dialogue between the past and the present, a dialogue which is crucial in Freud, James and Bergson. In his chapter of The Principles of Psychology devoted to the perception of time, James asserts that “the knowledge of some other part of the stream, past or future, near or remote, is always mixed in with our knowledge of the present thing” (396-397). Without this simultaneous perception of past, present and future, consciousness could not be considered a stream: “These lingerings of old objects, these incomings of new, are the germs of memory and expectation, the retrospective and the prospective sense of time. They give that continuity to consciousness without which it could not be called a stream” (397).

     Therefore when we try to capture the present moment of time–a process that James refers to as “intuition”-what we actually perceive is “the specious present” (398)10: a non-static “prolonged present”—borrowing Gertrude Stein’s expression in Composition as Explanation—that ceaselessly fades into past and future. James asserts that “the unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration” (399), and that “awareness of change is thus the condition on which our perception of time’s flow depends” (406). Bergson and James, then, articulate some of their ideas using exactly the same terms, namely those of ‘duration,’ ‘flow’ and ‘intuition.’ As regards the melting relation between past and present, Bergson contends in Creative Evolution that “in reality, the past is preserved by itself; automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it” (4).

     And though Freud’s approach to the mind differed a lot from James’s and Bergson’s, he was the thinker who actually generalized the view that we never escape from our past and that most psychological problems go back to our childhood. In her paper “22 Hyde Park Gate,” delivered to the Freudian-inspired Memoir Club, we witness Woolf’s attempts to come to terms with her past life, and in her story “The Mark on the Wall,” we find the desire to “sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts” (Stories 43). This compulsion to go inward and downward is especially strong in her autobiographical text “A Sketch of the Past,” where Woolf asserts that “the past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths” (Moments 114). In this passage, and in the following one, Woolf beautifully expresses the continuity between present and past through the metaphor of the flowing water: “I write this partly in order to recover my sense of the present by getting the past to shadow this broken surface. Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into that stream” (Moments 115).

     This simultaneous co-presence of past and present is central to understand Woolf’s method and articulation of her novels. Linden Peach argues that To the Lighthouse is structured upon the way in which the past interrupts and disrupts the present, and upon the way in which the present interrupts the past: “To the Lighthouse exemplifies ideas about different levels of time co-existing and the way in which the past and the present relate to each other” (135). Joseph Hillis Miller approaches Mrs. Dalloway from a similar perspective, as he identifies in this novel a continuity between past and present situated within the characters’ minds: “The present, for them, is the perpetual repetition of the past” (184).11 And memory is the fundamental tool with which the merging between past and present may occur: “Storytelling, for Woolf”–Hillis Miller contends-“is the repetition of the past in memory” (176). Only in memory does the self become a flowing river of consciousness. Needless to say, memory as a mode of introspection became central in psychoanalysis, but Bergson goes even further and argues that “the formation of memory is never posterior to the formation of perception; it is contemporaneous with it” (Mind-Energy 128). In Woolf’s novels, boundaries between past, present and future tend to blur, and Bergson’s mémoire involontaire—non-utilitarian and non-intellectualized—becomes a fundamental aesthetic tool of her art.

     In A Pluralistic Universe (1909), James devotes a chapter to “Bergson and his Critique of Intellectualism,” and explains how Bergson’s philosophy “was what had led me personally to renounce the intellectualist method and the current notion that logic is an adequate measure of what can or cannot be” (225). Concepts, which “are all discontinuous and fixed” (253), “negate the inwardness of reality altogether” (246), since “the essence of life is its continuously changing character” (253). James adopts Bergson’s solution: “Dive back into the flux itself, then, Bergson tells us” (252). Bergson categorically asserts in An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903) that materialism, rationalism and positivism only provide us with relative knowledge, and proposes instead that, if we want to attain absolute knowledge, reality must be seized, not by means of analysis, concepts or intellect, but from within, that is, through an intuitive identification with it: “I am in sympathy with those states, and … I insert myself in them by an effort of imagination” (2). For both Bergson and James, the analytical approach is characterized by its immobility and hence inadequacy to capture the essence of life, whereas intuition takes place in the mobile and flowing realm, that is, in the realm of life.

     Woolf’s rejection of intellectualism in favour of intuition is one of the structuring principle of her narratives, and is embodied in the opposition between characters such as Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay, Dr. Holmes, William Bradshaw and Neville, who are characterized by their analytical and cold spirit, and by their confidence in concepts, order and fact, and characters such as Septimus Warren Smith, Mrs. Ramsay, Lily Briscoe, Bernard, Orlando, Jacob or Mrs. Swithin, who, given their intense inner life, aesthetic sensibility and creative imagination, are capable of Bergson’s l’expérience intégrale. An opposition between an integrating, intuitive and flowing mode of thinking, which would be specifically female, and an abrupt, logical and dominant male mode of thinking, has been pointed out by much feminist criticism as one of the axes of Woolf’s thought. According to this opposition, water has been seen as the element intrinsically connected with female consciousness, as Roger Poole maintains: “The quality of the female mind is liquid. Water is the symbol which indicates, all though the pages of Virginia’s novels, that she is thinking as a woman” (265). In her essay “Professions for Women,” Woolf certainly depicts female imagination as a descent into the depths of a lake:

    The image that comes to my mind when I think of this girl is the image of a fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the verge of a deep lake with a rod held our over the water. She was letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being. … The line raced through the girl’s fingers. Her imagination had rushed away. It had sough the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber (Moth 152)

However, to assert that Woolf believed in a flowing and intuitive mode of thinking which was exclusively feminine is problematic, since as I have pointed out above, male characters such as Bernard, Septimus Warren Smith or Jacob are indeed depicted as capable of submerging themselves into the waters of the mind. Woolf’s fluid movement beyond boundaries may also be approached from a tradition of feminist criticism that has found in women’s writing a constant tension between spatial images of enclosure and of escape, between the house or the room and the sea,12 or in more strictly rhetorical terms, we may relate it to the flowing language and the images of unboundedness that Hélene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva—theorists associated with what is frequently referred to as French Feminism—have frequently employed in order to characterize feminine sexuality and feminine writing. Thus, Cixous, in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” asserts that “you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes” (876), and describes, instead, an “ebullient, infinite woman,” “full of luminous torrents,” who would be able to “overflow,” to “burst with forms;” a woman of “waves,” “floods” and “outbursts.”

     Other theoretical currents may also provide us with possible interpretive frameworks. In her essay on Michel de Montaigne, Woolf asserts that “movement and change are the essence of our being; rigidity is death; conformity is death” (Essays 60), and this emphasis on the mutability of experience, and her particular figurative use of water in order to convey it, align her with different thinkers and traditions of thought. Thus, Gaston Bachelard’s analysis of water, in Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter (originally published in 1942), as the transitory element par excellence could illuminate the role that water plays in Woolf’s texts as a structuring metaphor. Harold Bloom approaches Woolf’s concern with the flux of reality from a different perspective. For Bloom, “Woolf’s sensibility essentially is Paterian” (Views 2), and it is due to Walter Pater’s fundamental influence that she presents “the self as the center of a flux of sensations” (2). This study then may be further developed along several different paths, and ultimate questions linking rhetorical issues with contextual elements, lines of influence and ideological motivations remain to be explored. I hope, however, that by having identified the striking similarities that we find in some of the metaphorical and figurative patterns underlying Woolf’s, Freud’s, James’s and Bergson’s configurations of the mind, I have reminded the reader that, in our search for intertextual connections and literary and intellectual lineages, we must never forget to work at the most fundamental level, which is the level of language itself.  


End Notes

1 The question of Sigmund Freud’s influence on Virginia Woolf and of Woolf’s incorporation of Freud’s ideas into her fiction has been very much discussed. It seems that Woolf regarded with some suspicion the new psychoanalytic current, but it is out of doubt that she was very much familiarized with the German thinker’s works, which in the 1920’s began to be translated by James Strachey and his wife Alix, and to be published by the Hogarth Press. Freud’s ideas were much discussed in the Bloomsbury group, several Bloomsbury members trained as psychoanalysts, and Melanie Klein delivered her 1925 lectures at 50 Gordon Square, the home of Adrian and Karin Stephen. Freud and Woolf personally met in January 1939. William James and Freud met once, in 1909, when Freud delivered his Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis at Clark University, with James as a member of the audience. Gerald E. Myers points out that references by James and Freud to each other are few, and that there is no evidence that either directly influenced the other (593). On the contrary, James maintained an active intellectual relation with Henri Bergson, as they began in 1902 a correspondence that lasted until James’s death in 1910. Though it seems that at the beginning of their careers the similarities between their works were more due to coincidence than to influence, later in time they actively responded to and borrowed from one another’s ideas.

2 Dekoven relates this change in the approach to subjectivity to the shift in gender relations that took place at the turn of the century: she identifies an “ambivalence toward powerful femininity that itself forged many of Modernism’s most characteristic formal innovations ( 174).

3 Elaine Showalter considers Richardson to be the most consistent representative of the female aestheticism developed by the last generation of Victorian women novelists. This new female aesthetic applied feminist ideology to language, literature, perceptions and values. According to Showalter, Richardson-whose fiction has female consciousness as its central subject-“saw shapelessness as the natural expression of female empathy, and pattern as the sign of male one-sidedness” (256), and by means of the stream-of-consciousness technique, tried to present “the multiplicity and variety of associations held simultaneously in the female mode of perception” (260).

4 By continually employing the word ‘dynamic’ or derived forms, Freud stresses the continuous movement and the changing nature of mental contents and processes. Thus, he talks about “the dynamic conception of resistance” (491), about “how this discharge through the dream is effected dynamically” (496), about “the dynamics of the process of recovery” (634), or about “the dynamic relations within the mind” (708).

5 As Roger Poole puts it, “water is Virginia’s central symbol. … there is scarcely a page of her novels where the sea, or water, does not make a fleeting appearance, as if her imagination was rocked on the swell of an invisible current of water which ran ceaselessly through her thinking” (259). Poole quotes Marie-Paule Vigne’s estimation that across all her novels, water occupies a 48% (about 4,500 words), against the 52% (4,850) that the other elements occupy all together.

6 In Freud, unlike in Bergson and James, we do not find the idea of all mental contents constituting a single stream that flows, although he presents the different elements in the mind as flowing along the different levels and paths. Thus, in his writings we encounter expressions such as ‘flow of ideas’ or ‘stream of thoughts’, and descriptions such as the following one: “During the day there is a continuous stream flowing … toward the motility end; this current ceases at night, and can no longer block the flow of the current of excitation in the opposite direction” (354).

7 For Auerbach, the “elaboration of the contrast between “exterior” and “interior” time” (538) and “the technique of a multiple reflection of consciousness and of multiple time strata” (544) are key stylistic features of the new modernist narrative. He makes reference to “the modern concept of interior time” (542), although he does not specify to which actual thinkers that idea is owed, and as he analyzes the modernist writers’ recreation of internal life, he implicitly alludes to the ideas of mobility, fluidity, internal time and depth, that is, the very same notions I am examining in this article: “The important point is that an insignificant exterior occurrence releases ideas and chains of ideas which cut loose from the present of the exterior occurrence and range freely through the depths of time” (540).

8 This metaphor of thought–or inner self-as a fish appears once and again in Woolf’s writings: “as if a fin rose in the wastes of silence; and then the fin, the thought, sinks back into the depths” (Waves 194); her thought-fish “darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither” (Room 7); “our self, who fish-like inhabits deep seas and plies among obscurities threading her way between the boles of giant weeds” (Dalloway 172); “I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream” (Moments 93); “a world which one could slice with one’s thoughts as a fish slices the water with his fin” (Stories 47).

9 Toril Moi asserts that for psychoanalysis, the mind is “a multiplicity of structures that intersect to produce that unstable constellation the liberal humanists call the ‘self’” (10). The label ‘unstable constellation’ could also be applied to Woolf’s, James’s and Bergson’s vision of the mind.

10 He borrows this notion from Mr. E. R. Clay.

11  It is worth mentioning that throughout the exposition of his arguments, Miller makes extensive use of the same vocabulary and rhetorical structures whose recurrence we are rescuing out of Freud’s, Bergson’s, James’s and Woolf’s texts. Pay attention to his use of the terms ‘continuity,’ ‘flow,’ ‘fluid’ or ‘dissolution,’ and to his implicit allusion to a continuous movement between the level of surface and the level of depth: “her dissolution of the usual boundaries between mind and world” (176); “if one descends deeply enough into any individual mind” (181); “the same images of unity, reconciliation, of communion well up spontaneously from the deep levels of the minds of all the major characters” (181); “deep below the surface, in some dark and remote cave of the spirit, each person’s mind connects with all the other minds” (182); “ease with which images from their pasts rise within them to overwhelm them with a sense of immediate presence. … The remarkably immediate access the characters have to their pasts is one such continuity. … In another sense, the weight of all the past moments presses just beneath the surface of the present, ready in an instant to flow into consciousness … So fluid are the boundaries between past and present” (184).

12 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their pioneering study The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), pointed to the literal and figurative confinement of nineteenth-century women, locked into men’s houses and texts, and to the “spatial imagery of enclosure and escape” and the “anxieties about space” (83) that, as a consequence, dominate their texts. Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik analyze how the sea, in the work of Woolf, Kate Chopin and Jean Rhys, suggests “the possibilities for self that lie beyond society, outside patriarchy, and within the future” (7). If we adopt this theoretical stance, Woolf’s fluid imagery and syntax could be considered as devices employed for the rejection of the boundedness of woman’s life within society and culture. Thus, many critics have interpreted the end of The Voyage Out (1915)-when after becoming engaged and hence having properly entered the patriarchal world, Rachel Vinrace falls ill and in her delirium she figuratively retreats into the medium of water-as a rejection of social and patriarchal oppression, and as a return to the foetal state and the matrix of being: “At last the faces went further away; she fell into a deep pool of sticky water, which eventually closed over her head. She saw nothing and heard nothing but a faint booming sound, which was the sound of the sea rolling over her head. While all her tormentors thought that she was dead, she was not dead, but curled up at the bottom of the sea” (322). The same argument would explain the spatial images of constraint with which Rachel dreams after she has been unpredictably kissed by Richard Dalloway, who has thus asserted his physical and sexual power: “She dreamt that she was walking down a long tunnel, which grew so narrow by degrees that she could touch the damp bricks on either side. At length the tunnel opened and became a vault; she found herself trapped in it” (68).

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: María Jesús López Sánchez-Vizcaíno "The Waters of the Mind: Rhetorical Patterns of Fluidity in Woolf, William James, Bergson and Freud". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2007, Published: January 1, 2007. Copyright © 2007 María Jesús López Sánchez-Vizcaíno