The Waves is a series of miniatures inspired by Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name.
Each week, a new episode has been uploaded. They are best listened to on headphones.
This is Episode 6: Epilogue
”The unreal world must be round all this—the phantom waves. […] Could one not get the waves to be heard all through? Or the farmyard noises? Some odd irrelevant noises.” (A Writer’s Diary 141)
The Waves was published in 1931 and may be Woolf’s most experimental work; a dense weave of narratives from six different perspectives, tracing the lives of a group of friends from childhood to middle-age.
From the beginning of her work on the text, Woolf thought about it in terms of its aurality. In one of her earliest diary entries relating to The Waves, she ponders: ”Could one not get the waves to be heard all through? Or the farmyard noises? Some odd irrelevant noises.” (A Writer’s Diary 141)
Woolf’s literary realization of this idea are short interludes throughout the book which keep returning to the sea; changes in light, flora, and fauna always accompanied by the sounds of waves crashing, lapping, gurgling… on the shore. However, there are more ways in which the text resonates.
Indeed, The Waves seems to lend itself to being re-worked in sound: Early on, actress Virginia Isham (also a distant cousin of Woolf’s) proposed to make a radio adaptation and while this project never materialized, a number of radio plays based on The Waves, as well as musical adaptations, have been produced from the 1950s to the present day. Many research papers deal with The Waves’ (possible) relationships to music and radiophonic art.
Woolf’s interest in the processes of perception not only fuels the formal and stylistic experiments in her writing, but also makes her an author exceptionally attuned to the auditory. Consider, for instance, how Woolf has the here and now unfold through sound in her 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway: “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.” (Mrs Dalloway 4)
In Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, which was barely finished at the time of her death in the spring of 1941, it is less the urban soundscape that interests Woolf, but the noise inherent in audio technology. In her diary entries and essays from the time of World War II, Woolf frequently discussed the affective power of propagandistic radio broadcasts. In Between the Acts, she deconstructs this power by linking the negotiation of collective identity to a gramophone which keeps misbehaving:
”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.“ (Between the Acts 112-119)
For Woolf, communications technology is itself charged with meaning and deeply embedded in power structures, their perpetuation and reinforcement; but also, potentially, provides leverage for challenging and subverting these structures.
Thus, the phantom waves that Woolf wants to make audible are not just the sea waves, but also sound waves, radio waves and, ultimately, the waves that make up the universe: At the beginning of the 20th century, quantum physics began describing a universe of waves and particles beyond the world of solid objects that Newtonian physics relate to. Woolf was reading James Jeans’s The Universe around Us (1929), a book that helped popularize the work of Albert Einstein, as she was writing The Waves. Letters and diary entries from 1930 suggest how Woolf’s involvement with physics and particularly wave mechanics was influencing her work: ”To her friend, the composer Ethel Smyth, Woolf wrote that she was trying to imagine ‘space bending back’ a reference to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, in which gravity is not a force but a curvature of space“ (Pridmore-Brown 410, quoting from Letters 266; 27 Dec. 1930) and the same month Woolf wrote in her diary about whether the human mind would ever comprehend ”the riddle of the universe“. ”Because this riddle was encoded in wave mechanics, she thought of it as a ’rhythm in prose‘.“ (ibid. quoting from Diary 3:337; 18 Dec. 1930)
While waves and ”odd irrelevant noises“ supply much of the texts ”pluralistic soundscape“, the sonic texture of The Waves is very much determined by the chorus. We repeatedly hear bird choruses, drunken Oxbridge boys singing in the dark of night, soundscapes of ”wheels; dogs; men shouting; church bells; the chorus beginning“, but most of all, we hear the chorus of Woolf’s protagonists: The multi-perspectival narration of earlier novels like Mrs Dalloway is intensified in The Waves’ to become a tight weave of voices which makes up almost the entire fabric of the text. The chorus indeed seems an appropriate form for the negotiation of personal and collective identity which is central to The Waves: In antique Greek theatre, subjectivity emerges as it is offset against the chorus, the modern subject is heard in the singularity of their voice. Contemporary post-dramatic theatre explores forms of choric speaking as a metaphor for precarious and fluid post-modern subjectivities.
Woolf is poised along this continuum as she gives the individual subject a clearly discernible voice while making this voice part of a narrative structure that continually recasts the Self as Other. In this sense, the chorus 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; and this Otherness in turn is essential to acknowledging and embracing the many facets of the Self. As Woolf has one of her characters say about the others: ”With them I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness.“ (The Waves 87)
Cuddy-Keane, Melba. ”Virginia Woolf, Sound Technologies and the New Aurality.“ Virginia Woolf in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Pamela L. Caughie, ed. 2000. London: Routledge, 2013. 69-96.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity – An Essay on Exteriority. 1980. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1979.
Pridmore-Brown, Michele. ”1939-40: Of Virginia Woolf, Gramophones, and Fascism.“ PMLA 113, 3 (May 1998), 408-421.
Woolf, Virginia. A Writer’s Diary. Leonard Woolf, ed. London: Hogarth, 1965.
—-. Between the Acts. 1941. Mark Hussey, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.
—-. Mrs Dalloway. 1925. Stella McNichol, ed. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1992.
—-. The Waves. 1931. Kate Flint, ed. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1992.