Looking at women from the eyes of God as illustrated in A Room of One’s Own
“When you’re down on the lower levels of this pyramid, you will be either on one side or on the other. But when you get up to the top, the points all come together, and there the eye of God opens” (Campbell, 31). Joseph Campbell presents this description of the Masonic symbol of the pyramid, which is an appropriate analogy of a reoccurring goal in Bloomsbury artistic creation. This goal is a detached, disinterested artistic vision, one free of a personal bias that places a persons’ vision on a side of the pyramid. This artistic integrity was highly valued in Bloomsbury creation. Virginia Woolf explores this phenomenon through gender in her essay A Room of One’s Own, as well as through the art of Lily Briscoe in the novel To the Lighthouse. This vision is not limited to creation, but applies also to experiencing art, as presented by Roger Fry in “An Essay in Aesthetics.” Likewise, Lytton Strachey, in his biography of Florence Nightingale in Eminent Victorians, exhibits the importance of detachment and a degree of objectivity when striving for a goal, by describing the aftermath that incurs when she has to overcompensate for the societal limitations of her gender.
“What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth” (Woolf, 72). In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf is attempting to define that artistic vision that each person, or at least people of genius, seem to be endowed with. Unfortunately, the ability to achieve this integrity is fragile, and the torch that illuminates the “invisible ink on the walls of the mind” is easily smothered (72). Woolf’s primary suspect for this is the effect of society on gender, specifically the treatment of women by men. To continue the analogy, this treatment put women’s artistic vision on one side of the pyramid. According to Woolf, especially before her own era, women wrote underneath a cloud of anger that prevented them from achieving artistic integrity. Woolf uses Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as an example: “She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance” (73). This personal grievance is the anger that Bronte had toward men.
Woolf does not limit this tainted vision to women. She describes men’s reaction to women’s demand for social equality. Men had always been superior, “And when one is challenged, even by a few women in black bonnets, one retaliates, if one has never been challenged before, rather excessively” (99). This motive of retaliation then has the clouding effect on men’s writing:
But why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter “I” and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there …There seemed to be some obstacle, some impediment of Mr. A’s mind which blocked the fountain of creative energy and shored it within narrow limits. (100)
The letter “I” here that Woolf refers to is the personal vestment that the artist has in the writing. Woolf asserts the importance of the detached “I”, and when she uses it she limits it to “a convenient term for somebody who has no real being” (4). The “I” she prizes is the detached one, one not limited by the filter of anger, and one that presents vision with artistic integrity. This is what is meant by the eye at the top of the pyramid, which sees all four corners.
Bloomsbury valued this detachment in other fields than writing. Strachey reiterates this in Eminent Victorians. He presents Florence Nightingale’s achievements, and stresses the necessity of her rebellion against the limitations of society on women. He begins by describing Florence’s unhappiness and boredom with the traditional life, satirically stating, “It was very odd; what could be the matter with dear Flo?” for there was “plenty to do in any case, in the ordinary way, at home. There was the china to look after, and there was her father to be read to after dinner” (137). Subject to these restrictions, Florence overcompensated by becoming authoritarian, controlling, and worst of all, by destroying her femininity. It is because of this that she was no longer objectively detached from her visions of proper healthcare. Her personal motives and views become irreversibly intertwined with the originally honest and sincere inclination to help others. For instance, because of her adaptive stubbornness, she insists that the windows need to remain open. She ignores the medical fact that this meant that disease would flow in the air to patients. She had to have that stubbornness to get where she was in life, but it permanently clouded her judgment. This problem was the same one that extended to the female writers Woolf cited. According to J. B. Batchelor, Woolf specifically denounces this reaction to oppression:
[Woolf] is indignant with women such as head-mistresses and heads of colleges because they have abdicated the specialized role for which their femaleness equips them by adopting male standards. Women must not emulate men; they have a better role of their own. (172)
Only by embracing her natural femaleness could Nightingale have been able to remain detached from her aspirations, and this is something that society would not allow.
Another character in literature, Lily Briscoe, in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, demonstrates that need to break free of social conventions. Throughout the book she is plagued by criticism by Tansley that, because she is a women, she cannot paint. She is also limited by the idea that her art “would be hung in attics … it would be destroyed” (208). It is only when she ignores these clouding issues and looks for her true artistic vision that she is able to finish. “With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done” (209). She was finally able to look past those limiting factors and achieve her vision.
The Bloomsbury group’s emphasis of detachment is further supported by Fry’s “Essay in Aesthetics.” This approach is different, but still rooted in experiencing or creating art without personal bias. In this case, detachment occurs because we are not required to react to what we are seeing. Fry gives an example of this, stating that the detachment “can be obtained by watching a mirror in which a street scene is reflected. If we look at the street itself we are almost sure to adjust ourselves in some way to its actual existence” (19). The experience of the audience of art that Fry is refering to is similar to the experience that a writer with artistic integrity will have. “It must in the first place be adapted to that disinterested intensity of contemplation, which we have found to be the effect of cutting off the responsive action” (29). The disinterested contemplation that Fry refers to regarding a viewer is the same that Woolf asserts a writer needs to have.
Clearly, the members of the Bloomsbury group valued an untainted, pure artistic vision, the “eye of God.” The question is then, what is pureness of vision? In Florence’s case, it would allow for undivided attention toward helping people in nursing. What, then, comes from being able to see something with artistic integrity? Referring to creators of “higher works of art”, Fry states, “We feel that he has expressed something which was latent in us all the time, but which we never realized, that he has revealed us to ourselves in revealing himself.” Woolf’s description is strikingly similar: “When one so exposes it and sees it come to life one exclaims in rapture, But this is what I have always felt and known and desired!” (72). Whether this level purity is attainable is debatable, as Woolf herself admits:
Are not all novels about the writer’s self? It is only as he sees people that we can see them; his fortunes colour and his oddities shape his vision until what we see is not the thing itself, but the thing seen and the seer inextricably mixed. (Woolf as quoted in Temple, 90)
Nonetheless, the members of Bloomsbury certainly strived for artistic integrity, and perhaps that is the reason so much of their work is still read today.
Fry, Roger. “An essay in Aesthetics.” Vision and Design. London: Chatto and Windus, 1920.
Batchlor, J. B. “Feminism in Virginia Woolf.” Virginia Woolf. Ed. Claire Sprague. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. 169-179
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1929.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.
Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1918.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Random House, 1991.
Temple, Ruth Z. “Never Say “I”: To The Lighthouse as Vision and Confession.” Ed. Claire Sprague. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. 90
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