(An article that I had published in Prestige Magazine in 2010, images by Marija Anja Venter)
The stagnant Victorian era was becoming a distant memory and stance du jour was that of embracing new forms of knowledge and ideas. The start of the 20th Century brought with it a strand of avant garde thinking that rejected all previous norms and beliefs. In short, it was about questioning the very fabric of reality itself. The Modernist movement put a great deal of emphasis on radical individualism, which was executed through a writing technique known as the “stream of consciousness.” This progressive and reactive stance rocked the proverbial boat of authors, and as a result produced a new subjective and autonomous form of art.
Modern “stream of consciousness” is a writing technique that relays the direct conscious thoughts of the writer onto the page. It is not constrained by style, structure and punctuation as it comes straight from the mind of the writer, filtered only through the mind of the character. This technique portrays the inner psyche of the character and is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue characterised by associative – and at times dissociative – leaps in syntax and punctuation that can make the prose difficult to follow, tracing a character’s fragmentary thoughts and sensory feelings. Modern authors Virginia Woolf and James Joyce were both advocators of this literary technique and are regarded as two of the foremost modernist literary figures of the 20th Century.
The most noteworthy and important influence of Woolf’s life and subsequently her writing was undoubtedly her involvement with the Bloomsbury Group. The Bloomsbury group comprised an intellectual circle of writers and artists who lived in Bloomsbury, London. A common ethos concerning the nature of the fundamental separateness of individuals involving both isolation and love underlie the group’s core ideals. These Bloomsbury assumptions are also reflected in what Bloomsbury group members saw as repressive practices of sexual inequality, and in attempts to establish a new social order based upon liberation from these established norms. Love (an inner state) was held in higher esteem than monogamy (a demonstrable behaviour), and several of the members had more than one serious relationship simultaneously. Woolf herself had a lengthy extramarital affair with writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson, which lasted the greater part of the 1920s.
Woolf is considered one of the greatest innovators in the English language and it is because of this concentration on the inner state of the autonomous individual that her definitive “stream of consciousness” writing style came to fruition. Her novels are highly experimental. Her narratives, which are frequently uneventful and commonplace, are refracted, sometimes almost dissolved, in the characters’ receptive consciousness. She often fuses intense lyricism and stylistic virtuosity to create a world overabundant with auditory and visual impressions. This technique often elevates the ordinary, sometimes banal settings of most of her novels.
Along with Virginia Woolf, James Joyce is a key figure in the development of the modernist novel. Joyce also made use of the “stream of consciousness” technique. But, even though their works show an overlapping and an interconnected similarity of ideas, the only link between Woolf and Joyce is the period of time in which they existed.
The most significant influence on Joyce’s journey into the “stream of consciousness” stems from geography. Indeed, although most of his adult life was spent outside the country, Joyce’s Irish experiences are essential to his writings and provide all of the settings for his fiction and much of their subject matter. Another noteworthy titbit regarding his novels is the early relationship with the Irish Catholic Church, which is reflected by a similar conflict in his character Stephen Dedalus, who appears in two of his novels. This inner conflict, pertaining to the existence of God, mirrors the Bloomsbury ideals of the time: a concentration on the inner state of the autonomous individual.
Joyce’s method of “stream of consciousness,” literary allusions and free dream associations was pushed to the limit in arguably the most interesting and simultaneously frustrating book of all time: Finnegans Wake, which abandoned all conventions of plot and character construction and is written in a peculiar and obscure language, based mainly on complex multi-level puns. The book ends with the beginning of a sentence and begins with the end of the same sentence, turning the book into one great cycle. Indeed, Joyce said that the ideal reader of Finnegans Wake would suffer from “ideal insomnia” and, on completing the book, would turn to page one and start again, and so on, in an endless cycle of reading.
The Modernist emphasis on radical individualism is echoed in Richard Huelsenbeck’s First German Dada Manifesto of 1918: “Art in its execution and direction is dependent on the time in which it lives, and artists are creatures of their epoch. The highest art will be that which in its conscious content presents the thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week … The best and most extraordinary artists will be those who every hour snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life, who, with bleeding hands and hearts, hold fast to the intelligence of their time.”
The beauty of the Modernist movement lies in its subtext. The fact that both Woolf and Joyce employ similar writing techniques in order to convey corresponding ideologies even though their paths never crossed is astonishing. The very notion that two completely unrelated human beings can share the same ethos just because they share a point on a universal timeline is a testament to the profound interconnectivity that we share with one another. When we pick up one of Woolf’s novels, we take a journey through her thoughts and inadvertently through the thoughts of her contemporaries. We assimilate the mindset of the modern and become a part of the greater collective consciousness of humanity and in so doing discover the elixir of life.