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Virginia Woolf's Example of Creative Non-Violent Resistance (Review)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 28, 2011: I found Theodore Koulouris' book HELLENISM AND LOSS IN THE WORK OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (Ashgate, 2011) to be a wonderfully engaging study. However, I did not find Koulouris' writing style to be wonderfully engaging, to put it mildly. He does not write short sentences very often.

In any event, Koulouris ably contextualizes Virginia Woolf's life and work in her times. Virginia Woolf was married to Leonard Woolf. Her maiden name was Virginia Stephen. Her father was Leslie Stephen, an agnostic. Virginia Woolf is often regarded as a feminist writer among a group of feminist writers known as first-wave feminists. From the 1970s onward, second-wave and later feminist scholars have enriched our resources for understanding Virginia Woolf's life and work. Koulouris ably draws on the scholarly resources now available about Virginia Woolf.

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However, he also manages to find previously unexplored angles of her life and work to explore in his new fascinating study, most notably her study of ancient Greek. But of course Virginia Stephen undertook her study of ancient Greek within the larger historical context of British Hellenism in her day. (There has not been an American counterpart to British Hellenism.)

Koulouris mentions and briefly discusses Virginia Woolf's 1937 published eulogy for Janet Case, who had been her first tutor for her private lessons in Greek years earlier (page 65). As a result of her early lessons in Greek with different tutors over the years, Woolf could read Greek with relative ease, but "she was unable to compose in Greek" (page 37).

From the time of Erasmus and Thomas More and others, including Peter Ramus, in the educational movement that we refer to as Renaissance humanism onward, formal education in Great Britain and in the American colonies involved cultivation of Latin and Greek, and the veneration and emulation of ancient Greek and Latin works.

During the roughly thousand-year period known as the Middle Ages, Latin had been the lingua franca of educated people and of formal learning. And Greek was not unknown. But the style of medieval Latin authors did not compare well with the style of Cicero.

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But Erasmus and Thomas More were concerned with style in their Latin writings. For them, Cicero was understandably the great exemplar of style in Latin. But Cicero's decidedly rhetorical style was kind of long-winded and windy -- or, in the word that Koulouris dwells on in his engaging study of Virginia Woolf, voluble (volubility arises as the result of cultivating what Erasmus refers to as "copia"). Incidentally, Koulouris, who mentions Erasmus and Thomas More only in passing and doesn't mention Cicero at all, writes skillfully precise but nevertheless lengthy sentences that are not unlike the voluble style that he painstakingly delineates, the voluble academic and public style that Virginia Woolf reacted against.

Virginia Woolf's reaction against voluble people reminded me of Emily Dickinson's short poem "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" She compares being nobody to being somebody. In Virginia Woolf's terminology, those people in the world who think they are somebody tend to be voluble. I understand that educated men may be over-represented in the group of voluble people. I understand that voluble people can seem unduly self-important and overbearing at times, especially to the group of people who would agree with Dickinson that they are nobodies in the world. For the nobodies, private conversations can be wonderful. I-thou communication can be memorable. In addition, academics who make classroom presentations and all variety of people who speak in public, including people who talk in public on television and radio talk shows running the risk of loving to hear the sound of our own voices. But it strikes me that being voluble is probably always going to be part of public speaking, as distinct to speaking in a private conversation that is not being broadcast on radio or television or being recorded for broadcast or for the purposes of oral history.

I've briefly explained the word "Hellenism" in the title of Koulouris' book, so it remains for me next to explain the word "Loss" in his title.

When Virginia's mother died, Virginia was thirteen (page 70, note 94). No doubt the custom of funeral orations delivered in public to a live audience at a funeral or a memorial service continued in Great Britain during Virginia Woolf's entire lifetime. However, her father, Leslie Stephen, was famously an agnostic. His agnosticism ruled out church services for him and his family, including his daughter, Virginia Stephen. (But Koulouris is silent about any funeral orations that may have been part of the family's graveside burial service.)

Koulouris explains that "after her mother's death Woolf suffered her first mental breakdown" (page 37). Bereavement due to the death of a significant person in one's life such as one's mother is a powerful experience for anyone to undergo at any age. But Virginia was only thirteen, and she was not a paragon of psychological strength. In any event, her experience of bereavement due to her mother's death was more than she could handle psychologically, resulting in her first mental breakdown, the first of several. Under the enormous impact of bereavement due to her half-sister's death and her father's death and her older brother's death, Virginia had to endure a lot of psychological suffering.

Over a span of eleven years, Virginia lost not only her mother but also her half-sister and her father and her older brother (page 7).

For an example of a voluble and public form of mourning someone's death, Koulouris discusses the voluble Jacques Derrida's memories following the death of Paul de Man, as an expression of mourning (page 69; also see page 10). To be sure, Derrida's memories of Paul de Man were published in a publication. The word "publication" does contain the word "public." So Derrida's memories of Paul de Man are available to the reading public.

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However, for an example of a voluble and public form of mourning, I would have thought that Koulouris would have mentioned Pericles' famous funeral oration, as reconstructed from memory by Thucydides in his HISTORY OF THE PELOPENNESIAN WAR. But Koulouris does not mention Pericles or Thucydides.

But Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration in public to a live audience. To be sure, we Americans today still have the custom of having funeral orations delivered in public to a live audience at a funeral or a memorial service. In the case of somebody as important to our civic enterprise as Hector and Beowulf were to their respective civic enterprises, funerals or memorial services might even be broadcast by television or radio, so that the funeral orations might reach people who were not present in the live audience at the funeral or memorial services, just as printed funeral orations might reach people who had not been present.

However, in addition to bereavement due to the deaths of four significant persons in her life, Virginia also had to undertake to mourn other significant losses in her life that were not due to the death of an significant person in her life, but were all the same significant losses in her life. For example, the losses in her socio-cultural life due to her gender.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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