Monday, October 22, 2007

and now for some psychogeographical drifting

lose yourself

In her essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure, Virginia Woolf explores the liberating effect of walking without purpose in London, applying the language of rambling to experimentation and rediscovery of the self:

What greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?

For Woolf, the city walk enables the individual to escape, or ‘deviate’ from themselves, even adopting ‘briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others’ as part of a simultaneous escape, and reaffirmation of identity. Unsurprisingly therefore, it plays a significant role in Woolf’s novel on human interconnectedness and isolation, Mrs Dalloway. Concerned with the interior, emotion lives of an apparently disparate, but intimately linked group of people in London, Woolf first acquaints her readers with the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway when she steps out into the streets of Westminster to buy flowers for her party. First sketched, although far less sympathetically in Woolf’s The Voyage Out, Clarissa’s character was developed in the 1923 short story Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street. The titles of these two preliminary works immediately intimate the significance of walking in London for Woolf.

As she weaves between the crowds, Clarissa’s thoughts drift between memories of her past at Bourton, observations on London and various impulses and emotions initiated by the walk. For Clarissa, the frantic activity of London’s streets is exhilarating, seeming to possess an invisible electricity or magnetism, in a manner comparable to the experiences of Baudelaire’s painter:

Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To dance, to ride, she had adored all that.

This ‘divine vitality’ has a liberating and energising effect on both the atmosphere and Clarissa, enabling her to momentarily relinquish the confines of her domestic and familial responsibilities. This shift that occurs when a woman moves from the private interior of home to the impersonal city is wittily (but somehow, bleakly) articulated by Woolf in Street Haunting when she explains that at home:

we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express theoddity of our temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.

Isolated from the milling crowds, Clarissa’s independence results in simultaneously carefree and anxious concentration on the immediacy of the moment and her own mortality:

She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.

The deliberate, strained, repetition of ‘very’ exacerbates the tone of excitement and anxiety that pervades the passage, for despite her freedom, Clarissa remains deeply self-conscious. Joining the streets, she begins to feel anonymous and capable of considering relinquishing her familial responsibilities. Paradoxically, however, the dissolution of self that results in immergence with the crowd exacerbates anxiety about the fact that her public identity remains that of the wife of Richard Dalloway:

She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs Richard Dalloway.

In Edmund White’s book on the flâneur, he quotes the following extract from a 1929 essay by Walter Benjamin, describing the splitting of the self that occurs in the city, during which the streets simultaneously dissolve social hierarchies whilst making the walker grasp for the familiarity of their interior lives:

Landscape – this is what the city becomes for the flâneur. Or more precisely, the city splits into its dialectical poles. It becomes a landscape that opens up to him and a parlour that encloses him.

Surely this is similar to the effects the walk has on Clarissa Dalloway in the opening of Woolf’s novel, appropriate when one remembers that the novel concentrates on Clarissa’s simultaneous feelings of isolation from society, frustration at society’s definitions of her, and her desire to reach out beyond her home, achieved through the parallels Woolf draws between Clarissa and the young war veteran, Septimus Smith. The notion of the self fragmenting in the chaotic London Streets, reaching out and forcing sympathetic connections with strangers is explicitly referred to in Street Haunting, when she muses that nature was too distracted when making man, and consequently allowed contradictory impulses and desires to influence each person:

we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here not there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?

By leaving the home and the ‘old prejudices that fold us round’, the individual liberates themselves in wandering the streets, enables the ‘varied and wandering’ self to freely explore and adopt diverse identities, resulting in an affirmation of the self; ‘we are indeed ourselves’.

Frustratingly, as Woolf also acknowledges, this can only be an occasional luxury, for people must allow the world to reduce them to their social status and responsibilities, later rationalising; ‘for convenience sake a man must be whole’. This is a sad fact of all society, but nevertheless, the city provides the walker with the opportunity to ‘shed the self our friends know us by and become[s] part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers'.

And as this is primarily a blog about music, which catchy summer choon samples Betjeman's The Cockney Amorist, a wistful little poem which both echoes and contradicts Woolf? No google-cheating allowed, yeah?

Oh when my love, my darling,
You've left me here alone,
I'll walk the streets of London, Which once seemed all our own.
The vast suburban churches, Together we have found:
The ones which smelt of gaslight, The ones in incense drowned.


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