Friday, July 20, 2012

The Waves, Woolf, part 1

The Waves
Virginia Woolf

"I have been traversing the sunless territory of non-identity. A strange land. I have heard in my moment of appeasement, in my moment of obliteration satisfaction, the sigh, as it goes in, comes out, of the tide that draws beyond this circle of bright light, this drumming of insensate fury. I have had one moment of enormous peace. This is perhaps happiness. Now I am drawn back by pricking sensations; by curiosity, greed (I am hungry) and the irresistible desire to be myself.”

Virginia Woolf is generally considered a Modernist. But if Modernism is concerned with the individual, as I have argued here before (, then The Waves is an odd example of it. Woolf doesn’t ask the question, “Who am I?” in the usual way. Identity in The Waves, I would argue, not only doesn’t have anything to do with what one is like, but in fact the particularities of our personalities actually cover up the truth about what we are. As Louis says, "It is Percival … who makes us aware that these attempts to say, 'I am this, I am that,' which we make, coming together, like separated parts of one body and soul, are false. Something has been left out from fear. Something has been altered, from vanity. We have tried to accentuate differences. From the desire to be separate we have laid stress upon our faults, and what is particular to us. But there is a chain whirling round, round, in a steel-blue circle beneath" (99, italics mine). To describe ourselves as individuals, Woolf says, is to miss the ever-present “steel-blue circle” just beneath. We desperately want to dwell on, to hold on to what makes us unique, special, different – but it is precisely this desire which makes us miss out on the truth.  

To say that our differences don’t matter is an unusual conclusion, but The Waves is definitely not an average novel. In fact, Woolf herself did not describe it as a novel at all, but as a “play-poem.” This makes sense in that the whole book is dialogue, yet the characters never really “speak.” For the most part, the dialogue is internal (even though we’re notified of the speaker each time by the convention “Rhoda said,” “Bernard said,” etc.) The book follows six characters – Rhoda, Jinny, Susan, Neville, Louis, and Bernard  - from nursery school to late middle age. A seventh central character, Percival, is silent, though much spoken of.

No one would blame you if you finished reading The Waves, put it down, and said, “What the hell?” It is hard to figure out. Unless of course you read it through the lens of Buddhist thought; in which case, it makes all the sense in the world. But how can I explain what I mean, without getting deep into Buddhism, and without knowing how much you know about that? You’ve probably heard it has something to do with enlightenment, and maybe you’ve seen a monk or two wearing the saffron robes, but my guess is that the majority of my readers probably feel a little bit lost when I hop on my Buddhist soapbox. So how about if I just tell you a little bit about it? Virginia Woolf is hard to understand, and Buddhism is hard to understand, too. But I think looking at the two together will make things easier. Let’s try.

The first thing to know about Buddhism is that it’s based on the Four Noble Truths. Let’s start with just the first one for now.

The first Noble Truth is that there is suffering. Maybe you have heard something about this before. I think the first noble truth can seem, by turns, both completely obvious, and completely misleading. First of all, you might think, as I did when I first heard it – well, duh! Obviously life is full of suffering. I’ve been suffering this whole time – that’s why I’m coming to Buddhism in the first place, to somehow get rid of this suffering. What I mean when I say that it’s misleading, is that many people, myself included, when they first hear about the first noble truth, take it to mean that all of life is suffering. But actually, to say that everything is suffering is quite different than to say that there is suffering. Buddhism is saying the latter, not the former. Buddhism in fact recognizes that there are a lot of spaces for pleasure in the world, and that it is okay and even good to acknowledge the possibility of pleasure, as long as we don’t cling to it (but we’ll come back to that later). It is important to recognize that the first noble truth merely admits the existence of suffering; it does not personalize it.  
In fiction, and in religious texts, phrasing is important. The first noble truth does not say “I suffer,” or “I have pain,” or “I feel sad, scared, anxious, alone, afraid,” etc. etc. It doesn’t mention mine or yours at all. It only says, “there is.” One of the central tenets of Buddhism is the idea of non-self, that this notion we have of ourselves as possessing certain qualities and emotions is false. We are not “selves,” individually, but small parts of the vast whole which is made up of everything in the world. Maybe the monk Ajahn Sumedho can explain it better than I can. In The Four Noble Truths he explains that “to let go of suffering, we have to admit it into consciousness. But the admission in Buddhist meditation is not from a position of: ‘I am suffering’ but rather, ‘There is the presence of suffering’ because we are not trying to identify with the problem but simply acknowledge that there is one. It is unskillful to think in terms of ; ‘I am an angry person; I get angry so easily; how do I get rid of it?’ – that triggers off all the underlying assumptions of self and it is very hard to get any perspective on that. … We tend to grasp and identify rather than to observe, witness and understand things as they are” (17). The first noble truth does not judge; it simply acknowledges.
Upon reading The Waves for the second time, I noticed that some of the characters speak in this non-possessive way. "There is agitation and trouble here. There is gloom. … There is anguish here" (8). "I shoot to the bottom among the weeds and see envy, jealousy, hatred and spite scuttle like crabs over the sand as she speaks. They are our companions. … Here are hate, jealousy, hurry, and indifference frothed into the wild semblance of life. These are our companions" (116). Interestingly, these two examples come from Bernard and Rhoda, respectively, the two characters I believe to be most advanced on the path to enlightenment, or seeing things as they truly are. In contrast, some of the other characters speak in a less “skillful” way: Susan, “Now I will wrap my agony inside my pocket-handkerchief" (7), and Neville, “I excite pity in the crises of life, not love. Therefore I suffer horribly" (93). Unable as they are to separate the “violence” of emotion from their concept of them“selves,” they struggle to see beyond the “veil” into the truth of reality.

The second Noble Truth is that there is an origin of suffering, and that the origin of suffering is attachment to desire. But more on that later – this is enough to think about for one day!    


  1. Excellent. Thank you. I have always considered The Waves as a masterpiece reflecting buddhism.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Degun. I'm glad to hear I'm not alone in noticing the similarities between this novel and Buddhist philosophy! And you chose the right word for sure; The Waves is definitely a masterpiece, which, I think, is what makes it so rich and fun, but also a real challenge to think and write about. I guess waves aren't meant to be pinned down, are they? :)