‘My Body Passes Vagrant as a Shadow’: Motion, Speed and Technology in the Waves

By Rachele Dini.

Published by Spaces and Flows: An International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies

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The Woolfian self is a being in rapid motion. As Virginia Woolf herself noted in 1927, ‘we are not fast anchored where we are; things are moving round us; we are moving ourselves.’ In her texts, scenes rushing past a train or car window induce a paralysing sense of disembodiment: as life rushes onwards, there is no time to connect with others more than in passing, or to ‘take in’ the future before it turns into the past. I examine the representation of speed, movement, and technology and the syntactical/grammatical practice of motion in Woolf’s nonfiction prose piece “Evening over Essex: Reflections in a Motorcar” (1927) and her novel “The Waves” (1931), using the contemporary urbanist Paul Virilio’s theory of ‘dromology’ (the science of speed) as reference. I also draw upon Woolf’s diaries of 1925–1927 (the years she herself was motoring). Within “The Waves”, I consider Woolf’s deployment of parentheses as a socialising device: in these pauses, we see Woolf offer her characters a ‘space’ in which to dialogue outside the remit of the commuter tide. The parentheses’ physical or material equivalent is the train junction: that phantasmagoric space in which the travelling self can cease moving and indulge in imaginative reverie. Virilio offers an illuminating lens through which to read Woolf, as he not only seeks to understand the very phenomena to which she was responding, but builds upon and critiques the work of key thinkers of her lifetime. In Virilio’s work, we can see an active search for Bergson’s lost ‘durée’, and a resistance to the ‘eternal, omnipresent speed’ celebrated by the Italian Futurists and the architectural ‘flow’ celebrated by le Corbusier. We can see the self grappling for more human ways of ‘inhabiting’, and moving through, space. Like Woolf’s, the Virilio project suggests how we ourselves might ‘read’ the city imaginatively, inscribing its spaces with our own stories, and finding different conduits of urban ‘flow’ from those of the dominant discourse. Through this spatial practice the urban dweller—be they commuter, office worker, bartender or garbage collector—can regain their sense of autonomy, creativity, and selfhood. Through it, the social can once again become social.

Keywords: Woolf, Technology, Motion, Speed, Urban Discourse, Virilio

Spaces and Flows: An International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp.1-8. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 720.426KB).

Rachele Dini

Postgraduate Student, English Department , School of Arts and Humanities, King’s College London, London, UK

Rachele Dini is a postgraduate student in the English Department at King’s College London. Her main areas of interest include 20th century urban narratives, surrealism, psychoanalytic interpretations of the city, and the ‘making’ (and unmaking) of modernity. She is also interested in the representation of objects and the subversive function of gaps and spaces. She is currently writing an MA thesis on representations of the city in the work of the early 20th century Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, using Post-Marxist theory to examine the subversive function of the spatial practices performed in, and by, his texts.