Slow Reading (2.2): Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (pg. 5)

So my plan to post more regularly seems to be caught in perpetual deferral. I began composing a new post on Difference and Repetition‘s first chapter weeks ago, but the deadline for a conference presentation pushed that off to the side (yet again). Happily, however, I’ve returned from the 24th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf refreshed and ready to turn back to my projects.

I. Conference Paper as Preview

Conference Poster

At the conference, I presented the newest installment of my attempt to work with some conceptual and theoretical resonances between Woolf and the anthropology of Saba Mahmood. The theme of the conference—”Woolf Writing the World”—caught my attention late last year when I was already planning this newest Slow Reading project on Three Guineas, foreseeing that I would like something to supplement the slow-going work on Deleuze’s DR. Since Woolf’s text had worked its way into my daily routines of bussing and blogging, I began tracking the way in which she uses the word “world”. For instance,

Though we [i.e., educated men and their daughters and sisters] see the same world, we see it through different eyes [. . .] Let us then by way of a very elementary beginning lay before you a photograph—a crudely colored photograph—of your world as it appears to us who see it from the threshold of the private house; through the shadow of the veil  that St. Paul still lays upon our eyes; from the bridge which connects the private house with the world of public life.
[          ] Your world, then, the world of professional, of public life, seen from this angle undoubtedly looks queer. (22-23)

*           *          *

“For,” the outsider will say, “in fact, as a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” And if, when reason has said its say, still some obstinate emotion remains, some love of England dropped into a child’s ears by the cawing of rooks in an elm tree, by the splash of waves on a beach, or by English voices murmuring nursery rhymes, this drop of pure, if irrational, emotion she will make serve her to give to England first what she desires of peace and freedom for the whole world. (129)

*          *          *

[. . .] the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected; [. . .] the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other. [. . .] A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life. How essential it is that we should realise that unity the [images of] dead bodies [and] ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you, in the immensity of your public abstractions forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual, for they are inseparably connected. (168-69)

These passages do not exhaust Three Guineas‘ uses of “world,” but they do illustrate some interesting ways in which Woolf turns and turns this common term about. Though she explicitly challenges the meaning of a number of terms in TG—e.g., “education,” “human nature,” “patriotism,” “civilization,” “freedom,” “culture,” “religion,” and “virtues” such as “chastity” and “poverty”—the critical work of this text in the case of “world” is a bit more subtle. The ways in which this book employs “world” may not amount to intentional conceptual criticism (as is the case with these other examples), but the passages in which the word recurs nevertheless come to our aid in drawing out the full force of Woolf’s argument as well as its potential resonance with other uses of the word “world” in other Woolf texts. (E.g., In her memoir “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf articulates—though not systematically—her “philosophy” or “constant idea” that “the whole world is a work of art” and that we human beings “are part of the work of art” [Moments of Being 72].)

The argument of my paper, “‘Inseparably Connected: Virginia Woolf’s Late Philosophy of Worlds and the Anthropology of Saba Mahmood,” went something like this: on the one hand, TG refers to “the same world” (22) and “the whole world” (129) in completely mundane and unremarkable ways. These phrases simply signify the sum total of the territories that humans and human cultures inhabit. Yet Woolf troubles the mundanity of these references when she re-assigns “world” to the public sphere (23) and refers to the “private house” and public sphere (later in the book) as separate and distinct “worlds” (168). And afterwards she expresses that men and women in Britain are united—in the face of tyrannies and servilities—by a “common interest” in “one world, one life” (168). What is this “one world”? Is it merely “the whole world”? Or has this dream of unity altered how we are to think of the “whole world,” especially given TG‘s insistence upon a vision of differential co-habitation: “a precipice, a gulf [has been] deeply cut between us” (6); “we see [the same world] through different eyes” (22); “since we are different, our help [in preventing war] must be different” (169)? The play of the term “world,” I argue, offers a vision of co-habitation predicated upon the articulation of a unity among different “worlds” and a simultaneous disarticulation of uniformity among these same “worlds.”  According to this vision, the hope for “one world, one life” is not a reference to a present fact of shared territory or the communist dream of broken barriers and class/cultural divides. Rather, it is the articulation of a perpetual project to [1] search out potential resonances between worlds that will keep solidarity between them alive and [2] resist attempts to translate that solidarity into consolidation.

In other words, Woolf’s rather subtle (and perhaps unintentional) play with the word “world” expresses a socio-political philosophy that enjoins a double effort to compose differential fields together so that they might affect one another and perpetually decompose or deform the normative effects those fields (will continue to) have on one another.

II. Slow Reading

I will save the development of my self-indulgent play with the word “world” in TG—and its relation to the anthropology of Saba Mahmood—for a later post, but this baggy overview is useful as a preface to the slow unpacking of Woolf’s second paragraph. She begins, “It is true that many answers” to the question about preventing war “have suggested themselves, but none that would not need explanation, and explanations take time” (5). This sentence has always seemed inconsequential to me, but these past few months I’ve thought a lot about its rhetorical purpose, about the way in which it intimates a few parameters of the critique to come. First, it suggests that in the three years that have passed since receiving the letter that the persona has been thinking quite a bit about the question of war and related violences (the notes and bibliography of TG would also suggest this). Second, the fact that the answers “suggested themselves” indicates, despite the three-year delay and the steady tone of these opening sentences, an urgency in the persona’s efforts to answer the question. Much in the same way that inspired poets often feel lines of poetry composing themselves, the answers to the question about war take on a strange, insistent autonomy of their own. Indeed, as we will see at the end of the paragraph, the urgency of these answers compels the persona to respond to this letter (at long last). Third, this sentence establishes that (despite this urgency) some sort of long explanation is in order. There is no quick fix to war. Indeed, if the addressee seriously wants the persona’s “answers,” then he will have to “take time”—just as the addressee took time—to listen and to try to understand. In this sense, the opening sentence of this paragraph serves as an appeal: despite the urgencies both persona and addressee face in their respective struggles, despite the long delay in their dialogue, despite the ironic audacity of the persona to answer an anonymous mass mailing with a detailed and extended critical essay-response, her answers will require, indeed demand, time.


The first time I read Three Guineas my beloved professor paired it with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s thought-provoking essay, “Terror: A Speech After 9/11” (2004, 2012). At the time I only knew the name “Spivak” from the “postcolonial studies” chapters of my theory textbooks, so I was initially confused: why pair this 1938 feminist treatise—concerned with the coming world war—with postcolonial theory? (It was especially strange since the whole course was on Woolf and Michel Foucault.) It did not take long, however, to sense resonances between these texts. From the very start, after all, both of them reflectively construct themselves as responses to war.

Consider the two following passages (the latter continues and concludes Woolf’s second paragraph):

The ruminations that follow arose in response to America’s war on terror [. . .] I started from the conviction that there is no response to war. War is a cruel caricature of what in us can respond. You cannot be answerable to war.
[        ] Yet one cannot remain silent. Out of the imperative or compulsion to speak, then, two questions: What are some already existing responses? And, how respond in the face of the impossibility of response?
[          ] When I thus assigned myself the agency of response, my institutionally validated agency kicked in. I am a teacher of the humanities. In the humanities classroom [. . .] begins a training for what may produce a criticism that can possibly engage a public sphere deeply hostile to the mission of the humanities when they are understood as a persistent attempt at an uncoercive rearrangement of desires, through teaching reading. [. . .] Thus I found myself constructed as a respondent. (An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization 372-73)

[. . .] explanations take time. In this case, too, there are reasons why it is particularly difficult to avoid misunderstanding. A whole page could be filled with excuses and apologies; declarations of unfitness, incompetence, lack of knowledge, and experience: and they would be true. But even when they were said there would still remain some difficulties so fundamental that it may well prove impossible for you to understand or for us to explain. But one does not like to leave so remarkable a letter as yours—a letter perhaps unique in the history of human correspondence, since when before has an educated man asked a woman how in her opinion war can be prevented?—unanswered. Therefore let us make the attempt; even if it is doomed to failure. (TG 5)

What do I learn by juxtaposing these two passages? First, a response to war is—structurally—a response to a mode of response. It is a response to a “cruel caricature” of human responsiveness in itself, a caricature actualized in the minds and bodies of those who pursue, declare, fight, defend, and learn to support war, whether it be a war against fascism, patriarchy, drugs, violence, women, or terror. Though I draw this insight from Spivak’s essay, there is a sense in which TG also frames itself as a meta-response (a critical response, that is, to a cruel mode of response). The persona’s “answers” to the question of war prevention, which have “suggested themselves,” emerge not only in the fictional dialogue between solicitor and persona but also in the coercive exchange between the cruel fact of war and those who find that they must respond to it (whether by fighting or refusing to fight). “You cannot be answerable to war,” Spivak writes, “Yet one cannot remain silent.” Likewise, Woolf’s persona may have hoped, as she admits in the first paragraph, that the problem of war would right itself or that others would respond for her, but since socio-cultural and political conditions have made any further delay impossible, she “cannot remain silent” either. Though it will take up even more precious time, though her efforts may be “doomed to failure,” war as a cruel, coercive mode of response enjoins her to respond, and thus she “will make the attempt.”

Second, both Spivak and Woolf discover and claim an agency to respond through a reflection on their own respective positions and the difficulty of making those positions intelligible to a “public sphere deeply hostile” to them. In choosing/being compelled to respond to war, Spivak finds resources for her response in her occupation as a literature teacher and in “the mission” of an aesthetic education geared toward training a non-combative and “uncoercive” mode of responding to and learning from the Other. But how to make this resource intelligible to those who find the humanities a waste of time in a time of urgency? when security against enemies and the impermeability of borders have become (so quickly) the raison d’État? Spivak’s stylistic difficulty may compound these already difficult problems, but it is interesting—nonetheless—that she begins with a reflection on the challenges ahead for her and for her readers and interlocutors.

For Woolf, reflecting on the difficulty of effectively completing a (writing) task is one of her learned strategies for beginning the task at hand. In “A Sketch of the Past,” she begins by reflecting on the difficulties of writing memoirs. In several essays, she begins by reflecting on the difficulties of summarizing an enormous text or representing the ineffable or honoring the dead or a distant, unknowable past. Here, the difficulty is not just in the amount of time it will take to explain her (provisional) answers to the question of war. Rather, a much greater difficulty—namely, the radical (sexual) difference between solicitor and persona—stands in the way of understanding and explanation. The brilliance of Woolf, of course, is that the very naming of this difficulty is itself part of her response to war. In fact, it is the first indication of her primary thesis: that a sufficient response to war must also be a response to the problem of how women might become political and ethical agents of change. The compulsion to respond to war necessitates a response to the conditions that make understanding and explanation between “an educated man” and “a woman” so precarious, impossible, and “doomed to failure.” Yet the difficulty of speaking across this difference is at the root not only of the problem of violence and war. As with Spivak, Woolf will argue that this gap can be (provisionally) affirmed as a critical optic for teaching her fictional addressee to see the problem of war—war as a “cruel caricature” of responsiveness, as explicit violence abroad and systemic violence at home—anew.

“[. . .] and they would be true.” What does it take to tell the truth about war? about the difficulty of an educated man’s daughter faces in sharing this truth with an educated man? about what “the whole world” means to the private world? How does one face an unanswered and unanswerable problem? How does one sharpen the failure of mutual understanding into a critical optic? We will see.

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