Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fiction Review: "Monday or Tuesday," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Virginia Woolf’s short 1921 piece “Monday or Tuesday” is generally described as a prose poem. Some, though, feel it is better characterized as a prose collage. They don’t feel Woolf sought to illustrate any ideas or create any larger narrative meaning. In their view, the piece functions like a writerly version of a collage painting. The point was to create abstract, non-narrative effects through the juxtaposition of unrelated elements.

My reaction upon reading it is that I don’t agree, largely because the juxtapositions illustrate the same thing: the contrast of light and darkness, of seeing and not-seeing. In the framing paragraphs, for example, these are present in Woolf’s rendering of the heron’s perceptions in flight. The opening paragraph includes the lines “A lake? Blot the shores of it out! A mountain? Oh, perfect--the sun gold on its slopes.” The closing paragraph ends with “the sky veils the stars; then bares them.” In both instances, a moment of darkness is followed by a moment of light. An author does not present similar contrasts in different ways unless he or she is working towards a larger point.

The juxtapositions are not as obvious in the four middle paragraphs, largely because Woolf only explicitly renders the light: “light sheds gold scales”; “the firelight darkening and making the room red”; “Flaunted, leaf-light, drifting at corners”; and “space rushes blue and stars glint.” The idea of darkness is there, though. Woolf closes three of the four paragraphs with the word “truth,” or more specifically, “truth?” Truth is an obvious analogue for light, and one infers from the accompanying question mark that the narrator is not certain if light/truth has been achieved in the impressions the paragraphs render. Darkness is suggested, but not shown, although its presence may be clearer if one equates darkness with another form of not-seeing, that of confusion.

The contrast of truth with confusion also leads one to another analogue of “truth” and “light”: the notion of “understanding.” However, it is hard to see how the idea of “understanding” fits into the overall. Understanding is a term for intellect asserting authority over perception--giving it a context--and that doesn’t occur anywhere in the piece. The narrator’s perspective has little sense of a larger whole to which the catalogued perceptions belong. The framing perspective of the heron doesn’t understand what it sees, either, but the references to the bird being “absorbed in itself” and “indifferent” emphasize that it doesn’t care. It just accepts what it sees, and this is what the narrator recognizes that he or she is doing as well. The middle passages end, before the heron returns, with the words “truth? or now, content with closeness?” The narrator asks, “Do I understand, or do I just accept what is before me?” It can also be read as, “Should I understand, or should I just accept?” Being content is synonymous with acceptance, and happy acceptance at that.

Woolf uses the juxtaposition of the narrator’s perspective with the heron’s to create a deeper understanding of the latter. The simplicity of the bird’s point of view is highlighted. It sees and not-sees, it experiences moments of darkness and light, but it doesn’t concern itself with understanding. It is just “content with closeness,” the condition of perception with acceptance that the narrator ultimately approaches. Creating this epiphany would appear to be the purpose of “Monday or Tuesday,” and that realization of meaning is what makes it a poem instead of a collage. Its contrasts create understanding, not effects for which understanding is beside the point.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

1 comment:

  1. I think Monday or Tuesday is about falling in and out of sleep while reading a book. The reader was trying to "laboriously distill a few words, seeking truth in the words, but the "lazy and indifferent heron" of sleep returns and brings with it dreams and "contentedness with closeness". Sensory impressions fade in and out of the reader's consciousness as she slips in and out of sleep.