IB LA 11
22 October 2012
Limited Transcendence in the Human Condition
An analysis of contradicting elements in selected personal essays of Virginia Woolf
An author fascinated with boundaries, Virginia Woolf blurs the line between black and white in her essays The Death of the Moth and Street Haunting. In both essays she highlights opposing extremes: Street Haunting articulates the innate conflict of impulse and restraint, and The Death of the Moth articulates the enduring struggle between life and death, from which death always rises as the victor. The juxtaposition of these conflicting extremes as contradictory ultimately results in a dialectical synthesis of ...view middle of the document...
If life was actually the equal of a stumbling, diminutive moth, who would take its last breath at the slightest tremor of a flame blowing out, then what great dominance does death have to overtake it? The average moth can easily say, “Death is stronger than I am”’ (Moth 3), with no bloodshed. Yet if Woolf bestows upon this moth the “true nature of life”, all its vibrancy and vitality, the moth becomes a hero of sorts, one capable of “moving us strangely” (Moth 2). Life, even described as a small “pure bead” (Moth 2), rises to the challenge against death. Without the struggle, the interaction rather than the separation of life and death, death’s triumph would be insignificant.
Similarly, it is the interaction and not the separation of impulse and restraint that merits consideration in Street Haunting. The essay describes the dichotomy of the self, restrained in a body yet impulsively yearning to “leave the straight lines of personality” (Street 6). Yet the restrictive nature of the self is there for a reason; it acts as a mechanism of protection and containment. As impulse takes over, “the shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left…a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye” (Street 1). This self that courts every whim can only dance across the surface, “not a diver, not a seeker, after buried treasure” but “[floating] us smoothly down a stream” (Street 1). Thus the impulsive nature of self is only capable of superficial perception. But this “simple, sugary fare” (Street 2) is not enough to fully nourish the self, allowing the element of restraint to take effect: “Hence, after a prolonged diet…of beauty pure and uncomposed, we become conscious of satiety” (Street 2). In other words when the self roams free it does not truly satiate itself, and must exercise restraint to return to an element of the familiar. This restraint is the reason Woolf’s speaker in the essay continually returns to the task of buying a lead pencil. When the speaker travels too deep into her fabrications of others’ lives, she repetitively pulls herself back to preserve her own life.
However, Woolf also notes the impossibility of constant restraint through the dwarf character. The dwarf, trapped in the limitations of its deformed body, cannot help but indulge in the beauty of her “shapely, perfectly proportioned foot of a well-grown woman” (Street 2). Her temporary abandonment of restraint gives her confidence as she chooses the perfect pair of shoes. Thus Woolf emphasizes the intrinsic need to escape from reality in order to endure life conflicts and insecurities. (Just like death is not omnipotent without the force of life, restraint cannot be exercised in full as humans need to follow the self’s inherent whims.) Hence the self cannot thrive on a dichotomy of impulse and restraint, but only on an equilibrium achieved through the synergy of the two.