3   The Encounter with the Other


In his reflections about the ethical dimension of loudness, LaBelle refers to Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics, which posits that the subject is constituted in the confrontation with the radically other, whose alterity can never be absorbed into one’s own identity (Levinas 1961: 33-34, 81-82). While the same is recovered in the constant labor of identification, the other can never be fully integrated into this narrative (Levinas 1961: 40): The other always remains infinitely strange (Levinas 1961: 35-36, 215). In fact, it is through the strangeness of the other that the self is made aware of its own fundamental loneliness (Nancy 2000: 79), as this strangeness highlights the chasm between individuals and their experiences. Thus, subjectivity paradoxically arises only in the awareness of the separation from an other (Levinas 1961: 215-216). Moreover, in the face of the other, critical reflection emerges and the subject questions itself (Levinas 1961: 38-39, 43, 81). This is the central dualism articulated in the title of Levinas’ seminal book Totality and Infinity: Accepting that the other can never be conclusively defined in relation to the self, that it cannot be integrated into one's own identity – neither as a missing part nor as an alter ego – means accepting it in its infinity – that is, in its infinite otherness – which resists every form of synthesis or possession. This resistance also implies the freedom of the other. Therefore, the power of a totality emanating from the ego is broken, and a sense of responsibility for the other arises (Levinas 1961: 39, 50), as the narrative placing the ego at the center of all things is challenged by the impossibility of integrating or appropriating the other as part of this narrative.[7] The ethical encounter essentially means that the subject recognizes itself as separate from others while simultaneously accepting the other’s strangeness and independence as well as its own obligation towards the other. 


3.1   Intimacy

As a critical expansion of Levinas’ ethics, feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray formulate an ethics which, in the interweaving of ethics with eros and intimacy, not only revaluates the female in opposition to the patriarchal qualities and patrilinearity[8] of Levinas’ writing but eventually collapses dichotomies such as body and mind, private and political. In Irigaray’s writing, intimacy does not imply the usurpation or erasure of the other, as implied in tropes that convey love through notions of unity or possession.[9] On the contrary, the intimate touch or the caress brings forth difference and therefore the potential of an ethical encounter by tracing a physical and metaphorical boundary between two subjects (Irigaray 2001: 219).

Indeed, Woolf’s idea of intimacy seems to be closely related to that of Irigaray’s: As she writes of the “privacy of the soul” (1925: 139) and the “secret chambers of the mind and heart” (1927: 57), Woolf defines psychological microgeographies within the subject that do not become accessible even and especially in intimate relationships. The epitome of this concept of intimacy in Mrs. Dalloway is a memory from Clarissa’s youth: Her recollection of a kiss shared between herself and her friend Sally Seton (38-39) marks a moment of erotic and bodily closeness which simultaneously becomes the paragon of that which defies knowledge,[10] of mystery and darkness. Woolf expresses Clarissa thus: “And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it” (38). This image hints at an element of mystery and darkness that always remains not only within the other, but also within the subject, who is reminded of the “most profound intimacy” (Irigaray 2001: 121), that core of the self, which can never be shared (Rothman 2014).[11]

Based on this conceptualization of intimacy as a site for confronting the other, Woolf develops intimacy as an epistemic category, culminating in the line from her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse: “intimacy itself, which is knowledge” (57). By the same token, intimacy is also central to Woolf’s poetics: In “Character in Fiction,” writing and reading are connected through intimacy, while the motif of the party is explicitly linked to writing, and the author is compared to a hostess. Both social interaction and literature are an opportunity for the sharing of experience and knowledge and thus create community while acknowledging different points of view and the labor of bridging them. To facilitate the act of reading as a collaborative and intimate process, the author has to establish a relationship with her reader, and Clarissa’s desire for connection to other people finds its equivalent in the necessity of establishing a “common meeting-place” in literature, as Woolf writes in “Character in Fiction.” 


Both in life and in literature it is necessary to have some means of bridging the gulf between the hostess and her unknown guest on the one hand, the writer and his unknown reader on the other. […] The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognizes, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to cooperate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. (Woolf 2008: 48) 

In Mrs. Dalloway, the connection of listening and intimacy is made explicit through the figures of confession and eavesdropping. During a conversation with her daughter Elizabeth, Clarissa becomes aware of the presence of another person, Elizabeth’s friend Miss Kilman, within earshot and adds “eavesdropping” to her mental list of the rather obnoxious Miss Kilman’s[12] negative characteristics (134). Peter Walsh, in turn, sneers at Richard Dalloway for having contended once that reading Shakespeare’s sonnets was unseemly – for men, mind you “because it was like listening at keyholes” (82).[13] As Clarissa reflects on intimacy among women in the isolation of her bedroom, which appears as the focal point of an intimate microtopography of the home, the situation of a confession[14] is evoked (34). All these scenes consistently connect auditory perception to notions of privacy, intimacy, and morality. Nancy points out that the etymological roots of “être à l’écoute” – “being all ears” – to be listening, extend to situations and places of concealed listening and eavesdropping, implying espionage, stolen confidences, and secrets, and that “auricular confession corresponds to a secret intimacy of sin and forgiveness” and therefore holds, just like acousmatics, an association of the ear with “withdrawal and turning inward” (Nancy 2002: 3-4). Thus, intimacy not only carries embodied interpersonal experience into the realm of the ethical but also forms a bridge to concepts of sound and space. Indeed, intimacy is itself of central interest within investigations of sonic spaces (LaBelle 2010: xxv; Nancy 2002: 3-4), investigations in which the house emerges as a focal point[15] for a variety of narratives about intimacy that connect bourgeois conceptions of privacy, family, and belonging to the literary topoi of dreams, memory, and inwardness (LaBelle 2010: 50; Bachelard 1957: passim).

The revaluation of the domestic sphere as the scene for literary texts coincides in Woolf’s writing with the development of an ethics of intimacy. While, initially, interior spaces and specifically the home as acoustic territory seem to be constructed in their intimacy through complex microgeographies of silence and withdrawal, Woolf crafts a remarkable counterpoint to this motif when she uses an architectural and metaphorical opening of the house to likewise open up the concept of intimacy from the private and erotic towards the ethical and political. To trace this opening, I will analyze two scenes, in which, over the course of the day, Clarissa is brought face-to-face with the old lady in the neighboring house (138-140, 201-204).[16] This analysis will draw on Nancy’s writing on the nexus of epistemology, subjectivity, and auditory perception and develop a reading of the motif of chiming bells that is articulated neither in temporal nor in spatial references but articulates the constitution of subjectivity. 


3.2   The Echo

Sometime in the early afternoon, Clarissa finds herself confronted with her neighbor for the first time: As she looks out of her window, she catches sight of the old lady in the house opposite her own. Woolf now crafts a remarkably dense scene, bringing together some of the central architectonic, visual, and sonic motifs of the novel to reflect on privacy, intimacy, and plurality (138-140). Visually, the relationship of inside and outside is present in the image of the windows, and the spatial separation of the women references epistemic boundaries, while the scene culminates in the sonic image of the staggered chime of Big Ben and another church (139). The most obvious reading of this sonic motif would focus on the relativization of “clock time”; however, there is a more subtle form of decentering to be heard in the dialogue of the church bells if one stretches one’s ears towards the echo that Woolf composes in this scene: The second clock effectively echoes the chime of Big Ben.[17] LaBelle defines the echo as the sonic figure of the underground, both an articulation and an ally of the social and political dynamics of subversion and resistance below ground. Thus, the echo is also the sonic figure of darkness, upsetting not only visually defined forms of centering and hierarchizing orientation, like perspective and focus, but also philosophical concepts like ontology and teleology, which are based on linearly goal-oriented conceptions of history, knowledge, and being.[18] LaBelle describes this subversive logic as follows:


Decentering, origin and horizon enfolded, a bifurcation leading to biodiversity, the echoic recasts the single voice into haunting duplication. […] In doing so, the echo is a strategy for resistance and rebellion – a sonic mirroring to the point of defusing the reign of established culture. The echo performs as a sonic bomb, exploding the vector of time, of relations and of origins, for other perspectives. (LaBelle 2010: 40)


This reading of the motif of chiming bells opens up towards two interpretations of the scene at hand that build upon each other. The “maleness” of Big Ben’s acoustic presence is repeatedly elaborated in Mrs. Dalloway in images such as this: “The sound of Big Ben striking the half-hour struck out between them with extraordinary vigour, as if a young man, strong, indifferent, inconsiderate, were swinging dumb-bells this way and that” (52). This narrative invites a feminist deconstruction of the echo. It is legitimate to identify the church which Clarissa hears shortly after Big Ben – “the other clock” (140, emphasis added) – as St. Margaret’s, whose chime Peter Walsh previously also heard just after Big Ben’s, which he compares to a hostess who is late to her own party and with which Clarissa self-identifies (54, 140). Indeed, this chime not only cues Clarissa to devote herself to her work as hostess again but also serves to rearticulate the importance of this role and, more generally speaking, the self-affirmation of the marginalized feminine perspective towards the phallocentric discourse. This feminist reading points towards a more fundamental rebellion against hegemonies which is explicitly articulated in the same scene: “And the supreme mystery which Kilman might say she had solved, or Peter might say he had solved, but Clarissa didn’t believe either of them had the ghost of an idea of solving, was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?” (140). By confirming the incommensurability of the other’s experience in the image of the separate rooms, Clarissa turns against religion as the symbol of teleological metaphysics[19] and of the hegemonic claim to absolute, transpersonal knowledge and truth. Moreover, she also expresses a differentiation between eros and intimacy, measured by respect for the strangeness of the other. Love, in this scene, stands on the side of dogmatism, whose utmost intensification is conversion. In her descriptions of the “goddess conversion,” Woolf explicitly connects the lack of respect for the integrity of the other with patriarchal and imperialistic rule and thus ties the intimate and the private to the public and the political[20] while using imagery that merges spatial and metaphorical transgressiveness: “And then stole out from her hiding-place and mounted her throne that Goddess whose lust is to override opposition, to stamp indelibly in the sanctuaries of others the image of herself” (112, emphasis added). Love and religion, with their self-righteous claims of uniting people, negate the basic experience of alterity, in which every being constitutes itself and which makes responsibility and intimacy possible in the first place. Clarissa “converts” no one but accepts being in being-other; her relativism is no snobbish turning away from the other but a questioning of the hubris of totality, which Woolf consistently connects to the pursuit of worldly power. Thus, the sonic figure of the echo, which is made audible in this scene through the staggered chime of the two clocks, becomes a metaphor for the socially and politically charged affirmation and acceptance of otherness.