4   The Emergence of the Self


It is only on the basis of the affirmation of alterity and plurality that real intimacy and an ethical encounter become possible in the second encounter of Clarissa with her neighbor. During the party in the evening, which forms the climax of the novel, Clarissa has briefly retreated into a little room when she sees her neighbor through the windows again (203). The conceptual background for this second scene is not a plea for anti-authoritarian plurality in the face of totalitarian dogmatism but Clarissa’s sense of connection to Septimus Warren Smith after she has been told of his suicide: “Somehow it was her disaster – her disgrace” (203).[21] In her analysis of this scene, literary scholar Jessica Berman emphasizes the political and social dimension of the shame Clarissa feels, the complicity of society and politics in the war that led to Septimus’ “shell shock” (Berman 2004: 169). A more general reading allows us to witness the opening of the self towards the other as Levinas describes it: “The welcoming of the Other is ipso facto the consciousness of my own injustice – the shame that freedom feels for itself” (Levinas 1961: 86).[22] Indeed, in the encounter with the old lady, there is also a rapprochement towards Septimus, which formally brings together the two main narratives of the novel and lets Clarissa accept her being as grounded in the responsibility and obligation towards others, in contrast to her “laissez-faire” attitude in the first scene (Berman 2004: 168-169). Although the beginning of the scene has Clarissa articulating the ultimate consequence of the motif of separate rooms – the fundamental loneliness of each subject – as she speculates upon the reasons for Septimus’ suicide, the passage that follows defines being as a communal project against the acoustic backdrop of the party.

Nancy, with reference to Heidegger, defines being as fundamentally relational: “Being is put into play among us; it does not have any other meaning except the dis-position of this ‘between’” (Nancy 2000: 27).[23] The auditory dimension is especially suited to articulating this concept of being as being-with, as sound itself is methexic (Nancy 2002: 10), meaning it follows a logic of participation and sharing. This relationality can be found in the encounter of Clarissa with her neighbor, as sound expands and opens the vis-à-vis, in which Levinas locates the essence of the ethical encounter (Levinas 1961: 79ff.). Beyond the mutual “imaginary capture” in eye contact (Nancy 2002: 10), both being-with and being-other can be heard in this scene when Clarissa becomes aware of her neighbor’s isolation, while her own connection to the party is never completely cut: “It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed” (204). Thus, the other is not integrated into the home as an expression of the self and the appropriation of the world, but it is precisely in the dualistic juxtaposition of life and death, loneliness and company in their incommensurateness that a fragile and ambivalent net of relationships is tied. These relations are not set in opposition to loneliness, but in them loneliness is brought into play: Loneliness is not only inherent to the separating experience of alterity, it is the precondition for consciousness of self (Nancy 2000: 79). 


4.1   The Fold

To investigate the disposition of this in-between space in which being takes place and in which the self is constituted, the figure of “the fold” lends itself as an analytic tool. The fold is a baroque figure that Gilles Deleuze develops from a reading of Leibniz, particularly the Monadologie. Deleuze uses the term to describe the pliant and precarious boundaries between subjects and objects as well as between subjects and between different levels of subjectivity (Deleuze 1993: 115-120). In the baroque, the fold is also a figure leading into infinity (Berman 2004: 161). Responding to the demand for a connection of feminist theory with ethics and aesthetics, Berman harnesses this figure as an instrument for the analysis of literary texts by developing the concept of an “ethical fold” in Woolf’s works.[24] In Berman’s interpretation, the fold can open and destabilize a text and thus permit an imaginary leap, which implies that the reader is a subject in an ethical encounter with the literary characters (Berman 2004: 161-165). For instance, Berman explores the way one of the photographies in Orlando uses the folds in Orlando’s clothing to either lead the beholder’s gaze to “infinity” (by implying infinitely repeating visual forms like circles and spirals) or into a direct confrontation with Orlando’s body. In either case, the surface of the image is “shattered” and, eventually, the intimacy of the confrontation with Orlando’s body prompts a more immediate engagement on the reader’s part with questions of gender and otherness that pervade the novel (Berman 2004: 161-165). Essentially, an ethical encounter takes place in this confrontation, and a “folding” of the literary and the reading subject beyond the text is achieved.[25] 

Building on this, the ethical dimension and the relational nature of hearing can be articulated in a reading of Mrs. Dalloway that interprets Woolf’s motifs as equally aesthetic and political. In the second encounter with the neighbor, several folds can be seen and – more importantly – heard, which inscribe the scene with plurality and multiplicity on a structural level.[26] The most obvious and concrete inscription of the motif of the fold in this scene is Clarissa’s act of pulling back the curtains as she enters the room, a theatrical gesture, which, together with her surprise at what is revealed by the drapes, metaphorically raises the curtains on the text that follows (Berman 2004: 168). However, there is a prominent fall of folds in the auditory register as well, as the motif of tolling bells recurs once again at the climax of the scene. Once more the auditory unfolds in darkness, as the chime of the bells coincides with the moment in which the old lady turns out the light (204). Again, sound’s specific materiality is structurally crucial to the scene: Sound disregards the architectonic separation of the two women, which in its propagation is reconfigured as a shared sonic space and thus confirms a connection that sight is no longer capable of establishing (LaBelle 2010: xxi).[27] By confirming a connection of individuals within and beyond the experience of separateness, the “promiscuity” (LaBelle 2010: xvii) of sound thus takes on a meaning central to Woolf’s ethics of intimacy and beyond her structural use of auditory stimuli. Moreover, the sonic figure of the chimes opens the text towards the reading subject, similar to the effect of the photograph in Orlando: The recurring image of a striking clock’s “leaden circles dissolv[ing] in the air” is a sonic figure which potentially leads hearing into infinity, implying ever-widening concentric circles.[28] Thus, the pealing bells open the text towards the reader’s imagination and, by suggesting vibration, they engender a corporeal affect[29] in which the skin is brought forth as the shared boundary – a fold – of inside and outside, subject and world (LaBelle 2010: 40, 140).[30] Thus, finally, sound in this scene not only connects the subjects in the novel, but, by opening the text towards the imagination of infinity and by creating an awareness for the physicality of perception, it also brings aesthetics and reality in touch, folding the literary and the reading subject onto each other to enable the confrontation of the reader with the characters in the text as another intimate ethical encounter (Berman 2004: 164).

At this point, and utilizing the figure of the fold, it is possible to revisit the significance of the home to its inhabitants and consequently arrive at a definition of the disposition both of being and of the self. It has been pointed out already that the home is the place of being with oneself.[31] The house thus becomes the epitome of a manifestation of the fold that brings subject and object into touch. Indeed, in Mrs. Dalloway the constitution of the – eponymous – subject relies on this space between the subject and the world of things as well as between subjects as a variant of the being-with which is held and brought into play in an in-between space: The structure of the entire novel, the superposition, contraposition, and conjunction of perspectives, memory and perception, topography and biography, can be read as an intricately complex folding technique.[32]


The interplay of inside and outside, subject and object is prominently inscribed in Clarissa’s encounters with the neighbor by the windowpanes, which make another manifestation of the fold visible: the fold as membrane (Berman 2004: 168). Indeed, images of reflective and/or transparent surfaces pervade Mrs. Dalloway and are particularly crucial to the setting of the scenes that are analyzed here.[33] The encounter with the neighbor can be read as a continuation of the look Clarissa casts into the mirror as she leaves her own bedroom earlier in the novel.[34] However, these two situations enable different constitutions of the subject: The mirror offers Clarissa her public Self – Mrs. Dalloway – as an object. In the confrontation with the neighbor, however, she perceives herself as an emerging subject through the self-reflexiveness of the gaze. This, in turn, implies a conceptualization of being that is particularly apt to be articulated in the auditory register. 


4.2   The Echo

LaBelle, with reference to Steven Connor, distills the different concepts of the self as object and subject into the images of point and membrane (LaBelle 2010: xx). These converge in a remarkable way with the imagery in Mrs. Dalloway where Clarissa thinks of her mirror image: “That was her self–pointed; dartlike; definite” (40).[35] The hearing self in contrast is pliant and divergent, and in Mrs. Dalloway this self indeed emerges in the interplay of several super-imposed permeable or semi-permeable membranes: The transparency of the surfaces in the encounter with the neighbor doesn’t allow the gaze to fix itself on a point the way a mirror does. Rather, the reciprocity of the gaze in the second scene reveals not only the responsibility held for each other in the ethical encounter but also the self awareness of perception: Clarissa sees herself seeing. She explicitly reflects on the act of watching and momentarily changes her point of view when she thinks: “It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her?” (204). Nancy associates these forms of self-presence with the sensual registers of seeing and hearing when he writes: “In terms of the gaze, the subject is referred back to itself as object. In terms of listening, it is, in a way, to itself that the subject refers or refers back” (Nancy 2002: 10). This idea of referral is crucial: Due to the specific materiality and temporality of sound, its resonance within the listening body, listening makes particularly clear that sensing [sentir] always means perception [ressentir] and therefore feeling-oneself-feel [se-sentir-sentir] (Nancy 2002: 8). Therefore, auditory perception is especially suited to give rise to self-awareness and self-reflection, opening up a fold-like in-between space in which the subject is brought into touch with itself.

It is possible to trace how the subject is constituted as an echo[36] through following the way Woolf stages the self-awareness of perception in this scene. Echo-like, subjectivity reveals itself as the dynamic structure of a reference perpetually recurring to itself in an in-between, and, just like the echo of the church bells described earlier, identification folds origin and horizon into each other in the ongoing back-and-forth of the process of referral (Nancy 2002: 9, cf. LaBelle 2010: 40). One might also say: The hearing subject is constituted in the structure of the reference, which sound, as echo, carries within itself (Nancy 2002: 25-26). 


Simultaneously, and especially against the backdrop of the temporal fold in which these two parallel scenes are superimposed or juxtaposed in the structure of the novel, it is possible to actualize the significance of the recurring church bells: Woolf’s work with the motif of chiming clocks is not merely about exploring configurations of clock time and mind time but also about rhythm. Traditionally, in philosophy “temporality is the dimension of the subject” (Nancy 2002: 17), which entails that notions of time and subjectivity are closely intertwined. Rhythm epitomizes a concept of time that constitutes the self in the experience of separateness and resonance with its surroundings and the other, much in the same way the fold does. Nancy describes rhythm itself as a form of folding technique: In “the vibration of time itself in the stroke of a present […] rhythm separates the succession of the linearity of the sequence or length of time: it bends time to give it to time itself, and it is in this way that it folds and unfolds a ‘self’” (Nancy 2002: 17). As it becomes connected in Nancy’s writing to the echo as a metaphor for subjectivity being referential rather than self-contained, this idea of rhythm replaces the notion of constant self-sameness with the notion of an ongoing process of identification in the resonance with the outside world and the other. In this reading, it becomes clear how an enmeshment of auditory and visual perception in the metaphoric register is achieved in this scene: In the fabric of membranes folding into each other as well as in the weave of sound and silence, in the entanglement of isolation and intimacy, strangeness and responsibility, the figure of resonance is present, which is finally materialized in the chime of the bells that sums up the scene in the auditory register, epitomizing how rhythm opens up an in-between space in which resonance can unfold as the “timbre of the echo of the subject” (Nancy 2002: 39).