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Virginia Woolf and Ecstasy: Feeling Beside Oneself to Touch the Thing Itself

HARRIS, ANGELA,CATHERINE (2019) Virginia Woolf and Ecstasy: Feeling Beside Oneself to Touch the Thing Itself. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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In this thesis, Virginia Woolf’s ecstatic ‘moments of being’ are placed at the heart of a close and contextualized critical reading of her writing. Woolf's three most experimental novels, written in the middle of her career, are the focus of this reading: Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves. Woolf’s writings suggest that embodied feeling - and in particular, ecstatic embodied feeling – is an integral part of how we make meaning. When Woolf’s characters feel the ecstasy of a ‘moment of being’ this marks a profound experience of the ‘other’. By engaging with this experience of otherness in an embodied manner, Woolf’s characters are able to feel and think their way toward an understanding of themselves and/or their world that is wholly new to them. Woolf thereby models for the reader, through her fictional dramatisation of these ecstatic ‘moments of being’, her processes and ethics of making meaning.

Each of the three novels is read alongside an ethical motif that Woolf foregrounds in the novel as central to a ‘moment of being’: Jacques Derrida’s arrivant, Emmanuel Levinas’s ‘face’, and Marcel Mauss’s ‘gift’. Woolf’s philosophy and ethics are thereby thrown into relief as against the ethics of these thinkers. But also, by staging a comparison between Woolf’s fiction and these philosophical writings, this thesis probes questions about literary expression and literary criticism. Woolf’s thoughts on what literary form(s) can offer to philosophical and specifically ethical thinking are explored.

This thesis is in conversation with scholarly criticism on Woolf that emphasises the phenomenological, ‘ordinary’, immanent, and material, as well as the mystical, epiphanic, and religious aspects of her fiction. The thesis also argues against Woolf critics who characterise Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ as merely symptomatic of madness, trauma, or a deconstructive ‘empty centre’, anomalies of an otherwise rigorously rational mind. Instead it is suggested that the Woolfian moment models how to make meaning well, by combining feeling with thinking in a manner that gives privilege to feeling as an arbiter for making meaning. The anatomy of this process, and its various epistemological and ethical ramifications, form the subject of this thesis.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:ecstasy, literary epiphany, ethics, Woolf, Derrida, Mauss, Levinas, positive aesthetics
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Studies, Department of
Thesis Date:2019
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:20 Sep 2019 10:15

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