Thursday, June 16, 2005

Woolf Conference, 3: The Schedule (Saturday and Sunday edition)

(Happy Bloomsday, by the way!)
Saturday, June 11, 2005
9:00 Woolf and the United States Three interesting, smart, and very funny papers on what is, frankly, an unpromising topic.

11:00 Gender and Feminism I chaired this panel of four interesting and diverse new entries to feminist theory and practices from young scholars:
  • a paper on a minor character in The Voyage Out
  • a brilliant close reading of “In the Orchard” as exemplar of a feminist gift economy
  • ”a performative re-evaluation of…the genre(s) of feminist criticism” which brought the double-columned technique of deconstruction (think Derrida’s Glas) to PowerPoint
  • a discussion of anti-Semitism in The Years

1:00 I got to introduce my friend Doug Mao’s talk, “Strange Necessities” which demonstrated the deep and unacknowledged debt A Room of One’s Own owes to Rebecca West’s 100-page essay, “The Strange Necessity.” He was great.

3:00 Woolf and Publishing Two wonderful, very historical papers on Bloomsbury juvenilia (the little newspapers the children published for their parents) followed by my friend Alice Staveley’s revelatory talk on how feminist criticism can be made to intersect with this archival work on the history of the book and publishing. Over drinks, later, Alice and I reminisced about our meeting at an Oxford summer course on women writers all the way back in 1991!

4:45 Maria DiBattista, “Virginia Woolf’s Sense of Adventure” The third plenary I got to see and another great one. It linked nicely with Leslie’s talk the day before and explored in a rich, generous way, the idea of a sense of adventure. I feel that sense strongly in Woolf’s work but she traveled so little and so conventionally (no exotic locales, donkeys and pack horses only rarely) that it has been hard for me to make the case for it before now. But Maria thinks about adventure is both essential (citing Alfred North Whitehead’s 1933 book, Adventures in Ideas which names adventure as a necessity of civilization, right up with beauty, truth, art, and peace!) and broad: it need not involve a reckless journey into death at the South Pole.

6:30 banquet dinner The food was good, but it was dry! Decaf and herbal tea do not a banquet make and so, as Woolf’s narrator has to do in A Room of One’s Own it became necessary to repair elsewhere to soften the hard edges of a meal that was a bit less festive than it ought to have been. A few Manhattans in the Westin bar with a garrulous group of eight did the trick.

Sunday, June 12, 2005
10:30 Ethnography, Anthropology, and the Idea of England This was my least favorite of the panels I saw, sad to say, in spite of some good moments and strong papers. But, then, even Homer nods and even I, toward the end of a glorious orgy of talk, can get a bit testy. The blame rests on my ears, not the speakers’ talk.

After lunch, 1:00, the closing plenary session, Christine Froula, “On French and British Freedoms: Early Bloomsbury Many folks had already headed home and this was their loss. Christine’s new book is, I think now the book of Woolf criticism to read if you’re going to read only one. This work comes after the book and began, she told me afterwards, when she was asked to speak in Portugal (…oh! I long for the day when I can utter such a phrase…) in honor of the 100th anniversary of the first Bloomsbury gathering.

Woolf scholars often quote her “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” and a smaller cadre of Woolfians has worked on the impact of sexual abuse (at the hand of her half-brother, the infamous George Duckworth) on Woolf’s life and art. This talk pushed the date of Bloomsbury and the change back to 1904-06 and linked Woolf’s emergence into artistry with her escape from her half-brother’s gropings. It was moving, persuasive, hard to listen to, and riveting. It offered an amazing link and a devastating critique of those who claim (as some apparently do) that, because women had no experience in brothels they cannot be real modernists because the real change of modernism (exemplified by the Circe/Nighttown section of Ulysses or Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon comes from contact with prostitutes.

This was a great talk and a dazzling finish to an overwhelmingly stimulating four days.

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