Although journalism executed rather differently than history or biography, it largely relies upon the same methods. The basis of most journalism is that it is the conveyance of events from one party to the masses. There is no room here for subjectivity or personal reflection, it’s a top down acquisition of information. That is the underlying issue that Woolf has with the common practice of all of these forms, they assume a stance of objective knowledge. They do so in two ways, the first of which is to present their account as a truth. All three disciplines are based around the assumption that the information that they relay is accurate and untainted by political biases, editorial agendas or simple, unreliable sources.  The second method used to reinforce their objectivity is the assumption of authority. Each of these mediums creates a one way relationship with its reader in which the author feeds his audience the information and they, as passive consumers, absorb it. This gives the author a position of great authority as he is unable to be challenged or corrected, his words are in effect law until they are rebuked by another in his field. The following extracts, from the Life of Henry Fawcett by Leslie Stephen, show the manner in which the formats have claim to have a definitive hold on the truth. “Mr W Fawcett was active in all electioneering matters. He was a remarkably good speaker- a better orator, as I have been told, than his son”. Several things are immediately noticeable here, first of the which is the sheer authority of the voice in which Mr Stephen speaks. Fawcett “was” this, he “was” that. There is no room for negotiation or reinterpretation here, such a tone indicates, these are facts. The second thing to note is the complete absence of thoughts or feelings. Obviously it would be greatly unprofessional to assume the thoughts of another but the work is notably scarce of diary entries or letters, of anything by the man himself that might give a peek into his own perception of himself. Instead, he is summarised as one would summarise the topic of an essay and contextualised in much the same manner: “the influences which surrounded Fawcett’s infancy have thus been sufficiently indicated” Stephen proclaims, despite the fact that he has little in the way of first hand sources. Instead he turns to works like Cobbet’s Rural Rides, in order to give an impression of the countryside and to paint a picture of Fawcett’s childhood home.  By doing so, he becomes absorbed by the material facts of life, reducing life to a sort of twisted pseudo science in which one can untangle all its complexities using nothing more than the time, date and location in which they occurred.  Of course, Stephen was a Victorian rather than an Edwardian, but it is helpful to contextualise Woolf’s work against one of  the biographies she would have been most familiar. What is being touched upon here is Woolf’s fundamental discrepancy with the conventional constructions of life and character, their lack of subjectivity and subsequent lack of possibility. To Woolf, character, like life, is a thick mesh of ever shifting subjective experiences and impressions. When she reflects upon her memories in A Sketch of the Past, she speaks  of things that are “curved” “semi-transparent”  “globular”. Although it must be remembered that her impression of life here is being complicated by the fact that it is not just an experience but a recollection, there is a recurrence of  this imagery, of fluid liquid things, of things that aren’t straight or well defined, things that are “showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline”. These are more than just beautiful images though, they are indicative of her impression of life and of human beings.  Both are indefinite and ill defined, shifting and flowing within themselves like drops of  liquid. When one tries to limit that and make it definite, they lose all the wondrous potential and ambiguity that is inherent in our experience of reality.

May 23, 2018


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