That claim about 1910


Paul Cézanne, Medea (after Delacroix), c. 1879-1882.

Virginia Woolf gets a lot of grief for having claimed, with some to-be-debated level of irony, that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” (Selected Essays 38).  This is often misquoted as a claim that human “nature” changed, sometimes by folks who should know better, but usually in the context of some self-regarding cocktail party dismissal of Woolf as being herself hopelessly snobbish and self-involved.  Harumph, they say, a few crazy paintings change our biological nature?  Indeed, what silliness.  Of course the fact that Woolf was carefully staging what she called her “intolerable egotism” for the benefit of the Heretics Society at Cambridge in 1924, and that her sense of “character” in this paragraph is a carefully qualified, but nonetheless savage assault on earlier novelists’ practices of characterization, usually goes unremarked.

Yes, for those of you who’ve read the essay (and if you haven’t, you should), she’s probably being gratuitously unfair to Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy.  And, yes, she’s probably being hasty (but this was 1924!) about lumping together the ungainly assortment of writers like Forster, Strachey, Lawrence, Eliot, and Joyce.  In hindsight, this generational distinction obscures as much as it illuminates.  And paradoxically the rise of Woolf’s own status as a canonical modernist has drawn attention to the women absent from her formulation: Mansfield and Richardson, but also, in different ways, Wharton, Loy, HD, and Stein.  Still, there’s something powerful about Woolf’s claim, and I think it goes well beyond misunderstandings of its seriousness.

In context, she was widening our understanding of what we do when we read “characters” in a novel.  Judging character, she suggests, is one of our most common activities.  It’s part of our everyday life and it ranges in intent and complexity from malicious but delicious gossip to sustained attempts to understand the inner workings of another person.  “It would be impossible,” she said (or writes that she said), “to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading and had some skill in the art” (38).  Notice how what sounds like a strident assertion at the start–it would be impossible–depends on a series of much more pragmatic-sounding qualifications.  Could you go for a year without trying to interpret someone’s character?  Can you really become a mature adult–whatever that means–without having some skill in guessing people’s motives and tendencies?  But before her assertion entirely dissolves into platitude, she makes what I think is a much more interesting claim that usually gets obscured by what follows:  “Our marriages, our friendships depend on [the art of character-reading]; every day, questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (38).  So what is the sense of character in play here?

We might think that, if our marriages and friendships–and we might want to generalize here to all manner of our serious emotional and cognitive partnerships–if such significant relations depend upon reading it, then “character” might be the essence of another person.  Or, if like the Edwardians we’re entertaining doubts about Romantic claptrap about knowing “essences,” then we might take it to be the sturdy accumulation of sometimes contradictory but eventually conclusive empirical evidence about another person’s habits and proclivities.   “Character” would be the “deep” and consistent personality underlying a person’s ambiguous but ultimately superficial actions.  We might think that, but we would be wrong.  After all, as we are about hear, character can change.

I’m still trying to figure out for myself whether Woolf’s subsequent attempt at, as she says, “abstracting” her claim by looking to the change in the attitude of “one’s cook” is as rankly class-bound as it sounds, but, for the moment, I want to stay with the “character” side of her claim.  That is, I’m not interested in defending what seems to be her argument that because Wells (et al.) don’t pay much attention to middle-class women’s emotional lives, they’ve missed a fundamental shift in “human” character.  Clearly, as Raymond Williams (and many since) have pointed out, there’s a problem with regarding a “fraction” of human relations (i.e. Bloomsbury’s or Oxbridge’s raised eyebrow at their servants’ new uppityness) as somehow standing in for the whole (“The Bloomsbury Fraction,” in Culture and Materialism).  What I am interested in defending, or at least further exploring, is the last part of the sentence.  (I excuse myself for the moment from dealing with Woolf’s entirely subversive inclusion of “our business” as also one of the major forms of human relation that depend on — but this only “largely”!–on the art of reading character.  Thinking about the forms of character read in marriage and friendship versus business, in Britain in the 1920s or generally, would take at least a book to sort out.)  Against both the clichéd romantic ideas of “essential” character or more recent “disenchanted” views of character as an accumulated property, Woolf asserts that the importance of reading character comes from its ordinariness and its dailiness: “every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (38).  What sorts of questions might these be?  How might our ad hoc, impromptu attempts to cope with them amount to a skill?

Woolf ends her talk by demanding that her audience (Heretics, but still, perhaps, deserving of a slap) not expect “just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment” of her famous example, “Mrs. Brown” (54).  “Tolerate,” she says, “the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure” (54).  She is partly alluding to what she calls Eliot’s “obscurity” and Joyce’s “indecency,” but here their methods have been subsumed into a larger call for an explicitly ethical form of attention.  The methods they discover, however distasteful or obsessive they seem to Woolf or her listeners, might open the way to “one of the great ages of English literature”–but only, Woolf says, “if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown” (54).  How are the skills of character-reading, skills honed and created in response to different problems every day, connected to this ethical demand?  Would cultivating our ability to, as recent narratology has it, “read minds” really improve us?  Would it make us less likely to desert Mrs. Brown–or would it make us more likely to exploit her, as if she were another “problem” to be solved?

On Horatio’s russet


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome (1598-1599), distributed by a CC-BY 2.0 license.

I’m looking at a traditional RYB color wheel (although I admit I’m unsure about what makes it “traditional”) and my first thought is that vermillion looks much more orange than I thought.  According to the geometrical analogies, vermillion is a tertiary color, a midway blend between primary red and secondary orange.  But “vermillion” reminds me of the scarlet leaves and blood that Hopkins evokes in “The Windhover” or the bright spot of a smashed clover mite.  I could (and can) easily imagine how grinding up cinnabar, with its veins and blushes of mercury, would be a first choice for dyers making sumptuous robes.  But if you combine secondary orange with secondary purple instead, you get “russet,” a reddish-orange, but also brownish, color.

Like the other quaternary colors (buff, sage, slate, plum, citron), russet allows for the presentation of a very different mood than the reds and vermillions Caravaggio uses (above, for example).  Our attention is caught, on the left, by the dynamism of the dark, composed folds above and the brighter spurts below the suddenly severed head.  Yet on the right, more ordinary browns, blondes, and greys dominate more intricate, seemingly less schematized folds.  I’m tempted to say that an ancient, sensual, dramatic world on one side is being vivisected by a very different mood or atmosphere on the other: the melancholy of the quaternary colors.  (And see how the hands and the faces make a drama out of ambiguities and complexities rather than immediate oppositions!)

Russet seems to be an altogether more affordable color than vermillion, something that occurs more often in our daily routine.  The coarse wool cloth dyed with woad (for purple shades) and madder (for reds and oranges) was favored by Franciscans because of its associations with plainness and virtuous Christian humility.  We probably think about the color of the potatoes before a particular type of cloth, but the glowing brown of the tuber carries many of the same overlapping senses: connoting sturdy, earthy nutrition more than luxury taste.  Some clever Wikipedia contributor also cites Biron from Love’s Labour’s Lost saying “Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express’d / in russet yeas and honest kersey noes” (5.2.434-435).  Biron is foreswearing “taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation, figures pedantical” (partly exemplified in the play by a schoolmaster named Holofernes).  Then, in a turn worthy of Holbein’s famous anamorphic death’s head, he says that “these summer-flies / have blown me full of maggot ostentation.”  So the question becomes: does russet, for all its peasant plainness, also convey the sense of what it rejects?  American readers are probably aware of the death’s head somewhere behind the later attire of the Puritans (Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” still haunts many high school reading lists), but can we also begin to see a sense of melancholy in the browns of the poverty of the Franciscans, or of the peasants of Breughel’s worlds?

In the first scene of Hamlet, when Horatio sees the ghost with his own eyes, he says that its likeness to the dead King “harrows [him] with fear and wonder” (1.1.47).  But however harrowed, Horatio is skeptical enough to question whether the “fair and warlike form” of the king has been ‘usurped’ together with “this time of night” (50).  Horatio asks a fascinatingly complex question, implying that the ghost is untimely in three ways: demanding an unnatural watchfulness late at night (i.e. time of day), returning the figure of a man already buried (i.e. mortal time), and reminding them of past military campaigns (i.e. historical time).  After the ghost leaves the first time, Horatio doesn’t quite admit that he fully believes what he saw: he hedges, saying that belief would require “the sensible and true avouch” of his own eyes, and that its likeness to the king was “as thou art to thyself” (60, 63).  Horatio’s first thought is that, instead of presenting a particular figure, the ghost “bodes some strange eruption of our state” (72).  The ghost quickly becomes an objective correlative for all the unsettling recent events pervading the kingdom: abrupt shifts in political power, rumors of invasion, questions about lingering national ethnic and religious traditions–in short, an atmosphere resonant with late Elizabethan and early Jacobean anxieties.

After the second appearance of the ghost, Horatio offers a humanist gloss, describing the cock’s crow as a warning to erring spirits that the god of day is awakening.  Marcellus counters with a Christianized version, with appropriate qualifications given as if to address Horatio’s skepticism: “Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes / Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated […]” that the cock’s crow indicates the beginning of a “hallow’d” and “gracious” time, when planets, faeries, and witches lose their powers (163-164).  Again, we can hear a slip, or tension, between different temporalities as offering different perspectives on the same moment.  The moment itself is interpreted so as to be perceived in almost cinematic slow motion: when the ghost was “about to speak” (Barnardo, 152), when it “started” (Horatio, 153), and when it “faded” (Marcellus, 162).  Each interpreter also brings different temporal scales to bear: simple subjective expression (Barnardo), diurnal/mythological patterns (Horatio), and seasonal/eschatological history (Marcellus).

Horatio responds with one of those Shakespearean lines that leaves actors wide, wide scope to determine meaning with gesture, cadence, tone, and emotional coloring: “So have I heard and do in part believe it” (170).  (This is fun line to run through its paces with an old rehearsal and classroom experiment: saying the line ten times with a strong emphasis on each of its ten words.  “Do” and “part” are the ones an actor will have to make clear decisions about.)  How we hear this line will depend on how much we think the ghost’s appearance has been a threat to Horatio’s emotional tenor, humanist vocabulary, and practical skepticism.   Roland Greene suggests that, in the late sixteenth century, certain words (like “blood,” “world,” and “language”) consolidated the intense pressure being put on older allegorical conventions: each of these words derives its force, especially in literary contexts, from an awareness of its being “a marker under revision – the power of which draws from its materiality as well as its figurative associations” (Five Words, 109).  Here, in Hamlet, we see a conflict between ways of materializing or confirming belief: roughly, Marcellus appeals to a system outside himself while Horatio is attempting to legislate his belief for himself.  The matter of the ghost (as physical appearance, but also as foreboding or mood) becomes forceful and memorable because it, too, becomes a “marker under revision,” acting in the audience’s memory at the same time as and through the medium of the characters’ subsequent interpretations.

(Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy [1621] offers a wonderful palimpsest, in Greene’s usage, of the complex materialist and allegorical senses operating in early modern responses to color: one of the curious facts Burton notes about people suffering from “the lascivious dance,” Chorus Sancti Viti or St. Vitus’ dance, is that “[o]ne in red clothes they cannot abide” (Anatomy, ed. Jackson, 143).  Is this a throughly materialist reaction based on Galenic humoral theory, or a deeply moralized, allegorical reaction?)

So: the material associations of a color and a cloth, the overlapping temporalities of mood and mortality, and the interplay of residual Catholic, belated humanist, and emergent Protestant practices of belief.  Can we bring all this to bear on a single line of the play?

Horatio, perhaps taking back his partial acquiescence to Marcellus’ view, or perhaps registering a new moment after the contested instant of slow-motion ghostlight fading, says: “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill” (171-172).  Is the personified morning comfortingly identifiable despite or because of its russet mantle?  In contrast to the ghost’s armor, the morning’s mantle seems to be available to stable allegorical conventions.  If only for the moment of the dawn itself, the appearance of the color matches its time–the material appearance does not seem “out of joint.”  The russet appearing on the hillside indexes the morning in a reliable way, confirming the allegorization of the Morn ‘walking’ by matching the slow but quickening pace of sunlight’s approach.

Ezra Pound also takes this line as exemplary of Shakespeare’s mastery of cadence and rhythm.  Warning would-be poets against being “viewy,” Pound pushes us away from trying to visualize the russet cloak wrapping itself around the hillside, or at least away from taking this as visual description only.  “When Shakespeare talks of the ‘Dawn in russet mantle clad’ he presents something which the painter does not present.  There is in this line of his nothing than one can call description; he presents” (“A Retrospect” [1918], in Koloctroni et al., Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, 376).  Like a scientist, Pound says, the poet is acclaimed for discovering something.  For him, this means a particular rhythmic structure, the aural features combining words, syntax, and figuration in a way that cannot be translated.  What is discovered or presented in Horatio’s russet mantle?

I think Pound would say it has something to do with the return to sturdy iambs after the long night, the complex consonance of t’s and l’s, and the way the diction of “russet” subtly downshifts the higher levels of “mantle” and “clad.”  Not “clad” in knightly armor nor wearing a royal or religious “mantle,” morning is here perceived through a different rhythm of experience: plain relief as much as salvation.  Extracted from context, especially to our modern ears (which don’t often hear talk of more than primary colors outside specialized artisan’s, decorator’s, or curator’s argots), “russet” might sound like a conventional “literary” word.  But, in the instant of its utterance, either in its late Renaissance moment or within a performance of the play, Horatio’s russet mantle might be the cloth held tentatively between Caravaggio’s maid’s hands: will it help cover up evidence of a murder, or is it what will be dropped, in an emergency, to help?