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Virginia Woolf on the Language of Film and the Evils of Cinematic Adaptations of Literature

“The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think.”

“Cinema, to be creative, must do more than record,” Anaïs Nin wrote in 1946 in the forth volume of her diaries. But the question of what this elusive, quintessential creative duty of cinema might be long predates Nin’s observation.

In the spring of 1926, when film was still young and silent, Virginia Woolf found herself at once captivated and concerned by the seventh art and penned an essay exploring its perils and its promise. “The Cinema” was originally published in the New York journal Arts, and a slightly edited version titled “The Movies and Reality” appeared in The New Republic shortly thereafter. It can now be found in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4, 1925-1928 (public library).

Woolf begins with a reserved meditation on the nature of moving images, which at first glance appear to speak to our most primitive underpinnings and invite a strange kind of cerebral resignation, but upon deeper reflection serve as a lubricant between brain and body:

People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies. They have never seen the savages of the twentieth century watching the pictures. They have never sat themselves in front of the screen and thought how for all the clothes on their backs and the carpets at their feet, no great distance separates them from those bright-eyed naked men who knocked two bars of iron together and heard in that clangour a foretaste of the music of Mozart.

The bars in this case, of course, are so highly wrought and so covered over with accretions of alien matter that it is extremely difficult to hear anything distinctly. All is hubble-bubble, swarm and chaos. We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savours seem to simmer; now and again some vast form heaves itself up and seems about to haul itself out of chaos. Yet at first sight the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid. There is the king shaking hands with a football team; there is Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht; there is Jack Horner winning the Grand National. The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think. For the ordinary eye, the English unaesthetic eye, is a simple mechanism which takes care that the body does not fall down coal-holes, provides the brain with toys and sweetmeats to keep it quiet, and can be trusted to go on behaving like a competent nursemaid until the brain comes to the conclusion that it is time to wake up. What is its purpose, then, to be roused suddenly in the midst of its agreeable somnolence and asked for help? The eye is in difficulties. The eye wants help. The eye says to the brain, ‘Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.’ Together they look at the king, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life.

Woolf considers the escapist nature of the cinematic experience, and the comforting safety that lies in that escapism:

[The moving pictures] become not more beautiful in the sense in which pictures are beautiful, but shall we call it (our vocabulary is miserably insufficient) more real, or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life? We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it. As we gaze we seem to be removed from the pettiness of actual existence. The horse will not knock us down. The king will not grasp our hands. The wave will not wet our feet. From this point of vantage, as we watch the antics of our kind, we have time to feel pity and amusement, to generalize, to endow one man with the attributes of the race. Watching the boat sail and the wave break, we have time to open our minds wide to beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation — this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not.

Woolf, who nearly three decades earlier had written of imitation as essential for the arts, proceeds with a rather scathing admonition against cinematic adaptations of literature (cue in Life of Pi…) and argues, aptly for the era, that cinema has to find its own stylistic and narrative voice to fully deserve the label of a new art:

But the picture-makers seem dissatisfied with such obvious sources of interest as the passage of time and the suggestiveness of reality. They despise the flight of gulls, ships on the Thames, the Prince of Wales, the Mile End Road, Piccadilly Circus. They want to be improving, altering, making an art of their own — naturally, for so much seems to be within their scope. So many arts seemed to stand by ready to offer their help. For example, there was literature. All the famous novels of the world, with their well-known characters and their famous scenes, only asked, it seemed, to be put on the films. What could be easier and simpler? The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to the moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says ‘Here is Anna Karenina.’ A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says, ‘That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.’ For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind — her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then ‘Anna falls in love with Vronsky’ — that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation, on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable, written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connexion with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene — like the gardener mowing the lawn — what the cinema might do if left to its own devices.

But what, then, are its devices? If it ceased to be a parasite, how would it walk erect?

Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Woolf cites the 1920 German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as a paragon of what imaginative cinematic storytelling might look like, then considers symbolism and semiotics as vital tools in the emerging language of film:

If a shadow at a certain moment can suggest so much more than the actual gestures and words of men and women in a state of fear, it seems plain that the cinema has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression. Terror has besides its ordinary forms the shape of a tadpole; it burgeons, bulges, quivers, disappears. Anger is not merely rant and rhetoric, red faces and clenched fists. It is perhaps a black line wriggling upon a white sheet. … Is there, we ask, some secret language which we feel and see, but never speak, and, if so, could this be made visible to the eye? Is there any characteristic which thought possesses that can be rendered visible without the help of words? It has speed and slowness; dartlike directness and vaporous circumlocution. But it has, also, especially in moments of emotion, the picture-making power, the need to lift its burden to another bearer; to let an image run side by side along with it. The likeness of the thought is for some reason more beautiful, more comprehensible, more available, than the thought itself.

And yet, Woolf cautions, cinema, already visual by nature, can’t afford to literalize the metaphors of the poets:

As everybody knows, in Shakespeare the most complex ideas form chains of images through which we mount, changing and turning, until we reach the light of day. But obviously the images of a poet are not to be cast in bronze or traced by pencil. They are compact of a thousand suggestions of which the visual is only the most obvious or the uppermost. Even the simplest image ‘My luve’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly-sprung in June’ presents us with impressions of moisture and warmth and the glow of crimson and the softness of petals inextricably mixed and strung upon the lift of a rhythm which is itself the voice of the passion and hesitation of the lover. All this, which is accessible to words and to words alone, the cinema must avoid.

To thrive and blossom into a true art form, Woolf argues, cinema ought to invent is own language:

Yet if so much of our thinking and feeling is connected with seeing, some residue of visual emotion which is of no use either to painter or to poet may still await the cinema. That such symbols will be quite unlike the real objects which we see before us seems highly probable. Something abstract, something which moves with controlled and conscious art, something which calls for the very slightest help from words or music to make itself intelligible, yet justly uses them subserviently — of such movements and abstractions the films may in time to come be composed. Then indeed when some new symbol for expressing thought is found, the film-maker has enormous riches at his command. The exactitude of reality and its surprising power of suggestion are to be had for the asking.


How all this is to be attempted, much less achieved, no one at the moment can tell us. We get intimations only in the chaos of the streets, perhaps, when some momentary assembly of colour, sound, movement, suggests that here is a scene waiting a new art to be transfixed. And sometimes at the cinema in the midst of its immense dexterity and enormous technical proficiency, the curtain parts and we behold, far off, some unknown and unexpected beauty. But it is for a moment only. For a strange thing has happened — while all the other arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.

To trace the remarkable evolution of the seventh art between Woolf’s time and today, and the developments that propelled it, see 100 Ideas That Changed Film, then revisit Woolf on what makes love last, writing and consciousness, why the most fertile mind is the androgynous mind, the epiphany that revealed to her what it means to be an artist, and this wonderful illustrated biography of the beloved writer.


Mary Gordon on the Joy of Notebooks and How Writing by Hand Catalyzes Creativity

“However thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.”

Every few years, a new anthology of essays on why writers write comes along. While most tend to be invariably excellent, one of the best presents I’ve ever received was a copy of the 2001 collection Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (public library). What made this particular tome special, besides the wonderful selection of essays by contemporary literary icons like Saul Bellow, Ann Patchett, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, was that many of the essays were signed by their respective authors.

One of my favorite pieces in the volume comes from Mary Gordon, at the time in her early 50s, and is titled “Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen to Just Any Paper.”

Gordon begins:

There may be some writers who contemplate a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them. Beckett had, tacked to the wall beside his desk, a card on which were written the words: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’

It’s a bad business, this writing. No marks on paper can ever measure up to the world’s music in the mind, to the purity of the image before its ambush by language. Most of us awake paraphrasing words from the Book of Common Prayer, horrified by what we have done, what we have left undone, convinced that there is no health in us. We accomplish what we do, creating a series of stratagems to explode the horror. Mine involves notebooks and pens. I write by hand.

Like Anaïs Nin, who took great joy in making books manually, Gordon celebrates the glorious, grounding physicality of penmanship:

Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.

In fact, the tool itself is a fanciful transporter, a gateway to a different sense of self:

My pen. It is a Waterman’s, black enamel with a trim of gold. When I write with it, I feel as if I’m wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and my hair is flawlessly pulled back into a chignon. Elizabeth Bowen, maybe, only French. Anna de Noialles, but played by Deborah Kerr. My pen is elegant, even if I’m wearing the terry robe whose frayed state suggests a fashion statement from a gulag. My ink is Waterman’s black. Once while traveling I could only find blue-black. I used it for a few weeks, but it made me feel like a punitive headmistress.

Gordon, who subscribes to Joan Didion’s cult of the notebook, goes on to describe her various notebooks, acquired during her travels and serving equally varied purposes — a small, soft-covered one from her last trip to Paris, several confectionary-colored ones from Orleans, a long, canary one for fiction and a square red one for journalism from Dublin, a hard turquoise one for literary criticism purchased across the street from the British Museum, a handful of Swedish ones in primary colors for her most uncensored journals. A fellow fan of diaries and letters, she then contributes to the daily routines of other famous writers a tour of her own:

So what do I do after I’ve played with my pen and notebooks like a time-killing kindergartner? Before I take pen to paper, I read. I can’t begin my day reading fiction; I need the more intimate tone of letters and journals. From these journals and letters — the horse’s mouth — I copy something that has taken my fancy, some exemplum or casual observation I take as advice. These usually go into the Swedish journal, except for the occasional sentence that shimmers on its own, and then it goes into the handmade Vermonter.

I move to Proust; three pages read in English, the same three in French. In my Proust notebook I write down whatever it is I’ve made of those dense and demanding sentences. Then I turn to my journal, where I feel free to write whatever narcissistic nonsense comes into my head.

I listen to music, often string quartets or piano sonatas. … I enjoy the music and the rhythm of the mindless copying. Or not entirely mindless; I’m luxuriating in the movement of the words which are, blessedly, not mine. I’m taking pleasure in the slow and rapid movements of my pen, leaving its black marks on the whiteness of paper. … I can’t listen to music when reading poetry or fiction. Into the notebook I am using for the fiction I’m writing, I copy paragraphs whose heft and cadence I can learn from. And some days, if I’m lucky, the very movement of my hand, like a kind of dance, starts up another movement that allows me to forget the vanity, the folly, of what I am really about.

Nestled between the words of others, Gordon finds a certain comfort, soothing assurance that the road, while winding and often dark, has been traveled before and doesn’t lead into the abyss:

It is remarkably pleasant, before the failure starts, to use one’s hand and wrist, to hold and savor pleasant objects, for the purpose of copying in one’s own delightful penmanship the marks of those who have gone before. Those whom we cannot believe have ever thought of failing, or of (as I do each morning) envying hod carriers, toxic waste inspectors, any of those practitioners of high and graceful callings that involve jobs it is possible to do.

(For a necessary antidote to this dystopian mindset of writing, take heart with Ray Bradbury, Amelia E. Barr, and Elizabeth Gilbert.)

Gordon concludes:

I don’t know what people who work on computers do to get themselves started. I hope never to learn firsthand.

We read Mary Gordon, then we use our hands and wrists in typing out her thoughts to catalyze our own.

For more wisdom on writing, see H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Mary Gordon portrait via Columbia University


Dear John: Rare Recording of a Vietnam War Soldier Reading a Breakup Letter from Home

“Dear John I love you so, Dear John you’ve got to go.”

Some months ago, I shared a train ride with Jezebel founder and all-around great gal Anna Holmes who, upon finding out about my obsession with love letters, told me about a book she’d written nearly a decade ago: Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library), a magnificent collection spanning several centuries of breakups, both famous and ordinary. Naturally, I hunted down a copy, in which I discovered Simone de Beauvoir’s exquisite missive of “dry sadness.” But Anna also mentioned something she’d discovered over the course of her research that never made it, for obvious reasons, into the book: A rare recording of a Vietnam War soldier nicknamed Johnny Smack-O reading a lengthy “Dear John” letter — the blanket term used to describe “I’m leaving you letters,” common in the military — sent to him by the woman with whom he’d been living for two and a half years prior to the war. The letter’s author, who remains unknown, had just found out that Johnny had another relationship and the two women, in having discovered each other’s existence, had bonded over Johnny’s despicable deceit.

Anna, who is on Twitter and has a new book in the works, has kindly sent me the recording — enjoy. The full transcript, including snippets of Johnny’s conversation with fellow serviceman David Syster, who taped the audio, and another man on the same radio frequency who overheard the two, appears in the book.

Oh, Jonny, when I sit here at my desk, writing this letter, looking at the walls and my desk covered with your pictures and I feel an intimacy but, for some reason, it seems to be melting right before me, and I feel like throwing up. Why? Because I’m such a fool, such a fuckin’ fool, to have fallen for such a lowly bastard as you.

Anna contextualizes the peculiar subculture of such letters:

Gordon Angus Mackinlay, a veteran of the British and Australian armies, claims that the term [Dear John] came from a music-hall song popular just prior to World War I whose chorus went:

Dear John I love you so
Dear John you’ve got to go
Dear John I love you so
Dear John you must go


Stories of Dear John letters abound, but, for obvious reasons, the actual letters themselves are difficult to find. Michael Lee Lanning, an author and army veteran, says he remembers ceremonies in the service in which Dear Johns were burned or flushed down toilets. (Another veteran claims that Dear Johns were used as toilet paper.) Vietnam War veteran Guy Hunter says that some of his fellow marines posted their Dear Johns on the walls in the platoon headquarters, where they remained to either fall apart or be ripped down and thrown away.

Hell Hath No Fury is a treasure trove from cover to cover and features stirring, scathing, sad, and satirical letters from common people and literary greats alike, including favorites like Sylvia Plath, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, and Anaïs Nin.


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