As the September 2010 issue of Marie France shows us, the Virginia who was once considered snobbish, melancholy, intellectual and hard to read  is now sold as an unconventional character : “Eccentric, Virginia Woolf’s world inspires 21st-century fashion with its deliciously outmoded prints and its wealth of details.” . And indeed, though she hated fashion and was very ambiguous towards Victorian tradition , it is time to remember how funny and witty, how completely original and free-minded Virginia Woolf also was. A woman who called herself an “eccentric typewriter” , she recorded in her diary that she was “really pleased to open the Manchester Guardian this morning & read Mr. Fausset on The Art of V.W. Brilliance combined with integrity ; profound as well as eccentric” . And she wrote to her provocative Bloomsbury friend Lytton Strachey : “But the most interesting thing to observe, as I have often told you, is not these distinguished spirits, but the humble ones, the slightly touched, the eccentric” . And indeed, Virginia Woolf willingly escaped the early twentieth-century literary doxa, wanting to write the world in her own way. She distrusted mainstream literature, violently rejecting the prevailing Realist genre, deeming the writing techniques of the Materialists obsolete – “those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are dead” . With the Hogarth Press, the Virginia and Leonard Woolf published avant-garde poets such as T. S. Eliot or Nancy Cunard ; they composed their own distinctive texts with illustrations by Vanessa Bell or Dora Carrington among others. A clear emphasis was put on modernity and novelty. Even if they did not engage in 1920s and 1930s avant-gardes, creating anew was their master word. Woolf herself experimented, searching for new forms, both linguistically and conceptually (she wrote an elegy in the guise of a novel, a play-poem, a novel-essay, mock biographies and experimental sketches), endlessly redefining literature and literary subjects. Escaping categorization, like Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, Woolf asserts herself as radically different, imposing herself as other. Her position on the literary scene, both in her own time and today, remains eccentric : she deviates from regular patterns or norms, she belongs off centre (eccentric : from the Latin ex-, away from, severed from, and centrum, centre) – a position she will define in Three Guineas through the idea of a Society of Outsiders. And conversely, she upsets her readers’ accepted position, challenging their ways of reading, building texts that remain outside the frame of conventions and need the readers’ eccentric eye of the mind ; eccentric because idiosyncratic, that is imaginative and creative.
This paper will underline Woolf’s literary eccentricities. It will focus on Woolf’s relationship with images – both actual, visible images and virtual, suggested ones  – to try and unravel a visual rather than pictorial angle in her work that is sometimes overshadowed. We will see how, with the unusual and extravagant characters (eccentricity as textual motif) and the use of images in Orlando and Flush, Woolf builds up hybrid image/texts that imply a double reading (eccentricity as literary strategy). Then, analysing the narrator’s eccentric point of view in short stories like “The Lady in the Looking-Glass : A Reflection”, I shall attempt to see how, through the image/text, this eccentricity works as a textual principle, so that from a Benjaminian perspective, she renews and remodels our own reading of texts. Finally, I will show that through dialectical creativity, Woolf implies a reading that resembles montage and transgresses conventional linearity.
“What a phantasmagoria the mind is and meeting place of dissemblables !” 
“Flush was not an ordinary dog”  : with this cross-genre blend of fiction and nonfiction, Woolf creates a literary creature made of words and images – “some monster fit for a glass case in a museum” . She blends reality with fiction, choosing to tell the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, before she became the famous wife of the equally famous Victorian poet Robert Browning, through the eyes of her dog, a deliberately iconoclastic angle . She drew inspiration from her own spaniel, Pinka, and played on mock verisimilitude, integrating four drawings by Vanessa Bell, two photographs and four reproduced paintings alongside her text – images that are most of the time omitted in contemporary criticism . In Flush, the text plays with its margin, triggering referential instability and hybridization . This is a technique which Woolf had already used in Orlando. Orlando opens up to images (four reproduced paintings and four photographs) that come to disjoint the text and debunk its authority, favouring multiplicity and metamorphosis over uniqueness and fixity. Woolf rejects her father’s heritage, together with a whole tradition of Victorian biography , declaring in “The Art of Biography” : “Victorian biographies are like the wax figures now preserved in Westminster Abbey […] effigies that have only a smooth superficial likeness to the body in the coffin” . For her, traditional biographies miss the point. Thus to make her fictional characters seem more real, she pretends to offer them in the flesh ; to come closer to Life, she needs to make the written word play hide-and-seek with its visual representation . Woolf intermixes, just as sexes intermix in the androgynous Orlando . The atypical Flush and Orlando move in an ambiguous and metamorphic world, hovering between fact and fiction, betwixt text and images, enlarging the scope of literature. Christine Reynier talks about the patched nature of the Woolfian biography, claiming that Flush “appears as a collage of quotations and blanks to be filled by the biographer’s imagination ; discontinuity, the holes in our knowledge of a life of the past, are thus exposed” . For Woolf, “biography never returns a single and simple answer to any question that is asked of it”  and the biographer “is a craftsman, not an artist ; and his work is not a work of art, but something betwixt and between” . Images, in both Flush and Orlando, help the biographer fill some blanks and also partake in the fuelling of both the writer’s and the reader’s imagination. Characters are born from the friction between text and images, and Woolf plays on the borderline between two different semiotic systems.
Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same .
Orlando comes alive in the split between two genres, at once he and she, biography and fiction, born of change and mutation, alive in the “practically” which triggers metamorphosis and transforms the text into a biographical travesty. Critics have argued that the Woolfian biography appears as an impure genre because of its hybridity, its blend of facts (i.e. references to Vita Sackville-West in Orlando and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Flush) and fiction (i.e. imaginative biographies). In the words of Jacques Derrida, literary genres seem to abide by the “law of impurity” and by a “principle of contamination” . In that way, images partake of that process of contamination and of the building of intermedial image/texts. Because of their unconventional, irreverential, hybrid and plurimedia qualities, Woolf’s texts are eccentric. Even if they take their cue from a whole Victorian tradition (Woolf’s father was the editor of the National Dictionary of Biography), even if we can argue that they belong to Strachey’s trend of New Biography, Woolf has created a unique and marginal biographical genre, one which preserves the freedom of both writer and reader.
With this generic hybridization, Woolf also introduces a new rhythm of reading. Between what we read and what we see beats an ephemeral and throbbing balance, a flickering image/text that transcends the incompatibility of two different media. This in-betweenness signals the need for a double reading : a reading that reads and a reading that sees. Images (photographs, painting or drawings), placed alongside the text, watch us and come to question both the written word and our reading of the text. The image, as eccentric gaze, throws the text off centre.
So, having now worn skirts for a considerable time, a certain change was visible in Orlando, which is to be found if the reader will look at page 101, even in her face. If we compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that of Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtedly one and the same person, there are certain changes. 
Page after page, we follow the character’s transformation from man to woman, and image after image what Liliane Louvel calls the “intersemiotic conversion” . An alteration of the text which equates both the character’s change and plurality, and a renovation of the reader’s gaze. The non-canonical status of the text mirrors the way in which it challenges established ways of reading. To read in-between is to adopt an eccentric position as reader, is to look at a literary icon and the world in a renewed, refashioned way, just as Flush watches his world from his own eccentric point of view.
Flush appears as a double of his human mistress, enhancing the marginalized position of Victorian women in general, and in particular of Elizabeth Barrett, who was shut off from the world by her father . Flush is small and displaces the focus, laying emphasis on the non-human , on sensation and imposing a different way of seeing/writing experience. His extravagant point of view decentres the focus, irreverentially subverting literary tradition and reframing accepted truths. This aspect is all the more emphasized as Flush is described as a living paradox, a purebred dog and yet an unusual, eccentric dog . He embodies modernity, seeing “petticoats swish at his head ; trousers brush his flanks”  just as Baudelaire gazed at the mysterious passer-by’s rustling skirts, and Lisette Model was to capture the running legs of urban modern men and women. The well-set frame of literature comes to be deframed as Vanessa Bell’s illustrations (actual images) show us. Indeed, the artist chose to represent the world through Flush’s eyes, placing the gaze at ground level and adopting low angle points of view, which recall the striking experimental angles of photographers such as Alexander Rotchenko and László Moholy-Nagy and filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Tziga Vertov. While his invalid mistress lives a secluded life, a perfect angel in the house confined to her dim “mausoleum” of a bedroom, her tomb-like “crypt” , Flush’s vision embraces the world. While “Miss Barrett’s life was the life of ‘a bird in its cage’”, Flush is free to smell and gambol with “every nerve throbbing and every sense singing” . Similarly, opening the text to images is to build a simultaneous double reading. We find in Woolf what Liliane Louvel calls the pictorial third : “the “pictorial third” is this moment of in-betweenness when the text stretches towards the image and when the image flies to the text, and in the mind of the reader who re-cognizes, the text quivers” . The text becomes actualized in the image, and the image is actualized in the text, thus redefining literature as plastic texture . A web woven with words and images, a crossing point of differences, the literary work has become a meeting-place of “dissemblables”, a third space where porosity, contact and cross-fertilization prevail, where perception and imagination merge. The Woolfian text takes on new forms (influenced by images, be they included in the text or not) to give birth to renewed literary forms.
“The silver-grey flickering moth-wing quiver of words” 
Woolf’s work on literary plasticity does not restrict itself to such unusual formal presentation, but lies at the heart of all her texts, including minor short stories which may be read as manifestoes. As Joseph Conrad put it in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, the writer’s task is “by the power of the written word […] before all to make [us] see” and make us find “that glimpse of truth for which [we] have forgotten to ask” . In “The Lady in the Looking-Glass : A Reflection” , Woolf also reaches for a truth hidden behind facts, behind what she calls “the cotton wool of daily life” . She means to catch what makes the fleeting essence of life before it disappears. Working on the permanent instability and the transience of human perception, she introduces the motif of the mirror as a kind of emblem of her strategy as a writer. The mirror image is set as a filter between the reader and facts, and it annihilates direct access to the fictional world, calling all realist or “materialist” techniques into question. From the start, we only have access to a decentred, displaced point of view – a point of view reminiscent of the 1920s European avant-gardes in film and photography, and of the works of artists who wanted to free the human gaze from its too limited scope through an iconography that privileged visual surprises and provocation. In her literary works, Woolf partakes of this shaping of a new vision .
One could not help looking, that summer afternoon, in the long glass that hung outside in the hall. Chance had so arranged it. From the depths of the sofa in the drawing-room one could see reflected in the Italian glass not only the marble-topped table opposite, but a stretch of the garden beyond. One could see a long grass path leading between banks of tall flowers until, slicing off an angle, the gold rim cut it off. 
Deviation and discrepancy prevail : the suggested image is sliced off, de-framed, and Isabella Tyson cannot be seen or known. Woolf wants to reach beyond appearances and go through the looking glass. Adjusting our gaze to a deviated image, she questions the reliability of mimetic representation. Here, what we see in the mirror is not the symmetric image of the reality pictured outside the frame. Woolf structures her story on a false symmetric axis, not providing us with a frontal view of the reflected image but with a view from the side of it. The image is from the start biased. As Georges Didi-Huberman underlines : “[…] the symmetry of the butterfly image offers its formal stability – its specular guaranty, its balanced structure – only as the mask of some ever possible damage, a threat linked to formlessness and destruction” . The mirror, turned into a butterfly-image, is supposed to make us see, to make us catch the character – “fasten her down here” like a butterfly pinned to an entomologist’s cardboard. Yet, when Isabella comes into the light, when she comes to be fixed into the looking glass, there is nothing for us to see.
At last there she was, in the hall. She stopped dead. She stood by the table. She stood perfectly still. At once the looking-glass began to pour over her a light that seemed to fix her ; that seemed like some acid to bite off the unessential and superficial and to leave only the truth. It was an enthralling spectacle. […] Here was the woman herself. She stood naked in that pitiless light. And there was nothing. Isabella was perfectly empty. 
Even if the repetition of “stood” could reflect an attempt to fix the character as with photography, the reflected image merely amounts to a flat picture, a meaningless image. And we are left with the dazzling flash of Isabella’s appearance, a flickering virtual image that disappears before we can actually see it. We are left to contemplate this emptiness, the presence of a being fixed “in the trance of immortality”  etched in light. Woolf builds her story on lacuna, gaps “trembling between one’s eyes and the truth” . And the final image, which we read/see, leaves us with what Walter Benjamin calls a hole. Reality has burnt a hole in the image, obliterating it.
Emptiness and obscurity, like veils between the eye and what is to be seen/read, conceal a secret buried at the heart of the text. Words and images fail to say/depict the unsaid and the unseen. And Woolf plays on the double meaning of the word reflection. If the mirror image fails to provide a reliable image, both narrator and reader will have to fill in the hole and reflect, using their imagination. We need to open our mind’s eye, the eccentric eye of the mind :
If she concealed so much and knew so much one must prize her open with the first tool that came to hand – the imagination. One must fix one’s mind upon her at that very moment. One must fasten her down there. 
Imagination versus flat realism : words throw reality off centre, as if seeking to borrow the power of direct image while negating the possibility to frame a single meaningful image. So that Woolf’s aesthetic quest must be contextualized. Indeed, she lived at a time when the practice of photography was more and more widespread – a period François Brunet calls the “Kodak revolution”  – and when the cinema had already become a mass entertainment . According to Walter Benjamin : “as the eye sees more quickly than the hand can draw, the reproduction of images can now be made at such high speed that it can follow the rhythm of speech” . Mimesis was created anew. And indeed, at the turn of the 20th century, with the techniques of photography and cinema, it became possible to see the world differently. Images revealed an unknown and unexpected complexity. For Susan Sontag, “a person is an aggregate of appearances, appearances which can be made to yield, by proper focusing, infinite layers of significance” . Revisioning the traditional motif of woman and mirror, Woolf seeks to capture both the layering of different images that reveal different aspects of people’s personalities, the shifting nature of appearance and the way it is fixed by photography. The text is born from the image, the image is born from the text : and from this tension a new dynamic and transgressive symmetry emerges, that of the image/text. According to Jean-Luc Nancy, each “pulls towards itself or pulls itself towards the other. There is always some tension. […] But in this tension, in spite of it or because of it, the one and the other shows something : it is there before our very eyes” . Imaging the text, transforming it into images, is to bring fact and fiction, words and images together.
But, in truth, each image and each text is in itself a potential text or image. This potential is actualized through gazing or reading. I am reading a text and here is an image, or here is even more words ! When I am gazing at an image, I always somewhat turn it into a text, and in reading a text, I turn it into an image. There are countless such actualizations : no text has its own assigned image and no image has its own assigned text. 
Intermediality teaches us that the image/text always escapes fixation and is actualised in our idiosyncratic readings. Readings that are born of the oscillation between text and image ; the double reading of literary eccentric creatures (from the Latin creatura "act of creation", "what is created"). In Woolf’s story, this variety of imagined images sets the butterfly-image to fly and dance.
“A fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights” 
The butterfly-image, Woolf’s “silver-grey flickering moth-wing quiver of words”, takes shape in the dialectical tension between reading and writing, between language and image, and between memory and imagination. For seeking an image to encapsulate meaning has a definite temporal dimension to it. Woolf builds her fiction on scenes born of her “shock-receiving capacity”  : “I find that scene making is my natural way of marking the past. A scene always comes to the top ; arranged ; representative. […] I must find a representative scene” . The scene, a symptom of an epiphanic moment of being, rises to the surface of consciousness, pregnant with an intense actual sensation that is always lined with its depth of past memories ; only a vivid, visual image may allow to capture this “moment of being” :
The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. […] For the present when backed up by the past is a thousand times deeper than the present when it presses so close that you can feel nothing else, when the film on the camera reaches only the eye. 
We may read Woolf’s moment of being as the gasp of a present moment that breathes in the past. Similarly, for Walter Benjamin, the past coincides with the present to such an extent that the past achieves a Now of Recognisability . Past and present come together in a sparkle of revelation (that is to say at once understanding and revelation in the photographic sense), breaking traditional chronology and introducing a new continuum. And indeed, in 1926, while she was working on To the Lighthouse, Woolf wrote in her diary : “time shall be utterly obliterated ; future shall somehow blossom out of the past. One incident – say the fall of a flower – might contain it. My theory being that the actual event practically does not exist – nor time either” . Reading and writing, language and image, memory and imagination meet in the anachronistic dialectical image of the moment of being . Janus-like, time is endowed with two faces and has become what Georges Didi-Huberman calls “a rhythmic beat” .
Thus we come back to the central idea of a dialectical creativity that sets the image/text into motion. To borrow Woolf’s image in “Kew Gardens”, the wings of words quiver, fluttering here and there, now and then, in quest of meaning. The butterfly-image of Woolf’s texts helps us see the secret relationships between things, the correspondences and analogies of a meaning that shapes itself in the dynamic energy of reading and seeing. In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, Woolf warns her reader : “... we must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments” and she urges him to “tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure.” . As Didi-Huberman explains in Devant le temps, knowledge can be acquired through montage (“knowledge through montage” ).
The imagination is not a surrender to the lure of a single reflection, as it is too commonly thought, but it is the building and the montage of plural forms set in correspondence : this is why, far from being the privilege of artists or of a solely subjective legitimacy, it takes full part in the process of knowledge it is most creative movement, though (because) the riskiest. 
Just like photography and cinema taught people how to see in a new way at the turn of the twentieth century, literary montage which calls upon the reader’s imagination renews our own ways of reading and seeing, underlining the utter modernity and openness of the Woolfian texts. Thanks to imaginative montage we reach unexpected visions, surprising truths glimmering in the shadowy creases of sentences. Woolf’s plastic texts  invite us to an eccentric, because idiosyncratic, reading in the fashion of Mrs Ramsay’s free-associating plastic practice in To the Lighthouse :
And she waited a little, knitting, wondering, and slowly rose those words they had said at dinner, “the China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the honey bee,” began washing from side to side of her mind rhythmically, and as they washed, words, like little shaded lights, one red, one blue, one yellow, lit up in the dark of her mind, and seemed leaving their perches up there to fly across and across, or to cry out and to be echoed ; so she turned and felt on the table beside her for a book. ...
And she opened the book and began reading here and there at random, and as she did so, she felt that she was climbing backwards, upwards, shoving her way up under petals that curved over her, so that she only knew this is white, or this is red. She did not know at first what the words meant at all. ...
She read, and so reading she was ascending, she felt, on to the top, on to the summit. How satisfying ! How restful ! All the odds and ends of the day stuck to this magnet ; her mind felt swept, felt clean. And then there it was, suddenly entire shaped in her hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here—the sonnet. 
The moment of being is at once timeless and ephemeral, transcending time and reaching the deep truth of things and emotions – “the essence sucked out of life”. Words wash from side to side rhythmically, multifarious glimmering lights that illuminate the dark of our minds. Springing from an imagining sensitiveness, reading freely associates heterogeneous times and places : like a dancing butterfly, the eye flits in all directions, coming and going, here and there, hovering between appearance and disappearance. And this metatextual passage comes to echo Woolf’s statement in “Craftsmanship” : words “live in the mind. ??? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love, and mating together. It is true that they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are” . Transgressing reading and literary conventional linearity, montage enhances hybridization. It questions the links between literature and memory, between what we read and what we see, and between imagination and history. The mind has become a phantasmagoria .
“For nothing was simply one thing” 
Then, to conclude, from Woolf’s own practice of photography and her interest in cinema, images come to be transferred into some of her texts and penetrate the canvas of her fiction through stylistic effects that recall technics of her own time. In her hybrid works, images come to question the traditional dichotomy between centre and margin, reading and writing, fiction and imagination. Eccentricity as literary strategy offers an autonomous free space that transcends binarity : an open space where the writer’s third eye, Louvel’s “pictorial third” and the reader’s mind eye come together to “invent another language – a language perfectly and beautifully adapted to express useful statements, a language of signs” .