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Adèle Cassigneul
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Dreaming of Jacob

Jacob’s Room’s Uncanny Photographic Unconscious
Trans-Woolf. Thinking Across Borders, 2017

In this paper, I wish to confront Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room to two types of photographic images, the impressive Beresford photographs of Thoby Stephen, which Woolf kept in her Monks House Albums, and photographs of Greek statues which illustrate H. B. Walters’s 1905 Greek Art, one of the books Woolf read before leaving for her 1906 trip to Greece ; photographs which articulate presence and absence, substance and appearance, reality and fantasy. My aim is to make words and images face each other so as to fathom the creative common ground that they share when it comes to represent what cannot be represented nor articulated : disappearance, mourning and silence, and the inscrutable quality of human existence. I intent to see in what ways the magic and shadowy quality of photographic presence works its way as an optical unconscious, a haunting interpretant shaping a spectral text which challenges inarticulacy.

On Sunday L. read through Jacob’s Room. [...] he thinks it is unlike any other novel ; he says that the people are ghosts ; he says it is very strange.
(WOOLF 1981 : 186)

Who has never dreamt of Jacob ?

On 17 April 1920, Virginia Woolf had just started writing the first draft of Jacob’s Room [1] and, taking notes on the Bach festival she had attended at Westminster the previous day, she evoked her impromptu meeting with Walter Lamb, Secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts who had once wished to marry her :

Home with Walter ‘I had such a vivid dream of Thoby the other night’ he said. ‘He came in after beagling, & said, something very important – I can’t remember what. Very odd – for I don’t think of him often.’ He was glad to tell me this. (WOOLF 1981 : 31. My italics)

Conjured up by Lamb’s dream, Thoby Stephen thus reappears in his sister’s diary as a persistent vision which penetrates the incipient writing scene. Thoby comes back as a powerful expressive image which, in its core shadowiness, remains ‘as bright as fire in the mist’ (14).

Following Freud’s original definition of the dream as a regredient transformation of thoughts into visual images, J-B Pontalis reminds us that ‘true dreaming’ [rêver vrai] involves an intense and poignant ‘sense of reality’, whereby ‘small silent images’ that ‘touch vision only’ are recovered. (Pontalis 1990 : 20. My translation). In this sense, one might say that at the start of the creative process, Woolf recaptured the ghostly dream-image of her brother ; an elusive image which, looming at the edge of dream and memory, will eventually take the shape of the magnetic ‘young man alone in his room’ (Woolf 1992 : 82) [2]. Through Thoby, Woolf dreamed of Jacob.

With their idiosyncratic visual quality [3] nevertheless, these transient dream-images are nothing but ‘scrap, orts and fragments’ (Woolf 1970 : 189), fleeting traces through which lost memories are partially restored or recreated and eventually made visible [4]. And indeed, at the time of its publication, Woolf’s contemporaries underlined the visual and fragmentary nature of her first boldly modernist text : Rebecca West described the book as ‘a portfolio’ (Raitt 2007 : 215), the Yorkshire Post critic read it as ‘a crowded album of little pictures’ (219) and Clive Bell talked of a ‘series of fragmentary revelations, glimpses, glances, and scraps of glances’ (227). Woolf’s ‘biography of fragments’ (Lee 2010 : 72), to borrow Hermione Lee’s phrase, thus seems composed of a collection of flickering images which, as Max Milner asserts, open a phantasmatic space akin to that of dreams (Milner 1982 : 20). Indeed, Jacob’s Room reads as a dreamy retrospective narrative, whose fragmented montage-like structure recalls Woolf’s own photo-albums and weaves oneiric memories of the protagonist’s life into a piecemeal whole [5].

In chapter 8, describing the photogenic London scene, the narrator remarks :

Shawled women carry babies with purple eyelids ; boys stand at street corners ; girls look across the road — rude illustrations, pictures in a book whose pages we turn over and over as if we should at last find what we look for. Every face, every shop, bedroom window, public-house, and dark square is a picture feverishly turned — in search of what ? It is the same with books. What do we seek through millions of pages ? Still hopefully turning the pages — oh, here is Jacob’s room. [Woolf 1992 : 83-4]

The passage can be interpreted metatextually and taken as a reading guide. Relying on the image-making power of Woolf’s text, my aim is to turn pages in search of Woolf’s dream of Jacob. My critical approach will bring together Woolf’s text and photographic images, following what Peter Mendelsund calls associative translation [6]. My aim is to dream Woolf’s dream, in other words to recover the lost memory/dream-images which helped her compose her daring novel. Before doing so, however, I need to make a short detour to see how, between text and image, intermediality works as a specific type of translation and how Woolf’s work performs intermedial translation.

Intermedial Translation : Beyond Inarticulacy

In Le Temps retrouvé, Proust ponders over the destructive force of sorrow, making images spring up, or rather an ‘analogically photographic process’ (Kawakami 2013 : 25) which translates, and so transforms, painful emotions into creative force and a regenerating insight, which eventually bolster and reform the writer’s work.

Puisque les forces peuvent se changer en d’autres forces, puisque l’ardeur qui dure devient lumière et que l’électricité de la foudre peut photographier, puisque notre sourde douleur au cœur peut élever au-dessus d’elle, comme un pavillon, la permanence visible d’une image à chaque nouveau chagrin, acceptons le mal physique qu’il nous donne pour la connaissance spirituelle qu’il nous apporte ; laissons se désagréger notre corps, puisque chaque nouvelle parcelle qui s’en détache vient, cette fois lumineuse et lisible, pour la compléter au prix de souffrances dont d’autres plus doués n’ont pas besoin, pour la rendre plus solide au fur et à mesure que les émotions effritent notre vie, s’ajouter à notre œuvre. (Proust 1990 : 213. My italics) [7]

The tension between the damaging strength of suffering (‘sourde douleur au cœur’, ‘chagrin’) and the productive impulse of creation (‘la permanence visible d’une image’) underlies the metamorphosis of grief into permanent images and a literally photo-graphic writing process (‘lumineuse et lisible’). It opens up a reflexive and dynamic literary space, a place of translation and modulation, a place of becoming.

In Dialogues, Gilles Deleuze underlines the metamorphic energy which shuns imitation or similarity to promote confluence and mutation : ‘Writing always combines with something else, which is its own becoming. […] The writer is imbued to the core with a non-writer-becoming’ (Deleuze and Parnet 2003 : 33). He evocatively adds : ‘To write has no other function : to be a flux which combines with other fluxes’ (37). In this case, literature blends with photography, to open up and produce a space in-between, the place of translation and otherness, as defined by comparative philosopher François Jullien [8].

In her 1925 ‘Pictures’, Woolf contends that ‘literature has always been the most sociable and the most impressionable’ of all arts, arguing that ‘all modern painting’ can be deduced from Proust’s chef-d’oeuvre (Woolf 1974 : 173). Endorsing and backing up intermediality, she expounds on the influential power of images, which

press on some nerve, to stimulate, to excite. That picture […] stirs words in us where we had not thought words to exist ; suggests forms where we had never seen anything but thin air. As we gaze, words begin to raise their feeble limbs in the pale border-land of no man’s language, to sink down again in despair. [Ibid]

Intermedial translation takes place in this paradoxical ‘border-land’, the haven of both a new hybrid language and non-language [9]. And indeed, images have always been for Woolf ‘a silent land’ (Woolf 2005 : 21), the artistic province in which language fails, giving way to aporia [10]. What excites us in photographs, she says, ‘is something so deeply sunk that [one] cannot put words to it’ (11). Their secret non-verbal meaning frustrates language : no straightforward translation, in the sense of equivalence or likeness, seems possible. The gap or ‘chasm’ (Woolf 1984 : 23) that alienates words from images challenges the writer who thus faces inarticulacy.

Woolf famously wrote about impossible translation and the failure of language in ‘On Not Knowing Greek’. Just as images perplexed her, ancient Greek confused her : ‘The meaning is just on the far side of language. It is the meaning which in moments of astonishing excitement and stress we perceive in our minds without words’ (31). If out of touch and irretrievable, meaning nevertheless becomes mentally perceptible, even perhaps visible ; the fruit of the writer’s ‘third eye’, her mind’s eye, ‘whose function it is to help out the other senses when they flag’ (Woolf 1974 : 175).

The visual trope recurs again in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, when Woolf describes in photographic terms her inability to voice strong emotions : ‘Figuratively I could snapshot what I mean by some image ; I am a porous vessel afloat on sensation ; a sensitive plate exposed to invisible rays ; and so on’ (Woolf 1985 : 133). And when it comes to writing about loss and grief, the optical metaphor returns, the writer having to ‘examine feelings with the intense microscope that sorrow lends’ (59). We thus see that when Woolf wishes to come closer to the vivid and ineffable but expressive force of images, to the impenetrable yet suggestive Greek language or to substantial emotions, or when she wants to reach the quick of their intense yet inarticulate presence and express it, a similar visual, optical or photographic analogy is drawn. All have this compelling charm, a silent attractive force [11] that fails to translate into words and instead summons images.

I see Woolf’s metaphors as symptomatic of the optical unconscious defined in the texts of modernist photographer László Moholy-Nagy [12]. In 1925, he asserted that ‘a hundred years of photography and two decades of film have considerably enriched us and one may declare that we perceive the world with quite different eyes’ (Moholy-Nagy 2007 : 104. My translation). He added elsewhere that photography had been internalized, leading to an almost complete ‘psychological transformation of our gaze’ (257–9. My translation). ‘Omnipresent and invisible’ since the 19th century (Ortel 2002 : 18. My translation), the magic and shadowy quality of photography has worked its way into literature as a haunting interpretant. The optical unconscious can thus be considered as an agent of intermedial translation or modulation since it transposes photographic qualities and mediates them into language.

In this view, the present essay aims at seeing how, in Jacob’s Room, photographic visibility translates into words to create a oneiric yet persistent and singular vision of Jacob. At a time when England was still mourning the Great War and spirit photography was gaining momentum, Woolf conceived Jacob Flanders as a latent or surviving image, memory-image or dream-image, which her readers perceive in the mind ‘without words’. I shall approach Woolf’s text via two main types of photographic image : professional portraits of Thoby Stephen, which Woolf kept in her Monks House Albums, and photographs of Greek statues [13] which illustrate H. B. Walters’ 1904 Greek Art, one of the books Woolf may have read before leaving for her 1906 trip to Greece ; photographs which articulate presence and absence, substance and appearance, reality and fantasy. My aim here is to probe the creative common ground as word and image seek to represent what cannot be represented or articulated : disappearance, mourning and silence, and the inscrutable quality of human existence [14]. I thereby wish to examine how photography somehow contributed to the ‘process of literary consolation’ (Lee 1997 : 231) which the writing of Jacob’s Room constituted.

‘Literary Consolation’ : Mourning and Photography

Jacob’s Room is a book of sorrow and bereavement, a powerful elegy which embraces the unconsoled and unconsolable grief of loss. ‘[A]ll crepuscular’ (O. Bell 1981 : 13), the text at once mourns the death of melancholy Jacob Flanders and resurrects the life he once had. Jacob’s Room strikes me as a phantasmatic intermedial construction [15] which, haunted by a photographic unconscious, aims at reviving its dead protagonist. Jacob is but a shadow in the ‘procession of shadows’ (Woolf 1992 : 60). Jacob is a ghost [16].

The last lines of chapter 1 combine childhood and abandonment, solitude and death in one seizing image of devastation. Jacob has left his bucket outside, prey to the night’s raging storm.

Outside the rain poured down more directly and powerfully as the wind fell in the early hours of the morning. The aster was beaten to the earth. The child’s bucket was half-full of rainwater ; and the opal-shelled crab slowly circled round the bottom, trying with its weakly legs to climb the steep side ; trying again and falling back, and trying again and again. (Ibid 9. My italics)

In the bucket full of fresh water, the crab vainly tries to come out, awaiting his impending death. The polysyndeton combined with the repetitions of ‘trying’ and ‘again’ signal unavoidable fatal exhaustion. Reading the last sentence of the novel’s first chapter, we understand that Jacob is bound to die, that he may even be already dead. Indeed, the crab’s ‘weakly legs’ (5) send us back two pages before, when little Jacob was clambering about the Cornwall rocks [17] :

But there, on the very top, is a hollow full of water, with a sandy bottom ; with a blob of jelly stuck to the side, and some mussels. A fish darts across. The fringe of yellow-brown seaweed flutters, and out pushes an opal-shelled crab —
‘Oh, a huge crab,’ Jacob murmured — and begins his journey on weakly legs on the sandy bottom. Now ! Jacob plunged his hand.
(Ibid. My italics) [18]

The bucket image appears thus as a dynamic, dialectical image, involving a backwards and forwards movement which implies both an analepsis, which recalls innocent Jacob discovering the world a few hours before, and a prolepsis, which projects us forward, through to the last pages of the book, when Betty Flanders gazes at the sea through a window fringed with dark mournful vegetation, and meditates upon her two sons ‘fighting for their country’ (154). In this way, the crab’s eye-catching opalescence conjures up both the radiance of Jacob’s budding life and the opaline transparency of a vanishing spectral being [19].

The vision of little Jacob fishing in the rocks also summons an actual image : the Lock & Whitfield professional portrait of infant Julian Thoby Stephen which shows him at four or five (in the early 1880s), dressed as a sailor, dreamily fishing in a fake pond with a shrimping net ; ‘a clumsy awkward little boy, very fat, bursting through his Norfolk jacket’ his sister recalls (Woolf 1985 : 125). The photograph is to be found in Woolf’s Monk’s House Album 1 [20] as well as in the photograph album Leslie Stephen made to go with his 1895 Mausoleum Book [21]. This studio image haunts Woolf’s text which, rewriting the photograph into its fictional world, that is intermedially translating the image into literature, revives Woolf’s childhood memories of Thoby and brings the fixed image back to life by literarily reinventing him [22]. This process of recollecting and recovering memory-images through photography is also at work in Woolf’s memoirs :

I recover then today (October 11th 1940) a mild Autumn day (London battered last night) from these rapid notes only one actual picture of Thoby […]. I recover the picture of a schoolboy whose jacket was rather tight ; whose arms shot out of their sleeves. (Woolf 1985 : 136)

As Hermione Lee has argued, Thoby haunted his sister who ‘perpetually remembered and re-imagined him’ (Lee 1997 : 115). She wrote about his unheimlich, ghostly presence in December 1929, calling him ‘queer ghost’ and fancying herself talking to him : ‘I think of death sometimes at the end of an excursion which I went on when he died. As if I should come in & say well, here you are’ (Oliver 1982 : 275). Thoby has become a ghost-image, pertaining neither to life nor to death, neither to reality nor to fiction, and, surviving in-between, his photographic presence ‘spectralizes’ Woolf’s texts.

This need to rewrite and bring the loved one back to life recalls the desperate pursuit of those who tried to recover their beloved sons, brothers or husbands after the Great War. In his essay on ‘The Uncanny’ written just after World War I, Sigmund Freud mentions the mourners’ urgent wish to get in touch with the dead [23]. And indeed, in 1920s England, spirit photography was back in fashion. Ada Emma Deane, for instance, notoriously ‘photographed’ the ghosts of dead soldiers during national commemorations from 1921 until the press exposed her as a fraud in 1924 [24]. Superimposing images, her pictures were agents of uncanny re-appearances. Floating in nebulous smoky clouds, the heads of multifarious dead soldiers hung over the actual London site of commemoration. Similarly, Woolf’s intermedial superimpositions play with desire and fantasy : the ambivalent desire to remember and mourn the dead and the fantasy of seeing them brought back to life — a dream of the dead redivivus. Be they memoirs or fiction, her image/texts capture hybrid memory-images, etherealized visions of the absent one’s (or departed one’s) ‘being-there’ (Derrida 2011 : 5).

In this way, Jacob’s uncanny apparitions disclose a de-realised reality, a spectral photographic corporeality : the paradoxical ‘intangible tangibility of a proper body without flesh’ (6) that Woolf sensed when talking about the late Herbert Duckworth, her mother’s first husband : ‘like all very handsome men who die tragically, he left not so much a character behind him as a legend. Youth and death shed a halo through which it is difficult to see a real face –’ (Woolf 1985 : 89. My italics) [25]. In turn, Jacob’s ineffable presence makes itself known through a similar auratic glow : ‘There he stood pale, come out of the depths of darkness, in the hot room, blinking at the light’ (Woolf 1992 : 18). Suddenly conspicuous, Jacob remains unreal, almost an illusion. He has the faded complexion of spectres, the same as Thoby’s slightly overexposed face in two of the 1906 Beresford photographs [26]. He also threatens to be absorbed back into the surrounding darkness, as the two other underexposed portraits suggest. Confronting light and darkness, Woolf captures the evanescent apparition of her character. Evading fixation, she returns Jacob to his inherent ineffable identity [27].

Jacob moves through life as an ‘unworldly’ (59) shadow, which, even when brightly illuminated, remains nebulous, a blind spot. Throughout the novel, he stands as a negative character in the photographic sense of the word. In photography, the negative reverses the values of light and shadow to create an image that is not yet a photograph : a latency awaiting to be revealed. In the same way, a true absent presence, Jacob remains strikingly invisible, a latent image, at least in part, that shall never be revealed [28]. It is no wonder that twice in the course of the novel, he fails to be snapped by photographers [29]. ‘[S]tanding in the shadow, and yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence’ (Woolf 1984 : 38), he stands as a flickering image which can be sensed and perceived but not seen, one of those consolatory spectral visions Woolf describes in her memoirs when writing about her mother : ‘She was one of the invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life’ (Woolf 1985 : 80).

The Silent Young Man’s Unseizable Force

Even if the Beresford series provide a ghostly vision of Thoby, they are nevertheless also striking in terms of the strong and vivid bodily presence of their model. ‘Composed, commanding, contemptuous’ (Woolf 1992 : 127), Thoby has a ‘vacant’ (25) gaze, and a ‘dignified and aloof’ (101) bearing. Just like Jacob, he is ‘solemn’ (26), ‘silent’ (49), and ‘a little overbearing’ (101).

Jacob came out of the dark place by the window where he had hovered. The light poured over him, illuminating every cranny of his skin ; but not a muscle of his face moved as he sat looking out into the garden. [50]

Once again Woolf contrasts light and darkness to put forward her character’s inscrutable and eerie quality. Yet, the emphasis on his impassive face and fixed gaze echoes Fanny Elmer’s idea of Jacob as ‘statuesque, noble and eyeless’ (149). It coheres with the multifarious comparisons of the ‘powerfully built’ (23) ephebe to Greek statues and their ‘silent composure’ (130) [30].

During her 1906 trip to Greece, young Virginia Stephen observed that statues, ‘like all Greek things’, ‘detach themselves like pictures’ (Leaska 1990 : 333). She underlined the paradoxical liquidity of the alabaster stone and, in accordance with Roger Fry [31] and Walter Pater [32], she showed a dynamic conception of statuary. For her, stillness suggests movement and life : ‘the Apollo […] looks over his shoulder. […] He is straight & serene but there he has a human mouth & chin, ready to quiver or smile’ ; ‘the Hermes stands still, so lightly & with such a spring in his step that you expect him to turn & go’ (319). In her eyes, sculpted stones are sensuously embodied, almost animated. As Henry Beauchamp Walters underlines in his Greek Art, the Greek sculptor chooses a ‘momentary action’ (Walters 1905 : 52), a ‘single moment in the course of that action’ to fashion statues that are ‘in fact an instantaneous photograph’ (51).

The analogy between Greek art and photography is repeated in the unpublished ‘A Vision of Greece. 27th June 1906’, a three-page diary note Woolf wrote in Athens. Recounting her travel experience, she ponders over cliché images of the Ancient country, describing the Greek people and surroundings in a vivid photographic fashion [33]. Confronting her preconceived visions with what she discovers there, young Virginia Stephen underlines the paradoxically unsubstantial and ghostly appearance of things : ‘It is the fault nature of our classical education that it leaves this the phantom image of Greece swinging without a body so to speak’ (Woolf 1906 : 1. My transcription). Precise and efficient, she strives to retain spectral superimpositions with words : ‘It seems always impious – as though one were to snap shot a ghost - to take out a sober map & trace with matter of fact substantial technique the road to Greece’ (1. My transcription). The ‘stricken’ Parthenon resembles a spectral skeleton — ‘all is bleached white as bone’ —, a deserted place haunted by ‘august ghosts’ (2. My transcription). Even ‘the great statue of the maiden Goddess’ Athena has ‘a deadly pale’ face, as if come back from Hades’s Underworld, a mere shadow whose ‘fair shape is worn & mutilated broken & incomplete’ (3. My transcription). Eerie, fragmented and contrasted, Woolf’s Greece verges on the liminal, is turned into a limbo-like territory where factual experience merges with fantasy : a borderland where perception becomes photographic and bears phantom visions. Writing about this classical civilisation, Woolf captures images which mirror the photographic illustrations contained in the essays on Greek culture she compiled throughout her life, some of which she may have read before leaving England for her Mediterranean grand tour.

We know from the catalogue of Woolf’s personal library that she owned H. B. Walter’s essay, as well as Pater’s 1901 Greek Studies, Jane Harrison’s 1913 Ancient Art and Rituals and Fry’s 1939 Last Lectures, which comprised a large section on ‘Greek Art’ [34]. Rowena Fowler observes that Woolf’s relationship with Greek culture and art was an ‘unattainable combination of magic and familiarity’ (Fowler 1999 : 219), a combination that may have been strengthened by the photographs of Greek statues that were included in Walter’s opus and which Jacob puts up in his room —‘there were photographs from the Greeks, and a mezzotint from Sir Joshua — all very English’ (Woolf 1992 : 31. My italics).

Most of H. B. Walter’s documentary photographs provide two-dimensional chiaroscuro visions of ancient busts and figures [35]. Strongly illuminated yet flattened against an intensely dark backdrop, they seem to float in a vague and oneiric temporality which somehow distances them — the statues seem to emerge from a nebulous forgotten past — yet have a powerful even dramatic emotional impact. Loosened from any specific spatial referent, they hover like fascinating dream-images — just like Athena in 1906 Athens, standing out against the shadowy sky, watching ‘above the sleeping city’ (Woolf 1906 : 2. My transcription) [36]. In the words of Mary Bergstein, the photographed ‘archaic sculptural forms were like dream images or memory impressions’ (Bergstein 2010 : 135-6) ; they create ‘a visual imagination, part remembered, part constructed’ (194) of the Greek world. In the photographs, the immaculate concreteness of the sculpted stones becomes almost insubstantial, as if ready to dissolve into thin air ; they paradoxically acquire the transient immateriality of spectres.

In his 1934 lecture, Roger Fry also compares Greek statuary to photography : ‘if you look at those compound photographs which at one time were rather frequently made of a great many people of about the same age, you do get something very like a Greek statue’ (Fry 1939 : 176). Practised by the British polymath Francis Galton and the French photographer Arthur Batut in the 1880s, compound or composite portraiture superimposed multiple photographic portraits of individuals’ faces to create an average face. Blurred and seemingly moving, they created a disturbing portrait at once definite and oddly defamiliarised. Incidentally, Freud, who described the psyche as a visual tool resembling a photographic apparatus in his 1900 The Interpretation of Dreams, likens dream-work to Galton’s plural images :

But here the dream image is prepared in still another manner. I have not united features peculiar to the one with features of the other, and thereby abridged the remembered image of each by certain features, but I have adopted the method employed by Galton in producing family portraits, but which he projects both pictures upon one another, whereupon the common features stand out in stronger relief, while those which do not coincide neutralize one another and become obscure in the picture. (Freud 2015 : 247)

Through the layering of multiple images we get to some vivid essential core, some identificatory visual knot. Once again, in resonance with Proust’s metaphor, photographic analogy returns under Walter’s, Fry’s and Freud’s pens, signalling an urge to express what they strive to pin down with words : the very ineffability of aesthetic emotions, the quasi-magical and lively presence of statues or evanescent dreams. Such unexpected connections between photography, Greek statuary and dreams brings us closer to Jacob’s utter mystery and to Deleuze’s notion of modulation.

Modulation is the ultimate form of analogy which transcends equivalence and similitude : ‘strictly speaking, there is modulation, that is to say similarity is produced by dissimilar means, in a different way’ (Deleuze 1981. My translation) [37]. Invested by a powerful photographic unconscious and discarding traditional modes of characterization, Woolf’s plastic prose is transformed, reformed. What does modulation bring ? asks Deleuze. It brings ‘the thing in its being-there’ [la chose dans sa présence] (Ibid). Such is Jacob’s ‘unseizable force’ (Woolf 1992 : 137), his pregnant ironic presence. The modulation of a photographic unconscious, or intermedial translation, helps to build this elusive character, the implicit negative portrait which retains an existential vibrancy, the throbbing heart of a young silent man who is at once contemporary with Woolf’s time (a soldier, among many, bound to die in the trenches and the avatar of a beloved brother) and immemorial (a ghost who has the bearing of Greek gods).

With all those images in mind, I dream of Jacob as being there, hovering between words and sentences, seeping through paragraphs and chapters. A photogenic invisible presence. Almost within reach : ‘Yet over him we hang vibrating’ (Woolf 1992 : 69).

Many thanks to Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio and Theodore Koulouris who both gave precious time to help me decipher Woolf’s difficult manuscript of ‘A Vision of Greece’.

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Woolf, Virginia. 1906. ‘A Vision of Greece. 27th June 1906’. Manuscripts A : Biographical : A. 23 VS Mss, Monks House Papers (The Keep, University of Sussex), unpublished
— - 1970. Between the Acts (New York : Harcourt)
— - 1974. ‘Pictures’, in The Moment and Other Essays (New York : Harvest Book), pp. 173–8
— - 1981. ed. Oliver Bell, Ann. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Volume 2 : 1920–24 (Harmondsworth : Penguin)
— - 1982. ed. Oliver Bell, Ann. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Volume 3 1925–30 (London : Penguin Books)
— - 1984. ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, in The Common Reader (New York : Harcourt), pp. 23–38
— - 1985. ‘A Sketch of the Past’, in Moments of Being (New York : Harcourt), pp. 61–160
— - 1992. Jacob’s Room (London : Penguin)
— - 1993. ‘Foreword to Recent Paintings by Vanessa Bell’, in The Crowded Dance of Modern life (London : Penguin), pp. 97–100
— - 2005. Walter Sickert. A Conversation (London : Tate Publishing)


[11 On 15 November 1921, she wrote : ‘The day before this I wrote the last words of Jacob – on Friday Nov. 4th to be precise, having begun it on April 16 1920’ (O. Bell 1981 : 141).

[22 In the summer of 1922, as she finished Jacob’s Room, quoting from Catullus’s elegiac poem : ‘Atque in perpetuum frater, ave atque vale’, Woolf wrote Julian Thoby Stephen/(1880-1906)/ Atque in perpetuum frater, ave atque vale’ (Lee 1997 : 231).

[33 ‘Singulier “visuel” que celui du rêve, aussi intense dans l’instant de sa présentation qu’évanescent, qu’insaisissable, que se dérobant à toute inspection : un rêve ne s’observe pas. Ce visuel-là est décidément très étrange, étranger en tout cas à nos catégories habituelles de pensée’ (Pontalis 1990 : 38-9).

[44 Exploring dreams, Pontalis observes that ‘nous n’avons jamais affaire qu’à des restes, qu’à des bribes, qu’à des traces. […] nous attendons d’elles qu’elles nous mènent quelque part, qui ne sera jamais ça définitivement mais qui aura à voir avec ça’ (Pontalis 1990 : 55).

[55 See Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio « ‘Survivances’, Woolf’s Writing a Vision of Reading » in Catherine Bernard ed. Woolf as Reader, Woolf as Critic, PUM, 2011, 103-117.

[66 ‘These images we “see” when we read are personal : What we do not see is what the author pictures when writing a particular book. That is to say : Every narrative is meant to be transposed ; imaginatively translated. Associatively translated. It is ours’ (Mendelsund 2014 : 207. My italics).

[77 ‘Since strength of one kind can change into a strength of another kind, since heat which is stored up can become light and the electricity in a flash of lighting can cause a photograph to be taken, since the dull pain in our heart can hoist above itself like a banner the visible permanence of an image for every new grief, let us accept the physical injury which is done to us for the sake of the spiritual knowledge which grief brings ; let us submit to the disintegration of our body, since each new fragment which breaks away from it returns in a luminous and significant form to add itself to our work, to complete it at the price of sufferings of which others more richly endowed have no need, to make our work at least more solid as our life crumbles away beneath the corrosive action of our emotions’ (Kawakami 2013 : 24. My italics).

[88 ‘Qu’est-ce, en effet, que traduire si ce n’est précisément ouvrir-produire de l’“entre” entre les langues, de départ et d’arrivée. […] le propre du traducteur est de se maintenir, aussi longtemps qu’il pourra “tenir”, sur la brèche de l’entre-langues […]’ (Jullien 2012 : 62-3).

[99 See Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio ‘Minoan Woolf : ‘The Pale Borderland of No Man’s Language’ ; out-of-timeness, Haunting Presences, and the Spectre of Virginity’ in Claire Davison-Pégon and Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio ed., Contemporary Woolf/Woolf contemporaine, PULM, 2014, 167-78.

[1010 ‘Aporia’ comes from the Greek ἀπορία : difficulty, perplexity or puzzle. And Woolf incidentally talks of her sister Vanessa Bell’s painting as ‘a puzzle’ : ‘And the puzzle is that while Mrs Bell’s pictures are immensely expressive, their expressiveness has no truck with words. Her vision excites a strong emotion and yet when we have dramatized it or poetized it or translated it into all the blues and greens, and fines and exquisites and subtle of our vocabulary, the picture itself escapes. It goes on saying something of its own’ (Woolf 1993 : 99).

[1111 I’m here following psychoanalyst J-B Pontalis’s definition of ‘attraction’ or ‘appeal’ in ‘L’attrait du rêve’ : ‘L’attrait, au sens du charme qui émane de certains objets, lieux ou personnes et qu’on répugne à traduire en mots comme s’il risquait alors de se dissoudre et d’effacer l’effet de captation, cette force d’attraction que Freud attribue au refoulé, à l’infantile, au visuel et… à la mère’ (Pontalis 1990 : 15).

[1212 Moholy-Nagy’s optical unconscious differs from the definition Walter Benjamin gives in his 1931 Small History of Photography. For Benjamin, the optical unconscious is revealed when photography and cinema use, for instance, close ups or slow motion and make visible what was yet unseen by the naked eye – Jean-Louis Marion calls it ‘the unseen’ [l’invu] (Marion 2014 : 11).

[1313 Whereas Hermione Lee argues that Woolf’s ‘method of portrayal bears comparison to the modelling of Greek statues’ (Lee 2010 : 74), I wish to the suggest that the uncanny portrayal of the novel’s protagonist is more akin to photographic imagery and even to photographic processes than to statuary proper.

[1414 For a Derridean reading of death, loss and mourning in the novel, see Koulouris 2001 : 65–79.

[1515 Some critics have already suggested intermedial readings of Jacob’s Room : Francesca Kazan analyses the novel’s pictorial ‘descriptive textual units’ (Kazan1988 : 701) and Kathleen Wall focuses on its elegiac ekphrases in connection with Clive Bell’s concept of significant form (see Wall 2002 : 302–23). Although both emphasize Woolf’s connection with Bloomsbury painting and art criticism and even deal with notions of frame and kinetic dynamism (Kazan) or freeze-frame effects (Wall), neither tackles the issue of photography and its specific visual effect.

[1616 This connexion between Jacob and the ghostly appears in Woolf’s diary. On November 15th 1921, while finishing the first draft of her novel, she was reviewing Henry James’s ghost stories : ‘The day before this I wrote the last words of Jacob […]. I have not yet looked at it. I am struggling with Henry James’ ghost stories for The Times ; have I not just laid them down in a mood of satiety ?’ (Oliver Bell 1981 : 141-2).

[1717 This image connects with Woolf’s childhood memories of St Ives, which she writes as so many vivid snapshot images : ‘to scrabble over the rocks and see the red and yellow anemones flourishing their antennae ; or stuck like blobs of jelly to the rock ; to find a small fish flapping in a pool […] I could fill pages remembering one thing after another’ (Woolf 1985 : 127–8).

[1818 This image connects with Woolf’s childhood memories of St Ives, which she writes as so many vivid snapshot images : ‘to scrabble over the rocks and see the red and yellow anemones flourishing their antennae ; or stuck like blobs of jelly to the rock ; to find a small fish flapping in a pool […] I could fill pages remembering one thing after another’ (Woolf 1985 : 127–8).

[1919 Lee notes that in Jacob’s Room ‘the reality lies in images rather than facts’ (Lee 2010 : 81) ; the crab image for instance, that of the sheep’s jaw or those of the butterflies Jacob hunts, among others.

[2020 See Album 1 : 14 or in Humm 2006 : 43.

[2121 See Stephen 1895 : 36.

[2222 Philosopher Vincent Delecroix suggests that literature ’welcomes ghosts [les revenants], or at least calls upon them’. (Delecroix and Forest 2015 : 135. My translation).

[2323 ‘Placards in our big cities advertise lectures that are meant to instruct us how to make contact with the souls of the departed, and there is no denying that some of the finest minds and sharpest thinkers among our men of science have concluded, especially towards the end of their own lives, that there is ample opportunity for such contact’ (Freud 2003 : 148-9). He makes a similar comment in his 1907 Delusion and Dream in Jensen’s Gradiva.

[2424 See Fischer 2005 : 72–91.

[2525 Woolf never met Duckworth, who died in 1870, but knew him through her mother and the photographs she kept of him. She describes him as ‘the perfect man ; heroic ; handsome ; magnanimous ; “the great Achilles, who we knew” – it seems natural to quote Tennyson’ (Woolf 1985 : 89–90). Achilles and his awesome statuesque presence is a recurring motif in Jacob’s Room.

[2626 See Album 1 : 61.

[2727 Woolf uses the same qualifier to describe Duckworth’s presence : ‘no words could describe him’, ‘as if he were ineffable’ (Woolf 1985 : 89).

[2828 See Frizot 1998 : 50–66.

[2929 ‘“Not to sit for me,” said Miss Eliot, planting her tripod upon the lawn’ ; ‘He stared at them, then turned, and there was Madame Lucien Gravé perched on a block of marble with her Kodak pointed at his head’ (Woolf 1992 : 52, 132).

[3030 For Woolf, Thoby’s relation to Greek culture seems almost ontological : he is the one who, when they were children, first told her about the Greeks – ‘it was through him that I first heard about the Greeks’ (Woolf 1985 : 125).

[3131 Evoking a statue of Iris, Roger Fry declares : ‘There is nothing static or arrested here — it has the palpitating mobility of real flesh’ (Fry 1939 : 200).

[3232 For Walter Pater, the Greeks apprehend statues as ‘a living organism, with freedom of movement, and hence the infinite possibilities of motion, and of expression by motion’. ‘The work of the Greek sculptor, together with its more real anatomy, becomes full also of human soul’ (Pater 1910 : 191, 239).

[3333 ‘Directly the boat touches land, the mind would be ready with its old picture of Greek life : it would seek for Athenian men & women, looking for Plato & Socrates, for citizens in their sweeping robes, for slaves or merchants ; who are these barbarians ? It would ask, seeing some groups of white trousered lawyer with gaudy jackets & pistols in there belts’ (Woolf 1906 : 1. My transcription).

[3535 See digitalised version of the book

[3636 ‘Her face brow is so vast & calm & triumphant that it seems to rise above the spent waves of the centuries, always serene [?] & radiant’ (Woolf 1906 : 2. My transcription).

[3737 See online.