The Dichotomy of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf defines and dissects the dichotomy between film and literature by establishing, deconstructing, and reassembling the relationship between the two. In the opening of her essay, Woolf states, “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.” (86) This statement, in regards to film, attaches a connotation to the medium that implicates it as being a lower, more sensory, form of storytelling; however, she combats this connotation with an immediate retort in defense of film.

Woolf’s piece struck me as being well balanced in the way she explores the duality between text and film from a middle ground. By addressing film’s reliance on the senses, she is able to display the dissonance between film’s physicality and the imagination inherent in novels. This also implies the damaging effect the two mediums have on one another. With a strong reliance on senses, the film does not rely on the building and imagination of novels; therefore, the film, in this instance, cheapens and hollows the original text when it adapts it; however, this initial condemnation of film is remedied through a reappropriation of the existing relationship.

The key in Woolf’s deconstruction of this relationship is the severing of the idea that film and literature are suited for one another. By breaking the symbiosis (86) between the two mediums, both are able to better sustain themselves, each with their own set of pros and cons (88-89).  A film can not adequately capture the same imagination  and thorough mind of a novel, and a novel does not have the same sensory appeal of film. The use of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and the performance of Dr. Caligari as  examples highlight the strengths both mediums can possesses if they shed their symbiosis, and create separately.

In her opening, Woolf implies their is a savagery in film in regards to how it translates a novel; however, at her conclusion, she presents a counterpoint, “while all the arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully clothed.” (91) The savagery of film can be cultivated and shaped, but independently. Film has many possibilities to explore outside of adapting the abstractions of a novel. Woolf’s statement here expands on the idea that  film is young, and though it is imperfect, there is a room to grow and better establish its own set of strengths separate from the novel.


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4 Responses to The Dichotomy of Virginia Woolf

  1. Marie Mosot says:

    I think when Woolf says that film was “born fully clothed,” she means that film grew out of and utilizes the tools of the other arts. The words of literature, the visual representations of painting, the melodies of music, the performances of theatrical stage plays and even ballet, the mechanics of photography – all of these elements are present in film. Whereas the other arts were born and evolved independently of each other (admittedly an assumption; I don’t know each medium’s history), film was the bastard child of all of them. This is why I find Woolf’s dichotomous assessment of film as both a parasite and a separate art form that must absolutely avoid the devices of, say, literature (“All this, which is accessible to words, and to words alone, the cinema must avoid”) a bit contradictory and off-putting. If film is indebted to and “fully clothed” in the other arts, how can it ever establish itself fully apart? It can create its own language and aesthetic, sure, but it does so through the devices of poetry, painting, photography, etc. It seems to me that film by its nature will always be a “parasite” insofar as it borrows tools and techniques from the other arts, but perhaps the relationship need not be parasitic so much as symbiotic. Is it not too outlandish to imagine our conception of film to influence our conception of painting, for instance? Obviously, in this class, our conception of film raises questions regarding our conception of literature and vice versa. While Woolf’s proposition that film establish itself independently is admirable, it also seems like a violent reaction and overcorrection to the prejudices outlined in the Stam introduction. Why separate film and literature when even theater utilizes all the arts present in film except photography? Why the hostility?

  2. Darwin Eng says:

    Woolf’s piece as rather entertaining to read. While I understand your reasoning behind why you thought Woolf’s opinion of film to be a dichotomy, I feel that the dichotomy is an uneven one. Building off from what Marie has mentioned, Woolf seems to be protecting her own butt when writing about film. Most of the article is extremely venomous. As you mentioned, her pieces starts off no so subtly indicating that “People say that the savage no longer exists in us” (86)-a quip implying that people are still savage, and it is because of film.

    But how does Woolf cover her own butt? The entire article is spent discussing how film is for the lazy, and that it is a visual overload, and a “parasite” (89). As you so point out in your post, Woolf suggest that film has the potential (it is “born” a savage, but is allowed to play with “fiddles, flutes, saxophones”, etc), but the overaching metaphor she uses is still negative–she continues to play off of the “parasite” metaphor mentioned earlier–film has apprehended the “high class” instruments that literature uses, and tried to use it, but fails because like a savage, it cannot use it properly. So while it may seem like Woolf is giving film hope, her mentality is still negative–the savage COULD play the music, he just won’t ever play it well.

  3. “The fag end of civilization” bit strikes me as her defending movies from the get go. This idea that we all think we’re so civilized that nothing can catch us off guard, with the fag end implying that we’ve used up all our powers to think there can be a different way of seeing things. Movies, then, bring out the savage in us because of their novel way of seeing. Though, by the end, film becomes the thing that is savage, because it is in the process of becoming civilized. (I hate the use of savage here by the way; she implies that moving toward some Western ideal of civilization should be a natural tendency.)

    I believe that Woolf understand the criticism surrounding the movie (film?), one of which is certainly that movies are parasitic to literature. But her piece, I think, beautifully show us that film (movies?) — and I think she really wants this to happen — can exist in its own right outside of literature. A poignant moment comes when she asks, “…What the cinema might do if it were left to its own devices. But what, then are its devices?” (89). This is important because she moves into a more grounded, foundational, techniqual discussion of what film might be.

    In her discussion of the text and film, I think she’s pinpointing…ahem…film adaptation. I could be wrong. *smiles* A piece of literature produces an experience that is particular to its body, but when film takes it up, the lens is different, the colors may be different, the feeling different. Movies might stimulate our sense of fear and anger is a different way that we might not have imagined (invoking the image of the savage reaching the same result through a different process). For us to constantly compare the two — and we pretentious English majors certainly do this or is it just me? — “but the book did this,” and “the movie didn’t really capture that.” What we have to realize, in my humble unpretentious opinion, is see the text and movie (film?) as two separate entities, which will allow us to appreciate what the movie is able to do.

    • Marie Mosot says:

      I agree that we should assess text and film, or literature and film, separately, and Woolf does seem to want this to happen. She wants film to establish itself independently, but she falls short of allowing film any success in doing so. I like the way Darwin put it: “the savage COULD play the music, he just won’t ever play it well.” Bang those inherited instruments all it wants, and film will only make noise, not music. Her use of the parasite metaphor undermines her call for film’s independence. Though she allows film its own advantages, she ultimately wants film to exist on its own because she doesn’t want it to taint literature, not because she regards film as a worthy equal. After all, parasites can’t become their own hosts. (For the record, I hate the parasite metaphor.)

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