Time and its countermeasures: Modern messianisms in Woolf, Benjamin, and Agamben
Virginia Woolf didn’t always want the party to end, but she had no illusions that the people there didn’t often want to die or kill each other. The climactic party of Mrs Dalloway, concluding the novel without fully concluding itself, goes further, deviating from what Stella McNichol calls Woolf’s “normal writing habits” (Woolf 1973: 10) by reappearing in stories composed later, thus pursuing an afterlife. Woolf’s party novel is never alone: it grows from preceding stories and carries on in later ones, forever textually surrounding itself. Why does the party state carry a peculiar charge that exceeds even Woolf’s notorious need for closure on projects? We can think of the party as both a predestined culminating point and a protracted end state, and we can look to Woolf’s handling of it, despite the deviance from normal habit, as a model for her conception of end time, an occasion to meditate on ends’ ethics, and a rendezvous for modernism and theory. Exploring Woolf’s conception of ends can bring our own ethics of reading
sharply into view, since readings of Woolf, especially her most canonical works, are among the most overdetermined. In pedagogically hasty moments, we quote her out of context to tell us when a new era began, what the new aesthetic was to be, what women writers really need, what language they speak-and usually in ways made to ﬁt our prior commitments. Frequently, readings of her are set up speciﬁcally to tell us something about modernism, modernity, psychology, or femininity, which is to say, Woolf’s sense of teleology is rarely alone. We are often aware of its having company, and too often the companions exert an inﬂuence more sovereign and restricting than sociable and reciprocal. Our tendency to come to Woolf’s work over-prepared might explain why Woolf is one of modernism’s most famous yet frequently rediscovered, even rehabilitated, writers, a case of our continually striving to reﬁnd what was already there. Our diﬀerent phases of “Woolf recovery” even index the progress of new waves of modernist study. But to see modernism and critical theory each as party to the other’s inquiries presents an opportunity to reconsider what meaning we ﬁnd and how our means change when we entertain applying a writer’s own conception of ends. Placed in the company of two crucial theorists of ends and end
time, her contemporary Walter Benjamin and his latter-day advocate Giorgio Agamben, Woolf shows herself uniquely foresightful: where they see a history in which messianism strikes or stalls exceptionally, she projects a peopled dimension opened up by our extreme visions’ interceptions.