Virginia Woolf and the Total Perspective Vortex

Virginia Woolf, sci-fi, and women in the discourse of science.

This was a short talk given at the Norwich Millennium Library in 2013, as part of an initiative by the Union of UEA Students.

Below is a rough transcript – apologies for lack of citations.


Virginia Woolf and the Total Perspective Vortex


I’ve called this lecture ‘Virginia Woolf and the Total Perspective Vortex’ and in it I’d like to offer some suggestions about how the works of Virginia Woolf and more recent science-fiction writers can illuminate one another. Before I really begin, I think it would be useful to explain what the Total Perspective Vortex actually is. It comes from Douglas Adams’ series of books and radio programmes ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. It’s a method of torture; a person is thrown into the Total Perspective Vortex, and in some way that isn’t really explained, it forces them to recognise their miniscule significance in the universe, and this is supposedly so horrible that it requires all sorts of mad sound effects in the radio version. I think this is a useful concept for talking about science fiction generally; there’s the trope of the tiny human in a vast, indifferent universe, or against an insurmountable and oppressive system. This convention of pitting the tiny human against a wider universal space or force will, if all goes to plan, be a useful concept later on, when I come to suggest ways in which we can think about how Woolf is writing her characters and human experience.

To begin with, let’s draw some simple connections between Woolf’s novel ‘Orlando’, which I’ll be focussing on, and ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, which I will be using here as a sample sci-fi text. ‘Orlando’ is a fictional biography of Woolf’s intimate friend Vita Sackville-West, and follows a supposed Sackville-West ancestor throughout his extraordinary 400-year journey from Elizabethan England, to Ottoman Turkey, and finally to modern London, with an impromptu sex-change along the way. Douglas Adams’ story recounts the journey of Arthur Dent, possibly the only human left in the universe after the earth is destroyed by some very bureaucratic aliens, as he is taken from Surrey to not-quite-Alpha Centuri, and all sorts of other adventures in an inimitably eclectic universe. The similarities between Orlando and Adams’ serial are immediately obvious; both stories are of a fantastical adventure through time and space; they feature a host of unlikely, famous and infamous characters; they are humourous (Woolf referred to her book as ‘a writer’s holiday’); and they rely on the conceit of dislocating the protagonist from his or her usual context, be that the Home Counties for Arthur Dent, or Elizabethan masculinity for Orlando. Both texts also revolve around the production of literature itself; while Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect are trying to write the new edition of the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Orlando spends hundreds of years redrafting her poem ‘The Oak Tree’.

I think we can see here a connection made by both authors between the state of dislocation of the protagonist, and the process of literary production. In Douglas Adams’ multimedia epic, literary production is both the cause and effect of Arthur Dent’s dislocation from the home comforts of Planet Earth. He is rescued from ‘the smoking ruins of the Earth’ by his friendship with Ford, a situation brought about by Ford’s research for the book; their subsequent adventures then go on to become the subject of both their own and Adams’ books, and indeed the story is in fact narrated by the very book they purport to be writing. Orlando begins her literary career in her original context of Elizabethan England, but goes on to subject ‘The Oak Tree’ to subsequent trends in literature, enacting her journey through timespace and through different genders and cultures on her text. Like Adams’ book-narrator, Orlando’s biographer is a voice that not only records but shapes the tale being narrated, and who intrudes.

This dislocation that has such an effect on the protagonists and on their literary efforts is I think emblematic of a wider theme of writing different viewpoints into a text, which we see absolutely exemplified in Virginia Woolf’s writing, and that is a technique commonly used in science fiction, too. To give you a couple of examples, in the novel Orlando, the character Orlando uses a different language for different states of mind, different perspectives, even different selves, that she as a character experiences. There’s a bit in the novel, after Orlando has married a sea captain called Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, where Woolf goes to great length to explain that, and I quote, ‘when she called him by the first syllable of his first name [so Mar], she was in a dreamy, amorous, acquiescent mood, domestic, languid a little, as if spiced logs were burning, and it was evening, yet not time to dress [etc. etc.]’, but that ‘when she called him by his second name, ‘Bonthrop’, it should signify to the reader that she was in a solitary mood, felt them both as specks on a desert, was desirous only of meeting death by herself’. What we have here is two different versions of Orlando within a single psyche, with the different names for her husband signalling a move from feeling connected to him, to feeling very acutely her singular and solitary place in the wider ‘desert’ of the universe, of life and death. When Orlando calls her husband ‘Bonthrop’, it is a completely different perspective that we are reading through to when she calls him ‘Mar’; with the former we kind of zoom out, she sees herself and we are made to see her as ‘a speck in the desert’, with the latter we get to zoom right in and get into their relationship and really examine it as if under a magnifying glass. The dislocation I was talking about before allows Woolf to look at her characters from these two hugely different viewpoints, and this is a fundamental thing that she’s doing in her writing. It’s almost as if we’re reading her book through a prism, or via a series of mirrors – there are all these different beams of light shooting off and getting refracted in different directions and if we follow each beam that she’s put there for us on the page, we get to view her characters from a different angle. The same thing is true in lots of sci-fi books. The ones that spring to mind are Margaret Atwood’s ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’, where we go through the story thinking that we’re hearing directly from a character, as it’s written in the first person, and then at the end we find out that we’re actually reading it in the future compared to the time frame that the story is talking about, that what were the character’s thoughts that we were privy to are actually fictional transcripts of fictional audio tapes that were made after the fictional fact. And to go back to my example text of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we get the double vision of hearing both from the book-narrator, and from the characters who are trying to write the narrator’s very voice.

So, we’ve established (very briefly!) that both Woolf and some sample sci-fi texts write different viewpoints into their texts, so that we read the books in a way that I’m going to call ‘prismatic’, a way that shows us all those beams of light shooting off at different angles, and this is manifested in and perhaps even made possible through the dislocation of the characters from a stable setting. If you imagine them plucked from where they’re supposed to be, and kind of suspended, that allows the writer to see the character from all these different angles. I’d like to draw us back to that opening metaphor of the Total Perspective Vortex now, the torture device that forces its victim to confront their tiny existence in an indifferent universe. Sci-fi writer China Mieville has said that there exist two opposing traditions within literature, at least of the last couple of centuries. There is what he terms the literature of ‘recognition’, and he highlights realist fiction, and its attempt to recognise and represent the real world as an example of this. His other category is literature of ‘estrangement’, in which he includes sci-fi, and other types of literature that deliberately remove themselves from the ‘slice of life’ of realism. I think these categories can be useful, but the texts I’ve been discussing here appear to complicate this theory. In much of her work, Woolf often tries to represent truthfully the inner workings of the human psyche – this surely makes it literature of recognition, right? She’s recognising and recording real experience. But then you come across that ‘prismatic’ writing of perspective that features in much of her work, including Orlando, and as I have said, this goes hand in hand with a kind of dislocation…surely these tropes fit more with the literature of estrangement? What I think we get in Woolf’s work, and in the idea of the Total Perspective Vortex, is a combination of recognition and estrangement, and with this combination we also get a synthesis of male and female, scientific and social discourses. The concept of the Total Perspective Vortex is frankly bizarre, and absolutely estranged from real life – but at the same time it relies on recognition, and expresses that very human experience of feeling small in a big universe. In Orlando, the character of the same name climbs a hill, and, Woolf writes, ‘ninteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine. […] For a moment Orlando stood counting, gazing, recognizing. […] he felt the need of something which he could attach his floating heart to’. This passage, which I haven’t been able to quote the whole of here, combines that recognition and estrangement, realistic detail and utter implausibility, and we see that its effect on Orlando is one of feeling in need of bolstering against the scale of what is before him. What we have here is, I believe, the Total Perspective Vortex, more than 50 years before Adams had written it. Woolf is doing the same things that sci-fi is doing, and she’s opening up opportunities for genre fiction to cross the recognition/estrangement divide.

So, to conclude, I hope I’ve managed over this very short space of time to draw a connection between the perspective at work in Virginia Woolf’s writing, and the perspective commonly at work in science fiction. I’ve gone through how a writer can dislocate their characters from their surroundings, not only allowing for fantastical adventures through time and space, but also allowing for the writing of different points of view, a prism of perspectives, into a text. This is something that I believe connects the writings of Virginia Woolf with later experiments in the sci-fi genre; I think China Mieville is right to trace opposing traditions of recognition and estrangement through literature, but perhaps the distinction isn’t absolutely clear in the works of Virginia Woolf and the texts that come after her. And I’ve read back from Douglas Adams to Woolf, using the trope of the Total Perspective Vortex, but I think we can also read from Woolf to modern sci-fi. She’s blurring the distinction between recognition and estrangement, allowing for a kind of exchange of particles between the two traditions. I would argue that much of modern sci-fi runs in the same vein, or may even be directly descended from, these modernist experiments with perspective, of which Woolf’s oeuvre is such an exemplar.


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