Writing@CSU Home Page | Writing Gallery | | Jessica Patterson

The Process of the Meaning Exchange

Jessica Patterson

I wanted to examine the states at the limits of language; The moments where language breaks up...I wanted to examine the language which manifests these states of instability because in ordinary communication--which is organized, civilized--we repress these states of incandescence. Creativity as well as suffering comprises these moments of instability, where language, or the signs of language, or subjectivity itself are put into "process". (Julia Kristeva)

Any attempt to study the complex layers of the human endeavor of "meaning-making" should include an examination of those places where the spoken word (or articulation itself) "breaks up" or fails. Woolf's Between the Acts is itself a study of the struggle of relying on language to act as the sole currency of significance in a world which refuses to be contained. The novel does in fact put language, the signs of language, and subjectivity into "process". Consequently, "meaning" becomes complicated as it often falls outside, (but not entirely), of ordinary discourse and speech. "Meaning" wedges itself in between words; it is found in the silences between two characters, in the interruption of a speech by wind, in the social taboos which make the unsayable so much louder than the said. " kind of meta-discourse emerges in Between the Acts, one which pushes the conventional foreground (i.e. the characters themselves and their conversations) of a novel into the background. This inversion places humans in a broad dialogue that the characters themselves, (and even we the readers), may fail to recognize as a dialogue because it does fall outside of normative, controlled language. It is in this larger context of silences and background buzzing that we can identify some kind of pattern we may dare to call "meaning". And though Woolf gives no tidy "answer" in the end, no reason or solution, she reveals something perhaps more profound: Ourselves.

The very title, "Between the Acts", names the novel, the entire "work", as an interlude, a pause; something undefined between things defined. "Acts" are concrete moments we can identify and measure. Yet such definition implies a kind of standardization which ultimately threatens to become redundant/repetitious. If there is an "act" which has an essential quality to it that defines it, how then are we to make any meaning out of anything? In other words, if two people are saying the same words, "I love you" for example, how do we determine them to be distinct? How do we raise them up out of their sterile molds and give them meaning? We look to what is in-between, to what is left unsaid all around the words which are actually spoken. And we search our context, the "background" which sets one moment apart from all others which came before. It is here we can begin to understand "act" as defined by its' interludes. We know an act has occurred because of the interludes on either side of it. One defines the other. And it is somewhere between the two, in that blurry crossover, where "meaning" resides.

"It was a summer's night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool." (B" 3)

This first line of Between the Acts leads us into a scene that lacks the usual precision and center of the traditional narrative. Instead, the "center" is everywhere and nowhere. The "act" seems to be that they were "talking". That "talking" is announced, rather than illustrated, draws attention to the act as an act. And "talking" is put in its humble place--in line along with all the other things happening/not happening. "They were talking" neither begins nor ends the sentence...it is incidental, not paramount. Nor is it privileged. The summer's night, the open window, the big room and the garden are all equal players in the opening line. Thus context and "background" surround the act. Likewise, the subject of their talking ("...about the cesspool") is separated from the act by these other key players. So, both the act (speech of "main characters") and the subject are disenfranchised from their usual positions in the foreground. The subject is further "put into process", for it seems reductive to say "the subject" is in fact the cesspool when so very little is actually said about it.

What we find beneath the speeches of the characters is the human preoccupation with meaning and language. Mrs. Haines exclaims "affectedly", that the cesspool is not an appropriate subject "to talk about on a night like this". Her speech is artificial... said, in a sense, to say something. Yet we already know "they were talking", so her speech is not to fill silence. It seems that two distinctions can be made here. Mrs. Haines is interrupting a process, not an act: "talking" v. "to talk about". Her interruption of "talking" also takes the form of social control--her words imply that there is an acceptable subject, other than cesspools, that fits the evening and the context. The response of the people around her to her outburst of normative control over speech is silence.

What happens next in the novel opens up the wondrous broad dialogue between people and place and time that typically gets overlooked. In that first silence, which is brought on by social control, a cow coughs. Far from being just another sound, this intrusion of the natural world into the human environment of control actually leads Mrs. Haines to say something about her childhood fear of horses. And her one story leads to another, that of where her family lived...which leads to the almost decadent inclusion of "graves in a churchyard to prove it." Mrs. Haines is having a dialogue with a cow. She spoke, the cow coughed and spurred her on to say something more. It is ironic victory over her attempt at social control over the discussion. Notice, however that what she says is not given in her own speech, but just announced the way "they were talking" was announced. Also, Mrs. Haines leaps from one story to another, navigating that thread of connection which pulls seemingly unrelated stories together. She is "talking", not about a particular subject, but just talking.

Again the natural world enters into a conversation: "" bird chuckled outside. 'A nightingale?' asked Mrs. Haines. No, nightingales didn't come so far north." Again, Mrs. Haines responds. The voice that says, "No, nightingales didn't come so far north" remains anonymous. Is it Woolf? Is it more of Mrs. Haines' prattle? I venture to say that it doesn't matter who says it...it becomes part of the greater dialogue, a player among many. This one unidentified, but no less important.

We can glean some helpful hints for reading Between the Acts from this lengthy examination of the introduction: Socially prescribed speech represents a form of control that attempts to restrain playful processes of speech ("to talk about" v. "talking" ) and can lead to silence. However, the various background elements/players are not so easily subdued, and interrupt regularly any tidy "subject" or "act" people were in the middle of constructing. These seeming interruptions are revealed to be the actual dialogues, and the formal speeches dissipate into mere words, sterile words said "affectedly" and automatically.

The characters in Between the Acts seldom engage in any profound conversation with one another. Their words, like their personalities, are almost cliché and empty. That is, on their own, any one character falls flat. In these moments, words become weighty currency of normative values. The words themselves may be arbitrary sounds, but they are revealed to be invested heavily with social signification. The social taboo of homosexuality is revealed by Giles in a play of words and silences on page 60: "...not a man to have straightforward love for a woman--his head was close to Isa's head--but simply a--At this word, which he could not speak in public, he pursed his lips." Here we have a silence, a deletion due to social propriety. The fact that Giles doesn't say the word, the fact that he "could not speak [it] in public", makes the word unsayable, but not non-existent. The unsayable is not ungraspable. The word exists, and everyone knows it. Isabella guesses it ,and we the readers fill in the space where Giles leaves off. What gives the word so much power and meaning is that it doesn't get said. It is the not-so-silent absence of the word that gives it so much presence.

Social deletions mute words but not meaning. The particular words one says or does not say composes one piece of a process through which meaning, however equivocal it may be, can emerge. Mrs. Haines' call for a fitting subject is not the result of an individual preference. We witness this same verbal policing in Isa, who expresses herself almost instinctively through poetry. When she is "caught" speaking in the playful, informal language of poetry, her reaction is embarrassment: "She flushed, as if she had spoken in an empty room and someone had stepped out from behind a curtain" (BA 51) There is a sense then, that to speak for speaking's sake is an act which violates social rules by dismissing any formal intention to transmit something "reasonable" (as opposed to the "nonsense" Isa accuses herself of) to another person.

Taken all together, these various moments of silence/speech in the name of "duty" tell us that what is said cannot be the most authentic currency of meaning because we know that what is not said is oftentimes more meaningful and what is said is sometimes a lie.

"Words of one syllable sank down into the mud. She drowsed; she nodded. The mud became fertile. Words rose above the intolerably laden dumb oxen plodding through the mud. Words without meaning--wonderful words" (BA 212)

Or, as Mrs. Haines' first outburst suggests, sometimes formal speech just falls flat and elicits nothing. And finally, just as there are accepted subjects to use speech for, there are accepted modes of speech. What happens, then, when what one wishes to express lies neither here nor there? When it cannot be formed by the language at hand? This is where language can be said to "break up", to lose its former rigidity and even fail. But, as Kristeva suggests, this can also be the birthplace of creation, of something new. For it is here that one is compelled to either turn back from the process of making meaning, or plunge ahead into the unknown, the undefined. Here a new and fragile connection is forged out of that which once lay wedged between the cracks of those signs which came before.

Where we see repressed states of relationship/connection we can also find the rhythmic birth of new connections/relationships. To see something where there was once "nothing" is to begin thinking "between the acts", posing questions of possibility where it once felt like there was none. So, Isa's shame in speaking "nonsense" is closely mirrored by the nurses on page 10. The nurses were "rolling words, like sweets on their tongues..." just as the daylight bird on page 3 chuckles over "the substance and succulence of the day..." The colorless "shaping pellets of information or handing ideas from one to another..." is left behind as too formal, too artificial. In the seemingly frivolity and meaninglessness of the nurses' conversation, there emerges a kind of exchange that tells us more than pellets of information ever could. Meaning lies in the darndest places.

There are times in Between the Acts where words break up and something else tremors there , something ungraspable, something unnamed. It is like an energy transfer between people that is palpable: "Mrs. Haines was aware of the emotion circling them, excluding her." (BA 5) Mrs. Haines feels an exclusion and indeed a profound emotion that has a movement and life all its own. And though the emotion was arguably born out of words--"The words made two rings, perfect rings, that floated them,[Isa] and Haines..."--what is spoken has quickly changed shape and become something else. Words themselves are fleeting and malleable. They do not contain the meaning here...they serve to brave the space between two people. The meaning lies somewhere in between.

" 'In love,' she must be; since the presence of his body in the room last night could so affect her; since the words he said, handing her a teacup, handing her a tennis racket, could so attach themselves to a certain spot in her; and thus lie between them like a wire, tingling, tangling, vibrating--she groped, in the depths of the looking glass, for a word to fit..." (BA 14)

The words exchanged have been stripped of importance in and of themselves. They have been chipped down to a form of exchange that rests at the heart of relationships between people. So words act as a kind of currency,

"...looked over her coffee cup at Giles, with whom she felt in conspiracy. " thread united them--visible, invisible, like those threads, now seen, now not, that unite trembling grass blades in autumn before the sun rises." (BA 55)

Here again, we have vibrant energy, something undefined between two people that transcends the words which first unleashed it. This exchange is what I would in fact call "relationship". That something fluid which exists between two people, pieces of each one, privileging neither above the other.

In a similar vein, there are those places in the novel where silence is a presence that signals some kind of breakdown of control. For example, we can look at the language used in reference to the lulls in conversation on page 49. Lucy breaks the silence, Mrs. Manresa breaks the silence. The silence is a force, like a wall, which must be overcome violently. Meanwhile the portrait above them leads them "down green glades into the heart of silence". This portrait and the mantra-like phrase which escorts it into the novel takes on an almost hypnotic feel which pulls the characters and the readers towards that glade, towards that silence. But instead, the characters break the silences.

Again, silence is seen as something which threatens to wisk one away on page 66:

"How tempting, how very tempting, to let the view triumph; to reflect its ripple; to let their own minds ripple; to let the outlines elongate and pitch over--so--with a sudden jerk.

Mrs. Manresa yielded, pitched, plunged, then pulled herself up. "What a view!" she exclaimed...pretending to express not her drowsiness, but something connected with what she felt about views...

'Then,' said Mrs. Swithin, as if the exact moment for speech had come...

This "exact moment" of speech implies a kind of monitoring which is happening...someone is paying attention to how long thoughts go unbridled.

There are other places in the novel where meaning emerges from underneath the shadows of words. One such moment can be found in the silent rebellion of Lucy against her brother on page 20: "Not a word passed between them as she went to the cupboard in the corner and replaced the hammer, which she had taken without asking leave; together--she unclosed her fist--with a handful of nails." What has remained unsaid are words "asking leave", words asking for permission to act. Lucy has not spoken those words, she has rebelled. " silent act which screams significance. The unsaid is currency here, and tells us more about the relationship between Lucy and her brother than the spoken words which follow: "The words were like the first peal of a chime of bells. As the first peals, you hear the second; as the second peals, you hear the third." (BA 21) The words which are spoken between siblings are predictable...Isa knows what is coming:

"Every summer, for seven summers now, Isa had heard the same words;...The same chime followed the same chime, only this year beneath the chime she heard: 'The girl screamed and hit him about the face with a hammer.''' (BA 22)

The spoken words exchanged between Lucy and Bartholomew are standard, they are routine, they are repetitive. They are like chimes calling off in order, predictably. But something this year is different, Isa hears something new. First she hears a girl scream. A scream is not silent or meek. It is bold and passionate. And this time, the girl hit a man about the face with a hammer. Could it be, that in Lucy's silent rebellion, Isa heard the scream of something new and liberating? Did some meaning rise up out of the monotonous speech of the past seven years and lay the ground for some kind of change within the relationship between brother and sister? Between man and woman? Whatever the answer, we can say that the spoken words have become predictable, and meaningless if isolated. Something has happened differently this year, and isn't in the spoken words...it is something unsaid. Something new has happened to the old material.

While all of these snippets of conversation and silence are occurring in Between the Acts, there is a steady hum which lives in the conceptual "external world". This complex web of external actors dumfounds the characters, (and readers), because it cannot be contained in the definitions and boundaries assigned to it. Just as the early cow cough interrupted Mrs. Haines' attempt at controlling the subject and sent her into a long tangle of reverie, "nature" refuses to stay put as a "background" for human acts. In fact, it seems at times that the external world is making a mockery of the human struggle for control. On page 78, there are three references of the wind blowing the villagers' words away:

"They were singing, but not a word reached the audience...The villagers were singing, but half their words were blown away...The wind blew away the connecting words of their chant..."

There is a literal dispersal of words here that cannot be controlled. While illustrating the impermanence of words, these lines also serve to integrate into the human process of making meaning, those forces we act as if exist "outside". In other words, (for words are failing me now), the wind in Between the Acts involves itself in the process of communication; it becomes a part of the dialogue. What is revealed here is the human tendency to frame these other voices as interruptions or tragic events (like the later rainstorm). Yet they are no less a part of what we are trying to say at any given time than we ourselves are. Again, it is not the words which hold the meaning...it is the spaces around them, the context in which they are steeping, the events and forces which welcome or exile them. When words failed the great emotional finale of the play and Miss LaTrobe murmured "death", the cows "took up the burden". It is the "dumb yearning" of the cows which "annihilated the gap; bridged the distance; filled the emptiness and continued the emotion." (BA 140) Like the cows, the characters are dumb--they can't hear. They certainly hear sounds and even feel the emotion. But they don't make the connection, they don't find themselves literally in dialogue with the wind and the cows as surely as they think they are in with one another.

So, there is a greater context which surrounds people and all our arbitrary lines. It invades and disrupts. It slips in and out and eludes our attempts at mastery. It is process, in process...with no tidy edges or necessary definitions. The external is not a contained group of things that are kept at bay. The external is a concept that disputes itself time and time again. Silences are never quiet, as we have seen. Whether an "outside" voice is pounding on the fragile door of dialogue or a social taboo has caused one to be "abortive", something is always said in the silences. Just as something always exists in the spaces. Just as an act is defined by it's intervals, just as "I love you" can be heard for the first time because of a certain breeze carrying a particular scent of a flower just at the moment the words are whispered. And so, who is to say the meaning lies in the words, which have already disappeared, and not in the scent, which lingers just as surely as the words do, deep in a crevice between things.

We read Between the Acts, holding it in our hands as an actual thing--an "act" itself. This first inversion--making the interlude the act--can serve as a clue to the unsuspecting "reader" who assumes a story is about to be rolled out effortlessly while s/he sits back and enjoys it. Much like the audience in the novel itself, the reader is not exempt from an active role in the novel. Just as the audience is as much a part of Miss LaTrobe's play, so we the readers are a part of the novel. In fact, as I noted above, it is the very distinction between "actors" and "audience" (or "novel" and "reader") that allows either to exist at all. The reader receives the written words, and becomes imperative to the novel. The reader witnesses the rich context Woolf has carefully designed, and sees with the multiple perspectives (including her/his own) therein. This is a wonderful way of making us realize that we are in fact a part of the process of making meaning...for the characters, for the novel, for ourselves.

In conclusion, which there is none, I can only say that reading Virginia Woolf has been an unraveling, a digging, which has led me less to a place of certainty than it has simply sent me chasing my proverbial tail. But then, perhaps Virginia Woolf was aware of something more profound than the exchange of words...something incandescent and slippery which can't be named. Having read Between the Acts, I realize the "meaning" I sought lies between those things I see as fixed right now. "nd certainly, when I turn my gaze towards the new point of reference, it too will fade away. But there is hope and possibility even in this endless process.

In the traditional narrative of resolution, there is a sense of problem solving...a kind of ratiocinative or emotional teleology... "What will happen" is the basic question. In the modern plot of revelation, however, the emphasis is elsewhere, the function of the discourse is not to answer the question or even to pose it...It is not that events are resolved (happily or tragically) but rather that a state of affairs is revealed.

(Seymour Chatman)

Works Cited

Julia Kristeva, 'A Question of Subjectivity--An Interview',Women's Review, no. 12 (1986), pp. 19-21

Ferdinand de Saussure,From Course in General Linguistics, Modern Literary Theory ,Third Ed. (1996),Ed. Rice and Waugh, pp. 8-15

Jacques Derrida, 'Structure, Sign and PLay in the Discourse of the Human Sciences', Modern Literary Theory ,Third Ed. (1996),Ed. Rice and Waugh, pp.176-190

Writing@CSU Home Page | Writing Gallery | | Jessica Patterson