Central and East European
Society for Phenomenology

Conference | Paper

Being-with, Growing Apart, Dispersing. Virginia Woolf and Collective Consciousness

Małgorzata Hołda

Thursday 2 December 2021

15:40 - 16:20

Zoom 1-2

As members of a society, we are continually called to engage energies that go further than our finite and imperfect selves, in order to courageously seek the possibility of a fruitful experiencing of the almost impossible oneness with others. At the same time, our sense of a primordial unity is often violated by external forces: wars, conflicts, pandemics, and various forms of oppression on both the individual as well as the communal level. Written in the time between the two world wars, Virginia Woolf’s final novel Between the Acts explores a human being’s search for connectivity and a deeper meaning of human existence, which being-with can engender. A powerful thinker, Woolf voices here—but also in Three Guineas and her other writings—a deep concern with the threat of totalitarianism. In a surprising (re)turn in her fiction to the subject matter of collective rather than individual consciousness addressed in her earlier fictions, Woolf sensitizes us to various dualisms and divides whose seeming innocuousness may lead to a devastating separateness, dispersion, and a failure in executing the positivity of a communal life. Featuring a pageant play with its possible (mis)hearings/(mis)understandings, the narrative thematizes a human being’s capacity of understanding but also the inevitable (mis)understanding, which ensues from our finite, conditioned, and provisional being-in-the-world. A prompt for a deep delving into the problematic of disunity and oneness, the collective and the individual, Between the Acts encourages us to view understanding/interpretation and misunderstanding/misinterpretation not only as interweaving but as profoundly expressive of our human condition. Drawing on the intersections between Woolf’s and Heidegger’s kindred understandings of temporality, historicity, and human Dasein, this paper proposes a hermeneutic-phenomenological investigation of the dialectic of individuality and collectivity focusing on the interlocking character of social (outer) and personal (inner) sense of dispersion, encapsulated in Woolf’s laconic but potent statement in Between the Acts: “Dispersed are we.”