Searching For Meaning in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts
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...