Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves and Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” both seek a similar goal, transcendence. As we shall see, they make their attempt in slightly different ways, with a varying degree of success.
When I say that these two works seek to achieve transcendence, I am speaking of the work in the same sense used by Kenneth Burke. In his work, A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke claims that as man is a rational, by which he means symbol-using, animal, all use of symbols represents, on some level an attempt to transcend they symbol and achieve the thing symbolized. Burke also describes a hierarchy of terms (which are really nothing more than symbols) in which ideas that seem antithetical to one another can actually be seen as proceeding sequentially toward an ultimate order in which they are contained. We can see this same impulse in Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which is essentially a litany of what are seemingly unrelated phenomena. Whitman is trying to create, by showing us a representative sample, an ultimate of ultimate orders in which the entire universe is a connected part of a unified whole.
Whitman’s use of the human body (his own) as the metaphorical space within which all is contained (as do mystics of most if not all religions) is his attempt to achieve a sense of identity. Identity is another Burkean term which means (in a nutshell) the desire to overcome the innate physical and mental separation that we all subconsciously feel and feel guilty for. Whitman, through his litany of life in all its varied forms, is trying to transcend the separateness of human existence and achieve a state of identity with the cosmos.
Virginia Woolf, in her novel, The Waves, is trying to achieve something like the same result as Whitman. She does not appear to be attempting a oneness with the cosmos, but she is trying to create a sense of identification between the reader and the characters (just as the characters are trying to do with one another) by showing us their entire lives in little snippets. She also tries to create a sense of identification with the way in which she has the characters tell their own story in a sort of inner voice. When Jinny tells us how she revels in her own body and her power to say “come” to any man and he will come, we get the sense that this is not something she is articulating consciously, but rather it is as if her essence is speaking directly to us. The effect is rather like that of a cubist painting. We see the characters from an almost limitless number of angles, almost, but not quite, and that is where both The Waves and “Song of Myself” run into trouble.
Both of these works rely on a representative sample in order to imply the whole of human experience. In that sense, they really only exemplify the separation that all human beings have from one another. One might ask of Whitman, why list so many sundry items when a long list will fall just as short of infinity as would a short list. Likewise, Woolf is unable to make us achieve a state of complete identity with the six characters of her novel. The most she can do is give us the most important events and rely on our own desire to identify with the characters in order to fill in the gaps.