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What’s History without the Empire?: The Colonial Death Drive in The Waves – Joseph Flanagan

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 3, 2004

Literary Studies

© 2004 Joseph Flanagan





Joseph Flanagan



I have been traveling the sunless territory of non-identity.
-The Waves

In Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, this critique of the village pageant on Empire Day is focalized through the perspective of Colonial Mayhew: “The Nineteenth Century. Colonial Mayhew did not dispute the producer’s right to skip two hundred years in less the fifteen minutes. But the choice of scenes baffled him. Why leave out the British Army? What’s history without the army, eh?, he mused” (157). The question “What’s history without the Army” is obviously not meant to be taken seriously here, as it serves as both an ironic commentary on the insularity and self-obsession of such characters as Colonial Mayhew and as an illustration of the connection between the English warrior state and popular forms of artistic expression. Still, the question of how we can conceive of British-if not English-history without the Empire (of which the Army is a metonym) is increasingly being asked within British cultural studies. In the last fifty years, Britain has lost most of its overseas Empire. Growing independence movements within Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales suggest that we may even reach a time when “Britain” itself has become only a historical memory. For these reasons, writers as different as Tom Nairn, Enoch Powell, and Andrew Sullivan have called for a rethinking of English national history so that a “postcolonial” England may emerge from the shadow of its past imperial splendor.

In order to reflect upon the question of what becomes of British history without the Empire, I want to go “back to the future” by turning to another of Woolf’s novels, The Waves. With the loss of the Empire, the novel suggests, History itself draws to a close. Reflecting upon the death of Percival, the symbolic representative of the imperialist masculine subject, for instance, Louis laments, “The lighted strip of history is past and our Kings and Queens; we are gone; our civilization; the Nile; and all life. Our separate drops are dissolved; we are extinct, lost in the abysses of time, in the darkness” (225). “It is true, and I know for a fact,” Bernard tells us in an allegory that also evokes the death of Percival, “that a King, riding, fell over a molehill here. But how strange it seems to set against the whirling abysses of infinite space a little figure with a golden teapot on his head . . . It is a trick of the mind– to put Kings on their thrones, one following another, with crowns on their heads” (227). Deferring, for the moment, a close reading of these passages, we can nevertheless see how History is presented as a mere abyss of time and space without the formal narrative of British imperial pageantry that provides it with shape and significance.

How we should understand this presentation of History is the subject of a critical debate about whether Woolf’s novel is critical of or complicit with British colonialism. Jane Marcus, for instance, argues that The Waves “records a precise historical break–the post-colonial carnivalesque.” Reading the novel primarily as a roman à clef, she contends that the novel’s “parody and irony mock the complicity of the hero [Percival] and the poet [Bernard] in the creation of a collective national subject through an elegy of imperialism” (145). Consider, for instance, Bernard’s vision of Percival in India:

But now, behold, Percival advances; Percival rides a flea-bitten mare, and wears a sun-helmet. By applying the standards of the West, by using the violent language natural to him, the bullock-cart is righted in less than five minutes. The Oriental problem is solved. He rides on; the multitudes cluster round him, regarding him as if he were–what indeed he is–a God. (136)

Marcus is indeed correct when she asserts that the imperialist sentiment of this passage is repeatedly ironically undercut. Not only is Percival’s endeavor remarkably unheroic or even mock-heroic (up-righting an overturned bullock-cart is hardly a solution to the “Oriental problem”) but the image of Percival riding a flea-bitten mare also invokes more Don Quixote than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Still, Marcus’s analysis leaves a crucial question unanswered: Whose irony is it? Marcus implicitly attributes it to Woolf. However, the lack of free indirect discourse in this passage (as in the passage from Between the Acts cited above) makes it just as likely that it is Bernard’s. Of course, Marcus would have to read the irony as the author’s because her point is that irony and parody are the means by which Woolf distances herself from the imperialist project. If, however, the irony is instead Bernard’s, then we are faced with the possibility that irony and parody do not subvert but in fact support the maintenance of a collective imperialist subject. Bernard’s self-irony, in other words, is indicative of a “cynical” imperialist ideology that no longer believes its own romantic rhetoric. This lack of faith does not undermine the imperialist project, however, because the imperial subject continues to do the same thing despite its ironical distance from the romantic illusion that one time justified its actions. Ironic distance is simply the means by which a discredited romantic-colonial ideology can be maintained.

In his critique of Marcus’s argument, Patrick McGee raises a related issue about the novel’s supposed distance from colonial ideology. While agreeing with Marcus that The Waves offers a partial critique of British imperialism, McGee nevertheless insists that the novel’s formal experimentation and ironic distance does not break with a colonial discursive system. “To the extent that the East is associated with ‘random natural recurrence,'” McGee asserts, “it is also associated with death and the absence of history. Even in Marcus’s reading, therefore, Woolf cannot be said to escape the ethnocentrism of a European system of representation” (646). As McGee sees it, the aesthetic framework of Woolf’s novel overrides its supposed anti-imperial thematic message. He reads The Waves, along with Forster’s A Passage to India and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as examples of how “the crisis of modernism” expresses itself through the construction of non-Europeans as the Other: in modernist literature, Africa and the Orient appear as worlds of darkness threatening to subsume the light of Western civilization.

These alternative readings of the novel thus revolve around a dispute concerning how we should read historical context. Should we emphasize Woolf’s conscious ironic undercutting of the attitudes and beliefs surrounding Britain’s sense of imperial social mission, or should we emphasize what we might call the “textual unconscious” of her work– the politics of literary form that divides the world into areas of culture and darkness? Should we, in other words, look at Woolf the historian (i.e., the acidic commentator on the events of the day) or should we look at Woolf as a historian by examining how the very historical situation that allows her to critique her situation also places crucial limitations on how far that critique can extend? While such questions raise important issues concerning the ideas of an author and the circumstances of her writing, I want to avoid choosing between Marcus and McGee and instead consider how their differences rest on the same fundamental assumption: they both know what the historical context of imperialism looks like; they just don’t know whether Woolf’s novel should be read as a critique of that context or its effect. Marcus, that is, characterizes imperialism as a particular content (set of beliefs and assumptions) from which Woolf can distance herself by ironic commentary. McGee, on the other hand, identifies imperialism with the literary form that structures that critique. The dispute is thus not over historical context per se: both Marcus and McGee agree that The Waves must be situated against the backdrop of the rise and fall of British imperialism. They just disagree about whether Woolf’s novel rises above or is complicit with that narrative.

Now it might appear somewhat contrarian–if not perverse– to say that I don’t believe that British imperial history takes Gibbons’s model of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Such a narrative, I would contend, depends upon a model of imperial history and cultural order The Waves explicitly rejects: the end of the Empire is represented in the novel not so much as an event that happens in history as an event that happens to it. What’s missing from their analyses, in other words, is the retroactive effect the death of Percival has upon the narrative of progress and decline, of the movement from light to darkness, they both associate with English imperial history. Returning to Bernard’s elegy that I presented at the beginning of the paper, for instance, we find that the death of Percival is definitively not presented as the onslaught of darkness into a world previously bathed in light. Rather, the “light” of Western civilization is shown to have always been precarious and ultimately illusionary: “But how strange it seems,” Bernard says, “to set against the whirling abysses of infinite space a little figure with a golden teapot on his head. Soon one recovers a belief in figures: but not at once in what they put on their heads. Our English past–one inch of light” (227). Bernard’s statement here is clearly concerned with the suspicion that a human concept of British History (i.e., the linear progress of kings and queens) is a mere superficial covering over the “whirling abysses of infinite space.” Indeed, his reference to the crown as a mere “figure” suggests History might always have been an illusion, a mere “trick of the mind” with which we attempt to distill “one inch of light” out of the primordial, chaotic darkness.

I want to suggest, then, that The Waves is concerned with how the end of the Empire signifies the retroactive transformation of English history from a narrative of imperial affirmation into its uncanny Other: the colonial death drive. While the term is obviously indebted to Freud, this notion of a “death drive” does not refer to his notion of Thanatos described in Civilization and its Discontents. We should not, that is, think of an Eros/Thanatos opposition in which a creative force is dependent upon a destructive one as its necessary negation (i.e., no light without darkness, no European civilization without Oriental primitivism, etc.). Rather than the pre-existing complementary couple of opposites, the dynamic I wish to describe is much more direct and uncanny: the very excesses of the one give rise to the other. Returning to Bernard’s lamentation for the passing of History, for example, we find that what (re)emerges in the death drive is life itself in its “natural,” wild, instinctual form. The “death drive,” in other words, should be understood as the revolt of life against the “petrifying” imago of History that attempts to “mortify” the “whirling abysses of infinite space” into a logical and lifeless chronicle of Kings and Queens. The fact that the drive is perceived as a death threat simply confirms History’s repressive character.

This rethinking of the death drive as a “life-force” opposed to the “mortifying” constraints of History should also lead us to reconsider McGee’s criticism of the novel’s supposed ethnocentric prejudice in which the colonies are identified with the “random natural recurrence . . . associated with death and the absence of history.” If, that is, History itself is the true embodiment of death, then the novel’s association of the colonies with the “absence of history” can be read as an affirmative, not negative, portrayal. Consider, for instance, the following passage from Bernard’s final monologue:

Then some lady with an impressive gesture, “Come with me.” She leads one into a private alcove and admits one to the honour of her intimacy . . . What is to be done about India, Ireland, or Morocco? Old gentlemen answer the question standing decorated under the chandeliers. One finds oneself surprisingly supplied with information. Outside the undifferentiated forces roar; inside we are very private, very explicit, have a sense, indeed, that it is here, in this little room, that we make whatever day of the week it may be: Friday or Saturday. (254-255)

Upon a first reading, it is easy to critique the apparent identification here of the independence movements in India, Ireland, or Morocco with the “undifferentiated forces” that roar outside the alcove. Such an association suggests that these movements are beyond human comprehension simply because they do not confirm to British imperial sensibilities and expectations. This reading of the novel, however, adapts the very precise imperial perspective it seeks to critique. It is, that is, only from the position of the “old gentleman” that the drive toward postcolonial independence and freedom is experienced as impending chaos and destruction. A close reading of the passage thus suggests that the move into the private alcove represents not so much an escape from impenetrable darkness to the Light of reason as an anxious and withdrawal from the actual world into the narcissistic confinement of oneself (i.e., “inside we are very private”). The discussion about what should be done about the political situation in the colonies thus gets associated with the construction of a closed, regulated, symbolic universe (“in this little room . . .we can make whatever day of the week it may be: Friday or Saturday”) Freud identified as paranoia apropos his analysis of Daniel Schreber. Indeed, Bernard recognizes that such attempts of mastery are merely phantasmatic constructions covering the rushing vortex of drives. “It is a mistake,” Bernard tells us, “this extreme precision, this orderly and military progress; a convenience, a lie. There is always deep below it, even when we arrive punctually at the appointed time with our white waistcoats and polite formalities, a rushing stream of broken dreams, nursery rhymes, street cries, half-finished sentences and sights . . .Yet it is alive too and deep, this stream” (255).

In conclusion, I would like to propose three cultural and theoretical suppositions this analysis of Woolf’s novel should lead us to reconsider. The first concerns how Woolf’s representation of the end of the Empire poses the question of history per se. In order to fully comprehend what will become of British history without its Empire, that is, we must first consider how the end of the Empire invokes the very limits of historical understanding; the end of empire appears in Woolf’s novel not as the termination of British history but as a particular gap that has always been present within colonial symbolic reality, a gap that cannot be filled in with the plotting sequences of cause and effect. The second area I would like to see revised concerns how the period of post-war decolonization is often described as “traumatic” for the British imperial subject. The problem with this presumption, however, lies in how the concept of trauma often depicts an already completed body as being invaded by a foreign stimulant. The move to depict the period of postwar decolonization as traumatic, I would argue, thus leads to an essentialist consideration of the British national space as a fully formed and complete entity that becomes disrupted by the presence of “outside” invaders. Indeed, we can read Powell’s campaign against black immigration as precisely an attempt to “heal” the trauma of decolonization by re-closing the frontiers of the broken English national body. My reading of The Waves, in contrast, posits that it is imperial ideology itself that generates its own “death drive” by generating fantasies of its destruction in order to extend and reproduce itself. This leads to the third area I would like to see revised: the tendency within discourse analysis to read colonial ideology as constituting the colonies as England’s Other. The ultimate point of my paper is that the colonies, far from being England’s Other, are instead England itself presented in its Otherness, the screen onto which England projects its own, repressed reverse.


Freud, Sigmund, “Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia
(Dementia Paranoides).” (1911), SE 12, 3-82.

Nairn, Tom. The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism. London: NLB, 1977.

Marcus, Jane. “Britannia Rules The Waves.” Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth —
Century “British” Literary Canons
. Ed. Karen Lawrence. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991. 136-62. Rpt. in Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Margaret Homans. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993. 227-248.

McGee, Patrick. “The Politics of Modernist Form: Or, Who Rules The Waves.” Modern Fiction
38 (1992): 631-50.

Powell, J. Enoch. Freedom and Reality. Ed. John Wood. New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1969.

Sullivan, Andrew. “Farewell Britannia; There Will Always Be an England.” New York Times
21 Feb 1999: 39+.

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1941.

—. The Waves. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931.