Spatial Thinking on Orlando
As I re-read (re-heard) Orlando this time, I found myself focusing on how much the novel is a meditation/ reverie on identity—how identity is made through imagination, by language, by social and historical constructs. The malleability of the body seems like a metaphor for the transformative process of identity formation, both affected if not determined by the expectations of the Spirit of the Age. As I read McDowell in particular, I began to understand something crucial about how nature works into this convergence, Nature, like the self, seems like a given, a ground, but like the self it is continuous process of being created/ re-created, largely through the uses of imagination, especially through language and literature. That is why Nick Greene’s name is what it is: “Green in nature is one thing, green[e] in literature another” (14). Woolf’s assertion that “Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoiled his rhyme and split his meter” (14) goes against conventional mimetic theory where Greene mirrors green. Instead green interrupts Greene’s autonomy. For Woolf, literature is not a mirror that reflects nature but its own system of meaning, which is distracted by attempts at mimetic fidelity. As the interlocutor of the metaphorphosizing institution of Brit Lit, (he moves from being a poet to being a critic and an academic) Greene changes with the ages much as the weather and flora do.
This cracking of the mirror phase in the relation between nature and literature (see QUeen Elizabeth episode) is connected to the way that gender and sexuality are treated in the novel, for here too the expected correspondence doesn’t hold: Orlando’s sex is only sometimes reflected in her gender. We are used to the idea that gender is socially constructed and its manifestations and fashions change with the culture and the age; it is much more radical to assert that sex also responds to cultural imperatives. The idea that sex changes is akin to the idea that nature changes; both evolve in mysterious synchronicity with the Zietgeist. The fact that nature is so often symbolically gendered female only adds to this correspondence.
In recognizing this plasticity, Woolf anticipates some crucial aspects of Foucault— particularly the idea that the body and sexuality are also socially constructed.