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Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf and anima mundi

Wilson, J. M. (2014) Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf and anima mundi. Invited Presentation presented to: "Unattended Moments": The Medieval Presence in the Modernist Aesthetic, Department of English, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, 02-05 April 2014. (Unpublished)

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Invited Presentation)
Abstract: This presentation proposes a reading of Katherine Mansfield’s work, including some comparison with that of Virginia Woolf, in relation to medieval theories of anima mundi or world soul, the concept of an animistic universe in which the earth can be revivified through a spiritus mundi. The Pythagoraean-Platonic doctrine of anima mundi was influential in the 12th century Renaissance’s apotheosis of nature found in allegorisations by Bernard de Sylvestris of Tours (De Universitate Mundi) and Alanus of Insulis (De Planctu Naturae and Anticlaudianus), Jean de Meun’s continuation of Guillaume’s The Romance of the Rose, and nature’s personification as ‘vicaire of the almighty Lord’ in Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules. This strand of medieval culture and cosmology was often considered as tangential to mainstream European intellectual and Christian religious belief, but it has survived in various literary formations into modernist writing, where it can appear as a vigorous rebuttal of modernization. Anthropomorphic thinking, the view of human subjectivity as rooted in non-human nature, and the animation of the natural world are now associated with ecocriticism and the ethos of environmental guardianship. No direct connection can be traced to the medieval tradition of nature personified in Mansfield’s work, although she often talks of her close identification with other forms of life in her letters and dairies. Woolf makes reference to Shakespeare’s use of the tradition in Mrs Dalloway. Nevertheless Mansfield’s creation of transitive, linking relations between herself and the natural world recalls the ethos of the medieval world view in which there was a close participation between man and the rest of creation. Anthropomorphic attitudes are relevant to the sense of wonder and the marvellous found in her representations of the created world in terms of biological diversity, mystery and splendour. An Arcadian, pastoral orientation appears in her empathy with living creatures, flowers, plants and trees as vital essences with a life of their own; while cultivated gardens and even wild outdoor spaces are settings for epiphanies, and so sites of revelation and transformation. In stories like ‘Botannical Gardens’, ‘The Escape’, ‘Bliss’ and ‘Prelude’, these can be read as modernist versions of the medieval topoi of the grove, the locus amoenus or the pleasance. Referring to the tradition of anima mundi in medieval times I will examine its relevance to Mansfield’s literary practice and modernist aesthetics. I will also make reference to Virginia Woolf’s handling of the same traditions and the part they play in her modernist practice by way of discussing the writers’ views of each other and briefly comparing their work.
Uncontrolled Keywords: Anima mundi, anthropomorphism, transformation, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN45 Theory. Philosophy. Esthetics
P Language and Literature > PR English literature > PR6000 1900-1960
P Language and Literature > PR English literature > PR8309 English literature: Provincial, local, etc. > PR9639.3 New Zealand literature
Creators: Wilson, Janet M
Faculties, Divisions and Institutes: University Faculties, Divisions and Research Centres - OLD > Research Centre > Centre for Critical and Creative Writing
Research Centres > Centre for Critical and Creative Writing
Date: 3 April 2014
Date Type: Presentation
Event Title: "Unattended Moments": The Medieval Presence in the Modernist Aesthetic
Event Dates: 02-05 April 2014
Event Location: Department of English, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
Event Type: Conference
Language: English
Status: Unpublished
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