In a recent piece for the Guardian’s Inner Voices series, Professor of English Studies and Co-investigator on Hearing the Voice, Pat Waugh, writes:

In the last note she scribbled to her sister, Vanessa, in March, 1941, Virginia Woolf wrote: “I feel I have gone too far this time to come back again. It is just as it was the first time, I am always hearing voices, and I know I shant get over it now … I have fought against it, but I can’t any longer, Virginia.”

The next day, she plunged into the River Ouse, her pockets weighted with stones. At 59, Woolf could no longer summon the inner resources to contend with the voices, turned unruly, clamorous and calamitous, that arrived unsolicited, but as if by appointment, each time she finished a novel. In the measured cadence of composition, her racing thoughts, “heard as voices … danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvellously controlled in an invisible elastic net” (To the Lighthouse).

Mrs Dalloway (1925) is the only one of Woolf’s novels that explores how inner voices might engulf the self so that the mind tips into pathological breakdown. She described it as her most autobiographical and yet her most social novel – “I want to explore the social system,” she said, “set sanity and insanity side by side”. In writing it, she produced a postwar satirical anatomy that ventriloquised brilliantly the voices of a class-ridden, militaristic and patriarchal culture – the “violators of the soul” – voices so deeply internalised that only the sensitive and the marginal might hear them gather into a furious roar.

Many writers, like Woolf, hear voices and see images so intensely they take on the presence of the real. Many have incorporated such intense “hearsights” (Hilary Mantel‘s term), with similarly tragic or melancholic or traumatic intensity, and used them as vehicles for addressing experiences such as shellshock, sexual abuse, slavery, torture and human violation, as well as madness and the sources of creativity in inner experience (think of the echolalic voices of Heart of Darkness, The Waste Land or Beloved). But we forget how often writers have used the resources of comedy, too, in order to examine the nature and meanings of their voices. As Mantel suggests in the tile of her novel, Beyond Black (2005) : it needn’t all be black. From Charles Dickens, Samuel Beckett, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark to Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Coe and Don DeLillo, the comic novel is a rich source for depictions of and reflections on the experience of hearing voices.

In her essay Ink in the Blood, on the relation between illness, voices and writing, Hilary Mantel acknowledges affinities with Woolf in terms that indicate her greater affinity with the corporeal and the modes of the grotesque and the comic. But where Woolf is the modernist writer of melancholia, Mantel is the contemporary who, in Beyond Black, takes the comic novel to places it has never been. A black comedy-cum-ghost story state-of-the-nation-satirical-fantastical novel proposing ways in which we might expand our notions of selfhood and the real, it is her most audacious book. Alison, a woman battling with the demons of an abusive childhood, comes to recognise that her attunement to pain and suffering, her ability to externalise her inner voices and her hyper-vigilant awareness of the mental lives of others, is a kind of a gift as well as an affliction. With all the panache of her own creator, she reinvents herself as a colourful neo-Victorian medium, one who effects a performance of herself in order to minister to the haunted, the demented, the bereaved, the spiritually rudderless, as well as the good citizens of a contemporary spiritual wasteland.

Where Woolf reinvents the social novel by merging her own contradictory inner voices into the melancholic rhythms and echoes of war-torn and traumatised London circa 1919, Mantel dares, equally riskily, to blend the techniques of the conventional trauma novel (amnesia, broken narrative, haunting, flashbacks, suicide, abuse and abandonment) with those of classic black comedy (surreal juxtaposition, gallows humour, satire, the grotesque and the reduction of the human to a machine).

Why do some writers favour the confessional or the tragic, others the irreverently comic? The history of trauma has swung periodically from the spiritual to the material, the psychogenic to the physiological. But approaching the fiction of madness as an attempt to understand the relation between the inner voices that bring into being the work of fiction, and those that threaten to destroy the very integrity of the self, makes us aware of the unfathomable complexity of what it feels like to be a self or to lose that feeling: the self not as an endocrine system but an experience straddled across body, mind, environment, language and time. For writers like Woolf and Mantel, afflicted in body and mind, haunted by voices, but gifted with kinds of visionary genius, the profession of novelist, the performance of a necessary negative capability, might be the only way of feeling that one is indeed a self.

This article was originally published here in the Guardian’s Books blog on 21 August 2014.

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