Disembodied Intercourse: Reflections on Virginia Woolf's 'The Sun and the Fish'

By Dalia Neis


At the crack of dawn in June of 1927, the British public were to witness a total eclipse of the sun. This was so keenly anticipated an event that special train services were made available from London to the North of England where totality could be collectively witnessed at the precise given hour. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West were among the crowds who rode the train towards totality. This happening (initially recorded in her diary) moved Woolf to re-create its full impact and significance in 'The Sun and the Fish', and in the epilogue of The Waves. For Woolf, an epiphany had taken place on the level of the self, and had major repercussions for the collective consciousness and literary imagination – its visceral impact had to be incorporated into the creative act.

In 'The Sun and the Fish' a revolution takes place – it's a revolution of the cosmos that is witnessed by the human world – which (according to its narrator/author) carries within it, and through its aftermath, the potential for a revolution of the senses, the way forward to a transformed collective vision. This altered vision is simultaneously played out and enacted in the piece of writing itself, in the process stimulating a transformative relationship between nature, sensorial perception, and aesthetic representation.

If this sounds optimistic in tone, it is the very opposite that takes place in this text, whose paradoxical vision for a collective sensorial revolution embodies a note of premonitionary despair: it's potential is so great that it is doomed to fail. It speaks in a language of disaster, and the shattering consequences of not yielding to totality's abyss. The eclipse features as a striking prologue to two further unfolding (out)sights infused with the sense of the eerie non-human.

Part diaristic observation, part fictional invention, in merely four and a half pages long, this curious riddle of a text offers an oblique, open-ended reading of the fate of civilisation. It speaks in an impersonal, apocalyptic language of a first-hand experience of the eclipse of the sun, and its aftermath. A ritualistic invocation takes places, the mind's eye grants us the privilege of re-enacting a rare feat of nature, a collective planetary happening:

So, on this dark winter's morning, when the real world had faded, let us see what the eye can do for us. Show me the eclipse, we say to the eye; let us see this strange spectacle again [...] As the night wore on the sky, which was the object of so many million thoughts, assumed greater substance and prominence than usual. The consciousness of the whitish soft canopy above us increased in weight as the hours passed. When in the chill early morning we were turned out on a Yorkshire road-side, our senses had orientated themselves differently than usual. (Woolf, 2009: 188)

Virginia Woolf speaks in the collective "we", invoking the ritual of shared spectatorship and testimony. Her emphasis on a social sensorial transformation is brought to the foreground:

We were strung out against the sky in outline and had the look of statues standing prominent on the ridge of the world. We were very, very old; we were men and women of the primeval world come to salute the dawn [...] And we who tread the earth securely now have now seen it dead. But still the memory endures that that the earth we stand on is made of colour. Colour can be blown out, and then we stand on a dead leaf [...] (Woolf, 2009: 190-191)

The description becomes more polemical and strangely archaic as the writing continues – almost as if the eclipse, in its aftermath, alters the phenomenological attribute of written expression. The text, in metamorphosing from re-imagined testimony into abstract reflections on the nature of the planet, becomes a curious hybrid of meta-philosophical insight, and poetic rhythmic refrain.

The eclipse as a phenomenon has been widely explored in the history of literature from classical antiquity onwards. Yet, it finds an unexpected outcome in Woolf's writing. In her four and a half page essay, 'Totality: The Colour of Eclipse', the Canadian poet and classical scholar Anne Carson densely explores this literary history culminating with Woolf's curious rendition of this cosmic happening. Carson emphasises the key role totality plays in the analogy with conjugality, mating, and marriage. From the Greek gods who serve in war in want of consummation of the goddess, to Virginia Woolf's love affair with Vita Sackville-West:

It was 1930. Marriage was going well with the Sapphic Vita, marriage was going well with the virginal Virginia. Besides that, they were looking forward to spending the weekend after the eclipse together at Long Barn (Vita's ancestral estate). Still, totality is a phenomenon that can flip one's ratios inside out. (Carson, 2006: 153)

The moment of the eclipse ­­– translated from the ancient Greek by Carson as "abandonment, quitting" – is a moment of urgent raw clarity, which, according to Carson, forces us to ask the questions, "[…] that hang at the back of the mind. What is a spouse after all? Will this one stay, and can this one keep me alive?" (Carson, Ibid.)

Questions of domestic crisis and couple love may indeed operate at the core background of Woolf's writing on the eclipse. Yet, what strikes me as its other victory, is precisely its excessive expansion to the celestial and planetary dimension, an escape from the hierarchical limitations of the human world, and a transition into an immanent world of abstraction, sensual awareness, and collective solidarity with the planet itself. It is almost as if totality triggers a form of sexuality that is simultaneously depersonalised, planetary, and orgiastic:

We were no longer in the same relation to people, houses and trees; we were related to the whole world. We had come, not to lodge in the bedroom of an Inn; we were come for a few hours of disembodied intercourse with the sky. (Woolf, 2009: 189)

There is a Spinozist attitude towards the planet; an expansive becoming-sky-intent informs the witnessing of this natural spectacle. The nature of abandonment (during the moment of totality) becomes a transcending of the domestic to the cosmos itself: out of the domestic, and into totality's abyss. Abandonment on this scale doesn't get more ecstatic.

When Woolf speaks of a "disembodied intercourse with the sky", and being "strung out against the sky", or being "conscious of the whitish soft canopy above us", it forms part of a recurring motif in her writing – in particular, when expressing the quest for knowledge. To point to the sky as a mode of perceiving, or better yet, of embodying knowledge – a knowledge that cannot be found in the designated authoritative, primarily patriarchal channels of the institutions of the library, the academy, or the domestic sphere. It is the "outside" where things happen, where "outsights" break out, where a another kind of knowledge is born and perceived. It is also a space where the consciousness of the sky humbles human knowledge, and even threatens to obliterate humanity altogether.

In A Room of One's Own, Woolf's narrator/alter-ego's epiphanies' break out precisely when she is outside in the streets, or looking out of the window "at the stream of things": "Indeed my aunt's legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perceptual adoration, a view of the open sky" (Woolf, 2012: 40), declares Mary Carmichael (one, among many of Woolf's alter-egos), when pondering on the fragile relationship between economic security and creative production.

It is precisely this celestial perspective that instils Woolf's writing with its radical aesthetic representation. In the case of 'The Sun and the Fish', witnessing totality triggers an awakening of the senses; the possibility of a heightened consciousness to strike open, and a "post-eclipse-aesthetic" becomes possible.

This aesthetic is riddled with subterranean references to the technology of cinema, and its analogy with the spectacle of nature, in turn becoming a hyper-cinematic artifact in itself. The inter-relation between the ritual use of smoked glass, the solar eclipse and the optical spectacle re-enact pre-cinematic encounters harking back to the alchemical experimental observations of totality by Al-Hazen, to the then contemporaneous birth of the new art form. 'The Sun and the Fish' operates at once and the same time as primeval ritual and as a cinematic spectacle reduced to its archaic forms, with nature as its primal maker and the witnesses of the world as its spectator.

"The sacred twenty-four seconds were begun" (Woolf, 2009: 190) declares the disembodied eye when recording the moment of totality, whose equivalence can be linked to the twenty-four frames per second of the cinematic apparatus. Woolf deliberately returns to the primeval spectacle of totality, and through her altered experience, creates a "post-eclipse-aesthetic" that surpasses her then current disappointment in cinema's technological manifestations. In her pioneering essay, 'The Cinema', written in 1926, a year before she experiences the solar eclipse, she states, "For the cinema has been born the wrong end first. The mechanical skill is far in advance of the art to be expressed" (Woolf, 2009: 176). Woolf goes on to make an urgent plea to push forward its potential:

We should see violent changes of emotion produced by their collision. The most fantastic contrasts could be flashed before us with a speed which the writer could only toil after in vain. The past could be unrolled, distances annhilated. (Woolf, 2009: 175)

Here, the revolutionary possibility of montage is of paramount significance. 'The Sun and the Fish' itself is structured as a triangular montage sequence, creating a delirious cinematic affect. It is the very unfullfilled potential of this new art form that is sublimated in her own creative process, spilling over into her texts on cinema and the eclipse – and these aspects of her writing should be read as a whole.

The eclipse is the initial drum beat for a perceptual trance like revolution of the senses. Then curious sights follow. Only then do we see with an eye that transcends the ordinary habitual organ, a sensual, impersonal eye, and within this rapture 'The Sun and the Fish' convinces us to re-consider what seeing is, and what vision can do.

An abstract yet sensual eruption takes place when one is forced to see with the eye that is altered from post-totality. It takes us on a remarkable visual tour: First, it sees the planet losing colour, and the planet giving birth to itself again and regaining colour. Most significantly, it perceives the planet as a world of colour and fibre, rather than solid matter. We are then transported from Yorkshire's hillside to London's Zoological Garden to witness the mating of two lizards, and the tour ends at its final stop at the London Aquarium, where the microcosmic gaze lingers on fish swimming in a tank. What do these three sights (totality, mating lizards, the fish) have in common? And why are they juxtaposed together in this curious triangular montage? Or as Carson proposes, as "a third angle of vision"? The title is after all 'The Sun and the Fish' – so why the lizards?

These three sights are alchemically orchestrated in an eerie cinema projection, whose potential as a newly born art form in 1928 plays itself out to its greatest scope. As the eye travels across space, it achieves in the process the miraculous potential of cinema, defined by Woolf as, "speed and slowness; dart-like directness and vaporous circumlocution." (Woolf, 2009: 174) It's almost as if the reader is transported into the cinema seat to witness a cosmic wildlife film. As a piece of hyper-cinema, its montage of three scenes of nature apocalyptically comments on the potential downfall of humanity. Like a barometer of the future, whose measurement is not of ordinary climate but of intensive space, there is a drop at its finale: the potential of the eclipse, it warns, if not absorbed to its maximum effect on our sensory, perceptual bodies, will lose its transformative impact, and human consciousness will remain "[…] feeble and fluctuating compared with the fishes [...] More care has been spent upon half a dozen fish than upon all the races of mankind. Under our tweed and silk is nothing but a monotony of pink nakedness." (Woolf, 2009: 192)

We are left to actively perceive these sights' unfolding juxtaposition, with the aim, perhaps, not to "solve" the riddle as a mathematical formula (or even in the Eisensteinian sense of dialectical montage), but rather to feel its significance as one would feel the ineffable quality of the eclipse itself, to allow oneself to be swept away by its sheer audacity of vision, "Sights marry, incongruously, morganatically", ponders the narrator at the opening of the essay, "[…] and so keep each other alive" (Woolf, 2009: 187)

When one allows the mind's habitual eye to mutate to a disembodied one miracles can happen – changes of climate occur, contrasts of weather, a solar eclipse can erupt in the midst of a wintry night, or when one walks imperceptibly down Shaftesbury Avenue.

One cannot underestimate what Virginia Woolf "saw" that night on the hill during the moment of totality in 1927. Woolf experienced her own form of initiation, she "saw" via the eclipse, she "saw" what the eye is: antiquity, futurity. The repercussions of this vision is what shaped 'The Sun and the Fish', and one can go so far to speculate that everthing afterwards, including her final piece of writing's singular expression is circumscribed by post-eclipse memory and experience. Something happened to Woolf on that Yorkshire hillside in 1927, where she crossed a threshold of the senses, paralleling the initiation rites of Antonin Artaud's hallucinogenically inspired Mexico experiences in 1935, where 'The Black Sun' passages hauntingly echo Woolf's own writings on the solar eclipse. Whereas Artaud is preoccupied with immortalising totality's blackout, Woolf's writing on the eclipse celebrates the transitional passageway from planetary blackout to its recuperation of colour and light: "How then does light return to the world after the eclipse of the sun?" (Woolf, 2009: 220)

The veneration of totality, in Artaud's context, functions as a dark counterpart to Woolf's eclipse writing, a primeval incantatory "recovery process" for the decline of Western civilization – the last escape plea from the emerging shadow of Fascism. The poignancy of 'The Sun and the Fish' is precisely its subtlety of tone, its dense foreboding quality. The apocalyptic language can be read as a symptom of social anxieties in between the wars – is it then, a prophecy of fascism? Or a metaphor of vision?

Woolf's text can best be read as an instruction manual for the deterritorialisation of the senses, a material description of an ineffable natural event, sparking the senses to work outside their designated roles. The eclipse forms the pretext for destabilising the senses, triggering off a perceptual outcome of vast proportions: to see clearly is to see panoramically, from the aerial perspective; it is to allow for the disembodied eye to do the seeing. The eye, if not merely functioning as a Cartesian organ (an ocular nerve processing external data), becomes rather an organ of awareness, transcending the habitual nerves, performing a sublime ritual in the process – to have "disembodied intercourse with the sky" is the required alchemical formula for this sensorial mode to be born, and only then can the revolution take place.


Carson, Anne (2005) Totality: The Colour of Eclipse, in Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera, Vintage Contemporaries, New York: Random House, 2006
Woolf, Virginia (1931) The Waves, ed., intro. and notes Kate Flint, London: Penguin, 2000
Woolf, Virginia (1926) The Cinema, in Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009
Woolf, Virginia (1928) The Sun and the Fish, in Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009
Woolf, Virginia (1929) A Room of One's Own, in A Room of One's Own & The Voyage Out, ed. Dr. Keith Carabine, intro. and notes Dr. Sally Minogue, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2012