Ethos or mythos? the implicit history of Woolf’s modern sublime

Edna Rosenthal


Woolf’s aesthetics of the novel—encapsulated for her as “moments of vision” and the revelation of character—is assumed to derive directly from the Romantic discourse on the artistic temperament, the imagination, and poetic diction. Her essays suggest, however, why she finds the terms of critical discourse—‘art’, ‘form’, ‘character’—totally useless when it comes to fiction. Woolf insists that to qualify as a work of art, the novel must be reconceived as an aesthetic object—a dramatic-prose-poem where the revelation of character is the outcome of aesthetic affect. She realizes, however, that the aestheticization of fiction calls for a radical recapitulation of critical history with a view to adjusting its terms to the novel. What then are the pre-Romantic elements  in Woolf’s aesthetics of the novel? These elements can be disclosed by juxtaposing her version of formal-affectivism with earlier affectivist theories of the sublime (Edmund Burke’s and Longinus’) and beyond them with the Aristotelian emphasis on dramatic form. Situated in this broader historical context, Woolf’s “modern sublime” may be said to transcend the inherited opposition between classical (Aristotelian) and Romantic (Longinian) aesthetics. But her unique blending of the two traditions entails a theoretical shift:  ethos, the revelation of character, replaces Aristotle’s mythos. This discourse shift—or tacit adaptation of the Poetics to the modernist novel—underpins Woolf’s efforts to secure for “the youngest and most vigorous of the arts” its rightful place in critical history.


Formal affectivism; Ethos; Pathos; Sublime; Woolf, Virginia; Modernism; Poetics

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