With accidental timeliness, the out-of-the-blue impulse of nostalgia that had been prompting me to watch the Sally Potter film “Orlando” (1992) for some time led me to finally sit down and watch it tonight, at the peak of the ninth wave (the unity wave). Last seen when it first came out in the cinemas all those years ago, all I had left of it, like a crumpled old bus ticket in the pocket of an old coat, was a scanty recollection of what was once one of my favourite soundtrack albums, with Jimmy Somerville’s distinct falsetto voice the highlight, and flashes in my mind’s eye of an Elizabethan river procession and of ice skating on the Thames during the great freeze of 1608. And, of course, Tilda Swinton’s fine featured face as both man and then woman (same lifetime) across four hundred years of history. So, a period piece…but with a difference.
Its been an even longer time still since I read Virginia Woolf’s novel on which the film was based. In hindsight, perhaps something about that book’s feeling felt so right to be made into a film just as the eighth wave (the feminine wave) got started in the nineties. Woolf’s elaborate biography is a love-letter to her lover Vita Sackville-West (a relationship I talked about in my post Up the garden path last year) and the character of Orlando is so obviously based upon her. So, just a 1920s meets nineties exploration or androgyny, a mascot for the gay community? Or is this a much more profound and broad-reaching commentary on the Divine Feminine (nothing whatever to do with gender); how weary She is, how much She has been through across many different guises, how confused She remains and all the many conflicts of perspective that still grab onto Her coat-tails, confounding Her about almost everything going on in the world as it is currently set it up (we see her running through a labyrinth of time)?
The narrative takes us through both genders; the ever-romantic Orlando switching from male to female when a crisis of masculine identity is reached during a battle yet things prove even less plain-sailing when, as a woman, she is confronted with all the ridiculous social and legal infringements upon that gender’s liberty over the next two centuries. So where is she now, as she sits under a modern-day tree with her daughter by her side (back to the Sally Potter version) looking straight into the camera, a fixed knowing-gaze of such optimism it jolts you inside though a tear tries to form (hers and yours)? The soundtrack finale “Coming” in Somerville’s incredible voice (I had forgotten he floats like a helium-balloon angel in the sky as the credits start to roll) say it all:
I am coming! I am coming!
I am coming through!
Coming across the divide to you
In this moment of unity
Feeling an ecstasy
To be here, to be now
At last I am free
Yes at last, at last
To be free of the past
And the future that beckons me
I am coming! I am coming!
Here I am!
Neither a woman, nor a man
We are joined, we are one
With the human face
We are joined, we are one
With the human face
I am on earth
And I am in outer space
I’m being born and I am dying
Looking back at when that film first hit me between the eyes, I was ripe for a wake-up call, many of us were; 1992 was a seminal year for me, one that got my ball rolling. Revisiting it now, I find a whole other layer waiting for me, making sense only in hindsight. The film feels nothing short of prophetic; it gives me goosebumps to look back at it and recall where I was then, where we all were, how far we have come, where it feels like we are going. Should I say, we are coming…as one.
In case you haven’t seen it ever (or for a very long time) below is a clip from the film where Orlando wakes to find she is now a woman and, to follow, some quotes from the original novel. Forward thinking and out-of-her time Woolf always was (I loved her for it but it drove her mad); yet its as though she was writing for an age such as this. I hope she knows that and feels herself click into place now, out of her time yet part of the rich tapestry of it all where time is just an idea.
You can listen to the eerie and atmospheric soundtrack here. I smile to remember, though I had forgotten ’til now, how I used part of it during my first wedding ceremony; through that, I revisit what my high intentions were (though that union didn’t meet my expectations). It took me almost two more decades to fully realise how we find the ultimate union of man and woman within ourselves.
From Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928):
“And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man. For now a thousand hints and mysteries became plain to her that were then dark. Now, the obscurity, which divides the sexes and lets linger innumerable impurities in its gloom, was removed, and if there is anything in what the poet says about truth and beauty, this affection gained in beauty what it lost in falsity. At last, she cried, she knew Sasha as she was, and in the ardour of this discovery, and in the pursuit of all those treasures which were now revealed, she was so rapt and enchanted that it was as if a cannon ball had exploded at her ear…”
“Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.”
“For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have many thousand…and these selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own… so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs. Jones is not there… and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all.”
“But if sleep it was, of what nature, we can scarcely refrain from asking, are such sleeps as these? Are they remedial measures—trances in which the most galling memories, events that seem likely to cripple life for ever, are brushed with a dark wing which rubs their harshness off and gilds them, even the ugliest, and basest, with a lustre, an incandescence? Has the finger of death to be laid on the tumult of life from time to time lest it rend us asunder? Are we so made that we have to take death in small doses daily or we could not go on with the business of living? And then what strange powers are these that penetrate our most secret ways and change our most treasured possessions without our willing it? Had Orlando, worn out by the extremity of his suffering, died for a week, and then come to life again? And if so, of what nature is death and of what nature life?”
“Thus the British Empire came into existence; and thus – for there is no stopping damp; it gets into the inkpot as it gets into the woodwork – sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied, lyrics became epics, and little trifles that had been essays a column long were now encyclopaedias in ten or twenty volumes.”
“She had, it seems, no difficulty in sustaining the different parts, for her sex changed so far more frequently than those who have worn only one set of clothing can conceive; nor can there be any doubt that she reaped a twofold harvest by this device; the pleasure of life were increased and its experiences multiplied.”
“Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after.”
“…Sometimes this constraint would be felt by the whole tribe, numbering some dozens of grown men and women. It sprang from the sense they had (and their senses are very sharp and much in advance of their vocabulary) that whatever they were doing crumbled like ashes in their hands. An old woman making a basket, a boy skinning a sheep, would be singing or crooning contentedly at their work, when Orlando would come into the camp, fling herself down by the fire and gaze into the flames. She need not even look at them, and yet they felt, here is someone who doubts; (we make a rough-and-ready translation from the gipsy language) here is someone who does not do the thing for the sake of doing; nor looks for looking’s sake; here is someone who believes neither in sheep-skin nor basket; but sees (here they looked apprehensively about the tent) something else. Then a vague but most unpleasant feeling would begin to work in the boy and in the old woman. They broke their withys; they cut their fingers. A great rage filled them. They wished Orlando would leave the tent and never come near them again.”
“Sometimes he woke with a brain like lead; at others it was as if a thousand wax tapers were alight and people were throwing fireworks inside him.”
“And here it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each. It was a most bewildering and whirligig state of mind to be in. The comforts of ignorance seemed utterly denied her. She was a feather blown on the gale. Thus it is no great wonder if, as she pitted one sex against the other, and found each alternately full of the most deplorable infirmities, and was not sure to which she belonged….”
“And why not enjoy [life] this very moment?’ The thought struck him like a bullet. Ambition dropped like a plummet. Rid of the heart-burn of rejected love, and of vanity rebuked, and all the other stings and pricks which the nettle-bed of life had burnt upon him when ambitious of fame, but could no longer inflict upon one careless of glory, he opened his eyes…”