Brain Pickings

Seventeen-Year-Old Virginia Woolf on Nature, Imitation and the Arts


“All the Arts … imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see.”

“Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Mark Twain once wrote in a letter to Helen Keller.

In 1899, while spending the summer in the countryside with her sister Vanessa and her brother Adrian, seventeen-year-old Virginia Woolf — writer of passionate love letters, literary insult-slinger, little-known children’s book author — penned a letter to a friend, considering imitation and the arts. Dated August 12, 1899 and found in Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909 (UK; public library), it insists that the human instinct to create is rooted in a desire to reflect nature’s magnificence and imitation is at the heart of creativity, “the eternal instinct in the human beast.”

I wish that once & for all I could put down in this wretched handwriting how this country impresses me — how great I fell the stony-hard flatness & monotony of the plain. Every time I write in this book I find myself drifting into the attractive but impossible task of describing the Fens — till I grow heartily sick of so much feeble word painting; & long for one expressive quotation that should signify in its solitary compass all the glories of earth air & Heaven. Nevertheless I own it is a joy to me to be set down with such a vast never ending picture to reproduce — reproduction is out of the question — but to gaze at, nibble at & scratch at.

After all we are a world of imitations; all the Arts that is to say imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see. Such is the eternal instinct in the human beast, to try & reproduce something of that majesty in paint marble or ink. Somehow ink tonight seems to me the least effectual method of all — & music the nearest to truth.

Half a century later, young Susan Sontag echoed Woolf in arguing that music is the highest of the arts.

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