Brain Pickings

Teenage Virginia Woolf on the Human Mind

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“Activity of mind … is the only thing that keeps one’s life going.”

The human mind — it is our sole constant companion, there with us for as long as we live, friend and foe in constant contradiction with itself. We spend immeasurable effort on sharpening it, feeding it, and trying to tame it, and yet it seems to have a meta-mind of its own — it misleads us mercilessly to keep us sane and it wanders aimlessly to make us more creative. But what is the mind, really?

From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — the same superb volume that gave us young Virginia Woolf on imitation and the arts — comes her poignant meditation on the mind’s glory.

In May of 1895, after her mother’s death, 13-year-old Virginia suffered a psychoemotional breakdown — her first in a lifelong struggle with mental illness, which eventually claimed her. Very little is known about the two years she spent recuperating. Her journal begins in 1897, just as she is emerging from the quagmire of grief and depression. In one of the very first entries, from early January of that year, Woolf marvels at humanity’s übermind and the ties that bind us together through a lineage of thought — a grounding reminder that all of “our” ideas, as Henry Miller questioned, are the combinatorial product of a long evolutionary chain of thinkers that came before us. Woolf writes:

I think I see for a moment how our minds are threaded together — how any live mind is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.

More than two years later, Woolf, blissfully dismissive of such existential minutia as apostrophes, revisits the subject of the human mind and its marvelous capacity in an entry from early August of 1899:

Activity of mind, I think, is the only thing that keeps one’s life going, unless one has a larger emotional activity of some other kind. Ones mind thats like a restless steamer paddle urging the ship along, tho’ the wind is fallen & the sea is as still as glass. I must now expound another simile that has been rolling itself round in my mind for many days past. This is that I am a Norseman bound on some long voyage. The ship now is frozen in the drift ice; slowly we are drifting towards home. I have taken with me after anxious thought all the provisions for my mind that are necessary during the voyage. The seals & walruses that I shoot during my excursions on the ice (rummaging in the hold) are the books that I discover here & read. It amuses me to carry on the comparison, tho’ I admit that written down it has something absurd about it. What a force a human being is! There are worse solitudes than drift ice, & yet this eternal throbbing heat & energy of ones mind thaws a pathway thro; & open sea & land shall come in time. Think tho’, what man is midst fields & woods. A solitary creature dependent on winds & tides, & yet somehow suppressing the might of a spark in his brain.

A Passionate Apprentice is absolutely fantastic and revelatory in its entirety. Complement it with Woolf on how to read a book, the language of cinema, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice.

Illustrated portrait of Woolf by Lisa Congdon for our collaborative project, The Reconstructionists.

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