Virginia Woolf on the Paradox of the Soul and the Consolations of Growing Older
“One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.”
By Maria Popova
Although Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) kept some sporadic early diaries, she didn’t begin serious journaling until 1915, when she was 33. From that point on, until her final entry penned four days before her death in 1941, Woolf diligently filled twenty-six notebooks with her private meditations, which were posthumously published as the indispensable A Writer’s Diary (public library). Over the decades of dedicated journaling, she came to be among the many celebrated writers who expounded the creative benefits of keeping a diary as an R&D lab for both her craft and her soul.
In fact, some of her most profound and perceptive meditations deal with the question of the soul itself — a notion which modern secular culture handles with varying degrees of skepticism and cynicism, and yet the most useful term we have for what Maya Angelou called our “real selves, the children inside … innocent and shy as magnolias.”
In one diary entry, Woolf marvels at “the slipperiness of the soul”; “oh the delicacy and complexity of the soul,” she exclaims in another; she fantasizes about writing “a dialogue of the soul with the soul” in another still. In an entry from February of 1926, midway through writing To the Lighthouse, she resolves to begin each day on a new page — her self-professed “habit in writing serious literature” — and considers the craftsmanship of the soul:
As for the soul… the truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes; but look at the ceiling, at Grizzle [the dog], at the cheaper beasts in the Zoo which are exposed to walkers in Regent’s Park, and the soul slips in. It slipped in this afternoon.
Six years later, the soul slips in again in another direct encounter. In October of 1932, Woolf notes the odd dampening of her mood upon returning to London and contemplates, like Henry James did at the same age some decades earlier, the graces of aging:
Odder still how possessed I am with the feeling that now, aged 50, I’m just poised to shoot forth quite free straight and undeflected my bolts whatever they are. Therefore all this flitter flutter of weekly newspapers interests me not at all. These are the soul’s changes. I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism. And to alter now, cleanly and sanely, I want to shuffle off this loose living randomness: people; reviews; fame; all the glittering scales; and be withdrawn, and concentrated.
But the soul slips in most of all when the body slips out. In an entry from December of 1934, 52-year-old Woolf recounts visiting a dying friend — the Bloomsbury writer, journalist, and film critic Francis Birrell, forty-five at the time — with her husband, Leonard:
Talk with Francis yesterday. He is dying: but makes no bones about it. Only his expression is quite different. Has no hope. The man says he asks every hour how long will this go on, and hopes for the end. He was exactly as usual; no wandering, no incoherence… The soul deserves to be immortal, as L. said. We walked back, glad to be alive, numb somehow. I can’t use my imagination on that theme. What would it be like to lie there, expecting death? and how odd and strange a death. I write hurriedly, going to Angelica’s concert this fine soft day.
Wherever one may stand on the question of the immortal soul — I happen to stand with Bertrand Russell — it’s hard not to feel that Woolf’s soul, that singular packet of her mind and personhood and creative spirit, is kept eternally alive by the very pages of her writing, especially her diary. Its exquisite “delicacy and complexity” emanates from the remembrances of those she left behind and continues to bewitch generations of “common readers” long after Woolf’s bolts sank her body into the river.
Published February 6, 2015