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Virginia Woolf on Why She Became a Writer and the Shock-Receiving Capacity Necessary for Being an Artist

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

“Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” Saul Bellow asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” Pablo Neruda illuminated this notion from another angle in his magnificent metaphor for why we make art, but the questions of what compels artists to reach for that other reality and how they go about it remains one of the greatest perplexities of the human experience.

No one has addressed this immutable mystery with more piercing insight than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941). In one of the most breathtaking passages ever written, found in her Moments of Being (public library) — the magnificent posthumous collection of Woolf’s only autobiographical writings — she considers what made her a writer and peers into the heart of the sensemaking mechanism we call art.

Woolf writes:

As a child then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. I will give a few instances. The first: I was fighting with Thoby [Woolf’s older brother] on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later. The third case was also at St Ives. Some people called Valpy had been staying at St Ives, and had left. We were waiting at dinner one night, when somehow I overheard my father or my mother say that Mr Valpy had killed himself. The next thing I remember is being in the garden at night and walking on the path by the apple tree. It seemed to me that the apple tree was connected with the horror of Mr Valpy’s suicide. I could not pass it. I stood there looking at the grey-green creases of the bark — it was a moonlit night — in a trance of horror. I seemed to be dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair from which I could not escape. My body seemed paralysed.

These were three instances of exceptional moments. I often tell them over, or rather they come to the surface unexpectedly. But now that for the first time I have written them down, I realise something that I have never realised before. Two of these moments ended in a state of despair. The other ended, on the contrary, in a state of satisfaction. When I said about the flower “That is the whole,” I felt that I had made a discovery. I felt that I had put away in my mind something that I should go back [to], to turn over and explore. It strikes me now that this was a profound difference. It was the difference in the first place between despair and satisfaction. This difference I think arose from the fact that I was quite unable to deal with the pain of discovering that people hurt each other, that a man I had seen had killed himself. The sense of horror held me powerless. But in the case of the flower I found a reason; and was thus able to deal with the sensation. I was not powerless. I was conscious — if only at a distance — that I should in time explain it.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

Woolf argues that the wellspring of the creative impulse lies in the crucial qualitative difference between the experiences that produced despair and the one that sparked satisfaction:

As one gets older one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation; and that this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow. I think this is true, because though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.

Befittingly, Woolf would later transmute this insight into a beautiful line from Mrs. Dalloway: “The compensation of growing old [is] that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.” But, here, she continues digging deeper for the source of this seismic activity of the soul:

I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together.

Woolf ends with an exquisite summation of her personal philosophy — the only direct articulation of it to appear in any of her writing:

From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.

Complement the wholly indispensable Moments of Being with Woolf on the elasticity of time, why the best mind is the androgynous mind, writing and self-doubt, and the consolations of growing older.

Published September 9, 2015




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