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Virginia Woolf on the Past and How to Live More Fully in the Present

“The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river.”

“The future enters into us,” Rilke wrote in a 1904 letter, “in order to transform itself in us long before it happens.” But the past also penetrates the present long after it has happened — and out of that dynamic dialogue we wrest the meaning of our existence as life courses through us from both directions.

How to tread this slippery fluidity of past and present is what Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) — who has written beautifully about the elasticity of time — pondered one July afternoon in 1939.

In a diary entry found in the altogether magnificent Moments of Being (public library) — which also gave us Woolf on why she became a writer, perhaps the most piercing articulation of the creative impulse ever committed to words — she writes:

The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but that it is then that I am living most fully in the present. For the present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper than the present when it presses so close that you can feel nothing else, when the film on the camera reaches only the eye. But to feel the present sliding over the depths of the past, peace is necessary. The present must be smooth, habitual. For this reason — that it destroys the fullness of life — any break causes me extreme distress; it breaks; it shallows; it turns the depth into hard thin splinters… I write this partly in order to recover my sense of the present by getting the past to shadow this broken surface. Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into the stream.

What makes Moments of Being such an immensely rewarding read is that Woolf’s timeless wisdom seems somehow always perfectly timed to the realities of any given life at any given point. Complement it with Woolf on the consolations of growing older, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, how to dance with self-doubt, and why the most fertile mind is the androgynous mind.

Thanks, Dani

Published October 5, 2015




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