Virginia Woolf on How Our Illusions Keep Us Alive
“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.”
By Maria Popova
Long before psychologists began exploring the curious cognitive mechanism of how our delusions keep us sane, even before the poet W.H. Auden contemplated the crucial difference between false and true enchantment, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) explored the powerful positive side of illusions in Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her groundbreaking 1928 novel, aptly considered “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which gave us Woolf’s fiction-veiled insight into perennial truths about the elasticity of time, the fluidity of gender, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work.
Illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things.
When illusions are “shattered by contact with reality,” Woolf observes, the collision “leaves the mind rocking from side to side” and makes for “a moment fraught with the highest danger for the human spirit.” With her uncommon gift for poetic truth, she defends the vitalizing power of our illusions:
Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.
Perhaps our illusions, like all wishful or magical thinking, contain core truths about who we are — after all, our hopes and fears both spring from and in turn inform our identity. Perhaps, then, our illusions are an even more truthful record of our becoming than the biographical facts of our lives. They grow as we grow, until we shed them like snakeskin when they no longer serve us, only to replace them with new ones. Woolf’s Orlando intuits this when she whispers to herself: “I am growing up… I am losing my illusions, perhaps to acquire new ones.”
Complement the thoroughly magnificent Orlando with the true story of the great love that inspired it, then revisit Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.
Published August 25, 2016