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Virginia Woolf on the Nature of Memory and How It Threads Our Lives Together

“Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.”

“In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable,” Teju Cole wrote in his beautiful essay on photography and “our paradoxical memorial impulses.” But what is memory, exactly? Schopenhauer believed that it mediates the blurry line between sanity and insanity. Bruce Lee wrote of “the value of an alert memory.” But although neuroscientists have identified memory as central to our experience of identity and the mechanism by which our bodies encode trauma, we remain befuddled by its nature and its function in our lives.

Most disorienting of all is its associative potency — the gentlest whiff of a certain smell can catalyze the memory of a certain time of year, during which a certain relative would cook a certain food, and suddenly you find yourself transported across time and space to the vivid kitchen table of your childhood home. That pleasurable perplexity is what Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) explores in yet another electrifying passage from Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her groundbreaking 1928 novel, celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which gave us Woolf’s fiction-veiled insight into deep truths about the elasticity of time, the fluidity of gender, how our illusions keep us alive, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work.


Woolf writes:

Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon; Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer ‘Yes’; if we are truthful we say ‘No’; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect rag-bag of odds and ends within us — a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil — but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.

Orlando remains one of the most beautiful and timelessly insightful books ever written. Complement it 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 September 26, 2016




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