Calibration and consolation for those moments when it seems impossible that we should ever again recompose the world’s broken fragments into a harmonious whole.
By Maria Popova
“How should we like it were stars to burn with a passion for us we could not return?” asked W.H. Auden in one of the greatest poems ever written — a subtle, playful, poignant meditation on what it takes to go on living — to go on making poems and symphonies and equations, to go on loving — when faced with something so much vaster than we are, so beyond our control and so rife with uncertainty, be it the chance-governed universe enfolding us or the sovereign cosmos of another heart.
A generation before him, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) — another subtle illuminator of the human spirit in its cosmic dimensions — shone a sidewise gleam on the blunt edge of that eternal question of how to live with, and perhaps even find beauty, in the elemental uncertainty of time, space, and being — a question suddenly sharpened at times of especial uncertainty.
What after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollows of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flesh of tattered flags kindling in the doom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.
In the breaking waves, Woolf finds a staggering emblem of our struggle to hold the larger wholeness in view, in faith, when our worlds come momentarily disworlded:
It seems impossible that their calm should ever return or that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth.
Radiating from Woolf’s gorgeous words is the reminder that all states of mind, all territories of feeling, even those that feel most unsurvivable — perhaps especially those that feel most unsurvivable — are merely moments in time, and yet they are not islanded in the river of being but belong with the rest of the current, the current that springs from the selfsame source as our capacity for beauty, for transcendence, for experiencing ourselves as “the thing itself”:
The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.
“Our minds are all threaded together… Any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.”
By Maria Popova
Patti Smith listed among her criteria for a literary masterpiece that it must leave one so enchanted as to feel “immediately obliged to reread it.” Susan Sontag considered rereading an act of rebirth. I attest to this readily with my habit of rereading The Little Prince once a year every year, each time finding in it new revelations of meaning, new existential salve for whatever is ailing my life at that particular moment. We reread beloved books because on some level we recognize the temporality of all experience and the temporariness of the confluence of states and circumstances comprising the self at any given moment — we recognize that next year’s self will outgrow last year’s self and move on to a whole new set of challenges, hopes, and priorities, becoming, in some essential sense, a whole new self.
Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was only twenty-one when she recorded this recognition with uncommon lucidity of mind and luminosity of language.
In the summer of 1903, Woolf took two months’ respite from London’s bustle in the blue-green spaciousness of the English countryside, enjoying “a very free out of door life” and reading voraciously. “I read more during these 8 weeks in the country than in six London months perhaps.” Under the twin luxuries of time for reading and space for reflection, she arrived at a revelatory new understanding of why it is we read at all — what books do for the human spirit, how they furnish what Iris Murdoch would call “an occasion for unselfing,” and how they can perform the astonishing acrobatics of arising from one consciousness and reaching another — thousands, millions of others, across time and space — on such an intimate level, and in the process interleaving those myriad different consciousnesses into a shared wilderness of experience.
I read a great deal… Besides this I write… But the books are the things that I enjoy — on the whole — most. I feel sometimes for hours together as though the physical stuff of my brain were expanding, larger & larger, throbbing quicker & quicker with new blood — & there is no more delicious sensation than this. I read some history: it is suddenly all alive, branching forwards & backwards & connected with every kind of thing that seemed entirely remote before. I seem to feel Napoleons influence on our quiet evening in the garden for instance — I think I see for a moment how our minds are all threaded together — how any live mind today is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.
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.
And yet, even at twenty-one, she understood how momentary these glimpses of elemental truth are — how easily this sense of inter-belonging, this thing-itselfness of being, slips out of our grasp. She continues the same 1903 diary entry with the swift pivot — as swift as the mind’s — from this awareness that “all the world is mind” to the habitual loss of perspective as the cotton wool drops over our eyes and unworlds us once more:
Then I read a poem say — & the same thing is repeated. I feel as though I had grasped the central meaning of the world, & all these poets & historians & philosophers were only following out paths branching from that centre in which I stand. And then — some speck of dust gets into my machine I suppose, & the whole thing goes wrong again.
More than a decade later, Woolf refined the sentiment in one of the extraordinary essays she composed during her quarter century as a critic for the Times Literary Supplement, newly collected in Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read (public library) — a book which, had I not been too consumed by rereading beloved books of yore to realize its publication, I would have ardently included among my favorite books of 2019.
Like the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, whose contemplative criticism uses books less as specimens for review than as springboards for soaring meditations on life and art, Woolf treats each book she reviews as a stone dropped from the coat-pocket into the Ouse of life, observing first its essential stoneness of form and then the widening circles of understanding rippling into the river of consciousness. Into the first essay from the collection, writing about Charlotte Brontë’s novels, Woolf nestles this exquisite insight into what makes a great work of art — the kind to which we keep returning again and again:
There is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season. To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.
“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
By Maria Popova
“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” computing pioneer Alan Turing wrote as he contemplated the binary code of body and spirit in the spring of his twenty-first year, having just lost the love of his life to tuberculosis. Nothing garbles that code more violently than illness — from the temporary terrors of food poisoning to the existential tumult of a terminal diagnosis — our entire mental and emotional being is hijacked by the demands of a malcontented body as dis-ease, in the most literal sense, fills sinew and spirit alike. These rude reminders of our atomic fragility are perhaps the most discomfiting yet most common human experience — it is difficult, if at all possible, to find a person unaffected by illness, for we have all been or will be ill, and have all loved or will love someone afflicted by illness.
No one has articulated the peculiar vexations of illness, nor addressed the psychic transcendence accessible amid the terrors of the body, more thoughtfully than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) in her 1926 essay “On Being Ill,” later included in the indispensable posthumous collection of her Selected Essays (public library).
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth — rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache. But no; with a few exceptions — De Quincey attempted something of the sort in The Opium Eater; there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust — literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent.
Five years earlier, the ailing Rilke had written in a letter to a young woman: “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” Woolf, writing in the year of Rilke’s death and well ahead of the modern scientific inquiry into how the life of the body shapes the life of the mind, rebels against the residual Cartesianism of the mind-body divide with her characteristic fusion of wisdom and wry humor, channeled in exquisite prose:
All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane — smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record. People write always of the doings of the mind; the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how the mind has civilised the universe. They show it ignoring the body in the philosopher’s turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery. Those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it, in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, are neglected. Nor is the reason far to seek. To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth. Short of these, this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain, will soon make us taper into mysticism, or rise, with rapid beats of the wings, into the raptures of transcendentalism.
“Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” Nietzsche had asked when Woolf was just genetic potential in her parents’ DNA. Language, the fully formed human argues as she considers the unreality of illness, has been utterly inadequate in conferring upon this commonest experience the dignity of representation it confers upon just about every other universal human experience:
To hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way.
In a passage Oliver Sacks could have written, Woolf pivots to the humorous, somehow without losing the profundity of the larger point:
Yet it is not only a new language that we need, more primitive, more sensual, more obscene, but a new hierarchy of the passions; love must be deposed in favour of a temperature of 104; jealousy give place to the pangs of sciatica; sleeplessness play the part of villain, and the hero become a white liquid with a sweet taste — that mighty Prince with the moths’ eyes and the feathered feet, one of whose names is Chloral.
And then, just like that, in classic Woolfian fashion, she fangs into the meat of the matter — the way we plunge into the universality of illness, so universal as to border on the banal, until we reach the rock bottom of utter existential aloneness:
That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you — is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable.
In health, Woolf argues, we maintain the illusion, both psychological and outwardly performative, of being cradled in the arms of civilization and society. Illness jolts us out of it, orphans us from belonging. But it also does something else, something beautiful and transcendent: In piercing the trance of busyness and obligation, it awakens us to the world about us, whose smallest details, neglected by our regular societal conscience, suddenly throb with aliveness and magnetic curiosity. It renders us “able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up — to look, for example, at the sky”:
The first impression of that extraordinary spectacle is strangely overcoming. Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible. Pedestrians would be impeded and disconcerted by a public sky-gazer. What snatches we get of it are mutilated by chimneys and churches, serve as a background for man, signify wet weather or fine, daub windows gold, and, filling in the branches, complete the pathos of dishevelled autumnal plane trees in autumnal squares. Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking. This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it! — this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and waggons from North to South, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away…
But in the consolations of this transcendent communion with nature resides the most disquieting fact of existence — the awareness of an unfeeling universe, operating by impartial laws unconcerned with our individual fates:
Divinely beautiful it is also divinely heartless. Immeasurable resources are used for some purpose which has nothing to do with human pleasure or human profit.
It would take Woolf more than a decade to fully formulate, in a most stunning reflection, the paradoxical way in which these heartless laws are the very reason we are called to make beauty and meaning within their unfeeling parameters: “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,” she would write in 1939. Now, in her meditation on illness, she hones the anchor of these ideas:
Poets have found religion in nature; people live in the country to learn virtue from plants. It is in their indifference that they are comforting. That snowfield of the mind, where man has not trodden, is visited by the cloud, kissed by the falling petal, as, in another sphere, it is the great artists, the Miltons and the Popes, who console not by their thought of us but by their forgetfulness.
It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal — that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will lie thick upon factory and engine; the sun will go out.
This sudden awareness of elemental truth renders the ill person a sort of seer, imbued with an almost mystical understanding of existence, beyond any intellectual interpretation. Nearly a century before Patti Smith came to contemplate how illness expands the field of poetic awareness, Woolf writes:
In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other — a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause — which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain. Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.
“All our most violent passions, and art and religion, are the reflections which we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time.”
By Maria Popova
“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark inquiry into transcendent experiences, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” A century later, Michael Pollan would echo this sentiment in exploring the science of psychedelics: “The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think.”
The most evocative description of an ecstatic experience comes not from the annals of psychology or science, but from literature. Writing partway in time between James and the dawn of psychedelics, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) limns the essential elements of transcendent experience — the dreamlike quality of the images flooding into the mind, the hallucinatory halo that envelops the ordinary world, the curious melting of time — in the final pages of her groundbreaking 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography (public library).
Placing her heroine amid a “night in which the reflections in the dark pool of the mind shine more clearly than by day,” Woolf writes:
She now looked down into this pool or sea in which everything is reflected — and, indeed, some say that all our most violent passions, and art and religion, are the reflections which we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time. She looked there now, long, deeply, profoundly, and immediately the ferny path up the hill along which she was walking became not entirely a path, but partly the Serpentine; the hawthorn bushes were partly ladies and gentlemen sitting with card-cases and gold-mounted canes; the sheep were partly tall Mayfair houses; everything was partly something else, as if her mind had become a forest with glades branching here and there; things came nearer, and further, and mingled and separated and made the strangest alliances and combinations in an incessant chequer of light and shade. Except when Canute, the elk-hound, chased a rabbit and so reminded her that it must be about half past four — it was indeed twenty-three minutes to six — she forgot the time.
It was not necessary to faint now in order to look deep into the darkness where things shape themselves and to see in the pool of the mind now Shakespeare, now a girl in Russian trousers, now a toy boat on the Serpentine, and then the Atlantic itself, where it storms in great waves past Cape Horn. She looked into the darkness… “Ecstasy!” she cried, “ecstasy!” And then the wind sank, the waters grew calm; and she saw the waves rippling peacefully in the moonlight.