Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “Virginia Woolf ”

Virginia Woolf on the Defiant Truthfulness of the Soul and Our Elemental Human Need for Communication

“Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness. To share is our duty… if we are ignorant to say so; if we love our friends to let them know it.”

Virginia Woolf on the Defiant Truthfulness of the Soul and Our Elemental Human Need for Communication

“Dismiss whatever insults your own soul,” Walt Whitman counseled in his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life. But in order to know what insults one’s soul, one must first investigate that soul with a consummate and convivial curiosity. “The first thing to be investigated,” the great French philosopher Simone Weil wrote nearly a century later in contemplating the central needs of being human, “is what are those needs which are for the life of the soul what the needs in the way of food, sleep and warmth are for the life of the body.”

And yet today, as we champion reason in a secular world, many of us struggle with the word soul — something I addressed in an entire commencement address — and, in our struggle, have extinguished that vital curiosity necessary for examining the our most elemental needs. In rejecting the soul’s illusory religious connotations, we also seem to have relinquished its essential and invaluable existential dimensions. But, as Whitman and Weil knew, one cannot be a complete human being without the essential self-knowledge of knowing one’s soul — soul not in the sense of some mythic unit of immortality, but the living pulse-beat of personhood, that ever-palpable yet ever-evolving center of gravity in the constellation of each person’s character, around which our core values, ideals, and qualities orbit, and from which our actions radiate.

The locus of that soul and the value of its knowledge is what Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) — who was herself bedeviled by the paradox of the soul — explores in a beautiful long essay on the work and legacy of Montaigne, found in her classic Common Reader (public library).

virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf

Woolf writes:

This soul, or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside us. If one has the courage to ask her what she thinks, she is always saying the very opposite to what other people say.

[…]

Watch her as she broods over the fire in the inner room of that tower which, though detached from the main building, has so wide a view over the estate. Really she is the strangest creature in the world, far from heroic, variable as a weathercock, “bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal” — in short, so complex, so indefinite, corresponding so little to the version which does duty for her in public, that a man might spend his life merely in trying to run her to earth.

The self-knowledge that comes from observing one’s soul, Woolf notes in concordance with Montaigne, appears to be the sole path to genuine happiness:

The man who is aware of himself is henceforward independent; and he is never bored, and life is only too short, and he is steeped through and through with a profound yet temperate happiness. He alone lives, while other people, slaves of ceremony, let life slip past them in a kind of dream. Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent.

She considers what Montaigne’s own animating motive reveals about the needs of the human soul:

These essays are an attempt to communicate a soul. On this point at least he is explicit. It is not fame that he wants; it is not that men shall quote him in years to come; he is setting up no statue in the market-place; he wishes only to communicate his soul. Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness. To share is our duty; to go down boldly and bring to light those hidden thoughts which are the most diseased; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing; if we are ignorant to say so; if we love our friends to let them know it.

Complement this particular portion of Woolf’s indispensable Common Reader with Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of real human communication and Marilynne Robinson on the usefulness of the soul as a sensemaking concept, then revisit Woolf on the nature of memory, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, why the most creative mind is the androgynous mind, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.

BP

Why Anonymity Is More Artistically Rewarding Than Fame: Virginia Woolf on Elena Ferrante

“Obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite; [it] sets running in the veins the free waters of generosity and magnanimity; and allows giving and taking without thanks offered or praise given.”

When Virginia Woolf published Orlando: A Biography (public library) on October 11, 1928, she revolutionized the politics of LGBT love with this groundbreaking novel inspired by and dedicated to her longtime lover and lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West.

In a testament to the famous assertion that “fiction is the lie that tells the truth,” the novel has stood the test of time not only as an immensely pleasurable work of art, which Vita’s son aptly described as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” but as a ceaseless wellspring of truth and wisdom on such elemental existential concerns as the elasticity of time, the nature of memory, the fluidity of gender, the enlivening power of illusion, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work. It is the rare kind of book which, once read, accompanies you as a sage silent companion throughout life, always aglow with the perfect insight to illuminate any situation or struggle.

Art by Aleksandr Zinoviev, 1921 (New York Public Library public domain archive)
Art by Aleksandr Zinoviev, 1921 (New York Public Library public domain archive)

One such perfect insight came to mind in light of the recent parasitic paparazzo’s alleged unmasking of Elena Ferrante. Nearly a century earlier, Woolf addressed the question at the heart of this egregious violation of artistic choice and integrity by juxtaposing the rewards of fame with those of anonymity, or what she called “obscurity,” in the original sense of the word — the state of being not-known, of having one’s identity concealed, of being hidden from view in the public eye.

Woolf writes:

While fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free; he alone is truthful; he alone is at peace.

Extolling the value of obscurity as “the delight of having no name, but being like a wave which returns to the deep body of the sea,” Woolf adds:

Obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite; [it] sets running in the veins the free waters of generosity and magnanimity; and allows giving and taking without thanks offered or praise given.

Woolf’s words offer the perfect affirmation of Ferrante’s artistic choice to use a pseudonym, which she herself had articulated to her Italian publisher in a beautiful letter penned on September 21, 1991, shortly before the publication of her debut novel, Troubling Love. The letter was later included in the Ferrante anthology Frantumaglia. She writes:

You asked me what I intend to do for the promotion of Troubling Love… You asked the question ironically, with one of your bemused expressions… I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum. I am absolutely committed in this sense to myself and my family. I hope not to be forced to change my mind.

[…]

I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. There are plenty of examples. I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana [a fairy-like character of Italian folklore], which I waited for as a child. I went to bed in great excitement and in the morning I woke up and the gifts were there, but no one had seen the Befana. True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us truly astonished. I still have this childish wish for marvels, large or small, I still believe in them.

Complement with Einstein on the fickle nature of fame and the true rewards of work, 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.

BP

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.

virginiawoolf_triple

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.

BP

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.”

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.

virginiawoolf

Woolf writes:

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.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated

:)