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Virginia Woolf on Being Ill and the Strange Transcendence Accessible Amid the Terrors of the Ailing Body

“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… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

Virginia Woolf on Being Ill and the Strange Transcendence Accessible Amid the Terrors of the Ailing Body

“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).

Portrait of Virginia Woolf from Literary Witches.

Half a century before Susan Sontag’s landmark book Illness as Metaphor, Woolf writes:

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.

Art from the vintage science primer The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works.

“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.

Art by Nina Cosford from the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf

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.

Drawing from The Comet Book — a 16th-century pre-astronomical document of magical thinking about the laws of the universe.

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.

Complement this portion of Woolf’s thoroughly fantastic Selected Essays with Roald Dahl on how illness emboldens creativity and Alice James — Henry and William James’s brilliant sister, whom Woolf greatly admired — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Woolf on the art of letters, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, the creative potency of the androgynous mind, and her transcendent account of a total solar eclipse.

BP

Literary Ecstasy: Virginia Woolf Describes a Psychedelic Experience

“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.”

Literary Ecstasy: Virginia Woolf Describes a Psychedelic Experience

“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).

Portrait of Virginia Woolf from Literary Witches.

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.

Couple this fragment of Orlando — which also gave us Woolf’s insights into the elasticity of time, the nature of memory, the fluidity of gender, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work — with Rachel Carson’s splendid account of a rather different yet kindred transcendent experience through the lens of science, then revisit Woolf’s own account of the otherworldly transcendence of a total solar eclipse.

BP

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

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