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Virginia Woolf on What Makes Love Last

In praise of those intermittent “moments of vision” that electrify love.

Virginia Woolf on What Makes Love Last

“Real love,” wrote philosopher Alain Badiou in contemplating how we fall and stay in love, “is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” But what, exactly, adrenalizes that triumph, particularly against the tidal tedium of time that washes over any long-term relationship?

That’s what Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) explores in a beautiful short passage from her diary, which I rediscovered in W.H. Auden’s commonplace book and which originally appeared in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — that indispensable portal into one of humanity’s finest, sharpest minds, and the source of Woolf’s abiding wisdom on the elasticity of time, the paradox of the soul, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

In an entry from the early fall of 1926, fourteen years into her unconventional marriage to Leonard, 44-year-old Woolf writes under the heading The married relation:

Arnold Bennett says that the horror of marriage lies in its “dailiness.” All acuteness of a relationship is rubbed away by this. The truth is more like this: life — say 4 days out of 7 — becomes automatic; but on the 5th day a bead of sensation (between husband and wife) forms which is all the fuller and more sensitive because of the automatic customary unconscious days on either side. That is to say the year is marked by moments of great intensity. Hardy’s “moments of vision.” How can a relationship endure for any length of time except under these conditions?

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent A Writer’s Diary with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage and Joseph Campbell on the single most important thing in sustaining romantic relationships, then revisit Woolf on writing and consciousness, why the most fertile mind is the androgynous mind, the epiphany that revealed to her what it means to be an artist, and this wonderful illustrated biography of the beloved writer.


The Problem of Shakespeare’s Sister: Virginia Woolf on Gender in Creative Culture

“To write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire.”

Half a century before Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent meditation on “being a man” — the finest, sharpest thing ever written on the question of gender in creative culture — another woman of extraordinary intellectual acuity and penetrating prose turned the problem over in the wave of her own elegant mind.

In a passage from the 1929 classic A Room of One’s Own (public library), Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) presents a pause-giving thought experiment: What if Shakespeare had had a sister — that is, a female sibling of comparable talent and identical family background? It’s a question that applies as much to women in the arts and humanities as it does to women in science — for Galileo’s sister wouldn’t have fared any differently than Shakespeare’s — and one that, despite half a millennium of tremendous progress, addresses some of the most elemental forces animating modern society and shaping our lives to this day.

Woolf writes:

Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty. No girl could have walked to London and stood at a stage door and forced her way into the presence of actor-managers without doing herself a violence and suffering an anguish which may have been irrational — for chastity may be a fetish invented by certain societies for unknown reasons — but were none the less inevitable. Chastity had then, it has even now, a religious importance in a woman’s life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest. To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination.

Gazing at the bookshelf empty of works by women from that period, and turning an eye toward George Eliot and George Sand, Woolf argues that even if such a rare woman had somehow bulldozed through the era’s barriers to female self-actualization, she would have likely gone anonymous or written under a male pseudonym in a culture where “publicity in women is detestable.” (In many ways, we still subscribe to the same limiting mythologies today.)

Illustration from I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!, a parodic 1970 children’s book by New Yorker cartoonist Whitney Darrow, Jr. satirizing limiting gender norms

Woolf considers the effects of these social structures on the creative spirit:

That woman, then, who was born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century, was an unhappy woman, a woman at strife against herself. All the conditions of her life, all her own instincts, were hostile to the state of mind which is needed to set free whatever is in the brain. But what is the state of mind that is most propitious to the act of creation, I asked? Can one come by any notion of the state that furthers and makes possible that strange activity?


One gathers from this enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want. And so the writer, Keats, Flaubert, Carlyle, suffers, especially in the creative years of youth, every form of distraction and discouragement. A curse, a cry of agony, rises from those books of analysis and confession. ‘Mighty poets in their misery dead’ — that is the burden of their song. If anything comes through in spite of all this, it is a miracle, and probably no book is born entire and uncrippled as it was conceived. But for women, I thought, looking at the empty shelves, these difficulties were infinitely more formidable. In the first place, to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.


Such material difficulties were formidable; but much worse were the immaterial. The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing? Here [psychologists] might come to our help, I thought, looking again at the blank spaces on the shelves. For surely it is time that the effect of discouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured, as I have seen a dairy company measure the effect of ordinary milk and Grade A milk upon the body of the rat. They set two rats in cages side by side, and of the two one was furtive, timid and small, and the other was glossy, bold and big. Now what food do we feed women as artists upon?

Feast upon A Room of One’s Own — which also contains Woolf’s enduring insight into the creative advantages of the androgynous mind — and complement it with Woolf on the shock-receiving capacity necessary for being an artist, the elasticity of time, how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice.


Virginia Woolf on the Past and How to Live More Fully in the Present

“The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river.”

“The future enters into us,” Rilke wrote in a 1904 letter, “in order to transform itself in us long before it happens.” But the past also penetrates the present long after it has happened — and out of that dynamic dialogue we wrest the meaning of our existence as life courses through us from both directions.

How to tread this slippery fluidity of past and present is what Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) — who has written beautifully about the elasticity of time — pondered one July afternoon in 1939.

In a diary entry found in the altogether magnificent Moments of Being (public library) — which also gave us Woolf on why she became a writer, perhaps the most piercing articulation of the creative impulse ever committed to words — she writes:

The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but that it is then that I am living most fully in the present. For the present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper than the present when it presses so close that you can feel nothing else, when the film on the camera reaches only the eye. But to feel the present sliding over the depths of the past, peace is necessary. The present must be smooth, habitual. For this reason — that it destroys the fullness of life — any break causes me extreme distress; it breaks; it shallows; it turns the depth into hard thin splinters… I write this partly in order to recover my sense of the present by getting the past to shadow this broken surface. Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into the stream.

What makes Moments of Being such an immensely rewarding read is that Woolf’s timeless wisdom seems somehow always perfectly timed to the realities of any given life at any given point. Complement it with Woolf on the consolations of growing older, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, how to dance with self-doubt, and why the most fertile mind is the androgynous mind.

Thanks, Dani


Virginia Woolf on Why She Became a Writer and the Shock-Receiving Capacity Necessary for Being an Artist

“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.”

“Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” Saul Bellow asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” Pablo Neruda illuminated this notion from another angle in his magnificent metaphor for why we make art, but the questions of what compels artists to reach for that other reality and how they go about it remains one of the greatest perplexities of the human experience.

No one has addressed this immutable mystery with more piercing insight than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941). In one of the most breathtaking passages ever written, found in her Moments of Being (public library) — the magnificent posthumous collection of Woolf’s only autobiographical writings — she considers what made her a writer and peers into the heart of the sensemaking mechanism we call art.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf writes:

As a child then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. I will give a few instances. The first: I was fighting with Thoby [Woolf’s older brother] on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later. The third case was also at St Ives. Some people called Valpy had been staying at St Ives, and had left. We were waiting at dinner one night, when somehow I overheard my father or my mother say that Mr Valpy had killed himself. The next thing I remember is being in the garden at night and walking on the path by the apple tree. It seemed to me that the apple tree was connected with the horror of Mr Valpy’s suicide. I could not pass it. I stood there looking at the grey-green creases of the bark — it was a moonlit night — in a trance of horror. I seemed to be dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair from which I could not escape. My body seemed paralysed.

These were three instances of exceptional moments. I often tell them over, or rather they come to the surface unexpectedly. But now that for the first time I have written them down, I realise something that I have never realised before. Two of these moments ended in a state of despair. The other ended, on the contrary, in a state of satisfaction. When I said about the flower “That is the whole,” I felt that I had made a discovery. I felt that I had put away in my mind something that I should go back [to], to turn over and explore. It strikes me now that this was a profound difference. It was the difference in the first place between despair and satisfaction. This difference I think arose from the fact that I was quite unable to deal with the pain of discovering that people hurt each other, that a man I had seen had killed himself. The sense of horror held me powerless. But in the case of the flower I found a reason; and was thus able to deal with the sensation. I was not powerless. I was conscious — if only at a distance — that I should in time explain it.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

Woolf argues that the wellspring of the creative impulse lies in the crucial qualitative difference between the experiences that produced despair and the one that sparked satisfaction:

As one gets older one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation; and that this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow. I think this is true, because though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.

Befittingly, Woolf would later transmute this insight into a beautiful line from Mrs. Dalloway: “The compensation of growing old [is] that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.” But, here, she continues digging deeper for the source of this seismic activity of the soul:

I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together.

Woolf ends with an exquisite summation of her personal philosophy — the only direct articulation of it to appear in any of her writing:

From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But 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. And I see this when I have a shock.

Complement the wholly indispensable Moments of Being with Woolf on the elasticity of time, why the best mind is the androgynous mind, writing and self-doubt, and the consolations of growing older.


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