Virginia Woolf asks us—we hear her own voice, by way of a BBC recording—“How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?”
This was Woolf’s life question, her life quest, the catalyst of her genius. She struggled with it, like Jacob struggled with the angel, and she would not let go until the true and the beautiful, in one way or another, blessed her. “When I write, I always, always tell the truth,” she admonished a friend who suggested that she might do otherwise. In her letters, diaries, and fiction, the struggle never ends.
Her diaries, comprising 6,873 pages in a Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition, tell us her most intimate thoughts and feelings. These pages were not meant for our eyes, and she asked her husband to burn them after her death. They perhaps contain the farthest reaches of her mind, and some of her most beautiful phrases, as well as her candid, private views of contemporaries.
She was scandalized, for example, at the success of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which she found to be a celebration of the ugly, a unilateral attack on the literary tradition she revered: “An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me. … It is brackish. It is pretentious. … A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts.”
A close friend told her, “Only your death will be the one thing you will be unable to describe!” True, of course, but she does describe, as no one else has done, the depression that often seems to attend genius. Tolstoy, Handel, and Beethoven knew it well but left no detailed account of it.
Virginia Woolf did: “Woke up perhaps at 3. Oh its beginning it coming—the horror—physically like a painful wave swelling about the heart—tossing me up. I’m unhappy unhappy! Down—God, I wish I were dead. … This goes on; several times, with varieties of horror. Then at the crisis instead of the pain remaining intense, it becomes rather vague. I doze. I wake with a start.”
Other entries tell us of her search for the thing that so many of us pray to: “I enjoy almost everything. Yet I have some restless searcher in me. … I see the mountains in the sky: the great clouds; & the moon which is risen over Persia; I have a great & astonishing sense of something there, which is ‘it.’ ? … I do fairly frequently come upon this ‘it’; and then feel quite at rest.”
Later she writes, “I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist.” It strikes one as remarkable that this marvelous writer, this brilliant poet, could find no better word for this “something” than “it”! Yet, every one of us knows that this “something” is beyond words, so perhaps “it” is as good a name as any other.
One is struck by the author’s observation that an answer to a letter reflects something of the writer of the original letter that she received. One can see, for example, the warmth and gentleness in her correspondence with her sister, Vanessa, and a cooler persona in her letters to the glacial and proud Vita Sackville-West.
The letter to Sackville-West quoted below is a penetrating view into Woolf’s creative process, something too personal to be said to the public but easily said to an understanding and trusted friend:
“Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t get the wrong words. … Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than any words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing one has to recapture this, and then as it breaks and tumbles in the mind it makes words to fit it.”
These words illumine us, tell us more about the depths of Woolf’s heart and mind than we can find in any formal publication.
Her Shorter Fiction
The shorter works—sometimes very short, but never about trivial things—address the issues that loom large in the life of every person, the wonder of life itself. How easy it is for us to forget the sheer unlikelihood of our existence, the infinite confluence of events that make up our circumstances as well as what we call our “selves.”
“In the Orchard,” a story of only five paragraphs, reveals Miranda sleeping beneath an apple tree. “Apples hung four feet above her head. The sound of the church organ is carried over the tree tops by the wind while Miranda sleeps thirty feet below.” Two hundred feet above her, “bells thudded” calling the faithful to service. The wind swept on, “eyeless, brainless, meeting nothing that could stand against it” while “miles below, in a space as big as the eye of a needle, Miranda stood upright and cried aloud. ‘Oh, I shall be late for tea!’”
As memory is a reliable critic, it is employed here to recall some of the best passages of her novels, fragments that entered and never left my mind. The subjects are deep, and the impressions are powerful.
In “The Voyage Out,” the young man learns the bitterness of loss; the woman he is to marry becomes fatally ill. “He could not get used to his pain, it was a revelation to him. He had never realised before that underneath every action, underneath the life of every day, pain lies, quiescent, but ready to devour; he seemed to be able to see suffering, as if it were a fire, curling up over the edges of all action, eating away the lives of men and women. He thought for the first time with understanding of words which had before seemed to him empty: the struggle of life; the hardness of life.”
In “The Waves,” love appears: “Time passes, yes. And we grow old. But to sit with you, alone with you, here in London, in this firelit room, you there, I here, is all. … When you come, everything changes. The cups and saucers changed when you came in this morning. There can be no doubt, … that our mean lives, unsightly as they are, put on splendour and have meaning only under the eyes of love.”
The intimation of a higher, transcendent life is at the heart of “The Years.” A woman returns to her friends after living abroad for 30 years. They gather at a party, and in its midst, she draws into herself: “There must be another life, she thought. … Not in dreams, but here and now in this room, with living people. … She was about to grasp something that just evaded her. There must be another life, here and now, she repeated. This is too short, too broken. We know nothing, even about ourselves. We’re only just beginning, she thought, to understand here and there.”
“To the Lighthouse” is a melancholy narrative of the Ramsey family, a family in the face of change. Time passes; things, people, mysteriously become other things. A child becomes a man, a mother dies, a way of life that seemed fixed is swept away. The great life question “to what end?” is constantly in our ears. An answer, not complete, not entirely satisfactory, but perhaps the only answer we have, is given. It seems to be that time, indeed, passes. We can hold on to nothing; yet, still, something remains: An entire life of thoughts, feelings, and experiences is synthesized, translated, transubstantiated, stored in our brain as our own ever-unfolding vision. It is our own personal view of the world, of the scheme of things, which no one in all time has witnessed before, and which no one in all time will witness in the future. It is our own.
Genius is occasionally able to immortalize and share its vision through songs, paintings, words, through beauty and truth. “How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?” we again hear Virginia Woolf ask, on the BBC. It is a question, but to her it was a calling as well.
The closing lines of “To the Lighthouse” are not really about the amateur painter Lilly Briscoe; they are about the writer Virginia Woolf: “She drew a line in the center. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush, … I have had my vision.”
Raymond Beegle has performed as a collaborative pianist in the major concert halls of the United States, Europe, and South America; has written for The Opera Quarterly, Classical Voice, Fanfare Magazine, Classic Record Collector (UK), and the New York Observer. Beegle has served on the faculty of The State University of New York–Stony Brook, The Music Academy of the West, and The American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. He has taught in the chamber music division of The Manhattan School of Music for the past 28 years.