The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.
——Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf’s sensibility incarnates in an astonishing number of genres: critical essays, impressionistic essays, memoirs and life-writing, biographies and novels. I’ll focus on how one of her primary concepts—a metaphysical experience she calls “moments of being”— counters the forces of dissolution, and might serve as a model for contemporary essayists similarly vexed by forces that threaten to overrun the more fragile textures and sensations that make us feel most human.
In framing up the modernist zeitgeist, Woolf asks her readers to “tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure.” “Your help,” she says, “is invoked in a good cause. For I will make a final and rash prediction—we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature . . .” That’s from her 1924 essay, “Characters in Fiction.” Developing this thought, in the essay called “Impassioned Prose,” she writes: “it is not the actual sight or sound itself that matters, but the reverberations that it makes as it travels through our minds. These are often to be found far away, strangely transformed, but it is only by gathering up and putting together these echoes and fragments that we arrive at the true nature of our experience.”
Woolf’s notably modernist gestures include extravagantly packed or layered moments; associative refractions of time; quick shifts between characters’ points of view challenging the singularity of knowing; critiques of tradition; and the use of fragments of language and scene to quicken the pace of thought and action, to destabilize perception, and confirm the nonlinear feel of being alive. The keenest expression of her sensibility, however—and by sensibility I mean that mysterious combination of style, stance, philosophy, spirit—is found in the essay “A Sketch of the Past.”
In this long personal essay, or short memoir, Woolf describes what she calls “moments of being” —ineffable yet wholly palpable experiences that seem to pierce the noise and flux of dailiness and deliver a sense of deep presence. Here is her key illustration of the phenomenon, which takes place in her 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.
You’ll see Mrs Dalloway, in the novel of the same name, experiencing this sensation as well:
Bond Street fascinated her; Bond Street early in the morning; its flags flying; its shops; no splash, no glitter, one roll of tweed in the shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years, a few pearls, salmon on ice. ‘That is all’, she said, looking at the fishmonger’s. ‘That is all’ she repeated, pausing for a moment at the window of a glove shop.
Though brief and unbidden, these sheer patches of consciousness are dense with awe. Of these lit moments, Woolf goes on to say:
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. . . . it is a token of some real thing behind appearances. . . . 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. 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.
And here’s a well-defined and practical reason Woolf gives for why a writer’s attention to these moments is important. Writing of her mother who died when she was a child, she says: “Until I was in my 40s . . . the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my days’ doings. She was one of the invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life.” This, she continues, “has never been analysed in any of those ‘Lives’ which I so much enjoy reading . . . Yet it is by such invisible presences that the subject of a memoir is tugged this way and that every day of his life . . . if we cannot analyse these invisible presences we know very little of the subject of the memoir, and again how futile life-writing becomes.” So, to recap, incorporating the inner presences that animate a fictional, biographical, or autobiographical subject is critical to faithfully representing the imaginative life of that subject.
Of course other modernist-inflected gestures of Woolf continue to nourish the contemporary personal essay. Three quick examples: self-interrogations, slipped so easily into the fabric of description, creating intimacy and a way for a reader to follow the map of a mind at work; scene-making, which is integral to creating movement and cohesion in plotless situations; and finally, her confidence in a private language—that is, the importance of retaining the strangeness and singularity of one’s private store of images—confirming for us that any truly original “style” is born of one’s innate weirdness. But for my present purposes, these gestures are important because they are marshaled in service of preserving and illuminating those otherwise wordless moments of being.
Here’s my primary point about Woolf’s sensibility: her drive to observe her own perception, to take an ice-core sample of an instant, or of a day, or of a memory, is at heart a restorative gesture in the face of her era’s intensified speed, instability, and violence. Woolf’s particular flavor of modernism is rooted in the drive to gather, hold, and deepen moments, to make the shimmering moment of perception the base upon which “reality” rests. Her sensibility honors the fleeting, fragile instances of a person’s life. These small, often untethered moments saved for use (like string in wartime), teased forth, and accepted as a partial picture (for it’s a “sketch” of the past she wrote, and not a “portrait”)—these form the basis of a sensibility muscular enough to meet, as she says, “the myriad impressions of an ordinary day, trivial, fantastic, evanescent or engraved with the sharpness of steel.”
This drive to preserve a fleeting, fragmentary genuineness, a shimmery state, fat with existence, to recognize and assert it, to keep it from the ruinous effects of the war, commerce, the strictures of upper-class British society, and more—this drive I’ll call an ecology of presence.
Woolf fully understands that language, as a medium, thrashes the brightness out and that perception wobbles in and out of focus—but she also advises, quite firmly: “do not bother because nature has given you six little pocketknives to cut up the body of a whale.” Again and again in her essays she proceeds matter-of-factly, noting self-doubt and pressing on. By way of measuring Woolf’s courage, we might measure the difference between shard (that postmodern tenet of brokenness) and fragment (a modernist part that might be fitted to a wobbly whole), between chip (the micro-thing no one understand that nonetheless controls so much) and scrap (the small stuff you use to reconstitute or mend brokenness). Woolf’s not much interested in inchoate mashings, or promoting a loss of identity as a maker—though certainly between the war, her own struggles to remain sane, and the dizzying spectacle that was the modern world, it might have been psychologically and artistically easier to do so. But there is much to trust that’s alive, and vital, that’s real and can’t be easily named. Woolf chooses to have a relationship with that fact, believe in those circumstances, and not mourn the difficulty of seeing, or get knocked off course by the impossibility of knowing, or claim the narrating “I” is just a construction, or that the vagaries of memory disqualify “reality”—no fact-altering, no helplessness in the face of the jittery, modern world for her.
More and more I’m convinced of the importance of preserving these “moments of being.” That I choose to play a part in that preservation, and that this might be my “life’s work” or simply what I’ve got in me to contribute, feels like a substantial challenge. Such preservation is not the kind of gesture that “works change” in the world—in an overt, much-needed, activist way. It’s a gesture that instead confirms and populates imaginations, that makes available to readers ways of perceiving and thinking that might otherwise be overrun. This drive to preserve is, at heart, an ecological value—one that upholds attitudes an imperiled environment needs. It’s a short leap from an ecology of presence to an ecology of presences—to the practice of acknowledging presences that are very slippery to affirm. By that I mean those presences constituting the natural world: air, water, trees, animals, indeed, entire, unseen, vitally important ecosystems. By granting language the freedom (however insufficient and partial) to articulate such moments of being, perhaps we might come to be more familiar with a variety of presences and know them as valuable unto themselves and central to a “whole” that’s real amid the daily brokenness.
If whatever comes next, in terms of theory and zeitgeist, style and genre, is willing to be marked by a hunger for authenticity, a retreat from irony, a belief in wholeness-in-spite-of and in the hard work one must do to pay attention and thus enliven a self, a character, an environment, then Woolf’s strain of modernism offers a powerfully restorative model for contemporary essayists.