Best known as the author of Mrs Dalloway, capturing in both style and subject, the fast-changing world, Virginia Woolf pioneered the use of ‘stream consciousness’ as a narrative device. A modernist and a feminist, her writings arguably embodied something like the Sylvia Plath effect, carrying an underlying sense of melancholia.
To me, her writing delivered the essence of what it is to be alive. She raised her sensitivity to the highest form of art and conveyed the immense possibilities of the human consciousness.
‘A kernel of selfhood’
While grappling with clinical depression (for two years now), there have been too many phases to speak of. I have, till date, never been able to freely talk to any therapist, which frustrates my mother who I turn to for unburdening myself – if at all. Questions keep popping up, depending on the phase one’s in – the initial phase was the time when everything was linked to exam anxiety, later it was more about past experiences or the time when it’s seen in terms of social identity and self-esteem.
Then one fine day during the lockdown, I picked up Mrs Dalloway which answered some of my puzzling questions and settled intrusive thoughts. I had read the book earlier but not diligently enough to process or remember it.
Woolf wrote on ‘a kernel of selfhood that we can’t share with others’. In his piece on Woolf’s idea of privacy, the New Yorker editor Joshua Rothman writes:
“Sharing is, in fact, the opposite of what we do…we rehearse a limited openness so that we can feel the solidity of our own private selves.
“And you gain the power to regard yourself abstractly. Instead of getting lost in the details of your life, you hold onto the feelings, the patterns, the tones…There can be something enjoyable, even revelatory about that feeling of self-protection, which is why we seek out circumstances in which we can feel more acutely the contrast between the outside world and our inner selves.”
This idea of privacy is very relevant for me. The beautiful expression helped me reconcile something I’ve been lectured on by everyone – my reservation. I am not so secretive but I do admit that I am often cold and uncompromising, which I acknowledge but can’t really rid myself of. However, the general idea that the bottling up our feelings always leads to outbursts is, in my opinion, not so true. I think the very idea of sharing – as we know it – it is flawed. Woolf was speaking from her own experiences, yet it appeals to something in all of us.
I, for instance, like parties – house parties, grand gatherings and so on. They offer a contrast to my inner-self and often seem otherworldly. However, I realised the sense of upliftment they provide only after reading Mrs Dalloway, in the truest sense. To quote, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “In the work of a writer of genius, we rediscover our own neglected thoughts”
No one has perhaps articulated the peculiar vexations of illness more thoughtfully than Woolf has in her 1926 essay ‘On Being Ill’. She wrote:
“English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. The schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”
She tried to make sure language would do a better job at defining us with all our vulnerabilities, confusions and bodily sensations.
In health, Woolf argues, we maintain the illusion of being cradled in the arms of civilisation and society. Illness jolts us out of it, orphans us from belonging. But it also does something beautiful: 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 — for example, at the sky”. And then, in classic Wolffian fashion, she fangs into the meat of the matter — the way we plunge into the universality of illness, until we reach the rock bottom of utter existential aloneness.
I read these lines to my mother whilst she lay on the hospital bed, two-three days before the D-Day of biopsy and the result – Sarcoidosis, a rare lung disease. While my family was present, it was only I who knew the degree of pain and fear my mother experienced. But our fear or tension never rubbed off on each other. Thanks to ‘On Being Ill’, which transported us to another world. Racing through our minds were the periods of grave illnesses of my father – a serious accident – partial blindness- diabetes and dialysis – leading to acute stress – cardiac arrest and ultimately a multiple organ failure; yet rooting us in reality. It has been quite a theme in our lives unlike in most of literature.
I read the essay to her over three sittings and it calmed her a great deal. Woolf was probably the best writer for describing our minds without the jargon of clinical psychology. She expresses hope beyond suffering. Mom could feel what was written. At the same time, she could look at the experience of illness in an unmagnified way.
A very important message here. On writers, she wrote:
“They dress themselves up. They act their parts. One leads, the other follows. One is romantic, the other realist…There is no harm in it, so long as you take it as a joke, but once you believe in it, once you begin to take yourself seriously as a leader or a follower, as a modern or as a conservative, then you become a self-conscious, biting, and scratching little animal. Think of yourself as something much humbler and less spectacular, but far more interesting – a poet in whom live all the poets of the past, from whom all poets in time to come will spring.’’
When I see countless accounts channeling their (justified) anger through posts reading – “Gandhi exposed as sexist, classist, casteist, misogynist, racist…”, comparing his beliefs to Hitler’s, and all of this under a very important banner #DalitLivesMatter, I scratch my head in anger and disbelief. How can anything and everything be reduced to either ‘stanning’ or ‘cancelling’? In an age of disinformation and polarisation, we need to first speak the truth to ourselves.
At the same time, Woolf embraced individuality. “In order to grow, we need to do some gender-bending; we need to seek experiences that blur what it means to be “a real man” or “a real woman”. Woolf had a few same-sex relationships while she was alive, and she wrote a magnificently bold queer text, Orlando, a portrait of her lover Vita.
Woolf’s work often explored her fascination with the overlooked. In her novel The Art of Biography she argued that, “The question now inevitably asks itself, whether the lives of great men only should be recorded. Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography – the humble as well as the illustrious.”
Always profound but never afraid of what others called trivial, on which she wrote with a unique eloquence and depth. The Death of the Moth – a collection of 28 essays, sketches and short stories – best exemplifies this. “Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground.”
I don’t think I’d ever be able to not think of Woolf’s tryst with the ordinary while reading.
Khushi Barman is a 17-year-old student of humanities, fervently interested in politics, geopolitics of the subcontinent and poetry.
Featured image credit: Royal Opera House/Flickr