Virginia Woolf's Mysticism
There is a story that the young Virginia Woolf and others visited Rodin's studio in 1904. The sculptor told the party that they could touch anything except the figures still under sheets. When Woolf began to unwrap one of the sculptures, Rodin slapped her. The story is probably apocryphal; but like the grave of the unknown soldier, it can stand as the general emblem of a war. Woolf's literary struggle was to uncover figures, in a way that they had never before been denuded. She unwrapped consciousness. To do this, she would have to disobey the generation that stood behind her, its slapping hand outstretched like Rodin's. Woolf's best biographer, Hermione Lee, tells the anecdote in a chapter titled "Madness": Woolf was on the edge of an attack of mental instability. But there is also what Henry James called the madness of art.
The modernist Virginia Woolf, the writer betrothed to a creeping project, is the Woolf who matters. "Bloomsbury," the big floral distraction, has obscured her. For she was much more serious, and more seriously literary, than her celebrated friends and relatives, who look nowadays like mere threads of "promise." The academy has stinted the achievement of Woolf's writing by offering a general amnesty to all of it, however unsuccessful; or simply by converting literary questions into political ones. Thus The Waves becomes an example of "postcolonial carnivalesque," according to Jane Marcus. But postcolonialism, even modern feminism, would have happened without Woolf, whereas her fiction would not. The writer--single, snobbish, new, rare--can be found in her great essays, in her diaries, with their combination of sharp wail and steady literary appetite, and in her best novels, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves.
Much about Woolf's childhood can be learned from a ninety-page memoir called "A Sketch of the Past." Woolf wrote it in 1939 and 1940, just before she took her life. In it, she looked again at the origins of her literary rebellion, which she found in the impress of her parents, and in the thick air of the family home, at Hyde Park Gate in West London.
Virginia Stephen was born in 1882, into the very riot of Victorianism. She wrote that she and her sister, Vanessa, represented 1910 and her parents 1860. All her writing would offer an insubordination to the sure captaincy of the Victorians. They were represented by her mother, Julia Stephen, whom Virginia complicatedly loved, and her father, Leslie Stephen, whom she complicatedly hated. Julia Stephen, a Victorian idealization of the wife and mother, was unselfish, an emotional wet nurse to her husband, devoted to good works outside the home. When Virginia started writing book reviews in 1905, she felt the ghost of her mother (who had died in 1895) warning her to be femininely decorous, and to soothe male reputations. Woolf, characteristically, wrote at this time, "My real delight in reviewing is to say nasty things." Leslie Stephen became Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, the needy monolith surrounded by the poor pebbles of his battered family. He was one of those Victorians who seem like portable zeitgeists. He was one of the most important agnostics of his generation, a literary critic, a Cambridge rationalist, the author of The History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Stephen had a grinding, puritanical mind. "He would ask what was the cube root of such and such a number; for he always worked out mathematical problems on railway tickets," wrote Woolf in "A Sketch of the Past." Woolf selects one sharp memory which gives us a picture of difficult pleasure. She remembers him stooping from his intellectual labors to mend his little daughter's sailboat, and snorting in embarrassment, "Absurd!--what fun it is doing this."
In To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay is seen struggling to get beyond letter Q in the intellectual alphabet. It is one of Woolf's finest similes: "It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet . . . then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q. . . . But after Q? What comes next?" Leslie Stephen acted like a genius but he thought like a merely gifted man. His tantrums, his loud groaning about the difficulty of mental activity, his domestic helplessness, his virile activity (a twenty-mile walk was nothing), the intellectual fez he wore on his head--does it not look, to us, a little like the self-conscious opposite of a dunce's cap?--the foaming beard: all this was sanctioned by the age. It is how "great men" acted. But Stephen once confessed to his daughter, with his admirable honesty, that he had only "a good second-class mind," and Woolf wrote: "He had I think no feeling for pictures; no ear for music; no sense of the sound of words." Unwittingly, her father trained her in hostility, taught her how to float away from him in his own shallow waters. The way she summed up his limitations would be the way she pounced on the limitations of a whole class of people. Repeatedly, one comes across these portraits in her diaries. Her father was the model "insider." He was an institution, which could be abbreviated to "Eton-Cambridge," places from which she was excluded. Such people were what she called Romans (whereas she was Greek). They kept the Empire spinning, politically and intellectually. They were necessary, she wrote, "like Roman roads." But in her father, she found "not a subtle mind; not an imaginative mind; not a suggestive mind. But a strong mind; a healthy out of door, moor striding mind; an impatient, limited mind; a conventional mind entirely accepting his own standard of what is honest."
Leslie Stephen can be caricatured, though Woolf never did this. Yet the education he gave his daughter was deep. Virginia Stephen did not go out of the house to school. Her childhood was violently isolated, and was spent in the shadow of her father, who expected that Virginia would "become an author in time." Virginia ran through the battery of his books. He read, of course, to the collected family--the thirty-two Waverley novels of Scott, Carlyle's The French Revolution, Jane Austen, and the English poets. But Woolf's own reading, under her father's tutelage, constituted her real education. It was like a less heated version of John Stuart Mill's upbringing. She read Greek--Plato, of course--with Walter Pater's sister. Leslie Stephen gave her history and biography. During 1897, when she was fifteen, he chose for her Pepys's Diary, Arnold's History of Rome, Campbell's Life of Coleridge, Macaulay's History, Carlyle's Reminiscences, and Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography by James Stephen, her grandfather. We see Woolf developing that deep, secretive relationship with language that often characterizes the solitary child. "I have spotted the best lines in the play," she wrote to her brother, Thoby, who was at Cambridge. "Now if that doesn't send a shiver down your spine . . . you are no true Shakespearean!" And more plaintively, again to Thoby: "I dont get anyone to argue with me now, and feel the want. I have to delve from books, painfully and alone, what you get every evening sitting over your fire and smoking your pipe with Strachey etc."
Woolf's background, like a patronymic, was something that marked her publicly. She lived for twenty-two years in her father's house, and escaped only when he died, in 1904. This was her first escape--out of Hyde Park Gate and into Bloomsbury, where she lived with her brothers and sister in Gordon Square. Her second escape was into literary journalism. Here, most commentators are not attentive enough. For Woolf, I think, became a great critic, not simply a "great reviewer." The Collected Essays, which are still being edited, is the most substantial body of criticism in English this century. They belong in the tradition of Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, and Henry James. This is the tradition of poet-critics, until the modern era, when novelists like Woolf and James join it. That is, her essays and reviews are a writer's criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor. The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. That competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.
Of course, all of Woolf's work is a kind of tattoo peeled off the English poets and rubbed onto her sentences; all of it is poetically metaphorical. But these early experiences encouraged the tendency toward metaphor found in all her fictional work. In her criticism, the language of metaphor becomes a way of speaking to fiction in its own accent, the only way of respecting fiction's ultimate indescribability. Metaphor is how the critic avoids bullying fiction with adult simplicities. For it is a language of forceful hesitation. Its force lies in the vigor and originality of Woolf's metaphors; its hesitation lies in its admission that in criticism the language of pure summation does not exist. Criticism can never offer a successful summation, because it shares its subject's language. One is always thinking through books, not about them. Woolf's father had written "successfully" about books, with a vigorous alienation from his subjects. Leslie Stephen's essays chew through books to the cardboard, grimly intent on the same universal mastication, whether the subject is Pope or the history of the popes. Therein lay his limitations, and Woolf could surely see this, even if, as a young woman, she could only articulate this limitation as the apprehension that her father's essays were not "literary" enough. Woolf, by contrast, is "literary," which is to say metaphorical. She approaches fiction gently, seemingly anxious not to overwhelm it with strong comprehension.
All criticism is itself metaphorical in movement, because it deals in likeness. It asks: what is art like? What does it resemble? How can it best be described, or redescribed? If the artwork describes itself, then criticism's purpose is to redescribe the artwork in its own, different language. But literature and literary criticism share the same language. In this, literary criticism is completely different from art and music and their criticisms. This is probably what James meant when he spoke of the critic's "immense vicariousness." To describe literature critically is to describe it again, but as it were for the first time. It is to describe it as if literature were music or art, and as if one could sing or paint criticism. Again, but for the first time: the critic shares the language of her subject, but then changes every word, makes it her own tilted subjection. All critics do this, but the writer-critic, wanting to be both faithful critic and original writer, does it acutely, in a flurry of trapped loyalties. The writer-critic's relationship to the writer she reviews may be likened to hearing, in the next room, a sibling playing something on the piano that you yourself know well but have not yet played yourself.
The language of metaphor is the language of this secret sharing, of approximation, of likeness, and of competition. For, as a critic, Woolf was always in competition with what she was reviewing, and her language's proximity constitutes a luxurious squabble. Again and again, her metaphors are used to deliver a judgment which marks both her nearness to her subjects--her ability to use an artistic language--and her separateness. Forster, she writes, is too fidgety as a novelist, always stepping in to talk about his characters: "He is like a light sleeper who is always being woken by something in the room." (Proust, in similar metaphorical mood, likens the writing of his novel to "a long, sunken fatigue"; and V. S. Pritchett complains, in an essay, that Ford Madox Ford was too awake: "He never sank into the determined stupor out of which greater novelists work." Proust, Woolf, and Pritchett all use metaphor to hurry into truth their paradox--of an artist having to will himself into artistic sleep.) Dickens, she felt, rather vulgarly made excitement by inventing new, disposable characters: "Dickens makes his books blaze up not by tightening the plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful of people upon the fire." George Moore, she felt, was too literary a novelist: "Literature has wound itself about him like a veil, forbidding the free use of his limbs." Many of her essays were written for the Times Literary Supplement, whose contributions were, until recently, unsigned. But this anonymity was ideal: surely Woolf knew that her prose had to sign itself. So her essays, both in texture and in content, were self-advertisements. Between 1917 and 1925, she produced her delicate manifestos, which insisted on the break that her generation, the Georgians, must make with the Edwardians. Her generation, as she defined it, meant Lawrence, Joyce, Forster, Eliot. The Edwardians meant Shaw, Galsworthy, Wells, Arnold Bennett. In "Modern Novels" (1919), "On Re-reading Novels," "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1923), and "Character in Fiction" (1924), she argued that character was at the center of great fiction, and that character had changed "on or about December 1910." This was a literary change. Character, to the Edwardians, was everything that could be described; to her generation it was everything that could not be described. The Edwardians blunted character, she felt, by stubbing it into things--clothes, politics, income, houses, relatives. She wanted to sharpen character into the invisible.
Arnold Bennett thought that Dr. Watson, in Sherlock Holmes, was "a real character." But to Woolf, Dr. Watson was "a sack stuffed with straw." First of all, said Woolf, what was "reality"? To the Edwardians, reality was a furniture sale, everything that could be seen, tagged, and marked. But Woolf wanted to break from what she called this materialism, and to look for darker corridors. Reality is "a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." It was "consciousness" and its relation to the "luminous halo" that was the exquisite distress of Woolf's literary generation. But this new awareness was not an evaporation into the aesthetic. Again and again, Woolf insists on her word, "life." It was because she felt that life had escaped from Arnold Bennett's novels that she punished them so: "Perhaps without life nothing else is worth while." She chafed at the vagueness of the word, yet its vagueness was its spur. It was the fate of modernist writing to be merely an advance in failure, because "life" is so resistant to being broken into words. "Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure," she implored her skeptical readers. "We are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature." "I think," she wrote in her Diary, of The Waves, "this is the greatest opportunity I have yet been able to give myself: therefore the most complete failure."
And certainly, Woolf failed from time to time: the current amnesty, which blows triumph over everything she wrote, just imprisons her in hot air. It should be possible to demonstrate that all the novels have weak passages, and to discuss the inevitable chanciness of her use of interior monologue, without attracting the charge of being a "masculine" reader. Mrs. Dalloway is not, in the end, as suggestive as it wants to be (Woolf seemed herself to sense this); The Waves, though a great book whose last twenty pages is a pure example of secular mystical writing, is too often tediously involved in its own procedures (almost every character has something to say about the difficulty of language); Between the Acts seems unfinished. But when Woolf fails it is generally when she is being Victorian, not when she is being Georgian, or modernist. In Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, she compares twilight in London to a woman changing her clothes for the evening, "but London would have none of it, and rushed her bayonets into the sky, pinioned her, constrained her to partnership in her revelry." In To the Lighthouse she compares spring to "a virgin fierce in her chastity, scornful in her purity." In The Waves, she likens the sea to "a girl couched on her green-sea mattress . . . with water-globed jewels that sent lances of opal-tinted light falling and flashing in the uncertain air like the flanks of a dolphin leaping, or the flash of a falling blade." Rebecca West thought that The Waves was "pre-Raphaelite kitsch," which is not true. But certainly, in all these cases a cliché of Victorian poetry--twilight, spring, and the sea all compared to woman--seeps from Woolf's childhood into her prose and luridly stains its pristinities.
When Woolf's prose succeeds, there is no other twentieth-century English novelist who seems so native, so germinally alive, in her language. She wrote of "words with roots." She, who loved first and most dearly the Elizabethans and Carolinians--like Melville, she revered Sir Thomas Browne--historicizes language. She jams herself into the wheels of the clock of English prose; she stops the motion and then, installed, starts it again, absorbing all the historical vibrations. Her prose makes one think of Diderot's bequeathing his library to Catherine of Russia: she gives us, in her prose, the room of her entire accumulated historical reading. Her rarity is that she has one ear open to metaphor and the other ear open to adjectives and adverbs. (Melville, again, has this Shakespearean doubleness.) She sees that words, when chosen with an overpowering concentration, begin to turn into abstractions, in the way anything does if it is stared at for long enough. She embarrasses words into confessing their abstract pigments; words begin to seem like colors in her hands. We see this in the fiction and in the superb one-line brushstrokes in the Diary. Especially, perhaps, in the Diary, where she runs adjectives after each other without the cushion of commas. She looks at the Sussex landscape: "A heavy flagging windy cloudy day with breadths of sun . . . Lovely are the curves of the grey clouds sweeping; and the long barns lying." Or this, in The Waves: "Colour returns. The day waves yellow with all its crops." (This is a great sentence, and simply needs to be repeated again and again.) From To the Lighthouse: "The arrow-like stillness of fine weather . . . Tortoise-shell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the window-pane." And in her Diary, she watches people, and throws adjectives at them: "steamy grubby inarticulate Rex Whistler." Or Mrs. Keppel, a great society hostess: "a swarthy thick set raddled direct . . . old grasper." She combines words so paradoxically: "a nimble secondrate man" (this of a professor of English literature). Of Stephen Spender: "a loose jointed mind--misty, clouded, suffusive. Nothing has outline. Very sensitive, tremulous, receptive & striding." Of Edith Sitwell: "All is very tapering & pointed, the nose running on like a mole." Of Bunny Garnett: "that rusty surly slow old dog with his amorous ways and primitive mind." And then, amid so much uncertainty and fragility, one finds this little ecstasy, which lights up everything else: "Dear me, how lovely some parts of The Lighthouse are! Soft & pliable, & I think deep, & never a word wrong for a page at a time."2
But Woolf disliked being complimented for her sentences, and wrote that we must go to novelists "for chapters, not for sentences." And in truth her achievement is not measured in sentences; and not measured in chapters either. Her break with the Edwardians lies in the way she writes about consciousness. It is here, especially in the flowing form of To the Lighthouse, that she did something astonishing. Most readers know Woolf, in the caricature, as a writer who allows her characters to ramble internally, moving randomly, it seems, from thinking about death or memory at one moment to a bowl of fruit at the next. Well, the caricature goes, this was the Bloomsbury way, the soft metaphysics of the upper classes. The caricature has a name for it: stream of consciousness. But Woolf's development of stream of consciousness is much more interesting than that. It allows absentmindedness into fiction. A character is allowed to drift out of relevance, to wander into a randomness which may be at odds with the structure of the novel as a whole. What does it mean for a character to become irrelevant to a novel? It frees characters from the fiction which grips them; it lets characters forget, as it were, that they are thicketed in a novel. Undoubtedly, Woolf learned some of this from Sterne, and perhaps from Austen. More immediately, she learned it from Chekhov, about whom she wrote in 1917, in 1918, and in 1919. She admired the way, in that writer, "the emphasis is laid upon such unexpected places that at first it seems as if there were no emphasis at all."
There is an obvious difference between the fiction she wrote before and after reading Chekhov. But she found her way slowly. In her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), there is a moment that hangs on the verge of stream of consciousness. Clarissa Dalloway (who reappears ten years later in Mrs. Dalloway) is going to sleep. She is reading Pascal, and thinking drowsily about her husband. What would become a current of thought in Woolf's later books is here stopped, and converted into a dream. She falls asleep, and her dream, which is a fantastic vision of huge Greek letters, wakes her up. At which point she reminds herself that she has been dreaming. The chapter ends, and everything is closed off neatly. In what it allows, this passage is hardly different from the beginning of Chapter 16 of Mansfield Park, in which Fanny Price, highly agitated, also goes to sleep while thinking to herself. Austen writes: "She fell asleep before she could answer the question, and found it quite as puzzling when she awoke the next morning." In both passages, sleep ends internal thought. Random thought, at this stage in Woolf's career, can only exist as drowsiness or as dream. It is not yet daydreaming. In this first novel, if you forget yourself, you must fall asleep. In her best novels, you stay awake and forget yourself.
Everything gathers in To the Lighthouse, Woolf's greatest novel, which she wrote in a high spasm of activity between 1925 and 1927. Mr. Ramsay, the philosopher, and Mrs. Ramsay, are on holiday, with their children. James, the youngest, wants to take a boat to the lighthouse. There are houseguests: Charles Tansley, an atheist philosopher and former pupil of Ramsay's; Augustus Carmichael, a lazy old poet who sits all day in a deck chair, purring lovely phrases; and Lily Briscoe, who sits on the lawn painting, painting her "attempt at something." Woolf dances between these consciousnesses, so that it seems to be a novel in which everything happens at the same time. Clearly, all these people are thinking at the same time, as people do in real life, and the writer's struggle is to outwit narrative sequence, whereby one is forced to follow the thread of one mind and then the next. Narrative sequence, at bottom, is nothing other than the materiality of words, which forces us to place one word after the next, rather than on top of each other. A painter, like Lily Briscoe, can actually mix paints, but a writer cannot do this. The closest a writer can come to this is in the yoking of metaphor, whereby one thing is pushed against another, and a flashing simultaneity is achieved. Thus we see how Woolf's inveterately metaphorical instinct, at the level of language, in part encouraged her discovery of metaphorical narrative techniques. Metaphor is the way to explode sequence.
But even with metaphor, a novelist cannot literally combine five consciousnesses. Yet if you allow your characters to forget that they are consciousnesses, you allow the reader to forget this too. And when you do this, you allow the reader to forget that fictional consciousness, with its severe descriptive limitations, exists at all. Something else comes into being: the unconscious. This is what Woolf does with Mrs. Ramsay, three times in the book. The first moment of forgetting is the quietest and the most magnificent, and occurs twenty pages into the novel. For twenty pages, more or less, we see things through Mrs. Ramsay's drifting thoughts. She thinks about how much her son wants to go to the lighthouse; she is cross with Tansley for saying that the weather will not be good enough for the boat trip; she thinks a little about Tansley, and about all her husband's camp followers--earnest frigid young men who like to discuss university prizes and who has "a first-rate mind."
And then a gigantic new climate begins in English fiction. Mrs. Ramsay looks out of the window at the lawn, and sees Augustus Carmichael; and then sees Lily Briscoe painting, and decides that Lily is not really a serious artist. And then Mrs. Ramsay remembers that she "was supposed to be keeping her head as much in the same position as possible for Lily's picture." In other words, Mrs. Ramsay has forgotten, and has only just remembered, that she is at the center of Lily's painting. And she has forgotten that she is at the center of the twenty pages we have just read. Yet Mrs. Ramsay's forgetting that she is at the center of the painting, and at the center of the first twenty pages, has itself taken twenty pages to read. Her forgetting that she is at the center has been at our center, has been at the center of what we have just read. We have experienced this forgetfulness with her. We have traveled with her, and in this way out of her. It is as if the novel forgets itself, forgets that Mrs. Ramsay is a character. She has been at the center of the novel all along and we have hardly noticed it, because we have inhabited her own invisibility. Our realization of this gives a strange new meaning to Mrs. Ramsay's keeping her head still, or "in the same position." For, although her head might, externally, have been quite still, or in the same position, inside her head nothing has been still, nothing has been "in the same position," indeed, Mrs. Ramsay is incapable of keeping her thought in the same position. She has been, in the deepest sense, absentminded.
When, in real life, we are asked by a friend what we are thinking about, we often say "Nothing." Mrs. Ramsay would say the same; Woolf informs us later on that Mrs. Ramsay hated to be reminded that she had been seen by anyone "sitting thinking." Yet Woolf's delicate method shows us that we are never thinking about nothing, that we are always thinking about something, that it is impossible for us not to think, even if the thought is merely the process of forgetting something. She lets her readers not only read this but almost enact it for themselves. It is a perilous process, and some readers decide that it is just a maze of pretty trivia. But it is real; undoubtedly, it brings us closer to what Woolf called "life." In her novels, thought radiates outward, as a medieval town radiates outward--from a beautifully neglected center.3
But Woolf, who did not properly read Freud until the last few years of her life, was more than a historian of the mind's creases or a novelist of the unconscious, and more than the bold native of English prose. What so moves us in her great novels, and moves us when we picture her at work in her garden hut in Sussex--Bernard in The Waves refers to the "incessant unmethodical pacing" of artistic work--is the constant effort to find a meaning behind "life." Was this hidden meaning only aesthetic? Famously, she once wrote 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." This is the formally agnostic side of Woolf that trusted in art, as Pater did, to do somewhat hazily the work of religion. The hope was that such art would best explain the mysteries of things by, precisely, failing to explain them.
In place of confident Victorian preaching was the proper stutter of art; in place of system was tangle; in place of solution was compound. Art's failure was its success. The more obscure the "pattern" behind reality, the more real its obscurity. Woolf's celebrated "moments of being," in this view, were indescribable clouds which only art could attempt to describe, because art was the true moment of being. Art and reality became one in their mystery. Art, in this sense, acts like ritual rather than doctrine: it cannot define truth, but it nicely ornaments what cannot be known. "I'm certain that the only meanings that are worth anything in a work of art are those that the artist himself knows nothing about," Woolf wrote. She disliked the "mysticism" in A Passage to India, because she felt that Forster was an artist who did not trust enough in art alone, who "despises his art and thinks he must be something more." Forster was too much of a mystic, or Cambridge Platonist. Thus Woolf the aesthete.
But what of Woolf the religionist? Woolf the Forsterian or Platonist? For there is some evidence that Woolf, without of course despising her art, looked for "something more," and that she felt that this "something more" lay beyond or outside art. She felt herself to be "mystical." At times she seems to have been looking not so much for the aesthetic pattern behind reality as for a further metaphysical pattern behind the aesthetic pattern. What this further pattern, so amply recessed, looked like, she could not say. Whether it was also aesthetic, she did not know. She could never describe it. But she suspected that she did not make it herself: it was real, it was revealed, it was given to her. We know this, because she tells us that she sensed this deeper reality in her moments of mental instability. Woolf broke down, mentally, in 1897, in 1904, and most severely in 1913, when she nearly killed herself. In 1926, while finishing To the Lighthouse, she again became ill. She would have periods of feverish intensity and insight, followed by weeks of clogged depression. These bouts were terrible. Hermione Lee quotes this self-record: "Oh its beginning its coming--the horror--physically like a painful wave about the heart--tossing me up. I'm unhappy unhappy! Down--God, I wish I were dead. . . . Wave crashes. I wish I were dead! I've only a few years to live I hope. I cant face this horror any more."
But once this had passed, Woolf felt that her depression had been "interesting." She saw through to some kind of "truth" while ill. "I believe these illnesses are in my case--how shall I express it?--partly mystical." Most significant, she told Forster that her illness had "done instead of religion." She wrote that in periods of intensity, she heard a third voice--not hers, not Leonard's, but another's. Scattered in her writings are moments of mystical feeling. Bernard, at the end of The Waves, does not give a Paterian account of the primacy of art, or the ultimate aesthetic pattern of all things (the usual reading), but rather, he undergoes a breakdown which is described in spiritual terms. In September 1926, she wrote of "the mystical side of this solitude; how it is not oneself but something in the universe that one's left with." She continues: "One sees a fin passing far out." Five years later, in February 1931, amid the flushed triste of having finished The Waves, she writes: "I have netted that fin in the waste of waters which appeared to me over the marshes out of my window at Rodmell when I was coming to an end of To the Lighthouse." Now it is difficult to know whether this is a report or an approximation. Did she see a fin in 1926, a mystical bulk; or was the idea of a fin merely her image of precisely what she could not see but only imagine? Was this a mystical sighting of an actuality, or a lunge at the idea of such? (Verbally, perhaps, it is not accidental that "fin" is "end," and is the kernel at the heart of "finitude" and "infinitude.") Repeatedly, she complains of the difficulty of describing this reality. But it was a reality: "If I could catch the feeling, I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world."
This idea, of a real world behind the habitable world, reminds us of the Victorian Platonism in which Woolf was raised. But Woolf's version is both a fruit of, and a pit shied at, this Platonism. Woolf's father was an agnostic and a rationalist. Victorian Platonism put the good in place of God. This good was an invisible order behind the world of appearances. It could be reached, says Plato in The Republic, but only by philosophical thought. Inheriting this tradition, Woolf changes the code: like her father, she did not believe in God. Like the Platonist, she intuited a real world behind the apparent world. But it is not the form of the Good. It is intrinsic, indescribable. And most important, it cannot be reached through philosophical reasoning but can only be lunged at every so often by that faculty that Plato somewhat despised: the imagination.
So Woolf saw beyond art, and not only in moments of mental brokenness but in the very midst of that art. Her greatest fiction is moved by the faith that to have visions is to see beyond aesthetic vision. At the end of The Waves, Bernard casts off "this veil of being" and asks: "What does this central shadow hold? Something? Nothing? I do not know." Importantly, he feels that he has pierced a silent world without need of language or art, "a new world . . . without shelter of phrases." At the end of To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe sits at her easel, painting "her attempt at something." Her attempt at something is more than the attempt to paint a picture. The picture is irrelevant. She reflects that her painting will be hung in an attic or even destroyed. Lily wants, writes Woolf, "the thing itself before it has been made anything." Lily's attempt is to grasp time, to restore a moment of the present as it ages before her. This is explicitly not just an aesthetic exertion. That would be tautological: it is art which has gathered this moment, so it would be weak to say that the meaning of this moment is only art. No, what is so moving in this novel is the spreading apprehension that the very vagueness of that invisible "something" that we are all seeking beyond the senses makes it mystical, pushes it beyond the reach of aesthetic form. The indefinability of the "something" is what goads Woolf's art into art; but the indefinability is also what exhausts that art. It encourages the very quest it cannot satisfy. This contradictory belief, that truth can be looked for but cannot be looked at, and that art is the greatest way of giving form to this contradiction, is what moves us so intensely. At her best, Woolf is not an "impressionist," because she has a metaphysician's interest in impressions. Her work is full of the sense that art is an "incessant unmethodical pacing" around meaning rather than toward it, and that this continuous circling is art's straightest metaphysical path. It is all art can do, and it is everything art can do. And finlike, the meaning moves on, partially palpable, always hiding its larger invisibilities.
Excerpted from The Broken Estate by James Wood. Copyright © 1999 by James Wood. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.