Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today — that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. The splendid word "incarnadine," for example — who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”? (Virginia Woolf, "Craftsmanship")
In this, the only known recording of Virginia Woolf's voice, Woolf reads from her essay "Craftsmanship," which she delivered on a BBC radio show called "Words Fail Me" in April 1937. (You can read the transcript here and learn more about this recording on the Virginia Woolf Society website.)
Virginia Woolf was born this day in 1882. I first encountered Woolf in college when I read To the Lighthouse, which has lodged itself inside of me as very few books have. I always say that it's a novel one must read either very quickly or very slowly in order to make sense of it. Woolf moves so deeply and yet so quickly between the exterior, physical world and the interior worlds of her characters, that the only way to imbibe it all and allow the meaning to soak into you is to do one of two things: 1) read at breakneck speed, letting the waves (of details and ideas and thoughts and emotions) wash over you so they leave a general impression upon your psyche; or 2) read slowly and deliberatley, picking your way phrase-by-phrase among the heaps of details, ideas, thoughts, and emotions, so that you can carefully examine each one and place it in your psychic pocket.
When I first read To the Lighthouse, I had to read it fast. I couldn't make sense of it any other way. I had to just keep going, pushing myself through the pages—or rather, letting the pages pull me through the story. Years later I read it more slowly, which I suppose helped me to understand it better. But honestly, nothing compared to that first encounter with the book, even though I didn't realize how exciting and pivotal it was at the time of my first reading. I just knew that Woolf seemed to give language to moments and impressions that I'd assumed to be beyond language.
More than a decade later, I discovered that Woolf had a name for these kinds of encounters: "moments of being" or "shocks." I wrote about this phenomenon in the critical thesis I wrote in graduate school.
Here's an excerpt from that thesis, "Spinning a Web of Wonder: Capturing and Conveying Awe on the Page." It gets to the heart of how Woolf uses words to give shape to seemingly ineffable experiences.
Virginia Woolf believed that we encounter awe—during what she called "moments of being"—throughout our days. In her essay "A Sketch of the Past," she describes a Tuesday in April that contained more than the average number of moments of being. She mentions the contentment she experienced in writing the first few pages of the essay, in taking a walk, and in reading Chaucer with pleasure and the memoirs of Madame de la Fayette with interest. She also notices that the countryside "was coloured and shaded as I like—there were the willows, I remember, all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue."[i] These may seem like small, insignificant moments to a casual observer, but Woolf was attuned to their beauty. Still, she viewed these kinds of moments—in which we are acutely aware of our surroundings and experiences—as the exception, not the rule, in everyday life. In the same paragraph she writes: "These separate moments of being were however embedded in many more moments of non-being. I have already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch; and at tea; although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously."[ii]
The moments of being that Woolf described above are the more mundane sort: simple moments of awareness, pleasure, or beauty. She makes no claim to experience wonder within them, although I think she probably did, especially in that willow tree "all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue." But Woolf has also described another kind of moment, which she called a "shock."
To begin to understand what Woolf meant by the term, let's look at a shock that occurred during her childhood: "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."[iii] Not all of Woolf's shocks were as benign or pleasant as this, but experiencing them eventually led her to reach the philosophy "that behind the cotton wool is 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."[iv]
I consider shocks to be a subset of moments of being, and the kind that are closer to my idea of an epiphany or moment of awe. I interpret Woolf's two terms as being different in degree, not quality, so for the purposes of this paper I’ll use the two terms interchangeably.
The experience of reading Woolf for the first time in college was a shock for me. Before that, I'd experienced plenty of moments of being, instances when the curtain of everyday life lifted to reveal some larger truth. There were occasions when my state of mind and my environment aligned to create a sort of harmony; moments when a particular slant of light or the sound of distant church bells altered my mood or sense of self so profoundly that I felt simultaneously in the moment and beyond it. I'd lived such moments, but I had no name for them. I didn't even realize that other people experienced anything similar.
But then I read Woolf's To the Lighthouse and felt a sensation that was the opposite of having the wind knocked out of me. I experienced a breathgiving infilling as I read Woolf's descriptions of apparently random, fleeting moments of thought or sensory input and their profound effects upon her characters. I recognized these moments of being immediately, but it would be many more years until I learned that she had a name for them.
At the beginning of To the Lighthouse, six-year-old James Ramsay sits on the floor of his family's seaside vacation home. As he cuts out pictures from the illustrated Army and Navy Stores catalogue, his mother promises him that they will finally go to the lighthouse the next day if the weather is fine. Upon hearing this good news, James "endowed the picture of a refrigerator…with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy."[v] In an instant, Mrs. Ramsay's promise, James's emotions, and the picture of the refrigerator fuse into one glorious moment of delight.
Woolf describes James as belonging "to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests."[vi] James Ramsay’s happy moment of being was a shocking revelation for me. Not only did I vicariously experience his joy, I had my own moment of clarity when I realized that I wasn’t alone in this way of being in the world.
[i] Virginia Woolf, "A Sketch of the Past," in Moments of Being, 2nd ed., ed. Jeanne Schulkind (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1985), 70.
[iii] Ibid., 71.
[iv] Ibid., 72.
[v] Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 9.