Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was a respected intellectual in the last decades of the Victorian era, and it is significant for her development that this late Victorian patriarch opened his considerable library to her without restriction. (Yet her extensive reading there did not prevent her from believing that she was yet uneducated – a feeling she give to Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway.) Intellectually, the ‘father’ who influenced her development most was Walter Pater (incidentally, Pater’s sister Clara was Woolf’s first tutor in Greek and Latin, suggesting how interconnected the community of intellectuals was – and perhaps remains – in English life). The notion of “moments of being,” central to Pater’s thought about the nature of consciousness and art, remained important to Woolf throughout her life, as a conception of aesthetic experience and of how the stream of experience attains its potential fullness and intensity. (See my earlier post on Walter Pater.)
In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf chronicles her earliest experience of such “moments:” She begins with the image of lying in her nursery bed and listening in a sort of “rapture” to the “waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind.” Soon her account of these intense “moments of being” extends to the experience of violation and death. One of “these sudden shocks” involved the child abuse she suffered at the hands of her cousin Gerald (“His hand explored my private parts too. I remember resenting, disliking it….This seems to show that a feeling about certain parts of the body…must be instinctive. I proves the Virginia Stephen was not born on the 25th January 1882, but was born many thousands of years ago; and had from the very first to encounter instincts already acquired by thousands of ancestresses in the past”).
“These exceptional moments [occasioned particularly by contact with death] brought with them a peculiar horror and a physical collapse.” Yet, she writes, the “shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it…; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole.” Her “philosophy” as a writer is “that behind the cotton wool [of daily life] 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 all parts of the work of art.” An extraordinarily communicative being survives the traumatic “shocks” and is stirred by them to create a vision of wholeness and connection, which recognizes the deep patterns below the false boundaries on the surface of life with its “cotton wool” of insulated egos and habitual behavior.
After the death of her father in 1904 and a mental collapse which followed, she and her sister, Vanessa, moved from their darkly Victorian parental home to a well-lit house in Bloomsbury square, near the British Museum at the time, and it was here that a group of friends dedicated to subverting and transcending those ‘false boundaries.’ The Bloomsbury group formed around the sisters and their charismatic brother Theo, who brought his friends down from Cambridge. In 1906, he died of typhoid fever on a trip with his sisters to Greece, the second death within two years of a beloved family member. The agonized human struggles of the Stephen family and, generally, of the Bloomsbury friends only deepened their faith in one another. Guided from the start by the ideals of friendship and personal affection voiced by the Cambridge dons G. E. Moore and G. L. Dickenson, the Bloomsbury circle came to believe in a sort of liberal aristocracy made up of people like themselves, comprised that is – to quote E. M. Forster – of “the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky,” i.e., the courageous (famously, he wrote that he would rather die for his friend than for his country). True civilization, Forster and his friends believed, existed only within the cracks in the edifices of power, which needed liberal reform but not revolutionary abolition.
That attitude can be found in the influential thought of the major members of the Bloomsbury circle, beyond the gifted novelist Forster – for example, the economist J. M. Keynes (who helped to found the modern field of economics) and the brilliant art critic Roger Fry (who initiated the English-speaking world into the experience of post-impressionist art), the preeminent English post-impressionist artist Duncan Grant, and several other highly influential English intellectuals. (Acquaintances included the philosopher Bertrand Russell (who wrote Principia Mathematica with Alfred North Whitehead, invited Wittgenstein to Cambridge, and later became a stalwart anti-nuclear leader in the “ban the bomb” movement.)
Yet Bloomsbury was hardly a purely cerebral group of friends. The art critic Clive Bell fell in love with the Stephen sisters and particularly Vanessa, whom he married (a few days after her brother Thoby’s death). The brilliant Leonard Woolf (who helped to found the modern Labor Party) fell in love with and married Virginia, whom he saw as beautiful and demur on the outside, showing great intelligence in her eyes – on the inside, satirically witty and hypercritical. Lytton Strachey, the bohemian homosexual writer and acerbically realistic biographer, opened the floodgate of conversation about sex when, in 1910, he pointed to a white stain on Vanessa’s dress and said matter-of-factly: “Semen.” (It was not for nothing that D. H. Lawrence was an acquaintance – however critical and questioning – of several members of Bloomsbury, Forster above all.)
This post presents more background than I’d intended to offer, for I’d like to locate some of the crucial “moments of being” created in Virginia Woolf’s novels – I’ll try to do so in my next post. (By the way, you can read "A Sketch of the Past" and a good selection of essays and novel excerpts in The Virginia Woolf Reader.)
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulate. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]