On Virginia Woolf and Creating Coherences

by Mara Naselli

Minds cannot help but make meaning, even with only a suggestion of direction. When I taught manuscript editing, to put the mechanics of the work in perspective, I would write out a line of taspyograpgucal noasihfsnesnse theat qwe kcgan reasdsdo to illustrate the point. Your eye, reading the jumble above, found the letters to make the words. We make corrections and connections without thinking about them. We bend the contours of a line. We want order, not confusion, and will bring it into shape if we can. Roger_Fry_-_Virginia_Woolf

This hunger for order applies to memory as much as it applies to reading. We know memory is plastic—it can even be invented. What interests me are the choices that occur someplace between consciousness and unconsciousness—our grasping letters that make sense and eliding the others so that the coherence of our interpretations and blindnesses are preserved. But what would a more careful reading look like? How do we allow a memory or fact to break into our consciousness and disrupt our domestic intellectual and emotional order?

On April 18, 1939, Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa urged her to write her memoirs, before her memory might fail her. Woolf was ready for a diversion—she had been working on a biography of the painter Robert Fry, puzzling out the difficulties of writing about another human being outside of the events of his or her life. Who was I then? she asks, turning the question onto herself. For the next year and a half, she wrote her recollections, conjuring the dead and their vanished Victorian world. “A Sketch of the Past” was edited by Jeanne Schulkind and published posthumously in 1976.

Which is to say these writings are, for all intents and purposes, works in progress, and to read them is a bit like editing them, interpreting and weighting the content, discerning a shape that might give contours to the genius they contain. To read Woolf’s draft of a memoir is to sit with her at her writing desk, after she has gone for a walk, read Chaucer, made notes on Robert Fry, written instructions to the housekeeper, or heard the drone of German planes overhead. She settles in, and we watch her wade into the past. Woolf’s writing is not simply recollection, rather her encounter makes the convergence of past and present an altogether new thing—waters not yet crossed.

“I think I have discovered a possible form for these notes,” she writes on May 2. “That is, to make them include the present—at least enough of the present to serve as a platform to stand upon. It would be interesting to make two people, I now, I then, come out in contrast. . . . But I cannot work this out; it had better be left to chance, as I write by fits and starts by way of a holiday from Roger.” And she continues, one memory after another, pictures, and smells sounds fill her bowl, which stands, she says, on the pedestal—her memory of her family’s summer seaside home at St. Ives.

We have all inherited William James’s metaphor for the fluid nature of thinking in his coining of the phrase “stream of consciousness.” Though Woolf might have well come to this metaphor on her own, for her memory is everywhere liquid, ungraspable, and evermoving. The waves are, for Woolf, the pulse of her past. “If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills,” she writes, “then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing 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.” But memory is unstable, or at least precariously balanced. It licks and curls the sides of the bowl, as if Woolf is holding that great bowl with one hand and pouring from a heavy pitcher with the other.

Woolf did not invite us to read “A Sketch of the Past.” So how ought we read her here? Do we elide the bits that seem misplaced? Do unwittingly correct them into a more obedient grammar? What is our readerly responsibility in how we take in this dreamlike rawness? It’s a delicate business. Any reading is, but the vulnerable intimacy of these notes is apparent. “A Sketch of the Past” lacks the propriety and confidence of her criticism. It lacks the pride of her writing to her nephew. It lacks the artful polish of her fiction. Here her inquiries explore and follow emergent thoughts without fear, just to see where they might go. There is an unguarded discernment at work, an uncompromising labor of rigorous perception. In the following passage, Woolf peels off from a stream of memories of fishermen, their boats, and frothing pilchards at sea to consider how past encounters present, present encounters past. We see Schulkind here, too—for she has left a trace of her own reading in her editorial interpolations, in brackets.

St Ives gave us all the same the pure delight which is before my eyes even at this moment. The lemon-coloured leaves on the elm trees, the round apples glowing red in the orchard and the rustle of the leaves make me pause to think how many other than human forces affect us. While I am writing this, the light changes; an apple becomes vivid green. I respond—how? And then the little owl [makes] a chattering noise. Another response. St Ives, to cut short an obscure train of thought, about the other voice or voices and their connection with art, with religion: figuratively, I could snapshot what I mean by fancying myself afloat, [in an element] which is all the time responding to things we have no words for—exposed to some invisible ray: but instead of labouring here to express this, to analyse the third voice, to discover whether ‘pure delights’ are connected with art, or religion: whether I am telling the truth when I see myself perpetually taking the breath of these voices in my sails, and tacking this way and that, in daily life as I yield to them—instead of that, I note only this influence, suspect it to be of great importance, cannot find how to check its power on other people and so erect a finger here, by way of signaling that here is a vein to work out later.

I have the feeling, reading this, that I have momentarily lost control of the boat, and must yield to Woolf’s presence of mind as she lifts her finger: “Ah!” she seems to say. “These other voices have turned our boat parallel to the waves,” and we rock and rock and rock. Whose voices steer vessel?

The bracketed insertions are harmless, but the intrusion is apparent—it is another voice, a twig in the current. A lighter touch might have done the job—a comma after owl, rather than such a determined verb as “make.” The insertion of “in an element” is clumsy, but something is needed there. More to the point, we are afloat, adrift. So many forces push us one way and then another. We are witnessing the birth of a modern consciousness, moving and being moved through the nexus of memory and time, aware that these forces are too manifold to even name.

We are on the edge of Woolf’s thinking. Woolf’s attention to every ripple of memory and feeling is her resistance against the proscribed Victorian roles that defined her and her sisters’ place in the household and society, fixtures against which her father and her stepbrothers asserted themselves, sometimes violently. She recalls the great men who visited the house, how distant they were. Or the family men around the tea table, in their domestic household order, talking of their affairs. “And I,” she writes, “was quite unable to make any connection. There were so many different worlds: but they were distant from me. I could not make them cohere.” Woolf’s refusal is instructive. She doesn’t elide the incongruities. She attends them.