The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but it is then that I am living most fully in the present.—“A Sketch of the Past”
Virginia Woolf begins her “Sketch” by describing her earliest, joyous memories in infancy, those associated with her family’s beach house, St. Ives. She writes, “I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start. But the peculiarity of these two strong memories was that each was very simple. I am hardly aware of myself, but only of the sensation. I am only the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture.”
Woolf calls the forgotten rush of everyday life “non-being,” and contrasts this unconscious state with memorable moments—the hum of bees as she walked to the beach as a girl—that are often mysterious for being so ordinary and yet remembered. In these flashes of time she was conscious of being conscious, instead of “embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool” in which human days typically pass.
I mentioned in my last post the resonant hints of spirituality I find in Woolf’s concept. Here is an excerpt that shows what I mean:
As a child, then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St. Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. I will give a few instances. The first: I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St. Ives. 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.
The sensitivity with which Woolf experienced life seems excruciating, as the passage underscores as it continues with the third example, of overhearing her parents discuss the suicide of a neighbor. Walking in the garden later, she stood before an apple tree, unable to pass it, “looking at the grey-green creases of the bark—it was a moonlit night—in a trance of horror.” This connecting an innocent tree with a man’s death, of being “dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair,” shows her torture as a person better than anything I’ve read.
“All her life,” writes Hermione Lee in her introduction to the Paris Press edition of Woolf’s On Being Ill, “she had to do battle with tormenting, terrifying mental states, agonising and debilitating physical symptoms, and infuriating restrictions.”
How she suffered for her sensitivity. But Woolf writes in “A Sketch” that “the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.” Indeed, she says that when she wrote about the three above incidents, she realized for the first time consciously that one, the flower insight, ended in satisfaction. Even as a girl she felt she had made an important discovery with the flower, one she could return to, “turn over and explore.” And as an adult, even the blows that seemed to come from an enemy hidden in the cotton wool appeared to her a revelation of some sort, “a token of some real thing behind appearances.”
Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; 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; that we are part of the work of art.
To me this is spiritual, even as Woolf goes on to say emphatically that in these moments “there is no God”—nor Shakespeare nor Beethoven either—and she has also expressed what I see as the religious impulse—connection—and comes close to defining where I place God, inside humans as an evolutionary force impelling their search for goodness, truth, and justice. This is a very personal reading, of course, my receiving a thrilling hint, as when I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, of someone else working out the same problems that preoccupy me and arriving at the numinous.
Or, as Woolf says better: “. . . we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself . . . It proves that one’s life is not confined to one’s body and what one says and does; one is living all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions. Mine is that there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool. And this conception affects me every day.”
Woolf succumbed to mental illness and killed herself before she was able to put in “the horrid labour” she felt was necessary to make of her “Sketch” a work of art. I found an excellent short essay online by Nicole L. Urquhart, “Moments of Being in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction,” which discusses how Woolf tried to portray moments of being—episodes in which characters are conscious of being conscious—in her novels Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts.