We are the thing itself



From Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, on some themes I've explored here before:

Out of this image of a narrow, perilous strip of existence, Virginia Woolf developed her sense of herself as a writer. She had already, as a small child, experienced moments of profound horror or desolation. Now these deaths intensified her anticipation of a hidden enemy waiting to deliver a 'sledgehammer' blow, and the need for some form of fight or resistance. When she came to explain to herself in her late memoir what made her a writer, she described it as a process of welcoming or finding valuable these shocks: 'And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer." The shock is followed by an immediate desire to explain it. The 'blow' is to 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.' This making of 'order' or 'wholeness' out of 'shocks,' is, she says, 'the strongest pleasure known to me.'

This 'pleasure' leads her to the philosophy of life which she was beginning to evolve in her 1903 notebook: that there is a pattern hidden behind the 'cotton-wool' of daily life and that all individuals, and all individual works of art, are part of the pattern. So the making of art, in reaction to the blows of life, is both an active, controlling process, in which she orders reality by 'putting it into words'; and a passive, self-abnegating process, whereby she recognizes that what she is making is part of something pre-existing and universal: 'There is no Shakespeare; there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music' we are the thing itself."