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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

I'm not afraid of Virginia Woolf

Quite the opposite actually. Joyce and her were the first ones who made me love the twist and give of words, and the magic you can still make with them.

The first two weeks of June at Lewis & Clark saw an conference on the Woolf and her works, attended by people from all over the country. Along with the conference, came an exhibition of a private collection of books that belonged to the author-- The conference was closed to me, but the exhibition was a different matter.

I'm not sure what it is about old books. And old handwriting. And dates and names that mean very little to very few people, almost no one, anymore, but did once describe the entire universe of one witty sad woman who lived a long time ago, and wrote about, among other things, a man named Septimus who saw his life and death in a tree, and wasn't afraid of gravity.

I have often wondered at this woman, who was so incredibly honest about her childhood and her mind, who walked into the sea to prevent her husband from seeing her loose her senses completely.

The books in the glass shelves in Watzek library traced a lifetime of reading, bus tickets, translations and concert passes-- Woolf and her husband were both scholars in Greek, and I was thoroughly kicked to see her fitting in words and question marks in the margin of a book of poetry by Sophocles....

... She lived at a time when people still wrote quotes into the front pages of books they gifted to friends, daughters and lovers. For example, in a copy of Samuel Johnson's 'Lives' [a book that made us shiver in lit crit class last year] gifted to her by her brother and sister, the following was scrawled in scrawny cursive-

'To Goat from Nessa and Thoby Jan 17th, 1895.
"It is a very hard thing upon the great men of past centuries that they should've come into the world so soon"
-Dickens.'

She was 13 years old, was Woolf.

I wanted to touch those pages, sniff the bus ticket that took her around London, the way I breathe in the pages of my grandfather's books.

People live on through the books they leave behind, books that knew what their nose hairs looked like, that were dog-eared, carried around and coffee-stained.

I found it hard to walk away from the library. I thought of her reading and shelving all these books in front of me, while dealing with bouts of manic depression... while book-keeping for Hogarth Press which she and Leonard co-owned... I thought of her choosing the words to write that last note to her husband:

"I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness... I can't fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work" (The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. VI, p. 481).

This in 1941, no young violent life, but one that had walked with depression and success and people coming and going-- She went to classical music concerts. A woman came to college, a noted pianist, to play pieces Woolf would've listened to while writing books like Orlando and Mrs. Dalloway...

...Music by Debussy, Ravel, Albeniz... music that if you closed your eyes brought you pictures of blue imps melting and growing into the night, a water-sprite women who called to a man with tear-drops, dew-drops on his window pane, seeking human love as her release from the lake... Faustus watching the gibbet and feeling the horror of a new power he would never understand till it was too late....

This is what she knew, till her last days when she spoke incessantly, word on word, un-ending, seeing birds that spoke in Greek to her.

She walked into water, and was found 3 weeks later by children.

I respect her for this. There is something to be said for walking into cold ocean alone and aging, as opposed to walking into fire at noon with people crying and yelling all around. It takes dignity and the calm that comes with a lifetime of living within one's own head.

Like Vincent, Virginia, you came into this world too soon. Thank you.

"The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. There! the old lady had put out her light! the whole house was dark now with this going on, she repeated, and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back."
- Mrs. Dalloway.

4 comments:

A Hairy Snail said...

somehow....just somehow...i will never think highly of virginia woolfe. true - she did take away the gore from death; but then all she did was focus on death and the effects of the same.

Anshumani said...

I hate virginia woolfe ... what's the best thing that can happen to a writer ... they get married to the biggest publisher in UK and the best possilbe editor there is ... that was woolfe's husband ... her writing was so bad and pathetic that the husband had to spend months editting it and then he would flood all the bookshops with her books to make her popular ... hmmppfff

The Wizard of Odd said...

'Chizedek- I suppose-- though this could be a generalization-- that a lot of men will feel the same... not sure. She didn't really focus her death in all her books... she dealt with it knowingly, yes.

But aye, a different read... and one that it is good to balance out with some happy Coelho or Seth :-D

The Wizard of Odd said...

Ruddra Saheb-- please to be Oming. Im sure you have your own views on the subject, but I happen to like this writer. And its MY blog, dammit! Le sniff.

*grins*

And Mr. Woolf didn't edit all her work at all, just that which belonged to her later years. And thr Hogarth press wasnt the biggest around during her lifetime... what Bloomsbury grew into came afterwards.

Aye?

But much thanks for dropping by. Thy imperious sniffles are missed.