22 April 2006

Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf

This book is a collection of autobiographical fragments written by Virginia Woolf at various times in her life - they rather neatly fall at the beginning, middle, and end of her career as a writer. Thus, they provide an interesting perspective into her development as a writer - all the more so because two of the fragments, one written in 1907, and the other in 1939-40, both describe the same period of her childhood.

Autobiography has two goals, in a sense - to describe the life, and the self. As Woolf complains, so many memoirs fail because "they leave out the person to whom things happened" (65). But I am coming to think that the self can only be apprehended indirectly, it arises as an effect of the writing, in spite of itself. When somebody describes themselves to you, do you really take them at face value, or do you think of them as someone who would describe themselves that way, and then try to imagine what such a person would be like?

Incidentally, this holds true in quotidian life too, not only in autobiography - awhile back, a good friend of mine was going out on a date, and asked for my advice, and the only thing I could think of to tell him was that when on a date, one ought to avoid self-description, and particularly in-depth analysis and psychologizing of yourself - don't tell someone what you're like, show them. Rather than telling them what kind of person you are, tell them about things that you find interesting. You're far more likely to get closer to somebody because s/he is really into discussing movies that you like then somebody who apparently also fears commitment, no?

Anyhow, so self emerges in spite of, rather than because of, it's attempts to apprehend itself on paper. I think that's why I like autobiographies so much. The good ones really make you feel like you've gotten to know somebody, and being able to do that through written words is quite remarkable.

Another side note - at a conference I attended awhile back, somebody presented the idea of literature as a kind of telepathy. It's an attempt on the part of an author to put something from their mind into yours, and it's precisely the stamp of individuality on it that makes it so remarkable. That's the universal - not some absolute, transcendent humanity, but precisely the opposite, the repeated reappearance of the unique individual. I may be channeling some Zizek here. Moving on...

Woolf's text is also interesting because of her ideas of what a self, and a life, really consists of. The title of the collection comes from the piece called "A Sketch of the Past", where she talks about Moments of Being as the only moments that one really lives - most days, she says, are made up of non-being, "a kind of non-descript cotton wool (...) a great part of every day is not lived consciously" (70). But what are these moments of being? They seem to be a kind of shock of transcendence, where the sef is lost entirely and subsumed into something larger, where a pattern is revealed behind the cotton wool: "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" (67).

The first piece in the text, "Reminiscences", is just that - a sort of chronological account of her life. It's interesting in a sort of voyeuristic way, perhaps, but doesn't get you any closer to Woolf herself, really. "Sketches of the Past" is fascinating, because it tells the same story in a far more reflexive, and interesting way. It's not just a description, it's an attempt to summon the past, and is somehow far more palpable. The remaining pieces, written for the Memoir Club, are interesting because they seem to hold so much of Woolf in them. I could barely tell you what they were about - they're mostly rather gossipy, particularly the piece called "Am I a Snob?", but her voice is so strong within them that it's really as though she were sitting in your kitchen and telling you the story over coffee and cigarettes. Remarkable.

Ultimately then, the book is wonderful not for its explicit content, but for its voice. I don't much care about the actual events described, and the text is hardly a suspensful page turner, but it does make a wonderful companion.

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