Monday, March 28, 2005

The Years, The Waves

The anniversaries keep coming, folks, but we are back on the serious tip. And I have to admit, I'm feeling a little melancholy about this one, because 64 years ago today—March 28, 1941—was the day that Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse. It's troubling enough to remember anyone who took her own life, much less one of the greatest writers the language has ever seen. (My favorite Woolf novel is generally whichever one I have read most recently.) But it's hard for me to recall the circumstances of Woolf's death and not think in terms of parallels to our current global moment. The massive revival of warfare around the world played a huge role in prompting Woolf's deep, final depression, the last of several serious bouts she experienced during her life. At times, a story like that gets repeated so often and grows so distant in our collective past that it becomes a way of romanticizing a writer's spirit—how Woolf felt the world so deeply that she couldn't bear the war, etc. But living as we do today, both in the thick and on the precipice of what seem like countless conflicts and disasters, it seems remarkably easy to grasp how she might have felt. I'm not trying to bring down the room on Monday morning or make it sound like I personally am in any sort of grave state. But this year, Woolf's death doesn't seem like a literary anecdote so much as a cautionary tale, not just something she did but something anyone now living might do.

Consider this passage, plucked virtually at random from Jacob's Room, one of her most luminous novels. Remember her gift for connecting the most basic issues of personal identity and experience to the broadest conundrums of ethics and of life. The narrator is speaking rather specifically here about sexual politics, but it reads just as well as a statement on the limits and needs of human compassion:

It seems then that men and women are equally at fault. It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows....

Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.

Photograph © 1902 by George Charles Beresford, c/o The National Portrait Gallery, London. Passage from Jacob's Room © 1922. Harvest Book Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960), pp. 71-72.

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Blogger Dr. S said...

I think this post is just lovely.

10:48 AM, March 29, 2005  

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