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Of Finite and Infinite Selves In Virginia Woolf’s Essays

Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Introduced by Joanna Kavenna, Notting Hill Editions Ltd. 2014

Recently, a book appeared on Virginia Woolf and her non-fictional writings on self. This topic certainly is formidable: does one have, do, and/or experience the self or selves objectively or subjectively and so forth? In a provocative, far-reaching Introduction to the collection from ever-scrupulous Notting Hill Editions, Joanna Kavenna goes directly to the matter at hand and conclusively identifies her unifying purpose: “The question of the self is central in some way to every essay in this collection.” She identifies self as centrally important to Virginia Woolf: “The self, with all its vivid yet intangible impressions, is the only reality she cares to consider,” and central for that matter as well to artistic creation, as “the originality of the self is the one certain route to originality in art” (viii, xi, viii).

essays on the selfKavenna’s Introduction raises the bar high for its readers, proposing what she calls a “finite self” in her/their/his/its “fleeting encounter with the world beyond” (xvii, xxv). She offers a succinct historical overview of self – a subjective, finite, immortal and “incorporeal cyber self,” and so forth. Philosophically, it appears that Kavenna has a rather purposive view of this Self: “to relay their singular impressions of reality to others,” this “lone perceptive self, trying to communicate” (xv, xvi). It is as though Kavenna situates self as a finite social medium. Reading the Introduction, one yearns to synchronize this social finite self struggling against challenging external realities with those elegant, transcendental, self-generating beings in Woolf’s fiction.

As I read, I recognized that Woolf’s hypothetical selves might not be finite, but rather intransitive and infinite. I realized too that Woolf might not have even looked for a crystal-clear objective definition of self. She might have simply said “beings” or “consciousness.” After reading the collection a second time, I came upon a short review that unduly cast aspersions on the collection’s integrity, by denigrating the unifying principle of self which Kavenna has carefully and clearly adumbrated.

The same is true of her (Woolf’s) thoughts on self-hood and interiority, but – what topic is not, ultimately, about the self? Which essay, by any hand, could not be grouped under the banner? At first, I thought Notting Hill Editions perhaps had rather painted themselves into a corner with ‘Self’ as their selection criteria; it is so vast a topic that it does not narrow down the possibilities from within Woolf’s oeuvre at all. It is too nebulous an entity to exclude anything that Woolf’s ever written. It perhaps means that the selection is not quite so cohesive as it could have been, had another topic been chosen.

Felicitously, each essay in the book demonstrates the exact opposite of that apprehension. Each essay selected directly or indirectly explores and takes on the matter of self. Each singularizes and particularizes what are significant “moments of being” in someone or in some ones, highlighting “an ordinary mind” acting in the presence of a myriad impressions. Each essay pauses upon and magnifies the indwelling of what might best be described as a “passionate soliloquy,” which is both a visioning and a re-visioning (88). Each piece of writing comments upon a mind’s knowing in its various circumstances; sometimes it is referred to as “a mind of your own” or on the “other side of the mind.” Sometimes, mind becomes what one routinely thinks of as a self; sometimes not.

Sometimes, this mind becomes an extended condition or part of a process like an extended algebraic equation. Pithily, unexpectedly, Woolf clarifies in a refreshingly physical way that “the mind’s eye is only by courtesy an eye; it is a nerve which hears and smells, which transmits heat and cold, which is attached to the brain and rouses the mind to discriminate and speculate” (128). This collection reveals that Woolf is anticipating much from this amorphous and fertile mind, and that what and how this mind does identifies who and what we are to others and to ourselves.

Each of the book’s 14 essays – to different effect, length, and intensities – magnifies the very lens of a mind refracting, considering, and enacting what and how it uniquely sees its particular realities. The success of the mind’s active recordings constitutes the foundations of self-hood, the “reality of our own creative powers” (71).

Woolf quite often describes perception in a physical way, as a visible act which requires active participation. Writing of William Hazlitt whom she sees as divided in his “intense consciousness of his own existence,” Woolf applauds the fact that in essays he would enter “a calm so pure and serene that one did not like to interrupt it (9, 111). She rests comfortable in his concordance that “sometimes his complex and tortured spirit come[s] together in a truce of amity and concord” (111). Of Coleridge, Woolf writes in some awe that “he holds a looking-glass in his hand. He is a man of “exaggerated self-consciousness, endowed with an astonishing power of self-analysis” (83). She quite marvels at the spellbinding effects of his capacity for trance and complete concentration.

In other comments on persons, she acclaims the spirits of Horace Walpole and of Sara Coleridge –both their blinding limitations and their gigantic endeavors. About self-beleaguered Sara Coleridge, Woolf says that her “thoughts are growing while they speak,” that she is thus a powerful person (95). Incidentally, Sara Coleridge rather meaningfully once observed that “her father was herself” (93).

In addition to Woolf’s profound personal portraits, this Notting Hill collection includes five ground-breaking how-to-do-it essays: how to be a poet, how to read, how to work as a woman, how to write a novel, and how to understand modern fiction.

In each of these, she praises latent freedoms of a “state of mind,” encouraging potentials for a “state of trance” and “sudden discoveries of that very shy and illusive spirit, the imagination” (118). Woolf does not bask unduly in redundant praise of an invisible world and its unseen selves. She pays attention to results, to the golden marriage of language and nuanced perception: “Yet in our tongue-tied age there is a joy in this reckless abandonment to the glory of words. Cajoled, caressed, tossed up in handfuls, words yield those flashing phrases that hang like ripe fruit in the many leaved tree of his [Coleridge’s] immense volubility” (84).

Woolf’s vision of the energy which sustains and engenders these “moments of being,” moments rather akin to what she has called “air balls,” is an evanescent vision – self is not a fixed, finite wedge, for, as Woolf pointedly observes, “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living” (122, 107). In the lingering and lovely “Evening over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car,” Woolf describes an active reception which might elicit a deeper realization of self: “believe me when I tell you that it is best to sit and soak: to be passive; to accept” (123).

Indeed, this intricately assembled collection on Woolf and her many selves urges readers to question, to go further, to renew their struggles to deal with the “intangible urgency of the present,” so as to sustain and enhance passionate and creative soliloquies as emancipated human beings, as selves, as entities (xxvi). This beautiful book is a call to action for all of us to attend to the important matter of our own mental emancipation.

© 2017 Linda E. Chown

About Linda Chown

Writer, professor and poet. I love writing which is clear and direct and deep. Three books of poems, one book on Doris Lesssing and Cartín Gaite, published papers on Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, Kirsty Gunn, Lavinia Greenlaw, Edith Wharton, Oliver Sacks, Willa Cather, and many others. Lived in Spain for 17 years.

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