This morning as I sat on my balcony a curious thought occurred to me. I’d been reading some of Woolf’s essays, which for these several months have been my daily food. Thinking about her intellectual and linguistic poise, I wondered how she managed to hold that stance through the course of a life that was anything but serene, the diametric opposite of placid and for most of its latter years not terribly exciting. As one goes through the essays from the earliest to the last a clear voice is present that gives out a particular ring like no other. The effect goes far beyond mere wordsmithing, which with Woolf is, of course, always exquisite — the essays are masterpieces of the craft of writing, there’s no question about that. But the presence of self the writer has infused into the words is more than simply the product of great skill. That presence is the stamp of Woolf’s own consciousness.
The curious thought that occurred to me as I sat in the sunshine this morning is this: Woolf obviously cultivated a specific quality of consciousness from which she produced her work. That state of consciousness is the origin of the authorial voice in the essays. The developed quality of that consciousness is what provides that voice with its nature and imparts to the reader the sense of companionship the essays give to anyone who spends significant time in their company. I find myself saying at times, “Let’s have a natter with Virginia, shall we?” And up come her essays on my Kindle so I can spend some time with that lovely and personable presence. It’s like having coffee with an old friend you’ve missed since last parting; the conversation resumes effortlessly as soon as you regain each other’s company.
It will scandalize some people to learn that I can hardly bear to read most of Woolf’s novels. But I will certainly not shock Philip Hensher, who in 2003 wrote a piece on Virginia Woolf for The Telegraph in review of the film “The Hours” with the title “Virginia Woolf Makes Me Want To Vomit” (full text here). My opinions seem innocuous by comparison. No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, is there. As the Germans say: alles halb so schlimm. Only bad by halves. Orlando is a good romp, of course, but represents an anomaly in her oeuvre, I think — and this is, by the way, the novel that Mr. Hensher suggests may induce the gag reflex. I’m happy to report that I got all the way through it without once feeling the sick rise from my inward parts. If, however, you drop one of the other novels, with the possible exception of Mrs. Dalloway, into my lap when I’m settled down in my chair for a read, my heart will sink. “Oh no, not those DREARY people again, bore me to death why don’t you … ” To The Lighthouse, for example: part way into it I find banging at the door of my awareness the question, “Why should anyone care about these people?” And may the hand of silence fall demurely across my mouth if I’m asked my opinion of The Waves. As my mother was wont to put it, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” It seems good advice in that instance.
In Woolf’s defense one should consider the milieu from which she issued. Critics point out that To The Lighthouse has something genetic to do with summer days spent in Cornwall where the Stephen family continued being upper middle-class and frightfully respectable (albeit dysfunctional as the day is long) even while on holiday when there were no particular appearances to keep up. But we’ve heard it all before in the novels of Forster, haven’t we, with Cousin Charlotte and Miss Honeycutt and Margaret Schlegel and Aunt Juley … Now mind you, I’m not complaining because there are no car chases at high speed through the business districts of major metropolitan areas. Nor do I become sullen at the absence of subplots involving adulterous surgeons or teenagers falling into prostitution to feed a drug habit. But if, when I read a novel, the lives of the characters prove to be even more boring than my own, then there’s a problem. And lest you think my disinclination to ingest stilted conversations at tea time with the Whoever They Ares in To The Lighthouse shows that I fail to appreciate fully the varied achievements of our dear Virginia, allow me to explain why I believe I do.
Virginia and I have something in common, you see. Astonishing to relate, I know, but there it is. As I said, it’s clear that Woolf actively cultivated her consciousness. I, too, cultivate my consciousness. You may well find a smirk spreading across your face as you consider that point but I’m not just making up stories. True, I haven’t produced any novels considered modern classics. I’ve not swanned about Bloomsbury hobnobbing with the likes of Lytton Strachey or John Maynard Keynes. (I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, to be honest.) My life has, in fact, been rather involuntarily like a cowboy version of one of Woolf’s duller novels. It pains me to admit it, but the truth must out. Would that my boring bits had involved afternoon teas and lighthouses and the Isle of Skye … but no, in my case things fell far short of that mark. In my neck of the woods we don’t have scones and the cakes are made from boxed mixes and have a layer of Jello in the middle. Any mention of clotted cream would only twist faces into an expression of disgust. But let me not bore you with the recital.
Woolf had a context — at least in the early years up through the Bloomsbury period — that provided an environment rich enough to furnish ample raw material for the stance of consciousness she later cultivated. One needs all sorts for that agenda, of course — the good and the bad, the sweet and the sour, it all goes into the quarry from which the blocks are later hewn to build the Great Hall of one’s awareness. I envy her the context she had in that early period. There were no Stracheys swanning about in my backwaters of rural America. Consequently, the similarity Woolf and I share can’t be ascribed to context, not by any possible flight of fancy. The basis of the similiarity involves instead strategy. The strategy of cultivation involves assembling and transforming elements — ideas, experiences, sensory impressions, eruptions from memory (no, I’m not on about madeleines, stifle yourselves) — that one then uses to dilate or enlarge consciousness through a complex process of reflection, refraction and assimilation. That’s the goal: the capacitation of consciousness to render it an ever abler instrument for the expression of one’s creative intents. Woolf’s creative intents involved words, obviously. So do mine, now that I have the time and freedom to devote myself to them unreservedly.
You may think I’m talking above my station — such posh words ooh la la, perhaps we’ve bitten off a tad more than we can chew, your parents’ postal code was what, dear? But no, not a bit of it. I maintain on the basis of my own experience that the cultivation of consciousness is open to everybody, just as Woolf claims literature to be in A Room of One’s Own. The honing of consciousness is not the exclusive purview of the upper classes, nor of professors of literature from the better universities, nor indeed of any particular group. It can be accomplished by high or low, young or old, man or woman, the only requirement being attention to the process necessary to achieve it. Let’s consider that process in finer detail.
The most important hallmark of the process is unwavering focus of purpose, which forms a substrate of beingness or identity in a manner of speaking. The purpose can be either a default position of the person in question or a stance chosen and maintained by dint of will. Most often, I think, it’s a combination of both things. In my case the default stance came first and the dint of will later. From the biographical evidence in Woolf’s case, it was the other way round with our dear Virginia. Her environment in her early years did much to set up the conditions for her subsequent state of consciousness, what with luminaries popping in for tea and Bright Young Bloomsbury Things going on interminably about the meaning of life and egging each other on to all manner of intellectual acrobatics. There were dashing young men galore and oodles of aristocrats and all the vibrant life of London at the doorstep … whereas there I sat, on a ranch in the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest, in an environment which fitted in tone the work of some Frankenstein cobbled together from Thomas Hardy and James Fenimore Cooper far more than it reflected anything to be found in Woolf’s works. I had to do my own work of collecting raw materials since my environment was for the most part dead space, save for the element of Nature. The disadvantages of youth also accrued to me at that point — as inevitably they do in one’s early years — but one soldiers on, doesn’t one. So I learned by hook and by crook how to isolate that element of consciousness and then — slowly, with many false starts and trips down wrong turnings in the road — how to work on its expansion, its development, in short: its cultivation. Rather unsuprisingly, Voltaire comes to mind at the moment: Il faut cultiver notre jardin. We must cultivate our garden. Truer words were never spoken. But how?
It’s unwise to count on much understanding or assistance in the process. As Woolf says in A Room of One’s Own about the creation of fiction:
Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down.
If the means for the cultivation of consciousness don’t exist in someone natively then fine, there the matter ends. If, however, they exist but are prevented by personal context from being used to accomplish their purpose, then we stand before a circumstance I find very dismal, indeed. In the context of Woolf’s later life things militated toward constant irritation but not outright thwarting. Servants were a source of endless irritation, inferior beings by birth and nature (if you were a Virginia Woolf), requiring one to leave notes with instructions lying about the house to avoid the tedium and distraction of personal interactions with such creatures. In my backwater there were no servants — surprise, surprise. It was hoped we are all going to heaven, but nobody had the slightest idea who Vandyck is or what company he’s supposed to belong to, so one did well to move immediately to more practical matters, for example: intellectual survival. And if the ice on the watering trough for the horses needed to be chopped through on a bitter winter’s morning, Yours Truly bundled up and headed out with axe in hand, I bloody well didn’t leave a note for Jeeves on the desk in the library. Such circumstantial exigencies were perhaps a small diversion of energies in the larger scope of things and hardly enough to serve as due cause for my lack of fame in the creation of modern literary classics. Other factors must take that credit — such as a complete lack of talent LOL. For Woolf, however, the business of daily life amounted to meddling with an alchemist’s beaker so it was something to be kept as much as possible at arm’s length, so she could reside in her own consciousness as though in a room of state. And from that high chamber issued forth all those enchanting, musical sentences she wrote. I include in their scintillating company even those that occur in novels I find dull as dishwater.
It’s only now in my retirement that I see how she did it. When I was working a 9 to 5 job her trick remained completely opaque to my understanding. Scant wonder, lost as I was daily in the bathetic miasmas of the workplace. Woolf pulled off her trick by keeping herself always within dashing distance of her High Chamber — she was never required to distance herself from it for too long, save by madness when it overtook her and rapted her away to some dark land that no map can hope to show. I understand her strategy now. I’m also pleased to say that I came upon that understanding as a fait accompli, not through some awkward groping toward a goal that stood at great reach beyond my grasp. I recognized Woolf’s strategy after having successfully formulated and followed my own. In that sense my comprehension of her success was in the manner of a salute to a kindred spirit. Such a notion may cause the smirk to spread anew across your face … my my, we hold quite a high opinion of ourselves, don’t we, well well, kindred spirits, indeed … So I repeat: the cultivation of consciousness is open to everybody, high or low, young or old, man or woman. The only mutually exclusive categories in the matter are, to my knowledge, the quick and the dead. I have no workaround for that troublesome duality. Do speak up if you’ve sorted that bit out ahead of me.
During all those years I passed as a working stiff I made valiant attempts to engage the process of cultivation in the free time unencumbered by the so-called Real World — a moniker I take as false advertising of the crassest sort. What’s real about most of the drivel we digest in the course of our daily lives? Are toothpaste ads on the TV more real than a work of fiction? Is what a movie star wears to the Academy Awards more real than the quality of consciousness expressed in a piece of prose? I think someone has badly mangled the meaning of the word “real,” to be honest. The most real world for Woolf was inside her head. I will stand to the death by the notion that the Mozartean musicality of a paragraph from Woolf’s essays bears the signature of more reality than the Facebook feed from your favorite department store. I believe Woolf knew very well that reality for her had its foundation in whatever stood in closest alignment with the domain of her own consciousness, which could only come to expression in the outer Real World through steadfast insistence on using that internal state as her primary mental abode and as the principal tool for fashioning her works. One has only to read her diaries to see the direct effect of the “real” world on her writing — hardly what one could call salutary. So she left notes for the servants about the house and holed herself up in her High Chamber, her room of one’s own, and stayed in that realm of thought, perception and awareness in which the words came most easily to her. And then she wrote, and wrote, and wrote again, and whatever she wrote is like music to the ear. Even if it bores your socks off.
Eventually, so I now believe by comparison with the developmental trace of my own process, Woolf reached the point where even when sullied by the outer world her centeredness within that domain of her own consciousness held without great expense of effort. I believe it became her default condition in the latter years of her life, at least for the part of her with access to the High Chamber, not the parts that struggled for mere survival. For me, the default condition was always there through some oddment of nature, but its cultivation was thwarted by that so-called reality which Woolf was better able to hold at arm’s length. I had to reach retirement age before a similar freedom entered my experience. After gaining that freedom, the cultivation of consciousness began almost of its own accord, since the intent had lain suppressed all through the years. I’ve now reached the noli me tangere stage of life, where my age serves as grounds for exemption from the necessary busyness of the so-called reality all around me. Until the end of her life Woolf’s context kept her in the thick of it. I’m the luckier one, obviously. I can easily tell people to bugger off and then do whatever I like in splendid isolation for as long as I choose. No servants, no notes, just me and my keyboard and lots of coffee. — though not to Balzac’s level of excess by any means, I hasten to add. One does have one’s standards, after all. That goes without saying. 🙂
Woolf’s challenge was to steward a gift for creation she knew she had from a young age. Because of her personal circumstances, her stewardship of consciousness and her use of her gift had a terrible edge to them. As we all know, the parts of herself outside the High Chamber ultimately won the battle that waged within. Thankfully I’m spared that extreme of experience, which has nothing useful to teach, in my opinion. Survival is a monotonous business and I don’t wonder that Woolf tired of it to the point of letting everything go in the desire for final relief. At this juncture in my life, I find in myself possessed of a similarly cavalier attitude toward The Big Checkout From The Hotel of Life, but it lacks any sense of urgency. I’m content to dilly dally a while, using the freedom I now have to do what Woolf did: honing the fine edge of consciousness. I engage that task gladly each day, my intent being to refine some aspect of it in some way that will later show itself when a startlingly apt image springs to mind or a particularly seductive turn of phrase occurs to me as I pound away at my keyboard. It’s beside the point whether or not I end up producing a classic of modern literature before I kick the bucket. More than just “material circumstances are against it” LOL. That talent thing’s a bitch. So I’ll measure my success not by the number of modern classics I leave as my legacy but rather by the quality of awareness I reach by the end of my lifetime and the traces it leaves in whatever I bang out on my keyboard. We can’t all be Woolfs, after all, can we …
Consciousness, the cultivation of. There’s no better teacher on the subject than dear old Virginia. I’ll have my work cut out for me for the remainder of my days trying to reach the foothills of the Olympian heights she scaled. It’s a given that I’ll die trying 🙂