Chapter 8: Virginia Woolf
The Emergent Self
The psychology which explains everything / explains nothing.
IN 1920, AFTER WRITING two novels with a conventional Victorian narrator (the kind that, like an omniscient God, views everything from above), Virginia Woolf announced in her diary: "I have finally arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel." i Her new form would follow the flow of our consciousness, tracing the "flight of the mind" as it unfolded in time. "Only thoughts and feelings," Woolf wrote to Katherine Mansfield, "no cups and tables." ii
This modernist style was a radical shift in perspective. The eminent novelists of her time—"Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy"—ignored the mind's interiors. "They have looked," Woolf wrote, "at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at life, never at human nature." iii Woolf wanted to invert this hierarchy. "Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day," she wrote in her essay "Modern Fiction." "Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?" iv
But the mind is not an easy thing to express. When Woolf looked inside herself, what she found was a consciousness that never stood still. Her thoughts flowed in a turbulent current, and every moment ushered in a new wave of sensation. Unlike the "old-fashioned novelists," who treated the mind as a static thing, Woolf described the mind as neither solid nor certain. Instead, it "was very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun." v At any given moment, she seemed to be scattered in a million little pieces. Her brain was barely bound together.
And yet, it was bound together. Her mind was made of fragments, but it never came undone. She knew that something kept us from disintegrating, at least most of the time. "I press to my centre," Woolf wrote in her diary, "and there is something there." vi
Woolf's art searched for whatever held us together. What she found was the self, "the essential thing." Although the brain is just a loom of electric neurons, Woolf realized that the self makes us whole. It is the fragile source of our identity, the author of our consciousness. If the self didn't exist, then we wouldn't exist. "One must have a whole in one's mind," Woolf said, "fragments are unendurable." vii
But if the mind is so evanescent, then how does the self arise? Why do we feel like more than just a collection of disconnected thoughts? Woolf's revelation was that we emerge from our own fleeting interpretations of the world. Whenever we sense something, we naturally invent a subject for our sensation, a perceiver for our perception. The self is simply this subject; it is the story we tell ourselves about our experiences. As Woolf wrote in her unfinished memoir, "We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself." viii
At the time, this was a surreal idea. Scientists were busy embracing the power of materialism. Anatomy promised to explain everything. (As James Joyce noted, "The modern spirit is vivisective.") The self was just another trick of matter, which time and experiments would discover. But Woolf knew that the self was too profound to be found. In her modernist novels, she wanted to expose our ineffability, to show us that we are "like a butterfly's wing ... clamped together with bolts of iron." If the mind is a machine, then the self is its ghost. It is what cannot be seen.
Almost a century later, the self remains elusive. Neuroscience has ransacked the brain and dissected the cortex, but it has not found our source. Although experiments have confirmed many of Woolf's startling insights—the mind is made of fragments, and yet these fragments are bound into being—our mystery persists. If we want to understand ourselves, Woolf's art is our most revealing answer.
i "I have finally": Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, 5 vols. (London: Hogarth, 1977–1980), vol. 2, 13.
ii "Only thoughts and feelings": Virginia Woolf, Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. Joanne Trautmann Banks (New York: Harvest, 1991), 128.
iii "They have looked": Virginia Woolf, The Virginia Woolf Reader (New York: Harcourt, 1984), 205 [emphasis mine].
iv "Is it not the task": Ibid., 287.
v "was very erratic": Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (New York: Harvest, 1989), 110.
vi "I press to my centre": Woolf, The Diary, vol. 3, 275.
vii "One must have a whole": As cited in Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (New York: Vintage, 1996), 407.
viii "We are the words": Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being (London: Pimlico, 2002), 85.
Excerpted from Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, copyright @2007 . Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.