Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy

These days, when we use the word “privacy,” it usually has a political meaning. We’re concerned with other people and how they might affect us. We think about how they could use information about us for their own ends, or interfere with decisions that are rightfully ours. We’re mindful of the lines that divide public life from private life. We have what you might call a citizen’s sense of privacy.
That’s an important way to think about privacy, obviously. But there are other ways. One of them is expressed very beautifully in “Mrs. Dalloway,” in a famous scene early in the book. It’s a flashback, from when Clarissa was a teen-ager. One night, she goes out for a walk with some friends: two annoying boys, Peter Walsh and Joseph Breitkopf, and a girl, Sally Seton. Sally is sexy, smart, Bohemian—possessed of “a sort of abandonment, as if she could say anything, do anything.” The boys drift ahead, lost in a boring conversation about Wagner, while the girls are left behind. “Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it.” Sally picks a flower from the urn and kisses Clarissa on the lips:
The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it—a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!
Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance—and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.
Many people accept the idea that each of us has a certain resolute innerness—a kernel of selfhood that we can’t share with others. (Levin, at the end of “Anna Karenina,” calls it his “holy of holies,” and says that, no matter how close he grows to the people around him, there will always be “the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife.”) What interested Woolf was the way that we become aware of that innerness. We come to know it best, she thought, when we’re forced, at moments of exposure, to shield it against the outside world.
There can be something enjoyable, even revelatory about that feeling of self-protection, which is why we seek out circumstances in which we can feel more acutely the contrast between the outside world and our inner selves. Woolf was fascinated by city life—by the feeling of solitude-on-display that the sidewalk encourages, and by the way that “street haunting,” as she called it, allows you to lose and then find yourself in the rhythm of urban novelty and familiarity. She was drawn to the figure of the hostess: the woman-to-be-looked-at, standing at the top of the stairs, friendly to everyone, who grows only more mysterious with her visibility. (One of the pleasures of throwing a party, Woolf showed, is that it allows you to surprise yourself: surrounded by your friends, the center of attention, you feel your separateness from the social world you have convened.) She showed how parents, friends, lovers, and spouses can become more unknowable over time, not less—there is a core to their personhood that never gives itself up. Even as they put their lives on display, she thought, artists thrive when they maintain a final redoubt of privacy—a wellspring that remains unpolluted by the world outside. “A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter,” Clarissa thinks, at the end of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Of course, it’s the chatter—the party—that helps her know that she has something to lose in the first place.
There are costs and benefits to maintaining this kind of inner privacy. About halfway through “Mrs. Dalloway,” Clarissa’s husband, Richard, decides that, during his lunch hour, he’ll buy roses for Clarissa; his plan is to walk home, hand them to her, and say, “I love you.” It’s an unusually romantic thing for him to do, but, for whatever reason, he’s overcome with the realization that it’s “a miracle he should have married Clarissa.” Richard strides into the drawing room, gives her the flowers, but then finds himself unable to say the words. He is elated, overflowing with love: “Happiness is this, is this,” he thinks. A wave of feeling is cresting inside him. But, despite his feelings, he can only speak about trivial things: lunch, that night’s party, and their daughter’s tutor. Finally, he stands up to go. Clarissa watches him. “He stood for a moment as if he were about to say something,” Woolf writes, “and she wondered what? Why? There were the roses.” As Richard takes his leave, Clarissa thinks:
There is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect … for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one’s husband, without losing one’s independence, one’s self-respect—something, after all, priceless.
It’s typical of Woolf to take a romantic scene and make it steely—that’s the price, you might say, of inner privacy. Marriage, love, and intimacy only take you so far; at the end of that path, you fall back on the austere, solitary dignity of the inner life. And yet Clarissa prefers austerity to intimacy. She thinks, from time to time, about Peter Walsh, who was in love with her, and whom she might have married instead of Richard. Peter was thoughtful, intellectual, romantic, passionate. He loved to talk, and took her thoughts seriously. He was determined to know her, soul-to-soul. To people who hold intimacy to be the highest good in a relationship, that’s a desirable thing. “But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable,” Clarissa thinks. Years later, sitting in the park, she is still rehearsing, in her mind, the arguments she and Peter once had: “Suddenly it would come over her, If he were with me now what would he say?” Richard gives her privacy, and, therefore, inner solitude; he lets her soul remain her own. Of course, he never says “I love you.” Meanwhile, Peter thinks, of Clarissa, that there has always been “this coldness, this woodenness, something very profound in her … an impenetrability. Yet Heaven knows he loved her.” (The case of Septimus Smith, which makes up roughly half of “Mrs. Dalloway,” shows the saddest consequence of inner privacy: hurt to his core, Septimus remains beyond the reach of even those who would help him.)


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