Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Principle of Her Art Was Joy - Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf left behind her twenty-six volumes written in her own hand: her diary, started in 1915, by death concluded in 1941. She did not write it regularly every day--"there are," says her husband, "sometimes entries daily for several days; more usually there is an entry for every few days and then there will be a gap of a week or two. But the diary gives for twenty-seven years a consecutive record of what she did, of the people whom she saw, and particularly of what she thought about those people, about herself, about life, and about the books she was writing or hoped to write."

Upon Leonard Woolf the editorship of the diary has devolved; and, with that, the infinite difficulties of decision--a decision which, whatever form it took, was more or less certain to be challenged. What he has done is this: he has followed through the inner continuity of the writer. That is to say, he has given us, in this one volume entitled "A Writer's Diary," everything which refers to his wife's work. (The book was published in England in 1953.)

What had been hoped for, at least in England, was everything that would relate to Virginia Woolf's work--i.e., her existence as an entirety. Mr. Woolf's withholding (for the time being) of the bulk of the diary, on the score that it was too personal to be published during the lifetime of many people referred to in it, has been, if not challenged outright, queried. Something less vulgar than curiosity may lie behind the dissatisfaction; it is felt or feared that the picture may be lopsided, or that the editor's sense of what made for continuity may have been over-arbitrary, or that pain-saving excisions sacrificed too much else to the interests of a pacific caution.

All such objections, it should be said, Mr. Woolf at the outset himself foresaw: and he has, we should note, answered them in advance. "At the best," he states, "and even unexpurgated, diaries give a distorted * * * portrait of the writer, because as Virginia Woolf herself remarks somewhere in these diaries, one gets into the habit of recording the particular kind of mood--irritation or misery, say--and of not writing when one feels the opposite. The portrait is therefore at the start unbalanced * * * in my own view, the effect of his editorship has been to correct the unbalance there might have been. That he is wise and that he was the person who knew her best are two facts which to the unbiased reader must surely gradually appear.
For "A Writer's Diary," as it reaches us, never shifts from its focus: it is internal. Its continuity is not merely a continuity; it is Virginia Woolf. Here we have what she was and what she was for. In a genius writer, is being ever separated from purpose? Times, stretches of time maybe, when between the two a divorce appears to occur are irrelevancies, only the more agonizing because of the writer's sense that they are irrelevant. The only death is death through what does not matter--hence the protest, the "irritation or misery."

Into the diary, no doubt, was discharged Virginia Woolf's fury against the consuming futile--the interrupters, the overplayed social farces, the persons whose inner vacuum sucked at and tried to drain out her own vitality, a vitality dedicated to something other. Who knows what we did to her, we who knew her? The diary apparently knows and tells. But let that rest be silence--what is it but a rest, a residuum, a transience which, resented into those pages, she has forgotten the day after.

She was adorable as a friend: she had perhaps more than she knew to spare. The illumination for us of moments we wasted for her is what remains for us--and her husband elects to leave that unmarred. Nor could she herself wish, through the long run of eternity, to revoke or cancel out any joy she gave. For the spring and principle of her art was joy.

The diary gives no impression of having been stripped down. Here certainly is no mechanic's workbook, nor is mood absent--rather, the whole vibrates with the ups-and-downs of a passionate relationship. Infinitely disliking to be "a woman writer," Virginia Woolf shows herself most a woman in the intensities, variations, alarms and excursions, panics and exaltations of her relationship to her art. As in all love, harmony was the happiness.

In 1924, "galloping over" the revision of "Mrs. Dalloway," she notes: "It seems to leave me plunged deep in the richest strata of my mind. I can write and write and write now: the happiest feeling in the world." To the end, those peaks of the moment were to recur--though between what stretches of anguish, what thoughts of terror! As one must, she mistrusted her subjectivity: "Not," she says, "that my sensations in writing are an infallible guide."

Hence, no doubt, what has astounded or even shocked some readers of "A Writer's Diary": her sensitivity to criticism, her suspense until there had been impact upon another mind. There were the phases of dereliction, or of an alienating fatigue--"Thought of my own power of writing with veneration, as of something incredible, belonging to someone else: never again to be enjoyed by me." And there was the problem presented, the crisis or ordeal gradually forced by the emergence from isolation: the solitary burner of the Richmond lamp finding herself crept up upon by would- be limelight. Appreciation by the elect few, recognition by an increasing many, fame, threatening "popularity"--book by book, the situation was to take clearer form: it had foreshadowed itself for her as early as 1921.

"Well [she then writes], this question of praise and fame must be faced * * * How much difference does popularity make? * * * One wants, as Roger [Fry] said very truly yesterday, to be kept up to the mark; that people should be interested and watch one's work * * * One does not want an established reputation, such as I think I was getting, as one of our leading female novelists. I have still, of course, to gather in all the private criticism, which is the real test. When I have weighed this I shall be able to say whether I am 'interesting' or obsolete * * * As I write, there rises somewhere in my head that queer and very pleasant sense of something which I want to write; my own point of view. I wonder, though, whether this feeling that I write for half a dozen instead of 1,500 will pervert this--make me eccentric--no, I think not."

And that poltergeist of her house of the spirit, vanity!--"Poor Mlle. Lenglen," she notes, "finding herself beaten by Mrs. Mallory, flung down her racquet and burst into tears. Her vanity I suppose is colossal." Was it perhaps a latent fear of possible accessibility through vanity which was at the root of Virginia Woolf's contemptuous misprison of the world? "Brilliant" occasions find her derisive, hostile. All the time, though with and after each book the indicator needle oscillated or faltered, there mounted the pressure toward success.

"The Waves" brought about the height; with "The Years" a potential drop came. And then, most of all, was it that absolutely she recognized her own virtue--the untouched ice, the savage intractability of the spirit which must experiment? To please she was willing, but never to please at all costs. Never once did she do the same thing over again.

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