Posted by: zhiv | December 16, 2009

Stray Virginia Woolf Thought

I’ve been blocked on blogging, and keep trying to break through, and one of the things I’ve been meaning to try is to just sit down and type something up, almost randomly. I like my basic approach, which is to read something, and then write about it in an early morning session sitting in my chair. I love the texture of filling notebooks in longhand. I like writing something and crossing it out and seeing the mistake that is still there. I like to be able to have a step between writing and putting up a post, reading it over and seeing if I like it well enough. It’s not that my posts are especially crafted or considered; I don’t make a lot of changes. Maybe it just feels safer and more thoughtful somehow. I don’t mind typing, but I also don’t get around to it quite the way I should sometimes. It’s all a jumbled mess. I like blogging and writing posts, but I don’t do it as easily and freely as I would like. At a certain point, all of this seemed like a blessing, and I was very happy with my output.

Now I’m not so happy. No significant output to be happy with. Year ending. So, as I said, I’ve been meaning to just sit and write something, anything, to see how it goes.

I was just reading around on different blogs and saw “stray thought” somewhere. Maybe that’s what inspired me. I saw something else on Virginia Woolf and To The Lighthouse, which is perhaps my favorite recurring topic, as anyone who has read this blog before might know. And I had a stray thought.

I like to think of the broader context of Virginia Woolf and her work and her father Leslie Stephen and his work. Lighthouse provides a good focus for these thoughts, something to return to, because it’s a relatively conclusive artistic statement by Woolf, and Stephen appears, more or less, as the character Mr. Ramsay. My habit is to think of Stephen in the real world, where he had a rich life as a child in an accomplished family, a Cambridge Don and well-known mountaineer, an editor, biographer, philosopher, husband and father. Because his own work and life is interesting to me, I like to look at the more accessible parts of it, the quiet drama of his mountaineering, his position at a literary nexus as the editor of the Cornhill, his audacious biographical endeavor in fathering the DNB. I like to check in on his thorough immersion in literature and literary studies, and the impact that this had on his parenting, of his daughter Virginia specifically.

One thing that I never spent much time on, and that I haven’t really cared about, is his work as a philosopher. I have a sense of what his goals were, and his steps towards accomplishing them. Stephen aimed at being a philosopher, but in the end it seems to have made him an intellectual historian. His relative “failure” as a philosopher is enshrined in Mr. Ramsay’s failure to get past “R,” and that seems to express the case rather neatly. My enterprise, for a long time, has been to examine and wonder about the rest of this character’s life, everything that was left out of that telling, concise description.

But my stray thought is a moment of wondering about the importance of that description, of just how telling and definitive it is, in particular for Virginia Woolf as a novelist and artist, for her as a modernist and the writer of To The Lighthouse. It has been easy and pleasant for me to chart out and study deeply Leslie Stephen’s immersion and life in literature and literary history, and to speculate on its influence on the artistic development of his daughter. Woolf’s accomplishment and work was the product of a singular education and family life, and it was built upon a century of keen and aggressive intellectual activity and effort. I like to think about LS paling around with George Eliot or Henry James, about his virtually central, and relatively benign position in late Victorian literary circles, and what it that was like for Woolf and how it shaped her.

But as I said, I don’t think so much about him as a philosopher, and yet Woolf chooses to leave out just about everything else about Mr. Ramsay. It’s a stark, even abstract (modernist) portrait of a Victorian and his limitations. That’s simple and impressive enough. He won’t make it past “R,” he won’t have real consequence, he fears, and it’s not through lack of courage or effort or a sense of duty. He just won’t get there, he won’t be able to spell it all out, and his entire generation had its limitations, they could only get so far. Again, that’s a basic modernist tenet, Strachey’s argument placed in a fictional setting.

But now I’m wondering if something more interesting isn’t going on. It’s probably obvious, and I’m just circling back to it at my own pace. The key is that Woolf wouldn’t have been Woolf, that she wouldn’t have been able to write To The Lighthouse if her father hadn’t been just that, a philosopher. His literary knowledge, contacts, and credentials are all besides the point when it comes to the creation of this novel, or as it relates to the artist Lily Briscoe and her vision, her synthesis. The philosophical failure of the father, of the previous generation, is the starting point for the new vision and the artistic accomplishment of the new generation. Again, the philosophy is the only thing that matters.

As a practical, working novelist, Stephen’s literary experience was crucially important to Woolf, so it’s well worth filling in and seeing its effects. But as an artist, as some one trying to create something different and new, a modern classic, she seems to be hinting that none of it would have happened if her father was simply a critic and a biographer. It was because he was a philosopher, even a limited one who thought himself a failure, that she was able to write her novel.


  1. Interesting. So she had to create a radically-simplified version of her father in order to tear the image down and create something new. It sounds harsh, but a necessary creative act.

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