The radiance of life
August 10, 2014 7:44 AM   Subscribe

"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…" Virginia Woolf's Idea of Privacy
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (11 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Wonderful! I noticed myself skim-reading the article, as one often does these days, and this skimming seemed to sort of resonate a bit with the theme—the article has its own radiance, and I will never completely know it anyway, so everything is skimming, and the ideas therein will plant seeds in my mind and that's enough.

Many of the characters of Tove Jansson's Moomin books also often seem to exhibit this kind of privacy; they don't spill their guts, they're kind of independent, they interact with each other as others, they don't pry too deeply. Tove herself lived most of her life on a remote Finnish island with an artist life partner; from what I've seen in a documentary, they were often content to just work side by side, help each other wordlessly, etc.

I love the kind of camaraderie that arises on silent zazen retreats. You work together, sit together, sleep together, walk together, pee together, but you don't talk or even make eye contact. Still, you're there together, and each one is a beautiful radiant gem.

Thanks for posting the article; it's a very useful idea.
posted by mbrock at 8:59 AM on August 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

This reminds me of my father giving me some line an old ex-girlfriend of his gave him, essentially saying: Don't try and understand it; you never will. Just leave it a mystery.

Within a year, I realized this is a fantastic way to create a dysfunctional relationship. You divvy up the duties and then go hide in your private compartments. At that point, the sex gets boring and you break up. That alluring mystery only gets you through the first few months; after that it's go deep or break the hell up. For me, anyways.

It makes a lot more sense if you disconnect the relationship angle and make it a point about having a certain sort of take-chargeness about your inner world: Since you live with it all day, no one else can handle it like you. If you handle it well, sharing becomes a way to grow.
posted by RTQP at 9:10 AM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have to misinterpret a bit on purpose. Less choice than an inadvertent asynchrony is a privacy I can relate to but (unlike Woolf) long daily to absolve myself of. Privacy derived by some unrelation to the world is often fascinating, even alien, of course I wouldn't want it gone for good, I'm just wrestling with credibility, intimacy. If we don't know ourselves best, or can't without others, why should we be encouraged to hole up in these inner sanctuaries, impermeable to verification and vulnerability? Safe from a knowledge of ourselves not imagined but manifest? (However intense that knowledge be.)

Privateness feels sometimes or often anti social, the privilege of the privileged, the last and always threatened refuge of the destitute. Somewhere we go to avoid contact when contact is all we really get in this life, all we can give.

I know people are mean and stupid but that's become the mantra of my private life, a privacy carefully cultivated to exclude others, and I hate that mantra. I am never so happy as to feel the least private, the most in touch, the most safely vulnerable, but my inner voice won't admit it. My inner voice thinks people inferior, because it is wrong.
posted by an animate objects at 9:12 AM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Woolf's privacy is an interesting thing, especially given that her diaries were published after her death. I have no idea if that is something which she had wanted or not. (I'm not a Woolf scholar at all.)

Still, this does give me an excuse to link to one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs: Virginia Woolf. (lyrics)
posted by hippybear at 9:28 AM on August 10, 2014

I can certainly relate to this part:

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.

On the most basic level, it's like discovering a new song and loving it, but choosing (based on past experience) to NOT listen to it too much, lest you lose the magic, grow allergic. I've certainly grown allergic to many things I once loved due to overexposure -- sometimes driven by the culture (name your great but massively POPular song), but other times it was my own damned fault. I needed that song way too much. At first it gave-gave-gave, filled me up with whatever it was that I needed, but in the end ... virulent reaction.

I'd link to some notable examples but they might make me sick.
posted by philip-random at 9:28 AM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

A nice piece, and timely for me; I'm reading Mrs. Dalloway now. Rothman's first example (the walk with Sally, and the kiss) is well chosen; I'm surprised, though, he didn't continue it, since the immediately following bit is certainly relevant:
“Star-gazing?” said Peter.

It was like running one’s face against a granite wall in the darkness! It was shocking; it was horrible!

Not for herself. She felt only how Sally was being mauled already, maltreated; she felt his hostility; his jealousy; his determination to break into their companionship. All this she saw as one sees a landscape in a flash of lightning—and Sally (never had she admired her so much!) gallantly taking her way unvanquished. She laughed. She made old Joseph tell her the names of the stars, which he liked doing very seriously. She stood there: she listened. She heard the names of the stars.

“Oh this horror!” she said to herself, as if she had known all along that something would interrupt, would embitter her moment of happiness.
I have to disagree, though, that the case of Septimus Smith "makes up roughly half" of the book; it's vitally important, but it doesn't come close to making up half the book. (Also, I suppose this is a hopeless quest, but I will say it again: I wish posters would mention the names of the authors they quote and link to. The piece is by Joshua Rothman.)

> That alluring mystery only gets you through the first few months; after that it's go deep or break the hell up.

I think you're not getting the point; it's not about "alluring mystery."
posted by languagehat at 9:29 AM on August 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was just trying to say that I felt it was a poor approach to romantic relationships, despite being a helpful attitude in general: Keep that purity all day long from the rabble; but do share it with someone special. Or the relationship will eventually stagnate and end.
posted by RTQP at 9:36 AM on August 10, 2014

Also, I concede that I'm out of my depth here. I confused Woolf with Jane Austin for a good five seconds before I realized I had the wrong lady. My basis for comment is a lifetime of having a poor mental filter, combined with some rudimentary knowledge about relationships I've gleaned from post-morteming my past trainwrecks. I am now removing myself from this fine thread.
posted by RTQP at 9:53 AM on August 10, 2014

This ties in a bit with my recent look at the literature concerning the dopamine system, in human reward and motivation.

My layman's understanding is that if I give you a gold coin, the serotonin system will register a plus, but just incrementally. If I give you what you think must be a gold coin in a gift-wrapped box, and you imagine the coin in there, and imagine the sequence of physical actions you could take to unwrap it, and anticipate what you will see when you do, then the dopamine system is engaged to effect a much stronger and sustained feeling of happiness.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:37 AM on August 10, 2014

StickyCarpet, that reminds me of this quote from the Dhammapada (Thanissaro's translation):
Not even if it rained gold coins
would we have our fill
of sensual pleasures.
posted by mbrock at 12:05 PM on August 10, 2014

Part of the modernist emphasis on a singular, internal, and distinctive self was a counterreaction to the growing sense that social life was increasingly industrialized, commercialized, mechanized, and massified. The damage to Septimus from the First World War is a particularly extreme example, but take also the way in which the chiming of the clock becomes a unifying, even a domineering aspect of characters' psychology in the passages where Woolf describes it.

Consider also that Clarissa Dalloway's experience of the flower shop becomes less commercial and more aesthetic precisely to the degree that she can disconnect her private enjoyment of that moment from the impersonality of transaction. Her economic power is liberating only because she can view it from a certain distance, and, indeed, because it permits her to create distance at a whim. She has lodgings big enough that even during a party one has a quiet, other space left, for example.

Her financial independence means that all her interactions, even those with her husband, are experiences she can curate. Septimus, by contrast, is damaged by the war precisely such that he cannot manage private experience. One the one hand, this looks like a radical separation from the world.; on the other, the novel's subjective descriptions of his condition quite rightly show his shell-shock -- what we'd call PTSD -- as a profound inability to prevent sensory stimuli and personal interactions from overwhelming his sense of bounded interiority.

And Mrs. Dalloway is no factory worker or shopkeeper or clerk, either, whose social interactions are professionalized and commodified. Woolf herself was always quite up front about this, whether it was her "five hundred a year" in A Room of One's Own or the Three Guineas of another essay. To treat the inner life as a spiritual achievement is to ignore Woolf's own frankness about the material conditions -- so long denied to women -- on which self-curation and social power alike depend.
posted by kewb at 12:38 PM on August 10, 2014 [12 favorites]

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