Virginia Woolf on Why the Best Mind Is the Nonbinary Mind
By Maria Popova
In addition to being one of the greatest writers and most expansive minds humanity ever produced, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was also a woman of exceptional wisdom on such complexities of living as consciousness and creativity, the consolations of aging, how one should read a book, and the artist’s eternal dance with self-doubt.
So incisive was her insight into the human experience that, many decades before scientists demonstrated why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creativity, Woolf articulated this idea in a beautiful passage from her classic 1929 book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (public library).
A year after she subverted censorship and revolutionized the politics of gender identity with her novel Orlando, Woolf writes:
The mind is certainly a very mysterious organ … about which nothing whatever is known, though we depend upon it so completely. Why do I feel that there are severances and oppositions in the mind, as there are strains from obvious causes on the body? What does one mean by “the unity of the mind”? … Clearly the mind has so great a power of concentrating at any point at any moment that it seems to have no single state of being. It can separate itself from the people in the street, for example, and think of itself as apart from them, at an upper window looking down on them. Or it can think with other people spontaneously, as, for instance, in a crowd waiting to hear some piece of news read out.
Long before cognitive scientists were able to tell us exactly how the mind does this, Woolf concludes:
Clearly the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives.
Since male and female are the very first categories of experience into which we are placed as newborns and which continue to shape society’s expectations of us throughout our lives, the perspectives attached to each gendered experience are among the most profound and persistent sources of difference in human culture. But Woolf argues that the most fertile mental and spiritual landscape is one where there is ample cross-pollination between the two:
When I saw the couple get into the taxicab the mind felt as if, after being divided, it had come together again in a natural fusion. The obvious reason would be that it is natural for the sexes to co-operate. One has a profound, if irrational, instinct in favour of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness. But the sight of the two people getting into the taxi and the satisfaction it gave me made me also ask whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness? And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her.
Turning to Samuel Taylor Coleridge for ratification — “The truth is,” the celebrated poet and philosopher wrote in 1832, “a great mind must be androgynous.” — she adds:
Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought. But it would be well to test what one meant by man-womanly, and conversely by woman-manly, by pausing and looking at a book or two.
Coleridge … meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. In fact one goes back to Shakespeare’s mind as the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind… And if it be true that it is one of the tokens of the fully developed mind that it does not think specially or separately of sex, how much harder it is to attain that condition now than ever before… No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own…
A Room of One’s Own remains one of the most rewarding and rereadable books ever written. Complement this particular point of genius with Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular essay on being a man and the contemporary cognitive science of psychological androgyny, then revisit Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the malady of middlebrow, her little-known children’s book, and the only surviving recording of her voice.
Published April 15, 2015