Virginia Woolf on the Defiant Truthfulness of the Soul and Our Elemental Human Need for Communication
By Maria Popova
“Dismiss whatever insults your own soul,” Walt Whitman counseled in his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life. But in order to know what insults one’s soul, one must first investigate that soul with a consummate and convivial curiosity. “The first thing to be investigated,” the great French philosopher Simone Weil wrote nearly a century later in contemplating the central needs of being human, “is what are those needs which are for the life of the soul what the needs in the way of food, sleep and warmth are for the life of the body.”
And yet today, as we champion reason in a secular world, many of us struggle with the word soul — something I addressed in an entire commencement address — and, in our struggle, have extinguished that vital curiosity necessary for examining the our most elemental needs. In rejecting the soul’s illusory religious connotations, we also seem to have relinquished its essential and invaluable existential dimensions. But, as Whitman and Weil knew, one cannot be a complete human being without the essential self-knowledge of knowing one’s soul — soul not in the sense of some mythic unit of immortality, but the living pulse-beat of personhood, that ever-palpable yet ever-evolving center of gravity in the constellation of each person’s character, around which our core values, ideals, and qualities orbit, and from which our actions radiate.
The locus of that soul and the value of its knowledge is what Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) — who was herself bedeviled by the paradox of the soul — explores in a beautiful long essay on the work and legacy of Montaigne, found in her classic Common Reader (public library).
This soul, or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside us. If one has the courage to ask her what she thinks, she is always saying the very opposite to what other people say.
Watch her as she broods over the fire in the inner room of that tower which, though detached from the main building, has so wide a view over the estate. Really she is the strangest creature in the world, far from heroic, variable as a weathercock, “bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal” — in short, so complex, so indefinite, corresponding so little to the version which does duty for her in public, that a man might spend his life merely in trying to run her to earth.
The self-knowledge that comes from observing one’s soul, Woolf notes in concordance with Montaigne, appears to be the sole path to genuine happiness:
The man who is aware of himself is henceforward independent; and he is never bored, and life is only too short, and he is steeped through and through with a profound yet temperate happiness. He alone lives, while other people, slaves of ceremony, let life slip past them in a kind of dream. Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent.
She considers what Montaigne’s own animating motive reveals about the needs of the human soul:
These essays are an attempt to communicate a soul. On this point at least he is explicit. It is not fame that he wants; it is not that men shall quote him in years to come; he is setting up no statue in the market-place; he wishes only to communicate his soul. Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness. To share is our duty; to go down boldly and bring to light those hidden thoughts which are the most diseased; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing; if we are ignorant to say so; if we love our friends to let them know it.
Complement this particular portion of Woolf’s indispensable Common Reader with Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of real human communication and Marilynne Robinson on the usefulness of the soul as a sensemaking concept, then revisit Woolf on the nature of memory, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, why the most creative mind is the androgynous mind, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.
Published March 8, 2017