Literary Ecstasy: Virginia Woolf Describes a Psychedelic Experience
“All our most violent passions, and art and religion, are the reflections which we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time.”
By Maria Popova
“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark inquiry into transcendent experiences, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” A century later, Michael Pollan would echo this sentiment in exploring the science of psychedelics: “The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think.”
The most evocative description of an ecstatic experience comes not from the annals of psychology or science, but from literature. Writing partway in time between James and the dawn of psychedelics, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) limns the essential elements of transcendent experience — the dreamlike quality of the images flooding into the mind, the hallucinatory halo that envelops the ordinary world, the curious melting of time — in the final pages of her groundbreaking 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography (public library).
Placing her heroine amid a “night in which the reflections in the dark pool of the mind shine more clearly than by day,” Woolf writes:
She now looked down into this pool or sea in which everything is reflected — and, indeed, some say that all our most violent passions, and art and religion, are the reflections which we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time. She looked there now, long, deeply, profoundly, and immediately the ferny path up the hill along which she was walking became not entirely a path, but partly the Serpentine; the hawthorn bushes were partly ladies and gentlemen sitting with card-cases and gold-mounted canes; the sheep were partly tall Mayfair houses; everything was partly something else, as if her mind had become a forest with glades branching here and there; things came nearer, and further, and mingled and separated and made the strangest alliances and combinations in an incessant chequer of light and shade. Except when Canute, the elk-hound, chased a rabbit and so reminded her that it must be about half past four — it was indeed twenty-three minutes to six — she forgot the time.
It was not necessary to faint now in order to look deep into the darkness where things shape themselves and to see in the pool of the mind now Shakespeare, now a girl in Russian trousers, now a toy boat on the Serpentine, and then the Atlantic itself, where it storms in great waves past Cape Horn. She looked into the darkness… “Ecstasy!” she cried, “ecstasy!” And then the wind sank, the waters grew calm; and she saw the waves rippling peacefully in the moonlight.
Couple this fragment of Orlando — which also gave us Woolf’s insights into the elasticity of time, the nature of memory, the fluidity of gender, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work — with Rachel Carson’s splendid account of a rather different yet kindred transcendent experience through the lens of science, then revisit Woolf’s own account of the otherworldly transcendence of a total solar eclipse.
Published August 28, 2018