Virginia Woolf on Self-Knowledge and the Blind Spots of Sympathy
By Maria Popova
It is both a terror and a mercy that we know ourselves only incompletely and each other hardly at all — because, somewhere in that lacuna of mystery, in that opaque space beyond absolute knowledge and absolute empathy (which assumes knowledge of another’s experience), some of the most magical things in life come abloom. Those are the places we grow, and grow into — the openings that are our portals to the possible.
Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) shines a sidewise gleam on those places in a passage tucked into her superb century-old meditation on illness as a portal to self-understanding.
Challenging the dangerous allure of being perfectly understood and held in perfect sympathy — by others, or by ourselves — she writes:
That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you — is all an illusion.
We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable.
Complement with James Baldwin on love, freedom, and the illusion of choice, then revisit Woolf on the remedy for self-doubt, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, the consolations of growing older, and her epiphany about the meaning of creativity.
Published December 17, 2022