Virginia Woolf On Autobiography And Not Writing ‘Directly About The Soul’

In Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature, (New York Review of Books, 13 August, 2015), Joyce Carol Oates writes:

[Virginia] Woolf suggests the power of a different sort of inspiration, the sheerly autobiographical—the work created out of intimacy with one’s own life and experience….What is required, beyond memory, is a perspective on one’s own past that is both a child’s and an adult’s, constituting an entirely new perspective. So the writer of autobiographical fiction is a time traveler in his or her life and the writing is often, as Woolf noted, “fertile” and “fluent”:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in. [link added above]

I will freely confess to being obsessed by autobiography and memoir. Three planned book projects of mine, each in varying stages of early drafting and note-taking, are autobiographical, even as I can see more similar ventures in the offing; another book, Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan, currently contracted to Temple University Press, is a memoir; yet another book Eye on Cricket, has many autobiographical passages; and of course, I often write quasi-autobiographical, memoirish posts on this blog all the time. In many ways, my reasons for finding myself most comfortable in this genre echo those of Woolf’s: I find my writing within its confines to be at its most ‘fertile’ and ‘fluent’–if at all, it ever approaches those marks; I write ‘fast’ and ‘freely’ when I write about recollections and lessons learned therein; I find that combining my past sensations and memories with present and accumulated judgments and experiences results in a fascinating, more-than-stereoscopic perspective that I often find to be genuinely illuminating and revealing. (Writing memoirs is tricky business, as all who write them know. No man is an island and all that, and so our memoirs implicate the lives of others as they must; those lives might not appreciate their inclusion in our imperfect, incomplete, slanted, agenda-driven, literary recounting of them. Still, it is a risk many are willing to take.)

Most importantly, writing here, or elsewhere, on autobiographical subjects creates a ‘couch’ and a ‘clinic’ of sorts; I am the patient and I am the therapist; as I write, the therapeutic recounting and analysis and story-retelling kicks off; the end of a writing session has at its best moments, brought with it moments of clarity and insight about myself to the most important of quarters: moi. More than anything else, this therapeutic function of autobiographical writing confirms yet another of Woolf’s claims: that “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Sometimes, one must look at the blank page, and hope to find the soul take shape there instead.


From Santa Barbara to Badaun: Misogyny and Masculinity

It’s been a bad week for women. They found out, in sunny California, that when they do not dispense sexual indulgences to those who seek (or demand) them, they can provoke murderous rages; they also found out, in India’s central provinces, that their bodies remain to be taken by others, used, and then finally, strung up like broken rag dolls. Elliott Rodger and the as-yet-convicted rapists and killers of two teenage girls–separated by time and space–had this in common: they disliked women intensely. They hated them enough to kill them.

Elliott Rodger begs for cruel mockery about what goes terribly wrong when you don’t get laid. But the killers of Badaun weren’t sexually deprived; they had had their fill of the girls before they tossed them aside. Indeed, if Rodger had gotten his way and been dispensed the favors he seemed to be so desperately seeking, there is no guarantee he wouldn’t have killed anyway. Perhaps he would have channeled his rage against women some other way; perhaps he would have chosen to have gotten angry because one of his sexual partners wanted to break things off and just move on. The kind of anger so clearly visible in his disturbing video is not so easily assuaged as might be imagined; its roots lie far deeper. And the killers of Badaun made this rage manifest; it was not enough for them that they raped the girls they had abducted, they also hung them from a tree to strike fear into the hearts of anyone–especially other young women–who saw their limp, lifeless bodies. Women should know their place in this world: keep shut, spread your legs. (It is an additional complicating factor in the Indian case that the young women were Dalits, and their killers were probably members of an ‘upper-caste.’)

Many years ago, in a documentary on Mike Tyson, when speaking of his rape conviction, Joyce Carol Oates had noted that the modern man–in his sexual interactions with women–is animated by a rage qualitiatively and quantitatively distinct from that which tormented his predecessors earlier. Then, when a woman declined to sleep with you, you could convince yourself it was because she wanted to be a ‘good girl.’ Now, that same rejection has a personal sting: she is choosing someone else, not you, not now. Rodger had internalized this resentment for sure, but he had also inculcated in himself a corrosive Whore-Madonna complex of sorts: women wouldn’t stop being ‘sluts’ just because they had slept with Rodger. Perhaps they’d sink even lower in his eyes. Perhaps because, despite his protestations, Rodger didn’t think very much himself, he might have regarded them as especially contemptible for having slept with him.

Among masculinity’s worst contributions to our culture–and it has many terrible achievements–has been its degradation of sexual relations, its notion of sexual ‘accomplishment’ where men succeed via promiscuity and women fail. Over time, women have ceased to be persons and have merely become prickly, uncooperative owners of bodies, who refuse to play the game. As defined by men.

The teenage girls of Badaun, it’s ‘strange fruit‘, learned that the hard way: once their bodies had been used by those who wanted them, they weren’t needed any more. And no one else could have them. Not even they, themselves.

It’s no country, or world, for women (old or otherwise).