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.


Writing And Therapy

Writing can be therapeutic. Not just autobiography and memoir, the obvious venues of this particular kind of clinic; letters, novels, short stories, poems, screenplays, can all enable a ‘working through‘ because they call upon a kind of ‘remembering,’ a dynamic ‘free association,’ unprompted and unbidden, that trawls through the various levels and layers of our consciousness. Writing is a form of communion with oneself, so it is not surprising that self-discovery and its partner, self-construction, take place at the writing desk, on the writing pad, on the word processor screen, through the pen and the cursor. To find ourselves returning to the same themes again and again in our writing is to learn a great deal about ourselves; the avoidance of particular topics can also serve a similar function. (Unsurprisingly, writers are often finicky about where and when they choose to write; patients and therapists often are. Peter Gay‘s description of Freud’s clinic in In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture [Oxford University Press, New York, 1978] is instructive and revealing.)

Therapy is a kind of story-telling with two authors engaged in the co-construction of a narrative that works for both: the patient emerges with a ‘new’ tale trailing out behind, and slowly taking shape in front; the therapist’s tale of healing receives a new twist, even as it sets the healer on a new path. Writers take this dual task on themselves; as a ‘story’ emerges–whether ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction’–they engage in forms of ‘transference‘ and ‘countertransference‘ with themselves, letting a new self emerge.

Full disclosure: I write here, on this blog, because in addition to serving as a scratchpad for test driving thoughts that sometimes find their way into other writings–academic and nonacademic–of mine, I intend this activity to serve as a therapeutic exercise. Unsurprisingly, many of my posts are self-indulgent reminiscences, unapologetic exercises in nostalgia mongering, tales of times and people long gone. But they have often provided a great deal of understanding to me, enabling me to view the past through many different perspectives, often helping to dredge up dormant memories and making associations and forming conclusions that would have otherwise remained inaccessible to me–and my family, which now includes my daughter. Among the many writing projects that await completion by me, three are memoirs of one sort or the other; I look forward to working on them and completing them not just because I will have completed a writing task, but because I expected to be transformed by the experience.

Note: Writing and art as an ‘official,’ institutionally recognized form of therapeutic modality–for PTSD, for instance–has a fairly distinguished history. In my remarks above, I’d wanted to indicate that all those who write are engaging in–whether they know it or not–a similar activity. We all need–whether we know it or not–some kind of therapy. We just get it in different ways. That is why, among other reasons, that human creativity takes so many different forms.

Boethius’ Philosophy as Therapist

Here is a common way to think about the psychotherapeutic experience: the therapist helps the patient construct an alternative narrative of his or her life. Why is this therapeutic? The patient has offered the therapist a recounting–via a series of archaeological, genealogical forays into his past–of his life’s events, and describes how these have contributed to the crisis currently being experienced. The therapist then offers a reconstruction of these into an account that lends itself to an interpretation different from the one the patient has made central to his assessment of his life’s fortunes. This displacement of the pathology-creating narrative is the therapist’s central function. We live by stories that we tell about ourselves; our therapist–aided by our willing, motivated co-operation–equips us with a new one.

This reconstruction can proceed by pointing out how a patient has, like any author, selectively emphasized and de-emphasized certain events, and more analytically, drawn faulty or mistaken inferences from them. Because such inferences are often based on ignorance, the therapist may also be called on to play the role of educator.

The relevance of the philosopher–and the philosophical attitude–to this task should be apparent.  This is demonstrated quite well in Boethius‘ The Consolation of Philosophy, where Philosophy, in offering her consolations to the miserable prisoner convinced of his misfortunes, offers just such a combination of new narrative, edification and argument analysis.

For instance in Book II of the Consolation, after hearing Boethius’ lament, Philosophy, as part of her description of the true nature of that fickle mistress, Fortune, says in Prose 3, which is subtitled ‘Philosophy reminds the prisoner of his former prosperity and of the precious gifts he still has’:

[You] ought not to consider yourself completely miserable  if you recall your many great joys.

I will not mention that when you lost your father you were adopted by very prominent people and were chosen to become closely associated with the most powerful figures in the city. You soon were more dear to them by love than you had been close before by relationship, and that is the most precious bond….But I want to stress the greatest of your joys.  If any mortal achievement can make a man happy, is it possible that any amount of misfortune can dim the memory of that brilliant occasion when you saw your two sons made Consuls and carried from their house in the company of the Senators and accompanied by the people?….You pledged yourself to Fortune while she pampered you and favored you with her gifts. You got more from her than any private citizen ever received–and now do you think you can bargain with her?

This is the first time she ever frowned on you with her evil eye. If you balance the number and kinds of your joys and misfortunes, you must admit that up to now you have been a happy man.

This is not enough for Boethius, of course, for Prose 4 is subtitled ‘Boethius protests that the worst sorrow is the remembrance of lost joys. Philosophy answers that the only true joy is self-possession in the face of adversity.

And so it goes. The outlines of a therapeutic dialectic are clearly visible here and remain so as we read on.

Note: Bertrand Russell‘s The Conquest of Happiness is another classical member of the Philosophy as Therapy canon.