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  • Virginia Woolf and the Flesh of the World
  • Louise Westling (bio)

A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

Albert Einstein 1

Virginia Woolf would have agreed with Einstein’s surprisingly ecological call for humanity to abandon its fictions of separateness and embrace the whole of nature. As we have learned in recent years, she was much more attuned to his thinking than earlier readers would have supposed. She rejected the reductionist dualism of Western philosophy and worked progressively in her novels to resist and expose the sterility of the kind of rational humanism that came down to us from Plato and triumphed in Cartesian and Newtonian mechanistic models of the cosmos. 2 At the same time as she wrote against sterile systems of logic, however, Woolf also recognized the efficacy of science and mathematics in opening windows upon the workings of Nature. She knew about Einstein’s work in the 1920s, discussing him with friends, and referring to him in her 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway. 3 She absorbed central concepts of the New Physics as soon as James Jeans and Arthur Eddington began explaining them to nonspecialists in the early 1930s, and she remained interested in their consequences until the end of her life. 4 Far more than most modernists, she integrated the radical ontological and epistemological perspectives suggested by quantum physics into her writing, because they accorded so well with her own lifelong awareness of the indeterminacy of consciousness. If, as Daniel Albright [End Page 855] maintains, Einstein’s physics became “a serious literary anxiety” for many modernists in the 1920s, for Virginia Woolf his work brought instead an exciting confirmation of her sense of the world. 5 As a young woman in 1908 she had defined for herself a new kind of rhetoric that could “achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords, showing all the traces of the minds [sic] passage through the world; & achieve in the end, some kind of whole made of shivering fragments.” 6 In 1919 she described perception as composed of atoms falling disconnectedly upon the mind, and in 1925 she claimed that “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” 7

Each of her novels was a distinct epistemological exploration of that “semi-transparent envelope,” part of a series of experiments seeking a crepuscular looseness and lightness of form that eschewed the traditional scaffolding of plot and increasingly placed human ambitions and systems of meaning against the backdrop of enormous geological forces and vast reaches of time. Increasingly she sought to portray the non-human, or what David Abram calls the “more than human” world within which we are tiny and only momentary presences. 8 Her experiments with point of view and narrative structure absorb the epistemological lessons of relativity, wave theory, and the interdependency of observer and phenomena observed from quantum physics into a new fictional ontology that reaches its most radical form in her final novel, Between the Acts. As Michelle Pridmore-Brown explains, there Woolf presents a vision of the world “as a pulsating field of mind and matter in which everything is interconnected” (WG 411).

Woolf’s dynamic, participatory vision of the real is very close to the thinking of French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was responding from within the same modernist intellectual milieu as Virginia Woolf, to the same developments in physics, and the same twentieth-century impulse to overthrow or move...

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pp. 855-875
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