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  • Moments of Beating Addiction and Inscription in Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past”
  • Barbara Claire Freeman (bio)

My title, which alludes to the collection of autobiographical essays authored by Virginia Woolf and entitled Moments of Being, implies that being and beating are co-constitutive and that exploring their interdependence may shed light upon the logic that binds the one to the other. In particular, I want to examine the ways in which Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past”—it is the longest essay in the collection and presumably incomplete, since Woolf wrote the last entry shortly before killing herself in 1941—sets up a complex relationship between beating, writing, and compulsion. For the text in which the phrase “moment of being” first occurs also reveals that the activity of writing, to which Woolf was addicted, has the symbolic valence of beating and functions at the level of language in the same ways that beating functions on the body. I will begin to unpack this perhaps obscure equation by focusing upon the relationship between being and beating in the experiences that define Woolf’s “moments of being.” 1

In the opening pages of “A Sketch,” Woolf describes the routine, eminently forgettable aspects of daily life as “a kind of nondescript cotton wool”; the phrase is her “private shorthand” for the general and diffuse “moments of non-being” that predominate in daily life and in which, by contrast, “moments of being” are “embedded” [70]. “Every day,” Woolf notes, “includes much more non-being than being”; and although “the real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being” [70], Woolf believes that “behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern” [72] and that her vocation as a writer is to discover and communicate it.

Though occasionally “moments of being” produce the experience of rapture or ecstasy, an aspect of beating I will presently explore, most frequently they name moments that entail negation and self-shattering. “Moments of being” are moments of extreme violence that “remain interesting” [78] not because they lead to self-transcendence or discovery, but because they provoke a sense of utter helplessness and paralysis. With one exception, Woolf’s “moments” involve memories of being beaten up by life: “a sudden violent shock” occurs “when something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life” [71]. Woolf’s submission to her brother Thoby’s beating remains in her memory as inaugural:

The first: I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of [End Page 65] something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed.


The shock of a beating occasions Woolf’s knowledge that rupture may function as a form of revelation; its reception initiates a drive to repeat in words the impact and imprint of the blows she has received. Being beaten not only provides her with a paradigm of being, but institutes a reciprocal and necessary relationship between beating and writing in which the one elicits and engenders the other. 2

Another “moment” recounts the experience of being “dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair from which I could not escape” upon hearing about the suicide of a family friend, a certain Mr. Valpy:

I overheard my father or mother say that Mr. Valpy had killed himself. The next thing I remember is being in the garden at night and walking on the path by the apple tree. It seemed to me that the apple tree was connected with the horror of Mr. Valpy’s suicide. I could not pass it. I stood there looking at the grey-green creases of the bark—it was a moonlit night—in a trance of horror. . . . My body seemed paralysed.


As Woolf’s body received her brother’s blows, her consciousness receives the shock of overhearing news of a suicide. The memory of Mr...