Monday, May 15, 2006

Virginia Woolf's Diary

I haven't posted on my Virginia Woolf reading for a while, so here are some quotations I'm come across in the last few weeks:

First, a defense of the imagination:

Now I confess that I have half forgotten what I meant to say about the German prisoners; Milton & life ... All I can remember now is that the existence of life in another human being is as difficult to realise as a play of Shakespeare when the book is shut. This occurred to me when I saw Adrian talking to the tall German prisoner. By rights they should have been killing each other. The reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one's imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him -- the infinite possibilities of a succession of days which are furled in him, & have already been spent.

Perhaps this is naively optimistic about the powers of imagination, but I like the idea that the imagination can, possibly, in certain circumstances, make it harder to harm another person. Imagination is no innoculation against violence, but it seems right to me that refusing to think about what another's life is like would make it easier to destroy it.

Then, some literary criticism, on Paradise Lost:

The substance of Milton is all made of wonderful, beautiful, & masterly descriptions of angel's bodies, battles, flights, dwelling places. He deals in horror & immensity & squalor & sublimity, but never in the passions of the human heart. Has any great poem ever let in so little light upon one's own joys & sorrows? I get no help in judging life; I scarcely feel that Milton lived or knew men & women; except for the peevish personalities about marriage & the woman's duties ... But how smooth, strong & elaborate it all is! What poetry! I can conceive that even Shakespeare after this would seem a little troubled, personal, hot & imperfect. I can conceive that this is the essence, of which almost all other poetry is the dilution. The inexpressible fineness of the style, in which shade after shade is perceptible, would alone keep one gazing into, long after the surface business in progress has been dispatched. Deep down one catches still further combinations, rejections, felicities, & masteries. Moreover, though there is nothing like Lady Macbeth's terror or Hamlet's cry, no pity or sympathy or intuition, the figures are majestic; in them is summed up much of what men thought of our place in the universe, of our duty to God, our religion.

Could she ever write a diary entry. I love how she can fully appreciate the great things that Milton does, while keeping a keen sense of what he doesn't do. I suspect if she had to, she'd choose Shakespeare over Milton, but since she doesn't have to, she can write brilliantly about Milton's strengths.

Finally, a passage about the writing life:

It's the curse of the writer's life to want praise so much, & be so cast down by blame, or indifference. The only sensible course is to remember that witing is after all what one does best; that any other work would seem to me a waste of life; that on the whole I get infinite pleasure from it; that I make one hundred pounds a year; & that some people like what I write.

Indeed, Virginia Woolf, some people do like what you write.