In her autobiographical memoir, “A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) writes of what she calls moments of being, moments in our lives that separate themselves out from all the other moments of “non-being.” These moments of being are poignant, powerful and transcendent. Moments of being can be so strong and meaningful that they remain with us all our lives in the form of memory. Over time they are called up again and again into our consciousness, building complexity and strong association with other moments of being, further ripening with potential for transcendence as we age.
Moments of being possess a euphoric quality that makes us stop and feel or see the unseen part of life, which according to Woolf is actually the main component of life. For Woolf, reality is the hidden substrata or interconnected web below the surface of ordinary daily life. That layer is timeless or time free, holding all past and future at once while simultaneously giving rise to the surface layer or present, which is often locked into linear time. Yet the potent present possesses the potentiality for moments of being which reveal the infinite and remind us of the interconnectedness of all.
In the same essay, Woolf ponders whether these moments of being and the memory associated with them have a life of their own and continue on in the universe once they have occurred. She wonders if one day we will have a way to deliberately access them.
“Is it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it — the past — as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. . . . Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen into the past. I shall turn up August 1890. I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start”(MOB 67).
In her novel Mrs Dalloway (1925) moments of being as well as the interconnectedness of everything through all time is explored and displayed in a fascinating way. The way we are local— contained in space and time—and at the same time, nonlocal— spread out as consciousness over all time all at once— is illustrated through each character’s stream of consciousness narrative. The individual narratives weaving in and out of one another include all aspects of each character; the everyday personality and the larger expanded part of them, or “cave” Woolf builds behind them. The “cave” offers the larger context of their memories, secrets, emotional lives and current mental state.
The novel takes place in a 24 hour linear timeline, with London’s Big Ben clock marking off the hours of linear time, yet the characters’ memories, associations and critique of one another transcend the present into the past and even the future. Also, each character though a separate individual is connected to everyone and everything else in the novel at all times in various ways.
In the introduction of the book, Moments of Being, a collection of Woolf’s essays and autobiographical writing which contains “A Sketch of the Past”, editor Jeanne Shulkind writes:
“Virginia Woolf’s shorthand for the idea of character in the novel — cannot be purposefully separated from the search for reality . . . The questions repeatedly posed by the characters of her novels—What is life? What is love? What is reality? Who are you? Who am I? — lead to this one end, the spiritual continuum which embraces all of life, the vision of reality as a timeless unity which lies beneath the appearance of change, separation and disorder that marks daily life”(18).
As stated earlier, according to Woolf the “timeless unity which lies beneath the appearance of change, separation and disorder” is reality whereas the personal identity is the false reality made up of and contributed to by things like social class, daily obligations and other’s expectations of us. These are all rooted in the finite world. Death puts an end to this but not to reality. Since true reality is timeless, we never really die. But we can and we do exit this false and finite zone, dissolving back into the aliveness just below the surface. Moments of being remind us of this essential reality. When we experience them, we feel a oneness with all and become excruciatingly aware of the interconnectedness of all, the beauty and perfection held there and the fragility of life in the physical dimension. Moments of being are achieved spontaneously often through a small or seemingly inconsequential event that suddenly stands out and holds all meaning within it.
“This emphasis on the change and continuity of personal identity discussed above applies only to the self that inhabits the finite world of physical and social existence. During moments of being, this self is transcended and the individual consciousness becomes an undifferentiated part of a greater whole. Thus, just as the outer limits of personality are blurred and unstable because of the responsiveness of the self to the forces of the present moment, so the boundaries of the inner self are vague and, at moments, non-existent. For Virginia Woolf, when the self merges with reality, all limits associated with the physical world cease to exist. Mrs Dalloway, so definite and dartlike on the surface, becomes a consciousness transcending all temporal and physical boundaries, merging, through her imaginative, intuitive identification . . . with the impersonal, universal consciousness that lies behind all of those characters in the novel not irrevocably sealed off from reality”(18).
Some days are full of moments of being. According to Woolf, these are the good days. Days full of only non-being are less so.
“A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; bookbinding. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger”(MOB 70).
The day captured in Mrs Dalloway is a good day for the main character Clarissa Dalloway. It is a day where many intersecting moments of being come together into a sort of nexus for her and others, culminating in the party she is to throw that evening.
Mrs Dalloway is bewitching prose, each word deliberate and purposeful. It reads like a long poem, or one long continuous sentence. One can read it over and over again, noticing different events and themes, connections. The imagery Woolf is able to conjure in clean and vibrant phrases is stunning.
On the morning of the party, Clarissa Dalloway, who is in her early 50s, receives an unexpected visit from an old friend, an old flame, Peter Walsh. In their younger years he was madly in love with her and yet, she chose to marry another man: Richard Dalloway. Walsh is still in love with her. All of this we find out as the day continues and the characters inner lives, thoughts, emotions and memories are revealed slowly in conjoined sections of each characters’ points of view flowing into each other seamlessly. There are no chapter breaks but the reader knows immediately when the point of view has shifted into another character’s mind. It is seamless and artful. We begin to wait for one character’s section to illuminate us more about another character through the way they see or experience them.
After seeing Peter Walsh in the morning, Clarissa goes shopping in the busy streets of post WWI London and wonders:
“Did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? But that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread over so far, her life, herself”(9).
This way of writing, revealing characters through their own inner thoughts and other’s memories and experiences of them gives us a more holistic picture of all of them. A more sympathetic view. For all their flaws, we come to some kind of an understanding of each characters’ particular reality and the reasons for the choices they make. The complexities of life are revealed and displayed in this way.
While writing Dalloway Woolf wrote in her journal:
“I should say a good deal about Mrs. Dalloway, & my discovery; how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment. . . . It took me a year’s groping to discover what I call my tunneling process, by which I tell the past by installments, as I have need of it. This is my prime discovery so far; & the fact that I have been so long finding it, proves, I think, how false Percy Lubbock’s doctrine is — that you do this sort of thing consciously. One feels about in a state of misery . . . and then one touches the hidden spring”(Quoted in Heilbrun, 82).
Woolf reveals more of this philosophy in one particular poignant memory of Clarissa’s. She is
“sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter — even trees, or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death . . . perhaps —perhaps”(151).
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As I was working on this piece I experienced what I realize is a consistent and repeated moment of being for me: the sound of a window fan on a summer morning. I don’t know why but when I hear it I am filled with a moment of being where I am aware of time intersecting. The moment is unlike others, it is tangibly alive with all time, memory, sensations and a kind of tenderness. These moments of being with the fan do not happen early in the morning, rather when the sun has already risen quite high in the sky, a 10 or even 11 o’clock sun. There is no rain, cloud or fog, but bright sun outside. Inside is still cool from the night. The fan’s soft hum still blows the coolish air into the house, into the somewhat dark, or dim house. There are no lights on because it is summer and sunny. There are flowers blooming outside along with cut green grass and birds singing and there is the sound of the fan in the window which it is time to shut off. That moment is the very second for me. Palpable. I stand there and feel it. I feel the summer mornings of my childhood, the summer mornings when I am a young woman, or a new mom, or an older mom and then now, 59, Virginia Woolf’s age when she dies. I think of my mother at 59, and her mother, and all the women who think, “Oh, it is time to shut that fan off now,” and stand and shut the fan off and feel the warm air outside the window and the summer day ahead, the summer, another summer, meaning another year has gone by, and become painfully aware of the passage of time.
In “A Sketch of the Past,” Woolf writes,
“If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills — then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of laying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive”(MOB 64).
I can count the experience of a window blind moving back and forth from the morning breeze as one of my moments of being as well. It’s compelling that both Woolf’s and my moment of being described here include wind (fan) and blinds and morning. There must be something fundamental about the morning light in the summer and the breeze moving through the window curtain/blinds that brings forward a moment of being.
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In Mrs Dalloway, it is not only Clarissa who has moments of being. Most of the other characters do as well. Both Clarissa and Peter Walsh have the component of aging added to some of their moments of being, which shows the continued complexification of this phenomenon as one ages. Woolf reveals this as a gift of aging, these moments of being becoming even more refined and poignant.
“The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.
A terrible confession it was (he put his hat on again), but now the age of fifty-three, one scarcely needed people any more. Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent’s Park, was enough. Too much, indeed. A whole lifetime was too short to bring out, now that one had acquired the power, the full flavour; to extract every ounce of pleasure, every shade of meaning; which both were so much more solid than they used to be, so much less personal”(78).
Concurrently Clarissa muses that
“She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched. June, July. August! Each still remained almost whole, and, as if to catch the falling drop, Clarissa (crossing to the dressing-table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there – the moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings, seeing the glass, the dressing-table, and all the bottles afresh, collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself”(36).
The day after I finished reading Mrs Dalloway, I had what I call a “Mrs Dalloway day.”
There was a fledgling California Scrub Jay hopping around in my yard. Months earlier, I watched the parents build the nest together, gathering sticks and twigs. Then I heard the hatched birds making their baby bird begging noises up in the tree. This particular morning I came outside to water the plants and there was this baby Scrub Jay sitting right in the middle of my grass, all fuzzy and tiny and way too vulnerable looking. Worried, I watched it all day to guard it from the neighbor’s cat. I sat in the kitchen working where I had a view of the yard. I watched the mother and father consistently come and feed the fledgling, and attempt to teach it to fly. I watched it call for them looking up into the trees. I watched them guard it. I thought, how precious is this life, and how can anything be this vulnerable and how does anything at all manage to stay alive?
The baby finally hid itself inside a bush. I went to water my plants on the other side of the yard, the side I not been watching all day, and I found another Scrub Jay fledgling from the same nest dead; upside down. I buried it with the parent jays watching and I thought, “I think I am having a Clarissa Dalloway day.” A day where all my senses are heightened, and there is a clarity of life and not life and eternity leaking through like rays of sun through clouds. Each moment feels fecund and ripe with meaning while at the same time so fragile it could snap in the breeze.
To live as Mrs Dalloway in the novel: aware, conscious and cognizant of the presence of all time, the moments of being, the tenderness and beauty of life, all accentuated by our impending death is a gift. But we cannot remain there always. There is plenty of non-being to be lived in this life. Like Woolf, we can lean into the spontaneous and unexpected moments of being, some days possessing more of them than others, and call those good days.
Virginia Woolf is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2021
Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women. Ballantine Books, 1990.
Woolf, Virginia, Jeanne Shulkind, ed. Moments of Being. Harcourt Brace and Co. 1985.
___________, Mrs Dalloway. [The Hogarth Press, 1925]. Vintage Classics, 2000.