It was an irresistible treat to read Virginia’s Woolf Genius and Ink, a collection of essays for the Times Literary Supplement, now published by that same TLS as they were originally written. It was Woolf’s own wish, fulfilled at last. They are thoughts of striking perception and bold assertion beautifully written. One in particular held my interest, How It Strikes a Contemporary. She is disappointed in the current state of fiction. It was the interval between the demise of the great Victorians and the rise of the great Modernists.
Not everyone would agree with her assessment, especially her dismissal of Ulysses. But it is sensitively and passionately argued. It is a challenge, not least to the writer inside herself, a necessary challenge. The great changes in social feeling required a response, for there was optimism in the revolutionary air. Empires had fallen, and many lives had been sacrificed, but there were creative possibilities in society at large, and in art.
That is why I feel Orlando is a key work in the Woolf canon. Far from being marginal and frivolous, it explores the various and flexible natures of social history and personal identity. The book is true to itself without expecting to be taken as a realist fiction. No-one lives for four hundred years. No-one wakes up half-way to discover they are a different person. Orlando lives through many changes. In that respect he [who becomes she] is everyone. Our personal lives are as subject to development as the social world through which we move.
Orlando was the first Woolf I read. I found it entertaining at the time. Only later, much later, did I see its significance. At the time I thought To the Lighthouse had more substance. It was certainly more directly personal to Woolf’s own experience. The two books may be seen as aspects of one mind, a great creative mind with a range of perceptions and sensibilities.
Who seriously asks a writer – or anyone – which book changed their mind? A false question really because minds tend to change slowly and imperceptibly, and there are many shaping forces that act on our view of world. In a mind that remains alive there are always going to be areas of adjustment and change. A fundamental belief may hold steady, but it can be expressed differently because today it is seen from another angle.
Our view of the world will be influenced in large measure by experience, especially by our conversation with friends. We must share the general experiences of our time and generation. Equally, we must be open to a broadening of perspective. There are moments when we come across something that enables us to reflect with greater awareness. There may follow a change of mind, not a sudden reversal but a steady turning. It will act as a reflection rather than a revelation. Such reflective moments enable a clearer and broader vision.
The opening of the mind is the function of a cultural life, especially [but not exclusively] in the formal context of education. An education is not simply a routine of lectures, seminars and essays. We study a particular field of enquiry, but our sense of enquiry goes beyond the specifics of a registered course. We qualify in an agreed area; we learn about much more. The learning may be happenstance. It may not relate directly, if at all, to our formal study. What we are doing is broadening our understanding. That broadening complements the training of the mind in rational enquiry and informed analysis.
Or that is how it should be. That is how education has been understood. The application of knowledge is the agreed aim of learning. The wider the learning the more rounded the personality. Great character can come through experience, if we are able to learn from experience. But intellect requires training. Reading and remembering are the pathways to understanding how to apply intelligence to a situation. Exact knowledge is appropriate to a particular skill. Possessing knowledge for its own sake is appropriate to a useful citizen.
Rarely is there a sudden moment of revelation, a life-changing revision of our core beliefs. Our view of the world is a steady accumulation of perspectives. We may read something that re-shapes our view. We have to be open to developments. And we need the challenges to our beliefs either to modify them or strengthen them. Simple declarations of allegiance lack substance. In the end they may lack sincerity. Every writer discovers how they truly feel, not how they ought to feel. There is no gliding over the surface of life. There can be no recourse to predetermined codes of conduct. Writing depends on an honest acceptance of the reality you find inside yourself.
That reality is subject to change as surely as a manuscript is subject to change. Writing involves constant revision. Perhaps life follows a similar pattern. A closed mind is not a creative mind.