Assay: Recently, I posted a quotation from Virginia Woolf for my weekly quotation. I often quote from Woolf, because she’s one of my very favorite writers.
And, as has happened before, I got a few comments from readers saying, in effect, “Why are you quoting Virginia Woolf about happiness? She committed suicide -- what can she know about happiness?”
This response always surprises me, for a few reasons. First, Woolf aside, there’s a big difference between writers’ works and what they personally experience and how they behave in their own lives. Tolstoy, for example. I love Tolstoy’s fiction, and find it elevating and very illuminating on the subject of happiness, but I can’t bear to read about the actual Leo Tolstoy, who was a dreadful person.
Nevertheless, suffering “madness” (as Woolf’s nephew and biographer Quentin Bell called it), or depression, or deep unhappiness, may cause us to plumb more deeply into the nature of happiness. There are some kinds of wisdom that we wouldn’t wish to learn, but learn we do. So it’s not surprising to me that Woolf writes with tremendous perception and beauty about happiness. And not just in her fiction -- in her diaries, when she’s writing about her own life, she often describes being very happy.
I suppose that for me, what’s most striking about Woolf’s writing is its intensity: how powerfully she can capture a moment’s sensation, a fleeting impression, an evanescent emotion that passes between two people. I’d be very sorry to think that people would dismiss her work, because they believed that her suicide somehow undermined its truth.
I love Virginia Woolf’s writing so much that I almost can’t stand to read it. Has this ever happened to you?
* I loved seeing the pictures of the beautiful, strange Gardens of Marqueyssac.
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